‘Good of you to come at such short notice John …’
‘Skip the formalities Steven, what’s this about? Unless I’m mistaken, the war’s over – why did I have to swear an oath of secrecy to talk with you?’
‘My apologies, but this is a national security issue. I recommended you to the PM as the best psychiatrist in the country. Come inside and I’ll explain.’
Steven Hastings, the Minister responsible for Strategic Planning, Canberra, liked to model himself after Winston Churchill, to the extent that he’d frequently be photographed carrying an umbrella. Unfortunately, the only characteristic he had in common with that Englishman was his portly stature. Neither had he mentioned to the PM that he knew John Wainwright from university days, they’d been in the same clique, went to the same pub, but whereas John Wainwright knew where he was headed, Hastings didn’t, and that left him feeling the lesser of the two. Now however he had a position of high esteem as well as the ear of the PM, and for some months had been privy to a matter that had been given the rare stamp of MOST SECRET. That did wonders for his sense of self-importance and he intended to use his new knowledge to greatest advantage.
As he led the way to his office, a room unashamedly decorated with credentials and awards, he asked, ‘Would you like some tea before we begin John?’
‘No, thank you, later perhaps.’
The Minister indicated towards a chair for his guest before seating himself behind a desk that could double as a dining table for eight, then stretched his fingers and peered at his nails as if pondering whether they required a manicure. Having exhausted his repertoire for intrigue he took a deep breath and began.
‘You remember when East Germany was winning all those Olympic medals – way beyond what might be expected?’
‘Sure, State Plan 14.25 I think it was. It ran from the early sixties to the eighties. What of it?’
‘At the time we knew those athletes were using stimulants but couldn’t prove it. The thing is, the East Germans were looking into alternatives too, and once in-vitro fertilization was mastered, they established a surrogacy program.
‘That would be in the late seventies I think?’
‘Right, 1978. But not all Olympian eggs were used for that purpose; some were used for research, with a focus on the mitochondria.’
‘The powerhouses of the cell, that makes sense … but why not use male donors for that? A lot easier I’d have thought.’
‘Because they wanted to breed improved variants, and mitochondria are only passed down the female germ-line. I’m surprised you don’t know about that John.’
The Minister had won a point; he’d been well briefed on this detail and could now take the role of a Master in front of his pupil. ‘Your mitochondria are the same as those of your great maternal grandmother, and for as many maternal-greats as you care to imagine. To mess with germ-line mitochondria in those days, they had to do it with eggs.’
If Wainwright felt any affront he didn’t show it and remained focussed on the topic. ‘What did they do? I thought that beyond anyone’s capacity back then?’
‘Nothing fancy; they irradiated them, then fertilized them. Those that reached the four cell stage were examined for enhanced growth-rate. It should’ve come to nothing, but they struck lucky. They noticed that some of the mitochondria in one egg grew to only half their normal size before dividing. The mitochondrial mass stayed the same, but there were twice as many of them in each cell. The upshot was a significantly greater surface-area to volume ratio of the mitochondrial membrane …’
‘… Enhancing the efficiency of energy-transport to the cell! You have my attention.’
‘They implanted the egg and it developed normally; Frieda was born in1980. For security reasons the Stasi took her under their wing, and therefore the Russians were let in on the secret too. When the East German regime collapsed they abducted her to Moscow. She was a gold medallist in the ’96 Atlanta Olympics.’
The Minister paused as if for emphasis, but since his opposite made no comment he felt obliged to continue.
‘By then every country was into genetic engineering, but some were less ethical than others. Now as you’ll be aware, ninety eight percent of the mammalian genome is non-coding and the Russians found they could remove two thirds of it in rats without deleterious effect. They didn’t stop there.’
‘They used Frieda?’
‘Precisely. They harvested her eggs, fertilized them, then deleted swathes of junk DNA using the same endonucleases that worked for rats. Six of her eggs were implanted into surrogates and one survived to full-term. Svetlana was born in 1998 and fled to Australia last year. Apparently she wanted to get as far away from Russian tentacles as possible.’
‘How could she escape without being discovered?’
‘Once her story was believed, the Foreign Office pulled out all the stops. We had help from the Brit’s too, they know all about spiriting people across borders.’
‘So she’d be … seventeen now. Are her organs functioning normally?’
‘She’s not likely to have children – with two thirds of her DNA missing she’d need donor sperm that have been identically-treated. They were working on that when she absconded. She’ll never compete in the Olympics either, but if she did she’d win every medal from the hundred metre sprint to the marathon.
‘That’s the least of it. The Russians discovered they’d accidentally created a genius. Einstein had an IQ of 180. She’s way beyond that.’
Wainwright now sat bolt upright in his chair. ‘How could that be when they weren’t selecting for intelligence?’
The Minister allowed himself a benign smile before continuing. ‘It’s all new territory, but having made the nucleus of the egg smaller, the cells followed suit. If the blueprint for body dimensions was based on cell size, she’d be a dwarf. She isn’t, her build is normal. Thanks to embryo plasticity, the cells forming her organs and tissues have multiplied beyond their normal range to compensate for their diminutive size.’
‘I think I see where this is going. Halve the cell size and the neuronal density in the brain doubles …’
‘No. Halve the cell size and the neuronal density increases by eight.’
Another point to the Minister; his faithful PA would never disclose the fact that she’d had to explain this to him using a three dimensional diagram. Now he was on a roll.
‘Add to that an improved energy supply to every one of those neurons and a dendritic networking that’s enormously enhanced. We’ve been doing similar things to computer chips for decades.’
‘Is the anatomy of her brain normal?’
‘We’ve done CAT-scans; there’s additional folding of the cerebral cortex, but other than that, everything’s in order.’
‘This is dynamite! Natural selection has been left for dead.’
The Minister beamed, it gave him real pleasure to be the font of such profound information. ‘The Russians were teaching her advanced maths and physics when she was ten and a number of their recent publications in those disciplines resulted from her insights. She’s fluent in half a dozen languages including English.’
‘She plays chess. Do you remember the last match between Kasparov and the IBM supercomputer?’
‘Deep Blue, 1997. He lost.’
‘Todays supercomputers have a hundred-fold more processing power than Deep Blue. She’s played six games against the best of them and won every time. The first game took ninety moves, but later she was winning in forty. When asked about strategy she replied that computers have no guile. Our best players are still poring over those games.’
‘What about social interactions?’
‘She lives in a safe-house with foster parents. She has a boyfriend, Mark, a PhD graduate in physics. Cambridge is after him as a post-doc but he’s reluctant to leave Svetlana and she refuses to leave Australia. He thinks she’s twenty one years old, an easy mistake, and all he knows is that she’s studying philosophy, which is true. She’s been told in no uncertain terms that it’s too dangerous to let him in on her secret. She also does some hush-hush work with the Ministry of Defence and spends time with a few of our top mathematicians.’
‘And I’m guessing you’ve brought me here because she’s depressed?’
‘For weeks she’s barely stumbled out of bed. She was finally persuaded to talk to you after she checked your credentials.’
‘Can I see her now?’
‘She’s waiting for you.’
The psychiatrist adjusted his tie and resisted the urge to scratch an itch behind his neck as he entered the room, one furnished with little more than a desk and two chairs. Seated on one of them was his client-to-be; svelte; blonde, blue eyes, clear skin, attractive to a fault. She was wearing blue jeans and a white blouse without jewellery or make-up. He attempted to exude confidence as he approached, but was uncomfortably aware of her eyes locked on his. It almost surprised him when she stood, smiled uncertainly, and extended her hand to greet him.
‘Doctor Wainwright I believe? You’ve come to banish my Black Dog.’
The doctor cleared his throat to check that his voice wouldn’t squeak. ‘One step at a time perhaps. I presume you know my background?’
‘Graduated in ’95, University of Sydney; now working as a specialist psychiatrist with fifty publications to your name. Unfortunately the most recent of those on cognitive impairment was flawed by your failure to mention your non-random selection of subjects as a potential source of error.’
After momentarily grimacing, the doctor sat hard on the vacant chair. ‘Yes, I see your point. Do please take a seat. May I call you Svetlana?’
‘Of course; I’m your patient.’
‘Let’s begin with symptoms; anxiety, loss of appetite, sleep disorder, that sort of thing.’
‘Anxiety? Yes of course, and yes, I’ve lost weight. I sleep to escape; as soon as I wake I feel a veil of despair enveloping me.’
She hesitated as if deciding how to continue, then asked, ‘What were you thinking when you first saw me?’
The turn of conversation took the doctor by surprise and he answered impulsively. ‘Just that you were a striking young lady …’
‘Hitler would’ve been proud wouldn’t he? The classical Aryan woman, ready to produce fine Deutschland boys to fight another war.’
‘Well perhaps not that …’
‘Never mind. I’m guessing you’re about to ask whether I feel guilt or worthlessness, then whether I have suicidal thoughts. I’ve read the script, sorry. Anyway, I’m not sure I’m prepared to give honest answers; perhaps we’d better skip to family history. And there’s a hoot, I’ve no idea. So we move on to social history … that must take a lot of your interview time in the big smoke? All those sordid tales of sex, drugs and childhood abuse?’
‘I think you’re rather young for sordid tales …’
‘I’ll keep it simple. Sex, yes, I’ve been there. Drugs, I smoked hash but it left me disappointed and I haven’t been abused in the normal sense of the word.’
‘What about your work? How did you spend your days before you became depressed?’
‘It’s rather covert as you know. Much of my time was spent programming; cryptanalysis, that sort of thing. I talked with selected geeks, but I can’t discuss that. I studied philosophy at ANU, I visited the National Library, I enjoyed the Classics and I kept abreast of what the cosmologists have been up to …’
‘Ah, the Theory of Everything.’
She laughed, but without mirth. ‘I’m working on it.’
A rapport or sorts had been established.
‘You have a boyfriend and mentors; do they give you the support you need?’
‘My mentors know my background and they do their best, but Mark has no idea who I am, and that’s frustrating. I have to bite my tongue quite often, he’s so enthusiastic about his research and I don’t dare comment. The same applies to my fellow students, I have lunch with some of them, and I’d like to make friends, but I keep them all at a distance for fear that they may suspect I’m different.’
‘I understand your predicament. Perhaps we’ll leave it there for today, this has been quite a leap of comprehension for me as you must imagine. You’re a special case and I’ll need time to consider how best to proceed.’
Svetlana stood to take his offered hand before adding coquettishly, ‘I didn’t mention, but the sex was great.’
John? It’s Steven. All hell’s broken loose; you’d better drop everything and get up here. Svetlana’s dead; overdosed on amphetamines. She left a letter for you and a note for her boyfriend, but nothing else. I said we should wait until you arrived. The PM and the DOD are after blood, especially yours.
Wainwright sat on one side of a table behind which was the Minister, a couple of military men, and a smattering of government officials. They were looking at him as if he’d been personally responsible for his client’s death. In front of him lay an envelope and a paper knife. Taking it up he slit it open and withdrew a single sheet of paper.
‘I’ll read what she has to say,’ he said, momentarily looking up to address his audience. ‘I don’t suppose I have any choice.’
Dear Doctor Wainwright,
I hope I wasn’t too brusque with you, I actually felt an affinity, and that’s rare. This isn’t your fault.
You might be wondering what it was that caused my depression and compelled me to take my life. I could grandstand and complain that much of my time has been utilized by the military elite to give them an edge over a phantom enemy, or I could make an impassioned plea for the planet, but the reality is more prosaic.
You’re aware that a major fraction of my DNA was deleted as non-functional. Everyone thought they’d got it right, but they were wrong. I only discovered that recently with Mark. I don’t deserve to be loved, but he loves me; I saw it in his eyes, I felt it in his touch and I heard it in his voice, yet I’m incapable of reciprocating that love. I want to, but I can’t. I’m sure the answer lies somewhere within that discarded DNA. They threw away the most precious gift that makes us human. I’m diminished beyond compare.
By the way, I cracked the Theory of Everything, but the proof is too long to fit in this margin.
A stunned silence resonated around the room as the doctor refolded the sheet and returned it to its envelope. Incapable of holding himself any longer his host asked, ‘Theory of everything? What’s she talking about John?’
‘I’m surprised you don’t know about that Steven. But it doesn’t matter; she was telling me she still had a sense of humour. Fermat would’ve smiled.’
Fermat’s Last Theorem was conjectured in the margin of a mathematics book in 1637, with the claim that a proof of it was too large to fit in that margin. It was finally proven by Andrew Wiles and published in 1995. The proof is over 150 pages long and resulted in a knighthood for its discoverer.
The ‘Theory of Everything’ encapsulates our hope of eventually unifying quantum mechanics with Einstein’s theory of general relativity. One of them must give, they are presently incompatible.