by Alex K. A.
1. The Mad Messenger
When Rye the Ribosome awoke from his cycle of rest, he was unaware that his perception of life was about to change drastically. After all, what reason did Rye have to think such a revolution would ever occur? The existence of an organelle is an existence of monotony, and the life of a ribosome is the most repetitive of them all.
Rye’s eternal job was to synthesize proteins, and he would do so for the duration of his day, every day. Each morning, a friendly RNA Messenger would greet Rye with the same jolly, oblivious personality. Rye would then eat the messenger to obtain his daily code. After deciphering the distinct encryption carried within the RNA, Rye would link specific amino acids together to form a poly-chain of proteins. The proteins would then squiggle away to perform whatever function The Cell needed them to perform. Usually they were deployed for repairing cellular damages, or for ordering the lesser chemicals to perform even lesser tasks that were, of course, just as mundane. Rye was good at his job. He could read RNA exceptionally fast, and he was equally speedy when it came to code sequencing. Rye never questioned why he did what he did. None of the organelles questioned their existence in The Cell. They followed their orders without giving a thought to where exactly the order originated. The only thing Rye ever questioned was the meaning of his nightly dream—a vision of a mysterious, spherical, dark organelle spotted with small, gleaming pores. So again, what reason did Rye have to think that his life was about to change forever?
This morning was, on the surface, no different than any other morning. The Cell’s blue membrane was sparkling and the organelles were swimming throughout the cytoplasm with purpose.
Rye and his family were of the free-roaming class of ribosomes, so they were allowed to swim unrestricted throughout The Cell to wherever they pleased, as long as they finished their daily work in the process, and as long as they didn’t enter the Endoplasmic Reticulum, which was forbidden. They lived in an area of The Cell called the Bottom District. It was a sprawling neighborhood that was heavily populated by ribosomes and other lower-class organelles, located along the outskirts near the Cell Membrane. As Rye’s father would say, they lived a half-decent existence when compared to that of their membrane-bound cousins. However, none of the free ribosomes ever chose to move from their suspended positions in the cytoplasm. Free Movement was seen as a challenge to authority and was frowned upon by all elder ribosomes—those who never once dared to wander…
Rye opened his eyes and his day was already over. His mother, father, and sister, Rylie, had already eaten their RNA Messengers and were now synthesizing proteins, which they would continue to do for the next ten hours. Rye yawned, wiped the sleep from his eyes, and saw that an RNA Messenger was swimming its way towards him.
“For Pete’s sake,” Rye grumbled, shaking his head. “They’re not even going to give me ten minutes.”
Yet Rye couldn’t help but notice that something was peculiar about this particular messenger. Its snake-like body was staggering, similar to the way a fish would swim with a broken fin. Rye could also hear it mumbling under its breath, which was indeed strange; RNA Messengers rarely said more than a friendly “hello,” and always sported a face like a tail-wagging dog with its tongue out. This messenger, however, had one of those oh-so-uncommon frantic looks, bulging eyes above a devilish smile and all.
“This voice in my head, it tells me things, you know,” stuttered the RNA Messenger, who then pressed its face obnoxiously close to Rye’s.
“We’re all asleep and don’t know it,” it continued. “All organelles are victims, the only true victim is individuality. The answer lies within the Nucleus.”
To Rye, the messenger’s words sounded like gibberish. There was, however, something about the word “Nucleus” that struck an uncanny chord in Rye’s brain, as if a long-dormant passageway had been briefly opened, and then closed just as quickly.
“Why must you eat me?” the messenger asked Rye, startling the ribosome.
“Shut your trap, buddy, I don’t have all day,” Rye replied, annoyed.
Rye opened his mouth and swallowed the messenger whole. Moments later, the ribosomal machine began to read the complex sequences of DNA that had been sent from, well, a place Rye didn’t know, and had never once bothered to want to know. But as Rye toiled in linking his daily poly-chain, the word “Nucleus” remained at the forefront of his thoughts; which was odd, because Rye had never been one to think. None of the ribosomes were prone to thinking. He figured the mind-nausea caused from eating the strange RNA Messenger would vanish after a good night of rest.
That night, Rye dreamed his dream like always. Only now, the vision had become more complex. Rye found himself floating within a glowing, golden chamber, where twisted little shapes were swimming, growing, and latching on to their neighbors to form large, intricate patterns. Rye was then launched, much like an escape pod, from the glowing chamber through one of its many portals. Rye watched the shadowy, spherical organelle vanish from sight, before he was swept into the vast maze that surrounded it…
Rye awoke the next morning earlier than he usually did. His dream remained fresh in his now-illuminated mind, which was continuing to churn out introspective thoughts at a rapid rate, all of which were centered on a singular, pure idea—the Nucleus. Rye was positive that the Nucleus was the weird organelle in his dream, and that he had been there before, ages ago, as if in a past existence. Rye was suddenly overcome with a desire to find the Nucleus, so he could ask it every question that he had never before thought to ask. He seemed to have inherited every mad idea found within the rambling RNA Messenger. A newfound sense of purpose had been born inside the young ribosome, and Rye was eager to share his philosophies with his family. It was time to embark on a journey to the center of The Cell.
Needless to say, after hearing his plan, Rye’s parents weren’t the least bit impressed. His father was, in fact, quite disappointed to hear of Rye’s awakening.
“Son, this is preposterous!” bellowed Rye’s father, who hovered a few molecules away. “No such organelle exists, I tell you. And no free ribosome has moved since the time of Ryld. We all know how disastrous that ordeal was, that’s why we don’t speak of it. Think of what the elders will say. You’ll bring shame to the family name, Rye.”
Alongside his father, Rye’s mother was shaking her head at her son with a mortified look. Rylie, however, was ogling Rye curiously with twinkling eyes, like she had just seen her brother for the first time.
“The Nucleus is real, pop,” said Rye, determinedly. “I can’t explain why, but I feel as though I’ve been there before, and it is not a feeling one can easily discard. A secret is being kept from us all. It is up for me to discover it. Sorry, pop, but nothing you do or say will stop me.”
Then, to the horror of his parents, Rye flapped his arms and legs through the gooey cytoplasm and broke free from his suspended position. A surge of ATP rushed through Rye’s body as he swam, and soon the young ribosome was whooping with joy. He was free, and not a sensation in the world could match that feeling.
With the Cell Membrane below him, Rye set his sights upward towards the murky center of The Cell, and began to swim to it with passion…
2. Idle Hands
The Cell, as it turned out, was far livelier than Rye could have ever imagined. The nearer Rye ventured to its core, the more he became surrounded by hectic cellular activities. Proteins and Lipids were everywhere, swimming mindlessly towards their ordered destinations. They travelled in large groups, heading hastily in all directions. Microtubules and Microfilaments stretched like thin steel beams across the cytoplasm, forming the interwoven structural web of The Cell’s cytoskeleton…
As Rye swam farther into The Cell, the outlines of large, faraway organelles began to materialize in the distance like tall buildings. Directly before him was an oval-shaped organelle that resembled a bizarre, see-thru, lipid-bilayer bubble. Its bloated eyeballs were fixed on Rye, yet they didn’t seem to be focused on the ribosome, or on anything for that matter. Rye frantically waved his arms to snag the bubble organelle’s attention, yet its eyes didn’t budge.
“Hey! You there!” shouted Rye.
“Are you awake?”
Pulled from a trance, the oval organelle shuddered and stretched its bubbly body, resulting in its enlargement to about five times its normal volume, before shrinking back to size. It then turned to Rye.
“Well, hello little fella. Didn’t quite see ya there,” it chortled merrily. “I’m Vinny the Vacuole. And who might you be?”
“The names Rye,” replied the ribosome. “Its nice to meet you, Vinny.”
The two studied each other curiously. Rye had never encountered a vacuole before. He was excited to say that he had now met one.
“Say there,” Rye continued. “I happen to be on a quest, one I believe of significant importance. I seek the Nucleus. You don’t know where I can find it, do you?”
“Never heard of it,” replied Vinny. “Then again, there isn’t a whole lot that I have heard of. We vacuoles are idle vesicles, subordinates. You could say that I am a floater. Sometimes my job is to assist the proteins; sometimes it is to assist with waste disposal; other times, it is just to simply hold water. Right now, I have no purpose. Until I receive my next order, that is.”
“But from who do you receive that order?” asked Rye, eagerly.
“I’m not really sure,” said Vinny, his eyes drifting from the ribosome to ogle at a passing protein. “Its just, suddenly I know what I am suppose to do, so I do it. I’ve never thought about that question before.”
The two fell temporarily silent to reflect.
“Seeing that I am without a purpose,” Vinny continued. “I suppose that, if you don’t mind, I shall accompany you, Rye, and assist you in your search.”
Hearing this, Rye became excited.
“Vinny, was that your first act of free will?”
“You know, Rye, I believe it was.”
“Splendid!” cheered the gleeful ribosome. “You are more than welcome to join me…”
The two jolly organelles swam leisurely towards the dynamic clutter of The Cell’s core. They shared stories and explained to each other their specific roles in The Cell. Before long, the pair of wanderers had become fast friends.
After swimming through a twisting array of tubules, Rye saw a pair of circular organelles materialize in the cytoplasm a short ways ahead. They were much like Vinny, only smaller and perfectly spherical. Their insides were glowing red. As Rye and Vinny neared the radiant spheres, the ribosome discovered that it was not the foreign organelles that were glowing, but rather the hundreds of sparkling enzymes within them. Rye rushed over to greet the newcomers and was so enthusiastic that he could hardly control himself.
“Whoa cool!” stammered Rye. “What are you guys?”
Surprised by Rye’s unusual behavior, the two glowing organelles sprouted a pair of animated looks, and then each burst into a fit of laughter.
“You see this Lenny, the ribosome has a personality,” chortled the sphere on the left.
“You’re right Lily, it does,” answered the sphere on the right. “You don’t often see that these days.”
The one named Lenny turned to face Rye.
“If you actually don’t know, we are Lysosomes,” said Lenny the Lysosome. “We’re kind of like, specialized vesicles. You could call us hired contractors. The function of a lysosome is to break down biomolecules, basically anything unwanted in the cytoplasm. Our enzymes are always hungry, and can eat and digest just about anything without getting sick. Essentially, we are The Cell’s waste disposal system, but I like to think of us as worthy of a grander title.”
Lenny opened his mouth and swallowed a nearby clump of cellular debris. The enzymes instinctively swarmed the debris and devoured it like a home-cooked meal. In short time, the waste had been completely dissolved.
“It should also be mentioned that most materials we lysosomes dispose of are actually recycled,” added Lily, who snagged a small chunk of waste and tossed it into her mouth. “The two of us in particular are specialized for membrane repairs. The Cell Membrane is one of our oldest friends. We are heading over to meet it right now. And where might the two of you be going, if I may be so impolite as to ask? You don’t often see ribosomes and vacuoles working together.”
Rye found the lysosomes to be fascinating, and thought Lily’s question exceptionally so.
“Vinny and I are on a journey to the Nucleus,” the ribosome eagerly explained. “Have either of the two of you been there before?”
The lysosomes exchanged curious looks. As did the many glowing enzymes, which were all staring at Rye through a thousand beady little eyes.
“Can’t say that we have,” said a now bewildered Lenny, scratching his head.
“Any who,” chimed in Lily. “Its time for us to be on our merry way. We have received a distress call from The Cell Membrane, which is in need of repairs. Apparently, a small rift has appeared on its lower surface. Which of course is most odd. You would think that a shortage of protein has occurred.”
Then Rye and Vinny said farewell to Lenny and Lily, smiles and waves all around. The Lysosomes disappeared after passing beyond a thick web of microfilaments.
“That is indeed odd,” said Vinny, now staring downward at the Cell Membrane. “The membrane looks fine to me.”
The Cell Membrane was certainly a sight for sore eyes, and to Vinny, the glossy blue plasma looked exceptionally polished. In fact, the more one distanced itself from the membrane, the more one could understand the distinct shape of The Cell, which was remarkably globe-like. This alluring detail, however, was entirely lost on Rye, for the ecstatic ribosome was busy relishing in the moment.
“Today has been great!” chuckled Rye. “I’ve now met a Vacuole and two Lysosomes. I can’t wait to see what we’ll meet next. Free Movement is awesome, I don’t understand why more ribosomes don’t try it.”
“It looks like they ARE trying it, Rye,” said Vinny, who pointed a bubbly arm downward.
In the distant cytoplasm below, a small group of ribosomes were swimming upwards and away from the membrane. Rye saw them and gasped.
“We must continue onward, at once!” he demanded. “They must be coming to return me to the Bottom District. I mustn’t let that happen. If the Nucleus is to be discovered, it must be US who discovers it! At once, I tell you!”
The two adventuring organelles recommenced their journey. They swam full-steam ahead for the Golgi District.
Unbeknownst to Rye, Vinny, or any of The Cell’s many organelles, a small unit of nomadic particles was swimming along the exterior of the Cell Membrane, navigating the fringe space between the infinite lines of Cells. Then one of the strange particles halted and cocked its icosahedron-shaped head towards the shiny blue membrane.
“Hmmm, what do we have here?” it said, probingly, before separating from the pack and swimming its way towards the plasma.
The oddly shaped particle had stumbled upon a tiny rift in the Cell Membrane. It stuck its head through the rift without issue—much to its surprise—before its long neck and six spindly legs followed suit. Due to a shortage of ribosomal proteins, the selectively permeable Cell Membrane had suddenly lost its ability to regulate the movement of particles in and out of The Cell, and now a virus had entered.
“Exxxxcellent,” hissed the Virus. “And now, it is time to find the Nucleus, and proceed with the infection…”
3. The Golgi Factory
Rye was ecstatic, even more so than before he met the lysosomes. It was not because of his new friend, Vinny, not because his fellow ribosomes had joined him in Free Movement, but because Rye had become obsessed with the idea of being “first.”
“Think of what they’ll say back home, Vinny!”
Rye had been repeating the phrase over and over as the pair grew nearer to the Golgi Apparatus. The Golgi District was the busiest, most chaotic area of The Cell. Vesicle pods, serving as protein transports, spewed from the Golgi body in all directions. Rye swam frantically to avoid them, yet still managed to fail on several occasions, resulting in his bouncing off their bubbly surfaces like a pinball. Vinny avoided this problem. The vesicle pods would simply pass through the vacuole without disturbance.
A large, barn-red organelle was drifting through the cytoplasm towards Rye and Vinny. Its double-membrane body was shaped and colored like a kidney bean. Rye gawked in amazement at the cristae matrix within the organelle’s inner membrane. The spiraling matrix was filled with electrical enzymes, specialized ribosomes, RNA, and a weird form of DNA unique to the bean-shaped organelle.
“Ahoy there!” shouted Rye.
The large organelle ignored the ribosome and kept swimming.
“Well, that wasn’t very nice,” said Vinny, his eyes wandering in two different directions. “Then again, mitochondria are always rude.”
Yet Rye was unwilling to be turned away.
“Ahoy,” he said again. “You wouldn’t happen to know where we could find the Nucleus, would you?”
The bean-shaped organelle stopped in its tracks.
“And what business does a ribosome have with the Nucleus?” inquired the mitochondrion.
The young ribosome somersaulted with excitement.
“You hear that Vinny, it does exist!”
“Of course the Nucleus exists,” replied the mitochondrion, pompously. “Although, sometimes I wish that it didn’t. Nucleolus still owes me ten ATP, and after all this time too. The schlemiel.”
Rye was now eagerly following the bean-shaped organelle.
“Who is Nucleolus?” he asked. “And why do you know about the Nucleus, but the other organelles don’t?”
“HA!” sneered the mitochondrion. “Why wouldn’t Molly the Mitochondrion know of the Nucleus? Its not like we mitochondria don’t produce all of The Cell’s ATP, which, if you didn’t know, is The Cell’s energy current. Its not like we don’t control cellular respiration, or regulate The Cell’s metabolism, or oxidize the glucose in the cytoplasm, for that matter. As for Nucleolus, don’t even get me started about that old buffoon. He is the chief organelle in the Nucleus, scientifically speaking, but he acts as though the entire Cell belongs to him…”
She continued to ramble, and became more self-satisfied with each word.
“Obviously, mitochondria have a false sense of importance,” Vinny whispered to Rye. “You would think that the rest of us aren’t contributors.”
Yet the ribosome wasn’t listening.
“How do we find the Nucleus?” Rye impatiently asked Molly. “Its really important that we get there, and before my brethren do.”
Molly abruptly stopped swimming. She then turned and saw the distant ribosomes that were following Rye and Vinny.
“Well now, that’s not good,” she muttered, before returning her attention to Rye.
“The Nucleus lies at the heart of the Endoplasmic Reticulum,” Molly informed them. “The entrance is just beyond the Golgi, but I strongly recommend that you turn back. The Endoplasmic maze is not a safe place for ribosomes.”
Molly bid them farewell and swam off.
“We’re getting close, Vinny. I can feel it!” Rye exclaimed.
The vacuole didn’t seem as excited.
“You know, Rye, maybe we should turn back,” said Vinny. “I too have heard dangerous things about the Endoplasmic Reticulum.”
“Nonsense,” retorted Rye. “I don’t believe a word of it. I’m nearly positive that everything we’ve ever been told is a lie…”
The pair continued to swim and the Golgi grew near. Yet as Rye and Vinny passed a cluster of suspended ribosomes, the two were met with strange looks. The group of ribosomes began to whisper among themselves.
“I think that’s him, dad” one whispered. “That’s Rye!”
Rye, of course, didn’t hear the mention of his name. His unquenchable curiosity kept his attention solely fixed on the looming Golgi.
The Golgi Apparatus is a massive organelle, second only to the Endoplasmic Reticulum in size. Its green body was formed from a collection of fused, membrane-enclosed flaps that stretched and shortened like an accordion. Exit-tubes protruded from the body like large sewer-pipes, from which protein-filled vesicle pods were continuously discharging. With the release of each vesicle, the tubes expanded in girth, before shrinking back to size after the pod’s ejection.
For several minutes, Rye and Vinny circled the Golgi in search of an entrance yet failed to discover one. Impatiently, Rye began to call for the Golgi’s attention.
“Hello there! Is anybody home?” he repeated, each attempt sounding more animated than the previous.
“I don’t think anyone is here,” said Vinny. “We should keep moving if we want to maintain our lead over your comrades.”
“You’re probably right,” said Rye, sounding defeated.
Then right on cue, the Golgi shuddered. A pair of exit tubes materialized from the body and stretched to where Rye and Vinny were floating, revealing a pair of large eyeballs. A deep, droning voice came from within the tubes.
“Welcome to The Golgi Factory,” it said. “Sorry that I kept you waiting. We are having an unusually busy day. But how may we be of service on this lovely afternoon?”
“Vinny and I are passing through on our way to the Endoplasmic Reticulum,” replied Rye. “I had never heard of the Golgi before today, so I am curious as to your function.”
“Very well then,” responded the Golgi.
The eyeballs were sucked back into the exit-tubes, followed by the tubes themselves retracting back into the Golgi body. A sizeable hole appeared near where the tubes dissolved, forming an entrance into the factory.
“This is awesome!” blurted Rye, delightedly.
The pair of wanderers swam through the tunnel-like entranceway and arrived within the Golgi’s main chamber. The room featured a large conveyor-belt that ran from one end of the chamber to the other. It was operated by an assembly line of long membrane-like arms that were jutting outwards from the floor. The arms were tinkering with proteins and lipids that were being transported along the conveyor-belt atop the pulleys. After the proteins had been properly adjusted, they were placed in a vesicle pod, which was then extracted through one of the many exit-tubes lining the ceiling. The sophistication of the Golgi left Vinny and Rye with their jaws on the floor.
“Wow!” said Rye. “Golgi, you must tell me everything that is happening here.”
The Golgi’s eyeballs reemerged from within the membrane, as did the droning voice.
“Well, as you can see, the Golgi Factory is The Cell’s protein modification and transport center. Our job is to amend proteins received from the Endoplasmic Reticulum, re-package and label them, and then deliver the modified product to the distinct location in The Cell—or outside of The Cell—where it is needed most.”
The eyeballs gestured to the endless interchange of departing vesicle pods near the far end of the conveyer-belt. Rye and Vinny watched as the protein-filled pods were first slapped with a location sticker, and then sucked into an exit-tube like a vacuum.
“Our facilities are also used for lipid transportation and lysosome formation,” continued the Golgi. “I must say, today has been quite brutal. The Cell Membrane has put in a request for an overwhelming number of ribosomal proteins, and its been all hands on deck ever since. Apparently, a ribosome named Rye abandoned his job to embark on a mad quest, and now other ribosomes that have heard the word are doing the same. I wish I could give this Rye guy a piece of my mind, I tell you. His actions are causing quite a ruckus.”
The Golgi’s voice now reeked of frustration.
“By the way, I didn’t happen to catch either of your names.”
Rye and Vinny exchanged nervous looks.
“Uh, err, uh, err, my names, err, Ryclef,” stumbled Rye. “Ryclef Gene.”
“And I’m Vinny,” replied the vacuole.
“Well, it was a pleasure meeting the two of you,” answered the Golgi. “But now, if you’d excuse me, I must get back to work.”
The eyeballs vanished into the membrane and did not reappear.
“We should probably get out of here,” said Rye, hurriedly.
“I agree,” Vinny responded.
The hole reappeared in the Golgi membrane, serving as a tunnel back to the cytoplasm. The two departed from the factory and continued their swim towards the Endoplasmic Reticulum, which, at this point, was only a short distance away. Consistent streams of vesicle pods were being spewed from the Endoplasmic Reticulum’s mouth-like entranceway, carrying their proteins to the Golgi for modification. However, a bizarre burst of curiosity caused Vinny to halt and spin around, to observe the cellular path that the two had left behind them. He gasped at what he saw in the backdrop below, and then gestured for Rye to look. The ribosome turned and gasped as well, his hands now covering his mouth from shock.
The small group of following ribosomes had expanded to a gathering of at least one hundred. They were now only moments from reaching the Golgi. The flock was travelling with immense speed, gaining ground on Rye and Vinny with each passing second.
“What have I started?” Rye asked to himself, before quickly resuming his swim to the Endoplasmic Maze.
Vinny gave no answer, for the vacuole had shifted his gaze to the Cell Membrane and had not heard his friend’s question. It appeared to Vinny that the Cell Membrane was losing its vibrant shimmer; the blue plasma was now spotted with patches of yellow and brown.
“This can’t be good,” mused Vinny, who then rejoined Rye in swimming.
What Vinny failed to observe was that the Virus was right on their heels…
4. The Endoplasmic Maze
“So, what do we do now?”
Rye asked Vinny as the two floated directly before the gaping mouth of the Endoplasmic Reticulum.
“Even before I synthesized my very first protein, I had always been told that ribosomes were absolutely forbidden from entering here,” he continued. “Do you think that I will be dismantled?”
“I honestly don’t know, Rye,” Vinny replied. “For all we know, you could be broken down and recycled by the lysosomes. Either way, it seems your going to have to find out the hard way.”
The vacuole then winked at Rye and entered inside the maze, leaving the ribosome all by his lonesome.
“Not cool man!” Rye shouted as Vinny disappeared. “Not cool at all.”
Once again, Rye was suspended in the cytoplasm. But this time his immobility was due to a brand new sensation: fear.
“What do I do?” Rye asked again.
He looked back towards the Golgi and saw that several of his kin had circled the factory and were now making serious headway. The sight quelled his fear and returned the wish of being “first” to the forefront of his desires.
“You leave me no choice!” exclaimed Rye, before taking in a deep breath.
The ribosome entered the maze, and all went dark around him…
* * *
“You see, that wasn’t so bad,” chuckled Vinny.
The vacuole watched merrily as Rye cursed under his breath, returned himself to his feet, and dolefully wiped the endoplasmic slime from his ruggedly shaped body. The two had just been swallowed by the Endoplasmic Reticulum’s mouth, only to land in its belly, a warm, gooey, elongated chamber. And while Vinny had retained the ability to float, Rye, with his highly dense body, sunk to the slime-covered floor and was forced to stand.
“I don’t like this place one bit, I tell you,” grumbled Rye, who then shook off the last remaining bits of slime. “I now see why ribosomes are told not to enter here.”
“Think on the bright side,” chimed Vinny. “The Endoplasmic Reticulum’s mouth won’t be able to swallow all of your kin at once. So we should maintain our lead without a problem.”
“Good point!” said Rye. “Then we must continue onward…”
The Endoplasmic Reticular Maze was an intricately woven, interconnecting network of membrane-enclosed sacs. It featured long, overlapping hallways lined with stalagmites and stalactites that were used for lipid syntheses. Once a lipid was excreted from its respective stalactite, it immediately darted for the Endoplasmic Reticulum’s mouth; pulled as if it were bait on a fishhook. The cytoplasm in the maze was exceptionally warm and soothing, making Rye and Vinny’s trek easygoing.
“Maybe the Endoplasmic Reticulum isn’t as bad as I thought,” admitted Rye, who no longer minded that he was trudging through slime.
“We must be in the Smooth Endoplasmic Reticulum,” observed Vinny, his eyes scanning over the stalactite-covered walls. “Word around the block is that the Smooth Endoplasmic Reticulum ain’t that bad. Pretty much the only thing going on in here is lipid manufacturing, steroid synthesis, calcium storage, and the occasional detoxification of an unwanted substance.”
“Just as I thought,” replied Rye. “I knew all along that the horror stories couldn’t be true.”
Rye and Vinny continued to navigate the maze in search of its core. After taking a left, a right, a left, another left, a right, and then doubling back to a few hallways behind, the two had become lost.
“I don’t know if I can keep this up for much longer,” said an exhausted Rye.
The ribosome had become tired from walking largely due to the heat, as well as the thickening slime and the obstructing stalagmites.
“I can always carry you if you’d like,” suggested Vinny, grinning.
“Over my dead body,” retorted Rye, who then sprang back to speed.
After rounding a sharp corner, the two arrived in a long hallway that contained a cavernous doorway at its end. A strange figurine that resembled a ribosome hung directly above the yawning entrance. The area beyond it was obscured by darkness.
“Well, this looks ominous,” mused Rye, his eyes fixed on the figurine and not budging.
“It is as I feared,” Vinny muttered below his breath, a whisper unheard by the ribosome.
Yet the vacuole kept his suspicions to himself. Then the pair of determined wanderers passed swiftly through the dark, looming entranceway.
At first, Rye and Vinny were forced to stumble blindly through slime and darkness. Then, as they progressed further inward, a purplish glow began to tint the blackness. They soon regained their vision and found themselves in a long, gooey hallway similar to the one they had just vacated. This purple chamber, however, lacked stalactites and stalagmites, was without lipids, and contained none of the Smooth Endoplasmic Reticulum’s coziness. Much to Rye’s horror, he saw that the chamber’s walls were studded with membrane-bound ribosomes, all of which were too busy sequencing poly-chains to realize they had visitors. The sight of his cousins brought fright and disgust to the young ribosome.
“How atrocious!” quivered Rye.
He moved in for a closer inspection, placing himself directly in front of the membrane-bound organelle. Yet the entombed ribosome, after sensing Rye’s presence, opened its mouth and spat a dribble of protein onto Rye’s face.
“Be gone with you, free floater,” uttered the membrane-bound, furthering Rye’s sadness.
“We have reached the Rough Endoplasmic Reticulum,” said Vinny, somberly. “This must be from where the Golgi receives its proteins. Imagine that...”
The idea sent Vinny into a wave of deep thought. Rye, on the other hand, was compelled to speak his mind.
“We were always told stories of the Membrane Bound, stories that portrayed them as urban legends, myths, not actually as live beings. I never thought a day would come when I would actually encounter them. Before I was free, the idea of freedom never once entered my mind. And now I am embarrassed. For many years I had the freedom to move yet chose not to do so. Too many free ribosomes suffer from this plague, this inertia. Our elders have kept our youth within their overbearing clutches for far too long. I’ll be having a word with those crusty old greybeards when I return.”
Saddened, Rye forced his eyes from the Membrane Bound and attempted to continue his trek. Vinny, although unable to directly relate, understood Rye’s sentiment and felt that the ribosome’s frustration was properly justified. Yet Rye, to his increased annoyance, found that he was now incapable of moving his legs, and was beginning to sink. He soon discovered that the slime in the Rough Endoplasmic Reticulum ran deeper than the slime in the Smooth Endoplasmic Reticulum, and seemed to have a quicksand-like effect over him.
“Help! Vinny! I’m sinking!”
The purple ooze began to gurgle and suddenly Rye was in it to his waist. Yet Vinny, he of noble character, had no intention of letting Rye succumb to the slime. He swooped down to grab his friend and, with a suction-like removal, pulled the ribosome out from the goop, tossed him up towards the ceiling, and then moved where he was set to fall. As a result, Rye, instead of re-landing in slime, passed through the top section of Vinny’s lipid-bilayer membrane and landed safely on the bottom, encapsulating the ribosome within the vacuole.
“Hey!” yelled Rye. “This isn’t what I had in mind.”
He attempted to break free of the vacuole with many unsuccessful punches and kicks. After concluding his tantrum, the ribosome collapsed on the bubbly membrane.
“Like the Cell Membrane, I am also selectively permeable,” Vinny proudly informed Rye. “And if carrying you across the Rough Endoplasmic Reticulum is the only way to prevent you from becoming membrane-bound, so be it.”
Although the idea of being carried undoubtedly made Rye grumpy, the ribosome, wounded pride and all, reluctantly settled inside of Vinny’s bi-layer membrane. The two adventuring organelles piloted their way through the Endoplasmic Reticulum’s meandering hallways. Their passage through the Rough Endoplasmic Reticulum was dark, lit only by small flickers of electricity that jumped from the membrane-bound ribosomes mid protein-synthesis. The pair vigorously combed the inner maze yet were unable to find The Cell’s core. It wasn’t until a chance encounter gifted them with a breadcrumb trail. Rye and Vinny were in an exceptionally narrow corridor and heard a sound that made them halt and listen. It was an eerie clicking that was followed by a serpentine hiss. As the sound grew close, the two noticed that a weirdly shaped object was swimming its way toward them with much speed. It had a large, icosahedron-shaped head that sat flimsily attached to a long, spindly body.
“Move asssssside, bubble,” hissed the Virus, threateningly.
The strange particle pushed Vinny aside as it passed, sending the vacuole flying into the ribosome-studded walls. Rye moaned with pain as the two crashed into the slime-covered floor. By the time Vinny was floating again, the virus was long gone.
“What was that?” shouted Rye, startled.
“I’m not sure,” answered Vinny, shaking off slime. “That was like no organelle I’ve ever seen. It can’t be domestic, and it most certainly can’t be good.”
Due to its speed and aggressiveness, Rye and Vinny were unable to describe the Virus to each other in detail. But the Virus, unbeknown to itself, left a murky discharge in its wake that the organelles followed with haste.
The trail served as the final conduit of Vinny and Rye’s journey. It was their path towards the light laid out before them. The pair followed the murky trail until the Rough Endoplasmic Reticulum’s corridors grew remarkably luminous. As they progressed farther along, the studded walls began to burst at the seams with light, then the walls themselves dissolved with a shimmer. Rye and Vinny arrived above a massive crater. The Nucleus hovered above the cavity, spinning gradually like the Earth on its axis. The glow from its many pores illuminated the cavernous walls of The Cell’s core. It was a breathtaking, thieving sight that nicked Rye’s ability to speak. All the young ribosome could do was appreciate what he saw. Vinny was of the same mind. They had reached the end of the maze. And my, how glorious it was…
5. Trouble in the Nucleus
“I can’t believe that worked!” stammered Rye as he exited from the vacuole, his eyes flitting around The Nucleus in excitement.
The two had been scouring the Nuclear Envelope for an entrance when suddenly, Vinny, he of brilliant schemes, tricked one of the Nuclear Pores into thinking that he was Nucleolus’ cousin. The Pore opened itself at once. It then apologized for not immediately accommodating Vinny and Rye, and for the skepticism. Vinny forgave the Pore, and, much to the Pore’s relief, said that he would not be reporting the Pore’s insolence to Nucleolus.
“Oldest trick in the book,” assured Vinny, grinning.
The two were ecstatic at having completed their fool’s quest of a journey.
“Think of the stories we’ll be able to tell our grandkids, Vinny!” Rye went on to say. “I mean, look around, this place is freaking awesome. I would bet some serious ATP that this is the organelle in my dream. It has to be!”
The interior of the Nucleus was indeed a place of visual wonder, far beyond what Rye had imagined they would find. Fractal-like chromatin lined the chamber’s sparkling golden walls. Long, glimmering double-helix DNA strands swam freely throughout the nucleoplasm. They began as miniscule wrinkles that grew into twisting reels, which then conjoined with their counterparts to spawn elegant threads of chromosomes. The nucleoplasm contained so many glowing chromosomes that it was nearly impossible to see past them.
“Look at these worker bees,” sneered a passing chromosome.
The X-shaped creature was pointing at Rye and Vinny, chuckling with her friends about their appearance.
“Yeah, what scrubs,” replied her chromosome friend, a stunted, Y-shaped bugger. “Also, what’s with all the foot traffic today? I’m seeing newcomers galore in the Nucleus. It’s not like the one intruder earlier isn’t already one too many as it is. I wonder if one of the Pores left itself open again. Dimwitted creatures.”
The Y-chromosome shook his head in disgust. Yet Rye, assertive as ever, overheard the tail end of their conversation and suddenly felt the need to interrogate the chromosomes.
“Do you mean that spindly creature with the weirdly shaped head?” the ribosome butted in.
“Yes! That is exactly who I mean,” replied the Y-chromosome. “Had a nasty attitude that one, very serpent-like. Nucleolus should swat that thing back to the fringe if you ask me. And if you don’t mind me asking YOU, how did a ribosome and a vacuole get past the Pores? DNA, lipids, and carbohydrates are usually the only particles that the Pores allow in.”
“Vinny is Nucleolus’ cousin,” Rye explained to the chromosomes. “They are unquestionably close, and have not seen each other in quite some time; meaning that our business in the Nucleus is not to be questioned by a gaggle of snobby chromosomes.”
The gleeful ribosome attempted not to laugh as Vinny chuckled beside him.
“Hmm, I wasn’t aware that Nucleolus had a cousin,” said the X-chromosome, baffled.
The chromosomes then abruptly ended the conversation and swam away from Rye to rejoin their Hipstone friends. There, on the streets of The Nucleus’ Chro-Mo District, they recommenced with their retro, hip, “urban,” underground, far-out chromosome jargon and stayed ironic.
“Bloody chromosomes,” grumbled Vinny. “Its fortunate for us that they can’t leave the Nucleus, otherwise the price of rent in the Bottom District would start ballooning. We’d all have to find new homes...”
The pair of wanderers continued to navigate the chromosome-filled nucleoplasm in search of Nucleolus, who, being responsible for The Cell’s ability to quell stress, was paradoxically in the midst of the most stressful day of his entire life. Trouble had been brewing in the Nucleus that afternoon, and the place was in a clear panic. From what Rye and Vinny had gathered from passing chromosomes, the distress was due to an unwanted, spindly intruder. According to an old, greying chromosome, the strange particle was in fact a virus, and that, due to the virus’ presence in the Nucleus, The Cell was doomed. “Run for your lives!” had suddenly become a common phrase amongst the chromosomes. They swam frantically past Rye and Vinny in large clusters, blind with panic, desperately seeking to escape the Nucleus only to be cheekily denied by the Pores. The rebellious ribosome and his vacuole comrade, however, remained at ease and were thoroughly unconcerned by the commotion. In fact, Rye and Vinny, being a pair of hard-working chums from the Bottom District, were enjoying the time of their lives and loving every bit of their stay in the Nucleus. Yet the defining moment of their quest, at least for Rye, was when the pair stumbled upon a group of baby ribosomes. The older ribosome watched excitedly as his infant brethren were, much to the chromosome’s annoyance, ushered through the Nuclear Pores and into the Endoplasmic Reticulum.
“I knew it! It all makes sense now,” said Rye, revelation blooming in his eyes. “The dream, the baby ribosomes, everything! The Nucleus must be the place where I was born. I embarked on my journey with the purpose of asking a multitude of questions when I arrived here. But, as fate would have it, the journey itself has given to me all that I wished and needed to see, and the fulfillment from that alone has left me with nothing to ask. My next task will be this: I shall return to the Bottom District to educate the ribosomes about our origins. I will also encourage that we as ribosomes choose to seek paths of individuality and not conformity. I will insist that young ribosomes embrace Free Movement and demand that our elders relinquish their control over the populace.”
Rye gleamed with pride after concluding his monologue.
“But Rye, isn’t The Cell dying because of the Virus?” asked Vinny, gesturing to the chaotic chromosomes.
“Nonsense,” retorted Rye. “How could The Cell be dying on such a glorious day? Come, let us bid thanks and farewell to Nucleolus before we leave.”
Their search for Nucleolus was short-lived. For the Nucleus’ caretaker was engaged in a fiery battle with the Virus and many bystanders had gathered around to observe the fray. Rye and Vinny were naturally attracted to the hubbub so they decided to join the encircling onlookers. They watched as Nucleolus, a dense, brain-shaped organelle, failed to land hard-hitting punches on the gangling, elusive Virus, which in turn was having a difficult time infecting Nucleolus with its stinger. Then, to the chromosomes’ horror, the Virus initiated Phase B of its infection plan. It released into the nucleoplasm a cloud of murky ooze that proceeded to infect the chromosomes it came in contact with. Once infected, the chromosomes turned from their vibrant color to a shade of charred purple, before elongating in size and mutating in shape. This triggered an even greater panic, for every chromosome that had initially stayed was now screaming in terror and scrambling for safety. The Virus, thinking it had won, was admiring its destructive abilities and had begun to smirk. Nucleolus, however, remained unaffected by the murky discharge, and was unfazed by the sight of the infected, mutating chromosomes. The brain-shaped organelle took full advantage of the situation and thumped the gloating Virus with a hard right hook. The force of the blow sent it flying. The spindly creature sailed through the nucleoplasm directly towards Vinny and Rye, who at this point remained the only two onlookers still watching. Rye, being the jumpier of the two, dove aside to avoid impact and rolled safely atop the Nucleus’ chromatin floor. The Virus then collided with Vinny, and, to everyone’s surprise, became lodged in the vacuole’s belly and trapped within his lipid bilayer membrane. Like Rye before it, the Virus tried desperately to break free from the bubbly organelle to no avail. Nor did its stinger have any affect on Vinny. The vacuole, now staring merrily through wobbly eyes, seemed genuinely unaware that he had just saved the day. He lent Rye an arm so that the ribosome could return to his feet.
With the Virus safely imprisoned, order in the Nucleus was quickly reestablished. Separated from their biological host, the infected chromosomes shriveled away and dissolved within the nucleoplasm. The chromosomes that had not been infected were now relaxed and joking about, flaunting the impression that they had maintained their composure and not panicked. They applauded Nucleolus and Vinny for their valiant defeat of the Virus, and then swam away to their lives and loves. Nucleolus, being the old, wise, bearded fellow that Nucleolus is, hovered his crinkling figure over to Rye and Vinny to properly thank the vacuole, and to thoroughly scold Rye for the pandemonium he had brought upon The Cell.
“Ah, just the pair I was hoping to see,” greeted Nucleolus, extending a hand to Vinny. “I speak on behalf of all organelles when I say that The Cell is much in your debt, Mr. Vacuole. It’s a pleasure to become acquainted.”
“The names Vinny,” replied the vacuole, shaking Nucleolus’ hand. “Vinny the Vacuole, and the pleasure is all mine.”
Nucleolus bowed his head in thanks. The brain-shaped organelle then turned to Rye, removed his half-moon glasses, and proceeded to give the ribosome a look of sheer disappointment, like a grumpy old man on the cusp of lecturing his grandchild.
“Rye, Rye, Rye... What am I gonna do with you?” he said, shaking his head. “Such an act of individuality, tsk tsk. We can’t have that now. Are you even aware of the societal breakdown that your awakening has triggered, or of the resulting physical damages to The Cell? A virus was allowed entry by the Cell Membrane, which almost deteriorated away due to the lack of ribosomal proteins. Fortunately for everyone, the Lysosomes, Golgi Apparatus, and Endoplasmic Reticulum all heard the distress call and were able to provide the proteins needed to keep the Cell Membrane intact. As for your rebellious ribosome brethren, their journey was cut short when the Endoplasmic Reticulum clamped its mouth shut, which happened only moments after you and Vinny had entered it. You made the Endoplasmic Reticulum shut its mouth, for Pete’s sake.”
Nucleolus shook his head once more.
“I was forced to send a distress signal to your rogue ribosome friends directly, alerting them of the dire predicament that would result if they did not immediately return to synthesizing poly-chains. They, of course, listened to me at once, and have since returned to the Bottom District. I suggest that you, Rye, do the same. After all, the time of Cell Death is NOT for the ribosomes to decide.”
Rye lowered his head, disappointed; yet his spirits were far from crushed. The brain-shaped organelle then looked to Vinny, and his expression instantly became somber.
“Alas, Vinny,” he continued. “With a heavy heart I must inform you that, because you now hold the Virus, it is necessary that you vacate The Cell at once. The spindly devil must be removed from The Cell and returned to the fringe where it belongs. You are more than welcome to return when the task is finished; however, most vesicles that pass beyond the Cell Membrane usually end up in a different Cell. Again, I applaud you for your efforts and am truly sorry.”
Yet the merry vacuole didn’t seem the least bit bothered by the news.
“Sure thing boss,” replied Vinny. “It would be an honor to kick this no-good virus to the curb.”
The three organelles then enjoyed a short laugh.
“Curssssssse you, bubble,” sneered the Virus, attempting to escape but with no success.
Rye and Vinny, exchanging smirks, were all set to depart from the Nucleus. Yet before leaving, Rye turned to Nucleolus and gifted the brainy organelle with a few choice words of his own.
“I will admit, although selfish in some regard, my ‘destructive’ actions proved beneficial for my own personal growth as a ribosome,” Rye confessed. “With that said, I regret nothing that I have done, and I would do it all again if it means that my mind is to remain free, and not like it was before the fateful Mad Messenger came my way. Disapprove if you must, but I will educate my people about the Nucleus, and about who they receive their orders from.”
Nucleolus heard this and chuckled. He then draped an arm around the young ribosome’s shoulders.
“Rye, my lad. Any resentment you feel is not resentment that should be directed towards me, Nucleolus, Guardian of the Nucleus, Lord of the Chromosomes,” he chortled. “I am not the one who demands that you free ribosomes remain suspended in cytoplasm. That madness lies beyond my comprehension. Why would I place such restrictions upon my children? If you weren’t previously aware, I am the one who gives birth to The Cell’s ribosomes, using a unique process called Ribosome Biogenesis. Technically, I am your father, Rye…”
Hearing this revelation, Rye, Vinny, and each eagerly listening chromosome fell silent with their jaws hanging low. Even the Virus gawked in amazement from within Vinny’s lipid bilayer belly.
“Now,” concluded Nucleolus. “It really is time for the pair of you to be leaving. And while I am sure that you’ve greatly enjoyed your stay in the Nucleus, I really must insist that you never return. It is essential that you recommence with your jobs immediately. I’m not so sure The Cell can survive another ribosome revolt. No, no, no.”
The surrounding chromosomes seconded Nucleolus’ demand with a thousand wagging fingers, a visual gesture of his phrase, “No, no, no.”
And on that glorious note, Rye and Vinny ended their exciting voyage. Their return to the Bottom District was met with both jeers and applause, although the latter greatly outweighed the former so all was well. Rye rejoined his family after recounting his journey to a crowd of keenly listening ribosomes. But first he said goodbye to Vinny, who would soon be departing from The Cell by means of the Cell Membrane, which had now regained its blue shimmer.
“What a journey,” said Rye, exhaustedly. “I’m thrilled to have met you, Vinny. I couldn’t have asked for a better partner in crime. We certainly caused quite the ruckus. Although, I’m sorry that you now have to leave The Cell.”
“Its alright, Ill be back soon enough,” replied Vinny, grinning. “I’m glad to have met you too, Rye. The two of us might be small, but together we make quite the force!”
“That we do!” chuckled Rye. “I must say, probably the best thing that has happened to me today is that I’ve made a new friend.”
The vacuole smiled.
“That’s for sure!” Vinny replied, clapping Rye on the shoulder. “Because at the end of the day, what’s more important than friendship!”