I was sitting in my cramped campus office reading my students midterms when I realized what time it was. It was only a few minutes to 11:30, and Dr. Walden was *never* late.
I had managed to clear off most of the papers off my desk when he showed up at the door. He looked the part of the theoretical physicist, which was perhaps due to his occupation in the same. He was an average looking man in his late fifties, wore thick glasses and always wore the ubiquitous lab coat. When he wasn’t on campus, he wore the same brown suit.
He had spent years working on theories that could never be tested or rarely helped form conceptual designs of test equipment. Equipment that sometimes had minor flaws, like costing more than the net worth of the Earth, or outweighing the galaxy. He had been working for a while on something he didn’t have much to say about, but I rarely understood his work anyway.
Most people find it strange when they discover that I’m such a good friend of Dr. Frank Walden. After all, he lives in the clouds of theory, while I’ve been grounded in the thick and thin of biology for my entire academic career. Dr. Walden hasn’t exactly been noted for his love of biology either. He’s from the old school, the one that taught biology was a science for those without the maths. His comments at the last faculty dinner regarding my department cost him a lot of friends.
But I’m more thick skinned than my colleagues. So, as is customary, Frank and I eat lunch together once a week. It’s no different now than it was last year or ten years ago: My office, 11:30, Wednesday. Like clockwork. We alternate what the other brings to the table. One brings the food, the other the drink. Nothing mind altering, mind you, we both have to teach classes. But we do like to make sure that the other is surprised. But the food is only a part of the meeting.
We like to talk to each other. We set aside these two hours just to chat. The conversations sometimes go into the realm of philosophy or religion. Questions of such a deep nature that we often spend an hour simply defining the terms of the question. Other times, we might talk about some political issue, a news story, or even what the latest film releases are (even if neither of us has seen a film since that big Speilberg movie. What was it? Jaws, I think).
So when Frank walked into the room, I wasn’t at all surprised by two things, the two bottles of opaque liquid he placed on the desk, or his opening conversation.
"Well, Doug, what would you say the possibility of changing the human form is?"
I picked up a bottle of the drink he set down and popped the top, "What’s this, Frank? Something you found in Doc Perrymans Chem lab?"
"No, it’s a new drink they have at the campus store. Some students are bottling it, I think. But what about my question?"
I thought about it for a moment. "What do you mean?"
He sat heavily onto the small vinyl couch and picked up a sandwich, "What is this? Ground beef?"
"Ostrich. What do you mean?", I asked again.
"Well, a complete alteration of the human physical form."
I took a swig of the drink. It wasn’t bad. I made a mental note to look into who was bottling it. "Over time, sure. Man will evolve as long as he exists as a species. Perhaps in a few million years, we’ll see major alterations in some aspects."
Frank shook his head, "Not what I mean. I mean a massive alteration in an individual person over a short period of time, without surgery."
"Without surgery? Not unless you get to a person while they are still a fetus. Deny a developing human certain chemicals or add others and…"
"No, no, no. I mean…well…Lets take you as an example."
"Me, I’m touched."
"Only in the head. Lets say that I wanted to transform your physical form dramatically, into an other creature of similar body mass and shape."
I cut him off, "You mean like an ape?"
"I suppose, but I was thinking to get out of the human tree. Perhaps something like a bear, for example?"
I thought for a moment, "Maybe a small bear, or a young one. Anything larger and there would be a problem with large differences of mass."
Frank nodded, "Sure, I understand. Would you consider this possible?"
"Well, neglecting the fact that, at the moment, I don’t want to be a bear, no I don’t think so. We lack the understanding necessary to do it."
Frank seemed to consider that for a moment, "But isn’t it a simple matter of altering the DNA to the desired animal?"
I sighed. I knew it was hard to be an expert at everything, but sometimes I tend to think that some knowledge is universal. "No, that wouldn’t work at all." I took another swig, "There is a great deal more to it than all that."
"Like what?" he asked.
"Well, lets start with the basics. DNA is almost completely inert and inactive after development. Oh, a large part is still used for protein synthesis and regulation, but there isn’t any more large structural changes that are going to happen. Besides which, the cells that you are changing are going to be looking for a specific gene sequence. They will need certain proteins coded by certain codes."
"But wouldn’t the cell simply divide and create two new bear cells?"
"No. Well, at least I doubt it severely. Like I said, the human cell is going to be looking for a certain protein, encoded from a specific site of DNA. Since the cell is the same, it will still be looking for that. Since the proteins can’t be encoded for, the cell with rapidly use of stores of these compounds, assuming it has any, and eventually it will die. Ultimately, so many cell will die that the person, in this case me, will simply die with them."
"Well, let’s assume for the moment that you are able to overcome this. What other problems do you foresee?"
I though about it a little more, "The next area of concern would be the brain."
"Wouldn’t a human brain work in a bear? After all, a man has the ability to adapt."
"It’s not that simple. Bears move very different from people, so it would take time to learn this. But far more important are all of the autonomic functions. The functioning of the heart, lungs, hormonal levels and the like are very different for a bear than a person."
"Are they all that different? Even in an animal of similar size?"
I took another drink and a bite of my sandwich. Though a mouthful, I said, "Well, yes. Perhaps the human systems would be able to be used for a little while, but at some point the brain would have to adapt its functioning for the different bear body. The human functions at some point would have to stop, and bear would have to start. We lack the knowledge of the human brain to make that kind of judgment, not to mention the almost total lack of knowledge of the bear brain."
This was getting almost fun, "Well, structurally, the skeleton is going to be a big problem. A bear has a heavier skeleton than a man, and with some major structural differences, muscle attachment points, joint strength and location, not to mention the muzzle and almost armor plated skull. That couldn’t be done without surgery. The bones would almost have to be broken, moved and allowed to fix in new positions before they could be strengthen. That is, if we had a way to do that."
I took a couple bites of my sandwich and a large swig of the drink. "Then you have the internal anatomy that would be ill prepared for the physiology of the bear, although some of it might work all right in the short term."
"Basically, Frank, with what we know today about biology, this would be impossible. We know a great deal, but there is a whole lot that we know we don’t know. I imagine that there is even more that we don’t know we don’t know. Without the aid of either magic, which breaks the rules, or some super future technology, which develops under a different set of rules, this won’t happen."
Frank took out a handkerchief and blotted sweat off his brow. I had been so interested in hearing myself talk that I had failed to notice that he had been getting steadily paler for the last 10 minutes.
"What’s wrong Frank? Are you feeling all right?"
Frank pursed his lips, like he was trying to get moisture into his mouth. "God, Doug, I’m sorry."
I stared at him for a moment. I suddenly had a really sinking feeling. "You didn’t…." I let the question hang.
"That project I’ve been working on the last couple years. The one that I didn’t talk much about. I thought that we had hit a major breakthrough. Tiny machines that could go into cells and, working together, work to make repairs…and alterations." He buried his head in his hands, "I thought that it would make a good joke."
"Frank, we haven’t been talking theory, have we? You slipped me something?" I looked at the opaque bottle suspiciously.
"Not today, but two weeks ago. That bottle of Brazilian Iced Tea. It was full of those machines."
I remembered. It wasn’t very good tea. There had been a slightly metallic tang. "Why are you telling me now? Nothings happened. Maybe they aren’t going to work."
"It takes 10 to 14 days for the machines to situate themselves deep enough and widely enough to start. The change was to be simultaneous. They were going to alter your DNA. Make you a brown bear for a couple weeks."
My mind was reeling, I wasn’t sure if he was kidding or not. Frank had done some practical jokes to me in the past, as I had to him. Unfortunately, Frank wasn’t this good an actor.
"What happened to the test animals?"
"Test animals? What test animals?"
My jaw dropped. I reached over and grabbed my coat. "Frank, we have to get to your lab! We need to stop this before it’s…"
I collapsed on the floor in agony. I began gagging as blood and other fluids began gurgling out of my mouth and spilling out onto the floor. I felt Frank roll me over to my side and call out for help.
Out of the corner of my rapidly dimming vision, I saw a couple of students standing at my office door, mouths agape, as they watched my life pour unabated between sputtering gasps.