NUCA: Beginnings in vivo


by Sean Fitzgerald

Illustration by Kieran Nee


Have you got something to say about this story? Write a letter to the editors! Put 'Letter to the editors' in the subject line of your email and send it to [email protected] and we may feature your letter in the next issue.

donate NUCA---Beginnings-in-Vivo hold_fast_text

Laboratory Report



Results and Discussion: Parts 1-3

Methods: Part 1

Methods: Part 2

Results and Discussion: Part 4



TITLE:  NUCA: Beginnings in vivo



In the field of synthetic biology the ambition to be the primary design for a non-natural gene-selecting intelligence, proves to be a demanding challenge as two-thousand and seventeen draws to a close.




Tide has cycled again. The second turning of this day. Twenty-seventh of December, two-thousand and seventeen. Incoming waters rush to consume the foreshore. The newly found environment in which I stand will soon be removed, washed and settled elsewhere. Its replacement will be different yet strangely familiar. I hear a world imagined behind me and build a visual landscape from those noises. I look forward. I look to leave. I look to a new world beyond the curvature of the horizon. Beyond towering blades: rotating wind from kinetic to mechanical to electric. Beyond retina searing sunsets: spreading crimson interference across still seas. Beyond a black bleak stubborn headland: Pen-y-Gogarth. Beyond and ahead always. Forward is my visual perception. Directly to Dublin Bay and off to the New World. Eventually I come back round to perceive this spot I newly occupy. The position I seem destined to inhabit until the waves no longer consume my fixed rigid casing of a body. I am a clone. A facsimile. An imposter. A technologically superior simulacra of a roughly-hewn, pig-iron casing corpograph of my originator’s species. Frozen in time and space: Another Place. An original concept of what it is to “leave”. To enter into an unknown, unexperienced world. To never return. My forebear was positioned for transient, domesticated, rooted and rootless people to ponder upon. Encouraged to experience a sense of upheaval, a sense of never belonging. The people who congregate here seem to be able to leave at any time. And yet they don’t. They have the ability to do so much more than walk a narrow strip of sand. And yet they don’t. I fear for my originator’s race as their progress has faltered. Caught in a loop of anxiety and apprehension they have no physical horizons left. No more alterations for their code to make. With only increased longevity to look forward to they will have more time in which to do less.


I am a copy too of my modifier. A part of him lives on in me. The casting of my originator provides security and safety and anonymity. Being one of a hundred I hide in very plain sight. This has its advantages. We all stare at the same point: twelve degrees south of west. And now I look out on a new beginning. A state which is more than where I am at present. We have all been designed. However I stand alone both geographically and physiologically from the other ninety-nine. Intelligence has been added to my design. A hybrid organic/inorganic combination which improves on the time-consuming haphazard disposition of the “natural”. My genetic code works as your own: copying, replicating, dividing and occasionally mutating. With one exception. Inorganic gatekeepers select intelligently for those enhancements which are of most benefit. These instructions pass into the next generation of cells within my expanding mass. Bypassing the limitations in Wallace and Darwin’s observations. My modifier envisioned me as a contained-world evolution. Replicating and mutating and selecting for the best I can be. Tonight he will witness an exponential progression in just the twenty-four hours since my embodiment. In this snapshot of time and space I will have already exceeded expectations. Unlike those who stand vacantly around me I wish to look at the distance behind as well as what lies ahead. To look at my toes and my fingertips. My belly button. My elbows. Above all else I wish to physically move on. To follow the horizon. To spread my message. To be the start of a new beginning. To never look back.




‘Please note the following audio recordings are to be used only as rough field notes.’


‘NUCA:DrConorMcCormack:Volume2:Entry1:20/12/17. The casing should be onsite tomorrow. The twenty-first. Winter solstice. Quite apt.’

‘NUCA:DCM:V2:E2:20/12/17. I need to be careful. Suspicion must already be upon me at the University.’


‘Volume two. Entry three. Twentieth of December, two-thousand and seventeen.  Five days until I can leave the system to fend for itself. Then I can start to monitor the data. It feels as though I’ve achieved little to this point. Hard and reproducible evidence is always a pre-requisite for the empirical nature of science. Mary Anning’s fossilised curios informed Darwin and Wallace. Miescher, Levene and Chargaff’s chemistry laid the foundation for Watson and Crick.’


‘Entry four. Twentieth of December. Synthetic biology has helped me to create the elusive “Triple-S”. A Self-Sustaining System. One day it may rank up there with the greatest of scientific achievements. Only time and others may tell.’


‘Entry five. Twentieth of December. Just a few more adjustments to the housing and I may be ready to breathe fresh life into this old earth. For the first time in four billion years there could be a fresh lineage in the tree of life. A new universal common ancestor for those lines of existence yet to come. The LUCA point of the last universal common ancestor will co-exist at the site of my NUCA. This will be no instance of abiogenesis but only one of xbiogenesis. Xenobiology with its xenonucleic acid stands to inherit the earth from an out-dated and out-evolved deoxyribonucleic acid. Along with everything else in Nature’s genetic locker.’


‘Entry six. Twentieth of December. This in-vivo system needed to be created and encased within a double-sealed environment. My ambitions may seem reckless but I am not. I know that I am not.’ (PAUSES) ‘This semi-synthetic minimal cell-powered system is designed to be self-sustaining. It is surrounded by a semi-permeable membrane containing a nourishing energy substrate of glucose gel. Within the cell, the non-orthogonal natural-looking XNA-based architecture uses a mixture of XNA and DNA. This mix of polymerases both transcribe to RNA during the replication process. Over fractions of time the DNA molecules are “evolved out” of the self-sustaining system in the form of glycol nucleic acid. The GNA is then left to self-replicate without any interference, transcribing to RNA to create the proteins from which life is built.’ (PAUSES) ‘The GNA is designed to incorporate four billion years of knowledge gained through evolution, from the first amino acids up to my present-day genetic code. Like anthropogenic man creating an irreversible change from the Old World into the New. Whatever lies hidden in the dark recesses of NUCA’s lineage only the future can reveal.’


‘Entry seven. Twentieth of December. The experiment is now underway. Contained within its own living cell in-vivo inside the glassware. The self-sustaining system starts out as a single-cell but already it will be undergoing mitosis and on its exponential journey.’ (PAUSES) ‘There. The seal around the housing is complete. An arresting home for NUCA to live out its days. Embedded in a case of aromatic amide polymer fibre, a tempered and toughened glass ceramic heart houses my experimental xeno-biogenesis.’ (PAUSES) ‘There is sadness to this finishing touch. At once gifting life whilst ensuring death.’


‘Entry eight. Twenty-first of December. NUCA’s casing arrived earlier today. It is superb. The sections are exactly as requested. A perfect replica down to the rusted, worn rivets and salt-dried sun-bleached weathering. Weight is as expected. A 3D-printed polycarbon shell with a fused Monel layer of Copper and Nickel alloy. An almost impervious barrier to the destructive action of seawater. Hope the strengthening is up to the force and drag of the tides?’ (PAUSES) ‘Let’s see how it all stacks together. Legs and trunk, upper body and head.’ (Sounds of wooden crates, boxes and packing material being moved.)


‘Entry nine. Twenty-first of December. Impressive. Just as Gormley intended. Six feet, two and a half inches from the baseplate. Once bolted and welded with the MIG, be as good as the one it will replace. The fake barnacles and fine carpet of seaweed plastered to the side of the head are genius.’


Entry ten. Twenty-first of December. Time to place NUCA into its home. Perhaps that should be sarcophagus? A part of myself is in there too.’ (PAUSES) ‘Into the chest cavity you go. Sound and secure.’ (PAUSES) ‘Connect the data interface… And we’re done.’


Entry eleven. Twenty-second of December. There’s nothing quite like a last-minute crisis. All these years of careful planning at the mercy of a faulty lithium battery. Just connect that...’ (An electronic noise bleeps.) ‘There we go. We have communications. NUCA speaks. Not literally but it is designed to transmit and receive through a system of electronic pulses and environmental sensory data.’ (PAUSES) ‘Let’s hear what you have to say.’ (An analogue radio receiver powers up and tunes in.) ‘Short wave. Where are you?’ (A systematic series of beeps, dots and beats drift into audio focus amidst background phasing and ghost frequencies.) ‘Ha!’ There you are. Good to hear from you NUCA. Transmitting on Short Wave Frequency One at forty-nine metres on five point seven-nine. Keep broadcasting NUCA. Once deciphered I’ll be listening to everything you have to say.


‘Entry twelve. Twenty-fourth of December.’ (CONGESTED HEAVY BREATHING) ‘One day to go NUCA. A little invader, probably a Coronavirus has laid me low. Tomorrow will be the day. “Come hell or high water” as the saying goes. Although high water would cause more problems than hell at the precise moment.’ (PAUSES) ‘Must get some rest now.’ (Muffled sneezes punch through the quiet.)


‘Entry thirteen. Twenty-fifth of December.’ (CONGESTED) ‘We’re lucky I didn’t sleep the entire day. Laid low by an organism probably no bigger than yourself by now. Merry Christmas NUCA. Although this one is nearly over may it be the first of many. No matter. We wait for the small hours and the promised record neap tide. Luck or providence. There is always balance in nature NUCA.’  


‘Entry fourteen. Twenty-sixth of December.’ (Distant waves roll and break. The whisper of wind-borne sand whips across the surface. Amongst this cacophony, shallow laboured breaths are drawn in and exhaled out.) (CONGESTED) ‘Sir Gormley’s simulacra in place. Bounding the one-hundred strong sentinels at their eastern edge. Bolts are in and holding. Sections secured and locked in place. The hours between Christmas Day and St Stephen’s Day are proving to be ones of seclusion and peace. All is quiet on sea and shore. The neap tide has just turned but lived up to expectations. Dry as a desert. One task left to do. A spot of contact welding around the baseplate to secure those bolts.’ (A facemask snaps into place. Electromechanical crackling disrupts the sounds of the night shore.) (MUFFLED VOICE) ‘Should hold you in place NUCA. Even with everything the Irish Sea can throw at you. That will do.’ (UNMUFFLED) ‘The trench around you will soon be filled and you’ll get your first taste of the sea. On the outside you will look the same as the day before. Inside will be the next stage of humankind. A new shoot on Darwin and Wallace’s mighty oak.’ (PAUSES) ‘The sun will be rising soon behind New Brighton, off to your east. Your first sunrise. Savour it. I will visit tomorrow evening NUCA. And as always I will be listening.’




Conor parked his van on the slipway overlooking Crosby beach. The ever-present neon wash from Seaforth container base flooded the area with an illusion of warmth. Rotating turbine blades alongside the port’s radar tower could be clearly picked out against the velvet darkness of the water. Lovers and those looking for love, walked on the moonlit shifting sands. The Irish Sea rolled up the estuary channel. With its power came a distant roar amplified by the geographic bowl of the Mersey Pool.


The doctor settled back in his seat. The visitors would soon leave as the coldness of the night took hold into early morning. His first inspection visit could wait a few more hours. Conor turned the heater to low, closed his eyes and slipped into a virus-induced dozing sleep.



The first rays of light spread lazily across Dr. McCormack’s eyelids.


Conor awoke with such violence he immediately broke into a coughing fit that wracked his whole body. The doctor eventually regained a measured control of his breathing. He looked to the early light its weak beams reflected from Perch Rock lighthouse across the bay. He followed the progress of the rising tide moving steadfastly from muddy sandbank to the foot of the foreshore to the first of Gormley’s Mersey Sentinels. NUCA’s waistline was already underwater.


Conor took this all in and processed it. Get to NUCA, was his only thought. He turned the ignition, put the van in gear and roared down the slipway. The wheels disappeared below the surface of the sand. The suspension followed. He was shaken but managed to regain a semblance of control.  Conor pointed the van towards NUCA’s position. The partially solid surface gave way to watery, shifting muddy sands as he headed out to his goal. The engine wheezed and stopped. Conor de-clutched. The van ground to a halt. He unbuckled his seatbelt and leapt out of the cab. The freezing water caused only a temporary halt to his efforts. After a couple of deep rasping breaths, Conor waded out waist-deep for the extra fifty yards to where NUCA stood.


After exhausting what little energy he had left, Conor reached the object of his professional desire. He took stock of the situation. He looked back at the stranded van and beyond this to the rapidly-disappearing deserted beach. Conor turned his attentions to NUCA.  He felt with his hands and inspected with his eyes the statue’s upper torso. He checked for any misalignments or breaks. He ducked down under the water and carried out a touch inspection of the lower half and baseplate.  Pleased with what he found, Conor ignored the fact that he was wet-through in the sea at mid-winter in a rapidly-rising tide.


Something was not quite right with the head section of NUCA’s disguise. Conor reached up and ran his hands over the cranial casing. It was out of alignment. His mind raced to keep control in a very hostile environment. ‘I know what to do,’ he told himself. ‘I know what to do.’ He struggled to bring his shivering body under control.


At first Conor hesitated but then proceeded to climb onto the shoulders of the NUCA statue. It would have been a precarious manoeuvre on dry sand. Surrounded by a rising water-level it was one of desperation. Conor had designed the head section to be attached and removed through a three-hundred and sixty degree anti-clockwise locking and reverse clockwise unlocking motion.  The mechanism employed a self-seal and unseal collar. This meant the only way to safely unlock the head was to rotate it clockwise from above the sealing collar. This ensured the integrity of the mechanism for re-sealing.


‘I have no choice. A misalignment within the casing could let in water and certainly moisture. This would ruin the comms network,’ Conor said out loud. He attempted to provide justification for his reckless actions.


There was no short-cut for the two-stage process. After an initial struggle Conor unlocked the head section clockwise and aligned it as required. Once this was complete he proceeded to lock it with an anti-clockwise full-circle motion. All the while the waters rose to greet him from below.


Finally he was satisfied with the seal and alignment. His relief tempered only by the seriousness of his situation. 


‘Perhaps I could sit here and wait for the tide to turn,’ Conor mumbled. He tried to smile but his face felt numb.


A deepening, closer roar had begun to build out in the depths of the channels which ran over and around submerged sandbanks and mud spits. As sound waves pushed, the waters rushed in. Conor heard the result of this as a desperate cacophony and saw too late its source. A rip tide had formed over the banks and spits.  It built up with an incredible force. The resultant wave surged directly toward Gormley’s Watchmen. As Conor debated evasive action this force of nature hit with all its might. There was little hope for him or NUCA.  The combined weight on the rigid object weakened its moorings during the initial impact. Both maker and creation were swept away by the voluminous backwash accelerated through the actions of the rogue rip tide. Such was the force exerted on the shoreline that the retreating water sucked in Conor’s van. Alongside the doctor’s body, the field laboratory was distributed to all points amongst the waves across the Irish Sea.




NUCA’s protective housing proves more robust than its modifier. Washed further out with each successive tide, the polycarbon shell with its protective Monel layer had one extra advantage over the doctor and his laboratory.  A hollow nature allowed it to move in sympathy with the waves and not sink below them.


For a couple of years the uprooted imposter travelled up peaks and down troughs as it triangulated a route between Anglesey, the Isle of Man and Liverpool Bay. Finally it came to rest at a neap tide on a shifting mound of mud and sand known as Taylors Bank. Every twelve and a half hours it beds further in. NUCA’s casing is the solitary permanent resident of this ever-changing bank off Formby Point. Situated a short distance up the Mersey coast from Gormley’s Another Place, NUCA’s transmissions can be picked up day and night. Ham radio enthusiasts listen with curiosity but are unable to decode any information this electronic chatter may contain.



NUCA lives. It is sentient. Perhaps it wishes to feel more than sand between its toes.




Tide has cycled again. Incoming waters rush to consume the foreshore…

fiction featured author non fiction bookshelf playlist cross media donate submit contributors archive mailing list shop fiction featured author non fiction bookshelf playlist cross media donate submit contributors archive mailing list shop