“What’s the secret ingredient?”
Castor smiled as his memory moved through the days before it all went horribly wrong for a few, even as hope remained for everyone else. A few moments before, he had been sitting stiffly on his lab stool hunched over a microscope. But the alarm on his phone had sounded, a jaunty jazz number that reminded him of happier days.
The secret ingredient in the biomaterial that had been used to treat, to cure, to advance the five volunteers lying in one of the most advanced burn wards in the world, was neither love nor magic. But anyone might have thought so, the way the stuff brought those folks back to life.
The questions were asked at a meeting of investors and stakeholders who had funded the seventeen-year project. They had been shown proof and for some that was enough. They had been shown the consent forms, been introduced to the two independent bioethics committees that had overseen the project. And for some that was enough. But until that meeting, only a select few knew the whole story of the complex substance yielded by the project aimed at protecting humans during space travel.
It was a biohybrid hydrogel that could do more than heal wounds. The biomaterial was interlaced with artificial farocytes, cells that would convert radiative energy into chemical energy and nutrients, and perhaps even oxygen, so even if astronauts slept in stasis, they would not starve or suffocate. Instead of being damaged by radiation, their bodies would make use of it. It was infused with thermal protectants, antiseptic molecules, and even vitamins. All of the components had to work in concert with each other and with the “host.” The biomaterial may have started off a symbiotic “guest,” but it soon became a part of the person it was healing.
Traveling in space is dangerous for human beings, who evolved to exist, to thrive, in places protected from cosmic radiation, true vacuum, and absolute zero temperatures. While inside a structure, like a spacecraft or a domed residence designed with multiple levels of shielding, people would be well-protected. But one could not explore from inside a structure. There had to be a suit, and it had to be flexible, and it had to provide adequate protection from harsh environments, and be equipped with oxygen, and so on.
Then there was the science fiction idea, of building the resilience straight into a human being, engineering the components on top of and throughout his or her body. Along with such discussions came the questions of how far modifications could go before a human being could no longer be defined as human.
There were so many ethical concerns with bioengineering a human being. Tinkering with someone’s genes to cure a disease (and do nothing else) was something that most people could agree on. But modifying someone’s genes to enhance strength, intelligence, agility, to induce abilities that humans aren’t naturally born with, that required further consideration.
It wasn’t a new idea, actually, coaxing extraordinary abilities out of an ordinary person. Many believed it had been done throughout history. Just not by science.
Castor Pollander believed it was about time science attempted a leap in the changing of the human body, beyond the cosmetic, beyond the natural, into the synthetic. Into the supernatural.
It started simply. Pollander’s team was one of many who developed various different hydrogels for various different purposes. Hydrogels were named for their ability to do what human skin naturally does, absorb and hold onto water. But they could do much more than that. They were self-healing. Slice into a hydrogel and it would seal itself right back up. They could be made into grafts to replace damaged tissue and aid in wound-healing. The team created one of the best biohybrid hydrogels—a hybrid of synthetic and biological polymers with the advantages of each type of material. The specificity of biologics. The flexibility of synthetics.
Once Pollander’s team had optimized the hydrogel, they sought to add complexity and power to their invention. When space agencies put a call out for scientists to innovate ways to protect humans for the coming exploration of deep space, Pollander took the call as the way to focus his efforts. He would find a way for his hydrogel to help send humans into space safely. Protection against radiation was a top priority. Protection against radiation required blocking or deflecting it. But Pollander wondered if instead, he could harness it. Perhaps he could use radiative energy—whether light or radiation—to make chemical energy, like sugars, the way plants did through photosynthesis. Plants also produced breathable oxygen through photosynthesis. Pollander’s aim grew ambitious.
The gel could be layered into a helmet, into a spacesuit, but to be most efficient, it made more sense for the gel to be layered onto— or into—the human body itself.
A few years of computer models, in vitro studies with greenish goop in thousands of Petri dishes, and thought experiments yielded a few workable designs for biomaterials.
In time, Pollander’s team reached a stage when they were ready to try their invention on human beings. He remembered the arguments for and against it.
There were five people who had volunteered. Severely burned patients. They had gone through rigorous evaluations to assure they were of sound mind. They were given the chance to change their minds at every step of the process. They were warned of the dangers, warned that the dangers were unknown because whatever the computer models said, no model could account for every variable. Nature was unpredictable. Even if animal trial had still been a part of the approval process, the effects on animals could not account for every effect on human beings. Even the effects from one person to the next could not be predicted with any reasonable accuracy.
Pollander was involved in the grafting surgeries of all five patients. He was involved in their aftercare. In the follow-up data collection and analysis. He got very close to one patient in particular. She was a police officer.
Castor remembered the first day he worked with her after she regained the ability to speak with her own voice. Officer Andrea “Andy” Tsung.
“Am I an android?” she asked with regenerated vocal cords. She had been told, during moments of consciousness, what was being done to her body. She was constantly asked to confirm her permission. But she still wasn’t certain and being a fan of the kinds of movies where people’s mangled bodies were brought back to life with the aid of machinery, she wondered if that’s what happened to her.
“More like an angel,” Castor said. He was a scientist first, but he was also one of the faces of his company by then. He was accustomed to delivering such bold and cheesy lines to put people at ease.
She closed her eyes and shook her head. But then she chuckled. And then her smile faded until only a ghost of it lingered on her smooth face, a face tinged with a light fresh green hue.
“Am I still me?”
“I don’t know. I didn’t know the you from before.”
“What will my family say, I wonder? My friends? They knew me.”
“I think they’ll just be happy to have you back, up and about, I mean. In no pain.” Castor frowned. “You aren’t in any pain, are you?”
She paused. “I feel great actually.”
He remembered trying to explain to an interested and eager investor how it was that the biomaterial might have facilitated regeneration of the officer’s right arm, which hadn’t only been burned,, but crushed when the building she rushed into to save others collapsed around her.
“Differentiation is the process by which a cell…matures,” Castor said. “The cell’s young self, like a child, can grow up to become anything. But the older it gets, the more limited its choice. And at a certain point, it must decide what kind of cell it wants to be, specifically. And it will be that cell until it dies.” He had a slide presentation with the picture of a salamander regenerating its tail.
“Now, there is a process known as de-differentiation, which reverses the maturing. It seems the gel did this for Officer Tsung at the site of application. It also seems to be re-differentiating mature cells, just converting them from one thing to another quickly. We’re still not sure of the molecular mechanism underpinning the changes. The body is regenerating these long-lost tissues under the protection of the biomaterial grafts. Forming blood vessels and nerves would have been exposed and might have been damaged or broken, if not for the gel.”
The investor, Castor had been told, had a bit of a background in the biological sciences. “Remarkable,” the man said. “Did you expect that to happen?”
“One of our models predicted it…as a rare occurrence,” Castor said. “So, no. We did not expect this.”
“Have any of the other patients exhibited regeneration of their own tissue?”
Castor shook his head.
“What about other unexpected effects? Advantages? Disadvantages? Side effects?”
“One of the patients has exhibited some hyper-perception. She reported detecting, for example, outgassing of chemicals from the computer and vital signs monitors near her bedside.”
“Sounds like a chemical sensitivity. That’s not good.”
“She hasn’t exhibited any signs of an allergic reaction. The biomaterial would heal her if she did. The patients are constantly adapting. That was a couple of weeks ago. This week, she reports not picking up on any of that.” Castor had trained himself to sound confident, even when he was full of doubts and questions.
The project had become a runaway train, but as long as that train was speeding into the future, as long as it wasn’t crashing, they would keep going, keep watching. So many factors, so many variables. It was reckless. It was revolutionary.
It was ready.
That’s not what Pollander said. It’s not even what his superiors said. He wasn’t sure who made the declaration, but he was certain he knew why a solid time table had been set. While he was working on the human problem, engineers and physicists, cosmologists and mathematicians, all had worked together to solve the travel problem. The ships were being built and tested. The first supplies payload had already been launched.
The road to Europa would be a long one. Some of the strategies that worked for Mars would work for Jupiter’s moon, but many would not. Launching a trail of supplies, water, food, raw materials for repairs, was a necessity. The machine part of the mission was in motion.
The people part had to get moving too. The five people who were meant to prove that Pollander’s invention was viable had done that and more. They had proven that Biomaterial 148.0148 (or as some of the lab staff called it, “Pandora-derma, the all-gifted skin”) would provide protection from radiation, from extreme heat and cold, from dehydration, from starvation. It came time to present that proof to the world.
Right before they all went out on stage, Pollander had spoken with the men and women who had volunteered—bravely volunteered—to test his novel gelatinous graft. The conversation was warm. He had saved them. They were saving him.
But he spent the most time, of course, with his favorite, the down-to-earth police officer. It started as an infatuation on Pollander’s part, until they really got to know each other. By the time they took the world stage together, she was one of his best friends. And one of his best critics.
“Those who play gods,” she said, gesturing to Castor with a flourish of her hand, “and those who play titans.” She placed her open hand over her chest and swept a gaze at her fellow patients.
Coming from her, the accusation that he was playing god didn’t sound so accusing. But he hadn’t thought of what part the subjects—the patients—in the experiment played. Titans. That powerful race of beings who lived with mankind, helped them to advance. Indeed, the five patients were no longer patients. They were pioneers. They were titans.
They were brought out in wheelchairs even though they could walk, run, and jump if asked to. There were blankets placed over their laps. All five were smiling, though all of them nervously. Cameras flashed. Questions were thrown out by seen-it-all reporters who were as stunned and dazzled as the rest of the crowd. The audience had been given the typical warning about “children and sensitive viewers.” Because of the giant pictures that were erected behind the five.
The “before” pictures.
Before, they were damaged, torn, broken, burned. After, they were titans.
The five rose out of the wheelchairs to audible gasps from the audience. They walked to the edge of the stage just beneath which stood a wall of burly guards who would make sure that none of the patients were grasped too hard. The five knelt before the stage and reached out their hands, inviting the audience to touch.
At the same time, Castor officially announced his invention to the world.
“I give you…titan matter.”
After all the “ooing” and “ahhing” came the tough questions. Pollander had his public information officers and bioethics outreach personnel standing by to jump in if he got flustered. But he was ready to tell all, and he did.
“To test the radiation resistance, we had to expose the patients to radiation. Low levels at first, the kinds of levels one gets during x-rays or riding on a plane. Then increased types and dosages. The biomaterial had been tested on its own first and resisted the types of radiation that resulted from nuclear power plant meltdowns.”
But it was a far different matter to expose the biomaterial to extreme radiation when it was attached to a human being, even if that human being had one foot in the grave. And by the time the radiation tests were scheduled, each of the five patients had most assuredly lifted his or her respective foot out of the grave.
The wonder of seeing the five alive, seemingly sound in both body and mind, made it easier for the audience to swallow the list of “challenges” that the researchers had put the patients through.
After the Titan Matter press conference, it was decided that it was time for trials on healthy subjects.
The Europa mission astronauts were raring and ready to go. But it was one thing to experiment on those who were suffering and might die. It was quite another to subject healthy human subjects to experimentation. They recruited a group of volunteers. The biomaterial had caused no harm in the ill and injured. Surely it would do no harm to the healthy.
And so it didn’t.
It did not harm. It did nothing at all.
They tried placing the biomaterial on top of the skin. They tried injecting it under the skin, between the epidermis and the dermis. There were limited effects, but it was clear that the results were nowhere near as effective, as spectacular, as the results seen with the burn patients.
The research team speculated that there must have been something about the natural wound-healing process that was necessary for the titan matter to develop all of its potential properties to maximum effectiveness.
There were three active clinical trials that expanded the use of titan matter on people with severe tissue damage. There were dozens of pending trials. The pubic wanted the stuff as soon as possible. Manufacturing, quality control to assure the titan matter was properly synthesized and formulated, it was all in motion. For those who would remain on Earth, the titan matter was on its way to becoming as widespread a healing invention as antibiotics and vaccines.
But try as they might, Pollander’s team could not get the biomaterial to form any kind of relationship with healthy tissue. They tried making small wounds, then larger ones, in the healthy subjects. The titan matter would heal the wounds, regenerate the tissue, and then be reabsorbed by the body, leaving only normal, natural skin. The team came to a troubling conclusion. For the titan matter to bond, for it to reach its optimal potential, it had to be introduced into a person who had suffered full body systemic tissue damage.
The research to figure out the mechanism and fix it might take decades. There were discussions debating the fate of the Titan Matter project. Companies and institutions with alternative biomaterials or spacesuit designs came forward with unsolicited proposals, none of them even close to be viable. There were secretive discussions of asking the astronauts to undergo controlled tissue damage in the hopes that the titan matter would “take.” But the mission leaders, no matter how desperately they longed to reach Europa and beyond, made the ethical and responsible decision.
The mission was postponed.
But everyone involved knew that by the time the titan matter problem was solved, they would be too old to be the ones who would go to Europa and beyond.
Pollander felt the pressure not just of expectations, but of the dreams of hundreds of people, dashed and broken because his invention had failed them. There was no press conference. There was no controversy in the public. Of course humans could not be sent to Europa if they could not be kept safe and brought back safely.
But those who dared to blast themselves into space saw it differently. All endeavors required risk. All true advancement required difficult, sometimes brutal, decisions to be made.
Five people had volunteered to test Pollander’s biomaterial. Five people who could have died or been seized with tormenting pain if something went wrong. Five people who were heroes, titans, because they dared.
But now the four astronauts who had volunteered to go farther into space, farther away from the safety of their native planet, were denied their chance to dare. There was no controversy, until those four began to speak out.
Even as his invention saved hundreds of lives, Pollander suffered sleepless nights, not knowing that worse was to come.
“What are you doing!” Castor felt panic seize his chest. He was over at Andy’s place for their Tuesday dinner. He’d been shredding some cheddar cheese and had just turned around to see Andy standing over the stovetop.
She was moving her arm back and forth through the flames of a lit burner. “Sometimes I forget how remarkable it is, I’ve gotten so used to my new skin.”
“That’s doesn’t mean you should be setting yourself on fire.” His voice trembled and cracked by the end of the sentence. Andy turned to him and saw he was shaken and knew why.
“He knew the titan matter would save him,” she said.
“No, not if we couldn’t get to him in time.”
“I think it was an act of desperation, not madness.”
“What’s the difference?”
“Maybe not much. I don’t know. I do know it wasn’t your fault that man did what he did to himself.”
Castor shook his head. He knew it wasn’t. But that would not keep him from thinking about it every day for the rest of his life.
One of the astronauts on the scrapped Europa mission had walked into one of the space agency’s dining halls and lit himself on fire. The wounds were severe to his skin, his lungs. There was only one thing that could save his life and even bring him back to normal health. His logic had been no different from that of those who once suggested that the astronauts undergo controlled tissue damaged to coax their wound-healing processes into action before the application of titan matter. He wanted to bond with the biomaterial, to become ready for his long voyage into outer space.
That had been Saturday, three days prior. The news was already reporting that the astronaut—or rather former astronaut—would make a full recovery. If he had been thinking clearly, he would have realized that his actions assured that he would fail the required psychological evaluations. He would never go to Europa or anywhere else as an astronaut.
Pollander was terrified that others would follow suit after the astronaut and hurt themselves to get some titan matter and gain superhuman abilities. He had considered calling a press conference and lying, saying that the titan matter didn’t work after all. But that was unethical. It did work. It could save people.
So he worked night and day to expand manufacturing without compromising quality, traveled around the world to find the raw materials he needed. And he worked day and night to solve the bonding problem with healthy tissue.
Then he heard the news that the Europa mission was moving forward again. Alternative methods to protect the astronauts during their mission had been found. Spacesuits. The modern suits were made of a new synthetic fabric sewn with deflective shielding, chips and sensors for monitoring the environment, miniaturized temperature regulating units, and so on.
Pollander still felt the burden of making titan matter work for the mission. While the rest of the scientists, technicians, and doctors on the Titan Matter project worked to optimize the matter for improved health and well-being, Pollander tinkered in his own lab. Tired, then drained by all else he did during the day, he could often hardly think by the time he got to his own lab. He tinkered aimlessly.
An accident was bound to happen the way he was carrying on. The human body could only take so much before it gives out. Pollander’s gave out when he was driving home one evening.
When he woke, he was lying in a hospital bed. The vague shapes of bouquets, cards, and a floating balloon filled the opposite corner. To his left, dozing in a chair was Andy. She shifted in her sleep and glanced over to see that he was awake. She gave him a groggy smile and sat forward.
He remembered what happened. The heartrate monitor ticked up.
“Did I hurt anyone?”
Her smile faded. “You got lucky. You’re still alive and you’ll stay that way. And you didn’t hurt anyone else.”
Castor nodded. He had fallen asleep at the wheel, crashed his car.
“So are you going to beat yourself up and spiral out of control again or are you going to learn from what happened and make use of your second chance?” The anger in her voice was tightly restrained, for the sake of what he had just endured, but it was there.
And Castor knew why. Or he thought he did.
“It’s my fault,” she said. “If you weren’t driving home for Tuesday dinner, you would have fallen asleep in the lab. The worse thing that would have happened to you was a thrown-out back or a bad crick in your neck.”
Castor’s eyes widened. He took a breath to assure her that his condition was his own doing. But she continued.
“But it’s not my fault,” she said. “I can drive myself crazy thinking that. Or I can say it was an accident. Even so, I’m sorry.” She placed a cool hand over his uninjured left hand. “I was going to announce this at dinner last night, but you ruined my plans.” At that she smiled her gentle and understanding smile. “I’ve applied for the astronaut corps.” She shrugged. “I don’t think being a titan will give me any advantages, but…”
Castor chuckled and felt a dull ache in his chest. He must have cracked a rib in the accident.
“I wonder if I’ll become a titan now,” he said. He glanced down at himself. He probably would not. He wasn’t hurt badly enough.
Castor was strong enough to bear many burdens. He would take them up again when he was healed. But he suddenly felt the greatest burden, the one that was not his to bear alone, lift. He felt the weight of the world leave his shoulders and despite his cracked or broken rib, he took the deepest and easiest breath he’d taken in many, many a year.
Why did I think I had to answer all of the questions, and answer them right away? he thought. And why did I think it had to be me that answered those questions?
He had always known better. Titan matter was as complex as his brain, his heart. His team, many working at one, had invented a new organ. It would take many working as one to understand it, to raise it to its full potential. Many working as one, like the resurrected Europa mission.
Castor glanced up at Andy again. He thought he saw a dim glow flicker across her face. It was the farocytes most likely. The artificial cells in the titan matter gave the titans their slightly greenish tinge and that inconstant glow from photons—light particles—emitted as by-products of a slight inefficiency in a modified photosynthetic reaction.
Andy smiled and her glow seemed all the more pronounced. “Nothing has ever actually happened between us, so this may come as a surprise, but as far as I’m concerned, it’s about time.” She leaned forward and her hand rose from below his eye-level, bearing a ring of silver.
“Marry me?” she said. “Before one of us actually dies.”
He felt a flush move across the side of his face that was uninjured. The side of his face that was lacerated and now fused with titan matter remained cool and unperturbed.
So, maybe the stuff wasn’t superior in all ways. Or maybe it was and his face too was glowing.
Copyright © 2016 Nila L. Patel