a “Dimensional Disturbances” story


Professor Billedhugger worked the room, smiling and joking with his colleagues at the National Entomological Research Directors Conference. His white, button-down shirt and tan slacks, the dominant fashion choice among scientists, matched the white and tan striped wallpaper in the hotel conference center. More than a hundred empty chairs filled the floor. No one seemed willing to sit down, lest they miss a chance to schmooze. The professor was so busy laughing with a fellow Research Director he didn’t notice Gayle when she walked through the door.

Gayle was hard to miss. One of the few women, she wore a blazing blue silk scarf over a form-fitting camel dress. Other attendees pushed past her as she watched Professor Billedhugger greet his longtime associates. She was surprised to see him so at ease. She only saw him making awkward small talk with the other researchers at the lab. It never occurred to her that he was capable of normal social interaction. Then again, this wasn’t a normal social situation. This was the one time each year when insect scientists from around the country gathered to show off their breakthrough experiments. Every university and private lab jockeyed for attention and funding dollars, staging dramatic reveals of cutting edge research. It was four days of high-stakes drinking, networking and bragging. Being seen mattered.

Even though she had been working with the professor for more than a decade, this was the first time Gayle attended the conference. Working on his super-secret Antheraea Polyphemus moth cocoon project kept her tied to her experiments. Metamorphosis is an incremental, daily process, every moment an opportunity for error – or innovation.  So, Gayle tended the same giant silk moth caterpillars year after year, tinkering and fine tuning their development, making changes at the behest of the professor, never violating his demand for confidentiality. During that time, she saw the professor grow in prestige and rank among his peers. She also saw lab-mates win awards, fellowships and lucrative positions while she pursued trial after trial.

The final result of all Gayle’s work sat inside the cardboard box that she cradled in her arms while she waited for Professor Billedhugger to notice her. She saw someone whispering something into his ear. The professor held up his hand, took off his glasses and rubbed the bridge of his nose, between his eyes. Then he looked at the fellow with a hard stare and a tight mouth. That expression was familiar to Gayle. Early in her career with him, she dubbed it the “Dark Director” look. He gave it out whenever anyone suggested his ideas wouldn’t work. She felt a little relieved to know she wasn’t the only one he looked at like that. The relief vanished when she remembered why she was at the conference.

Gayle wanted one more year to repeat her most recent process, but the professor was desperate to finally reveal his pet project. Having been president of the N.E.R.D. conference for three years, he needed a high-profile breakthrough to secure his leadership of the Applied Research Group, the committee that controlled the most generous grant allocations. The work Gayle oversaw was Professor Billedhugger’s idea for the future of the industry. He knew it would be so astounding that no one could deny his brilliance, his foresight, his vision. Then, he could easily shape the research direction of labs everywhere.

Gayle hoped the results would finally open her options as a scientist. After all, she had done all the actual experimenting. The critical process was completely her idea. Despite the professor’s clinical concept, she developed something with almost magical potential … if the unveiling was successful. The professor gave her very little notice about presenting at the conference, so there wasn’t time for her final cocoon to hatch. She would open it up live, witnessing the result of her last metamorphosis with everyone else in the room.

Professor Billedhugger strode over to the hotel’s audiovisual technician and pointed to the jumbo screen that would show the specimen table large enough for anyone to see hairs on antennae. He looked like he was going over the line-up, so Gayle tried to approach him. The professor caught her eye and waved her off, pointing to the row of white and tan chairs where the other presenters sat.

Four men were already sitting, each with a box in his lap. Gayle flashed back to every science fair she competed in as a kid – always mostly boys, always awkward. She was never the best at those fairs, and she tried not to worry that today would continue that legacy. The other presenters exchanged glances with Gayle as she took a seat. No one said anything to her. She felt overdressed and out-of-place, but it was far too late for her to blend in with the crowd.

Gayle tried to get Professor Billedhugger’s attention one more time. She hadn’t spoken with him since the day he told her to prepare for the conference.  It had only been a week earlier.

The process of metamorphosis in the Lepidoptera order of insects, moths and butterflies, was a growing field of study. Other labs were beginning to tinker with imaginal cell outcomes. The professor worried that someone else might claim his hypothesis before he could. When he saw the outcomes of her latest manipulations, he asked Gayle to pack up her last cocoon and prepare a presentation that would make a big impression. She asked for more time, she didn’t like to be rushed, she couldn’t be certain the next cocoons would make the case. The professor reminded her that he was Research Director and it was his decision.

Gayle pulled several all-nighters to develop the presentation and arrived at the conference jet-lagged and jittery. But, if things went well, she would have a chance to compete for a job as a director of her own lab. All the sacrifices would have been worth it if she could get the chance to pursue her own hypotheses, the ones that popped in her head while she stood vigil over Professor Billedhugger’s cocoons, singing to them like sleeping babies.

Gayle began to hum quietly to herself as the professor took the podium and brought the meeting to order. With her hands resting on top of the box, she felt the cocoon wiggle a little at the familiar melody. Or rather, Gayle imagined the wiggling was connected to her tune. Professor Billedhugger frequently admonished her for her flights of fancy. He accused her of entertaining dangerously illogical ideas. He said the habit could ruin her career. Still, Gayle indulged in the fantasy that her work would be as dazzling and revolutionary as she – and the professor – hoped.

Professor Billedhugger had the temperament of a robot, but over their twelve years on the experiment Gayle had seen him experience human emotions. He once even expressed his genuine appreciation for her dedication. She often faced ridicule from other lab staff for trying to alter the development fate of moths with audio waves. No one else in the field was trying anything like that, it seemed preposterous. They argued that investment and support of her studies was a waste. Since the professor insisted on secrecy about his involvement in the project, and the very nature of the project, he wouldn’t publicly voice support or defend her work. But, he also didn’t cut her funding. Gayle appeared to be getting a free ride to pursue her own fanciful ideas, with no results to show for it.

Today was different. She could finally tell the whole story of using Frequency Intervention to Direct Imaginal Disc Determination in Antheraea Polyphemus for Lepidoptera-Human Interaction.

Professor Billedhugger hypothesized that audio frequencies could be used to shape structural development during the pupal stage. Since caterpillar bodies break down completely during metamorphosis, he thought sound waves might change the imaginal cells responsible for the new moth body, resulting in vastly different body structures and organs.

Gayle could still distinctly remember the day she discovered the miracle inside cocoons. She was seven, playing in the woods behind her house. A huge cocoon hung in the crook of a young tree. Even with her hand magnifying glass, the thick white silk walls hid the inner workings. So, Gayle took a stick and poked at the delicate web. Rather than a nest of squirming worms or fetal flying insects, she only found masses of green goo, sticky, snot-looking bio-jelly.

Her father, also an entomologist, found her crying by the tree, trying to glue the cocoon back together. He explained that she had already killed the nursery, but that she learned the amazing secret of metamorphosis. As caterpillars change, their bodies completely dissolve into a gelatinous mass. The only things that survive are cells called imaginal discs, which contain the instructions for building every part of the insect’s new body. He would say, “From proboscis to spiracles, lepidoptera are little miracles,” always mispronouncing one word or another to make the rhyme work.

When Gayle first started to work with the professor her father was proud, but warned her about losing her scientific objectivity in the quest for a breakthrough. Then, her father lost his position in an influence-peddling scandal. He was accused of tailoring trial outcomes to meet the requests of big corporate donors. Gayle’s father went into seclusion and refused to talk with her about her work or any science. His failure made her more determined to make a name for herself, for work that she could claim as her own.

Despite having a PhD, almost every laboratory she applied to after graduate school offered her assistant positions. Professor Billedhugger was the only Research Director willing to give her a lead role, one where her name would be at the top of the study. However, her position depended on her pursuing the professor’s hypothesis. Gayle agreed because she always felt metamorphosis offered vast potential for human regeneration.

Other research teams managed to change wing patterns, even eye shape, of butterflies by using viruses to alter imaginal cell messages. The biggest problem with that method was that viruses could also kill the specimen. So, even though they learned about the inner process of metamorphosis, no useful product or process came out of the research.

Human applicability was the innovation that drove Professor Billedhugger. In a time when research dollars were growing scarce – especially for entomology – labs had to prove their research was critical to human life. The professor thought it would be possible to build entirely new creatures from the raw materials of caterpillars. He envisioned insects that could perform useful tasks at the order of human creators.

It was a vision that got him taunted as “Dr. Frankenfly” when he first mentioned it at a conference fifteen years earlier. He still believed it was possible, though, and in Gayle he found a sympathetic mind. Having seen her father’s fate, and carrying her own impressive debt load from her doctorate, she knew the financial strain of science. She understood the need for human potentials. More than money, though, the professor’s vision paired with her own drive to help people live better lives.

The cocoon in the box on Gayle’s lap was the breakthrough of her life. After years of using computer tones, then drum beats, then music, she finally used her own voice to influence the imaginal cells. It was an act of desperation. Early attempts altered the color, strength, size and even flight patterns of her moths. But, none of the frequencies radically changed the structure of the insects. Professor Billedhugger insisted she bring him an anatomically unique creature that responded to human orders, flying per instruction, or possessing the ability to carry cargo like computer chips, or anything that would set the science world – and most importantly – the general public on fire for more research.

The first cocoons she sang to were different right away. They would bounce and jump at her voice. She could even record sounds, similar in frequency to her song, coming from the cocoons. The hatching moths were bigger, with only fore legs and hind legs, no mid-legs. Their eyes and body were smaller and they would follow her around, coming to her whenever she sang the melody of their metamorphosis.

Gayle’s first songs had no words. She just focused on frequencies. Professor Billedhugger urged her to push further, to instill the ability to truly act out human instructions. So, she followed Occam’s razor and literally told the moths what she needed.

In the months before the N.E.R.D. conference, Gayle bred successive generations of moths, singing specific instructions, telling them how their purpose was to serve others, that their future depended on them pleasing the ones who gave them life, paraphrasing a poet she read in college. “As you are Polyphemus, so be beautiful; as you are fragile, so be obedient; as you are changing, so be useful.” Poetry isn’t scientific, but she figured the words were less important than the tone of her voice.

Each hatch of moths was more responsive, and their wings developed more distinct patterns while their bodies grew thinner and their legs more developed. Professor Billedhugger spent more and more time in Gayle’s lab, clapping and laughing as she commanded newly emerged moths to fly in formation. They hung in the air around her head, flapping so hard that the breeze made her eyes water as she tried to watch them.

Her last generation of moths was due to hatch on the day of the conference. A week before, she went to the professor’s office to tell him about strange new noises she heard from the cocoon, almost like her own muffled voice, knowing that he would be out-of-town when the moths emerged. She expected a lecture about her runaway imagination. Instead, the professor told her it was time to share the experiment.

Now, Gayle was just one presentation away from her destiny. The last of the other researchers delivered a heart-felt plea for protecting honeybees from pesticides, revealing new, devastating facets of colony collapse. Bees always got the limelight in entomology. They were the most useful, and beloved, insects. Bees were a hard act to follow. Gayle didn’t have time to get nervous, though, because Professor Billedhugger delivered a short introduction for her.

She expected the professor to give the background of his hypothesis, to set the stage for her. He didn’t. He simply said, “Our last presenter is from my lab, but I won’t play favorites. Dr. Gayle Graves will share her research on altering moth metamorphosis with audio frequencies.” Gayle stepped to the podium amid half-hearted clapping. At the back of the room, caterers began moving in lunch items.

From the podium Gayle could see a room of stern faces and the reflection off at least a hundred pair of glasses and nearly as many bald heads. She felt the urge to crawl into the box with the cocoon. Everything in her notes suddenly seemed silly, ridiculous even. She decided to skip past the opening she planned – singing the poetry she sang to her moths. She frantically scanned her script for a place to start, then she looked over and saw the professor smile at her. He gave her a thumbs up. If he had her back, Gayle had the confidence to tell the world about her marvelous discovery.

It typically takes two hours for a moth to fully unfurl its wings and be ready to fly. Gayle wanted to share the story of her research while the moth began the process live on the jumbo screen. She knew that if she cut into the cocoon early she risked killing the moth, but she was willing to take the chance. If the moth didn’t fully reveal itself, the attendees could still see all the anatomy of the specimen. Besides, she was so familiar with these moths that she felt like she could almost bring them to flight with her willpower alone. And if the moth didn’t live, that was the price for knowledge. In the name of science, she was willing to sacrifice most anything.

Without speaking, she gently lifted the silk-wrapped leaf from its box and placed it in front of the camera on the specimen table. Behind her, the screen showed her hands, giant against the fragile cocoon as it tumbled back and forth on its own. The moth was ready for its moment in the spotlight. She held a scalpel to the silk and said, “Fifteen years as an entomologist and I’m still excited to see what emerges.” She gently cut the strands of fiber and peeled back the cocoon to reveal the wet mass of metamorphosis.

“This is the result of more than a decade of frequency manipulation on the imaginal cells of the developing Antheraea Polyphemus moth pupa. My goal was to breed the first domestic Lepidoptera, able to respond to human command, with the potential to be useful in daily lives.” A snicker came from the audience, a harumph rang out even louder. Professor Billedhugger rolled his hand in the ‘get on with it’ gesture.

Gayle began to lay out the principles for imaginal cell directions and how sound frequencies could affect them. But, before she got a full sentence out, it was clear the specimen was doing something different from anything anyone in the room had ever seen. Its wings unfurled as though in time-lapse, much faster than normal. Gayle hadn’t noticed that her moths emerged so quickly, she had only been focused on their response after emergence. The audience began to murmur and gasp as the wings spread wide, revealing a span bigger than her hands. The markings on all four wings looked just like human eyes. The moth’s body was still curled up underneath the wings, so  Gayle tried to wrestle the attention of the crowd back to scientific techniques. But then the moth did something never seen before. It stood up.

All eyes were glued to jumbo screen, all except Gayle. She stared at the specimen table. As the creature she created rose higher on a pair of long, graceful legs, she could see that it had the body shape of a woman. It stretched out two trembling arms and then lifted up a head with the proportions of a human face. The creature rubbed her tiny eyes.

The entire room was silent. Every eye fixed on the movements of the strange creature as she searched for Gayle’s face in the light above the specimen table. Then, someone from the back of the room coughed. Chairs squeaked. Finally, a man from the back called out, “That’s not science, that’s an abomination!”

The scientists from the honeybee labs all started booing. Gayle heard one person yell, “We already have enough women in science!” A wave of laughter erupted. People stormed out, chaos ensued. Several Research Directors rushed Professor Billedhugger to demand his explanation for such folly.

Gayle looked to see how the professor would defend their work. Instead, she saw him frown and shrug his shoulders. He pointed at her, “This was her idea. I tried to give her an opportunity, but I see she had other nonsense in mind.” He gave Gayle the “Dark Director” face and jerked his thumb toward the conference room door.

The jumbo screen still showed the newly hatched moth-woman reaching out for Gayle. No one even looked at her. Gayle scooped the creature into her hands and pushed her way through the crowd, ducking fingers pointed at her, trying to shut out the taunting names she heard being called after her. Despite the professor’s public denial, Gayle still thought he’d follow her out, offer some consolation.

When she got to the door, though, she turned around and saw the professor standing in the center of a group of Research Directors. He was laughing, nodding as the other men mocked the way the moth-woman held out her hands. She waited to see if the professor would catch her eye, send any signal her way. He didn’t.

Gayle didn’t realize she was blocking the doorway until another researcher stepped into her line of sight, “In or out, lady, choose one.” Gayle moved into the grand hallway of the hotel to let her colleague pass. Then the door of the conference room slammed in her face. The commotion of the crowd disappeared and she was alone, on the outside.

In the still cool of the hall Gayle finally took a close look at the creature in her hand, holding her up to her eyes. She peered into a miniature version of her own face, smiling and expectant. Then, the tiny moth-woman spread her wings and took to the air.

Gayle watched it fly down the long carpet, wobbly at first, in the direction of the exit doors. Gayle could see the small, dark figure silhouetted against the bright sun streaming in from outside.

For a moment, Gayle considered going back to tell the professor that his experiment was flying away. Then she saw the way the moth caught the light. The eyes on the wings seemed to blink back at her. If no one opened the door to let the moth-woman outside, she might fly into the glass door, dying before she ever had a chance to live.

Gayle ran down the carpet, calling out, “Wait! Wait for me!”