Imaginary Numbers

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The Dirt on Marius

Swiss Centre for Nanotechnology and Biophysics, Geneva


The earthen meerkat scurried around the office, leaving dirty footprints on the professor’s desk. The experiment had been a success. Marius had managed to give life to an inanimate creature. Under the giant electromagnets, those elements fused and coiled together forming an inverse arsenic-based DNA. Forming from the microscopic to the macroscopic, the cells continued to multiply overnight to create an autonomous being. It seemed like the process is still ongoing, because Marius had expected that the exterior would be solid by now, not lumpy and loose. At first the meerkat was sluggish, and moved with a heaviness, then when the cells gave way to organs, and those started working in unison, the creature started to behave more naturally.

It jumped onto Marius’ broad shoulders, and ran down his arm onto his hand, where it balanced on two legs, staring him in the eyes. Through the muddy epidermis, tiny golden hairs had started to appear, and in behind the creature’s milky eyes, he saw a spark of intelligence.

Marius rubbed his free hand over its head, and the creature seemed to enjoy it. It is not ideal, but it’s still developing, he thought. And despite the crude nature of his creation, he felt attached to it. He had given life to matter—even the great Dr. Borgiac couldn’t do something like this. Marius has always been outside of the normal constraints of science, disconnected from the rigor, and unconcerned with the moral issues that bog down real progress. He wondered what food this animal would eat. Within a matter of 48 hours, it had developed from a mass of clay to a living, breathing meerkat. It was truly remarkable.

Without the technicians, the lab was empty, and with his new pet, Marius felt like he has breeched the loneliness of the last few days. Marius feeds off other people, he draws his energy from the audience. He needs the validation of others to be the best version of himself. This time however, he achieved something unknown to him: he felt like a god. He considered showing his meerkat to the public, but decided to wait until it looks fully formed. Instead, he would create something bigger. It would be a new animal, not a recreation of an image from his youth. The only way that people would believe him is if he videotaped the making of a new species. This, he decided, will be his mission: to create nature in his own image, an image of perfection.

The future world suddenly seems revealed to him. He could picture himself on a stage explaining his findings. A caged animal, unlike anything on the planet today, will be unveiled amidst a torrent of camera flashes. Hot journalists will beg him for interviews, and he might even sell the rights to his story to a movie studio, who will recognize his acting prowess and cast him as himself. The world would love him.

So he left the meerkat in the professor’s office with a handful of cashews, and returns to the work which, for the first time in his life, had made him feel valuable as himself, as Marius van Niekerk, not some role he needed to play.

In the lab, on the table in the middle, was a mound of mud. It is earth dug from the construction site across the street. It is yellow and muddy, soft and unpasteurized. Marius had carried it into the building in a stolen wheelbarrow. It was much harder than the soil he used on the meerkat, and filled with tiny pebbles, ungerminated seeds, and a solidity that comes from years of supporting the urban grit.

First, he wet the soil, hoping it would get soft enough to manipulate. It would take some time, but Marius was not discouraged. He was driven to succeed.

He struck the dirt with his powerful hands, like talons, the tips of his fingers dug in, and he crushed handfuls of the compressed particles, breaking off two chunks. Again and again, he struck the soil, tearing off lumps. He was breaking the earth, loosening it, changing it from a solid heap to a sandy collection of lumps. The water didn’t really help. It ran off the edge of the table and snaked between the grooves of the tiles into a dirty pool that drains slowly through the emergency flush system in the floor.

Seen through the window, you would imagine that he was a madman, angry at some injustice, and reacting in the most carnal way. His muscular body shook as he forced himself through the pile on the table. The empty laboratory, seen through the windows of the tranquil town, was eery. Normally full of life, with people in white coats rushing to and fro, machinery buzzing, and flames dancing over the burners, the building seemed like a ghostly shell of itself. The only sign that it was still in use was the giant man clobbering a pile of dirt on a steel table.

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