A short story first published in The New Internationalist
On Evan’s eighth birthday, his aunt sent him the latest smash-hit biokit, Splicing Your Own Semisentients. The box-lid depicted an alien swamp throbbing with weird, amorphous life; a double helix spiralling out of a test-tube was embossed in one corner. Don’t let your father see that, his mother said, so Evan took it out to the old barn, set up the plastic culture trays and vials of chemicals and retroviruses on a dusty workbench in the shadow of the shrouded combine.
His father found Evan there two days later. The slime mould he’d created, a million amoebae aggregated around a drop of cyclic AMP, had been transformed with a retrovirus and was budding little blue-furred blobs. Evan’s father dumped culture trays and vials in the yard and made Evan pour a litre of industrial-grade bleach over them. More than fear or anger, it was the acrid stench that made Evan cry.
That summer, the leasing company foreclosed on the livestock. The
rep who supervised repossession of the supercows drove off in a big car
with the test-tube and double-helix logo on its gull-wing
door. The next year the wheat failed, blighted by a particularly
virulent rust. Evan’s father couldn’t afford the new resistant
strain, and the farm went under.
lived with his aunt, in the capital. He was fifteen. He had
a street bike, a plug-in computer, and a pet microsaur, a triceratops
in purple funfur. Buying the special porridge which was all the
microsaur could eat took half of Evan’s weekly allowance; that was why
he let his best friend inject the pet with a bootleg virus to edit out
its dietary dependence. It was only a partial success: the
triceratops no longer needed its porridge, but developed epilepsy
triggered by sunlight. Evan had to keep it in his
wardrobe. When it started shedding fur in great swatches, he
abandoned it in a
nearby park. Microsaurs were out of fashion, anyway. Dozens could
be found wandering the park, nibbling at leaves, grass, discarded
scraps of fast food. Quite soon they disappeared, starved to
day before Evan graduated, his sponsor company called to tell him that
he wouldn’t be doing research after all. There had been a change
of policy: the covert gene wars were going public. When Evan
started to protest, the woman said sharply, ‘You’re better off than
many long-term employees. With a degree in molecular genetics
you’ll make sergeant at least.’
The jungle was a vivid green blanket in which rivers made silvery forked lightnings. Warm wind rushed around Evan as he leaned out the helicopter’s hatch; the harness dug into his shoulders. He was twenty-three, a tech sergeant. It was his second tour of duty.
His goggles laid icons over the view, tracking
the target. Two villages a klick apart, linked by a red dirt road
narrow as a capillary that suddenly widened to an artery as the
Muzzle-flashes on the ground. Evan hoped the peasants only had Kalashnikovs: last week some gook had downed a copter with an antique SAM. Then he was too busy laying the pattern, virus-suspension in a sticky spray that fogged the maize fields.
Afterwards, the pilot, an old-timer, said over the
intercom, ‘Things get tougher every day. We used just to take a
leaf, cloning did the rest. You couldn’t even call it
theft. But this stuff . . . I always thought war was bad for
Evan said, ‘The company owns copyright to the maize genome. Those peasants aren’t licensed to grow it.’
The pilot said admiringly, ‘Man, you’re a real company guy. I bet you don’t even know what country this is.’
Evan thought about that. He said, ‘Since when were countries important?’
fields quilted the floodplain. In every paddy, peasants bent over
their own reflections,planting seedlings for the winter crop.
the centre of the UNESCO delegation, the Minister for Agriculture stood
under a black umbrella held by an aide. He was explaining that
his country was starving to death after a record harvest.
Evan was at the back of the little crowd, bareheaded in warm drizzle. He wore a smart onepiece suit, yellow overshoes. He was twenty-eight, had spent two years infiltrating UNESCO for his company.
minister was saying, ‘We have to buy seed genespliced for pesticide
resistance to compete with our neighbours, but my people can’t afford
to buy the rice they grow. It must all be exported to service our
debt. We are starving in the midst of plenty.’
stifled a yawn. Later, at a reception in some crumbling embassy,
he managed to get the minister on his own. The man was drunk,
unaccustomed to hard liquor. Evan told him he was very moved by
what he had seen.
‘Look in our cities,’ the minister said,
slurring his words. ‘Every day a thousand more refugees pour in
from the countryside. There is kwashiorkor, beri-beri . . .’
Evan popped a canapé into his mouth. One of his company’s new lines, it squirmed with delicious lasciviousness before he swallowed it. ‘I may be able to help you,’ he said. ‘The people I represent have a new yeast that completely fulfils dietary requirements and will grow on a simple medium.’
As Evan explained, the minister, no longer as drunk as he had seemed, steered him onto the terrace.
‘You understand this must be confidential,’ the minister said. ‘Under UNESCO rules . . .’
are ways around that. We have lease arrangements with five
countries that have . . . trade imbalances similar to your own. We
lease the genome as a loss-leader, to support governments who look
favourably on our other products . . .’
gene pirate was showing Evan his editing facility when the slow poison
finally hit him. They were aboard an ancient ICBM submarine grounded
somewhere off the Philippines. Missile tubes had been converted into
fermenters. The bridge was crammed with the latest manipulation
technology, virtual reality gear which let the wearer directly control
molecule-sized cutting robots as they travelled along DNA helices.
‘It’s not facilities I need,’ the pirate told Evan, ‘it’s distribution.’
problem,’ Evan said. The pirate’s security had been pathetically
easy to penetrate. He’d tried to infect Evan with a zombie virus,
but Evan’s gene-spliced designer immune system had easily dealt with
it. Slow poison was so much more subtle: by the time it could be
detected it was too late. Evan was thirty-two. He was
posing as a Swiss grey-market broker.
‘This is where I keep
my old stuff,’ the pirate said, rapping a stainless steel cryogenic
vat. ‘Stuff from before I went big time. A free luciferase
gene complex, for instance. Remember when the Brazilian rainforest
started to glow? That was me.’
He dashed sweat from his
forehead, frowned at the room’s complicated thermostat. Grossly fat and
completely hairless, he wore nothing but Bermuda shorts and shower
sandals. He’d been targeted because he was about to break the big time
with a novel AIDS cure. The company was still making a lot of
money from its own cure: they made sure HIV had never been completely
eradicated in Third World countries.
Evan said, ‘I remember the Brazilian government was overthrown – the population took it as a bad omen.’
what can I say? I was only a kid. Transforming the gene was
easy, only difficulty was finding a vector. Old
stuff. Somatic mutation really is going to be the next big thing,
me. Why breed new strains when you can rework a genome cell by
cell?’ The pirate tapped the thermostat. His hands were
shaking. ‘Hey, is it hot in here, or what?’
first symptom,’ Evan said. He stepped out of the way as the gene
pirate crashed to the decking. ‘And that’s the second.’
company had taken the precaution of buying the pirate’s security chief:
Evan had plenty of time to fix the fermenters. By the time he was
ashore, they would have boiled dry.
On impulse, against orders, he took a microgram sample of the AIDS cure with him.
territory between piracy and legitimacy is a minefield,’ the assassin
told Evan. ‘It’s also where paradigm shifts are most likely to
occur, and that’s where I come in. My company likes
stability. Another year and you’d have gone public, and most
likely the share issue would have made you a billionaire – a minor
player, but still a player. Those cats, no one else has
them. The genome was supposed to have been wiped out back in the
twenties. Very astute, quitting the grey medical market and going
for luxury goods.’ She frowned. ‘Why am I talking so much?’
‘For the same reason you’re not going to kill me,’ Evan said.
‘It seems such a silly thing to want to do,’ the assassin admitted.
Evan smiled. He’d long ago decoded the two-stage virus the gene-pirate had used on him: one a Trojan horse which kept his T-lymphocytes busy while the other rewrote loyalty genes companies implanted in their employees. Once again it had proven its worth. He said, ‘I need someone like you in my organisation. And since you spent so long getting close enough to seduce me, perhaps you’d do me the honour of becoming my wife. I’ll need one.’
‘You don’t mind being married to a killer?’
‘Of course not. I used to be one myself.’
saw the market crash coming. Gene wars had winnowed basic
foodcrops to soy beans, rice and dole yeast: tailored ever-mutating
diseases had reduced cereals and many other cash crops to nucleotide
sequences stored in computer vaults. Three global biotechnology
companies held patents on the calorific input of ninety-eight per cent
of humanity, but they had lost control of the technology.
Pressures of the war economy had simplified it to the point where
anyone could directly manipulate her own genome, and hence her own body
Evan had made a fortune in the fashion industry,
selling templates and microscopic self-replicating robots which edited
DNA. But he guessed that sooner or later someone would come up
with a direct photosynthesis system, and his stock market expert
systems were programmed to correlate research in the field. He
and his wife sold controlling interest in their company three months
before the first green people appeared.
‘I remember when you knew what a human being was,’ Evan said sadly. ‘I suppose I’m old-fashioned, but there it is.’
her cradle, inside a mist of spray, his wife said, ‘Is that why you
never went green? I always thought it was a fashion statement.’
habits die hard.’ The truth was, he liked his body the way it
was. These days, going green involved somatic mutation which grew
a metre-high black cowl to absorb sufficient light energy. Most
people lived in the tropics: swarms of black-caped anarchists. Work was
no longer a necessity, but an indulgence. Evan added, ‘I’m going
to miss you.’
‘Let’s face it,’ his wife said, ‘we never were
in love. But I’ll miss you, too.’ With a flick of her
powerful tail she launched her streamlined body into the sea.
post-humans, gliding slowly in the sun, aggregating and reagregating
like ameobae. Dolphinoids, tentacles sheathed under fins, rocking
in tanks of cloudy water. Ambulatory starfish; tumbling bushes of
spikes; snakes with a single arm, a single leg; flocks of tiny birds,
brilliant as emeralds, each flock a single entity.
People, grown strange, infected with myriads of microscopic machines which reengraved their body form at will.
lived in a secluded estate. He was revered as a founding father
of the posthuman revolution. A purple funfur microsaur followed
him everywhere. It was recording him because he had elected to
don’t regret anything,’ Evan said, ‘except perhaps
not following my wife when she changed. I saw it coming, you
know. All this. Once the technology became simple enough,
cheap enough, the companies lost control. Like television or
computers, but I suppose you don’t remember those.’ He
sighed. He had the vague feeling he’d said all this before. He’d
had no new thoughts for a century, except the desire to put an end
The microsaur said, ‘In a way, I suppose I am a computer. Will you see the colonial delegation now?’
‘Later.’ Evan hobbled to a bench and slowly sat down. In the last couple
of months he had developed mild arthritis, liver spots on the backs of
his hands: death finally expressing parts of his genome that had been
suppressed for so long. Hot sunlight fell through the velvet
streamers of the tree things; Evan dozed, woke to find a group of
starfish watching him. They had blue, human eyes, one at the tip
of each muscular arm.
‘They wish to honour you by taking your genome to Mars,’ the little purple triceratops said.
Evan sighed. ‘I just want peace. To rest. To die.’
‘Oh Evan,’ the little triceratops said patiently, ‘surely even you know that nothing really dies any more.’
This work is licenced under a Creative Commons Licence.
If you liked this story, you may like my novel Fairyland.
My Back Pages