Looking in the Wrong Places

“I believe I made myself clear, Dr. Martaci,” Sera firmly said. “This matter is not up for discussion. That lab equipment was to be destroyed; the mere fact that a part of it is in your possession means that someone has failed to complete their task.”

Luka sighed and opened his hands. “I’m not concerned about the equipment, Dr. Williston. I’m concerned about the trace element that was on it — a glowing yellow fluid that, on analysis, seems to have blood-like properties.”

Sera folded her arms and shook her head. “I know nothing about that, Doctor. The equipment was used in this lab and became contaminated; per our protocols and procedures, it was to be destroyed. Where did you acquire this equipment and who did you acquire it from?”

“Look, Doctor — Sera — can we just put this professional courtesy nonsense to rest? You know something and you’re not telling me. Why?”

Sera took her glasses off and set them aside, then sat down on a stool. She casually looked at the window outside, then back to Luka.

“Luka, I’m going to state this very plainly,” Sera whispered. “Don’t dig any deeper on this. You won’t like what you might find. That equipment was destroyed because it was contaminated; the orders came from the Royal family itself.”

Luka leaned back and rubbed his eyes. “You’re telling me now that it’s a matter of not just state security, but Royal family security? Did they have some illegitimate child in the family? Is Princess Katerina messing around?”

Sera gave Luka a cold stare. “I know the Princess has a reputation as a wild young woman, but she’s not of mind to ‘mess around,’ despite what rumors the Families might be spreading about her. I am rather surprised that you would believe such rumors and lies.”

“Then tell me what this yellow substance is. If it’s a new cleansing agent, then we owe it to the world to research it more; I saw amazing potential in the small bit I was able to put under a microscope.”

Sera narrowed her eyes. “What did you see?”

Luka raised an eyebrow. “What do you mean? Haven’t you seen it?”

“It’s a simple question, Luka. What did you see of this yellow substance that intrigued you?”

Luka casually rubbed his chin. “Well, despite coagulation, the cells still seemed to be alive. They appeared to be repairing themselves somehow.”

“Do you still have the sample?”

Luka looked up and nodded. “Yes, I keep it locked in a refrigerator. Why?”

Sera pointed a finger at Luka. “Destroy it at your earliest convenience, Luka. Do not dally — do it now.

“Sera, you’re not making any sense. I have to know what this is. Is it a new drug? Something the Families are doing? Is it from the Protectorate?”

Sera sighed and shook her head. “I will tell you only one thing of that yellow substance: it is not of this world. I do so in breach of not only my professional obligations, but of a personal promise I made to the Royal family. Please do not press me any further on the matter, Luka.”

Luka pursed his lips and looked away. “So that’s it then. You won’t tell me anything about this ground-breaking find. Are you so blinded by patriotism that you’ve forgotten your duty to humanity?”

“My duty to humanity is to push the bounds of knowledge without destroying ourselves in the process,” Sera answered. “There are those who pushed too far without considering the consequences of their actions. Triumvarte-“

“Oh, mumbo-jumbo religious nonsense!” Luka growled, interrupting Sera. “If we did things their way, we would all still be living in huts and warring with one another!”

“Triumvarte pushed those limits and almost drowned the world in darkness,” Sera growled back. “It is a lesson with an element of truth. It is not the whole truth; it remains a work of fiction in my mind, but the lesson becomes clear: if you make a deal with shadows, eventually they will come for their due.”

“But we’re not speaking of shadows!” Luka exclaimed. “This is a potential breakthrough that could change the future of humanity!”

Sera nodded. “Exactly. And not for the better.”

“And how could you know that? Hmm?” Luka remarked with a sneer. “What if we didn’t need hospitals anymore? If we didn’t have to die due to tragic consequences? If we could extend our lives, perhaps even become immortal?”

“Listen to yourself,” Sera whispered. “Immortality, Luka? At what price? What possible good could come from that?”

Luka frowned. “I would think that you, of all people, would understand. We wouldn’t have to lose our Ormannis, our Kovacs, our Bartholdys — they could remain, furthering our understanding of science, art, and literature. Think of what they could have accomplished with more time!”

“Yet without them, we endure. We look at other ways to broaden our horizons. Would Ormanni have understood Altai’s Paradox? Would Kovacs appreciate a Milutin? Would Bartholdy surpass Kiernan?”

“And we’ll never find out — unless we can understand what this yellow substance is. If you would tell me what it is.”

Sera shook her head. “No, Luka. I know where that yellow substance leads us to. I’ve spoken to the people who know what it is. What you’re asking for amounts to the collective suicide of us all.”

Luka nodded. “So you’re not the only one who knows. There are others.”

Sera lifted an eyebrow. “Did you really think you and I were the only ones aware of it? The matter of state security was not a lie — nor was Royal security.”

“Who are they?”

“That knowledge will go with me to my grave. No one and nothing will get that knowledge out of me, Luka. Not even the torture I might endure from a Family interrogation would be enough.”

Luka knitted his fingers together. “Then I will just have to ask someone else. Even the Royal Police can have loose lips on occasion.”

Sera slipped her glasses back on and turned to her workbench. “That they do, Luka. That they do. But at least then I wouldn’t be a party to your delusions.”

“It’s related to those strange events not too long ago, isn’t it?” Luka asked.

Sera stopped and looked back to Luka. “Perhaps. It could be a possible conclusion, given your available evidence.”

Luka nodded. “I go where the evidence points me, Doctor. I am a scientist; my mistake was assuming you were as well.”

“Science is a tool, Luka,” Sera mumbled, turning back to her bench to fiddle with a device. “To call yourself a scientist is the same as calling yourself a mechanic. I am not so deluded as to believe the fact that I use science somehow makes me superior to a mechanic or a tailor.”

“Then we’re done here. Thank you for your time, Dr. Williston,” Luka remarked, turning to leave.

“Destroy the samples, Luka,” Sera called out, causing Luka to stop. “Destroy them before it is too late for you. There are forces at play that will have no qualms about crushing you to find what they seek.”

Luka looked over his shoulder for a moment, then continued out of the lab. He gently closed the door behind himself and let out a deep sigh as he walked toward the stairwell.

I cannot believe that Sera of all people would refuse to see the potential, Luka thought. She was a genius in college. She still is! Has her work at the Royal Police dulled her spirit? Did working in the halls of government infect her mind with bureaucratic nonsense? Cells that repair themselves and do so in a rapid fashion… It’s unprecedented! She must know something! But she won’t speak to me, no matter what — that much is clear. If I could force her to tell me, I would; but I know from experience that when she sticks to her position, she will not be swayed without significant reason and evidence to do so. Matters of loyalty especially so.

Luka rubbed his chin again as he casually walked to the stairwell, gradually descending it and ignoring the world around him. He suddenly felt himself aware of someone near him, interrupting his thoughts and causing him to look over to see a Royal Police officer walking alongside.

“Yes? Can I help you, Officer?” Luka asked.

The officer gave Luka a positively beaming smile. “You’re Dr. Martaci, right? I’ve heard a lot about you; Dr. Williston speaks very highly of you.”

“Ah. I’m grateful to know that she holds no hard feelings about our debates in school,” Luka mumbled.

“I’m Officer Bertol; I work with Dr. Williston a lot. She’s been a real asset to the Royal Police; you should be proud to be an acquaintance of hers.”

“Of course, Officer Bertol. Dr. Williston was known to be a calm and professional student. She is an exceptional scientist.”

Bertol nodded. “Then whatever she just told you, I would suggest taking her words at face value. She has wisdom beyond her years and not only in scientific matters.”

Luka stopped and frowned at Bertol. “Is there something you wish to tell me, Officer?”

Bertol shook his head. “No, Doctor. Not at all. I’m simply trying to convey that Dr. Williston is a trusted figure here at the Royal Police. Whatever you were discussing had to be important — two doctors don’t get together just to discuss the weather, especially in the workplace.”

“What do you know of a yellow substance, Bertol?” Luka bluntly asked.

Bertol looked to the restrooms off to the side. “I’ve got to use the latrine, Doctor. Pleasant day to you.” He casually slipped away, entering the restroom without a thought. Luka looked around and followed him in, seeing him standing next to a urinal. Luka casually strolled up next to Bertol, looking around to see if anyone else was listening.

“Bertol, I’ve got to know what it is,” Luka whispered. “Humanity has to know what it is.”

“We aren’t the only humans out here, y’know,” Bertol whispered back. “And I don’t mean here. I mean beyond this place.”

Luka looked around, trying to see if anyone else was in the restroom as well; as near he could tell, he and Bertol were the only ones present.

“It’s just us in here,” Luka casually remarked. “There’s no need for cloak and dagger between two people who just met one another, is there?”

“You propositioning to me, doc?” Bertol chuckled. “For a doctor, you’re kinda dense.”

Luka let out a frustrated sigh. “So, you’ll not tell me anything either.”

“No, actually, I’ve told you a whole lot,” Bertol replied. “Think about what we know about this world, then set yourself beyond that. You wanna know about that yellow shit? It ain’t from here. Neither was the guy who had it.”

That revelation hit Luka like cold water. “The substance belonged to a man?”

Bertol shrugged. “Looked like a man. Might’ve been one at some point. What we saw — he wasn’t no man. He was something beyond that. Might still be.”

“So there’s a possibility I could meet him? Perhaps ask him how he acquired the substance?”

Bertol let out a light laugh. “No, you’re looking at it wrong, doc. What’s red, comes out of your stomach, and glows?”

Luka frowned. “Iridescent ketchup?”

Bertol squinted his eyes and let out a hard laugh, zipping up his pants and flushing the urinal.

“You got a sense of humor, don’t you, doc?” Bertol remarked, chuckling as he moved to a sink and washed his hands.

“Well, what then?” Luka impatiently asked.

Bertol glanced over and grinned. “I’ll give you a hint if you promise to let it go. Just to sate your curiosity.”

Luka rested his hands on the sink next to Bertol. “Fine. I’ll let it go.”

Bertol shrugged. “I may not be a genius or a biologist, but I read about some sea creatures. I read about an article that said some of those things don’t have iron in their blood. Oxygen is kind of important for a lot of creatures, at least the ones we know about, and iron is a pretty good element to bind it with. But these creatures, you see, they don’t use iron. They use copper.”

“Yes, yes, yes; that’s well established,” Luka grumbled. “I fail to see how that enters into this discussion.”

Bertol turned off the faucet and grabbed a paper towel, drying his hands. “Well, it does. Directly related to the ‘yellow’ bit, in fact. What color is your blood, doc? I’m assuming it’s red, because of the iron.”

Luka thought for a moment. Yes, blood looks red. But how does that relate to copper? And- His eyes widened as he put it together. Some sea creatures have green or blue blood because the oxidization causes those elements to appear green or blue rather than red, as it does with iron. The substance is blood!

Bertol turned back and smiled at Luka. “One look at your face just tells me you finally put it together. Congrats, doc; now, let it go. You found what you wanted.”

“But how did-” Luka began, then Bertol held a hand up.

“You promised, doc,” Bertol said. “Said you’d let it go. Now, I’m not one to make threats, so consider this a warning: if you keep digging, you’re going to make your own grave. I’m not telling you that because you’re uncovering some scandal or something; I’m telling you that because some very nasty people in the Families are on the same trail. If they find out that you know anything — however so slight — they’ll make you squeal like a hog.”

Luka sighed and nodded. “I understand, Officer Bertol. Thank you for the discussion.”

“Anytime, doc. Pleasant day to you,” Bertol remarked, leaving the restroom.

Luka looked over to the mirror over the sink, shaking his head at his own reflection. I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised to hear that the Families are involved in this. Which explains why the Royal Police are involved as well. But the Royal family? How are they involved? Why are they involved?

Luka let out another sigh and exited the restroom, finding himself back in the hallway. It was on the main floor of the Royal Police building, so there was a bit more activity. He walked to the front door, out the steps and began to make his way back to campus. As he walked along the sidewalk, he noticed a rather tall woman with red hair, a fedora on her head, and a trench coat covering her frame. He narrowed his eyes as he looked over her, then got a look at her chin. He instantly recognized her based on the chin alone — there was no mistaking Princess Katerina.

Katerina looked up and gave Luka a predatory grin. She casually strolled up to him, meeting his gaze and sending chills up his spine.

“Princess Katerina,” Luka said, lightly bowing his head. “I am deeply honored by your presence. Though I assume you don’t want it to be widely known on this busy afternoon day.”

“Yeah, you sound like a smug academia clown,” Katerina remarked. “Sera was right when she told me that I wouldn’t get along with you at all.”

“A shame, Princess. I would hope that my future queen would consider me a loyal subject.”

Katerina rolled her eyes. “Lose the titles, shut up, and listen to me closely you little shit: if you want to get killed, keep diggin’. If you want to stay alive, forget you ever heard anything about that yellow crap.”

“I beg your pardon, my majesty!” Luka exclaimed. “I am decades your superior at the very least and while you might be a princess, that does not-“

Katerina reached out and grabbed Luka by his collar. “Shut up and listen!” she growled. “You wanna know what that yellow shit does? It makes you go nuts! It makes you hear voices, see things that aren’t there, and makes you think you can fly! Do not fuck with it!”

“Except I know it’s blood,” Luka whispered. “I’ve seen it up close. It’s not a drug.”

Katerina shook her head. “No, it’s not. Whatever you saw wasn’t blood. That’s probably just the effects of the drug.”

“Then we should be researching it! This drug stimulates cell replication and growth in ways I have never seen before! We could change the-“

“The world has already been changed, you idiot!” Katerina growled. “The only question is whether or not we can save what’s left!”

Luka slowly blinked. “And how do you know this? What has led you to this conclusion?”

Katerina narrowed her eyes. “I will state this very plainly, Dr. Martaci: stop looking in the wrong places. There are just some things we aren’t meant to know.”

Katerina released Luka and casually walked away, heading back to the Royal Police building. He sighed and continued walking back to campus, the gears in his mind still turning. If I’m looking in the wrong places, then I must find the right places. Sera, Bertol, and Katerina — damn them and their narrow minds. I can and will bring greatness to humanity, even if it costs me my own life.

The Rabbit Hole

Luka pulled back away from the microscope and rubbed his eyes. He glanced to the clock on his desk, seeing the time as 7 in the evening. He pursed his lips and let out a sigh, knowing that his wife would likely scold him for coming home so late. Majorie will ask me what is so necessary at my job to forego spending time with her, Luka thought. Yet I am at a loss as to how to explain all this to her. I also find myself concerned with what I found out from the Royal Police — especially Princess Katerina’s warning. “The world has already been changed,” she said. What does that even mean? Isn’t the world always changing?

Luka again leaned forward and looked into the microscope, seeing the cells again. They were starting to lose some of their luster, no longer glowing as brilliantly as they used to. Before long, they would likely all die and leave him with nothing to go on.

“Damn you, Sera,” Luka mumbled. “The things we could do with this knowledge… We owe it to everyone to pursue this, no matter the cost.”

Luka frowned as he noticed something different in the cells. He adjusted the microscope to get a better look at it, then gasped at what he saw: a jet-black cell, larger than the others, appearing as a mechanical construct. How in the… What is this?! He tried to adjust the microscope for a closer look, but it was incapable of zooming in any further; while it was a scientific-grade scope, it was not nearly the same as what Sera had access to. Which is the whole reason I ended up with that discarded equipment to begin with. Was it fate? Was I supposed to have come across that equipment and found this?

Luka focused the microscope to get the best look at the cell as he could, then started noting details about it. It seemed that the core had an identical appearance to the other cells, but with a mechanical construct grafted to it. A series of arms appeared to emit from the construct, with which it had grabbed several other cells. If only I could get a closer look at this! This isn’t a natural construct, it’s engineered! But who made it? And for what purpose? That officer, he said that it came from a man who wasn’t a man. His blood. Did he know? Who was he?

Luka pulled back from the microscope and rested his chin on his hand. Cellular modification should not be possible; after all, if his microscope couldn’t even zoom in close enough to see the details of such a small construct, then it was highly unlikely anyone else would. Even the most advanced microscopes in the world would only be able to get in slightly closer, which still didn’t change the nature of actually constructing such a device. To make such a construct would be an incredible undertaking, notwithstanding how to make it function. The theory goes that the world is made up of much smaller elements than cells, but technology has not advanced enough to prove such. However, if we assume such is true, then someone had to have made this. With technology not readily known or available. The Protectorate, perhaps? Unlikely; they have persecuted their intellectual caste to the brink of destruction. Science and knowledge have no business in a worker’s paradise, as they’ve said before. But rhetoric is far reaching… Perhaps elements deeper within their government have been more forward thinking than the public face they project.

“Listen to yourself, Luka,” Luka grumbled out loud. “It’s night time, Majorie is likely worried about you, you’re tired, and there’s nothing more to be gained from here. This rabbit burrow will still be present when you return in the morning.” He stood and slid the slide out from the microscope, turning off the lamp within. He went to the refrigerator and carefully hid the slide in the back, closing the door and clicking the combination lock in place. He checked the door to make sure it wouldn’t easily open, then made his way to the coat rack and donned his jacket. Glancing around the lab one last time, he turned off the desk lamp and walked out to the hallway, the darkened appearance reminding him of all the time he had spent on campus. Classes weren’t scheduled to start for another couple months, so he could focus exclusively on research until then. And if this all pans out, I may never have to give lectures to young, ignorant, bored kids anymore. My lectures will be reserved for those truly interested — those who desire to make the world a better place!

As Luka descended the steps of his building, the calm late-spring air began to rise up in a light breeze, adding an element of tranquility to the evening. The various lights dotting campus kept it from feeling dangerous, yet Luka still felt as if something was watching him. He carefully glanced around, but saw no one. He shrugged and tightened his jacket, continuing down the sidewalk to make his way home, a short distance away from campus. When he was younger, he rode a bike to classes; as he got older, it became more painful and difficult to ride bikes, so he had transitioned to walking instead. For the distance he covered, walking suited him fine and when he gained tenure, helped to reinforce his new position as an elder.

Passing the edge of campus, Luka crossed the street and made the familiar journey past the various homes belonging to his fellow professors as well as those belonging to well-off students. Many would later transition to professorship as they gradually replaced others who retired from their positions. There was always a constant ebb and flow of new blood and not all of it was good; many, like Sera, opted for careers outside of academia, wasting their potential — in Luka’s view. Sera should be working with me, not for the Royal Police. What difference can she make as a crime scene technologist? Yet she has been doing it for so long now. At the same time, this discovery falls in her lap of all people! And what does she do? She wastes it! An opportunity of a lifetime! History would have always remembered the name “Sera Williston” as the scientist who changed everything we knew about biology. Instead, that falls to me: Luka Martaci, father of immortality.

Luka noticed he had finally arrived at his home, so turned his thoughts around and walked up the front steps, opening the door and preparing himself for his wife’s ire.

“I’m home!” Luka shouted, hanging his jacket up.

“Luka? It’s 7:30! Where have you been?” Majorie shouted back from the kitchen.

“A bit of puzzling research,” Luka answered, walking into the kitchen. Majorie was sitting on a stool, looking out the window as she worked on a sketch.

“You look pleasant this evening, dear,” Luka mumbled.

“I didn’t bother making dinner because I determined you would likely be late again, as you have been for the past two weeks,” Majorie said, still focused on her drawing.

“Yes, of course. I’m sorry.”

Majorie passed a frown to Luka. “Are you, Luka? Are you really? If classes weren’t out, I would accuse you of seeing some young undergraduate, but I know you better than that. Every night you’ve come home and avoided discussing the subject with me; I think it’s finally time you told me what you’re doing.”

Luka sighed and leaned against the kitchen counter. “Do you remember all the chaos from a couple months back? The Station 31 building incident?”

Majorie nodded. “Yes, Quintus Lordenci was forced to broadcast on the radio alleged crimes he had committed in his life. I don’t recall much beyond that; once you get involved with the Families, you never get out.”

“I found something, Majorie. And I think it’s related to that.”

Majorie lifted an eyebrow. “What possible reasons would you have to be involved in any of that business?”

“You’re aware of how I was trying to get equipment for the lab, correct? Purchasing had cut my budget, so I had to find alternative ways to get what I needed. Through a student, I was directed to a man who had some lab equipment that had been in use by the Royal Police. The claim was that it was surplus, but I later found out that it had been slated for incineration.”

“It was contaminated?”

Luka nodded. “According to Sera Williston, she had been told by the Royal family that it was all to be destroyed. She would not tell me why; I believe now that she was on the cusp of an incredible discovery related to the Station 31 incident.”

Majorie put her drawing down and looked at Luka with curiosity. “If Sera was willing to destroy it and not pursue it any further, she must have found something that shook her to her core. Sera doesn’t just give up scientific discovery without good reason.”

“I believe she has grown soft in her old age,” Luka grumbled. “I found what she found, but she will not acknowledge it. I do not know why, because what it might be could change everything we know about ourselves. It has the potential to be a ground-breaking discovery in the realm of biology.”

“If Sera dropped it, then she had good reason to,” Majorie said. She sighed and shook her head. “Luka, you have a tendency to be quite stubborn, a trait that Sera shares with you, but unlike you, she is well aware of it and takes steps to keep it in check. I’m going to assume that Sera warned you from pursuing the matter any further; if she did, then I would strongly implore you to heed her warnings.”

“Majorie, what I’ve found are cells that repair themselves. They glow yellow and regenerate — do you understand what that means?”

Majorie shook her head. “No, Luka, I don’t. All I need to know is that if Sera won’t pursue what you’ve found, then she is well aware of both the good and bad implications of it. Her judgment in such matters is what gives her an edge over so many in her field; I’m certain that’s why the Royal Police hired her.”

Luka scoffed. “Don’t tell me that you refuse to understand as well. Even Princess Katerina-“

“You saw Princess Katerina?!” Majorie exclaimed. “The Princess Katerina?!”

Luka frowned and nodded. “Yes, she seems to be working at the Royal Police for some reason. Why is that-“

“Luka, can’t you see how deep you’re getting in all this? Your future queen is involved! Unless she explicitly asked for your assistance, that is all the evidence you need to drop this!”

“She’s a princess, not a god, and not a queen — not yet. She’s still a young woman, for all intents and purposes.”

“A young woman who could very well become the head of state, Luka!” Majorie exclaimed. “Don’t you remember what happened to King Racine II?”

“Yes, yes, I remember,” Luka grumbled. “Died in a plane crash, thrusting Cortaeus and Rita onto the throne.”

“Who were still young — maybe only a few years older than Katerina is now. I hope you didn’t antagonize her!”

“Antagonize her?!” Luka exclaimed. “No, she antagonized me! She had the gall to tell me to leave it all alone! And in a disgusting bottom-class tone and dialect!”

Majorie narrowed her eyes. “Just like my parents, correct?”

Luka closed his eyes as his cheeks burned with embarrassment. “No. I’m sorry, Majorie.”

Majorie nodded. “You had better damn well be, Luka. You know I went against my parent’s wishes when I married you.”

“I apologize in full for my behavior and my comments, dear,” Luka said. “Perhaps you are right; perhaps I am too close to all this.”

“Your words and behavior make that all too clear. If it’s not just Sera telling you to back away, but Katerina as well, then you must let go, Luka. Please, for my sake: heed their warnings.

Luka sighed. “Before I do so, can you listen for a little longer? At least allow me to make my case?”

Majorie folded her arms, then carefully nodded. “Tread lightly, Luka. If you try to change things too much, you will make uncountable enemies not only here, but in the entire world.”

“I understand, Majorie,” Luka said. “Consider this: if these cells can regenerate, the implications are that we would no longer need all but the most dire medical care. There wouldn’t need to be any complicated clinics, paperwork, or bureaucracy to treat ailments. We would heal from complex ailments almost instantly; someone losing an arm or a leg would not have to go on for the rest of their lives with poor mechanical substitutes. We could conquer disease; we could conquer injury; we could potentially live forever — as long or as short as we might want. Time would no longer factor into our lives; it would be infinite. We could do anything we wanted for as long as we wanted.”

“Then we would no longer be human,” Majorie dejectedly remarked. “You cannot separate time from the human experience, Luka. I can understand wanting to remove disease and injury, but the price for such is far too high.”

Luka lifted an eyebrow. “How did you come to that conclusion?”

“If I am careless with a kitchen knife and I cut myself, I will always have a scar to remind myself of my carelessness. If, on the other hand, I have infinite time and will never show the physical injury, what reason do I have to use caution in the future?”

“But you would remember it. The memories of pain would still be there.”

“My uncle was a Family enforcer. Did you know that?”

Luka frowned and shook his head. “I wasn’t aware of that, no.”

Majorie sighed. “He tried to steal from the Zastev family, so they stabbed him to death. According to my mother, he deserved it, as painful as it was for her to admit it.”

“Majorie, I’m not speaking of shedding our law and order; I’m-“

“If my uncle had instead survived that stabbing, he would have killed my father.”

Luka shook his head in surprise. “What?”

“My mother was supposed to be married to a Zastev enforcer — a promise made by my uncle, the price he intended to ‘pay’ in order to get his position. Because she was already engaged to my father, my uncle had intended to kill my father in order to secure his position in the family.”

“I fail to see how that relates to this discussion.”

“My uncle made a mistake one night, gambling with other enforcers. He insulted another enforcer’s mother, causing a fight to break out. The other man stabbed my uncle and left him to bleed, then they threw his body into a river. Now, if he had these cells, Luka… He would have lived. It would have been deemed typical family business and left alone. And he would have killed my father, thus ensuring my mother would forever be a slave to a Zastev thug.”

Luka closed his eyes and nodded. “I see your point, Majorie.”

Majorie smiled. “All it takes is one little thing and the changes become far-reaching, Luka. Never forget that.”

Luka opened his eyes and rested a hand on Majorie’s shoulder. “I love you, dear. I’m going to bed.”

Majorie nodded and held Luka’s hand, then let go as he left for the bedroom. She sighed and looked out the window, knowing that he would not be swayed — she had been married to him for almost two decades and she knew him better than that.

Luka sighed again as he entered the bedroom, his own thoughts once again turning in his mind. I am on my own with this. I’m sure eventually, Majorie will understand, as will everyone else. I just have to prove it. I will find out what these cells do — and how to reproduce them.

Luka woke to see the early morning light shining in through the window. He yawned and folded the covers off, allowing him to slip his feet into his slippers and stand, stretching as he did so. He looked back to see Majorie still asleep, as was typical; she went to sleep at a much later hour than he did. He casually went through the door and down the stairs, opening the front door and intending to pick up the newspaper. He was surprised to see not only the newspaper, but a small unmarked box alongside it. He frowned and picked up the box, seeing no writing on it whatsoever. He shrugged and grabbed the newspaper as well, then went inside and put the box down on the table, he gently tugged at the edges and pulled the lid off the box, being greeted by a note. It was handwritten in a careful style, indicating that whomever wrote it was educated and of higher class than the box itself might indicate. Luka squinted as he read the note:

How deep are you willing to go, Dr. Martaci? Once you go down this hole, there is no going back.

Luka set the note down and pursed his lips. He looked in the box, seeing it filled mostly with packing paper. How deep am I willing to go? Luka thought. Until my death. I will go as far as I can, no matter what stands in my way. He began to dig through the box, pulling out material until he found something hard. It seemed to be pocket knife sized, wrapped tightly in paper. He pulled the paper off to find the handle of a knife with a broken off blade. He then gasped and dropped the knife back in the box.

The handle was still covered in the same glowing yellow blood as the sample he had obtained.

No Way Out

Luka quickly stepped into the lab, almost giddy at the new sample he had obtained. The note warning him of the possible consequences did not cause him pause or concern; as far as he was concerned, it was cryptic with little absolute value. Someone who simply cannot fathom how science works, he thought to himself. He set the box on the desk and turned on his microscope, then dug around for a slide to place new samples from the knife onto. Finding one, he carefully prepared it, then opened the box and withdrew the knife handle. Using a small scraper tool, he rubbed some of the yellow blood from the handle onto the slide, then set it aside. He clamped the slide together and hastily jammed it into the microscope, almost breaking the locking tabs. Looking into the microscope, he zoomed in and focused, trying to get the best look at the new sample as he could.

Luka smiled as he could tell the new sample was identical to the old one; there was no mistaking that he was looking at the same cells. As he shifted the view around, however, his smile began to fade as he noticed more of the mechanical cells in the new sample. More of these strange cells… It appears that almost a third of them are this strange mechanized type. He backed away from the microscope and went to the refrigerator, entering the combination into the lock and opening it. He reached to the back and pulled out the old slide, then went back to the workbench and removed the new one. Setting the two side by side, he could instantly tell the new sample was considerably darker than the old one. So the new sample is considerably duller due to a higher concentration of these mechanical cells. Does that mean anything beyond the fact that these cells lack the same luminescence as the others? A chemical reaction of some form must cause the luminescence to begin with; yet the mechanical cells appear to have the same structure as the others — perhaps that energy is used to power the mechanics? It could be possible. Powering a mechanical object with a chemical reaction on a small scale. But that explains nothing as to why the cells regenerate so rapidly — even for samples outside of the host.

Luka sat back and rubbed his chin. Clearly, he was dealing with something so far in advance as to be dealing with an incredible leap in evolution; either a mutation from something so incredibly rare or an advanced new drug to spur such a mutation. I have to know more. I need to know more. Why does this sample have more of the mechanical constructs than the old sample? I wonder… He put the new sample back into the microscope and once again looked into it, focusing on another one of the mechanical cells. He watched it for a moment, trying to see if anything stood out to him. As he waited, he sighed and looked away for a moment, then movement caught his attention. He looked back and saw an arm on the cell swing around and grab a nearby natural cell, pulling it closer and wrapping around it. Eventually, the cell began to change color and the mechanical cell released it. Drifting away, the cell began to change, causing Luka to gasp. After a few moments, a similar mechanical construct began to appear on the cell, turning it into one just like the mechanical cell.

“Seven protect us,” Luka mumbled out loud. The mechanical construct… A virus? No; a virus doesn’t work that way. A virus attacks a cell and commands it to make more. Bacteria? No, not possible. Not looking like this. The cell is still present in its original state; it simply has a new mechanical construct attached to it. This was engineered — this isn’t natural. Someone made this. But for what purpose? It spreads as if it were a virus, but unlike a virus, does not multiply its numbers. It simply converts them. Further, they seem to retain the base properties of the cell, thus allowing them to still work with the host. But I wonder… He pulled the slide out of the microscope and opened it, then pulled a scalpel off the shelf. He carefully cut his right index finger, then smeared a small bit of his blood into the yellow sample. Closing the slide, he put it back into the microscope and once again looked into it, wondering what he might see.

As Luka observed, the yellow cells and his own blood cells mixed, but nothing seemed to happen between them — as expected. He carefully watched as his red cells began to mix more and more, getting closer to what he truly wanted to see: if the mechanical construct would convert his cells as they did the yellow ones. He didn’t have to wait long before seeing his cells close in on a mechanical one. He held his breath for a moment, expecting something to happen, but the mechanical cell ignored his blood cells, causing him to sigh in disappointment. That’s not going to work. The mechanical cells are not the source of this energy; they- Luka’s eyes widened as his thoughts came together. These are more advanced than I thought! The mechanical cell must be tailored specifically to target the yellow cells! Yes, it could work! My cells don’t have any latent energy in them, which must be exactly what the mechanical construct needs. There’s not enough energy in mine to power the construct, so it either cannot see it or it is unwilling to use it. But to do such-

A knock on the door interrupted Luka’s thoughts. He leaned out from the microscope and looked to the door.

“Come in!” Luka shouted, the door shortly opening after he did so. It was Erik, his student lab assistant. Erik had been the one who led Luka to the man selling the surplus lab equipment.

“Good morning professor,” Erik said. “You asked about trying to find a more powerful microscope the other day; someone in the research department has something of interest.”

Luka lifted an eyebrow. “They do? Last time I asked them, they said this was as powerful as it got.”

“It’s a new development, sir,” Erik answered. “A student was working on some optical technologies and he heard about your request. It’s not sanctioned by the department heads, but he and I got together and we think we have a way to make a new, far more powerful microscope.”

“How much more powerful?”

“We think we can do at least twice the maximum power and resolution as the one you’ve got there.”

Luka’s jaw dropped open. “What?! How?!”

“He’s calling it an ‘electron scope,’ professor. It-“

“How soon can you build one?” Luka interrupted.

Erik sheepishly rubbed the back of his neck. “Well, we built one. Already, I mean. We’ve looked at some incredible stuff already and I thought I’d let you know.”

Luka turned off his microscope and pulled out the slide, shooting up and dragging Erik into the hallway.

“Take me to it. Now!” Luka demanded.

“Er, of course, professor. Follow me,” Erik whispered. He led Luka out of the building and through campus, ending up at a run-down building nearby the research department. Erik hammered on the loose wood door, then went inside. Old wooden crates, government surplus storage containers, tin cans, and other bits of scrap decorated the inside of the building, with a stiff, musky smell permeating the air. Luka looked around and spotted what appeared to be a large microscope, with several wires prominently coming out of it. Nearby, another young man was writing in a notebook, his thick glasses marring his otherwise youthful appearance.

“Gene, I have Professor Martaci here,” Erik said. “He wants to use the scope.”

Gene continued to write in his notebook, seemingly ignoring Erik. After a moment, he nodded and began to speak.

“This is unproven technology, Professor,” Gene mumbled. “I can’t be certain that what we’re looking at is really an accurate image or not.”

“It doesn’t matter, Mr…?” Luka’s voice trailed off.

“Eugene, or just Gene, is fine, Professor,” Gene bluntly answered.

“Very well, Gene. If your device can accurately see my sample, then I will consider you — and Erik — co-discoverers of a revelation that will shake our world,” Luka proudly remarked.

Gene looked up and narrowed his eyes. “I doubt that, Professor. Nonetheless, you may give it a go. Erik, show him how it works.”

“OK, Professor, just slide your sample down there-” Erik pointed to the slot for a slide. “-and I’ll handle the rest. The eyepiece is right there, just like a regular microscope.”

Luka nodded and snapped the slide into place below the viewing area, then looked down through the eyepiece. It was pitch black, showing nothing.

“I don’t see anything, Erik. What is-” Luka began, then the sound of electronics being turned on interrupted him.

“Just turning it on, Professor,” Erik answered. “Give it a second to power up.”

Luka pulled back and gently nodded, waiting for Erik to tell him more. The sound of whirring filled the air and Erik nodded.

Erik let out an anxious sigh. “We only have limited magnification and focusing at this point — Gene scrapped a cheap scope for the eyepiece and did some translations, so the minimum power is akin to the maximum power of yours. It should be ready.”

Luka looked down through the eyepiece; it was somewhat grainy, but beyond that the sample looked just like it did through his microscope. Fascinating! I must know more about this scope, but that will come later. I have more pressing concerns about these cells. Adjusting the scope, he zoomed in closer, seeing more and more details of the cells. He shifted the view around and focused on a mechanical cell, zooming in on it. As he was able to make out more details, he gently shook his head. This should not be possible, but I cannot deny what I am seeing. This is an artificial construct. There is no doubt of that now.

“Remember not to run it too long, Erik,” Gene mumbled, writing in his notebook.

“Right,” Erik answered back. “Professor, you’ve got about a minute left, then we have to shut it off. It gets hot too quickly; we built it mostly with scrap parts.”

“Yes, I’ll be done shortly,” Luka whispered back. The construct was starkly marked with angles, appearing almost as a crystalline structure, with various joints on the arms. It was an incredible piece of engineering and it made him even more curious as to whom had designed and built it. Then something caught his eye on the structure; it was out of focus, so he adjusted more until it was in focus. He gasped over what he saw, then the power cut out and the image went blank.

“Whoops!” Erik exclaimed. “Sorry, Professor. Some of the electronics are still fiddly.”

Luka sighed and rubbed his eyes. “That’s quite all right, Erik. How soon can you have it back up?”

Gene walked up and looked at a component on the back of the scope and shook his head.

“Power supply’s gone out,” Gene remarked. “I don’t have a spare and I can’t fix this one with what we’ve got on hand; we’ll have to wait until someone discards another or we find one for sale.”

“I will talk to your department heads,” Luka said. “If they are unwilling to get you one, I will buy you one out of my own pocket.”

Gene laughed. “Professor, this isn’t a cheap power supply. It came off of the telescope the astronomy people use. You’re looking at a 600 Royal device.”

“Then I will pay it,” Luka replied. He sighed and looked at a clock on the wall; it was approaching lunchtime and he had skipped over breakfast. It was getting to him and causing consternation in his thoughts. I must have energy if I am to continue on with this. Especially if I must play bureaucratic games with the other departments to get what Gene and Erik need.

“If you say so,” Gene mumbled. “If you’re done here, then Erik and I have some work to do. We need to modify the scope so it won’t burn out a power supply again; I would have done so beforehand, but Erik was insistent that you wanted it as soon as possible.”

Luka nodded. “Yes, to which I will be in your debt. I will pressure everyone to recognize what you have done with this device — it has great potential. Let me know if there’s anything else I can do for you, gentlemen; I will speak with the rest of the faculty on this matter this afternoon.”

“Good luck, Professor,” Erik said, turning back to the scope.

Luka quickly took the slide out of the slot, then weaved around all the junk and left the building. A fascinating development, he thought. It truly does work! With further development, we could see even smaller! But for now, this construct… There is no mistaking it now: it is artificial. A small plate with writing on it, at a scale impossible for us to work on? And even more perplexing: “GMP 2083 NXS-34” — what does it mean? If one has the technology to mark such a device, one must assume the technology to read it is out there. And we do not possess it.

Luka returned to his building and scaled up the stairs, making his way to the lab. The sound of objects crashing caused him to frown and he quickly ran to his lab, bursting in to see two men dressed in suits, crashing through all the equipment.

“What are you doing?! Stop this at once!” Luka shouted, causing the two men to stop and look to him.

“This lab yers?” one of the men asked in a lower-class dialect.

“This lab is the property of Merigold University!” Luka growled in answer.

The two men chuckled and looked at one another, then the first man looked back to Luka.

“Ya must be Doc Martaci,” the first man said. “Ya know where da Lordenci girl’s at?”

Luka frowned and shook his head. “I have no idea what you’re speaking of.”

The other man pulled out a slide — it was clearly the first sample Luka had obtained, which he had forgotten to secure before leaving. The surprise on his face caused the men to chuckle again.

“Ya know somethin’, dontcha doc?” the first man asked. “Tell us n’ mebbie we forgets ya.”

“It was a sample of some fluid that came off of discarded Royal Police laboratory equipment,” Luka answered. “I was attempting to find out what it is. Unfortunately, I have no answers.”

The first man shook his head. “Nah. Ya know somethin’ more n’ dat. Where’s da girl, Doc?”

“My research has nothing to do with a girl,” Luka answered. “I was informed that the sample came from a man, not a woman. I-“

“We dun give a damn ’bout no man!” the first man interrupted. “Tenna Lordenci! Where is she?!”

Luka balled his hands into fists. “I know of no such person! In case you didn’t notice, classes are out! They will not resume for another two months, and when they do, I will know few students personally!”

“I’s thinks he’s tellin’ tha truth, Nicco,” the other man said, breaking his silence. “He ain’t knowin’ where tha stuff came from. Seems ta be his only problem.”

“N’ I say we bring ‘im in,” the first man said. “Mr. Lordenci was adamant ’bout that. Anyone got any info, we bring ’em to da boss.”

“Gentlemen,” Luka interrupted, “my only concern is that yellow substance. Unless it came from this Tenna Lordenci, I have no interest in your affairs.”

The two men looked at one another in confusion, then back to Luka. The first man shrugged and walked up to Luka.

“‘Eres da way it goes down, doc,” the first man said. “We weren’t ‘ere n’ ya didn’t see us.”

“Your Mr. Lordenci will have to compensate the college for the lab equipment,” Luka replied. “If he does that, then you were never here, I never heard his name, and Tenna Lordenci doesn’t exist.”

The first man smiled. “Ah, ya shoulda been in a Family, doc. Ya got guts. I’s pass along yer words to ‘im. Kazy, let’s go.” He waved his companion out and left the lab, leaving Luka alone in the refuse.

Luka quickly ducked back to the hallway and looked at the men.

“Hey!” Luka shouted. “I want that sample back!”

The second man stopped and turned, then grinned. He held the slide up and tossed it back, causing Luka to gasp and dive to catch it. He succeeded, though did so in an absolutely ridiculous fashion, causing the men to laugh as they descended the stairs. Ignorant, low-class, dumb muscle! Luka thought. Families, of course. Still… Tenna Lordenci. Could she know anything? I must keep my eyes and ears open for this person.

Luka stood and dusted himself off, then went back into the lab. He grumbled at the mess the men had left behind, pushing some of it aside on his way to the refrigerator. He opened it up and set the slides inside, then closed it and locked it. He left the lab and locked the door this time, keeping all but the most desperate at bay, and exited the building, intending to find a place off-campus to eat. Reaching the edge of campus, he stopped at the street running alongside and waited for an opportunity to cross. Suddenly, a car came screeching up, stopping in front of him. A man hopped out of the front passenger seat and opened the back door, exposing an elegant woman about Luka’s age to his view.

“What is-” Luka began, then the woman waved a hand, cutting him off.

“Please have a seat, Dr. Martaci,” the woman interrupted, her dialect seemingly in the same class as Luka’s.

“I have no business with-“

“Art,” the woman bluntly called out, causing the man to grab Luka and throw him in back, slamming the door and hopping back into the front seat. The driver screeched the tires and the vehicle merged with traffic, seemingly driving nowhere.

“What is the meaning of this?!” Luka exclaimed.

“Relax, Doctor,” the woman said. “Do you know who I am?”

Luka narrowed his eyes at the woman and shook his head. “No. I am unfamiliar with you.”

“Edna Fercelli. I run the Fercelli family.”

“Ah. First Lordenci, now Fercelli. What is this about? And don’t tell me Tenna Lordenci — I don’t know who she is.”

Edna laughed. “Oh, Quintus really would like to have his daughter back. Unfortunately for him, the Royal Police have her under their protection. I could tell him where, but I want to find a much more powerful person. Did you get my gift?”

Luka frowned and thought for a moment. Gift? What gift? I received no- He glanced over to Edna.

“Yes. The knife handle?” Luka asked.

Edna nodded. “Did you find anything on it?”

“Why should I tell you that?”

Edna smiled and shrugged. “Because if you don’t, I’ll chain you to an anvil and send you to the bottom of the river.”

Luka sighed. “Very well. I found cells that-“

“Regenerate, correct? Along with an artificial cell of some form. Am I on the right track?”

“You knew?!” Luka exclaimed.

“Of course. That knife was Art’s. Wasn’t it, Art?” Edna called out to the man in the front seat. He nodded in return.

“Bent off the blade in his back,” Art remarked.

“So it was a man,” Luka mumbled. “Who was he?”

“You mean what was he, Doctor,” Edna corrected Luka. “I was told his name was Victor. He believed it to be Ethan, but I suspect he was wrong. An interesting subject, in any case.”

“Was he aware of what he had?”

Edna shrugged. “On some level, yes. Victor was not of this world, Doctor; he was from before.”

Luka shook his head. “That’s not possible. He-“

“He was something of a… Container, I suppose,” Edna interrupted. “He wasn’t the only one, but he was the only one to survive. Well, other than the woman, but she became something different. I believe he burned her to ash, if what I saw was any indication.”

Luka lifted an eyebrow. “How?”

“Regeneration was only one trick he had,” Edna remarked. “He could move things with his mind. Emit lightning from his hands. Generate fire with the flick of his wrist. Oh, he could also turn invisible and leap from great heights and survive. And of course, he could go somewhere without moving.”

“Preposterous!” Luka exclaimed. “Your brain must be addled to believe such things! You were hallucinating!”

“Oh no, you see, I don’t use any of our products, Doctor,” Edna smugly replied. “When we first started importing brain booster, I was pregnant with my first child; I might be many things, but a poor mother is not one of them. Thus, I never generated any addiction like others did.”

“One need not take drugs to have delusions,” Luka grumbled.

“Of course, but that was Victor’s problem, not mine. He did, in fact, have more than one person in his mind — he was a composite image of many people. Hence, what was he? The knowledge of a surgeon with years of experience; the experience of several war veterans; the ability of the most skilled technicians — in disciples not yet discovered here. What would that be, Doctor?”

“Someone who has lived a very busy life,” Luka replied, shaking his head. “Not impossible, but highly unlikely.”

“A god, Doctor. A god,” Edna plainly answered. “What I met was the creator of us all.”

Luka shook his head in disbelief. “Impossible. There is no god, Ms. Fercelli; that’s-“

Mrs. Fercelli, Doctor,” Edna corrected Luka. “But I didn’t come here to debate with you. Now, I will ask once more: what have you found?”

Luka sighed and looked out the window, considering if he should answer. He carefully nodded and looked back to Edna.

“The cells,” Luka finally answered. “And a number. ‘GMP 2083 NXS-34’ was on one of the cells.”

Edna sighed and shook her head. “So, you haven’t found out anything either.”

“Oh?” Luka lifted an eyebrow. “I would say that I’ve found a lot. An artificial construct, labeled in a way that is currently impossible, as well as cells that seem to regenerate.”

“NXS-34 is the model number for the mechanical construct, Doctor,” Edna said. “It was code-named ‘Plague.’ It was built to co-opt Blight Leech cells.”

“But how-“

“Because Victor was not of this world. But, you see… I can control him. I know the control words. And since the woman who told me them is no longer with us, he will be mine.

“Well, I am sorry to say that I cannot help with such an endeavor,” Luka said. “Perhaps you can ask this Tenna Lordenci if she knows.”

Edna scoffed. “Tenna is a stubborn girl. And she has Tristan’s help; neither one will break. You do not break a Lordenci, especially not two of them.”

Luka held a hand up. “Not my concern, Mrs. Fercelli. I care not for Family business.”

“I asked you how deep you were willing to go, Doctor,” Edna whispered. “I also told you there was no going back. You’re already involved in Family business — Fercelli family business.”

“Then there is nothing for me to tell you. I know about the cells and I know about the construct; that is the extent of my knowledge so far. I am certain that with more time and money, I will know more, but that is potentially years into the future.”

“I misjudged you then. Art said I was wasting my time; I suppose I should have listened to him.”

“Yes, well, sorry to disappoint,” Luka mumbled. “I am but a scientist; I go where the evidence leads me.”

“A shame, Doc,” Art said from the front seat. “Was hopin’ we wouldn’t have to do this.”

Luka lifted an eyebrow at Art. “Do what?”

“Just tying up loose ends, Doctor,” Edna answered, an evil smile stretching her face.

“More Family business?” Katerina asked, walking past a police car.

“Yeah, ‘fraid so,” Franks answered. “Not exactly what we expected, though. Something completely different and outside of the usual.”

“How so?”

“Well, just look at the guy.” Franks pointed to the body covered by a sheet. Katerina frowned and walked over, then squatted down next to it. She briefly lifted the sheet, then quickly set it back and shook her head.

“What? You know him?” Franks asked.

Katerina nodded and stood. “Yeah. Dr. Luka Martaci. Professor of biology at Merigold University.”

“How’d you know him? Went to class with him or somethin’?”

Katerina shook her head. “No. He, uh… Became familiar with our old… Friend. You know?”

Franks lifted an eyebrow. “Which friend would that be? We got a lot of ’em.”

Katerina looked around and then leaned in to whisper. “Ethan.”

Franks’ eyes widened as he put it together. “Lordenci, you think?”

Katerina looked back to Luka’s body. “No. Lordenci doesn’t kill people this way. Fercelli, I’m sure.”

“How can you tell? Drownin’ is drownin’,” Franks remarked.

“Chains and an anvil, Franks,” Katerina answered. “Lordenci uses cement and rope. I warned that damned idiot, but he thought he knew better.”

“Ouch. No way out with that combo,” Franks mumbled with a grimace.

“Yeah. No way out,” Katerina whispered. “Get someone to his offices and lab at the university. I want all of his stuff incinerated. All of it.

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