Tag Archives: sci-fi

Voyage: A Macroscopic View

Today’s post is the final part of a collaborative miniseries on time dilation and relativity. Click here if you missed the introduction!

Steve disembarked on Earth 100 years after takeoff. Thanks to the effects of near-lightspeed travel, it’d only been a week for Steve.

Humanity had prospered. Lifespans had doubled, and new genetic engineering techniques eliminated the need for medicine.

During his postflight health checkup, a doctor asked Steve about his sore throat.

“It’s just a touch of strep throat I picked up last week,” said Steve. “I didn’t realize I was sick until a couple days ago.”

Puzzled, the doctor asked, “What’s ‘strep throat’?”

Only a few months later, humanity was destroyed by the ancient bacteria that returned from the stars.

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Now we get to the end of the story! Yesterday’s protagonists, Harvey and Darby, are streptolococcus bacteria, the critters responsible for Streptococcal pharyngitis, more commonly called strep throat. Strep throat’s not very deadly, thanks to antibiotics like penicillin. But in this story, in growing beyond the need for antibiotics and perhaps even immunity, humanity’s left itself exposed to the return of an old foe who finds them much more vulnerable than before.

Fry's first glimpse of New New York City
What kind of guy chooses to go to the future? (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Since we discussed immunity yesterday, I’d like to touch on time dilation again, this time from Steve’s perspective. I wonder, how did Steve get picked for this mission anyway? Reader misskzebra offered some insightful thoughts on the problem of leaving it all behind to go into an unknown future. What kind of person would volunteer to do this? Someone with no meaningful relationships? But if you already hate the time you live in, who’s to say you won’t just bring your problems with you into the future?

Interestingly, we’ve got a historical parallel available. Back before the days of mass transit and telephones, exploration by sea was a risky proposition. I’m thinking of the European explorers who gambled on the hope that land existed beyond the horizon’s end. And while colonialism has a sordid history, I have to admire the pluck and resolve of the families who left behind the comfort and safety of civilization for a life of isolation on a foreign shore. They left behind parents and children and spouses with no guarantee they’d see them again. I could fly to England before the day’s over today, but for those colonists, America might as well have been Mars.

It’s worth noting that like Steve, the European colonists also brought their germs with them, to devastating effect.

Nonetheless, I’m glad such adventurous people exist. They push the boundaries so that the rest of us can learn from their discoveries. But wherever you go, be it Alpha Centauri or Idaho, bring some penicillin with you. Let’s not start another epidemic when we reach the wilderness.

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Medical Microfiction: Encephalic

Fireflies

Lights on.

I awake remembering the fireflies.

Brief consciousness. It’s probing my memories again.

I would scream, but I no longer have lungs. Or a face.

I remember everything now. Fireflies on the lawn of the graveyard. Then it broke from the mausoleum: a horror in flesh, studded with the mismatched limbs of the dead. They were still moving. As it groped for me, I glimpsed the inside of its putrid flank: rows of human brains embedded in rot.

Now it wakes me only when I’m needed. Another node in its processor.

I remember fireflies flaring and fading.

Lights off.

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neuron fractal 4
Neuron fractal. (Photo credit: Anthony Mattox)

Last time we talked about disembodied organs, I gave you a few suggestions on what to do you if you ever get to hang out with your liver. Today’s word encephalic means pertaining to the brain (not to be confused with myeloencephalic). Etymologically, it’s a nifty word because “en” means “inside” and “cephal” means “head”. To the ancient Greeks, the brain was “that thing inside your head”.

Well, I’m not one to argue with the ancient Greeks!

This story’s my attempt to write H.P. Lovecraft-style horror in 100 words. The problem is that Lovecraft never said anything in 100 words or less. As a writer, he’s known for his dense, descriptive writing style designed to evoke the feeling of terror.

Since the brain’s the name of the game today, I chose the central image of fireflies to suggest how an electrical signal brings a neuron in the brain to life. I’ll spare you the complex description of how neurons fire–at least for today–and anyway, it’s best done in person, with a pen and napkin and lots of hand-waving. We often talk about the brain using analogies about “wiring” because, at least to some degree, this is how neurons work. When a certain level of voltage is created in a neuron (called an action potential), the neuron “fires” and sends a signal down its long axon, or tail, which can have a lot of different effects depending on the type of neuron.

Human brain - midsagittal cut
Human brain – midsagittal cut (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In this case, the poor narrator’s brain is being used by the monster of horror as a processor of sorts. Whenever an electrical impulse enters the now-disembodied brain, the poor guy becomes briefly conscious, just long enough to remember how he got there, before the monster switches him off again.

Fortunately, none of us will ever have to face such a fate. …I think.

Any other Lovecraft fans out there? What’s your favorite horror story or author?

Guest Post: Adipocytes

Today we bring you a piece of 100-word microfiction by my husband Jason, who finally humored me and wrote a drabble of his own!

A Weighty Matter

When Winston had first discovered the equation that would allow for instantaneous matter transportation, he knew he would revolutionize the world.  The only problem he foresaw was the energy cost.  It started relatively small, requiring only the wattage of a lightbulb.  For larger objects, though, the cost grew exponentially.

So he set a cap on how much mass could be transported at once.  Enough for a modestly sized person to pass through.

But after someone lied about their mass and left a pile of oozing white goo on the platform, he knew exactly how he’d revolutionize the world: instant liposuction.

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Adipocytes
Adipocytes (Photo credit: Pazit Polak)

Jason and I both wrote adipocyte-themed stories last week when I was working on Endemic! Week. His story was so awesome that I thought it deserved a post of its own. Adipocytes are fat cells, also called lipocytes. They’re an important connective tissue in our bodies, playing a role in energy storage, physical protection, and heat production. Adipocytes surround and anchor our eyeballs, for example, as well as our kidneys.

While we often associate adipocytes with weight gain, it’s important to remember that some fat is critical to the healthy operation of our bodies. Aside from the functions already listed, did you know that dietary fat is critical for brain development? We are born with our brains unfinished. Around 14 weeks into fetal development, a process called myelination starts in our nerves. This is when the brain starts wrapping nerves in a substance called myelin, which is mostly made up of dietary fat. It’s sort of like covering bare wires in insulation. Myelinated nerves conduct signals around the body much more rapidly than their unmyelinated counterparts.

Nerves wrapped in myelin form the “white matter” of your brain, while the variety without myelin forms the “gray matter”.

What happens if you don’t have enough myelin covering your white matter? Well, the nerve signals get disrupted. The disease multiple sclerosis, also called MS, is an illness where the myelin sheaths covering the nerves break drown. MS results in a huge variety of symptoms, depending on which nerves degenerate first: blindness, speech problems, tremors, or numbness, for starters.

Hopefully Winston’s liposuction transporter can tell the difference between wanted and unwanted fat in the body. Otherwise his patients might leave a little brain behind them.

Medical Microfiction: Monophagia

The Other White Meat

The investigators surveyed the grisly scene in the kitchen of the YT-1300 light freighter. Severed limbs stewing in pots. Bleached bones wedged inside the pantry. And fur everywhere, stuck to the sticky surfaces.

“What happened here?” asked Landry.

“Turns out the captain’s got a food fixation. Developed a taste for these little guys and couldn’t get enough. Apparently it’s been going on for years now,” said his lieutenant.

“Oh God. So the liberation of Endor…”

The lieutenant grimaced, nodded. “A harvest.”

“Where is he now?”

“They picked him up en route to the Wookiee homeworld. Loaded down with barbecue gear.”

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Han Solo
Han Solo (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Monophagia is the practice of eating only one kind of food. In the natural world, some species do this naturally, such as the Giant Panda, which only eats bamboo. Humans are usually not monophagous, unless you’re a toddler going through that phase when you’ll only eat orange things. In humans, monophagia is a disorder because (to my knowledge) there is no one food that will impart all the nutrition we need to survive. We crave variety because we need to.

We previously discussed the disorder pica and its links to iron deficiency, but that’s not the only dietary deficiency we’re up against. Notably, we humans do not produce our own Vitamin C. That’s a problem, especially since almost all other animals and plants DO produce their own without needing to get it from diet. This is why your dog or cat doesn’t have to eat oranges to avoid getting scurvy. Scurvy is a disease resulting from Vitamin C deficiency. Among other things, our bodies need Vitamin C to make collagen, which is found in our skin. Without collagen, the skin becomes weakened, which leads to fatigue, sores on the skin, loss of teeth, and eventually death.

Which is why man can’t live on Ewok alone, unless you eat the Vitamin C-rich liver while you’re at it.

Speaking of barbecues, a happy Memorial Day weekend to those of you living in the United States! I hope you have gorgeous weather and a relaxing long weekend off. We’ll probably take advantage of the excellent forecast here in Georgia to cook out. Blog updates may be spotty this weekend unless I’m feeling ambitious, but I’ve got something special planned for next week. Stay tuned for our first-ever theme week, starting Monday!