The face of god

From the LabLit short story series

Ian Brooks 16 March 2008

This was why they did it: the sleepless nights, the endless hours toiling away in a lab, parties missed, birthdays forgotten, meals uneaten

The soft click of the maglock engaging behind him was the only sound. The deep, wet snow seemed to thicken the air and stifle any noise. His breath was a cloud floating around him, silent even to his own ears. The sky above was close enough to touch, sodium-vapor orange reflected on the snow below, or perhaps the other way round, the ambient glow allowing him to see further than normal for this hour of the night.

Lighting a cigarette, he inhaled slowly, deeply, letting the smoke burn the back of his throat, a guilty pleasure he would never tire of. The nicotine helped wake him a little and he shivered, as much from tiredness as the aching cold that embraced him.

He looked towards Main Street, a hundred or so yards away. The ground in front of him sloped gently away towards the edge of campus, and he could see silhouettes, students shuffling through the fresh snow following the age-old pattern of movement from dorm room to barroom, enjoying the beginning of the weekend. For a second he felt a pang of envy, memories haunting him of his own days in college. Life had seemed so free and so simple.

With a snort of self-derision, he dragged himself back to the present. Life had been far from simple, he thought. Constantly threatened by exams, tests, papers, friendships in crisis, a love life in permanent flux. Really, life was much easier now. And with tonight’s experimental results it would be easier for a long time. Tonight’s data guaranteed their paper would accepted, guaranteed his next grant would be funded.

Thinking of the data sent a shiver of adrenaline through his gut. His thin face suddenly became animated, lit by a grin that spread involuntarily. He laughed out loud, not caring if he was heard, knowing he wasn’t. No one was around at this time of night, this close to the holidays. It amused him, knowing his postdoc would be furious at having missed an opportunity like this. He’d get his name on the paper still, but it wouldn’t be as first author now. His graduate student had done the experiment – well, most of it – and had been there when they loaded the processed tissue slices onto the confocal microscope, had helped analyze the images generated by the computer, sharing her advisor’s sense of excited urgency. After all of these months – no, years – of hard work, they had the data they needed to prove the paradigm they’d been pushing on the community for so long. So many skeptics, naysayers, including some of his own colleagues…even his own postdoc.

Such beautiful images, a spider web of neurons, a forest canopy of dendrites and axons, infinitely complex branching, each desperately reaching: to touch, to share information coded in silent pulses of electrochemical energy. He could clearly picture the images in his head. The samples, dead and sterile, brought back to life by the wonders of modern molecular engineering. Fragile axons arched out from corpulent cell bodies, ethereal green, membranes labeled by fluorescent antibodies. The true beauty, the data themselves, were found in the tiny synapses studding the shafts like knots on a tree limb. In the control slides, those from mice lacking the protein he had devoted his life to studying, the synapses were a sullen red, marked only by synapse-specific markers. But the experimental sections, those taken from mice they had reverse engineered to over-express the protein, contained synapses glowing white, the color created by the computer when signals overlapped so closely as to be indistinguishable. It was this data, when combined with the protein-binding data from their biochemical and physiological analyses, that made his mind spin, his blood pound in his chest. This was the final proof that “their” protein was not only expressed at high concentrations in the brain, but was also shuttled specifically to synapses where it played a central role in controlling information flow between neurons.

He had known all along, known in his heart that he was correct. There were too many clues hidden in the scientific literature, too many loose ends ignored by others. The nervous pang in his gut made him reel once more. This was it! This was why they did it. The sleepless nights, the endless hours toiling away in a lab, parties missed, birthdays forgotten, meals uneaten. This was why. The purity and surety of knowledge. Data unmistakable, a simple interpretation, Occam’s razor slashing dead hypotheses away until only one answer remained. One answer, hidden since the dawn of time. One answer, pure, unknown, unrevealed to anyone but him on the whole face of the planet.

His mouth split with a grin once more, sleep was pushed away. He wasn’t tired anymore. Tonight he had touched the face of God.