From the LabLit short story series
16 September 2012
Staring at creatures made of unrequited lust, of a magnificent desire to know. How dare they challenge their own personal god?
Sam didn’t even bother to stop by the apartment. The suitcase fell dutifully into carrousel six, the crowded bus took less than usual to get to the parking lot, Sam actually remembered which one the car was waiting in, traffic was unusually calm, perhaps because, as long as there was memory in the city, no construction choked the freeway. Or, Sam realized as the radio drifted away from classic eighties rock and hit the hour mark, perhaps that was because it was Sunday.
Suddenly the resistance the team had almost vocalized as to showing up at work on that particular afternoon made sense. For Sam this was merely the day after the Conference, the day the return flight had been booked, and, after a flurry of emails and calls that had virtually caused the new portable device to explode in protest, the day of reckoning. The day to see what should have remained unseen.
Sam had interpreted the staff’s unwillingness to the three usual factors. As a few strategically placed calls to lab phones had taught in the past, any of Sam’s absences was always unwritten code for not showing up unless strictly necessary. They hated staying late (and, for most, five was late). And really hated it when Sam questioned their preliminary conclusions, even considering that history showed those always tended to be too positive or too negative. Collaborators, Sam had learned, floated in a binary mode. Yes/no, do/don’t, works/doesn’t. Answers that can get them home by six, and that allow free movement to the next binary question, no anguish left behind. That was why, Sam thought with cheerful sadness, they were collaborators. Hands that kept Sam’s tinkering relevant. In this particular case they were all extremely positive. Positive that the result was negative. Except this was no particular case, even for them, albeit indirectly and although they probably didn’t even realize it yet.
So, Sam thought, guilt melting away as the Department came into view, Sunday be damned.
Two security cards and a bunch of access codes got Sam to the top floor. Stepping into the changing room and picking out scrubs from the pile Sam noted that they were now of a baby blue tint, not the usual bright green. Clearly some psychologist over in the Hospital next door had reasoned this to be a more soothing color for the patients. Sam wondered if the mice would care.
The intermediate chamber, the final border with the outside world, offered shoe covers, hair net, mask, goggles, gloves. A sense of sensory deprivation that made Sam hate coming up to the animal rooms. That was another thing collaborators were for: sweating in ghost-blue outfits under permanent late spring. Even, Sam almost laughed as the door slid open and a rush of air ruffled all the protective layers, on Sundays.
Despite the mask, Leslie and Chris seemed to guess Sam’s mood. In turn, Sam thought their sour faces were also evident, though they too had masks. Too many years together. And, Sam thought, it could all come down to this. To all the papers spread out on the central room table, to a few cages carefully kept behind the door with Sam’s name on it. They were alone, of course. The animal care technician on duty for the day had long replaced the bedding, food and water in all the cages; the Veterinarian on call had a beeper wired into all the alarm systems, and wouldn’t bother coming in unless the building caught on fire. Having been told that this was Lee’s shift made Sam particularly mad. Lee was the Veterinarian Sam legally needed to list on the team, although degree-less Chris could do, and actually did do, the exact same work. Of course Lee would never miss out on meetings to prepare manuscripts for publication, at least until authorship was ensured, until Lee’s name was proudly displayed on the front page. Except word must have gotten out that, for this particular Sunday afternoon gathering, a manuscript would be the last thing on Sam’s mind. As should be ramblings about things that were annoying, yet not easily changed. At any rate, if Chris hadn’t dropped out of Veterinary School, who was to say Sam wouldn’t have to deal with just a different clone of unsavory Lee. Often the degree makes the jerk, in a way it’s almost democratic.
Trying to, at least, make use of the final smidgeons of a dying weekend, Leslie brought Sam out of the useless musing mode, desperately hoping to speed up the rate at which the boss would accept the inevitable. The inevitable Leslie and Chris had been banging on for two days now, in countless emails and phone calls. In essence going through every single piece of paper that was now spread out on the table. Did Sam really believe that a huge mistake must have been made, that looking at the papers themselves would change what they said? This was Science, Leslie knew. Not miracle working.
Leslie cared about Sam’s complexity ideas, the fact that things are always connected, never simple. But, although that made for interesting discussions, it also often turned the group’s papers into confusing globs of knowledge only the enlightened could decipher. And, at that stage, it was Leslie Sam would ask to answer queries from nervous editors. Never a dull moment. But this was different. If, when asked to provide a very clear and simple answer, a given experiment said what it said, it could say nothing else. In this case what it said was plain.
They were normal. The mice were normal. The mice were perfectly, utterly, normal.
Not at all what they were supposed to be.
Four years and a lifetime ago, back in Mel’s lab, Sam’s final experiments had yielded several candidate genes, tentatively assigned different degrees of importance in the grand scheme of things. Various roles in the wondrous journey that an embryo undertakes to become a mouse. When Sam left the lab to take on an independent position, because one must always leave, Mel had graciously allowed some extra baggage. A precious sequence of DNA. A gene. Not all the genes Sam had uncovered, of course not; not even the most interesting ones. Mel already had other people working on those. Mel’s grant, Mel’s money, Mel’s lab, Mel’s drive, Mel’s initial idea.
Sam was entitled to one gene, a sort of parting gift. A topic for a first small grant Mel would mentor, a niche to rally Sam’s first team around. Something, hopefully, to start building a career upon.
Which Sam had dutifully done, setting up a lab from scratch, hiring Leslie, Chris and the others, studying that one little precious gene in all the myriad ways it could be studied. Where and when it was active, in which cells, in which tissues, in what organs, at what stages of development. How it was regulated, what it activated, what turned it off. Which other genes it interacted with. The way it fit into grander schemes of things. Experiments were planned and carried out, every single one in all the books Sam could think of.
Actually, although Sam no longer remembered and the lone lab postdoc wished to forget, it had been Leslie who actually suggested what they all had been thinking. Sam’s lab should try a Knock-Out. A Knock-Out mouse could wrap things up neatly. A KO mouse. They would make a mouse that had everything a regular mouse had, except that particular gene. Anything wrong with the Knock-Out mouse embryos, fetuses, newborn organs, adult functions would give valuable clues as to what the gene really did; clues cells and tissues, mere parts of a global mouse, could never yield.
Leslie was a solid researcher, who knew of Mel’s gift and who respected the deep knowledge the young lab boss brought to the table. The Knock-Out experiment had to have been considered at some point during Sam’s thought process, and Leslie suggested it because it had somehow become the elephant in lab meetings, and there was no reason at all for this. They had questions, this particular technique could provide some answers, why not try it?
The thing was, Leslie knew of Mel, but had never heard of Pat. Pat from Buenos Aires, a veteran scientist under Mel, and Sam’s rock coming into the lab. Whose long-held philosophy had always been that one should not ask questions if one was afraid of any of the possible answers. Then again, Mel, their common boss, had almost the exact opposite motto: one should rationally do things with the potential of terrifying one’s core. Unbeknownst to the lab, Sam had been trying to find a personal approach somewhere between those dueling wisdoms, and, in the meantime, the obvious experiment was left on the backburner. Until months had passed and it was the only experiment left. Until Leslie was compelled to suggest it, and Sam felt impotent to do anything else but green-light the project.
It was the logical thing to do. They had already inhibited the gene is cell cultures and tissue slices using a variety of methods, seen what it did and how; but all methods have caveats and Sam agreed a dish in an incubator is not a mouse, merely a poor surrogate. Making a mouse without the gene would tell them what the gene did in the mouse, by default. So simple.
Except the mice were normal. Perfectly, utterly, normal.
In a way there was some irony in how the experiment had turned out.
Sam almost exploded with mock laughter: “in a way”?; “some irony”?
A million light-years ago Sam’s worst fear had been that the gene would be too important, that the Knock-Out mouse would be embryonic lethal. In other words, that inactivating the gene, taking it out, would cause all the embryos to die very early, no mouse born, or even vaguely formed. In theory this was good, proving Sam’s gene was really vital; a mouse without the gene simply didn’t work. In practice? Not so much. Massive embryonic failure also meant Sam couldn’t pinpoint exactly where the gene was active. The gene functions the lab had been studying were in cells and tissues of mice. Whiskers-and-tails mice; mice-mice, adult mice, not embryo-mice. If the Knock-Out never made it that far, if the embryos died, all the money and effort would tell them exactly nothing that Sam could fit in with most of the previous data.
As it was, the mouse was singing volumes. Mainly because there was another way Knock-Out experiments tended to go awfully wrong, a far worse one. Embryonic lethal was one thing, in essence the inability to obtain an answer with a given technology, not that the question itself was wrong. Always remember what a technique can and cannot tell you, Sam preached to the team; never fall in love with a method for its own sake. Don’t blame the screw if you hit it with a hammer.
But a normal mouse meant the answer wasn’t the kind any of them wanted. To simple, binary, minds, it meant that the gene wasn’t important at all, that the mouse could live safely even if it wasn’t there. That it was a sort of relic, a ghost in the mouse. To the more complexity-inclined it meant that the gene’s function, whatever if was, could be replaced by other, probably similar, genes. Life, as a whole, is seldom simple. Although it was often too comfortable to think so, genes never held a final answer; it was always about how they interacted with everything else. For practical purposes scientists studied particular somethings, but it was always about everything. And when Life decided to press forward it was always, always, more resilient than anticipated. If a gene for making hammers were removed, perhaps the handles of screwdrivers could be used to hammer any nails that needed hammering.
Except all this was semantics.
An embryonic lethal Knock-Out mouse was, in a twisted way, comforting; a normal mouse, not only reason for mockery (Sam had mocked colleagues in similar fashion) and barely publishable, but a potential confidence breaker for all the previous work. In this case it certainly pulled the plug on the reasonably high-impact paper based on the gene Sam had been hoping would make a real name for the lab. Those manuscripts need elegant simplicity – they certainly can’t have the many open options Sam could sense would have to be written around this particular work.
For once Mel and Pat would have been in agreement, calmly reminding Sam that this kind of setback was part of the long, complex, and, above all, collective process that was Science, a force that need not concern itself with the whims and anguishes of any single laboratory or research team. If Sam really thought about it, with the distancing both mentors had favored, this was not a wholly unexpected result; it happened more often that most people might think (mainly, of course, because it wasn’t published). Sam should find an edge in the results already at hand, or sweep most of the effort under the collective lab memory. At any rate, cut losses, move on. Solid advice.
Fuck, Sam thought, why couldn’t this have happened to someone else’s gene?
As they morosely perused the paperwork Sam felt the sight of Chris and Leslie slowly becoming unbearable, their calm and fatalistic opinions grumbled through masks somewhat less polished versions of what Pat and Mel might sympathetically intone, when given the opportunity. Staring at mice would lead nowhere. They could easily continue all this at the usual lab meeting, bring all other group members up to speed to share in the common misery. Monday.
As close collaborators practically raced each other out the animal rooms, haphazardly peeling out their protective garments as they ran, Sam realized how lonely the principal investigator really was at times like these. To Leslie and Chris this was just another experiment, unfortunately gone wrong. They could always do other experiments. Sam’s job was to provide those experiments, wrapped in the funding to do them. Which would have to come from very competitive grants. Those depended quite a lot on the lab’s publication record. Putting the cages away, Sam was still trying to calculate exactly how much of a hit that record might have taken on this particular Sunday, as the mice looked curiously on. The innocent, stupidly normal, mice. Sam snarled and they cowered in the cage bedding. The door slammed, uncaring. Someone had to help bear a fiasco that was actually nobody’s fault. And Chris or Leslie were more useful to Sam than normal mice.
Venting on mice. How mature.
The slight breeze blew some sense on Sam’s face. Not that disabling alarms to get to the roof was very mature either. Sam knew where Chris hid the stash, the same reason alarm tampering was common knowledge in the animal rooms. A smoke meant taking out all protective gear, down nine floors, light up, then back to play dress-up again. The roof took five seconds. Highly illegal, of course, safe up to ten minutes, tops, before security got around to checking. Maybe that was an edge Sam could use to think it all out.
The usual suspect seemed to be out of the question. Not only was Leslie good, but Sam had monitored all the important milestones in the process, including, just now, the information showing the mice really didn’t have the gene, an empty space in the test where it should have shown up. Leslie had done what Sam had asked. Even so. Perhaps having another eye thoroughly check everything might uncover some basic blunder or stupidity, however unlikely. Alex would be ideal. Alex who held a deep distrust for work anyone else did, Nobel awardees included. Leslie was not going to like this, Sam thought, not caring. Leslie would be too busy with another project: trying to figure out which gene (or genes) was replacing the one they had removed in the (normal) Knock-Out mice. Estimating if the simultaneous removal of several genes, both their favorite and the ones that were possibly subbing for it, might provide the effect this experiment had failed to deliver. Finally, Chris’s job would be to team up with Lee and carry out all the mouse development, health and behavior tests they could uncover, on the off chance that the (normal, normal, fucking normal) mice weren’t so normal after all. Maybe without the gene they’d develop mighty-mouse powers, live forever. Anything.
Sam let out a nervous laugh. Laugh because it was funny. Nervous because Sam couldn’t quite tell if that was actually a dark joke. Desperate researchers made for desperate hopes.
Desperate, likely. Sam had read far too many papers seething with desperation, trying to convince readers of something that really wasn’t there. Deluded, no. Sam was adamant about one thing concerning the courses of action quickly outlined on an illegal rooftop. They were secondary. Starting Monday all lab members devoid of specific tasks would start branching out. Working on new projects that did not directly involve the damned gene. Be gone, evil gene, vade retro, jinx no more. The lab was going to have to move somewhere. Even if that somewhere ended up being nowhere, Sam wanted to get there fast. Except perhaps Monday was too soon. Might undermine the urgent prodding with Leslie, Chris, Lee, Alex. Denounce Sam’s zeal as merely the spasm of a dying working hypothesis, ready to give up the ghost. Send the group a twisted message.
The group, Sam’s lab. A sort of organism in itself. What would happen if some of its parts went missing, if a sort of social Knock-Out were performed? Sam’s absence would be embryonic lethal, by definition. With another leader the same bunch would form different dynamics, have a different focus, look for other answers, another name would be stamped on doors. Much as with the normal mice, a Lee KO would be meaningless. All other options somewhere in the middle, the group could live on missing Alex’s cynical questioning, Leslie’s technical prowess, Chris’s quiet strength. Still Sam’s group, changed in a way that would reflect whatever each of its members brought to the table. At least until those who were left rallied to fill the gaps, others were hired, the group changed. And these experiments would probably be done, in due course, as careers progressed and people moved naturally on, but Sam was unworried. Social groups were even more resilient than mice.
Sam sensed that roof time was almost up, but walked to the ledge anyway, now as comfortable as humanly possible with what the course of action would be. Odd stray thoughts metaphorically related to the problem at hand were proof enough of this. Below the streets were calm, a few strays cars; still Sunday. Lights on in a few labs across the way, shadows moving across walls. Scientists probably busy at work on their non-normal mice. Lucky bastards.
Enough. Activating the alarms, taking off gown, mask, gloves, shoe covers, hitting the elevator button, getting to the car, obnoxious music blasting, Sam couldn’t help thinking of the mice. Whiskers dancing, trying to burrow in the back of rattled cages as Sam snarled in displeasure. How dare they be so normal?
Driving away, looking deep into the rearview mirror, what did Sam see? Streets of normality, made up of unending pieces. What kind of genes did all those pieces have, did they represent? Could some be missing, somewhere? What would happen if a few pieces were removed by a capricious deity, a freak accident, egregious chance, a city ordinance? Would the streets still guide cars to the same places, would the sidewalks maintain the frail border, would the people walking on them change, however subtly? More importantly for Sam the scientist: could any of this be predicted? And what was “normal” anyway? Growing up Sam remembered longing for normality, before trying to get rid of it. Finding one’s own personal abnormalities was the ultimate part of being, in essence the last step of fitting in. While simultaneously trying not to wander, keeping it all in perspective; eye of the beholder rationales only carried so far. Even so, perhaps Sam was missing crucial things. Back at the apartment, all the lights turned on, Sam slowly took a tour of the meager domains. Walls, pictures, furniture, books, appliances, stuff. All that helped Sam be Sam, all that also was Sam. Was anything missing? Sam spread out on the bed an imaginary slew of objects that could have been in the house, certainly were found in many other houses, but weren’t there. Did the lack of any of them signal abnormality? What about abnormal objects? Things carefully hid in boxes or the back of drawers, or perhaps discarded as Sam had moved across the country. How about those?
Sam dug out the few that could be found, spread them on the bed, immediately remembering why each object had been pushed out of sight. But they seemed at least as normal (or abnormal) as their invisible counter-parts, the ones Sam didn’t have. And taking one or two away, or adding a couple, would not change who Sam was. Maybe what Sam did, or could do in a given moment, but nothing more. Certainly change was also about history and context; maybe the presence of absence of something might have made a profound difference at certain stages of Sam’s life. But not now, especially when too much rationalization was being poured into the thought. Everything was normal, meaning nothing was. It just was. In the Knock-Out experiment Sam had taken apart a piece of wholeness, putting it back in a slightly different way; asking a question. The answer came back, it was precise, honest. Maybe Sam needed to revisit the question. Maybe. But why argue with honesty, how? Perhaps there was a discussion Sam should have concerning who this “Sam” person was. But that discussion was not dependent on any single experiment, certainly not one involving mice. Who were normal. End of story, case closed. Don’t be stubborn. Get drunk, go to bed, masturbate. Let it go.
The neon lights flickered along corridors as Sam headed back. Eleven fifty seven. Still Sunday, barely. Even though Sam held the cages as quietly as possible, the mice hid under the bedding, possibly recognizing the crazed visitor from before. Sam softly placed cages on the table still littered with the paperwork Leslie and Chris had neglected to put away; waited. And the mice came out, curiosity too much of a temptation for anything living in cages. There they were. Sam and the mice. Sam, responsible for planning their genesis. Staring at the creatures made of unrequited lust, of a magnificent desire to know. How dare they challenge their own personal god? How dare they be so unworthy of the task bequeathed upon them? Maybe Sam’s hard stares, known to move metaphorical mountains, could convince the mice to fulfill their destiny, and show the scientific world something, anything not normal.
Sam sat down, ready to begin a long, silent, vigil against normality.
© 2011 João Ramalho-Santos
For Luis Gabriel Sánchez-Partida