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A series of mysterious cell deaths in Corpolis bring Detective XY back for one last case – revealing ...
2021-01-27 09:00:00

A Killer in Corpolis
The Mystery of the Dead Cells

A Killer in Corpolis

It is not common for the Immunoinvestigative Department to seek assistance from a private detective, not to mention such an arrogant cynic as XY. Our hero, not a spring chicken anymore, will have to go down to the seediest dive in some muggy corner of the liver. There, he will look for a solution to the mystery of the chopped-up DNA, but will he find any answers?

Read in 20 minutes

Early morning. The room is dimly lit by the rising sun, its rays struggling to seep through the smog. The sound of an alarm clock on the nightstand by the bed, strewn with shirts and empty ramen packets. If not for the excitement about it being his last day at work, XY would not have mustered the energy to get out of his filthy den so eagerly.

“One last time, and then I can retire,” he announced to the empty room.

From his kitchen window, he could see the panorama of Corpolis awakening.

“Just think of your freedom! This time tomorrow, you’ll be kicking back on the beach at the island of Reil.”

With an almost youthful spring in his step, he jogged down the staircase, his fingertips drumming his favourite sonata (Levine’s Strepitus Cordis) on the bannister. He wasn’t even annoyed with the old Mrs Telomere and her two canines, who seemed to have recently returned from some vacation. He hadn’t seen her in almost a fortnight.

“’Scuse me, Mr XY, what’s the rush?! You’re making so much noise all the walls are shaking!”

“Chest walls, Mrs Telomer? You surely must be joking. Have a lovely day!” he shouted without looking back.

Poor old lady, he thought, she doesn’t have many days ahead of her. 60 divisions and counting. She is well past the Hayflick limit, clocked that a good 10 divisions ago. Differentiated cells rarely make it past 50. Then he jumped into his car, turned the ignition key and switched into reverse gear.

“…watch out for the cramp that led to a congestion of several key veinways near the left calf. Extreme flow blockages are to be expected. We advise our listeners to choose an alternative route through neural path S3 and change to the Cord line towards the centre. An emergency replacement synapse service will run…”

He killed the engine, lit a cigarette and got out. On the neural path platform, he threw a few coins to the busker who was playing Cerumen Opus Three on the Eustachian tube magnificently. Crowds swarmed in front of him. Thousands of cells, proteins and neurotransmitters on their way to school, work, and who knows where else. In such moments, XY would often ponder on the intricate plasticity of the city whose citizen he happened to be, but today, there was no time for such musings.

“Next station: Mesencephalon. Convenient change…” the words booming from the speaker were drowned by the turmoil at the platform. XY made the rest of his journey on foot. When he got to Purkyně Lane, he popped into GABA Café. Finally, double-adrenaline Americano in hand, he pushed open the office door. Facing him from behind the reception desk sat a young, smartly-dressed woman.

“Miss Pituitary! You look glowing today.”

Bonjour, monsieur XY. I can see you thrive with every minute you come closer to retirement. You have a guest. DCI Ovum is here. He’s been waiting for almost half an hour.”

“He came unannounced?”

“Unannounced and highly reactive.”

“Thank you, Miss Pituitary. If you could be so kind and make sure nobody interrupts us,” he added on his way and opened his office door.

In the middle of the room was his desk, laden with stacks of papers. Ovum’s coat was hanging on the coat tree on the left of the entrance, and the officer himself was settled rather comfortably in the chair for visitors. For the past half an hour, he’d managed to make himself rather at home.

“Detective Chief Inspector Ovum from the Immunoinvestigative Department? To what do I owe the pleasure?”

“Let’s start with congratulations, shall we. Your 40th division, a well-deserved retirement after your illustrious career as a private detective and… a very satisfying public service,” said Ovum after a short pause. “Of course, I am far from understating your contribution,” he continued. “We will miss your support of… lawful citizens,” he finished, stumbling a little over that last statement.

“I am sure the general public will manage without me. All that awaits me now is looking after stem cells in my garden.”

“Certainly, certainly…” muttered the DCI, trying his best not to stare pleadingly at the detective.

“I know you’re not here just to say goodbye to an old friend,” growled XY. “What do you want?”

Ovum’s tactic of egging people on annoyed XY even back at the Thymus Academy, when they were just a pair of naive recruits.

“Don’t get mad. You know I wouldn’t have come to you if I didn’t have to.”

“So now, after all these years, you’re crawling back for my help?”

“I’m not asking you to help me, but the city,” Ovum shot back, not letting XY’s comment provoke him. “I don’t know anyone else who could figure this case out. You possess an extraordinary talent for digging up mess.”

XY raised his cilia, encouraging the DCI to keep talking.

“You see… There have been suicides. Dozens, hundreds of suicides… Our best people have been working on this case for the past three weeks at the Division.”

“And?”

“And nothing.”

There was silence, interrupted only by the sounds of the bustling city life coming in through the window.

“Sneaky move, Ovum. You know that ‘nothing’ is the only thing that could interest me. But don’t think I’ll let you pull me into this game of yours for good. From tomorrow on, I am but a merry pensioner.”

“All I’m asking is that you come with me to the scene. While I was waiting for you, I was informed of the next victim. I told my people to wait and to not touch anything. Will you take a look at it?” the DCI asked, even though he already knew the answer.

XY reached into his desk drawer and with a sharp movement, pocketed his 44nm gun.

“I suppose I will.”

The ride

They sped along the cord towards the pelvis. XY gazed at the billboards dotting the roadside.

“Have you noticed how many rejuvenating substances there are everywhere nowadays? And those anti-ageing products, too?” he mused.

“And you find it surprising? Everyone is talking about the destructive impact of the reactive oxygen species. Leaky membranes, mutations, faulty proteins. I know, it is the natural consequence of metabolic processes, for sure, but as you age, it gets more difficult to trust your DNA repair systems and antioxidant enzymes.”

“I’m not surprised at all, just taking notice of some social trends. Oh, look! A lipid-collagen cream for wrinkly cellular membrane, wine with double resveratrol content against the reactive oxygen species, supplements with endonucleases to repair spot mutations in DNA? They’re all nuts. Nobody wants to age with acceptance and dignity. Like me.”

“You can’t blame anyone for being scared of getting old and frail,” commented Ovum philosophically, choosing not to disclose that recently, he too had begun using a supplement with tocopherol and glutathione.

“But surely, in certain company, I am allowed to comment on their naïveté, aren’t I?” XY answered mischievously. “Tell me about this case. What makes you so sure those deaths are suicides?”

“Have you ever seen a victim murdered in a flat locked from the inside?”

“As it happens, I have, but you would never believe me. So I will go with your theory for now.”

“First, we received reports about missing persons. Two here, three there. We wouldn’t have connected the dots if not for the fact that most of those folks were well after their 50th division.”

“All of them?” Asked XY, sparks of interest glinting in his eyes.

“Not all, but the concurrence allowed us to come up with a list of characteristics that all victims had in common. Apart from the elderly, some of the cells were ill and poorly. The kind of cells that need someone to help them get by. Our coroner, Dr Cornea, will tell you about the bodies. For now, all you need to know is that all the victims were found in their own flats. They would come back home as usual, unsuspecting, and a few hours later, they were goners.”

“In their own apartments, locked from the inside…” muttered XY, deep in thought.

“The scale of the problem began to grow, but we spoke to the mayor and decided not to inform the public subconscious to avoid panic. That was when my people tracked down the Virchow gang.”

“What, you mean the old Virchow mob is still alive and stirring the pot?!” XY’s eyes glinted at the memory of his old nemesis. “I haven’t seen him for ages. I’ve heard they got themselves a nice little arrangement. Since Paragraph 53 got pushed through, all their business is as good as legal, and the guys themselves have become untouchable to the judiciary. You mean to tell me Virchow has something to do with your case?”

“Plenty. He’s no longer alive nor stirring. Turns out the guy we’re after is not a fan of those happy-go-lucky, justice-evading types. We found Virchow and all of his people dead in one of the dens at the Appendix. The perp must have been the same person.”

“So, someone picks their victims among the old and weary cells, as well as the smartarses dodging the law under Paragraph 53? That’s intriguing.”

Ovum slowed down and took a turn for the Lower Left Limb. They drove in silence.

“I know this route!” XY sat straight. “It’s the Interphalangeal Bridge! I live in the Long Digit. What was the victim’s name?”

“Tekla Telomer. Ring any bells?”

“She’s my neighbour. I spoke to her this morning!”

“Well, finally something to help us get on the right track!”

“You aren’t suggesting I could have had anything to do with it, are you?!”

“You lack the necessary systematicality and precision, my friend. You don’t fit our profile,” Ovum chuckled, parking in front of the building.

The crime scene

The place was a typical flat of a lonely elderly person. If not for the police tape and investigating officers wandering purposelessly around the living room, nobody would have ever thought that anything suspicious might have happened in there.

“OK, guys, take a break,” announced DCI Ovum. “Cornea, explain the situation to the detective, if you please.”

Only then did XY notice a young man, who seemed strongly partial to remaining in the shadows. He was pale and sinewy, watching the others nervously. The officers were leaving the scene in no rush, ogling XY curiously.

“Chop-chop, lads. You’re moving slower than amoebas in glycerol. Right, Cornea, get on with it,” snapped Ovum at his subordinates.

“The first thing that grasped our attention was the fact that the apartment was locked from the inside,” began Cornea without much confidence.

“I know that much already. But how did you know Mrs Telmer was dead in the first place? She passed away two or three hours ago, there aren’t any funny odours to be detected, and surely not through the closed door. Were you called in?” asked XY.

“Once you see the body, you’ll understand,” Cornea cut him off coolly.

Tekla Telomer was in the bedroom, stretched on her bed. There were no signs of struggle. Under the bed, a wet puddle glistened; the liquid had long seeped through the carpet and the floor, alarming the neighbours.

“It was the neighbours who called. They thought that perhaps Mrs Telomer had left a tap running and fallen asleep. The patrol kicked the door in and found the victim at 1305 hours.”

“Did you manage to identify the liquid?” asked XY, peeking under the bed.

“This mucus, please note its density, is mainly cytochrome c released from the mitochondria. That’s what the initial sample analysis gave us. We’re now waiting for more information from the mass spectrometry lab.”

“Her cellular membrane is in a lamentable state,” noticed XY, poking Mrs Telomer with a pencil.

“In the business, we call it blebbing.”

“So, what we’re seeing here…” the detective pointed at Mrs Telomer’s deformed visage, “you don’t find it intriguing? At all?”

“The effect itself is nothing strange, unlike the blebs’ contents. You see… It’s not strange at all that we found DNA fragments in those blebs. After all, there are plenty of those in every cell. The interesting part is that all those fragments have a peculiar size, or length, if you will.”

“Could you elaborate? It’s been a while since I examined a body, and your techniques are new to me.”

“We have isolated the DNA strand found in the blebs and used a range of methods – I won’t bore you with the details – to determine their length. It oscillated around 180 or multiples of this number.”

“180, 360, 540… I get it,” commented XY, clearly feeling the need to reestablish his role as a leading guy in the story.

“Never before have I encountered such a precise division of a genetic material. Someone – or something – fragmented the DNA on purpose. It’s not some chaotic stabs at a shower curtain, more like a steady surgical cut.”

“Or a very particular poison…” muttered XY.

“Do you have anything in mind, XY?” asked Ovum, perking up.

“Cornea! Tell your technicians to test the levels of annexing v on the blebs’ surface. Have them check the levels and caspase conformation in the victim’s cytoplasm,” demanded XY imperiously.

“Chief…?” mumbled Cornea.

“Do what he said. As for you, XY, don’t forget you’re a civilian. Do you need anything else?”

“I’ll look around the flat. With your permission, Detective CHIEF Inspector?” asked XY mockingly, and went to the bathroom without waiting for a reply. He opened the cupboard above the sink. Inside, there were rows of vials and bottles filled with pills, as well as various instruments and applicators. DCI Ovum walked in after the detective, watching his every move with utmost attention.

“Look at that, Ovum,” said XY. “Mrs Telomer also fell victim to the youth race. Telomerase injections in Tekla Telomer’s cupboard. As poetic as it is frightening. Can you imagine: stuffing yourself with enzymes artificially slowing down the ageing of your own genetic material?” XY snorted.

“I get heebie-jeebies just thinking about it. Do you think it’s important for the investigation?”

XY went to the door.

“Worth noting, that’s for sure. But now, I gotta dash. I need to see an old friend of mine. I’ll be in touch. Ciao.”

Walking out of the building, XY unblocked his phone and called the secretary.

“Miss Pituitary. I have bad news. The immunoinvestigation might run late. Take the rest of the day off. See you later. When? I’m busy tonight. I’ll let you know as soon as this case is done and dusted. Au revoir!”

“Actin! Show me the route to the Liver!” he articulated the command towards his phone.

“Finding an alternative route to avoid congestion in the left calf. Estimated travel time: 19 contractions,” answered the voice in the speakers.

“And now, straight from the middle ear, DJ Earwig’s drum concert. Make yourself comfortable and enjoy the rhythms from just outside the official borders of Corpolis,” encouraged DJ Mannitol, the city’s perennial musical trendsetter.

XY’s sound receptors were filled with rhythmic pounding and the low thrumming of the bass line. He sank deeper in his seat, stepped on the gas, and turned into the Common Hepatic Artery.

The Liver will never change, he thought. Metabolites, toxins, bile. All you could wish for and never find in a regular store.

The Liver

He parked near a decrepit building, plaster flaking, a crooked neon sign humming on the wall. It said ‘Jaundice’. In the dive, there was no living soul to be seen, besides the bartender, XY’s good acquaintance. The detective winked at the guy, and he showed him the way. When XY carefully parted the curtain that divided the main space from the private room, he saw Ziggy Zygote, just about existing inside. On the table next to him stood a decanter full of amber-glowing succinic acid.

“Hello, Chief,” said the detective, his tone louder than usual.

“XY!” coughed the former Chief Inspector Zygote, roused from his half-sleep. “For a moment, I thought you were dead and it was your ghost visiting me.”

“Ectoplasm, cytoplasm, we cannot be sure of anything these days. Actually, I am better than ever, against all appearances. I am even beginning to unveil your longevity solutions, Chief,” said XY with a mischievous smile.

“You should unveil something else, my young friend. Sit down and tell me what brings you here. I can see you’re in a rush,” said Zygote, his cheerful disposition unwavering. XY could remember the day he was sworn in as an immunodetective. In the commemorative photograph, Zygote was there, already a mature cell, giving pseudopodia to one of the recruits.

XY sat in front of the Chief and took the proffered glass filled with amber liquid.

“Excuse me, Chief,” he said in a jokingly stern tone. “There’s a monetary fine for the selling of succinic acid. How did you come across it?”

“Don’t ask questions when you don’t need to hear the answer. You know full well I am acquainted with a few guys in the Krebs factory, and I have no intention to pour that oxaloacetic swill down my throat. But do tell me what brings you here. I don’t have much time,” urged Zygote, jokingly highlighting the value he placed on the fourth dimension.

“I’m looking for someone.”

“You always are.”

“Someone I was looking for years ago.”

“How long ago?”

“Back before your command.”

“Be more precise.”

“Do you remember that case? The one after which I left service?”

“Who doesn’t? Hundreds of cells who lived in the Interphalanges lost their lives on that day,” said Zygote roughly. “It wasn’t a regular case. I don’t blame you,” he assured.

“Sir, yes sir!” said XY with an exaggerated salute. “And you probably remember the perpetrator was cornered? We were certain we had him, but he escaped, even though the manhunt was planned down to every detail.”

“But you did save the hostages!” protested Zygote. “It was no small thing to do for those people, their families, the city. Thanks to your operation, we now have the Interphalangeal Bridge.”

“Maybe you’re right. I use that route often myself,” muttered XY, unconvinced. “The thing is, I might be looking for the same person now.”

“How so?”

“The bodies look similar, the MO is virtually the same, although more stretched in time. The perp doesn’t seem to act impulsively. And this time, he’s targeting old cells rather than kids, like he used to back in the day.”

The room fell silent. Both men sipped on the cool amber liquid. Zygote nodded, encouraging XY to continue.

“And today, one day before I retire, I was asked to lend my expertise. Your successor came to me, that… Ovum guy,” said XY, some of his words drowning in the clatter of bottles being rearranged behind the bar.

“Just focus on the case and don’t direct your frustrations at Chief Ovum. It’s a good opportunity to set the record straight and figure out all that past mess in your head,” Zygote advised wisely.

“You’re probably right. Nobody can remember those times like you do. After all, you helped build and shape Corpolis. Can you think of anything that could help us track down the perp? This time for good.”

“You know what, XY,” began Zygote. “Back then, Corpolis was a lawless place. Even once we drafted some basic legislation and social cooperation rules, I wouldn’t have wished the life in those pluripotential times on anyone.”

“Lawlessness is fertile ground for chancers to grow their careers.”

“Chancers and self-appointed law enforcers. We had some very intriguing cases on our hands back then. The Immunoinvestigative Department was still in its infancy, so I had to assign many hard and complicated cases to very young people such as yourself. Do you remember that guy who targeted vagabonds and the homeless?” asked Zygote.

“Anton Anoikis! I’ve heard of him. There were many voices supportive of his… activities.”

“There were many indeed, but no developing city could allow anything of the sort. Unacceptable!” huffed Zygote, appalled.

“You could also say it about my perp. That he’s trying to cleanse the city.”

“Here’s my advice: look around the elderly citizens, pension-age and upwards. Someone who did something so awful then must have divided fifty times by now, at the very least. I’ll send you the files I collected on the pathogenous and pathological specimens back in the day. Can I do anything else to help?”

“Chief, you know I have always valued your advice. Especially when it confirms what I’m already thinking,” said XY, finishing his drink as he got up.

“I will send you the mRNA with the documents in an hour or so. Enjoy your retirement, XY. Don’t bite off more than you can chew,” Zygote warned.

“Safe service, Chief Zygote!” recited XY. He had a feeling that it was the last time he was seeing the old man. He saluted again, this time earnestly, and went back to the noisy main room.

The detective returned to his office, poured himself a glass of malic acid and sunk into his chair.

The dream

He dreamed of an island with a lake. Decomposers, reducents, saprotrophs; myriapods, crustaceans, fungi and bacteria, all of them breaking up dead organic matter and consuming it. They ate, they were being eaten. Matter and energy circulated and permeated their world. Nearer the surface, small fish swam here and there, lazily swallowing indifferent algae that blossomed thanks to solar energy that was simultaneously a particle and a wave. Once they were nice and fat, they became food for the larger fish who, in turn, fell victim to even larger ones. On the bottom, where their dead bodies were to lay one day, decay awaited, along with growth and rising back to the surface. Nothing went to waste. Above the surface, dragonflies, mosquitoes and flies circled, birds above them dived from the sky to catch the plumpest insects. Rushes grew against all odds, bloomed and fell back into the abyss from which they had emerged. The willows nearby were shedding leaves, pollen and remains of bird nests. Water striders, caught up in their seemingly chaotic dance, decorated the water with a diffraction pattern of waves that appeared and vanished, lending some harmony to the ruthless fight for life. At some point, XY noticed the scene was playing in a loop, everything happening in constant repetition, since always and forever. And the moment he realized this, he opened his eyes. In his head, he heard the words: “The deeper understanding of your life you gain, the less you believe in destruction by death.” His thoughts were clear and peaceful. His world was the water surface, and the events big and small, wonderful and tragic, extraordinary and mundane, all became just traces of tiny water striders’ feet on the endless surface of water.

Her

The telephone rang. DCI Ovum.

“We know they are inside. Her and Zygote,” said Ovum.

“Her?”

“That’s how Zygote referred to the other one.”

“Is there anyone else with them?”

“No, just those two.”

“Why didn’t you try to go inside?”

“I follow Zygote’s instruction. He’s the most experienced officer I know,” said the DCI. “He told me to wait for you. The only thing I’m not sure of is whether or not he said it out of his own free will. He’s a hostage, after all.”

“The old man would never lure any of his boys into a trap. I’m going in,” decided XY firmly. He took out his gun and went towards the entrance.

He was moving quietly, even though he had the feeling he was safe. He was calm.

“XY!” Zygote’s voice sounded confident. Cheerful, even. “Come in. Don’t worry, I’m on my own. We made it. It’s done.”

“Chief?”

“Sit down, XY, and don’t ask too many questions. Think carefully about what you want to know. I don’t have much time,” he said. This time, the warning sounded real.

“Who is she?”

“A force. She has no material form. She is a consequence of the rules that govern life. She is a rule herself.”

“The rule that everything comes to an end, and yet it prevails?”

“So you already know?”

“I’m a detective, Chief.”

“Really, are you not interested in anything other than your own ego right now?”

“You’re right. How does she work?”

“I don’t know. Cornea has been doing research for me for years. We understand quite a lot by now, but it’s still not everything.”

“How does she kill?”

“Your hunch on caspases was right. And annexing, too. Cornea was surprised you managed to deduce so much. It was hard for him to pretend to be clueless. And request unnecessary tests on top of that, not to mention forging the results.”

“Cornea seems to have played a big role in this case.”

“It was Cornea who discovered a chain of biochemical reactions, the interaction of proteins that cut through each other, activating and deactivating one another. They remain in a constant dance, self-regulating their creation and destruction, their place in the cell’s body and determining its fate. Even though this whole chaos that makes for our bodies, with its millions of specific interactions and terabytes of permanently saved data, works efficiently and precisely, it’s not eternal. Telomeres shorten, genetic material mutates and degenerates. The density of reactive oxygen species increases, wrecking havoc in DNA, RNA, membrane and proteins. Certain mutations the DNA repair system could have fixed in a young organism elude older, more tired out enzymes. Such a change can become a permanent element of the genetic information and passed on to descendant cells. If a mutation appears in the gene responsible for regulating one of the more important cellular processes, it can lead to faulty functioning of the whole cell. Usually, a cell that can feel there is something irreparably wrong with it commits suicide. For the greater good of the whole organism.”

“So that’s what she is? A planned suicide?” ensured XY.

Zygote nodded.

“Yes. We call her Apoptosis. That’s how Cornea called her during one of our autumn walks.”

“Can she come after anyone?” XY kept questioning.

“There are some who can escape her. I don’t mean taking the supplements that have become so popular recently. I mean the cells who went crazy. Any citizen of our city can become such a cell. If all control and repair mechanisms fail and the genetic material accumulates change in the important parts of the genome, the results can be unpredictably tragic. One of the particularly dangerous effects of such a situation is the cell’s ability to move freely around the entire organism without consequence.”

“Doesn’t sound that bad.”

“Just think about it! Some cells can be dangerous and we shouldn’t expect them to use this outcome for positive actions. Just remember the mutation can cause a whole variety of other problems. If it activates telomerase that remains inactive in a regular cell, such as you or me, that cell will not give a hoot about the Hayflick limit. On top of that, add inheritance of such flaws by the descendant cells and what you have on your hands is a potentially cancerous cell able to cause metastasis in any one part of the body system.”

“So that’s what Apoptosis is for?”

“It’s there to make sure we don’t all go mad. But the worse part is, the mutations I mentioned before can also damage the biochemical pathways responsible for initiating and carrying out Apoptosis. One of the known failures of this kind are the mutations in the p53 protein who is one of the main guardians of the cell’s homeostasis. So now you understand why we gave that very number to the paragraph protecting some criminals, don’t you?”

“So the Interphalangeal Bridge case had nothing to do with her?” asked the detective.

“On the contrary. Apoptosis plays an important role in embryogenesis. You might not remember it, but a long time ago, for a short moment, separate toes did not exist. Only when Apoptosis came in and began killing the young cells that kept building membranes between them did the city gain separate toes. Those deaths had to happen in the developing city, and the fact that our operation caused the inhibition of Apoptosis between the phalanx bones was an interference. That time, it didn’t cause any serious damage, but just imagine a city with no regulation system and no penalties for those you call chancers.”

“Chaos and tumours everywhere?”

“Precisely. Those efforts to maintain eternal youth, perfect health and immortality can be tragic for an organism. Just imagine the overpopulation we would have to deal with. Smog, depletion of natural resources, social conflicts and inequalities. There is more and more of that already. Apoptosis is a natural phenomenon in the development and life of any organism. It’s a factor that brings in harmony. It comes when it must come.”

“So we cannot defeat ageing?” mused XY.

“It would be best not to fight it at all. You must promise me you will not take any part in this investigation from now on, and that you will keep an eye on Cornea. He knows a lot about Apoptosis. Further research, paired with his very particular ambitions, could be catastrophic for us all. The homeostasis of our entire city is at stake!” added Zygote, overcome with emotion. “I don’t find him trustworthy. It would be best if you destroyed all of his research results,” he suggested.

Zygote was growing visibly weaker. It was clear he was in a rush. He looked questioningly at XY.

“I understand. I’ll do what I can.”

“At ease.”

Epilogue

Stretched on the frayed sofa, he reaches for the remote. A jostled empty bottle falls down and smashes into pieces on the floor. Unfazed, he turns on the news. The anchor looks tired. She is young and healthy, and yet tired beyond belief. Ever since the life expectancy of every citizen tripled, it is hard to afford retirement or even vacation.

“Lawless cells are growing stronger day by day. They multiply and divide at a frightening pace. Growth hormones, produced illegally, are becoming a real danger. According to simulations carried out by experts, the number of degenerate cells will become equal to the city’s population within weeks.

“More break-ins at Minister Cornea’s factory. This time, the thieves stole one-hundred-and-fifty μL of modified telomerase and forty units of NAC, an experimental agent that removes reactive oxygen species from cytoplasm. All of our viewers realize where these stolen ‘eternal life supplements’, as Minister Cornea calls them, went.

“The chitinous wall, built to isolate degenerate cells, is not working as planned. Thousands of criminals have broken into the organism. Right-wing politicians are calling for militarization of the borders.”

***

XY woke up with a jolt. He looked around in panic, until his gaze fell upon the fishing rod he was holding in his hands. It took him a moment to understand it was just a nightmare, not the first one he’d had since the destruction of Cornea’s laboratory and the handing-over of the guy to the investigative team. Luckily, XY heeded Zygote’s warning. Corpolis was safe. That morning, the detective had replanted a whole plot of beautiful fresh stem cells, now blossoming beautifully nearby. He sat comfortably under a tree and watched. And his thoughts were peaceful.

 

Translated from the Polish by Aga Zano

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Published:

Tomasz Sitarz

was asked to write a few words about himself and it blocked him. He clogged up like the import channels of the mitochondrial proteins, whose unblocking and biogenesis he studies. Out of curiosity and hunger.