In the genes

From the LabLit short story series

Paul Colman 15 June 2008

He seems to be bordering
on the obsessive. I think the personal nature of the project may be clouding his

As the police officer circled the car like an opportunistic hyena, Jon cursed himself for forgetting to tax and MOT his car again. If he had, he would not now be late for trial 247. ‘Do you know why I have stopped you, sir?’ Jon tapped a poker chip repetitively on the wing mirror. ‘No. I assume it’s because you have to fill a quota of some kind?’

Ignoring the indifference, the police officer continued: ‘No, it is because you have a defective exhaust and a rusted-through sub-frame at the back of your vehicle. Surely you must have heard the noise?’

‘I would have to say that I haven’t but, erm, I’ve been distrac–’

Jon was interrupted by a bundle of paperwork being thrust into his personal space. ‘Well, whatever the reason, the vehicle is a danger to other road users and therefore I am warranting you with this fine and producer. The vehicle will have to be impounded with immediate effect.’

Jon resorted to explaining that he was a government scientist and it was imperative that he makes it to the lab urgently. It was an exaggeration, of course, as he worked for Zeffron plc. He felt justified though; after all, this anniversary could be the turning point and he needed to get back soon.

The police officer, unimpressed by the claim, issued the name of a recovery company and waited while Jon made the call.

The recovery driver told his favourite story, about the time he’d had to tow Carol Vorderman’s car, whilst Jon mentally finished the remaining calculations required for that day’s trial. He narrowly avoided offending the driver by nodding in the right places. Convincing listening and simultaneous mental arithmetic was a trick he had mastered whilst at Cambridge. Professor Stevenson was the only lecturer who had picked up on it and this was the start of an unspoken game in which the Professor would test Jon regularly to see if he was really listening.

Now at the lab, two hours late, Jon estimated that he might not make his self-imposed midnight deadline for the analysis of the results. He cursed himself again for not being more organised.

The door slammed against one of the workbenches as he crashed into the lab. He switched on all the lights, which gave the benches a fluorescent green tinge.

‘Sorry, Bully, I didn’t mean to make you jump. Please ignore me. I’m just annoyed at myself.’

Bully continued exploring his cage as if he were expecting to suddenly find an exit even though one had not presented itself for the last three years.

Before he had even finished putting his lab coat on, Jon flicked a switch and started note-taking on the lab recorder. His arm knocked a stack of kidney dishes skating across the floor as he unsuccessfully multitasked.

‘Those damn dishes again! What is it with...’

Out of breath, he started speaking quickly: ‘23rd July 2007. 11:04 am. Trial version 247, culture group 7. Target gene test, subject, Jerry 4. Sorry if this is one of your cousins, Bully.’

Jon rummaged around for the notebook he needed for the next recorder entry.

‘Damn it, Bully. I’ve left the bloody thing in the car!’

Jon’s lab coat rode up as he lost his footing down the central aisle, and he winced as he hit the cold floor.

The lab recorder offered a comforting but surreal background hum.

After a few minutes of incomprehensible muttering he looked up from his hands and noticed the finespun necklace raised against the expanse of shiny white resin floor. Calmed by the distraction, he picked it up. ‘There it is, Bully. It was there all the time. I should email Fran and let her know.’

After a pause, he suddenly added, ‘Maybe she was right. I’m thirty-seven years old and I’ve passed ten anniversaries since – but I’m still...’

Jon twirled the necklace in his hand back and forth. He could still remember Fran’s perfume and see the strands of red hair caught in the necklace, which he unconsciously pulled out as he recalled the night before.


‘Fran, this is my lair! No fanfare required, thank you.’ Jon threw his hands up like a magician as she entered the lab.

‘Wow! This is very um, green.’ Fran’s fingers ran along the worktops as her eyes searched the room, taking in the foreign objects. ‘So, why isn’t there any natural light in here?’

‘No scientific reason. It’s just that if I wanted a lab of this size, with the appropriate equipment, the basement was the only one on site within budget.’

‘So, this is where you create new genes, is it? Where you make little Frankenst... oh, look at him, he’s adorable.’ Various squeaking noises followed as Fran’s fingers probed Bully’s cage.

Jon introduced his lab mate. ‘This is Bulls-Eye. On the other side are his friends. I use them for gene targeting. Well, not Bully, but his friends.’

‘Gene targeting! That sounds painful.’

Jon bent down next to Fran to look into Bully’s cage. ‘Not really. I use them to help me work out which genes do what.’

Fran stopped poking the cage. ‘What good is that?’

‘Well, primarily I’m trying to isolate the genes involved in sending messages to other genes which are responsible for certain jobs, for example, the immune response. I target and deactivate certain genes within the mice and then test how their immune system responds to various conditions. Ultimately I hope to manipulate the genes to improve immune response or turn off faulty genes involved in genetic disorders. Does that make sense?’

Fran yawned. ‘Sorry, it’s late. Yes, sort of. I am interested but I’d rather not talk about the mice as it upsets me. I’m more interested in why you’ve spent what seems to be most of your life on this. No offence, Jon, but over dinner I didn’t get the impression you had many interests, other than this and your Internet poker stuff. You should get out more.’

‘I can’t really. It’s complicated. Partly I have to do it and partly I feel I’m destined to spend my life in this room until I crack it.’

‘ “Destined” sounds a bit dramatic.’

‘No really, listen, someone close to me died because of a genetic disorder. Ironically I was studying a related subject under Professor Richard Stevenson, the chap you saw in the painting at reception. I took this coincidence as a sign. The Professor supported me through the death and has sponsored me in my research ever since.’

Fran was staring at him now. ‘That’s a sad story. It’s so refreshing to meet someone so open. But I’m guessing this Internet dating is new to you. Have you ever had time for a proper girlfriend?’ Her voice took on a gentle teasing tone. ‘Have you ever even kissed a girl?’

‘Of course! Before the, erm, before my friend became ill. I had a girlfriend called...’ Jon’s defence was cut short as Fran put her lips so close to his that he could feel her breath warm his lips.

Jon panicked. ‘Is this part of the Internet dating package?’

Fran pulled away. ‘I’m not a bloody prostitute, Jon!‘

Jon reached towards her to somehow retract his words but she pulled away and sent the kidney dishes crashing to the floor. His finger caught her necklace which pinged off somewhere.

The hands on her hips and dramatic breathing gave Jon enough of a cue to immediately begin looking for the necklace. Unsuccessful, he rose sheepishly to his feet.

‘Look, forget it,’ Fran said, ‘it was only a cheap one anyway.’

Jon tried to speak but was cut off: ‘Listen, Jon. I’ve had an interesting evening but I think it’s time you took me home.’

‘Can I see you again?’

‘I don’t think so. I don’t understand your world and I can’t see you living in mine, the real world, so I’m not sure we’ve got any mileage. If you see what I mean. Come on, let’s just go.’


As Jon played out the previous night in his mind, he was sharply returned to reality by a familiar bellowing voice.

The Professor shouted, ‘Jon old chap, are you in here?’

Jon readied himself to be the professional. He was just getting up when he heard the Professor talking to the CEO, Rob Bishop. He decided to remain inconspicuously slumped behind the workbench as they started talking about the project.

Rob Bishop sounded official: ‘Richard, I understand that research takes time but this is the biggest working area we have in the building and it could be used for more lucrative things. I’m concerned that whilst the end result would yield the company the biggest profits we’ve seen, I’m sceptical that the motivation on all sides will remain high enough to achieve the goal – in my lifetime anyway.’

‘That’s poppycock. Rob. You’re talking about a cost-cutting exercise here, not a lack of motivation. My dear boy, there’s no questioning the motivation of the team on this one. As you know, Jon Fisher is leading it. He’s the most dedicated genetic researcher on the planet.’

Rob put his hands on his hips. ‘Yes, I think that’s half the problem. He seems to be bordering on the obsessive. I think the personal nature of the project may be clouding his judgment. You need to give him some perspective here, Richard, and remind him that even if he does resolve the disorder, he can’t bring his brother back.’

Jon shivered as he heard the words.

The Professor fidgeted. ‘Yes well, I may have made a mistake with my coaching of Jon on that one. It seems to have backfired somewhat.’

Rob stepped forward. ‘What do you mean, exactly? Come on, is there something I should know?’

The Professor bent towards Rob. ‘If you remember, dear boy, to get the funding, I needed to show the board I had the right man who could put in the hours on this one. By coincidence, that business with Jon’s brother naturally meant that he became more focused in the area we were interested in. However, I knew that the focus might be short-lived as he worked his way through the grieving process; I needed something else.’

Rob threw up his hands. ‘Please continue: I’m fascinated with your mentoring technique on this one!’

‘No need for sarcasm, Rob. He was somewhat more focused because I exaggerated the results of Jon’s own genetic test after his brother’s PM. I decided that a man who believed he was sitting on a time bomb might be more motivated.’

Rob’s hands were now clasped above his head. ‘I can’t believe what I’m hearing here. You mean you’ve let a man think he has his brother’s genetic defect when he may not have? But he knows as much about this as you do; surely he must know now that you’ve twisted this?’

The Professor started walking around the room. ‘Yes, but this was ten years ago. The results were based on technology at the time which was inconclusive. I just let Jon believe that it was conclusive. He didn’t understand the error probability of the equipment I was using back then. Since then he’s been too obsessed to consider retesting himself. The idea was that once we’d moved on a lot further with the research, I would encourage Jon to retest himself. He could be released from his prison and the increase in share price would make us both happy men. It seemed like a win-win scenario.’

Rob stared at the Professor for few seconds, said nothing, then left the room.

The Professor shouted after him, ‘There’s more at stake here, Rob. You know that. There’s a higher purpose. You’ve got to think big picture…Bugger it.’

He looked at a few of the charts hanging over the sink where he stood and then left the room.

Exhausted, Jon slid further to the floor, then laughed out loud. He had been right: this anniversary would be significant.

It could mean he only had to spend one more day in his green prison – depending on tomorrow’s result.