Let me tell you something about jellyfish.
A typical jellyfish goes through four stages in life: it starts out as a floating larvae, which looks for a suitable site to evolve into a polyp, which then eventually strobilates into a medusa, or, the form of the jellyfish we are most familiar with. Strobilation means that the polyp pushes off a part of itself that becomes a medusa.
Now, if that isn’t fascinating enough for you, there are also a species of jellyfish that can revert their medusa form back to the polyp stage, which then again creates a medusa, which can revert back to a polyp and so on.
Basically, this type of jellyfish is immortal.
As you probably can imagine, modern medical science is very much interested in this species. Very much indeed. I should know, because, well, let’s just say II have a ‘friend’ that used to experiment with this specific jellyfish exactly for that reason.
My friend is a synthetic biologist, meaning he knows all about genes and how to manipulate, reproduce or alter them. So needless to say, when he got invited to join a project that gave him all the time and resources to truly study these creatures, he didn’t need to be asked twice.
It started out innocently. The pharmaceutical company paying for the operation stayed out of it, and he had a lovely laboratory filled with all the equipment and assistants he could possibly need. Microscopes, separation centrifuges, a powerful analytic computer and of course state of the art salt water tanks with all the climate controlling options necessary. Months went by while he happily did his research, studying the jellyfish in it’s various stages. Analyzing it’s genetic structure, doing tests, basically practicing good, honest science.
Then he isolated a couple of genes that might be of use. Genes controlling rejuvenation and transformation of the species. And of course, that’s when things went bad.
It started with the new tanks coming in. Their shape and size had nothing to do with jellyfish. Then the assistants he had grown to like and trust all got fired one by one. New assistants came in, but they seemed cold, distant. Oh, they’d do what he’d tell them, but there was no friendly banter, no jokes, just bare professionalism. Then came the semen. And the ova. Human semen and ova. And he knew what was expected of him. He went to work.
Changes were made to the laboratory while he worked. One part was cleared and a glass room build into it, outfitted with a bed, a table, a television, one of the new tanks and something that could only be an echoscope machine.
One day, an employee of the undisclosed pharmaceutical company walked in. ‘Are you ready?’ he asked. My friend knew what the man meant. He tried to explain that while he had managed to add parts of the isolated DNA to both sperm and eggs and could potentially fertilise the egg with the modified sperm, they were no way in hell far enough to take the experiment further. The man’s reply was simple: ‘My employees think you are’.
Any sane men would have stopped right there, but my friend had gone so obsessed and fascinated by his research that he let his curiosity get the better of him. So they brought in the woman. Young. Scared. Meth scabs on her face. It was obvious it was either this or getting beat up by her pimp for her. They put her in the room, supplied him with the necessary amounts of pharmaceutically engineered methylamphetamine to keep her from going cold turkey and that was that.
He kept her there for a week at first just to clean her up, to put her on a healthy diet (well, as healthy as you can get while regularly administering generous doses of methylamphetamine in the meantime) and watched her getting more and more comfortable. I can’t even begin to imagine what her previous life would’ve been like if she’d prefer the sterile environment of this laboratory over it. She asked him to call her Lucy.
After a week he couldn’t hold back his ‘assistants’ any longer. It was time for Lucy to be inseminated.
He spend hours talking to Lucy the next months. He got to know her pretty well, and while she was not the brightest of the bunch, she was cooperative and liked to joke around. The contrast with her and his surly new assistants was so big it was hard for him not to take a liking to her.
Then her mood changed. She started talking less and used to sit on the bed for hours, just staring at the tanks of jellyfish and polyps in the lab. When she was halfway through her pregnancy she stopped eating until the day some assistants were having sashimi for lunch. Suddenly she said she was hungry again and could she have some please. She ate nothing but raw fish and seaweed after this.
Once a week another doctor came in to do the echoscopes, which were carefully hidden from my friend for some reason. Sometimes he tried to peek over the doctors shoulder but there were always some assistants ‘accidentally’ in the way for him to see anything. The face of the doctor meanwhile might’ve been cut from stone. No expression there that’d give away anything.
A month before labor Lucy stopped talking altogether. She barely reacted to anybody, just sitting on the edge of her bed and staring. The only thing that could get any reaction out of her, if ever so brief, were the two daily doses of methylamphetamine she was still on. Since they were monitoring her day and night, they found out that she had also stopped sleeping. At least, as far as they could call her current state ‘awake’.
My friend did sleep however, although he wished he didn’t. The dreams were atrocious. Something was talking to him, wetly, but always just beyond understanding. He often woke to the feeling of tendrils on his face, stinging him straight out of sleep. Must be the strain of the experiments, he figured.
Then Lucy died. She just, well, stopped. With tears in his eyes he called his superior, to whom her death was obviously no concern. Within half an hour a team of men in hazmat suits barged into the lab and obscured the glass room with plastic sheets. He wasn’t allowed in, but he could hear things. A sickening ripping sound. Something, hardly human, that could’ve been the sound of a baby crying, had the sound not been so, for lack of a better term, gelatinous. It took them only fifteen minutes to walk out with one of the special, later delivered tanks. He couldn’t see what was in it for the briny liquid that filled it halfway to the top. Only a vague floating shape. A vague, moving, floating shape.
After that it was all “thanks for your cooperation professor,” “hope to work with you again.” and then “off you go.” Of course, he never heard from any of them again, let alone worked with them.
My friend still dreams every night, but now the moist, sloshing voice is more understandable. A lot of what it says he still can not decipher, but the final message, right before he wakes up, is always clear:
“Let me tell you something about jellyfish. Basically, they are immortal.”
(This was an exciting story for me because, as some of you may know, the New York Times recently published an article on this very subject.)