Continuing from yesterday’s post ……Amica is not a large planet, only about half the size of Earth. Half a billion years ago, Amica’s main land mass broke up and separated into three continents. The largest of these is Amotus, which until several hundred years ago was divided into over two dozen separate provinces. The continent has been largely unified by the rise of the Parmo Empire in the north, and now comprises of just three states, North, Mid and South Amotus. Because of its stable climate, the majority of Ufros and Fulfae live in Mid-Amotus. The major industrial centre is New Parmo City, home to over ten million Ufros and Fulfae. At a big desk, in his big office in a big building in the middle of this big city sat a large Ufro, and he was not happy. Herschel Devine, founder and CEO of Devine Interventions (and its subsidiary, Intelligent Design), sat frowning at a large TV screen mounted on the office wall. He buzzed for his secretary, Sukianne. “Yes, Mr Devine?” “Get me Drake!” He picked up the TV remote and turned his attention to the screen. He pressed play and the screen faded in to show the planet Earth. Orchestral music stirred as the scene cut to a herd of wildebeest galloping, then to a group of dolphins leaping through the ocean and finally to a great lion, standing regally against the backdrop of a green savannah. A soft female voice intoned, “one billion years ago, the first simple multi-cellular organisms appeared on Earth, but it took a further billion years for these to evolve into the wonderful array of animals that now populate the planet.” The music swelled dramatically. “Today, we can do it much faster.” A baby elephant waddled in a stream while the A to Z logo hovered benevolently above it. “At A to Z, we can take you from amoeba to zebra in as little as eighteen weeks.” The words “subject to status and availability, terms and conditions apply” hurtled across the bottom of the screen in tiny letters. “A to Z. Because nobody wants to wait an eternity.” Devine paused the advert. The A to Z logo hung in the centre of the screen, mocking him. His engineering company had seen profits fall in recent years, and last year’s Cosmos del Sol scandal had come at the worst possible time, with stories of half-finished planets dominating headlines in the galactic press for weeks. It was only through his personal friendship with the Emperor that his company had been able to secure the contract to build the planet Genesis. Devine sighed heavily. The future of his whole company depended on the success of the Genesis project. He could not afford any more scandal, and to top it all off, A to Z were cutting deeply into his market share, due in no small part to this new advertising campaign. Evolution Corporation was Devine Interventions main rival, and A to Z was their landscaping and population subsidiary. The intercom on his desk buzzed, “Excuse me, Sir. Mr Drake is here to see you.” “Please send him in, Sukianne.” A few moments later the Head of P.R, Mallardus Drake trundled into Devine’s office. Drake was a small, chubby Fulfa, whose stuck-up crown of red fur and wide eyes gave him a look of perpetual amazement. “H.D, how are you?” “Fine, Mallardus, fine. Yourself?” “Never better.” Devine motioned to the screen. “I trust you’ve seen it.” Drake nodded. Devine picked up a memo from his desk and crunched it into a ball. “A to Z has increased its market share by five percent in the two weeks since this advert appeared. That’s the sort of advertising I want for Intelligent Design. We need to come out with something big, and we need it now.” He threw the memo at the screen and it bounced off the “A” from the A to Z logo. “Good shot, H.D.” “Thanks.” Devine continued. “The campaign should focus on the quality of our work, the craftsmanship. People need to be reminded why we were awarded the Genesis contract.” He spread his paws before him. “How about, Intelligent Design; our fauna speaks for itself!” Drake shook his head. “Our polls show that quality is no longer our clients’ top priority; they are more concerned that their planets should be completed on schedule. You remember all that Cosmos del Sol business, don’t you?” Devine snarled, but Drake continued unabashed. “There are rumours of problems on Genesis, sliding deadlines, spiralling costs.” Devine banged the table with a large furry paw. “LIES!” he thundered. “Spread by that swine Darwin and his evil cronies at Evolution.” “Nevertheless, if you want to maintain your market share, the campaign needs to focus on dependability, reliability and consistent adherence to deadlines. That is, if you believe the polls.” “And should I?” Drake shrugged. “You’re paying for them.”
*Meanwhile, deep within the Headquarters of Evolution Corporation, Evolution House, there were dark clouds gathering. Chalfont Darwin, President of Evolution Corporation and Milo Lamarck, Evolution’s Head of Security were sat together in Darwin’s office. The two Ufros had previously worked together at Devine Interventions, and when Darwin set up his own company he had offered Lamarck a generous salary to come and work for him. Lamarck was as crooked as a ginglesnake’s snorkel. If there was dirty work to be done, Lamarck was the Ufro for the job. “Doctor Ongo’s TNA research is going nowhere,” complained Darwin. “If Eikopf cracks it first, then Intelligent Design is going to corner the market in bio-patents. Are we making any progress on acquiring his research?” Lamarck shook his head. “Eikopf isn’t interested in money. We’ll have to get it the hard way.” “Any ideas?” asked Darwin. “Oh yes. We’ve acquired a new asset. Cherry’s her name. She approached me a few weeks ago; she heard that we had been sniffing around and she says she can get access to Intelligent Design’s R&D section. She’s just waiting for an opportunity to present itself.” Darwin was suspicious; it was inevitable considering the company he chose to keep. “Who is she? How did she hear?” “I don’t know, but she must have contacts on the inside. She knows things. She should be calling me later this week.” “Can we get a trace on her phone?” “I tried that. It’s a mobile phone, pay as you go, bought with cash. Untraceable.” As usual, Lamarck had done his homework. “Could it be a set-up?” asked Darwin. Lamarck nodded. ”Could be, but you can’t catch a shark without dipping your head in the sea.” He smiled. “Don’t worry, Mr Darwin! Whatever happens, it won’t get back to you. That’s what you pay me for.”
*It was a quarter to twelve when Chippo, Pingree and Hudley finished bio-printing, so they decided to defer their visit to the DNA lab until after lunch. Lunch was not served until midday, so they sat and waited in the canteen, sketching creature designs. Hudley scratched his furry ear with a pencil. “What should I buy my mum for her birthday?” “A lathe,” offered Chippo, without looking up from his notepad. “And what do you imagine my mum would want a lathe for?” “Turning wood,” Chippo shook his head, “obviously.” He gazed around the canteen and yawned. “Hey, look! Prof. Eikopf’s back from sabbatical.” Intelligent Design’s Scientific Director, Professor Cranius Eikopf was a legend in the world of creature design. His work on DNA templates had revolutionised animal and plant production and earned him his first Yesbel Prize for genetics. Eikopf was a tall, slim, light brown Ufro with piercing blue eyes and a long nose. As always, his shirtsleeves were held back to his elbows with sleeve garters and he sported a garish bow tie. The thinning grey fur of his scalp had been flattened down, but despite his best efforts it constantly reared up like a meerkat to wave jauntily from the top of his head. Before we meet the Professor, a few words regarding DNA. Ninety percent of DNA appears to have no obvious function and is known as junk DNA, or jDNA. Junk DNA never mutates and has remained unchanged for hundreds of millions of years. A further nine percent of DNA relates to universal cellular and organ structure and function. This is known as functional DNA, or fDNA. Both jDNA and fDNA are universal across all life forms, from the humble bacterium to the mighty gurfle. Of the remaining one percent, the majority is also identical between organisms of the same class (i.e. all fishes, all mammals etc.). The difference between species of the same family is less than 0.1 percent, and this is known as variable DNA or vDNA. It is this vDNA that creature designers work with to create new species. There are now many hundreds of commercial templates available, depending on what you wish to design. If for example you wish to create a new fish, you would use a fish DNA template from which you can create any species of fish by adding and manipulating vDNA. Alongside these commercially produced templates, Intelligent Design boasts a DNA catalogue with thousands of proprietary templates based on Eikopf’s research, with new designs added almost daily. The Professor sat at a table on his own, thoughtfully munching on a sandwich. “I haven’t seen him since graduation,” said Pingree. “Let’s go say hello.” “Do you think he’ll remember us?” asked Hudley. “I’m sure he’ll remember you, Squirrel Boy!” Who could forget their final exams when Hudley had forgotten to move a decimal point, inadvertently creating the academy’s first twenty metre long squirrel? Pingree dropped his voice to a gravely drawl. “Coming soon to a spinney near you, a savage tale of one young Fulfa’s quest to discover the ultimate rodent; MEGA-SQUIRREL! Hold on to your nuts!” Hudley sneered at him. “You’re such a slug, Verdi.” Chippo stood up. “Come on, guys!” They crossed the canteen and greeted the Professor. “Hello Professor.” Professor Eikopf looked up, immediately recgonising Pingree. “Well, well; young Mr Verdi. What brings you here?” Pingree indicated his companions. “We’re juniors in the creature design department. This is Chippo Zorillo and Hudley Hodge.” The professor’s eyes widened. “Goodness gracious, it’s Squirrel Boy! Have they got you designing sea serpents? We shall all be devoured in our beds.” The Professor waggled his sandwich at Hudley, whose cheeks burned red under his fur. “It’s the first rule of creature design; if you don’t sew in metres, you will reap monstrous creatures.” He motioned to the seats opposite and the three Fulfae sat. “So, Professor,” asked Chippo, “how goes the search for TNA?” “My boy, it never ends.” Professor Eikopf popped a piece of fruit into his mouth. “Do you know much about triple stranded DNA?” They shook their heads. “Very well then. As you are aware, all the DNA templates we use are based on existing DNA from Earth and Amica, which is ninety percent junk DNA. According to computer simulations, by using a triple helix, we can reduce redundant information to less than sixty percent; less than fifty if the company would let us cut out the legal jargon and small print. With less filler to replicate, and by using base triplets rather than pairs, we can not only increase biodiversity dramatically, we can speed up DNA replication by almost forty percent. The cost implications are staggering. The first company to patent a TNA template will decimate the competition.” The Professor rubbed his paws together gleefully. “I’m only days away from a working prototype. They’ll be naming planets after me next!” He glanced at the canteen clock. “Good heavens, is that the time? I’ve got a meeting in I.T.” And with that, the Professor dashed out of the canteen so eagerly that several of the other patrons glanced around to check that the kitchen was not ablaze.
*Mrs Afra Durle was the Head of the I.T Department on Genesis. She was a slender, intelligent Ufro, with white fur and blue eyes, a very rare combination in Ufros. She kept her fur at medium length, especially around the shoulders so that it could flow out around her slim neck and frame her delicate jawline. Bernard and Afra were childhood sweethearts and married young. Soon after they married, they had a daughter, Nalina. It was shortly after Nalina’s birth that the Truff uprising began on Ferox, prompting an idealistic young Bernard Durle to join the Ufric Air Force, leaving Afra at home to bring up baby. The military life meant that the young family moved from town to town. The Durles decided that Nalina’s education would be more stable at a boarding school and so, at the age of six a tearful Nalina Durle was sent to a military boarding school, where she quickly established herself as both an able pupil and a fiercely independent child. Afra occupied herself with a distance-learning course in computing and I.T, but during this time the Durles’ marriage fell under great strain. Afra and Nalina pined for one another and Afra resented her husband for separating them. By this time Bernard Durle had become a highly decorated major and was only a few years from becoming a commodore, or even a marshal, but Afra had other ideas and issued an ultimatum. He had to choose; family or career. He chose family. The Durles moved to the outskirts of New Parmo city and both Major and Mrs Durle found employment with a new Engineering company, Devine Interventions. Nalina was enrolled in a good local school where she quickly made new friends and attained good grades. And so, after fifteen years’ service, and with Nalina having grown up and left home some years earlier, the Durles found themselves in senior positions on the galaxy’s most prestigious engineering project, Genesis. There was a knock at Afra’s office door and Professor Eikopf entered. The office was deliberately sparse, with a modest glass topped desk, upon which rested only three things; a computer terminal, a telephone and a framed picture of the Durle family, their three furry faces beaming happily. Eikopf extended his paw. “Good afternoon, Afra. How are you?” She rose; they shook paws and then sat down, facing each other across the desk. “I’m very well, thank you, Professor. And yourself?” “Fine, fine.” He indicated the photograph. “How is Nalina getting on? Working back at Head Office isn’t she?” “That’s right, in I.T. She’s just been promoted to senior programmer.” “Following in her mother’s footsteps, eh?” “Not really. She wants to start up a software design company, but she’s still paying off her student debts and can’t get the bank to lend her any money.” She sighed. “It’s very frustrating for her.” “You’re not able to help out?” Afra snorted. “I’m sure we could, but Bernie won’t entertain it. He says she has to make her own way in the world.” “That’s our Major!” agreed the Professor. “She’ll be here in a couple of days. She’s planning a few spa days to unwind before the opening ceremony. I’ll send her over to say hello.” “That would be lovely, Afra. I haven’t seen her for years.” Afra rose. “Would you like a cup of fanza?” “Yes please, milk and three.” Afra left the office to make drinks, returning a few minutes later with two steaming mugs. She sat next to Eikopf and turned her computer terminal around to face them. “I’ve started working on the software upgrade. The library is so full, that the old software keeps crashing. This new one is more flexible and will free up enough memory to encode triple stranded templates on the fly. It’s already up and running in Plant Design. You should try it.” “Yes, Seth told me. I’ve a lot on this week, but I’m meeting him next week to bio-print some algae with the new system. This won’t affect any of the printing works will it?” “No,” Afra reassured him. “Until Genesis is completed, all systems will remain online except the cataloguing software. Everything will function as normal until after completion, then I’ll reboot the whole system and load all the new software.” “Excellent!” said Eikopf. “Was there anything else?” “Yes. We’ve upgraded the security and log in systems throughout the company. From this time next week, no one can access the system without a smart card. I need to print yours for you, and then you can choose a new password. We just need a mugshot first.” She tapped a few buttons on the computer to activate the webcam, and manoeuvred the screen until the Professor’s face was central. His hair bobbed and weaved and though he tried in vain to flatten it down, he quickly admitted defeat. “Ready?” asked Afra. The Professor nodded, and peered intently into the camera, like a cat studying a goldfish in a bowl. “OK, all done. I’ll have this ready in a minute.” Afra attached a card-printer to her computer and drew a blank smart card from her desk draw. “Please type in a new password,” she said, sliding the keyboard to Eikopf. “It needs to contain at least one capital letter and two digits.” Within a few minutes, Professor Eikopf was on his way to the DNA library with his new smart card hanging around his neck, its shiny mauve lanyard clashing horribly with his pale tangerine shirt and lemon bow tie.
*After lunch, the three juniors headed to the South Wing. DNA templates were stored in the DNA library, located within the Department of Research and Development. There was a notice pinned to the library door. “Due to a software upgrade, there will be no digital catalogue available to browse until further notice. Patrons will be required to locate their own samples. Please speak to a member of library staff if you require assistance. You are reminded that removal of any template from this library is strictly prohibited.” “T’riffic!” muttered Chippo. There was a stack of hand baskets at the library entrance. As they entered, they each took a basket. As ever, Elma the elderly librarian was sat at her desk at the front of the library, knitting. She greeted them fondly. “Hello boys. Would you like a home-made biscuit?” “Yes please, Elma.” They each took one except Chippo, who took three. “Don’t get crumbs everywhere,” she reminded them sternly as they entered the main library. There were rows and rows of shelves, packed from floor to ceiling with DNA templates. The room was divided into sections according to which DNA was required. Pingree, Hudley and Chippo headed for the eukaryote section, then into animals. “OK,” said Pingree, “we need a squid and land crab. I’ll get the squid. Hudley, grab a crab. Chippo, you get some expansion packs. We’ll catch you up.” “Bossy git!” muttered Chippo. Pingree and Hudley went to the Invertebrate section, Hudley browsing for arthropods, while Pingree searched for cephalopods. “Squid, squid, squid,” Pingree muttered to himself working his way through the templates. He paused and scratched his chin. “Perhaps an octopus would work better.” Hudley was browsing the malacostracans for a brightly coloured swimming crab. “A-ha!” he exclaimed, standing on tiptoes to reach a high shelf. “Need any help?” asked Professor Eikopf, who had wandered up behind him. Hudley startled, knocking a dozen different types of crayfish onto the floor. “Sorry, didn’t mean to scare you.” The Professor pointed. “Is this the one you were after?” “Yes, please.” “What are you making?” asked the Professor, handing the template to Hudley, who had knelt down to pick up the crayfish. “We’re making a sea creature for Admiral Bootlink to celebrate his thirtieth year of service. We’re going to splice together a crab and a squid.” “Have you tried the hybrid section? There may be one there already.” “Hybrid section?” asked Hudley. “I’m not familiar with that.” “It’s a work in progress. Let me show you.” “Thanks, Professor.” “Hey, Hudley,” said Pingree, appearing around the corner, a DNA template in each paw. “Would you prefer calamari or sushi?”
*Chippo was in the library’s largest section, looking at DNA expansion packs. There were sections for paws, claws, teeth, tails, eyes, ears; you name it, it was here. Each expansion pack was clearly marked with a picture of what features it would produce. The squid template would be sufficient for tentacles and the crab would cover pincers, mandibles and jointed legs, but they would probably need a tail. In each section of the library was a locked cabinet labelled “Caution, Hazardous Genetic Materials.” As always, Chippo headed for this. He had been fascinated by dangerous creatures all his life and these were his favourite parts of the library. Within these locked glass cabinets were DNA expansion packs for the most dangerous and deadly weaponry in the animal kingdom. Use of any of these features required an application for planning permission, and this could take weeks, or even months to be processed. Chippo gazed at the contents. This cabinet contained claws and stings. There were stings that could kill, paralyse or cause vomiting. There were razor sharp claws, corkscrew shaped claws and retractable claws. In a locked case on the top shelf was a box marked, “thumbs.” In view of the mess that Humans were making of planet Earth, the use of opposable thumbs had been banned outright for over fifty years, but the library still retained a set for research purposes. Chippo turned his attention back to the shelves and started rummaging through tails. He envisioned something sturdy, with a clubbed end, and found a nice one on the bottom row. He would have liked a scorpion’s tail, but without poison it seemed rather impotent. The Professor was showing Pingree and Hudley around the Hybrid section. “So far, we have only done a few hundred, but you can see that they will each bear two codes, according to which two species have been combined.” He picked one out. “Here for example, we’ve combined a bat and a herring; I call it a battering.” “Do you have crab and squid, or lobster and octopus; some kind of arthropod-cephalopod combination?” asked Pingree. “If we do, it’ll be down here, bottom shelf”, replied the Professor. “I’ll leave you to it then?” “Thanks, Professor.” Professor Eikopf headed down the aisle and disappeared towards the back of the library. “Pingree, you start that end of the shelf; we’ll meet in the middle.” Chippo had made his selection and ambled over. “Are you done?” “Almost,” replied Hudley. “Did you know about the hybrid section?” “Of course,” said Chippo. “Have you seen the battering? Pretty cool, huh?” They were unable to find the exact hybrid that they wanted, and so settled for a combination of mudskipper and spider crab. They took their baskets to Elma at the front desk, and emptied out the assorted templates to be processed. No DNA templates were to be removed from the library under any circumstances; Professor Eikopf was still bitter about losing the last remaining copy of unicorn DNA. Each DNA template had to be uploaded to a memory stick in a compressed, encrypted format, suitable for use with Intelligent Design’s proprietary DNA design software. “Couldn’t this all go on a central server to be downloaded remotely?” asked Chippo. Elma laughed, “My word, wouldn’t that be wonderful?” She indicated the handful of templates on the desk. “You see these? Fifty years ago, you would have needed an entire library just for six or seven templates. Why do you think the planet Scintillo has so many moons? All packed to the rafters with analogue DNA templates.” She shook her head. “It’s incredible how much data can now be stored on just one small template. A whole creature!” She inclined her head towards the back of the library. “And we have the Professor to thank.”
*Caelestis boasted the Capricorn Hotel, which would be used to accommodate visiting dignitaries, but was currently home to over a hundred Intelligent Design staff, both Ufro and Fulfa. There were designers, management teams, administrative support, hotel and catering staff and ground workers, not to mention technicians, security personnel and academic staff. The Intelligent Design staff had full use of all hotel and leisure amenities until the project was complete, and they were taking full advantage of the fact. For the Fulfae, every night was party night on Caelestis, and its nightclub, Club Frizzle was full of brightly coloured males gyrating and twerking until well into the small hours. As midnight approached there was little activity in or around the hotel. The security guard snoozed happily at his desk, and the lobby was silent except for his soft snoring. Two kilometres to the west lay the methane swamp, belching out huge plumes of methane gas, rising into the atmosphere, infusing it with a soft pink glow. Suddenly, great bursts of pink and purple light streaked across the sky, reaching for several kilometres in all directions. The light pulsed and danced, softly illuminating the surrounding forest. This was the Aurora Methalis, a phenomenon caused by the deflection of solar radiation by the planet’s magnetic field. The atmosphere above the swamp sparkled as the Aurora Methalis wove its purple and pink threads against the starry sky. It was a wondrous sight. Less than two kilometres away, on the west coast, the flickering lights attracted the attention of the fire-toads. Designed to provide eco-friendly mood lighting for Caelestis’ sandy west beach, they became active at dusk and congregated at the water’s edge to spawn and feed. Ranging from fifteen to twenty centimetres in length, they emitted a warm green glow and a gentle heat. Excess heat was vented when they croaked, producing a characteristic green flame. Like turtles, fire-toads relied on the flicker of the moonlight on the ocean surf to lead them to the sea, their instinct being to head towards the brightest horizon. But the brightest horizon was no longer over the ocean; it was above the methane swamp. With a fiery croak, the largest of the toads turned and headed back up the beach. Before the methane swamps were built, the Aurora had glowed green, but now, the presence of high quantities of methane in the atmosphere had changed its colour and made it unique in the star system. Unique and flammable. And here came the fire-toads, on and on, closer and closer, up the hill, the ocean surf glowing gently in the moonlight behind them. The largest, strongest toad was first to arrive. It had taken him five hours to travel from the beach to the methane swamp, and he was tiring. He reached the crest of the hill and let out a great croak of triumph. A small green flame, no more than a centimetre long issued from his mouth. It was enough to ignite the nearest methane geyser. A wall of flame, over a kilometre high soared directly up into the atmosphere. Almost immediately, the next geyser erupted, and the next, and the next. It was beautiful. Huge orange pillars of fire turned night to day. It blazed so brightly that for several minutes, the aurora itself was obscured from view. The noise could be heard several kilometres away. The Emperor and his wife would have gasped in awe at the magnificence of the spectacle had they been present to witness it. Alas, it was still seven days until the opening ceremony and Caelestis had shown its hand rather too early. As the methane began to dwindle, the aurora came back into view, initially purple and pink, then changing to green as the methane in the atmosphere burned away. The flames subsided and died, and the methane swamp was still. The fire-toad had not anticipated such a reception. He turned and headed back down the hill. Back at the Capricorn Hotel, dawn had arrived early and nobody was sleeping anymore.