Like a bad penny

by | May 1, 2010 | Stories | 0 comments

“So, these DNA strands really do match?” I asked.
“Yes, if we just fill in a few gaps, as usual.”
“An exact match? Really? Yeah. Right”
My research associate Daniel looked understandably jaded after a considerable stretch in the lab. He frowned.
“Ian, I’m telling you, these samples are from the exact same person. A standard match. It would be concrete enough for a legal conviction. They’ve been secured on less.” I knew he was serious when he started his sentence with my name.
“But they were born four hundred years apart…”

So began the whole bizarre episode. A mass of genetic worms suddenly began metaphorically crawling out of their cast-iron scientific textbook of a can in every direction imaginable.
However the timing couldn’t have been worse. Our research department was slowly winding up. We were meant to be finishing off a few projects and no fresh money was due to come in. Both of us were looking to our futures with some uncertainty.
We had been routinely adding DNA data from samples taken from an archaeological dig into the national database. During this otherwise mundane task the, an error message appeared informing us that one sample already existed in the database. It was complete standard match with another individual.
A living individual.
We went over the data again and again until we could see figures even in our sleep that night. Yet, there had been no mistake with the data. Of course, we had both experienced a few of those “Eureka Moments” of unexpected matches many times before in our collaborative work assisting the police in their investigations. These had always been with separate DNA samples from the same person taken in a different time or place. That is the same living, breathing, walking, and criminal person. However, this was very different.

So. There it was. DNA was not unique. And we had the enough evidence to prove that it couldn’t be.
Before we began to make the necessary phone calls we went through everything again with a toothcomb from the beginning. I don’t know about Daniel, but I had given up any hope of scientific fame years ago.

“Look Ian, this just can’t be right. They don’t even look vaguely like each other,” my associate stated late that Friday night.
“Nor do some twins, and you’ve only got that old portrait to compare him with” I replied.
We spent all that weekend in the laboratory checking and re-checking our equipment. The match from the data was always exactly the same. We had to make our case rock solid and didn’t want to be made to look fools. That would be the end of our careers for sure.
Our current research was a medical contract. We were trying to trace as far back as possible, the origins of genetically inherited cancers, and aided by the help of some extensive family tree research, we had been given permission to exhume the body of a patient’s distant ancestor. They had died hundreds of years ago.
Buoyed on by our odd discovery, we worked all through the weekend on it. That is what scientists live for.
By the Monday morning we were tired but in full agreement. This ancient sample of DNA wasn’t in any way related by family line to the sample of the cancer patient in question. We knew that would disappoint the medical research people. The result came as no great surprise to us as we’d already found this type of distant family tree research was often flawed. However, this particular DNA sample, for some bizarre reason, did match exactly the profile of another individual on the genetic fingerprint database. Perhaps rather than describe it as a “standard match”, we agreed that it was if fact the very same DNA.
Yet, it still was the DNA of another person. It was from a living, walking person.
Known to us only by their details on the DNA database, when we checked them out in more detail, they turned out to be an everyday, ordinary German citizen.
DNA was definitely not unique to one individual after all, then. We discussed how our imminent “fame” in the scientific community would affect our lives.
We sat and pondered just how many textbooks would have to be re-written. We considered the much wider question of how this could have happened. Perhaps this was too far-reaching a question just for us, and we should just concentrate on concluding our proof and trying to find another example. We needed to share the discovery. Could it be some freakish mathematical coincidence like the same person winning a national lottery twice two weeks running? If this was in fact a random event then what was the actual probability of it occurring? We considered it to be so small a chance so as to be next to zero.
So, our next priority was to write it up as a scientific paper and to get it published as soon as was possible. Things were not easy.
Soon after our discovery, we found that this was to be the beginning of the end for our research. There were by then large cuts in scientific and medical budgets and soon both the UK’s political and economic climate restricted resources being spent on all but the most essential of medical research.
Times had changed by then. Many university departments were being closed down. Industry was changing. The emergence of hard-line political campaigners like Devonish through the armed forces were soon to see a change in the political landscape of the country. The UK was becoming a different place.
The economy was irreparable after a decade of crippling recession and the cost of widespread terrorist attacks on the mainland. The traditional family unit had broken apart and the schools stood empty as even children rebelled and roamed the streets as soon as puberty kicked in. Gang culture ruled and marauding tribes of young men had control of the whole towns. They carried guns.
The UK was no longer a safe place to live, long forgetting its one-time image of a “green and pleasant land”.
Our research laboratory by then resembled a military base, with its high fences, guard dog handlers and loaded weapons. Even the guards themselves went around in pairs.
All over the country, other places of authority had to be guarded in similar ways, as they became targets for armed gangs of anarchic youths who by then were gaining control of many areas. Having gained rule of the inner cities and their suburbs armed rival gangs were now beginning to drive around the countryside in large off-road vehicles. Night times in the towns and cities often rang out with gunfire. No longer did a single gun murder become local news but rather a significant change in a given morning’s body count would make the breakfast headlines
On the basis of our discovery, we used what was left of our funding to exhume further bodies from the area and time period in order to examine their DNA. We kept our discovery fairly secret and followed the proper procedure to write up the scientific paper.
Over the next year we took many more samples from bodies from that period but these but found no further matches.
What we needed was more ancient data to back up our findings.
Obviously, there wasn’t a large amount of samples available and the correct permission needed to be obtained to exhume bodies. With all the problems in the UK, many local authorities were being closed down.
With lack of any further progress, doubt soon began to set into our minds.
We began to consider that this was in fact, some mathematical freak of probability after all or that the probability of it happening twice or more was so tiny that it might take another hundred years of collecting and processing data to get another match.
The gangs who occasionally circulated menacingly outside the fences thought that our labs might contain valuable hardware that they could use to gain advantage over their rival factions. Although our research was crucial, Daniel and I no longer felt safe there and we agreed to leave our research in hope that we could soon return to it at the end of the hostilities.
We knew that it must have been costing the Government a fortune to fund our projects. They needed all available resources just to keep the streets even remotely safe at that time and we weren’t producing anything worthwhile in terms of immediate benefit to the economy. We couldn’t argue.
As soon as Devonish came officially to power, we were closed down literally overnight. That came as a relief to Daniel, who had a family to get home to. Unlike a traditional scientist, by then he had more pressing worries than our scientific discovery.
Devonish himself seemed like the only person in the country at the time that was having a career progression. His political rise from nowhere was choreographed and timed to precise perfection, his literally “flack jacketed” attitude to law-and-order hitting the spot with the anxious public. Window-dressed from day one like some good old English veteran hero, his passionate nightly televised orations kept the nation transfixed throughout that winter and somehow bought hope and comfort to the many thousands of people who thought all was lost. After five years of many citizens being literally housebound, he promised that he would make the streets safe once again for us to walk at night. He rode his campaign perfectly and seemingly every voter and their grandmother rallied behind him. People needed someone who could get a grip.
Predictably, he was elected via a landslide. The election itself was literally a military operation.
The phrase “Martial Law” was never used publicly but that was exactly what we were living under. A lot of teenage lads went missing at the time and rumours were whispered frantically about the methods used by Devonish’s men to restore some order to the worst of Britain’s streets. It was interesting how order was restored firstly from the most expensive inner-city suburbs and was worked outwards. Methods were obviously brutal. Devonish’s political philosophy was based around being far more brutal than any street gang could be, the only difference being that his brutality was all carried out behind closed doors, and in the name of “Emergency powers” of state law and order. People were not quite expecting this but were not quite complaining about it publicly.
In recent years, people living in most towns and cities had become used to going to sleep hearing the sound of shots ringing out throughout the night in many city areas and it was ironic that in the first few months of Devonish’s official reign there was a significant increase in nocturnal warfare.
My colleague was relieved to find that his (quite innocent) son had only been “knocked around a little then locked up” by the newly-formed “Urban Police” after successfully tracing his whereabouts after going missing for an agonising three weeks. Despite knowing his son’s innocence, he had feared the worst.
Slowly people began to re-emerge from their homes and tried to return their lives to some sort of normality.
Devonish wallowed in his success and continued to court the media.
All sorts of journalists, trade unionists and politicians seemingly just disappeared.

Devonish was no Prime Minister. He was no President. He was no politician. This was a nation in fear that had been re-united behind a leader who promised to restore law-and-order that had developed into a nation hiding behind their fear of their new dictator. People were very scared of Devonish. That was the monster that had been created out of a decade of anarchy.
One day, Daniel and I got the chance to meet him personally.
We received orders from Devonish’s staff, wishing to publicly use official scientists to disprove a paternity allegation against the leader. Quite how anyone dared to risk making an allegation of any kind against a man like this was quite beyond us. Ordinarily, people making such a claim usually would simply “disappear” but in this case the leader was obviously convinced of his own innocence, and would use the case to his advantage.
We spent a couple of days waiting for him to arrive. There was some “military operation” against insurgents in Leeds that caused the delay.
In the time we had been away from the lab the computers had been processing away busily and, by integrating other figures from archaeological databases around the world. Amazingly and way beyond our expectations, they had by then managed to match a growing number of other samples of DNA from current living people to those of samples of long dead skeletons earthed up in digs. So there was the proof we needed after all. DNA was recycling itself. Some would say “Re-incarnating”.
We had other things to worry about. Devonish would soon arrive.
He visited us personally to give a sample of his DNA. He wanted it done properly, bought the baby with him and would make a public fuss about it. It was a fascinating meeting. We were very nervous. We couldn’t care less about his actual innocence or guilt in that case so long as we showed him to the press to be innocent.
As soon as we entered his DNA date into the database, there was no match with the DNA of the baby. That was a relief. He thanked us, spoke to hand-picked reporters and went away to get on with “leading” the country. The case was used politically and no doubt other people would now “disappear”. Without even saying to each other we both knew that he had switched that baby at some point.
However, it came as no surprise to us a few days later when the computer threw up a DNA sample match between Devonish’s and that of an ancient bone unearthed in some dig back in the 90s. It was identical to that of a violent marauding, invading Viking chief.


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