Short Story: Guillermo’s Words

DNA

I want to tell you a story about a friend of mine, well more of an acquaintance. A researcher here, his name was Guillermo, or something Spanish like that. Came from Bolivia, or maybe its Argentina, but he lived in Bogota. I can’t remember. Definitely a South American, but real Iberian features. But anyway-

He worked at the bioengineering department, splicing, sequencing, fluorescence imaging, bacteria, you know? Stuff like that. Well, he lost it.

His wife wasn’t around anymore. She’d left him way back when, and he was driving one night with his kid in the back and had an accident. And what d’ya know?

English: Logging roads, Leacann Uaine The stee...

It’s one of those situations: Kid dies before his very eyes, he escapes with a scratch on his arm and a seatbelt bruise. It wasn’t anyone’s fault, just these roads. I mean, Loggers have been having accidents on them from time to time for years.

So, this guy, Guillermo, lets say for the purposes of this conversation- well he, as I said, he loses it. Classic situation, stops taking care of himself, sleeps in his office, showers upstairs if at all. He’s got a line of well wishers outside his office; grief councilors, colleagues, funeral directors, students, janitors, administrative staff- he was a popular guy.

And they’re leaving flowers, and gifts, little messages but he just doesn’t want any of it. I had a conversation with a friend of his who worked very closely with him, I asked why he didn’t just take some time off. You know? get away from it all. She says he’s got an even longer line of well-wishers at home.

He couldn’t deal with the grief at all. He blames himself. Apparently there was some thing with a thing with a post-doc in the Basic Life-Sci department. Anna. Straight up beauty, a rarity of science. I mean, too young for him properly but she had most of the male faculty slobbering over her.

Right, so apparently, they had one of these little tête-à-têtes before he went to pick his kid up and that’s why he was driving so late.  Apparently, he’d seen no one after his wife, until her. Anyway, he wouldn’t see her after that.

Tenuous connection I know, but he was consumed. Another man. And he becomes more and more isolated.

You know how it goes.

Anyway, that was the tragedy, the interesting part is what he was working on. He was looking into using DNA as a form of hard-copy data storage for information and stuff. And, remember your high school biology here, he encodes the information, books, computer software, music even, into the little base-pairs, you know, your A, T, C, Gs that make up the DNA strand. Which is then synthesized. The potential is huge, something like: “all the data of the internet on a device the size of your thumb, accessible for centuries.” Whether he was working on it obsessively or just spending his time in his office staring at the wall, I don’t know. But they didn’t jack his funding, which is something, because these days people are hanging up their proposals with their white coats all over the place.

Anyway, he must’ve gone off the reservation with this one, but the genius of it was it’s simplicity, at least in principle. He started to splice these ‘book genomes’ or whatever into bacteria, and just let them grow and divide, and mix all their genes together. Generations upon generations of ‘em right there in the lab.

I have no idea why he did it; maybe it was just an accident but I don’t see how. He probably just did it to see what would happen. Who can say what going through a mind like that. Hyper-intelligent but aggressively grief stricken. Just deformed, you know?

Well, as part of his work he has to sequence the DNA, and de-code it back into English. To check for errors, you see? Make sure it’s all there, otherwise the whole thing is useless. And as an aside it ain’t a matter of just pushing a few buttons either, it involves hours of painstaking mixing and separating. I mean he probably went through the whole thing like a zombie, but the point is that what he did was intentional.

Anyway, usually it’s just the straight DNA and there’s no problems, but he’s been allowing all this information to just hitchhike on the bacteria and get jumbled up. At first it seems he’d get a lot of nonsense- gobbledygook, and stretches of the original text. So like most of a soliloquy from Hamlet but it would just trail off into this broken soup, then maybe a grocery list or some code. Something totally unrelated like that.

So he works for months and months on this, alongside his normal work, which wasn’t at an crucial stage. And it got to the point that I guess, people thought he was better, or at least a scab had formed over the whole thing, he slept at home more. I mean the whole bacteria-extra-curricular-activities that was going on at the time was off the radar as far as I know. Maybe no one who was close to him at the time is owning up to knowing about it, as if they could’ve predicted what happened and that would make them culpable or something.

Not that anybody was really close to him at the time. He was isolated, ate lunch alone outside on the grass, actually one of the only times people saw him outside. I think his friends got him to go see a psychiatrist or one of those grief councilors. Whether he actually went or not is more open to debate, but my god, wouldn’t you want to be a fly on the wall at some of those sessions?

Whatever the case they didn’t think he was fine after the infamous benefit dinner. He was heckling the speaker, saying he was full of shit and stuff, and then, presumably after someone told him to calm down or shut up, he just started full-on screaming at the speaker and the crowd. They threw him out and he just disappeared for a few days. I don’t know what happened to him, maybe just walked off into the woods. Probably just drove off and went on the worst bender of his life. When he got back, I gather he was almost fired, but after that not another word was spoken about it.

He was more withdrawn though, less coherent. One more click in the wrong direction I think. If it hadn’t been for what happened soon after, I think they’d have taken his funding or found a way to kick him off the team at this point.

Meanwhile, his work, his other work- is starting to take shape. Literally. This won’t mean much to you, but he did something to the regulatory factors and the epigenetic stuff, methylation etc, the extra proteins and molecules that organize the DNA if you want, marks it up as being for this or that. Well not really, but it doesn’t matter.

What happened is that something began to emerge from the nonsense. By this time he’d almost completely minced and mixed the information together, there was practically nothing legible left, but he used this computer program they had to scan for mistakes, and basically modified it so that it was doing the reverse. Looking for cogent information.

It started as words, phrases, here and there. I mean the odds are unimaginable. But there they were, and they didn’t stop. No, they formed into sentences, patterns of repeated words, little puns, wordplay- like nursery rhymes. Something that resembled poetry even. Then it seemed like messages in the scrabble were appearing, addressed to him. And they were from his dead son.

Yeah I know- I know how it sounds but I’ve seen some of his notes, and I have to say there’s something there. I talked to the night staff, who were working at the time, most of the watchmen are still here but a lot of the cleaners have moved on or whatever. But they say that they started to avoid his part of the building because of what they heard. Not a concerted decision by the way, just individual gradual, almost unconscious avoidance. Basically what they heard was the sound of a man losing his mind. Screaming, the same thing over and over. Now if you’ve been over to where he used to work, I think Hofstead’s team works there now, you’ll see that you can barely hear anything from the inside when you’re on the main corridor outside. But inside and down those stairs, the sound really carries- echoes you know. I’m not surprised they gave him a wide berth.

It has this strange property, like when everyone’s at lunch it sounds like they’re all underwater or compressed, if you know what I mean.

Now I’m not a believer in the ‘supernatural’, I’m not even religious, but I know that the mind isn’t a known quantity. If his mind wanted to invent this fiction and project it onto the world around, it could, it had that power. I’m not sure really what I mean, maybe he entered bits of code into the computer unknowingly, maybe he encoded things his son had wrote and they just popped out. Hell, just maybe, defying all probability there was some connection made. Out of the chaos.

I do know that one night after he’d spent most of a week solid at work, with the minimum of sleep I gather, and when that happens something’s gotta break. This was no different, there was some kind of accident and it turned out he’d had a stroke. I remember guiding the EMTs to his office. He survived, but he was fucking lucky. It was only a minor one and unbelievably the girl- Anna had been there, to call the ambulance. She’d heard of his spree and thought enough was enough, and went down to his office finding him on the floor paralyzed.

They must have got him to hospital in time because he managed to come through it pretty much unscathed (again), at least after some intensive neuro-rehabilitation. In the end he seemed to recover much more than what he had when he had the stroke. When I saw him he was a new man again. I didn’t recognize him. He was one of those people, chemelionically changeable. Especially when they’re healthy and when their not. I talked to him about the weather of all things. He was a much healthier man, youthful, like a teenager who isn’t paying real attention because his head is full of stars and girls. He moved away soon after without any leaving party or anything. Anna left soon after as well. Maybe they’re together somewhere, starting a new family or maybe he’s making Frankenstein Monsters in Bolivia or Bogota. I hope he’s happy though.

I think about him a lot, and the night of his accident, the second one. After they stretchered him away I was going to lock his office but I couldn’t help myself, and I went inside. He was mad, manic or something. It had made contact with that great other and stuck.  There was paper stuck to the walls around his office, concentrating around his desk. Things were highlighted in every colour. Especially marked, and written in large calligraphy were the messages he thought were from his son. Embossed, underlined, beautifully done. They were… authentic, at least they looked that way. I can’t explain it, other that I could see the progression his mind had taken right there on the wall- clear as day. I don’t want to repeat them, those words were his.

I looked closer, at his desk. His computer was a piñata with post-its stuck to every surface, leaving a significantly reduced window to see the screen. I moved the cursor and saw the screen where all this had come from. I couldn’t pick it out at first, from the mess. I could see how words began to form, and I thought it was all nonsense until I saw, and I’m telling you this because it explains him as a man and the whole story would be a jerk-off without it. But it said: “It wasn’t your fault daddy.”

It’s like the ghost in the machine or the million monkeys and a million typewriters sort of thing- but I don’t know. Sometimes skepticism only takes you so far, and then what’s left? I’m not saying he was visited by his dead son but he was definitely haunted by him. And whatever happened, I know it gave him back his sanity and his life.

Thanks for reading. I hope you liked it. Any thoughts? You know where to put ’em :).

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