Finding the Prize

THE CURE  |  CHAPTER 1
Ridge Hails felt the shivers tighten their grip. He’d been underwater since midnight. Medical research, even in the tropics, was no ride in the hot tub. As the hours dragged by he’d been reduced to a waterlogged scientist praying for a miracle. His dive watch said 3:16 a.m., peak high tide. Everything should be falling into place. But time was running out.

Twelve inches from his nose, a chartreuse sea sponge swayed in the current. The monotonous hiss from his scuba gear began to lull him to sleep. If he even thought about a lullaby he’d be a goner. But this was the life he’d chosen, searching the sea for new medicines. Long, cold hours underwater were part of the gig and better than life wrapped in a lab coat.

Sometime between midnight and sunrise, during February’s full moon and high tide, these sponges were supposed to spawn. Or not. His information was sketchy, a blend of tribal lore and rumors from local fishermen. But he knew nothing was absolute when shifting tides were part of the equation. So he fought the urge to fade into dreams and kept a sharp eye on his prized sponge.

Trying to abate the chill, Ridge pumped his arms and legs to get his blood flowing. A stupid mistake. Weightlessness worked against him and he drifted face first into his precious,Neofibularia nolitangere, commonly known as the Touch Me Not sponge.
“Crap,” he gurgled in a surge of bubbles. “That’s gonna burn.”

And it did. Thousands of microscopic barbed nematocysts shot into his tender cheek. It sizzled like bacon at first then began to throb with every beat of his heart, a pain he knew could persist for hours. Ridge had been zapped before and had gotten all too familiar with the hot-tempered sponge. But if his forecasts were accurate, the Touch Me Not could unlock one of nature’s mysteries. If not, he could chalk up all the burns, coral scrapes and prune fingers to his own perverse Disneyland.

He wanted to rub his face but experience had taught him that would just shove the stingers deeper. Then he noticed movement. Could it be happening? Yes. Milky eggs and sperm erupted from the tube sponge like smoke from a chimney. This is why he had traveled thousands of miles and spent what seemed like half his life underwater. Hermaphroditic spawning sponges. Sure, maybe they weren’t the most intriguing cocktail party chit chat but to men of undersea science they were poetry. He drew his slurp gun and sucked up the chalky water.

A filament in his life was finally connecting. He could always count on the quirky tides and their perpetual change. In fact, the tides changed everything. With a cosmic twist, the sick were cured, lost souls stumbled into love and nature’s secrets were liberated. His cubic centimeter of chance was either in his grasp or sending him waltzing into the unknown forever changed.

He’d been waiting for this moment since he’d heard of coral and sponge spawning off the Caribbean coast of Belize. Fortunately, this time, the cosmic conjecture was on target and the last piece in the puzzle was falling into place. As go the tides, so goes life, he thought.

In a decade of journeys to Central America’s Yucatan Peninsula, Ridge had witnessed tribal shaman treating everything from rashes to stomach aches to broken bones with ancient herbal recipes. Of course, the process usually involved some bizarre chants, a few dance steps and maybe a little blood-letting with leeches. Whatever worked. For common colds, they’d gob aromatic oils all over the patient’s body, then feed them a pasty chaw of hot peppers and Touch Me Nots. By the next day they’d seem well. That got Ridge’s mind sparking. Cures for cancer, AIDS or Alzheimer’s were high-profile pursuits of Nobel Prizes. But what about lowly colds and flu? Researchers on that trail were not as flashy and they’d been stumped for decades.

His idea was simple. Instead of grinding the sponges and peppers in a primitive wooden mortar and pestle, as these tribes had done for centuries, why not physically mate their DNA? Why not implant DNA from Neofibularia nolitangere into common pepper plants to create one super genetic code from both species? Right. Why not?

DNA grafting was not new to Ridge. He had assisted a team of researchers who blended molecular tetrodotoxin poisons in puffer fish and toxins in sea whips to create agents for anti-inflammatory drugs. They also discovered a Mediterranean sea sponge, Asbestopluma hypogea, thought to be the only carnivorous sponge in the world, and hoped to use it to create tumor-eating drugs.

The grafting itself was easy but not the key to a successful marriage. Finding the species with compatible personalities to blend into one perfect package – that was the conundrum. Out of thirty varieties of pepper plants, he hoped one would hit the chemical code that attacked every form of rhinovirus Ridge threw its way. Could his super plant hit pay dirt? He believed it could. Now, with his samples secure, his own lab-coat session was about to begin.

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