On Monday mornings, I send out a story via email: ultra-brief tales of 1,000 words or more, usually in genres including science fiction, horror, and the supernatural. Those stories collectively are called Once Upon A Time. I’ve also published four ebooks and one paperback anthology of those stories so far.
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To me, chemistry is a stranger science than physics. I love physics, and all the questions it raises and attempts to answer, but it’s chemistry that provokes the most existential angst.
For some reason, I can accept that we’re all made of various types of fundamental particles. The entirely non-human scale of that level of reality makes it easier to process. But chemistry is something you can readily see — sometimes with the naked eye — and it can be troubling to realise that your entire body, and your consciousness, and your memories, and the way that you age and heal and everything else, is just molecules and their reactions.
Chemistry has loomed large in the consciousness of most of us during the past year or so, but there’s much, much weirder stuff to deal with if you go looking for it. That’s what inspired this story.
I suppose you would say that we had a breakthrough. An incredible success. A watershed moment in science. And it’s true. But all I can see are my five dead colleagues through the glass of this isolation room. Them, and the other one.
I’m writing this log in the hope that it will be found, and understood, and that there will be people out there to read it and learn from our mistakes. I hope that those people will have guns. I hope that they won’t hesitate to fire.
My name is Dr. Craig Ward, and I’m the research director of this facility. If you’re reading this and you’ve already encountered me, kill me immediately.
I don’t have much time. It’s out there looking at me. The timelock on this chamber will reset in twenty minutes. On the assumption that you, dear reader, are from the military or government intelligence — and thus a high-functioning idiot — let me try to explain what we do here.
People are right-handed or left-handed. Some are ambidextrous too, but that’s not true of molecules. Groups of atoms, joined together based on their chemistry, in patterns that depend on too much to go into right now. Different atoms and different patterns make different things. Sugar or poison. Plastic or steel. You get the idea.
Molecules are right-handed or left-handed too. We call it chirality, but you can think of it like your actual hands: they’re mirror images of each other. You can’t make them look identical just by rotating them or moving them around, because they’re mutual reflections. That’s chirality. Now imagine you’re playing the old Tetris video game, and how annoying it is when you think you’ve got the shape you need to complete a line, but it’s actually the mirror image version instead.
Molecules have handedness, or chirality. And it matters. It matters so much.
In exactly the same way that a mirror-image Tetris shape won’t complete a line when you need the opposite version of it, our bodies — and our entire environment — work with only certain versions of molecules. Consider proteins for example. The amino acids in proteins are all left-handed. The sugars in DNA are all right-handed. This has profound consequences.
We can only survive on nutrients whose molecules have the chirality that our bodies can digest. We can only become ill from viruses that have a compatible chirality for infection. We can only breathe air of a chirality that can bond to the haemoglobin in our bloodstreams for transport through our circulatory system.
In this facility, we create mirror molecules.
We make left-handed versions of molecules that exist in nature as right-handed, and vice versa. And we do it because sometimes, just sometimes, the opposite-handed version of a molecule does still have an effect — and it can be radically different. There’s almost no end to the possible applications.
Mirror glucose, which is right-handed in nature but can be manufactured to be left-handed, tastes the same as the original, but our bodies can’t metabolise it as effectively. A low calorie sweetener without aspartame or its worrisome cousins.
Mirror DNA can bind to proteins to inhibit them, but our bodies’ natural enzymes can’t break them down. A much more effective targeting system for novel cancer drugs, vaccines, and everything else. The list goes on.
That’s what we do. We make mirror molecules. But we also made a horrible mistake.
Our lab records will give you the specifics, but the problem was that a miscommunication led to Dr. Ardal — she’s the one who’s dead in the doorway to the cold storage room — neglecting to initiate the process that knocks out the replicative ability of our mirror RNA candidate specimen. We deliberately damage the molecules that could theoretically instruct our bodies to make more of them, as a means to limit any harmful side effects. RNA has the highest potential for replication because it’s , well, think of it as a template or a recipe book that your body reads, then carries out the instructions and makes new things. We break its ability to give your body the recipe. But this time we didn’t.
The theories were right, as it turns out. The mirror process can stack from the ground up. We just had no idea it would happen so quickly, or in a host organism.
I’m looking out through the glass, and Dr. Zhou is there. He died, as far as I know, of systemic multi-organ failure due to catastrophic neurological, hormonal, and pervasive chemical fluctuations. It was horrendous to watch. Horrendous.
He’s also standing four metres in front of me.
I don’t know if it’s a genetic quirk of Zhou’s original DNA. I don’t know if it’s unique to him. That would be the biggest lottery win in history, but it’s astronomically unlikely. And then there’s the other problem.
The Dr. Zhou I’m looking at now is a chiral counterpart of the man I’ve worked with for the last six years. He’s constructed from the original man’s genetic material, rewritten in a matter of minutes. If the Zhou I know was R-Zhou, then this is L-Zhou. In mathematics, there’s a name for an object’s mirrored counterpart.
Zhou is now his own enantiomorph.
We made a horrible mistake, but it’s worse than you think. I believe that this can spread, like a contagion. Through fluid transfer, contamination, and perhaps even skin contact. It happens quickly. There’s absolutely nothing we can do. And when the timelock resets, L-Zhou will come in here, and I’ll no longer be the Ward that’s writing this final log entry.
One last thing. I’ve discovered an unanticipated additional property of complex organisms when chirally mirrored and then confronted with other organisms of the same species but the opposite chirality.
They hate us.
That’s all for today. I hope you enjoyed this brief tale. If you have any thoughts or questions; I’d love to hear from you; you can find me on Twitter.
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Have a wonderful week, and thanks for reading.