❝A total of eight babies were born alive. They were all born in this lab, for my experiments. I have not kidnapped anyone; I have not smuggled people. I did not go against ethics. They were all my people! It is ethical when other scientists generate organs out of stem cells, but it is not when I produce organisms. Is that so? Who says that? Is it my colleagues jealously gritting their teeth because they cannot invent something useful by any chance?❞
Have a good read. Thanks to Tuğba Akkaya for the translation. This story will also be included in the Anthology of Turkish Science Fiction by Routledge.
For an adult who is halfway through his twenties, past the nasty high school and the joyous college years, and who has spent more than twenty-four seasons on a weekday in front of a computer in an air-conditioned office, it was not that possible to live a life-changing event. But Şule has experienced miraculously such two events in the same hour. It was as rare as the formation of the DNA from an early soup of a planet with liquid water.
One morning in a Monday gloom, the young woman with her hair tied back was reading the news while sipping her coffee made with granules and cheap coffee whitener. She rolled her eyes when she saw the headline “The world is in shock! Illegal human experiments in Greece!” on the stock laboratory photo taken from the Internet. She thought it was one of those silly clickbait content. Still, she clicked on it as an excuse to waste some more time before she started to work.
“The world is in shock! Illegal human experiments in Greece!
In Athens, a mind-blowing scandal has revealed in the drug raid on the old university building.
After the closure of Didymoi University in Athens in 1993; the school land, buildings and all fixtures were purchased as private property by Professor Ilias Barakos, one of the richest in the country. Barakos had taken measures to prevent strangers from entering the land and announced that he had made important scientific researches, the results of which would be announced to the public.
This situation led to the reaction of some academics in the country. Supporting that a university land should not be the property of a single person, academics repeatedly denounced that Barakos was doing illegal work inside the land. Over the past twenty-five years, the land has been raided several times by the police.
Compartments below the ground concealed crimes
The last raid was made after a local citizen had seen Barakos’ assistants burying bags of white powder in the ground.
At 3 o’clock at night, police troops entered the Didymoi estate from far and near. While searching the buildings, a policeman noticed that one of the assistants was trying to get into a hole in the middle of the field.
It turned out that the pit was the exit of one of the tunnels leading to underground compartments that have not been discovered until now.
An atmosphere like medieval dungeons
There was not drugs in the compartme s below, but a creepy scene. Cells separated by bars and unidentified, half-naked people were ound. It has found that these people aged 25-27 do not even know how to speak.”
The news continued, but Şule, who is petrified, had no strength left to read the rest. She sighed as she pressed the exit button in the upper right. Is it necessary to made up such a lie for a clickbait?!
She worked absentmindedly until her lunch break. She couldn’t get her mind off that news. She was picturing in her imagination the possible condition of the poor people in rags, and what she was imagining became more and more pathetic. Finally, she decided to do some more research. She typed “Ilias Barakos” into the search engine and selected the language as English. Fresh news from world-famous news channels were listed on the first page.
She clicked the link saying “Barakos, the leading role in the human experiments scandal: I did not kidnap anyone, I did not smuggle people. I didn’t break ethics. (CCB, 14 hours ago)”.
On this site, there was an article similar to the one that she read in the morning. In addition, the suspect’s confession was also included here. The professor admitted that he experimented on those people, even saying that he bought the university grounds only for this purpose. However, the subjects were not abducted or brought into the laboratory from outside.
“I produced them all myself.” said the professor. “The placenta, as you can understand, the piece of flesh that is expelled from the mother’s womb with the birth of the baby, is very rich in stem cells. Stem cells are our main element. It can transform into all tissues and organs.
I separated the stem cells from the placentas that I had collected from various hospitals. I produced an artificial human womb through the first cells that came in. I controlled and activated this organ by means of low voltage electrical currents. Then I placed the other stem cells in the uterus and ensure that they have developed as an embryo. A total of eight babies were born alive. They were all born in this lab for my experiments. I did not kidnap anyone, I did not smuggle people. I didn’t violate ethics. They were all my people!
Why it is considered as ethical when other scientists produce organs from stem cells but as unethical when I produce organisms? Who says it? My colleagues who grit their teeth in envy because they couldn’t invent anything useful?”
With a shudder, Stile took a look at the other paragraphs. The assistant in charge of collecting the placentas told during the interrogation that he had visited some hospitals in Greece, Bulgaria and Turkey. At the bottom, there was a link to photos of the “lab people”.
Although she struggled a lot not to look at the photos, her curiosity eventually prevailed. She first read the information under each image, trying not to make eye contact with the blank stares of the subjects. Barakos named them with Greek ordinal numbers. Male subjects’ names ended with “- os”, and female subjects’ names ended with “-a”. Protos… Deftera… Trita… Tetartos… Pemptos… Ektos… Ebdomos… Enata…
After scrolling through the page a few times, she mustered the courage to look directly at the subjects. She slowly looked their faces. When it was Deftera’s turn, her heart seemed to stop. Her eyebrows, eyes, nose, lips, chin, cheekbones… She knew this face. This face was her face. The subject named – or numbered – Deftera was as similar t Stile as her twin sister.
Her blood pressure dropped and she felt sick. She had to take time off from work and spend the rest of the day at home.
Since they were born from cells stolen from the placentas, these people must have been genetic twins of free people living outside. As soon as she recovered the shock, Şule went to the authorities and gave a DNA sample to see if Deftera was really her genetic twin. While she was at the hospital, she made an appointment with another branch and had an X-ray of her shoulder, which had been hurting for a long time. It was a long-standing, insidious but bearable pain. That‘s why she delayed her examination until that day.
Seven days passed very slowly. The next day, Şule went to the hospital to both take the gene test and x-ray results.
She was quite surprised when she entered the waiting room of the genetics unit. Her twin, looking ahead with her short hair cut and in a hospital gown as well as with a lifeless face, sat there. As soon as the results were declared, the Greek authorities had sent Deftera to Turkey.
“Lonely, helpless, alone in a crowded and colorful life.” she thought. She felt her heart sink. She walked up to her without any hesitation, without feeling unfamiliar, and said her name in a soft voice.
When Deftera heard the sound, she lifted her head. She looked into Şule’s eyes. For some reason, Şule, the twin who was raised in the heart of society, had come to cry.
“You don’t understand what I‘m saying right now, but… I’ll never let you go.” she said tenderly. “No matter what!”
She was impatient while she was walking hand in hand with his sister towards the doctor’s room who was going to interpret the x-ray. She wanted to get her prescription for muscle relaxants and go out to the garden as soon as possible. In fact, there was no need to even go to the doctor for this simple shoulder pain. Why did she want to get this job out of the way last week and wasted time?
“I haven’t told my parents anything yet.” she said while laughing. “They don’t know you exist. It hadn’t even occurred to them. Y0u don’t even know about their existence also, though. O stranger, will you love this big world? Could you imagine the cities, seas, fields lying behind the walls of that laboratory hell? I talked a lot.” said she. “Wait here, I will come back. You wait here.”
She entered the doctor’s room and sat on the chair. Not noticing the doctor’s dark, painful look, she sorted through her questions. Only five minutes was enough for Şule, who was shining with joy, to leave the room sobbing. Five minutes, two words
A twenty-six-year-old adult with a well-rounded life was unlikely to experience a life-changing event, but two of them had happened to her in a single hour: One was Deftera’s arrival, and the other was the doctor’s suspicion about lung cancer just seconds ago. Additional tests were required to make a definitive diagnosis, but even the possibility was enough for Şule to shed tears.
Color MRI… Biopsy… PET-CT… It soon became clear that the doctor is right.
Şule started undergoing heavy chemotherapy. Lung cancer had progressed in the most insidious way possible and had spread to the surrounding tissues without any symptoms except shoulder pain. The doctors were talking amongst themselves, secretly, that the chances of success were slim. During this period, Şule’s parents came to Istanbul from Edirne to support her.
In the rush, Deftera could be forgotten. However, Şule wanted her twin by her side even in her most sluggish times. He was sitting next to her and trying to teach her to speak, read, write, and simple math. This was the biggest morale of the sick woman. Time passed mercilessly. While one’s hair was growing, the other’s was falling out, while one’s body was recovering, the other was melting.
As the treatment progressed, Şule was caught in fear’s grip about death. She saw Deftera more as a Surrogate who would replace her after she would die and continue her unfinished life, rather than a simple sister. She tried to prepare her for this “duty” by telling her everything she liked, interested, thought, and opposed in her healthy life. She wanted her CD player that ended up in the knacker’s yard and was on the back shelf of the cellar. She kept playing the disc with a red-haired girl on the cover for three days and made her memorize her favorite song under the bored eyes of the nurses.
“Come and see, I have the sky in one of my hands,” started Şule to sing.
“Still…” continued Deftera.
“The missing stars in the other one.”
It was three months after the diagnosis when the doctor openly said, “We can get your daughter out of the hospital and end the treatment.” “Now chemotherapy has no effect other than pain, cancer cells have spread to all her organs. It would be much better if she spent his last days at home.”
While the mother and father were listening to these bitter words, they heard a scream from Şule’s room that reached the end of the corridor. Doctors, nurses and parents entered the room, ready for any kind of intervention. However, the girl’s scream was not because of the ache or pain.
“Deftera is missing!” cried the patient, with sobs. “She’s escaped!”
Indeed, the old subject was nowhere in the hospital. She didn’t leave any traces behind. For three days, they searched for the young woman who had vanished into thin air. Police departments throughout Turkey were notified. Meanwhile, Şule’s condition got worse when her only source of morale was gone, and she was taken to the intensive care unit after she lost consciousness.
“Say goodbye, get ready.” the doctors were saying. “She won’t wake up.”
At the end of the third day, the family received a phone call from the Edirne Police Department. Deftera was caught trying to escape from Turkey to Greece. Although she was interrogated at the police station, she never spoke. She was acquitted ‘ court on the grounds that her perception ability was still lacking and therefore she did not have /criminal capacity.
When Şule’s father returned to the hospital with Deftera, the patient was still in the intensive care unit. The eyes of the mother waiting in the seats in front of the service went red because of crying. The former subject walked to a corner. She leaned against the wall. She put her finger in her mouth and touched her throat. She was throwing up. First, the remains of the last meal she ate, then some gastric juice, and finally a flash memory in a plastic wrap were out.
After seeing what was inside the flash, the facts were understood. Deftera was not caught trying to escape from Turkey, but while returning to Turkey after escaping to Greece. During this time, she had gone to the Didymoi University, had gone through underground tunnels that she knew very well but could not be found by the police, and brought back one of the devices that contained backups of Barakos’ work. Since the packaging in which the sachet was made was produced from a special kind of polymer by the professor, the device inside was not discovered during X-ray scanning at the border.
llias Barakos was talking about a method called “Phoenix Treatment” in the files in this memory.
“Phoenix, Zümrüdüanka, Simurg… This mythological bird, which is known by different names in many cultures, inspired me to develop my revolutionary scientific treatment method.
As it is known, Phoenix begins to burn itself when she grows old and fades. After turning into a handful of ashes, as a Cub, it shakes its hairless, fresh head and is thus born from the ashes. In my opinion, this mechanism symbolizes the life cycle of cancerous cells.
Normal human cells cannot divide unlimitedly. Cleavage is controlled by long strings of bases called ‘telomeres’ located at the ends of chromosomes. These sequences are lost after each division. When telomeres shorten to the critical point, cells stop dividing.
Therefore, a Phoenix representing normal cells could not rise from its ashes in all its freshness every time. Each time it would be born a little older, and after a few life cycles it would irreversibly turn to ashes.
Cancerous cells, on the other hand, have the capacity to divide indefinitely. They gain these properties with the enzyme telomerase. Telomerase maintains telomere length, limiting the number of divisions.
While this enzyme is inactive in normal cells, it is quite active in cancerous cells. Therefore, experimental studies on treatments targeting the telomerase enzyme continue in the academic world.
I developed this treatment in the opposite way. Phoenix treatment aims to increase, not decrease, the relevant enzyme. It is necessary not to reduce cancer cells, but to increase them and ensure that they cover the whole body.
Because only two types of cells have high dividing ability and telomerase activity: cancer cells and stem cells.”
After this paragraph, the oncologists stopped reading and convinced that the study was insane. Only the doctor who took care of Şule took it seriously and locked himself in his room all night to read and evaluate the whole study.
In the rest of the study, Barakos listed the common features of cancer cells and stem cells. For him, cancer was not a disease, but an opportunity for rebirth and renewal. The incompatibility between cancer cells and normal cells was the reason for death.
In the first stage of treatment, it was necessary to destroy normal cells and ensure the rapid proliferation of cancer cells. However, this process had to be done within hours. Otherwise, the incompatibility would prevent the organs from working and led to death.
Once the body was made up of cancer cells, these cells would be “trained” and ensure that they revert to their old DNA structures. The second phase of treatment should have taken place in the following order:
- The body would be moved to a cold environment to slow down metabolism and cell division.
- The techniques used during organ production from stem cells would be applied exactly to these new cells. Thus, the cells would become specialized and regenerate old tissues.
- After making sure that all cells were differentiated and symptoms such as excessive division and telomerase activity stopped, the body would be taken to a warm environment to speed up the metabolism and healing process again.
In the final parts of his work, Barakos admitted that the chances of success with this treatment method were quite low. “But…” he was saying, “If applied correctly, it is possible to cure even the most severe cancer patient in a maximum of eight hours. The Phoenix legend was not told for nothing, we humans are Phoenix. As long as we face rebirth and resist death.”
The doctor, who wanted to apply this treatment as a last resort to Şule, initially faced a great reaction from his colleagues. This extraordinary treatment proposal was against the principle of “primum non nocere”, that is, “First, do no harm!” at the foundation of medicine.
However, the doctor, who thought that they should try this remedy, insisted. He followed the procedures and signed documents indicating that he took all the responsibility. Finally, it was decided to try the Phoenix cure on Şule.
The discussions lasted two days. At this time, Deftera had isolated herself to the Şule’s old room. The hospital was so busy that no one cared for her or questioned why she was staying there. The former subject was turning the CD player on at low volume and listening to “Don’t Let Me Go” over and over.
On the night of the treatment, the mother and father hugged each other and waited sleeplessly. At dawn, the fate of their daughter would also be known. Şule would either lie on her bed as cold as ice or open her eyes to a warm new life. The hour and minute hands were very lazy t at night. Sleep was also shy and coward… The hours were quite long. The eyelids of doctors and those who were waiting refused to close.
There was an oncologist at the hospital who was never convinced and strongly opposed to this treatment method: Doctor Altan. He claimed that Phoenix treatment would certainly kill the patient, and urged the family and other doctors to give up. No one saw him on the night of the treatment. Şule’s doctor, on the other hand, wandered around with more hope and pride in Altan’s absence. He already felt like triumphant.
In the early hours of the morning, the body in the bed opened iher eyes. She was still exhausted, but healthy. She squinted reflexively because of the light hitting her face. Mother and father, who were frozen, were waiting, while the doctor was saying “We did it!” with tears in his eyes.
This peaceful moment was interrupted by the door that opened wide. Doctor Altan went inside with the police behind him. While the police were handcuffing the suspected murderer and doctor of Şule, he asked the family, “Are you happy what you have done?” “You have destroyed your daughter. Are you happy?”
He walked over to the living body on the bed. “I tried to tell you. l’ve been trying to tell you all along. A person’s personality is determined not by the number of brain cells, but by the connections between those cells, that is, by electrical currents. You can produce cells. But what about the connections between them? Those connections were all the experiences and memories of Şule since she was a baby. It was self-perception. You’ve destroyed them all. Congratulations!”
“You’re lying, here is our daughter alive!” she was going to say, mother.
“You think that your daughter is alive? Do you still think that breathing organism is your daughter? Yes… They have the same genes. But they’re not the same person. Just as Deftera and Şule are different people despite having the same genes, this anonymous body and your daughter are also different people. Moreover, this new body will not even have a personality. Because there is no exchange between her synapses. Her brain is empty, empty! She doesn’t even have the ability to learn. Good luck with your new child, who has only basic reflexes, but will live and die as a piece of meat!”
The father broke his silence from the beginning by saying, “Why didn’t our doctor tell us these things?”
“Your doctor didn’t even care about your daughter. Your doctor was driven by the same motivation as Barakos, only chasing fame and money. Primum non nocerel First, do not harm! We, doctors, look for ways to avoid further harm to the patient before treatment. Hippocrates did not say this word in vain centuries ago. On the other hand, your doctor deliberately destroyed millions of healthy cells of Şule. He deliberately killed Şule.”
The mother let out a wail. Şule’s doctor was taken to the police station and faced his future where he would be sentenced to life imprisonment. Meanwhile, Deftera was lying on her bed in the room, unaware of everything, and listening to the song.
“The fears are mine, and the hopes are mine. Don’t let me go… Don’t let me go…”