A geneticist experiments on herself in order to restore her glory days as a gymnast
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A faulty street light pinged in the darkness above as Ariel pounded down the wide sidewalk. The array of lights lining the nearly empty street cast an angry orange glow in the faint tendrils of smoke from a distant wildfire. She slowed, huffing loudly with her hands at her slim hips. Her fingers massaged her aching side while she slowed her pace.
“Morning,” a young man said as he passed her effortlessly on the left in the gloomy haze. She nodded at the man, too out-of-breath to reply and then sighed while leaning her upper body back.
Sweat lined the woman’s body. She brushed a few strands of long, black hair away from her eyes and kept walking forward. The silent radiance of the raging fire seemed to consume the darkness surrounding it. She eyed it and knew she’d have to start using the treadmills again. At least until it was put out and the smoke had cleared.
Another pair of joggers, a man and woman that appeared to be near her age, passed her. They chatted occasionally and she frowned at their backs. Her 30th birthday approached and she felt like she was in good shape – perhaps not as good as her college years – but she was finding it harder and harder to keep the pace she’d grown used to over the years.
Ariel tsked as a muscle twinged in her lower back. She reached behind to massage the already-fading pain as early morning commuters zipped past in expensive convertibles. Blue light glowed from her wrist when she checked her fitness tracker. It was an expensive model but she wasn’t wearing the separate specialized heart rate monitor. Despite that, she could feel her heart pounding and didn’t doubt the depressingly high figure that blinked at her.
With another sigh, she turned around and began jogging back to her house. Her ears buzzed, her side ached and she could feel the arch of her feet beginning to throb but she pushed through it with a mental note to order a new pair of shoes. She forced a smile at every passing jogger that quickly turned to a determined grimace when they passed.
The first angry welts of sunlight appeared on the horizon behind her as she began a series of mental encouragements.
Almost done, she thought to herself while focusing on the uneven sidewalk before her. Just need to get home and I can shower. Nice, short little shower to save water like a good community member. Grab some coffee, relax for a second and then get to work. But first, shower. Glorious, glorious shower. I am not going to have a heart attack and die on the sidewalk. That is absolutely not how I go out. Just two more miles. That’s nothing. I’ve got this.
Sweat dripped from the tip of her nose. She flicked it away and repeated her mantra as the sun rose behind her.
Ariel’s black BMW pulled smoothly into her reserved parking lot. Sparse clouds filled the gray sky and she glanced up at them as she stepped out of her car. She inhaled and then gagged slightly while wrinkling her nose against the acrid scent hanging in the air. Her reserved spot was close to the entrance of her work so she held her breath as she made her way to the front of the building. As she opened the door to step into the lobby, a gentle voice rang out from the overhead speakers.
“Welcome to FutureGen,” the cultured female voice announced. “The future begins here, today.”
The young woman rolled her eyes as she did nearly every time she came to work. A web of cameras watched the entrance to the building and she knew they were running facial recognition in order to catalogue visitors and potentially flag any unwanted guests. She had begged and pleaded with network security to turn the announcement off when an employee entered the building but they swore it was nearly impossible to configure.
“Good morning, Dr. Hollister,” the receptionist chirped. The young girl was, as always, impeccably dressed and well put-together. Ariel smiled while giving her an appreciative glance. She’d had a slight crush on the girl since she’d started working at the company but she never let it get beyond the occasional private fantasy. Caitlin would tease her mercilessly if she knew about it.
“Good morning,” Ariel replied as she walked past. Thinking of Caitlin brought a shy smile to her face as she made her way through the maze of offices.
Her girlfriend had come home while she was out jogging and they’d been able to spend time together this morning before Caitlin had gone to sleep. Ariel had sat on the floor between the other woman’s legs and they’d talked about life and work while her girlfriend braided her hair in a tight french braid. For a brief, happy moment, the stress of her adulthood had melted away and she’d relaxed with her eyes closed while pretending she was at a sleepover. It was an indulgence she didn’t often allow herself but it helped to center her when life weighed heavily upon her.
Various early morning workers nodded at her with a respectful “Doctor” as they went about their tasks. Although she didn’t know all of them, she acknowledged each of them just the same. At twenty-nine years old, she was the youngest director in the company’s history and everyone knew who she was. FutureGen had fought six other corporations in contract negotiations before she’d even finished her first phD six years ago.
Cubicle walls vanished behind her when she approached a single white door. She pulled her lanyard to tap it against the grey block beside the door and it pinged as her access was granted. Pulling the heavy door open, she stepped into her lab.
Although the office and foyer occupied the front of the building, her laboratory consumed nearly seventy percent of the first floor. She walked swiftly through the brightly lit hallway, pausing at intervals to pull clipboards from their hooks. Certain experiments were at a critical stage and, despite the incredibly expensive computer network and top-of-the-line tablets, her researchers jotted down quick notes on paper for their teams. She scribbled notes and answers on a few of the clipboards before making her way to her office.
At times, her ludicrously large office made her feel embarrassed. But now, as she slowly eased her sore body into her office chair, she appreciated it greatly. A single button press caused the glass walls to darken as her overhead lights brightened to compensate. She kicked her heels off and spun in her chair while her feet decompressed. Various awards lined her office, mixed in with framed photos of celebrities and Nobel Laureates.
The pain from her jog frustrated her more now than it had this morning. It gnawed at her and made her wonder if it was time to visit her physician.
I’m too young for this, aren’t I? She asked herself.
Both of her parents were alive and healthy. In fact, they were both hiking in Japan at this very moment.
It’s funny, she thought. Surrounded by all of this technology, all of this research into eradicating disease and I’m sitting here with sore feet.
She laughed out loud, bitterly, as she remembered Tom’s side project. She was experimenting with a version of Google’s “20% time” and allowed her employees free time – ten percent of their day – to chase down personal projects as long as it fit snugly within the goals of FutureGen. His side project was in hair regrowth and he was currently investigating a lead or two using gorillas. She wasn’t certain what he was planning since side projects had nearly zero oversight but maybe she could convince him to look into something for her feet.
Hooves don’t get sore, do they? she mused. Maybe he could slap some horse DNA into-
Frowning, Dr. Hollister tapped at the arms of her chair while staring into the distance.
Could I-? She wondered. The young woman turned to her computer, logged in and pulled up an Internet browser. Not a horse, though, no. But, what?
Lights flickered on in the lab outside her office but she barely noticed the faint movement beyond her dark, frosted windows. Her staff knew better than to bother her when the glass wasn’t clear.
An hour later, Ariel stared at the website for St. Petersburg State University’s Theodosius Dobzhansky Center for Genome Bioinformatics. She glanced at the clock on her desk, did a quick mental arithmetic check and then picked up her phone. The line chirped after she dialed the long series of numbers to reach the university. Just as she was about to hang up, a rough voice answered.
“Здравствуйте, чем я могу помочь?” the man said.
“Вы говорите по-английски?” Ariel asked in halting, accent-less Russian. There was a long pause on the static-filled line but she could hear the other man breathing.
“Yes,” the man finally answered. “Who is this, please?”
“This is Dr. Ariel Hollister from FutureGen,” she answered. “In Los Angeles, California. I’m sorry for calling so late but I’ve been doing some research and I was wondering if you had a moment or two, Doctor-?”
“Doctor Brukhin,” the man answered. His voice changed subtly. Even over the bad connection, she could hear a warmth. “We’ve met before, Dr. Hollister. Five years ago at the conference in Nürnberg. You gave a very informative lecture on molecular genetic analysis in diseases. I congratulated you afterwards. A group of us had drinks together but I don’t remember much of that evening, I’m afraid.”
“Well,” Ariel said, blushing slightly. Now that he’d mentioned it, she vaguely remembered a night of drinking. She’d left before it became too chaotic but she was amazed at how rowdy the various scientists had been. She’d been somewhat sheltered at that point in her life. “I’m honored that you’d remember me, sir.”
“And?” he asked. “What can I do for the famous Dr. Hollister?”
“It’s the sequencing on Chewbaaka, sir,” she told him. “The cheetah?”
“Of course I know,” he chastised her gently. “I wasn’t involved but it was a big accomplishment for us and our friends in China. But what could FutureGen possibly want with the data?”
“It’s for a personal project,” she told him. “I’m not even certain it will yield anything useful but I have an idea or two I’d like to test. I was hoping I could get access to the completed sequence. I could have someone bring the appropriate amount of drives or I could set up a repository for remote transfer?”
“And could we not have you personally visit?” the man asked hopefully. “It would be quite the coup to have someone as distinguished as yourself tour our facility. And I would promise not so much drinking.”
“That sounds lovely but I’m afraid not,” Ariel chuckled. “I have a few too many projects I’m overseeing and I can’t step away for any length of time.”
“Ah, such is life,” Dr. Brukhin agreed with her. “But, please, send me the information to a secured repository and I’ll have my technicians transfer the data. Only, one request?”
“Of course,” she answered.
“Share with us if the information is useful,” he told her. “I would be saddened to learn of a FutureGen breakthrough based upon our works without proper attribution.”
“You have my word, doctor,” she replied. “But, really, I think I’m chasing a pipe dream here. And, thank you.”
“It’s been a pleasure,” Dr. Brukhin said.
Ariel lay the handset down on her phone’s base station and leaned back in her chair. She could feel the idea she’d formed earlier begin to take hold. There were several live projects her team were working on that could potentially form the basis of what she was planning. She oversaw all of them and was directly involved in two of the projects in question. With the data and notes on Chewbaaka as well as her own research and the work of her team, she saw the end result moving from hypothetical to viable.
As the hushed murmurs of her employees filled the offices beyond her door, Ariel went to the side of her room where she kept a few pieces of equipment. She drew a vial of her own blood with a wince and then paused, staring at the door to the lab.
It was a long shot but she’d lived her life with one simple rule: always push forward. If the science didn’t exist, she’d invent it.
Four small vials sat before Dr. Hollister on a table in her darkened lab.
She stared at them – at the results of eight months of driven research and development. Long nights punctuated by apologetic texts and phone calls to her girlfriend for not coming home yet again. She told Caitlin it was important to her but not why. It was impossible to explain. At least not until she could verify the results. There’d been a few heated moments over those months but Caitlin was ultimately understanding.
And now she was done.
Machinery hummed around her, accompanied by the stuttered clicking of mechanical equipment. Her face was aglow with their various lights – red and green and yellow, flashing or solid to signify different statuses.
She stared at the vials with her hands folded in her lap but her thoughts were a mile away. Every time her brain tried to focus, she felt the thought melt away into nothingness and the void within calmed her.
Seconds turned to minutes, interrupted only but the occasional blinking of her eyes.
Death was an option. She was fairly certain of her work but so much of gene editing was still a mystery, even to FutureGen. It took years to test what impact each small change had on a larger scale and sometimes the errors cascaded to a horrifying degree after being seemingly stable for a period of time.
Her knuckles turned white as her fingers clenched against each other and her heartbeat sounded unnaturally loud in her ears. It was late Friday night, an evening she specifically picked due to the weekend and her schedule being relatively light. She’d have the weekend to deal with the effects and could take extra time if needed.
Three of the vials were her own work while the fourth was built heavily on existing research. The fourth one was to stabilize the changes the other three should enact while repairing damaged cells. She was sure of her research. Certain of it. She’d poured countless hours into the areas she was targeting. It should work.
She reached for the first vial. Her fingers brushed the clear glass before she made a fist. The liquid inside was as clear as the glass was viscous with thick, white streaks. She touched the glass, nearly stroking it before making her final decision. Once settled, she gripped the small tube, uncorked it and downed the contents in an unthinking rush.
It’s like they always say, she thought, grimacing at the bitter taste of the mixture suspending the heavily modified bacteria. Can’t make an omelet without breaking a few strands of DNA.
The second vial followed the first and then the third. Ariel gagged and stomped her feet with her head bowed. Sweat beaded on her temples but she took the fourth glass tube and swallowed before she changed her mind. She lay her head down on the table and ran through a series of calculations to distract herself from the tumultuous, angry grumbling within her stomach.
When she was sure she wouldn’t vomit, she stood to collect the vials as carefully as possible. The young scientist picked up her laptop and bag along with the vials. With a final glance around the room, she walked to the nearest autoclave, inserted the vials and started the machine. It beeped as she turned around to leave.
The building was eerily silent but Dr. Hollister gave a miniature salute to the security cameras while winding through the maze of cubicles. The same cameras identified her as she left the building and the large security doors slid open as she neared them.
Ariel exhaled in the warm evening air. She hadn’t realized she’d been holding her breath and she felt the tension leave as she breathed out. And then she laughed. She blushed as she realized how extraordinarily strange she must have looked but she couldn’t hold back. Collapsing against the side of the building, she laughed until she felt hot tears stream down her cheeks.
So many things could go wrong but she’d done it and she felt drunk off the thrill of it. Her stomach muscles burned as she devolved into chuckles while clutching her bag against her chest. She wiped tears away while leaning her head back against the brushed aluminum that covered the building.
Her step was spry as she made her way to her lonely car. It’s cabin light glowed when she neared and it unlocked as her hand brushed the door handle. She tossed her bag into the passenger seat and started her car before buckling in. It rumbled to life and she shifted, backing out of the parking lot.
She felt wired, as if every nerve was humming within her body. Her car surged forward when she stomped the gas pedal and she bit back a loud ‘woop’ as it turned sharply and grabbed the road like a animal chasing prey. Her eyes widened with unnatural focus as she sped. A car appeared and she gave the slightest touch to her wheel, passing it at the last moment with the least amount of space possible. It honked at her but it was already far behind her when she glanced at it in her rearview mirror.
As she drove, she day-dreamed of the potential changes she had in store for herself. She’d researched quite a few creatures before settling on the cheetah. Its flexibility intrigued her, as did its enlarged heart and lungs and arteries. But, more importantly, they were genetically monotonous and that was critical for ensuring she had the proper markers for the changes she wanted.
The city opened up to her as she prowled the streets without a care for the marked speed limits.
Flexibility. Her girlfriend was the gymnast and would benefit the most from the potential flexibility the changes could offer but it was the entire package that enticed her. Increased speed, heightened cardiovascular endurance as well as an encouragement to growth of her fast-twitch muscles for explosive speed. However, she’d also added a few of FutureGen’s tweaks for cell and gene repair and those were even more exciting to her. With her own additions, they should help her body stay younger longer while keeping her body in peak condition.
As she approached the suburbs where her house was tucked quietly away against acres of trees, she slowed. Caitlin was at work and the house was dark. Ariel parked in front of the garage and a cold bead of sweat rolled down her back as her high wore off. She grabbed her bag, left her car and unlocked her front door while the reality of the situation began to settle over her shoulders.
Once inside, she dropped her things, kicked off her shoes and grabbed a bottle from the wine rack in her kitchen. Unsettling thoughts kept trying to pierce the veil of fear beginning to surround her. She swatted them away as she found a glass for the wine.
Dark red liquid sloshed around the glass and then over the edge to spatter the counter as she carelessly filled it with trembling fingers. Dr. Hollister downed the entire glass, thankful for something to wash away the disgusting taste that still coated her throat. She filled the glass again and immediately drained it and her shaking hands finally calmed while a warmth filled her body.
With a shrug nobody else was around to see, she abandoned the glass to drink straight from the bottle.
A second bottle joined the first and she began to contemplate writing a note to Caitlin just in case everything went wrong. Ariel cried when she finished the bottle as, in her mind, she saw her girlfriend coming home from work to see her corpse lying cold on the kitchen floor.
The third bottle eased her melancholy thoughts and, in fact, she thought of nothing else when she lay her head down to rest for just a moment.
Dr. Hollister woke to pain and nausea and a cold puddle of drool against her cheek. She moved slightly, raising her head while wiping her cheek and wincing at the lancing pain in her head. Every joint and muscle throbbed and she found herself taking short breaths against a numbing pressure in her chest. Worse, the tips of her toes and fingers felt cold and they tingled when she touched them.
She turned and stumbled and then fell to her knees to vomit on the floor. She heaved but, miraculously, nothing came out and she was left feeling even worse. Instead, she sat back and gasped, trying to catch her breath. Black sparks exploded in her vision and she felt like someone was squeezing her temples in a vise.
It took an incredible amount of effort to pull herself into a standing position but she pushed until she was leaning against the counter. She fell forward but caught herself and, in this manner, slowly made her way to her bedroom until she could crawl under the covers. Shivering, she pulled the sweat soaked blanket tight against her body. Her eyes flicked open every time she came close to falling asleep.
“-you hear me”” Caitlin asked. “How many bottles- oh. Oh, babe.”
Ariel turned to see her girlfriend leaning down over her with a worried frown.
“H- how l- l- long,” Ariel wheezed, her teeth chattering. She writhed beneath as the blankets to try and put out the fire burning deep within her bones. “Been home?”
“I’ve been talking to you for the last few minutes, babe,” Caitlin said. “Oh gosh, you’re burning up. Wait here, I’ll get a wet cloth.”
“I’m f- f- f-” Ariel tried to say before a spasm tore the word away from her.
Caitlin returned and lay a cold, wet hand towel against Ariel’s forehead. She gasped and her vocal chords separated and vibrated into a rasping, halting purr.
“Let me get you undressed,” Caitlin said, pulling back the blanket. “Ugh, and I’ll get a new blanket. Hold still.”
“Noooo,” Ariel said quietly. She pushed weakly at her girlfriend’s hand but found herself easily rebuffed. She tossed and turned her head while trying to swallow past the lump at the back of her throat. Her girlfriend’s hands were cool against her hot skin as the girl carefully undid buttons and pulled on clothes.
Ariel screamed. The nerves in her lower back exploded and her muscles contracted, pulling her immediately into a sitting position. With a loud ‘pop’, she lost sensation in her entire lower body. The room spun and Caitlin’s voice echoed down a darkening tunnel as the young scientist passed out.
“- temperature’s just over one hundred,” Caitlin said. She toyed anxiously with curls of her thick, red hair. “No, nothing else. No vomit. I don’t know how to check that, no. Well, she was screaming earlier. It freaked me out. Just sat up, screamed and fainted. Okay, but-“
“No,” Ariel whispered, slowly reaching a hand out to touch her girlfriend’s arm.
A single bar of light peeked from the edge of the bedroom’s curtain. It lay against her face and she blinked as she turned to face her lover. Her mouth hung open while she hyperventilated. It felt like hands were pushing and squeezing the inside of her chest but her panting seemed to help against the fever and the pressure.
Black flecks appeared beneath the skin around her eyes.
“T- trust- trust me,” Ariel begged, grabbing Caitlin’s arm in a trembling grip. “N-n- no h- hospital. Trust. Trust me. Please.”
More coal-like specks appeared in the sweat-slick skin surrounding her eyes. They multiplied until her eyes were ringed by black. A faint line appeared along her cheeks from the corner of her eyes, nearly invisible in the darkened room. The line grew down her face like an old scar until it reached the edges of her lips.
“Trust,” Ariel said as the room began to darken once again. She opened her mouth and hissed quietly through the pain wracking her body. As her fingers dug into the bed sheets, the flesh beneath her fingernails bulged. Her nails bent at the center and tented as a fine slit appeared at the tips of her fingers.
“Trust. Me. Truuuussss-” she groaned. The young woman flexed her hands as her girlfriend fixed the towel on her forehead. Eight clear claws pushed through the clefts in her fingertips to tear ragged little holes in the sheet while she dragged her hands along the bed.
Ariel twisted once and sighed when sleep finally took her. As her body relaxed, her claws pulled back into her fingertips.