The Margins of Science

By Chris Thompson

Here we take scientific findings, gleaned from the pages of esteemed research journals, and expand on their ideas…imagining a world in which these discoveries have become a part of our society — for better or for worse.

A research article recently published in the peer-reviewed journal Cell Reports inspired this story. The article is titled: Normal Spastin Gene Dosage Is Specifically Required for Axon Regeneration.

Life in Flux

“The price of anything is the amount of life you exchange for it.”

-Henry David Thoreau

Axon regeneration is a complex process that allows neurons to repair their circuits after traumatic injury. In invertebrates and some of the lower vertebrates this process has a remarkable capacity to repair injured nerves. However, as we move further up the evolutionary ladder and examine the central nervous systems of higher vertebrates such as humans, this remarkable ability for repair diminishes.

For the majority of humanity’s existence, the key molecular players in axon repair remained a mystery, hidden deep away from our scientist’s prying eyes. Our ability to treat individuals with nerve injuries and those long suffering from neurodegenerative syndromes was limited. At our best we could provide temporal control of the diseases through pharmaceuticals or as research in neural tissue engineering matured, pursue ethically controversial and highly invasive surgeries that left the patients more machine than man. Then in 2085, members of a top research team funded by WorldBase–a massive biotechnology and manufacturing conglomerate–secretly conducted a series of elegant and well-designed experiments intended to unravel these mysteries.

The result of their costly, multi-year endeavor was Ashox-B™ , a bold and radical new drug that mimicked the activity of a microtubule severing protein called Spastin; long ago implicated to be involved in neuron repair. As a drug, Ashox-B’s function was dual-fold; it stimulated axon regeneration in injured nerves while simultaneously enhancing a neuron’s abilities to repair itself. Be it nerve cells long ago rendered non-functional or those more recently injured by trauma; Ashox-B affected them all, bringing light to these once darkened cells and re-linking them to the body’s bio-electric superhighway. Ashox-B’s method of action was so novel, so unbelievably complex and out of the ordinary that the press simply referred to it as “modern sorcery”. A first of its kind genetic pharmaceutical, the drug functioned by inserting multiple copies of a custom gene coding for Spastin and several other neuro-proliferative proteins into a patient’s genome, effectively rewriting their DNA.

The collective cry of joy emitted by the millions of people long suffering from spinal cord injuries, full and partial paralysis, neurodegenerative diseases and palsies was deafening. Its echoes rang from the deepest valley to highest mountaintop and all sang their praises for the brave scientists from WorldBase who had labored so intently on their behalf. Humanity had finally conquered one of its major diseases and eliminated the source of suffering for countless millions! A door of hope, that for so many generations had been closed, was finally flung open and the world rejoiced in its newfound knowledge.

The field of Bio-regenerative Medicine that sprung-up from WorldBase’s discovery was born almost overnight. Nobel prizes were awarded to the “Titans of Hope”, the name affectionately applied to the three lead scientists credited with Ashox-B’s discovery; Dr.’s Kenneth Major, Rebecca Dawn and Joseph Wright. Generations of children were inspired to follow in these brave scientists footsteps and they entered in droves into the fields of medicine, technology and research. Entirely new industries sprung up from the accomplishments of these inspired youth, employing millions and establishing a new paradigm with the United States, for so long on the decline, once again the world’s master.

Just as every master must have its teacher, WorldBase, as Ashox-B’s sole provider, slid comfortably into that role. The company made billions from its discovery, becoming the first corporation to be valued at over a trillion dollars and with this massive influx of capital came new endeavors. New avenues and enterprises for WorldBase to explore. And explore it did. As the company grew exponentially it absorbed thousands of businesses, expanding in scale to rival several Westernized countries in both wealth and output. Its rise to greatness was nothing short of meteoric and by the close of the 22nd century there were few business and governments that WorldBase did not have a hand in.

But most importantly, beyond all the newfound riches and power, the fanfare and the posturing; were those people who had unwillingly taken a detour from normalcy, struggling to live their lives with paralysis or nerve disease. For those people there was now hope. A hope that didn’t rely on any faith or spiritual belief. That didn’t discriminate one religion over the other. Science was their religion now, and WordBase their church. As a company WordBase had done more for humanity with one tiny pill than the Catholic Church or Islam had done in the entirety of their existence, combined. Ashox-B was a modern miracle, tangible and self-evident and available in individual blister-packed servings from your local pharmacist. All it took was a prescription. Nothing else. No confessions. No prostrations or genuflection before a cross. No Hajji or spiritual pilgrimage to undertake. No financial contributions to the cause. There was a cure for suffering and it came in a nifty little orange and purple pill. Swallow. Heal. Repeat. Amen.

But as is always the case for Humanity, for every light there is a darkness. A tradeoff. A counterbalance to a force. This is just the nature of things, the tenet of our reality and Ashox-B, no matter how greatly it shined, was no exception to this rule…

 *  *  *

John LaRue awoke from another nights restless slumber to an aching in his legs. It felt like red-hot irons were being hammered slowly through his femurs and his muscles spasmed like vibrating loaves of bologna. How many nights in a row was that? he thought. Three? Four? He was beginning to lose track of his suffering. Groaning with pain, John rolled shakily onto his side and groped blindly in the darkness for his pain medication. His fingers, half-numb and swollen, found the cylindrical bottle resting precariously atop a book on his cluttered bedside table. Sensing that it might fall from his ham-fisted grasp, John quickly snatched at the small brown bottle, capturing it firmly in a random weave of fingers. Sighing with satisfaction, John rolled onto his back, clutching the bottle into himself like a mother protecting a newborn.

John’s movements, disjointed and littered with the remnants of the paralysis from which he was recovering, activated his bedroom’s motion sensors, causing the bedside lamp to suddenly erupt with light. It cast a pale yellow glow across the small cluttered bedroom, banishing the gloom of the pre-dawn shadows. John’s eyes snapped shut rapidly, an instinctive response to the sudden intrusion of photons. He cursed silently and with his eyes still closed, managed to clumsily dispense two pills from the prescription bottle, fumbling them past his cracked lips into his eager awaiting mouth. Dry swallowing the soft capsules, John cautiously opened his eyes, gradually allowing them to become more accustomed to the bedside light. Glancing over the room, John caught his reflection in his wife’s antique dressing mirror, hung slightly askew on the bedrooms opposite wall.

Jesus, he thought. I look like shit. John undoubtedly felt exactly like he looked. He had earned every wrinkle, scar and crease on his tired and weathered 42-year old body. You can blame a lifetime of paralysis for that mug of yours he thought. It hadn’t been easy. All of those years, his body frozen in time, his mind locked in a vessel that would not, could not, respond. Totally and completely dependent on the people around him for every fucking thing that he needed, just to survive the most mundane of days. Some of those people had been good to him John remembered; had actually been blessed with a warm fire of compassion burning brightly inside them, motivating their every move. But the majority of them were just selfish fuckers, ambivalent assholes will no real interest in the human side of the job, just the paycheck. Deviants whose true colors came out behind closed doors. Those were the people whose hands had molded John into the distrustful, combative man that he was today, and he hated them for it.

John whimpered as another wave of spasms spread out across his lower legs and up into his pale, withered thighs. Dropping down from his elbows, he buried the back of his head deeply into the folds of his sweat-stained pillows, looking up at the ceiling through tired, tear-stained eyes. There’s got to be an easier way to do this John thought as he waited for the pain med’s to kick in, desperately trying to focus on something, anything to distract him from the ache. Still anchored into the ceiling above him were the myriad bolts and hooks that had once fastened the elaborate pulley system his caretakers had used to help get him out of bed. Concentrating on one bolt in particular, a massive hex-shaped one about three inches in diameter, John’s thoughts drifted to his last conversation with his doctor.

They were seated in his small, private office, the light of the setting sun filtering through the vertical blinds and painting John in long strips of colored light. His doctor, a tired-looking, rosy-faced man on the verge of retirement, was sitting with his back to the window, awash in shadows. He had been asking John if he was following his dosing strategy precisely, making sure he was taking the daily aliquots of muscle stimulators, pain medications, hormone therapies and most importantly, the mega doses of Ashox-B, on time. John had answered yes, of course he was, but for all the progress he had made so far–and it was major fucking progress according to his doctor, the best anyone had ever seen—he felt like the side-effects were killing him. As if his entire body was slowly burning itself out in the process of rebuilding his nervous system. Everyday he was regaining a little bit more strength, a little bit more mass and a little bit more control of his muscles, but it was coming at a high personal cost. His body most days felt like it was on fire.

Sometimes, he told his doctor, his entire body seemed cast adrift in a sea of new sensations. Vibrations of change long ago forgotten to his form echoed within him. Like a ferocious and unbridled storm they raced around his body, randomly infusing power into his myriad parts. These aspects of his recovery were concerning to John and there were days when overwhelming explosions of awareness and feeling overtook him. Spasms of movement that when at their peak, made him feel like he was being controlled by a blind puppeteer. And just as quickly as it began it would all fade away, only to be replaced by entirely new sensations later on.

It had happened during this most recent visit to his doctor too, while they were quietly chatting in his office about his progress. John had been making small talk about the weather and his looking forward to mowing the lawn for the first time when his arms had suddenly sprung to life, leaping off his lap where they rested, extending out in front of him in a poor imitation of Frankensteins walk. John had felt as if there was genuine electricity shooting from his fingertips and he went wide-eyed as the entirety of his arms became inundated with a tingling sensation that penetrated deeply. His doctor, tired from a long days work and cavalier with his diagnosis, had attributed the spasm to “pins and needles” telling John half-heartedly that it was all part of the healing process, likening the sensation to what one experiences when their leg suddenly falls asleep from lack of blood flow. John came up with another name for it as he sat there, beads of sweat dripping from his brow…and it wasn’t as cute. The fire within he called it.

What his doctor had said wasn’t entirely without logic, John had thought as he let his car drive him home from the visit. He wasn’t quite ready to turn the car’s auto-navigate feature off yet, especially on these long drives into the city, so he used these moments of downtime for quiet reflection. It was true, he did have memories of those feelings, the pins and needles, from before his accident. But that was a long time ago, back when he was just a kid suffering through the cuts and scrapes of youth. It had been so long since he had felt something, anything, that any sensation just seemed foreign to him. John’s doctor was of the opinion that his body was slowly reawakening itself, that much was obvious, as if it had been in a long, deep slumber. Millions of neural connections were being rewired daily and the random influx of sensations he was experiencing was simply the result of those actions. Only some of the sensations John was experiencing were not as pleasant or innocent as his doctor was suggesting. Some were full on debilitating. Almost as painful to recover from as the accident that caused his paralysis in the first place. The burning sensations in his legs were just the latest manifestation of his suffering. Who knew what was in store for him down the road? As he watched the blur of the city pass him by, the cool glass of the car’s side window soothing on his forehead, John placated his fears by telling himself that he simply had a lot to relearn about his body, and this was all just a bump on the slow road to recovery.

As the rolling waves of ache subsided and the soothing warmth of his pain med’s washed in, John’s thoughts drifted back home and quickly turned to his plans for the day. It was his wife’s 40th birthday and seeing as this would be the first one celebrated without him being strapped into a wheelchair, he wanted to make it special. Make her feel every ounce of how grateful he was for having her in his life. Thank her for being there for him no matter what the cost, physical or emotional, and no matter what the personal sacrifice. She was an amazing, intuitive woman who didn’t care about anything else except being there for him. The kind who could see past the physical being of the body and find attraction to the soul within, and he was oftentimes overcome with joy that she had come into his life.

Rising as carefully as he could so as to not disturb her, John slowly made his way to the bathroom on cautious, shaky feet. As he walked he dug his long toes into the soft, warm shag of the bedroom carpet relishing in the tickling sensation it produced. Hmmmmm…he purred to himself as he shuffled along. It’s the simplest things that make life worth living.

Exiting from the bathroom he dressed quickly, throwing on clothes tossed lazily over a bedroom chair the night before. Balancing on one leg as he slid on his pants took several attempts, but when he finally pulled them up he buckled his belt with a smile and a feeling of accomplishment that most people never attained. He sat down and tied his shoes, something he hadn’t done daily in nearly thirty years. He was actually pretty amazed at the fact that he could still remember how it was done. He wondered what else he could still do. Ride a bike? Throw a baseball? John leaned back in the chair and smiled. He was getting ahead of himself already. Best to stay focused on the task at hand. He had plenty of time to explore those leisures later on. Rising softly, he made his way quietly out the bedroom and into the narrow, darkened hallway.

Pausing at the top of the stairs, John ran his hand over the hard, cold steel of the hydraulic stair lift that had been installed to ferry him between the different floors. It would’ve been easier to have just lived in a one story, ranch-style house, but his wife’s family had owned this place for generations and it only made sense, both of them having a strong sense of tradition, for them to live here. The chair and related hydraulics for the lift had been recently removed, once John had recovered his ability to walk, and only the dull beige metal of the lift’s railing remained. John found that it helped to stabilize him as he traveled between floors and he gripped it forcibly as he focused keenly on making his way downstairs.

Grabbing his keys from the hallway table and a light summer vest from the coatrack, John made his way into the fresh morning air. It smelled of recently cut grass and a passing shower and John inhaled of it deeply. He unplugged his car from its charging rack and powered up its engines with the press of a button. The car hummed to life with a high-pitched whine that quickly faded into infinity as the cars turbines came to speed. Lifting the door to his vehicle, John bent down and climbed into the cars airplane-like cockpit. Learning to drive at 42 years of age had not been easy for John. Especially with the way cars worked nowadays. Gone were the outmoded notions of fours wheels and an engine. In were concepts like gyro-control, priming speed and system-to-operator ratios. Things were a lot more complicated then when he was a kid and he received more than a fair share of looks from the pimply faced teenagers in his drivers education class when he asked a question. But he was used to getting stared at and it didn’t bother him much. To his relief he had passed his drivers test after failing the first time and was starting to enjoy the freedom that getting out onto the open road afforded him, especially after having spent so much of his life watching the world pass him by.

Feeling emboldened by the good-natured high of running errands for his wife’s birthday, John decided to disengage the cars auto-navigation feature. He was only going to be running about town he reasoned, stopping here and there to pick up a few last minute items for the party. It wasn’t like he was going to be dropping the car into its “open”, more streamlined configuration for a breakneck trip into the city. This was local driving, slow and steady with the car in its “closed”, short wheelbase arrangement and he reckoned he could handle it. Whistling a happy tune of his youth, John pushed the throttle stick forward and pulled out of his driveway, cautiously easing onto the sleepy, tree-lined street. His neighbor, an inquisitive retiree and captain of the block’s neighborhood watch, was out walking his Labradoodle mix and waved to John as he drove by.

Coming to the end of his long and winding street, John paused the vehicle and prepared to turn onto the town’s main boulevard. Finding a gap in the traffic that seemed sufficiently safe, John held his breath and with a courage born of determination merged with the traffic’s fast moving flow. He managed to travel several miles before coming upon a red light. Slowing with the yellow, he pulled the car gingerly up to the intersection, first in line. The passing traffic, a feeder to the high-speed Skyways that ringed the city, whizzed by in front of him, a dizzying wall of color and chrome. I’m doing it John thought to himself, tears beginning to form at the corners of his eyes. It was as if a lifetime of regret and sadness was flowing out of him, hitchhiking on the back of his tears and he shuddered from the weight lifting off his soul. My life has gone by so fast. he thought, So quickly and I haven’t truly lived it. But now, now he smiled, all of that was changing.

Suddenly a car’s horn honked loudly, interrupting John’s inward contemplations. Without thinking he nosed the throttle downward, accelerating his car forward into the intersection. He had assumed the honking was born of a drivers agitation with the light changing green and John not moving but he couldn’t have been more wrong. Rapidly John’s entire world slowed to half speed and he turned his head to watch in horror as a light-produce freighter, bound for the inner sprawls of the city, barreled down on him. The light hadn’t changed at all, it was in fact still red.

John, realizing too late the ramifications of his mistake, had only a moment to react before the freighter struck. As his animalistic side kicked in, John’s sympathetic nervous system disgorged its contents into his body, priming him for the flight or fight response. Adrenaline coursed through-out his bloodstream in a torrent of hormonal action and his nervous system, already hyperactivated by the high doses of Ashox-B, sprang to life, conducting a symphony of changes to John’s highly reactive body in a matter of milliseconds. The air around John suddenly came to life, barking with the energy of shattered atomic bonds. Purple arcs of glowing, electrified air surrounded him, following curving electromagnetic flux lines of least resistance before diving forcibly into his shimmering skin. John felt as if the very atoms of his being were ripping themselves apart, stripped of their electrons and crashing to lower states of energy. He glowed like a violet sun, surrounded by coronal loops of tremendous energy. A deafening, thundering roar arose in John’s ears and a harsh odor of ozone assaulted his nostrils, dizzying his senses and causing his body to go rigid, like a waking rigor mortis. John’s last thought before the freighter hit was a wish that he could be home to see his wife’s 40th birthday. Then all was black.

John awoke a man on fire. His muscles felt like they were molten, made of flames and trapped beneath a fiery skin of brimstone. He had no idea where he was. His ears were shot. Deafened. His eyes, bloodied and weary, tried desperately to focus on something, anything in the harsh, muddled light. Shadowy figures flitted in and out before him, wildly gesturing and looking about in slow motion. He smelled cooked meat. Like steaks left a bit too long on the grill. Well-done. Charred. What the hell? he thought. His mind raced. I should be dead. No doubt about it. Splattered across the car in a grotesque rainbow of bodily colors. But he wasn’t. That gave him pause. Fighting through the searing pain he focused his senses on the scene before him. The figures moved in and out at a snail’s pace, allowing him precious moments of realization before time sped back up. The world came roaring back to him in a crush of noise and color. A thousand voices seemed to speak to him at once and over the din he could make out police sirens and the honking of horns.

“Hey buddy, you alright?” A chubby, twenty-something guy with a nose ring asked him. “How’d you do that?” he asked forcefully, tightening his grasp on John’s upper arm.

“Do wh-what?” John asked. He honestly had no idea what the kid was talking about.

“Transport yourself outta’ your car before that freighter hit you dude!” The kid replied, a look of excitement in his eyes. “I was in the car behind you, saw you drive into the path of that fucking truck. I thought you were a goner dude, suicidal or something!”

“Ah, yeah…or something.” John said looking around. “Help me up will ya’?” He asked the kid.

Putting his arm around the chubby kids neck, John grunted as he was lifted up onto trembling legs. Finally standing, he gasped as he took in the scene from his new vantage point. He was up on a grassy knoll, several hundred feet from the intersection at which he had stopped, underneath a hulking holo-board advertising orbital rides. The ground all around John was scorched and smoldering, like it had recently been set ablaze. His car, pushed free of the intersection by the speeding freighter, had come to rest against the base of a massive tree. It resembled a flattened soda can, crumpled and unrecognizable. Police and firemen swarmed about it looking in John’s direction and shaking their heads. John, sitting back down on the damaged lawn, rested his elbows on his knees and ran his fingers shakily through his sweaty, messy hair.

“Anyone got a smoke?” He asked…

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