Friday, August 07, 2009

Wordzzle 75 - In their image

This is my contribution to this week's Wordzzle. Wordzzle is a game in which each week word lists, used to create stories, are given on the blog Views from Raven's Nest. Participating users post their stories on their own blogs.

This is the nineteenth time I've played the game.

Ten Word Challenge:

master of ceremonies,
dirty deed,

The dirty deed was done, but not quite finished. He walked through the ancient concert hall, a reluctant master of ceremonies to an empty house. He put a hand out to a crumbling pillar and felt it. It still seemed strong, but soon it wouldn't matter.

He sat down in one of the seats and ran his hands along the arms. One of the arms came off. He stared at it, turning it over in his hands. It seemed almost a sacrilege. He carefully put it back as best he could. It was only a token gesture, he knew, but he had to do it.

He got up and slowly walked up the aisle, over the dusty, decaying carpet, and finally reached the outside.

He looked at the almost deserted streets, and pulled his coat closer about him, trying to keep out the cold wind. He looked at the buildings of the city, and the darkened windows, some broken, the pieces hanging at odd angles. It seemed an humiliating mockery of the city he knew, set in a foreign territory. He turned and looked at the wall of ice, only half a mile away now. He would not live long enough to see it thaw. Neither would his children, or grandchildren.

He turned and sadly walked away, joining the others, the few who were still left, walking through the icy, snow-covered streets, away from the city.

Mini Challenge:

official portrait,
personal bank account,
shoulder bone,

"This is the official portrait of my shoulder bone," he said sadly. "The X-ray almost cleaned out my personal bank account. The insurance wouldn't pay for it."

"What's that white thing?"

"That's the implant the aliens put in me."

"It looks like a screw. Did you ever have your shoulder bone broken?"

"Yes, but that was long ago. I'm sure this is an implant. No one will believe me, though. Not even my wife. I just know they are going to come and take me away and no one will ever see me again. Maybe she'll believe me when she's a widow." A tear rolled down his face.

"Come on, it's not that bad. I'm sure it's just a screw that was used to hold your shoulder bone together."

"No! The aliens did it! See? No one believes me, not even my best friend. It's simply unbearable. You'll all be sorry when I'm gone."

"Look, relax, relax. Even if what you say is true, if the aliens did put an implant in you, that just means they're monitoring you, keeping track of you. It doesn't mean they'll come and take you away."

"They wouldn't monitor me for no reason. They must have something in mind. They must have something planned for me. I just know they do, and it's going to happen soon."

"Just relax, I'll get us some more drinks, and maybe something to snack on. We'll watch something on TV. After a while you'll feel better." He tossed the remote control to him and turned around and walked toward the kitchen. As he neared it, he saw light patterns on the walls from the TV and heard sounds and voices. He was glad that his friend had decided to go along with his suggestion.

When he came back from the kitchen with the food and drinks, however, he found he was alone, and the TV set was off.

Mega challenge:

master of ceremonies,
dirty deed,

official portrait,
personal bank account,
shoulder bone,

I ran my hand along the crumbling shoulder bone of the pharaoh, and wondered if there could possibly be any usable DNA in there, or in any of the other bones. If we could do it with a neanderthal, we should be able to do it with a pharaoh, even one over 5,000 years old. There were never any guarantees, though. An awful lot of the attempts failed, or were only partially successful.

We had developed techniques where we could put together the complete DNA for a person by combining DNA from the remains of lots of his cells, so we didn't have to find a cell that had everything, though it was easier if we did. If we had to, we could also fill in generic sections from DNA taken from other people. When we had the complete DNA, or had recreated it, we attempted to clone the person. Some of the attempts succeeded, but most of them failed, either not living at all, or dying long before birth. Then there were those that got to be three or four years old before we realized that they weren't quite right. We were getting quite a collection of them and I wasn't sure what to do with them yet.

The clones didn't have any memories of the people they had been, of course. They were just like other babies, and as they grew up they learned to speak English, even the neanderthal, though he sounded a little odd.

I had also managed to clone some people from the strangely shaped skulls found in the Mediterranean area. I had been curious as to whether the skull shape had been induced by some form of head binding or grew naturally. It turned out that it was natural, and the people were definitely different, enough so that I was a little concerned about them, afraid that they might be dangerous in the future.

So far all the clones were made from DNA that was from bones or tissue, or partially fossilized bones. We hadn't been able to obtain enough DNA yet from completely fossilized bones, but we were hoping to be able to refine the process enough to make it work. We had also recently gotten some samples from a body that was found frozen on a mountain. The body was only a few thousand years old and didn't seem to be anyone important, but we had never done it yet with material that had been frozen for that length of time and then thawed, and we just wanted the challenge.

There had been some hope initially that memory might somehow be encoded in the DNA, and we could find out what life was like when the original people lived. That hope had now faded somewhat. If DNA memory existed, we had so far failed to find it or decode it. It was too bad, really. We could have learned a lot of things.

The Abraham Lincoln clone was in its teens, now, and was a pretty homely kid and was depressed a lot. He liked to read and study, though, and there was some chance he might be destined for greatness. He had no idea who he was, of course. None of them did.

Not even the neanderthal kid. He was by far the ugliest of the lot, and covered in coarse hair. He was old enough now to worry about such things. We told him it ran in his family. He was then asking about his parents, of course. We told him they were both dead, which was, of course, true. He then wanted to know how they died and if they loved him, and we had to make something up.

Making stuff up wasn't a problem, as long as everyone told the same lies. We had extensive fictional histories of all of them in the computers, now. A couple of kids got confused in the early days, before we started keeping track of such things. They were told two or three different stories by different people, and in one case different stories by the same person. We got together after that and settled on particular stories, and then pushed that at them. They seemed to accept it, though their eyes looked a little unsure. It's been a long time since then. They don't ask about the earlier stuff anymore, and hopefully don't think about it.

In the earliest days it had been hard scraping up the money, particularly since we were kind of operating outside of things. It was hard to even gain access to things. No one would normally let you take samples of Abraham Lincoln or even a pharaoh, not for cloning purposes. We couldn't officially clone any human, there was too much of a stigma attached. A lot of people would simply call it sacrilege. I had to sneak around, getting my samples, pretending it was for other things, sometimes grabbing things when no one was looking. It was a lot harder now, with all the cameras watching, but it was hard enough then.

Part of the money I siphoned off of other projects, and part of it even came from our personal bank accounts. It was not nearly enough, though, to do what we needed to do, and we began to locate, by friends of friends of friends, shady people who would invest in us. It felt humiliating at first, for a scientist to have to do this. The first few times it was almost unbearable. Then I began to feel differently about it. I began to feel that it was something owed to us, and something owed to me. Let these strange people pour their money into it. It was probably all crooked money anyway. At least I was putting it to good purposes.

Several years ago we had gotten especially lucky, securing a mystery investor who provided enormous sums. I had never met him, but I would today. We had a meeting scheduled for this afternoon. He had asked for it, not me, and I didn't know what was coming, or why he had finally decided to reveal himself. That's something that kept bothering me. Why now? What did he want? I put the pharaoh's bone down and went to my office. I had to think about things, and try to prepare myself for anything he might ask about.

It was finally time for the meeting, then, and the secretary showed him in. He turned out to be a tall man in late middle age, with hair that was gray on top and white on the sides. He was wearing, of course, a very expensive suit, much more expensive than mine, as I still had modest tastes in that area.

"So, I finally get to meet the master of ceremonies for dirty deeds," he said, extending his hand.

"Well, that's one way to put it," I said, rising up to take his hand. "It's good to meet you, too, though I'm afraid I still don't know your name."

"That's intentional. I'm not ready to give that out yet. By the way, I noticed that picture of da Vinci out in the hall. Have you cloned him yet?"

"No, but we did do his widow."

"His widow? How odd. Why?"

"I'm just kidding. We haven't done any gods either, despite the statue of Apollo out in the courtyard."

He looked at me blankly for a moment, seemingly caught in mid-thought, then got jubilant again and tossed me a penny. "Have you shown Honest Abe his official portrait yet?"

I picked up the penny and looked at it. "He's still young and probably wouldn't notice any resemblance, especially with an image that small. Though he may have seen better pictures in some history books."

"Possibly so. And I'm sure there are others you've cloned, no I know there are others, famous leaders, artists, writers, musicians, etc., of which we also have pictures."

"Yes, though some are fairly obscure, and others would normally be found only in history books. And as with Abe, they're too young yet to really look like the normal pictures of them."

There was a little bit of a pause in the conversation then, as the topic seemed to have run it's course. I finally broke the silence. "Well, what is it that brings you here today, then? Is there something you wanted to see? Is there some aspect of it that you're particularly interested in?"

"As a matter of fact there is. It's come to my attention that you're scaling back the research into genetic memory."

"Yes. We're not making any progress in it right now. There may not even be anything to it. I'm only keeping it going at all because I think there's still a slight possibly of something happening, some kind of breakthrough that would let us move forward. I've come to doubt, though, that there's anything to find at all."

"There's got to be something to find. That, along with the cloning, is why I'm funding this thing."

"Hmph. Well, I can increase the funding some, but I'm not sure it will have any effect. Right now we're not making any progress at all in that area."

"You don't understand. You've got to make the progress. You're not getting this money out of altruism. You have to get the job done."

I stared at him. This had suddenly gotten a lot more complicated. "Is there a pet you're trying to bring back, or perhaps a family member? You understand, don't you, that even if they have the same memories, they won't be the same? They will just be copies that have the same memories."

"Yes, I understand. But I still want you to do it. I still have to have you do it."

"Who is it we are talking about, if I may ask."

"It's my great-grandfather. I only saw him a few times before he died. I'd like to have the opportunity to spend some more time with him."

"You barely knew him, yet you want him back instead of people that you really knew and loved, who have passed on?"

"Yes. I had time with them already. I didn't have any time to speak of with him."

I stared at him some more. Something didn't seem right. "You understand, don't you, that he won't look like he did when you knew him? He will be younger than you, much younger. In fact, he will start out as a baby, and by the time he's an adult you will be an old man." A really old man, I thought, assuming you're even still alive. "And that's if we were able to start now, which we're not. It's likely to be several years before we have any kind of success at getting back the memories, if we ever do."

"You've got to! You've simply got to! And it's got to be soon!"

"What is it really, Mr., um, X? What is it that you're really trying to do? It's got to be more than you've said."

There was a pause. He leaned back in his chair, looking nervous and upset, his head turning to the side, one hand rubbing his mouth. He finally turned back to me and said, "Look, it's got to be done. There are high stakes involved. My great-grandfather knew things, important things. I didn't know about it until much later, long after he had died. I came across a diary where it was hinted at, where he gave just enough that if you could read between the lines you knew what he was saying, but didn't dare really say. You've got to bring him and his memories back."

I looked at him, trying to digest what he had said. It still didn't seem to make any sense. "Whatever it was, it doesn't seem like you really need it. You're obviously wealthy, and it wasn't anything like immortality, because he wasn't able to save his own life."

"What you say is true, but it's more than that, it's, it's..."

"It's more than wealth and immortality?"


"But you can't tell me?"

"No. Not Yet. Maybe never."

"I see. Well, I'll increase the focus on the DNA memory. We'll do all we can in that area. If it turns out to be a dead end, we'll try something else, get the memories a different way."

"A different way? How?"

"I don't know yet. We'll think of something."

"Thank you! I knew I could count on you!" he said, rising out of his chair to shake my hand again. Then, as he was leaving he turned around and said, "I'm donating another 25 million. Make sure it's well spent."

"Oh I will, I will. Thank you."

He nodded, and turned and left, leaving me alone with my thoughts. It still didn't seem to be the complete story, even leaving out the fact that he had admittedly not told all of it. It might not even be the real story. I had wondered if perhaps he might be wanting to clone himself. Even knowing that the clone is not really you might not be enough to prevent the longing for something to survive, even if it's only a copy. But why not tell me, if that's all he wanted? He must have known that I wouldn't consider it an unusual request. What could it be, that would be so outrageous, or so dangerous, that he couldn't mention it to me? There wasn't much I was reluctant to do, if I thought it could be done. And if it couldn't be done, I was willing to spend the money to find out.

I picked up the penny he had left. I hadn't really thought about any problems that might occur with the clones seeing images of the originals. If they noticed a resemblance, they would have to assume it was just a coincidence. What else could it be? It's possible they might gain inspiration from the resemblance, and try to make their lives match up to the inspiration, even if they didn't actually end up playing the same roles in society.

Although a lot of them, almost all of them in fact, had shown themselves to be very similar to the originals, having similar tastes, and similar likes and dislikes. It wasn't quite the same as genetic memory, though it did show that a lot was encoded in the genes. If memory was encoded in the genes, what would be the purpose of it, if we couldn't access it except as a family history of likes and dislikes? If it was there, surely there must be a greater evolutionary purpose than that.

Many things were passed along, eye color, hair color, height, build, etc. Some of these could also be affected by environment, and sometimes it took generations for a change in environment to totally change people to the maximum extent. It could be a change for the better, like better nutrition making successively healthier, taller generations, until the maximum amount was reached. Or it could be something detrimental, like increasingly scarce food and resources sending people in the other direction.

Some things were less affected by environment. Thin or fat, small or large, a person could still adorn himself with whatever was at hand, whether it was gold and silver or colored plastic beads or even bone necklaces, if the person had the innate desire for adornment there was always some way it could be fulfilled. Woven grass could even be used, and if there was nothing at all in the surrounding territory, the person could use mud or ashes or make cuts with sharp stones.

It was a good thing to know that such genetic traits existed, and important in my line of work to know it, but was it saying that there was something more under it, that this was only the tip of the iceberg, or was it only what it appeared to be, and no more?

The extra money wouldn't be enough to find out. I knew that when it was offered, and so did he. It was much more than a token gesture, of course, and would be enough to start a lot of things going. Maybe one of them would produce a lead, something that would take us in a new direction. If not, I would think of something. Some new thing to do, some new thing to try. Something to keep the money flowing. I always did.

I flipped the coin in the air for a while, brooding about the man and what he said. It still didn't make any sense. I'm sure he knew that. He must have hoped to convince me easier than that, and had to come up with some reasons at the last minute. It's possible that he did really have a great-grandfather that he hardly knew, but the rest just didn't make any sense. Not unless the part he left out, or said he left out, really was crucial to understanding it.

I put the coin in the desk and got up. I might as well do some more work on old pharaoh, take samples from various places and see if anything could be done with them. No worries about him seeing portraits of himself. None existed that were anything more then vague cartoonish engravings on walls.

Outside, in the courtyard, I paused and wondered about the mystery man again. I was feeling more and more like I'd seen him somewhere. Perhaps a picture of him when he was younger. I couldn't be sure, but I couldn't shake the feeling. I stared for a while at the statue, at it's graceful form, and at the power it displayed. It was good inspiration for the work, but it didn't seem to offer me anything today.

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Blogger Argent said...

Stephen, these are amazing this week! Really gripping stuff. Kudos!

3:07 AM, August 10, 2009  
Blogger Raven said...

Awesome trio! Have you thought of submitting any of your writing? Sci-Fi Fantasy Magazine is a really good read and I think they'd publish you in a heartbeat.

9:11 AM, August 10, 2009  
Blogger Richard said...

Awesome work this week. Loved all three.

11:45 AM, August 10, 2009  
Blogger Dr.John said...

I loved all three but the last one is a work of art.

3:17 PM, August 11, 2009  
Blogger Stephen said...

Thanks, everyone. No, I haven't submitted anything anywhere for publication yet. There's always a chance that something might happen in the future, though.

12:04 AM, August 16, 2009  

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