1770 words, short story
Resistance in a Drop of DNA
You thought he’d be standing by the window, hands behind his back, looking out at the tortuous streets of Lyon like some kind of general. Instead, he’s sitting at a desk, half-buried in books. Your contact introduces him as the Professor. You tear open your jacket lining to extract the envelope, containing millions of francs for the Resistance—and most importantly, the filter paper containing the encrypted plasmids—and he takes them like this is an everyday occurrence. He asks for the latest news from London. Then he asks how your journey was.
“Fine,” you say, not quite sure if he understands that last night you jumped out of a plane and parachuted through darkness, expecting to be machine-gunned at any moment.
“Have you had dinner?”
For some reason, as the bistro empties, you end up telling him your entire life story. Really it can be summed up in one word: fight. Fighting your parents, fighting your tormentors, which got you kicked out of school, fighting in the war, against the invasion, and now against the occupation. He just listens as you work yourself up, telling him you’re going to fight until you’re standing on the Champs-Élysées, watching the enemy be crushed into dust.
“And then?” he asks.
“Then?” you repeat.
“What will you do once the war is over?”
The question disturbs you because you’ve never thought of after the war.
“I need a DNA decoder,” he says. “Will you be my assistant?”
Everyone in the Lyon network calls him the Professor because they assume he must’ve been one before the war. All that remains of his lab now is an incubator and a battered gel apparatus. Both much older than the equipment you glimpsed in London, in the underground complex you picked up the plasmids from. The enemy intercepts radio messages regularly, the Prof explains, but has not even begun to suspect DNA. Much less the biologists, the musty back rooms where, among jars of flies and stacks of Petri dishes, research goes on in its own way.
A drop of water over a dark spot on filter paper extracts a plasmid. A circle of DNA that multiplies in flasks of bacteria, instructs the growing microorganisms. It takes a practiced hand to complement the plasmids from London with the right genes. The dried dots, hidden on postcards in the Prof’s library. He shows you how to induce bacteria to take up DNA with a hot water bath, or an electrical shock. How to find the combinations that will teach them to diverge, to spread, to do their work, to consume the plasmids when recaptured, as if exhaling a breath of air.
From the countless people you meet in the traboules of Lyon, who you slip tubes of altered bacteria to, you learn of the Prof’s true role in the Resistance. London speaks to him. Every decision goes through him. He is the focal point, the eye of the hurricane.
And he insists you do science throughout it all.
For cover, he tells you. There must be a reason to have all this equipment in this rented room. Yet there’s no reason to be that convincing, you think. Surely the simplest of pretexts would suffice. But the Prof asks you to unravel networks as complex as the Resistance itself. How plasmids act in combination. Which traits dominate others. How genomes grow and shrink, taking up certain pieces of DNA while rejecting others. What bits of DNA bacteria cling onto, no matter what. What aspects of their life cycles can be explained in terms of DNA, what cannot.
“I see that these questions truly interest you,” he tells you when you grow frustrated at the experiments. When you discuss the data, which seems to have no bearing on real life, he smiles that way he always has. “I don’t know the answer either. We’ll have to keep thinking.”
So despite yourself, you think of DNA. In those long hours on train platforms, waiting for contacts, sitting in cafés. One strand of DNA, over a lifetime, can make a million messenger RNAs. Each RNA becomes a protein that can exact a function. In the same way, each plasmid from London gets decoded, distributed to each Resistance movement, multiplied. Each becomes a slightly different strain of microorganism. The kind that can chew through the metal hulls of tanks. Or make an entire gestapo office sick for weeks at a time. Many years later, this Central Dogma will be reflected, reversed, overturned. But it is everything to you back then.
Along with those hours you spend walking beside the Prof, scribbling notes, or memorizing his instructions in some restaurant or café. The glint of his glasses as he turns toward you. There’s an impassable abyss between you. But you feel, as long as he walks one step ahead, there will always be a way forward. For the Resistance. For all of France.
A year passes and you can’t imagine living any other way than this. Decoding, experiments, sleeping, waking, meeting contacts, movement leaders, receiving, messages, demands, passing on, money, plasmids—running into the Prof at a carefully decided time each day, as if by chance. He’s been called to Paris, he tells you. For an important meeting. You nod. It’s always hard in his absence, especially when things go wrong. Which they have been more and more often lately. He asks you about the gene regulatory network you’ve been investigating. You tell him it makes no sense, and he smiles. He says that there’s a library of genes in his old university, the largest in the world, that they’re mapping the human genome. He’ll take you to see it after the war’s over. That’ll be your way of celebrating the Liberation.
The day he’s due to arrive back in Lyon you wait for him at the train station, like always. Instead one of your contacts leaps out before the doors open all the way and runs over to you. It takes her several seconds to catch her breath.
“The Professor. Arrested.”
The words stab into your very being. You collapse onto a bench. You can’t comprehend it. One day we were talking. And then, in a flurry of encrypted plasmids, missives, meetings and conferences, fake IDs—he was gone. Yet it is not an uncommon occurrence. Every day someone doesn’t show up, someone goes missing. Only you thought it would be everybody else. You thought it would be you. Never him. The Prof is invincible. He’s the spirit of discovery, of science itself. How could the gestapo have someone like that at their mercy?
“He would’ve wanted you to keep decoding,” your contact goes on, white-knuckled, “to make sure the plasmids from London get to the right people. That they mutate in the right ways. You’re the only one who can keep the Resistance running while we figure out what to do next. Go on like nothing happened at all. That’s how you’ll avenge him.”
I don’t feel anything, you tell yourself as you pipette like an automaton, as your fantastical rescue plans abruptly fade. They will come for me next, and I will join him. A day trickles by, consumed by plasmid purification, endless passing on of the news. It doesn’t become real until you have to go meet one of the Prof’s contacts yourself. She was an old colleague of his, you speculate. At least you never met her without him at your side. Seeing you alone, the look on your face, she immediately knows.
“Ah,” she sighs. “So he’s gone too.”
You sit in silence.
“All he knows, he will take with him,” she says. “He will take himself to the grave.”
“He was arrested once before. He knows torture. He will do anything to protect you.”
Then your tears come.
The Prof once told you that he doesn’t believe in anything after death. It’s impossible, he said, knowing the inner workings of the cell. How similar we all are at the molecular level to every other living being. DNA, RNA, protein. Impossible to believe that even the darkest corners of the human soul will not also eventually be explained in terms of DNA, protein, RNA. Yet that is also what makes life very beautiful. This cruelty, this fragility, this fact that all biological processes must invariably end.
The Resistance is over for you then. You carry out your duties for the Prof’s successor. It goes on for a year or two and, maybe in some small part due to your actions, the war ends. You are on the Champs-Élysées, not watching your enemies crumple to dust, but very drunk. The celebrations fade, the war fades, the Resistance fades into something so ludicrous you can hardly talk to anybody about it.
You do become a molecular biologist. Those questions the Prof planted in you, they took root—did he know they would?—grew into research papers, colleagues, a lab, and ever more questions, as things in biology always do. Patiently, you wait for the Prof’s identity to be revealed. You assume that he will be someone in the very highest echelons of science, someone worthy of the entire world’s veneration. That’s why you’re surprised to learn, by chance, that he was nobody. You want to forget. Still. You hear his voice in the papers of his you read, published before the war. In his former students that you meet at conferences, who instinctively include you among them.
It’s on your way to them, years later in Lyon, past that train station where you always used to meet him, that you see a familiar smile.
You drop your phone.
It’s your imagination, of course. Just an amalgamation of different faces in the crowd. Someone’s suit, a pair of glasses, a blue scarf. All people who might not be here now, it occurs to you, if it hadn’t been for the Prof, and the Resistance—and you.
“What happened?” your friends say when you reach them. They make room for you around their café table, they order you a coffee. “You look like you’ve seen a ghost.”
That’s when you start talking. You talk and talk. About how you lived back then. How lonely it was. How cold and dark. How once, while walking with him, you saw a pelican land on a bridge parapet, overlooking the city. The crest of his old university, the Prof told you, an absolute symbol of self-sacrifice, of grief, of healing. You talk until you can’t talk anymore, and you know when you’ve run out of things to say, finally, you will write.