LabLit.com

Buy The Honest Look for the Kindle

Fiction

The night intruder

By the Sea: Part I, Chapter 2

Henry Gee 27 May 2007

www.lablit.com/article/259

The world of biology is unknowably vast, against which one’s own self is infinitesimally small, weak
and powerless

Editor's note: We are pleased to continue the weekly serialization of an original novel by Henry Gee, By The Sea. Set in present-day Norfolk, Gee blends science, murder, sex and Victorian secrets into a dark, gothic thriller.

Chapter Two

Cellars had been drilled deep beneath the Lowdley-Purring Institute on the landward side. The cellarage was once vast, and not all of it completely explored, for episodic landfalls and floods within the friable cliffs had made caverns of some of it, and blocked off much more.

But in the early years of the last war, as part of the scientific effort to develop radar on a stretch of a coastline teeming with Spitfires and Hurricanes, some of the cellars were reclaimed and made into the underground laboratory complex Alex now enters. Beyond the thick green fire-door she finds a wide, well-lit corridor pinioned with conduits and cabling, computers and centrifuges, and mercifully free from the cabinets that record the jackdaw obsessions of Sir Frideric. This is a part of the building to which Sir Frideric never came, and from which he is, in a sense, barred: it is the scientific part, a haven of rationality in the distended belly of Georgian excess. Only here does Alex feel content.

Doors to right and left signal the presence of laboratories. A single door at the end, marked with a variety of hazard signs, gives entrance to the spirit store, and the bulk of the collections from the Victorian survey vessel HMS Spaniel, some of whose specimens form the subjects of Alex’s current research.

Alex turns immediately, to the first door on the left, unlocks her own laboratory, enters, and closes the door carefully, lovingly, behind her. This laboratory can accommodate two postdoctoral researchers in comfort, three at a squeeze; but she is the only one currently in residence, the only name on the door above two vacant spaces. How different it seems from her draughty attic room, thrust like a hangnail into the heart of the storm. Here the storm cannot be heard, replaced instead by the hum of mechanical contentment, the whirr of compressors behind freezers, the purr of hard-disk drives. Here, all is clean; all is bright; all is warm. And it is hers, solely. She perches on a stool in front of a microscope (her own microscope, which she brought here from Cambridge, bought with her own grant), as cleanly silver-gray as the worktop on which it rests, all aluminium, chrome steel and Zeiss lenses.

Sitting next to the microscope, as if primed for action, is a box of slides, hardwood with brass catches, in which rest forty-eight neat rectangles of glass in two ordered rows of two dozen each, each slide in its own machined slot. Alex loves the order of it; that each slide is numbered with a printed label (‘HMS Spaniel, 1831-1836’), and precisely recorded in fine India ink in ledgers kept in the Institute Library, with its contents, the stains used, the initials of the preparator, and the date. It gives her hope, that there can, after all, be found an island of predictability within the careless chaos of the Institute’s collections.

But no science progresses by standing on the edge of chaos and looking inwards. For the objects on the slides, the objects that have brought her here, as a result of a well-regarded doctorate on natural-product synthesis from Cambridge, and (she grits her teeth) because of Morrison, and the strings he pulled that got her an exploratory grant from MagusPharm, are puzzling. And her aim is nothing less than to solve that puzzle, to venture a little way from the islet of the known, although perhaps not too far from land, and deliver answers, preferably ones that can be made into neatly publishable packages, gift-wrapped with bows round them for her patrons.

**********

The sea that clothes more than two-thirds the Earth’s surface is the least known of any part of the planet, with a biological diversity that makes a pygmy of the more celebrated rainforest, the lionized savannah. The ocean contains more different kinds of animals and plants than the rest of the world can offer, many times over, many of these creatures have an ancestry and current proclivities that make them exclusively marine. Nothing like them ever appears on the shore, or near it.

As a result, the things we know of the sea are acquired infrequently, in half-snatches of knowledge and bolstered by much guesswork. Those niggardly facts that are generally known about most marine things penetrate no further into the general consciousness of Man than the dusty ends of zoology textbooks, where they remain largely unread, even by students of zoology. The wider public knows nothing of this diversity whatsoever.

And even those few cognoscenti who know of the existence of such things, even if they had not seen them in person, might legitimately ask what is known, for certain, of the sorberacea, the carnivorous tunicata of the deep? The tiny flask-like cycliophora found only on the lips of Norway lobsters? The appendicularia, each smaller than a rice grain, whose intricate mucous ‘houses’ swarm the sea in some areas so densely that mariners call them ‘marine snow’? The holothuria that stalk the abyssal plains with stilts for legs; the giant sharks and squid that raven the deep with hunger never sated? The answer in all cases is very little, because such creatures are hard to find, the subjects of enigmatic photographs taken in the harsh lights of deep-sea probes, or caught infrequently in nets by uncomprehending fishermen, and even then by accident; or hoisted from deep-sea trawls, the results bloody and uninterpretable from explosive decompression, after having been pulled through thousands of fathoms into realms which, for them, are the edges of space. One marine biologist famously likened our knowledge of the deep to what an aerial civilization might learn of human life, were its methods to consist solely of lowering the occasional skyhook to street level, and rootling around for anything it might pick up. A trash can. A bicycle. Roadkill. Almost nothing would or could be learned of the normal course of human life, just as almost nothing is known of the residents of the deep sea.

Even today, when scientists have peered behind every tree in the remotest jungles on land, they are still startled to learn of the strandings of whales of species hitherto unknown to science. These are not small creatures, but animals the size of cars.

Who knows what other secrets the sea might contain?

To explore the secrets of the sea: that was Sir Frideric Lowdley-Purring’s avowed mission when he came to Deringland to set up the Institute that bears his name. Sir Frideric used his influence, and his wealth, to add the most interesting and remarkable examples of marine life to his already famous cabinet of curiosities. It was natural, then, for survey vessels of the early nineteenth century to deposit their collections here, for the expertise that Sir Frideric had assembled to curate and preserve such things was unequalled, anywhere in the world.

The jewel in the crown was the immense collection from the five-year Pacific voyage of HMS Spaniel, which included creatures never encountered before, and very seldom since. Alex Beach is here to study a tiny fraction of this remarkable collection.

But there are motivations beyond mere knowledge. For marine creatures have biochemistries that can do incredible things. That there are ascidia, for example, humble, sponge-like encrustations on rocks, that gather exotic metals such as chromium and vanadium into their skins: atom by atom, from seawater. Nobody knows how, let alone why, but they do this with an elegance and economy as yet unmatched by the energetically wasteful fires and smokes of human technology. Just as the ancients thrilled at the ability of molluscs to produce Imperial Purple that no human dyer could recreate, there are creatures of the sea that produce biologically active compounds of a subtlety and complexity that defy the efforts of the most skilled human biochemists to synthesize.

For this reason, people are attracted to the sea with less pure motives than edification alone. The sea, or some obscure organism from the depths, might yield the next new wonder-drug to relieve the rich and profligate of their high blood pressure; the poor of their malaria, their AIDS; the elderly of their cancer, their dementia, or of death itself. To these ends the sea has a diversity that can be explored, tapped, wrapped, sold.

That is why Dr Alex Beach is here.

MagusPharm, a company set up with the explicit aim of trawling the sea for new drug-discovery opportunities, has contracted her, through Morrison, to investigate a small and utterly obscure group of microscopic marine worms called carnostomids. The drug company that can exploit material of interest from these almost-unknown creatures will steal a march on the competition.

Alex knows little of her sponsors. She has heard rumors that they have built their prospects on a substance extracted from a kind of sea-slug, found living only inside the silica-bounded bodies of certain deep-sea hexactinellid sponges, which is powerfully psychoactive. She remembered very little, hardly more than a name, ‘TubeWave’, and asked Morrison about this once, at the hotel bar at that conference in Atlanta, but he brushed it off as gossip and changed the subject.

Carnostomids, though, the creatures to which Alex now devotes her waking hours, are more obscure, even, than that. They are so obscure that almost nothing is known about even the most basic features of their anatomy. Nothing at all, in fact, beyond what is contained in short reports written by scientists immediately after the Spaniel expedition returned, and which, it seems, they were very keen to abandon after the most cursory sketches. Yet the Spaniel expedition was the only one ever to describe these creatures at all, and all known examples are here, at the LPI. Even the most comprehensive modern zoology textbooks say nothing of carnostomids. A few of the older ones might, perhaps refer to them, but never in more than an exiguous footnote. What knowledge, what opportunities, might not await the researchers with the wit to study even the basics of these long-neglected animals?

So, before she can do any biochemistry, which is what she knows and loves best, Alex must investigate the basics of anatomy, something unfamiliar, a subject hardly touched since she was a schoolgirl and which she has always secretly despised as yesterday’s science. She must reacquaint herself with animals as whole creatures, not distilled and fractionated preparations, looking at them as the Victorians must have done. Much to her surprise, she finds this way of working immediately fascinating and wonders why she had shunned it.

A reason soon suggests itself, however: with modern laboratory science, there is no aspect that cannot be regulated, controlled. At its basics, though, biology is no more than a simple adventure, a journey of discovery, and one cannot know what one might run into around the next corner, something which might alter all your preconceptions of how the world ought to be organized. Alex soon realizes that the world of biology is immensely, perhaps unknowably vast, against which one’s own self is infinitesimally small, weak and powerless.

It is this, she suspects, which is why she finds the LPI as a whole, with its air of insouciant biological abundance, quite so disconcerting. And the same reason, perhaps, why she finds her current work so unexpectedly absorbing. Much against her prior judgement, she has come to love it. For is this not what science is all about, not a series of well-coiffed routines elaborating what is known, but a seat-of-pants thrill-ride into darkness? Although she is sometimes brought up short with the vertigo of the unknown, she has learned to appreciate it as a cool, refreshing wind, the kind of breeze one notices, on a sudden, blowing up from the sea, after hours of confinement in a too-hot room.

**********

Alex pours herself a cup of tea from her thermos and sets to work, doing science at the most basic but in many ways the most informative level, that is, pure observation. Slide after slide she mounts; showing the pink-stained outlines of the tiny worms, each no more than a few tenths of a millimeter long, and which seem to have a curious discordance in structure.

Half the body, the longer, wormlike half (she has come to think of it as the ‘back’ half), appears to be no more than an unstructured bag of cells. Just a bag, with no internal organs, not even anything as simple as a digestive tube with an anus at the end. There are no external features, either, no fins, no spines, nothing. Just a smooth membrane to keep the cells from dispersing. A structure so simple that the lowliest grade of polyp would outpace it in structural sophistication.

The ‘front’ half of a carnostomid could hardly be more different: small and dense, it is intricate and complex and looks like nothing so much as a dragon-mask of the kind paraded through the streets at the Chinese New Year.

The ‘head’ of all carnostomids (she knows that the designation is prejudicial, but here it seems unavoidable) has a pair of prominent, pigment-rich structures (she tries hard not to think of them as ‘eyes’), connected to what can only be a brain of formidable intricacy, given the general simplicity of the animal.

Most prominent, however, are the teeth. There are always thirty-two of these, arranged in two occluding, bow-shaped jaws. The teeth are compact and covered in enamel. This tissue is unmistakable under a microscope, and cross-sections reveal its crystalline structure in slide after slide.

The problem is, Alex has learned, is that enamel is only found in vertebrates, creatures with bony skulls and backbones, creatures such as fishes, and mammals, and humans. Carnostomids, however, are far too simple, and have no trace of a skull or a backbone, or indeed, any bone at all, apart from that which supports the enamel in these enigmatic teeth. Teeth which look just like human teeth, mounted in human jaws, albeit on the microscopic scale. Alex remembers one slide in particular in which a carnostomid is caught, as it were, face on. It looked like it was grinning. No, laughing. The laughter of a death’s head.

It is no wonder that the Spaniel scientists abandoned carnostomids almost as soon as they had seen them. Even in the years before Darwin and evolution, they were monsters, and literally so, each one an affront to common-sense. How could it be that an animal should show such simplicity and such complexity together, in the same body? The carnostomid head showed all the refinement of the vertebrate head, with its complex brain and jaws, albeit on a very small scale. Alex looks forward to preparing some of the specimens from the spirit store, to reveal signs of head- or brain-specific genes that would prove this vertebrate affinity. In the arcane world of such genetic abbreviations, Pax, Otx, Hox, she’d feel truly at home.

But such a result would only deepen the conundrum. For attached to the head was a back end that was as primitive as could be imagined. The delicate, oh-so-humaniform teeth and jaws of carnostomids gave entrance to - nothing. It was as if carnostomids were microscopic fakes, playful fusions of the front ends of tiny fishes with planulae, the simple roving larvae of sponges. Alex laughs when she thinks of this: how typical that would be of the LPI, whose most famous specimens (the ones that feature most prominently in the literature available free from the Deringland Public Library) are ‘mermaids’, Georgian and Victorian taxidermic sports created from fishes and monkeys, and in which Sir Frideric displayed an abiding (some might say almost pathological) interest. Just as the LPI contained the best (indeed, the only) collection of carnostomids in the world, it could also boast unrivalled exhibitions of taxidermatous mischief.

There had to be a more serious explanation, Alex wonders. Who’d want to fake thousands of carnostomids, not just the ones prepared on these slides, but the creatures suspended in alcohol which she’d sampled from the spirit store? And more to the point, why? Such careful micro-forgery would be beyond the capability of a modern microsurgeon, let alone naturalists on the cramped and lurching deck of an early nineteenth-century sailing ship.

She ratchets her thoughts back a few notches, forming a mental picture of the simple, lenticular, planula-larvae of sponges. Might carnostomids not be adult animals, but the larvae of something else?

Something, perhaps, quite different?

The shock of this intuition hits her with a kick that makes her sit up. If carnostomids are larvae, that would explain something about their curious mixture of simplicity and sophistication. Perhaps the brain, the eyes, the jaws, are there simply to anchor a worm-like animal to some convenient rock, so it can metamorphose into an adult of unguessable form? It is not such a far-fetched idea: Alex has lately read about some of the tunicates, distant cousins of vertebrates, which as adults are simple, blind bags that filter seawater, but which as larvae have tiny but fully-formed heads with sense organs, tails and complex brains, but no digestive systems at all. The larvae use their senses to guide them to suitable rocks, their tails to propel them there, and having arrived, they lose these structures and develop, instead, into an adult that consists almost entirely of a digestive system, as if to compensate for its earlier deficiency.

Yes, carnostomids are the larvae of something. But what? She smiles, inwardly, ruefully: the literature of marine biology is peppered with records of creatures that could be the larvae of other creatures, but linking larva and adult is often extremely difficult. For life in the sea is often sequestered by age. Larvae of many marine creatures are often tiny, transparent and microscopic, drifting in the sunny surface waters of the ocean. Until, that is, some occult signal is given for change, when the larvae undergo startling metamorphoses to produce the adult residents of the very different world of the deeps. It is true of most marine creatures, echinoderms, crustaceans, molluscs, and the efforts of early zoologists to link larvae and adults were often heroic. Alex suspects that in carnostomids she has just one part of a more complicated story. Discovering the rest might not be a trivial problem.

Alex rips her gaze from the eyepieces, sits up and stretches. It is 3.15 a.m., she has been staring at microscope slides for a solid half-hour, and it is time to refocus and pour herself another cup of tea.

She hears something strange, though, in mid-pour. The sound is nothing dramatic, and more of an absence, an interruption in the all-enveloping laboratory background hum. Holding her breath, Alex strains to hear more, and, hearing nothing, tries to categorize what she had just heard. A kind of wheezy gurgle, and then a thump, from outside the laboratory, in the corridor. Damn it, she thinks, one of the fridges in the corridor had been faulty, something wrong with the compressor. She thought it had been fixed. Even though it has nothing directly to do with her, she feels she ought to take a look. If it is the fridge she thinks it is, it contains some of Garry Williams’ hydroid preparations, which would soon be ruined if they edged up towards room temperature. She helped Garry prepare them before he flew back to California for Christmas. She recalls how she allowed the grizzled Emeritus Professor to boss her around as if she were just one of his graduate-student teaching assistants back at Berkeley. But Garry has a twinkle in his eye. Oh, to be sure, he’s an exploitative martinet, just like Evanston Bland. And yet so unlike, more a loveable rogue. Whenever she thinks of Garry, she can’t help smiling. She likes Garry. She’ll check.

So she puts down her teacup, half-drunk, on the bench next to the microscope. She slides off her stool, pads to the door, and puts her head round, into the harsh light of the empty corridor. Nothing. Just the usual whirr, not the grumble of a compressor straining on the edge of failure.

So she decides to take a better look, and as she walks over to the fridge, she is gripped by a strange premonition (American Gothic) that the fridge will be fine, and she will find out something…well, something else. Her skin crawls with a sudden hot chill.

The fridge in question, the one that had malfunctioned but which is now, purportedly, fixed, hums with all the mocking, nonchalant smoothness of all well-run machines. Nothing is wrong. Alex decides to look inside the fridge, just to check (the kindly and pious farmer, the one with the little round glasses and the pitchfork) but despite premonitory terror, all Garry’s vials are there, lined up in plastic-coated wire-framed racks. Just where she’d put them. Puzzled, she closes the door, and looks up, and along the corridor.

That’s odd. She notices that a door at the end of the corridor, on the same side as hers but at the far end, next to the door to the spirit store, is ajar, and a light streams out. That’s Evanston Bland’s room. (“Oh, Alex, well done!” says the farmer, his eyes sparkling behind the glasses). Alex is no longer seized with terror alone, but an even worse combination, terror mixed with indecision. Perhaps that noise was just Dr Bland doing something or other? But what was he doing here, at this graveyard hour? Bland is never seen much before the morning coffee break at ten-thirty, and is always gone by four in the afternoon. So perhaps, she thinks, it’s not Bland, but someone else, an intruder?

She wonders if she shouldn’t raise the alarm on her mobile. But if whoever-it-is is Bland, she’ll look silly, and if it isn’t, she’ll give herself away. There is nothing for it but to sidle silently along the wall to Bland’s room and look in.

As she approaches Bland’s office, she becomes aware of the silence. Nothing stirs from his room, no hushed voices, no play of torch beams, nothing. Perhaps whoever-it-was swept through while she was engrossed in her own work? She shudders, thinking of her vulnerability, and stops, gathering her breath, and her courage. She has now reached the hinge of the door, now the lip. (She struggles to remember his name). She peers round, and sees a pair of Oxford-brogued feet, attached to linen-trousered legs, stretched out stiffly on the floor, the rest of the body disappearing behind a desk. (Is it ‘Evan’? Or perhaps ‘Evanston’?)

Alex rushes into the room. (The farmer looks down at what the farmer’s wife is holding in her hands.) It is Evanston Bland, lying on his back, face puffed and blotchy, mouth open, disgorging two skeins of faintly pink drool. His eyes are open. So open, in fact, that his eyeballs look as if they would, if nudged, burst clear of their sockets. It is plain that he has collapsed very suddenly and hit the back of his head on the edge of a bench as he fell. As if confirming her thoughts, congealing them into viscous reality, she now sees that a bench close by has a reddened edge, and smears of blood follow him to the floor. His gray, wispy hair has a halo of blood.

(“Oh! Alex! It’s a…it’s a…”)

Alex sits down hard on Bland’s office chair and wonders what she should do. Well, call an ambulance, obviously, but…

Alex Beach calms herself. Her first call must be to the new Director. That’s Morrison. She rises and squeezes her cellphone from the tight front pocket of her jeans. She keys the number.

Morrison answers his own cellphone after just two rings. “Hello?”

Alex is taken aback at Morrison’s swift answer, given the time (the clock in her cellphone says 03.26): “Morrison? Alex. Sorry to wake you, at home, but…”

“No problem, Alex. I was…er…up and about anyway. Couldn’t sleep in this storm. Came up to the kitchen to fix a drink. You called just as I got here. What’s up?”

Alex pictures the spacious upstairs kitchen in Morrison’s nouveau-brick-and-flint barn conversion at Tribenham, a few miles inland. She can even hear what sounds like the hum of Morrison’s big American-style fridge with its ice-maker.

“Well, I’m in the lab, couldn’t sleep either, you know? And, well, I heard a noise, and, well, it’s Evanston Bland…” Despite herself, Alex starts to break up. Staring at Bland’s body, his eyes bulging from his skull as if his last sight had been of something beyond imagining, she feels her gorge rising.

“Alex, calm yourself, everything’s fine, just tell me what’s wrong…” Morrison’s voice, so clear, so consoling and yet so powerful, damn him, as if all you ever needed to do was tell him your problems and it would, whatever it was, be all right. Alex sits down again.

“Morrison, he’s dead.” Silence at the other end of the line. She can hear the ghostly crackle of static. “Morrison?”

“Yes, I’m here, Alex, and don’t worry. Did you say, ‘dead’?”

“Yes, he’s stretched out on the floor of his lab, knocked out, eyes open, blood everywhere…I…what should I do?”

Morrison answered quickly. “Do nothing. I’ll phone an ambulance now and get down there myself. You should go straight back upstairs, make yourself some sweet tea and go back to bed. Leave the scene exactly as it is, touch nothing, just go to bed. Got that?”

“Yes, but…”

“But nothing, Alex. Don’t worry. I’ll handle it. Sure, you’ll have to give some kind of statement, I guess, but just wait for me to call you, okay?”

“Yes, Morrison, but…”

“Alex, I know you’re shocked, but you’ll be good for nothing, half asleep, hanging around with nothing for company but a dead body. Go upstairs, now, and wait for me to call you.” Morrison rings off.

**********

Alex can’t remember how she made it upstairs and into her room, but here she is, in her bed, under the duvet and yet fully clothed. Her mouth is dry, her eyes full of tears. Suddenly, she is tired, and more than tired. As her eyes close she recalls Bland when he was alive. He had been a lecherous nuisance, but the thought of him dead makes her panic, as if it had been her wishes alone that had done it. As if wishes could kill.

Look at it, Alex. It’s all your fault.