Capacitance: Chapter 7

Here we are on another Monday–this summer is absolutely flying by! It is so hot in Kansas, so I plan to stay holed up in my office all day and hopefully get a chapter or so done on Resistance since I’m done editing Inductance. As I promised, here is Chapter 7; enjoy and stay cool friends! 🙂

Chapter 7

Mara quickened her pace from a brisk walk to a near-jog as she ascended the slope up from Design and onto the Campus Green. As if her day had not already been stressful enough, now she had a potential lab crisis on her hands. While everyone else was dispensing with the niceties back in Studio 76, Mara’s phone had begun to buzz and vibrate her pocket. One furtive glance at the screen while the incredibly verbose Runey from Design was going on about his artistic academia was enough to show Mara that her lab diagnostics she had been running had encountered a major error. One she simply couldn’t put off attending to—especially for making introductions to a group of people who would apparently be habitually wasting her time and energy every Tuesday for the rest of the school year. She also couldn’t believe the Professors and directors in charge of these group projects would actually want her to talk about her private work in front of a group of random students, as she knew the nature of it was quite sensitive.

She had crossed the green in record time and was already surging up the hill with long, tireless strides—the three-times a week mandatory gym sessions for all Science students were paying off at the moment. Blessedly, the sidewalks were empty of students or professors as everyone was still at their group meetings. For an instant Mara worried about getting in trouble for leaving her group early—rudely walking out on them is a better term, she thought—but then quickly realized she did not care. Shortly, she was at the top of the hill and heading into what students called “The Portal,” a building off to the side of the main science hall through which students accessed their individual labs. The foyer of The Portal was a maze of shining silver stairways and elegant glass elevators leading up and down, higher and lower to innumerable levels. There were no signs marking which stairs led where or which elevators went to what floor; it was confusing at first, but students spent so much time in their labs that finding them quickly became second nature. For Mara, it was quite easy; she went to the third elevator on the right behind the second stairwell. She swiped her access card and pressed in the key code without even looking at the controls. The elevator slid smoothly into the marble floor and shortly its glass doors slid open and Mara stepped out.

She was in a long white hallway with doors intermittently spaced down either side. She strode down to the second door and it felt like coming home. The door had no knob to open, but rather a small keypad plus a palm recognition sensor. Mara flicked in her key code in a fraction of a second and slid her palm smoothly down onto the sensor and the door whooshed open. She looked around, so relieved to be in her solitary space that she almost forgot about the emergency that she had come to investigate. Even though her test results were coming back haywire, everything in the lab was orderly as usual. Whereas Mara’s apartment was the picture of ultimate extravagance, her lab was quite the opposite—the floor was bare polished concrete, the furnishings were plain and utilitarian, no decorations or personal effects were to be seen anywhere. The only luxuries were the equipment and machines; a bank of computers which were probably better than any even found in the school of Technology perched on Mara’s desk, on the lab table high-precision testing instruments were lined up gleaming and ready for use, the walls were lined with larger machines, supplies and virtually any tool or device she could ever need to carry out her work.

Her work now carried her over to the bank of computers; she still couldn’t believe that the error message she had seen on her phone could be right. Biting her lip, she powered on the machines and entered the program she had been running; a few click of the mouse and tapping of the keys later and the same message as she had seen on her phone was illuminated across all three computer screens: “ERROR: GENETIC MUTATION STRAND.” Mara sighed, closed her eyes and rubbed her temples with both hands, trying to remind herself that she had expected this from the very beginning. As an ambitious student, Mara had always been interested in the field of genetic engineering; not only was it a complex science, but it was very important to the nation and the government. Since the field of genetic engineering had hit its stride of success, government officials had been using its applications to their benefit. The engineering of a person’s genes had long since ceased to be an activity that was solely carried out on human embryos to create “designer babies.” For the last half century, genetic engineering had become so advanced that it was now possible to correct and enhance the DNA of living human beings through genetic therapy. It was a costly treatment, but effective—people who received this genetic therapy experienced decelerated aging, overall perfect health, increased mental sharpness, and usually better looks.

The genetic therapy was administered through an injection of a serum called Meditrinum; recipients took their dose once a month and the serum went to work mending and smoothing out any flaws that may have arisen in their genetic makeup since the last dose. It was seen amongst all scientific circles as a miracle serum which extended and improved human life. Shortly after Meditrinum was perfected and considered fit for general human use, the government put restrictions on the substance. It was only to be available to those individuals at the highest levels of power and control in the government, a few privileged members of the elite, and to the most promising Science students. With the use of Meditrinum by the government, a new style of command over the nation began; the leaders simply stayed in power. They were not aging, were not getting sick, and were (with the help of the formula) some of the most capable people to lead that the nation possessed. Meditrinum was—literally—the lifeblood of the government.

It was because of Meditrinum’s importance to society as a whole, and a sense of skepticism which led Mara to delve deeply into the study of genetic engineering during understudy school. She knew coming into the University that she wanted to impress, to be top of the class; by presenting a project research plan which postulated an extensive examination of Meditrinum and the intent to make improvements to the injection, Mara was awarded the stellar entry position she desired. She was given the power and weight behind her project because she had taken a cynical gamble and also included the point in her research plan that she believed Meditrinum had an error which would need to be fixed—and she believed she could both find that error and fix it. She had taken a gamble by claiming Meditrinum was flawed; her postulation in that regard had been based purely on her geneticist’s hunch that human DNA is prone to mutations, and tampering with that fragile DNA must have repercussions somewhere. Today, she had finally found out that her grim thesis was correct.

Mara now found herself on the knife’s edge of triumph and cold, icy fear; yes, she had proven her point that Meditrinum was flawed, but what she still didn’t know was how deep that flaw would go, what effects the mutation would cause, and how she would fix it. She didn’t even know how much time she had to fix the problem. The previous Friday, she had left her lab and set the computer to do a DNA sequence scan on a blood sample that had been treated with Meditrinum; that DNA sequence had cleared through clean when she came back again to check it on Saturday. On Sunday night she had decided to try a new program which would forecast the DNA sequence into the future. Setting the computer up to test the sample again and this time project the DNA condition a full five years into the future, Mara had left her lab to let the tests run through since she had seminar on Monday. The alarming results from the DNA prospectus had come in as Mara sat in Studio 76 and she had rushed back to her lab, but now she found herself in a rare state of feeling overwhelmed and unsure where she should start to tackle the problem.

She had good reason for panic to set in—the problem was not just a problem for the government, it was also a problem for her. Students who showed the most promise in Science were made to leave their homes at a very young age, at their first sign of high intellect—these students were the ones who received Meditrinum treatments. Mara vividly remembered her first day away from home, standing in the long line with other kids in a medical lab as each one in turn was given their first injection of Meditrinum. Unlike the other kids, she wasn’t afraid of the needle poke—the memory remained with her because from that day forward she was curious about why she had to be injected, and once she was old enough to understand why, she was even more intrigued by the concept. However, now all those years and years of injections were weighing down on her chest like a lead weight. A mutation, she thought, and I am a carrier of it.

A wave of panic threatened to crash over her and she tamped it down. At times like this, she knew it was better to think rationally. Spinning her chair 180 degrees, away from the computer screen and its flashing red error message, she closed her eyes and began to think of the facts. The first fact was that she had set the scan to project a full five years into the future, so the mutation had to occur during that time frame. The second fact was she had no idea whatsoever of how bad the mutation really was. Third, she knew for a fact that she was capable of fixing this if anyone was. Snap out of this panic, Mara, she thought, you need to first find out when the mutation starts to develop. Then you need to ascertain how bad the genetic breakdown by mutation will be. Finally you FIX it—you fix that and you save the government, save the world from losing so many key people…save yourself.

Spinning back around to her computer with a new sense of focus, she cleared the error message and began what would be a long process of sorting through genetic code. Finding a mutation was like following a trail of breadcrumbs—little traces and hints could be found along the way. She knew she also needed to get more Meditrinum blood samples to run control tests and make sure all the readings came out the same and yielded the same mutation result. Pulling out her phone, she scrolled through to her task list and began to type. As she was framing out her next few days’ worth of work, she received a new message from Professor Travers, which read,

“Mara, sorry I have missed you. Meet in my office as soon as you get this. P.T.”

Mara felt her body sag with relief; of course she should talk to Travers about what she had discovered today, he would reassure her and make her feel better. As she thought this a small voice stole through her mind, Are you sure you should tell anyone about what you have found here today? It is a huge development with potential national security risk. Don’t tell Travers anything. Innately, she knew that the doubting voice was right, and she bemoaned having lost her one opportunity for solace. However, she knew she could ask him what he knew about genetic mutations and how to stop them—Travers did, after all, know she was looking for a flaw in Meditrinum. She flicked back to messages on her phone and quickly sent a reply to Travers,

“Finishing up a few things in lab, then on my way. M”

Mara exited out of the DNA sequencing program on her computers and opened up the application LabLink, an online delivery service where Science students could request supplies and have them delivered right to their labs. She clicked on “Specimen Samples” and filled out the form to request blood samples of Meditrinum. She hesitated over the number of samples to request, and then decided on a full 10 specimens, requesting that their donors be from an array of ages. Her request was submitted and would be delivered by the next morning. Mara let out a long exhale as she shut down the computers; she had intended to be labbed down all night, but now she felt distinctly relieved to be powering down her lab when it was only late afternoon. The weight of today’s discovery was bearing down on her too hard, and Mara realized she had reached a threshold she seldom encountered—the point where it was all too much for her right now and she needed to back away and return to the problem later. Thus, it was with great relief that she flicked off the light switches to her lab, keyed in the code to securely lock the doors and turned her back on the whole area for the night.

Riding back up in the elevator Mara stood as if in a daze, her brain at war with itself—wanting to analyze and turn the problem over and over, the other half knowing it needed to put the issue away for now. The elevator rose up through the floor and its glass walls were flooded with golden light as it reached the lobby where the orange, fuzzy rays of the setting sun had gilded all the smooth marble, glass and metal surfaces turning The Portal into an opulent golden palace. The lift did not stop at the lobby, but propelled Mara further upward until it deposited her in another white marbled lobby, the glass railings at its edges showing a vertiginous maze of stair cases and elevator shafts leading many floors down to the main entrance of The Portal itself. Mara exited the elevator, turned left and immediately began to ascend yet another flight of stairs which led exclusively to Professor Travers’ suite of labs. At the top of the stairs, the décor changed abruptly; cool metal and glass finishings gave way to warm wood paneled walls, thick wine colored carpets, and richly carved dark wood doors. There were three sets of these doors on the large stair landing: one a double height pair of grandly carved doors led to Travers’ living area, the plainest door led to his labs, and a curious almost too-short door with a Gothic arched top and rosette carvings led to Travers’ office.

It was the arched office door to which Mara administered three quick raps to let Travers know she was here. She knew he would be in there waiting for her; he always conducted their chats in the coziness of his office, “Get away from the business side for once, my dear,” he always said. Today was no exception, shortly after her knock, Travers opened the curious door wide for her with a warm smile that crinkled the corners of his dark eyes. He wasn’t wearing his usual tweed jacket (Mara saw it hung close at hand over the back of his desk chair) because the room was very cozy and warm due to the lit fireplace which had the same curious Gothic arched shape as the door. “Mara, come, sit by the fire please! You must know how terribly sorry I am that I have not been able to meet with you before now. It’s been this business with the inter-college initiative project which has kept me very busy,” he said, checking his old fashioned wristwatch, then looking at Mara interestedly, “You mentioned you were in your lab and had to finish up some things, but technically your group meeting wasn’t supposed to end all that long ago.” He raised his eyebrows questioningly at her.

“Professor Travers, I—” Mara began exasperatedly, not in the mood to have to defend herself.

But Travers broke into a warm smile, “Our little secret,” he said, placing a finger briefly to his lips, “Besides, who can blame you for not wanting to spend a whole afternoon engaged in small talk when you’ve got rather more important things to do, right?” He gestured toward the two overstuffed chairs in a plaid forest green print which were huddled close to the fireplace, and Mara gratefully collapsed into one, letting her briefcase fall to the floor. “I would offer you a drink,” Travers continued, “But I know you don’t usually indulge. Which is a shame, because I have an absolutely excellent merlot that would be a delight to share with you.”

“Yes. I’ll have some wine, please. That would be great,” Mara said from the depths of her chair, knowing that this was truly one of the few days where a drink would ease the wars in her head and allow her some peace from herself and the problem in her lab. Travers looked up with surprise, and walked over to the sideboard where he poured deep ruby wine from a cut glass decanter into two light as air blown glass vessels. Mara gingerly accepted and took a deep draught of the wine, its fine tannic swirl of flavor creating a rich glow within her even upon the first drink. Travers settled with his glass in the adjacent chair and turned attentively to face her.

“So, Mara, what is going on with your project? What is new for Meditrinum? I couldn’t help but notice right before you came up here, an especially large sample of Meditrinum blood specimens was ordered to your lab,” Travers ventured inquisitively.

“Ten is an especially large number?” Mara asked bluntly. “I am just running some extensive DNA sequencing prospectuses on Meditrinum samples, and looking to see if I run into any mutations,” she summarized, feeling better that she didn’t outright tell Travers a lie—up until this afternoon that was truly what she was working on, she just omitted the detail that a mutation had indeed been found. As her brain cycled back to the word mutation all the anxiety started to rise again and voices of panic started to shout in her mind—Where?! When?! How bad is it?!—Mara shut them up with another drink of wine.

“Ah, mutations, the bane of genetic structure! But the point is Mara–and it is a point I have been trying to make with you ever since you entered the University–what makes you so sure there will be a mutation within Meditrinum specimens? After all, the therapy was created to smooth out and repair flaws in the DNA structure, so wouldn’t the simple act of taking it rule out the very mutations you’re afraid are going to become prevalent?” Travers leaned back with a smile and took another sip of his wine; this was the classic argument between the two which they routinely waged against one another in the most pacific, scholarly manner.

“As I have said before, it is never a bad idea to be too careful in the precautions one takes against a drug that is used habitually by all the most important government figures who run this country, not to mention countless students and professors of science,” here she slightly narrowed her eyes at him; she was trying to lure him into telling her whether or not he took Meditrinum. She had not been able to get him to divulge that particular information throughout the duration of his mentorship to her.

Once again, he did not take the bait, “Mara, we could argue this back and forth for days—and believe me, I would enjoy the argument! There really is nothing like debate between two qualified individuals! But, my dear, I just hate to see your talents not put to good constructive use; you could be finessing Meditrinum, adding new features, new benefits—I know you have the talent and skill to do so. A project such as that would win you fame, power, and—good Lord!—money. More money than you could imagine! Your name would be in all the scientific journals; you would be at the forefront of genetic engineering, a figurehead so to speak,” Travers said passionately.

“I know, I know all that,” Mara responded wearily; Travers knew this was the best means of persuasion to use on her. He knew that she craved respect and success for her work. It used to be very difficult to resist this argument, to prevent herself from giving in and heading down to her lab to create a new genetic therapy that would give Meditrinum users even longer lives, universal good looks, even advanced sexual prowess, or some other seemingly trivial but in reality very powerful advantage. For her, this represented not only the easy way out, but also the path that would lead her to less success. A scientist improving Meditrinum was not nearly as important as a scientist who saved Meditrinum. Mara continued to Travers with a mischievous smile, “I didn’t come here to rehash all our old arguments. I came here because I want to know what you know about genetic mutations. Say my DNA sequencing does turn up on a mutation—then what?”

“Well, Mara, it would depend on what kind of mutation it is. We obviously have prepared remedies to all of the basic genetic mutations—different kinds of cancer, for instance, used to be a deadly mutation in the past, but now we have the various formulas which stop the cancer and mend it immediately. Which leads back to my former point; Meditrinum automatically fixes these kinds of flaws every month when a user takes it. If there are any mutations or free radicals that cause cancer in a person’s system, Meditrinum wipes these away upon its administration. I assume you have already thought of this, so I further assume you must be looking for a bigger form of mutation. I suppose it could be possible for cells to mutate on so many levels that the Meditrinum would be unable to catch up with the repairs, but we are talking about massive DNA breakdown. Literally, massive! It would have to be enough break down that the Meditrinum couldn’t fix it all in one month. This kind of mutation would see the users of Meditrinum waste away slowly while the battle between the mutated cells and Meditrinum waged on inside them; some might live if they had enough strength to stay alive long enough for the Meditrinum to catch up with repairs, but most would die.

That is one possibility, I suppose. The other situation is compounded; cells are already mutating on the massive level I mentioned before, but in this type of mutation, Meditrinum turns on the body—a hostile takeover mutation. In this scenario, the Meditrinum itself is corrupted upon entry to the body by these mutated cells, thus spreading the mutation everywhere much more quickly than it would have done on its normal course. In this kind of hostile takeover mutation, we are talking death within days or maybe a week of the Meditrinum injection. A bleak prospect, to be sure, but let’s not forget this genetic therapy has been around and in constant use by many people for well over fifty years. If a mutation was going to happen, odds are it would have already occurred,” he finished, and self-satisfied with his explanation he turned towards the fire and propped his loafered feet up on a claw footed leather ottoman.

Mara sat in silence, processing. The dancing light from the fireplace cast a thick glow over the wood paneled walls and gilded spines of books in the floor to ceiling bookshelves. Through the window—strangely arched and comprised of many diamond shaped panes which always gave Mara pause as from the exterior of the building it would be quite anachronistic, architecturally—the sun was finally on its last descent, causing a ruby-purple glow to enter the office. Mara was glad for the dim lighting as she could feel her face going white in the span of Travers’ bleak synopsis of the worst kinds of mutations. She knew it would be a dead giveaway if he saw fear on her face so she took a large swallow of wine, hoping to bring back some of her color as Travers got up to turn on some lamps.

“Thanks for the insight, Professor Travers—now hopefully it will be of no use to me!” she laughed, trying to lighten the mood away from the subject.

Travers looked at her seriously for a moment, “If anyone could find a fix to those mutations I just spoke about, Mara, it’s you,” he gazed at her tersely with his brown eyes for a beat, then broke into a smile, “Now how about another glass of wine and we can move on to less serious topics,” he accepted her empty glass, which was proffered more readily than he expected, and topped it with more wine. “Tell me about your group!” He said, sitting back down in the other chair by the fireplace.

Mara sighed audibly and Travers laughed. “Well I didn’t really get to meet them much since, as you most astutely guessed, I left the meeting early. I wanted to get back to my lab, and, yes, I did see it as a waste of my time. As for my brief impression of the group, well, I really liked Vance. He is the one from Politics, so I suppose getting people to like him is what he is good at. He definitely put everyone at ease. Elba, the girl from Technology, is unremarkable; pretty shy, but seemed to hint that she knows about computer hacking. But don’t they all know a lot about that over in Tech? And then from Design, there was Runey. He was late, and arrogant. He is handsome and he knows it. I am going to have the most trouble working with him. He just…irritates me for some reason,” Mara shook her head as his easy half-smile came back into her mind. She took another drink of wine.

Travers looked amused at her descriptions. He had expected no less than dismissive. “Mara, you should see this as an opportunity! When you leave the University, you will be working with other types of people, like it or not. You’re going to be very important, and important people have to know how to mix. You already like this Vance from Politics, and it sounds like the girl Elba could be interesting—just because she is shy doesn’t mean she has nothing interesting to say! And as for this character Runey, he is your biggest challenge, Mara. I encourage you to make an effort to get to know him. Since he is the one you least like in the group, making an effort towards him will be good for your character. Many students of Science don’t learn this until after University, but success is not just won in the lab, it is carried out amongst other people. Challenge yourself, learn about Runey. That is my personal advice to you, for whatever it’s worth,” he smiled as he saw Mara’s face lose some of its obstinate hardness; he had seen the look before and knew it as a sign she had taken his words to heart.

As the sky lost its wash of grey and violet and filtered totally into inky black outside the diamond-paned window, Mara and Travers continued to sit and talk well after the moon had set and the stars had spread out to blanket the night. When at last Mara stood up from her chair and shouldered her briefcase, she was feeling much more light-hearted than she had when she arrived. The wine had dulled the sense of urgency to investigate the mutation, and the Travers’ paternal presence and friendship had soothed her greatly. She had not drank too much wine that she had forgotten the specifics on mutations Travers had explained to her, but she was tipsy enough that she floated out of the room ambivalent to Travers’ last hard, quizzical look at her as she exited, indicating that what he had seen and heard from her that night was troubling.

4 thoughts on “Capacitance: Chapter 7

  1. Pingback: Announcement! | Elise Marie Hardenburger

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