Imaginary Numbers

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Marius' Solution

Magaliesburg, South Africa


Marius set up the tripod and the camera on the desk. He flipped the viewing screen so he could see himself. Freshly shaved and neatly dressed, he sat in his wheelchair.

“Hello!” he smiled his Hollywood smile and waved at himself in the viewfinder. Then blew a kiss at the camera. “It’s been a while since I’ve been on TV, so I reckon I’ll make myself a little film.” Behind him, in a number of plexiglass cages were five clay meerkats. The yellow African sun shone brightly into the lab, dividing it with a line of sun and shadow.

“I’ve learned my lessons from before, so I’m going to document this experiment. That way I know I can reproduce it. And also,” he rolled back and forth a bit, flexing his upper arms, and smiling like a proud child, “that way the world can see just how I save it from certain doom.”

He wheeled out of the shot, then returned with a rack of rattling test tubes. He placed them on the table, a little higher than what seems comfortable for him. Then he removed one, spilling some contents.

Ag kak!” he swore gutturally, then looked up at the camera with a sour face. “Cut!” he said to himself, and reached over to turn off the recording. He fumbled a bit, showing the viewer a quick summersault that ended in a decent view of the abattoir ceiling.

Then he was back. He wore a different shirt, but sported the same crisp smile. He held a test tube.

“This,” he said, “is a DNA extraction I made from snake venom.” The tube was filled with long floating strands of protein. He replaced it on the tray and took the camera, flipping it around so we could see a close up of the test tubes. One by one the he filmed the contents, some looking very much like failed experiments, other looking like nothing other than water. He narrated: “These are extractions of some trial mixtures. I’m going to inject these into the subjects to see what results we get.” The tubes were labeled ‘mosquito,’ ‘spider’, ’boomslang’, ‘norovirus??’, ‘flu’, and simply ‘death’.

He flipped the camera again so it faced him.

“Let me show you how it works.” He took the last test tube, the one labeled ‘death’ and dropped some chemicals into it. “These drops will help separate the protein chains from the rest of the stuff.” He scratched his head. “The next step is to place the test tube in the centrifuge.” He pushed himself up onto the tall steel table with his thick arms. The camera showed us a neat view from under his armpit: from behind his wide frame, we could see him loading the test tube into the machine. He slid back down, disappearing from the shot. Then the camera unsteadily moved to get a close up of his face. “Don’t forget to plug up the tubes before putting them in. Else it can get messy! Trust me on that one.” An abrupt cut showed the centrifuge spinning, shaking the distinct parts of the solution apart, until the long strands separated from the liquid.

“I had one test tube left, so I scraped some goo off a dead bird I found in the bush. I’m not sure what it even is, but I reckon why not give it a try. So I just labeled it ‘death’. It’s the last one to do, then we can inject the specimens and wait for phase two.”

The camera cut again, and we see Marius sitting next to a plexiglass cage. The little meerkat was standing on its hind legs, staring directly at the camera.

“This little guy is the first test piggy. Let’s call him Subject Number One.” He reached for something off camera and returned with a fairly thick needle. When he reached in, the Meerkat, completely unaware of what was happening, nudged lovingly into his arm with its face.

“Aww, isn’t he cute,” he looked at the camera as he said this, then turned to the animal, “You’re doing good work here for science, little guy,” and then he injected the mixture arbitrarily into its back. The animal didn’t seem to mind. It didn’t flinch.

“I’m pretty sure these buggers can’t feel pain,” he explained. “They probably don’t have nerves or something. They don’t mind me doing anything to them. I even used a blowtorch on one.” He paused to reconsider. “Well actually, maybe that time he minded.” He laughed. When he pulled his arms out of the cage, he rolled closer to the camera, and spoke directly into it. “For the record,” he said and read the label on the injection, “that was jumping spider venom.”

He continued in this fashion, injecting and narrating, until all five remaining meerkats had been infected with some kind of haphazardly engineered virus. He explained how he had determined that these animals don’t eat, but drink a lot, and that perhaps they get nutrients from the soil, like plants. “Or maybe,” he added, “they don’t need any nutrients at all.”

When he finished, he wiped his hands on his trouser legs, turned to the camera, and announced, “Step one complete. Now we wait.” The shot faded to black. Following that, he recorded a view of the cages in time-lapse, filming in night vision, hoping to capture some change in one of the specimens. He desperately hoped for a kill.

* * *

The next morning, all the animals were still alive. Marius turned off the night vision, and pointed the camera at himself. It was sitting on the edge of the table, filming him rolling from cage to cage, inspecting the clay animals. When he came to the last one, he made a disappointed face at the camera.

“Step two,” he said. “We try mixing the pathogens.” The camera cut to the test tube rack, now labeled with things like “boomslang venom & malaria”, “spider flu”, and “death & illness”.

After the laborious extraction and unorthodox mixing procedure, Marius took a break. He sat outside in the sun on a lawn chair, watching the remaining three meerkats play under the coral tree with its vermillion spiky flowers. Somehow his mind was not focussed on the project at hand. He kept remembering his grandfather.

Once, while on a long walk with him, they sat down on a grassy knoll. His Oupa always sat in the middle of a cluster of grass. He claimed it was the softest spot. That day, the old man kept talking about how the world just keeps going around and around. “Even when you sit in one spot,” he had said, “things spiral around beneath you sometimes.” He pointed at the morning star. “See that, sonny?” he asked. “It looks still, but it’s travelling at tremendous speeds. And here we sit, stationary, but I can’t help but feel like the earth itself is curling around, making me dizzy.” He went on about how the motion couldn’t be stopped. How sometimes when you sit down and you realise things are still spinning, you feel drunk. Drunk on life, and tipsy at the thought that some forces are completely out of your control. At the time, Marius thought he was being philosophical. And it wasn’t until they stood up that they noticed Oupa had sat on a snake coiled tightly in the grass. It wasn’t the world whirling around, it was the snake trying desperately to free itself from under him. They laughed all the way home, Oupa resting his left arm over Marius, his right holding his trusty walking stick.

Back in the lab, Marius once again injected each subject with a mixture of the serums. The penultimate animal was injected with two of them, and the last one got a mix of all three deadly poisons.

“Listen,” he said into the camera, “if this doesn’t pan out, I’m going to make my own DNA chain. I read on wikipedia. I think I can build one.” He turned his head to investigate a noise outside, then looked back. “How difficult can it be? It’s like playing with teeny tiny legos.”

None of the meerkats were affected in any way, and he decided to use the vial labeled ‘death & illness’ as the base for his freshly built—and entirely random—RNA chain. The camera records a lot of lab work: scenes of him looking into a microscope, injecting tiny bits of proteins into the long double helix that he spins together on the large screen of the electron microscope. He constructed haphazardly the basic code for life. When he finished the assemblage of G,T,A and Cs, he injected it into the shell of the norovirus he had isolated. The entire process was done with a powerful commitment and drive that completely lacked any foundation in genuine science. Marius was a child playing with legos in a world that was spiralling beneath him.

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