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Ulysses Revisited

P. Pengelley

I like words, and playing with words. And so I find irony when I am reminded of
PRIONS, those nasty little proteins that are molecularly identical to their hardworking
siblings, but that are bent and folded awkwardly so as to cause harm to rather than to
help the mammalian entity. An anagram of PROteinceous INfectiouS particles,
ordinary people will call it Mad Cow Disease but to a doctor it is Creutzfeldt–Jakob
Disease. To me, these deadly particles bring to mind the rise and structural ruin of
Ulysses Fabry Orion. It was Fabry’s curiosity about these particles that sparked his
interest in molecular biology, and then into genetics, which led to… but I digress.

We were scrawny and underfed classmates together, in the biochemistry program at


the University of Toronto. I was a rather mediocre student, drawn more to the
mysteries of the opposite sex than to shape shifting molecules. At that time
hemoglobin was the best known stereotypical molecule, opening up to receive oxygen
and closing tightly to bind it. But we knew that enzymes could alter receptor sites
conformations on substrates. My quantum mechanics course complemented my
understanding of such matters, but I confess that I was the dummy of that classroom.
DNA was like the moon, somewhat mapped, its mysteries partially penetrated but still
fascinating. Fabry was ferocious and driven. One did not recall his appearance, only
the intensity of his eyes: when he fixed his gaze upon you, they could sear like green
lasers. Together we debated and pondered the universe and, as students have from
time immemorial, cast off our religions and became devout atheists.

Computer science was the newest graduate course, but Fabry was brilliant enough to
see past that infancy and to make the leap to micro arrays in the biosciences.
“Bubble” chemistry became the transistors and thyristors of micro biochemistry, and
Fabry moved to build the equivalent of biochemical analytical computers. That is how
he made his first million, before he was twenty-one. Cast against the brilliance of
such a mind, I had resigned myself to the lackluster of my own modest abilities in
biochemistry and so chose an altogether different direction in a law degree, but did
not completely lose contact with my zealous friend. Our association just loosened as
other pursuits consumed us. For me, I fell in love for the first time with my studies,
and I began to understand in some small fashion what drove Fabry to burn so brightly.

As our lives moved apart, I continued to follow his successes. He was deciphering the
mysteries of the genetic code well before stem cell research was born, and had
patented his discovery of crucial genes before others realized that this could be a
profitable endeavor. To his credit, money was a means to further discovery and
research, and never did he wallow in his wealth. I was therefore rather astonished that
he should call me up one summer day in Toronto, where I had been practicing law for
what had seemed to be an ungracious period of time. Neither of us had been back for
class reunions, and I thought that see him in person would be somewhat discomfiting.
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Yet I was intrigued by the excitement in his voice, and flattered that he might want to
share some secret discovery with me.

We met at his chalet in the Eastern Townships, for although he lived in Waterloo, he
maintained residences outside of Ottawa and in Edmonton. He wanted to be where
the action was. His “action”, of course, was the action of scientific thought. I drove
the entire distance in my Acura, taking the time to cruise my alma mater en passant,
and destroying all my illusions about the tiny limestone campus remaining untouched
by time. Formidable and modern. A bastion of learning. And now exclusive and no
longer familiar to me.

On my arrival was once again disabused of my illusions. I expected to find a


professorial and slump-shouldered man with a paunch, ashen but still intense. What I
found was an athletic build highly charged with an electric aura that penetrated the
disassociated demeanor with which I reflexively surround myself. I would have
estimated his personal magnetic power to carry current at megawatt capacity. He was
charming, excitable, contained and bursting, and I could not for the life of me
anticipate what he could want of me.

Old trees have the deepest roots. Our discussions of evolution and creation back in
Morris Hall had stuck with him, as they had with me. I was struck dumb. He wanted
to discuss our philosophies of life! I suppose my beliefs were rather simplistic, and
reactive. Unable to accept any theistic origins, I had to reconcile the injustice of
Darwin’s proofs as they applied to my legal practice. Why should that young mother
sustain a fatal injury, or that noble gentleman fall stricken by some careless act? Can
one find the impassivity of survival of the fittest as a just morality? I envisioned
today’s world as sheltering an eternal life form, the entire ecosystem of earth, which I
saw as a single entity. This would not be unlike conceiving of a human being as a
single life-world, although we are made up of multiple organisms, including
saprophytic, symbiotic, and parasitic. Moreover, just as humans alter from birth to
death, from slim to obese, or change with pregnancy or amputation, so does the
earth’s bio-systems transmute over time. The extinction of creatures is like the
shedding of skin. Fire burns but it enables rejuvenation. There is no morality in this
philosophy, but due to the greatest of mathematical disciplines, statistics, chance
ensures our equality.

Fabry’s researches into the deepest realms of the genetic code had lead him to a
completely different philosophy, not opposite, but mutually orthogonal. Whereas I
felt that the most sophisticated and evolved species were the ones who are now
extinct, he had come to the conclusion that our DNA was constantly being degraded.
The most evolved species were indeed extinct, but from unavoidable mutations. Bees
had not developed superior muscles, but mammal had lost them. A clone of an adult
sheep has a shorter set of telomeres for each chromosome, so it is doomed to a shorter
lifespan than the parent. And so had the degradation of his conceptually ideal DNA
code allowed for all the variation and diversity of life today.
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His face was ablaze as he spoke, and as he beamed with passion he unwittingly
spilled one of his many secrets in attempting to overcome my skepticism. “I know
that we can undo at least some of these corruptions, because I have corrected some of
my own chromosome damage!” He paused, but recognizing that he had now crossed
the Rubicon, he now explained some of the advanced theory and practice that his
private laboratories had evolved. My undergraduate biochemistry background helped
me keep up superficially. I understood that he used attenuated or “tamed” viruses and
advanced gene-splicing techniques to modify some of his own genetic material. I got
totally lost as he discussed chaos theory, references to “regression to the mean”, and
fuzzy logic computer systems which were helping him to decide which genes to keep,
and which to discard. He explained that some runs of genetic code were just “spacers”
to keep the DNA helix in a specific shape, but others were duplications, transpositions
and other errors inherent in the replication of genes “on earth”. I did not pick up on
that qualifier at the time, thinking that he was referring to experiments being
performed in space, involving the effects of weightlessness on murine reproduction.
How was I to know where he was going with all this?

It was here that his background in prion science had caused him to think of DNA as
possibly having been dynamically transmogrified. My blank look made him laugh.
Think of the movies: The Transformers. In one shape they behave with one function,
in another their abilities change. Can a bend in the physical shape of the DNA helix
affect the genetic expression of the individual?

My own blood and hemoglobin were running icy cold at these revelations. ”Dr
Frankenstein did not give himself extra parts in his own experiments”, I temporized,
distracted, trying to assimilate the terrible ramifications of his self-treatment. Of
course Fabry immediately pointed out the widespread acceptance of cadaver organ
transplantations in my own medical world. I countered with the old corn that the
doctor who treats himself has a fool for a patient. Fabry just laughed and spread his
arms wide: “does this body look the worse for the therapy? If you want to banter
aphorisms, the end justifies the means.” I had to admit to myself, that he looked
incredibly fit and larger than life. Nevertheless, I was chilled to my bones, and if I
believed in it, to my soul.

I wanted to discuss instinctive behaviors, and whether they were hard-wired into the
genetic code, but he put me off by saying that he would be learning that soon enough
if his research continued the way that he had come to expect. He used the phrase
“exponentially progressing”, but I thought he was self aggrandizing in order to press
his argument. He did say that he felt that epigenetics were likely in part responsible
for this phenomenon. I expressed my unfamiliarity with this term, and he looked at
me strangely, as though I had not measured up to his expectations. “If I were to
create two clones of a calico cat, with every genetic detail identical, each clone would
have a different color pattern from the other and from the parent at maturity. Protein
operands integral to the DNA helix can turn the various genes off or on depending on
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the local environment, causing the expression of the genes to vary. It is not the
genetic material that is different, but rather the pattern of use. The octaves of various
grand pianos are identical, but the symphony varies with the composer.”

We talked late into the night, and I did get him to admit that sometimes choices had to
be made as to whether this gene or that one might be the defective one, if indeed any
evolutionary change is defective. It is only defective if it finds itself in a hostile
environment. Fabry insisted that a pure genetic code existed, but admitted that he had
had to make choices when two adaptations seemed equally valid: but his computers
and mathematical algorithms were his might, and that made his choices right (“if not
righteous”, I thought).

I left later the following day with my head spinning, and my composure knocked
completely askew. If Fabry were correct, to where might genetic purification lead? I
trembled with the knowledge of how the belief in eugenics can poison the well
intentioned. I feared that manipulating the genetic code is to play not only with the
body, but the mind and consciousness that inhabits it. Lurking below, prowling my
subconscious, was this fear: what if Darwin was wrong?

Several months later, I was somewhat surprised to find an encryption key in my e-


mail, along with a URL address that lead to a scientific article in Nature. Thereafter,
over the years, I received similar encrypted missives that seemed totally available to
the public, and tantalizingly suggestive. Some referred to mathematical decision
making, one to a review of “proofs” of creationism, progress in genetics, and even
snippets of veterinarian news releases and references to ontogeny. There was one
article on embryology, and a press release referring to the theory that dinosaurs may
have been feathered beasts. I did not understand where all of this was leading, but it
seemed important to Fabry that I be shown milestones in his pursuit of some final
triumph.

Years later, financial magazines hinted that Fabry was wealthier than any man had
ever been. He had kept his profile so low that he was practically invisible. No one
with that much wealth can keep completely hidden, and rumors of his activities
trickled down from the seats of power to we plebian folk. I was flattered that he
would be bothered to keep in touch with me, even in such a bizarre fashion. I
wondered if I had offended him with my rebuttals and, well, accusations during our
marathon talk during that most stimulating weekend. Was he touched by my
skepticism, for I had opposed his views familiarly as few others would dare? Did one
so powerful and brilliant have such a need to prove himself to an old college buddy?
And why did he not communicate in a more direct fashion? Could he have been
chastened for being so open and unguarded with an uncertain variable: me? Certainly
I was no threat to him. Or perhaps I had served his needs and I was being politely
shelved, only to be brought out and dusted from time to time?
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Life as a practicing lawyer, especially if one has a family of one’s own, is completely
consuming. I had no need to pursue the friendship or companionship of such a
draining individual as Fabry. His energy and intensity was as focused as the Hubble,
powered by a black hole of such magnitude that one felt compelled to erect force
fields around oneself for self-protection. So perhaps it was natural in those years that
neither of us made an attempt to directly contact the other. I found the links provided
to me to be stimulating and eclectic, and my formal education and ongoing practice
allowed me to grasp the concepts being laid out for me. Connect the dots, buddy.

Then one day, shortly after I had retired from active practice, I received (encrypted, of
course), a personal e-mail from Fabry, begging to see me again. Why he would not
call directly, or have his personal secretary do so was beyond me. It was arranged. I
would see him at his Eastern Townships retreat once again, but he insisted that I
would travel by corporate helicopter. Intrigued and somewhat idle, I searched the
Internet to see what I could learn of his current circumstances, but for the past 10
years there was only speculation and no photos or personal details. I wondered if he
had followed in the tracks of Howard Hughes, isolating himself from germs and the
world. As it turned out, the similarity proved to be chilling, although the
circumstances were completely different.

We landed on a private helipad just outside the picturesque estate redolent with the
scent of autumn leaves, splashed with colors so vibrant that I was able to live in the
moment with a mindfulness that was overwhelming. I was surprised to be escorted to
a small sedan, in which I was to make my way alone to Fabry’s residence. The chalet
that I had known was gone, replaced by a mansion in a 50,000-acre woodlot, totally
surrounded by a ten-foot chain link fence. There was a second inner perimeter,
topped by barbed wire, and a third enclosure, which was electrified. The sentry at the
gate to the second circle told me that no one had been allowed past that point in years,
except for scheduled deliveries. Fabry monitored all traffic past that point himself by
electronic surveillance and robotics. The guard regarded me with a curiosity that
seemed close to awe, before waving me through.

The third and final gate swung open before me. Although I did not see any security
camera’s, I had no doubt that I was being monitored by the best equipment money
could buy. Oddly, the grounds were let run rampant and amok, as though meant for
pasture rather than coquet.

As I approached the impressive oaken portal at the top of a grand marble stairway, the
doors opened to me and a synthetic voice greeted me and invited me to take off my
coat and to make myself at home. It had the cadence and modulation of Fabry’s voice,
but was significantly richer and deeper than the one I had known.

“Forgive me for not greeting you in person”, he intoned, “but I feel that some
preparations have to be made first. You really must make yourself at home,” he told
me, as he did not allow any servants in the house except at strictly scheduled
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intervals, at which time he would absent himself. However his pantry and bar were
fully stocked and he would be joining me later. I was invited to have a sauna and hot
tub bath, replete with medicinal waters from Germany. This feature did a lot to
explain the slight odour of sulphur in the air. He would join me in the salon when I
was fed and comfortable.

As it turned out, he had misled me slightly, for after I had refreshed myself and had
found my way into the salon, fireplace blazing, I found myself to be alone. There was
a freshly poured scotch on ice in a crystal snifter, a wide screen plasma television
tuned to a colorful ocean reef scene, soft music by Vivaldi and fresh flowers in an
antique oriental vase to greet me. And then that voice spoke to me again, and I knew
that my presence was being monitored somewhere in that sterile abode.

“Thank you again for coming. Forgive me again for not greeting you in person, but I
have reasons, which will become clear shortly. I want to thank you for being my
friend. I have need of a friend today. I have isolated myself for so long, I just have to
talk to someone who will not judge me. I think that you are that person.”
Uncharacteristically he added: “I still have feelings, you know.”

I was dumbfounded. Where was this friendship over the past forty years? A few
emails do not evoke a lot of emotional rapport!

“I am afraid that I have not been much of a friend”, I began, “but I didn’t think you
had much need of me. What with your industries and money, I think you had just
about everything a man could want”. I stood looking about the lavishly appointed
room.

“Those were just a means to an end. I have found success, but like so many unhappy
individuals I had wished so hard, and now all of my wishes have been realized. I
didn’t see the terrible truths that surround achievement. Now I have a new problem.
No, I have several problems that I have yet to solve. That is part of the reason I have
asked you here. I hope that, somehow, resurrecting our old speculations on evolution
might shed some light on what has happened to me in my life.”

Fabry was being vague again, but still I waited patiently for him to reveal himself.

“I was so focused on proving my theory of original DNA, I dissociated myself from a


nagging paradox: if original DNA exists, and evolution exists, when do the two
meet? Can evolution produce original DNA? Are the two incompatible? Is
creationism a possibility? Did a UFO visit upon earth?” This question produced a
barking laugh like a hyena, and after a moment I understood that he was making a
pun upon the initials of his full name.

“Whoa. This is all a bit much. Perhaps you could just start at the beginning and bring
me up to date with what has been happening to you?” I asked dryly. I found myself
slipping back into my lawyer persona, and I did not particularly like the feeling this
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time. I sensed the pain in this enigmatic man, who seemed to be reaching out to me
over a gulf of time as though I were his long lost sibling. I certainly did not feel like
his closest confidante, and I did not owe him a burden of affection. I settled into a
leather armchair with my scotch, and focused on the plasma screen reef scene.

Fabry seemed relieved to change his avenue of talk to a factual accounting of his
activities over the years, although his disembodied voice seemed surprised that I had
not surmised his experimental pursuits from the email references that he had
erratically sent to me. I think he gave me too much credit for intelligence and powers
of deduction that I do not possess, simply because he wanted me to have them. He did
not relate how his patents had made him a captain of industry, nor did he consider it
important how his CEO’s had handled and massaged his fortune into the monster it
was to date. Rather he related an almost unbelievable quest for his Holy Grail of
genetic purity,

“At one point, I began to doubt myself, but I could see truth lurking behind that DNA
helix, proteins twisting about it. ‘Ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny’. You had to have
that drilled into you in your zoology and embryology lectures.” Indeed, every biology
student knows that the human embryo seems to develop gills as it evolves to a fetus,
just as the human heart passes through an evolution of sorts in becoming the four-
chambered pump of the newborn.

“I speculated that there had to be a super genetic code, one that contained all the DNA
blueprints for the fish of the sea, the birds of the air, and all the beasts of the world.
Not evolution, but devolution. Occasionally I would have to make decisions on
protein molecular conformations, but I carefully tested them on primates before I
chose them for myself.”

“Wait a minute!,” I exclaimed in horror.“What do you mean you chose them for
yourself? What kind of an idiot savant are you? What have you done to yourself?
Are you sick?” Fabry interrupted my rant.

“Be calm. I am not a fool, and there is a lot that you don’t know. The techniques I
have been using in my private facilities are light years ahead of what the scientific
community at large have available. I couldn’t afford political and religious tomfoolery
to get in my way. This was way too important to me to risk delay. You think that
making stem cells from skin tissue is a big deal? My labs did that more than a decade
ago. Mapping the genetic code? Done that, have the video and the T-shirt. No, we
are not using a hammer here, or even a scalpel. I have viral and bacteriophage genetic
microtomes, nanorobotics, and use techniques which others consider be in the realm
of pure science fiction. Money can buy a lot of pure research, computing power, and
secrecy.”

Not convinced, I waited impatiently for him to continue his story.


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“I am not proud of some of the risks that I took, but even the first heart
catheterizations were performed without the approval of the medical establishment. It
is easier to get forgiveness than approval, and only I had sufficient grasp of this
science to accept the risk with “informed consent”. I was rather staggered that he
would consider the concept of informed consent although I am sure he meant it in a
purely legal sense. I doubted that any volunteer, paid or incarcerated, would accept
the risks that he might propose.

“But I had several breakthroughs. I was able to increase my strength by altering the
DNA in my mitochondria. And once I learned how to stimulate neuron growth I was
able to induce dendrites to expand. Did you know that the body prunes its brain cells
in childhood? Re-growing some of the clippings in adulthood allows the brain to
accommodate them in interesting ways. If not wiser, I am more intelligent than I
was.” He laughed sardonically. “By experimenting with hormones and proteins
found only in stem cells, I was able to regenerate tissues and promote healing.
Crocodiles are ancient creatures, and can resist infection and have remarkable powers
of healing. Unfortunately, restoring that particular gene has made my skin a bit
thicker than it used to be. And those mitochondria changes have increased my energy
and body temperature, so I flush a lot to get rid of the added heat.”

Fabry paused, as if undecided as to how or even if he should proceed. The lawyer in


me spoke up: “I see. Go on.”

“Do you recall how we discussed if instinct was hard-wired into the genetic code?
Well, it is and it isn’t. There are a myriad of potentials built into your DNA, but
mutations and survival through environmental pressures has made most of them
unattainable to you. I consider them to be genetic reflexes, rarely needed but there for
the pattern making, however, some changes are watersheds. Perhaps you recall the
link that I sent to you questioning whether dinosaurs had feathers or leather for skin?”

I nodded, not sure where he was going with this.

“And there was a reference to a race of giants in the Bible that I had you read?”

Again I nodded, still wondering where the hidden cameras where located.

“Well, as I gained strength and intelligence, I also grew in stature. I took on some
characteristics that are not typical of Homo sapiens, but do dwarves look completely
human? Never mind where we have been, ask where is the human race going today?
One color of skin? Receding jaw lines? Tall craniums? In ten thousand years will we
even recognize ourselves as human? I face another dilemma as well, one which with I
am still struggling.”

I did not like where this was going. “What have you done to yourself? “I barely
whispered.
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“I have found truth, but no answers”, he replied. “Worse, I had to make a decision
about feathers.” He stopped, and giggled at the inanity of that comment. The moment
was grotesque. “I found that as I regressed, or progressed as you will, my personality
began to change. Oh, the fundamentals remain, imprinted upon me as a gosling to a
human, but my nature had changed. My sense of subservience faded, and my sense of
being expansive increased. While I maintain a sense of morality, you might say that I
am no angel”. Again, a rather maniacal laugh. “The truth is, as I became more perfect,
the more I came to appear to be less presentable in polite society. I had to withdraw
to this redoubt, in order to run free and get some air. I have had to keep the staff in
abeyance ever since the last few changes began to take effect, and I have to admit
they have taken even me a bit of time to adjust to them. I rule in splendid isolation,
but rather like the Wizard of Oz, or rather the Wizard of Og.”

To my credit, I recognized the reference to the land of giants in the Bible.

“But man cannot live by bread alone. I need the companionship of others. I need
forgiveness. I crave intimacy, and I want to laugh again.”

I steeled myself. “Then blast it all man, show yourself! I’ve seen burn victims and
crush injuries. You can’t be all that bad.” I was wrong.

A door slowly opened, and I think I screamed before I fainted at his entrance. I woke
up in the helicopter, en route to the nearest hospital emergency room. But I
remembered.

He was twelve feet tall, leathery skin bright red. Bristles stool out stark black on his
shirtless, barrow chest, and his black brows framed fiery red eyes and amber pupils.
Abdominal muscles bulged like a cartoon, and his nails were long, black talons. His
legs were goat-like, with cloven hooves. Two small knobby horns perched on his
baldhead, but it was the scaly tail that he held in his left hand and the long leathery
wings folded on his back that proved too much for me, and I had swooned.

It was some time later when I was released from the psychiatric wing of the hospital,
no longer talking of demons and giants, but with a Bible tucked firmly under my arm.
Fabry never tried to make contact with me again, and I was unable to find a way to
communicate to him that I finally understood. At some point he had to choose leather
over feathers, devil or angel, to finalize his goal of genetic purity. From this code had
sprung all the beasts of the world, and he now ruled it, using the law of contracts,
alone in paradise, but in a hell of his own choosing.