In a world where bioengineering has gone mad, Dr. Jonas Hengist tries to melt a moon. But there are limits to playing God. New fiction from David A. Hopper.
If there were more room in the cockpit of the Low October, Dr. Jonas Hengist would be pacing. Instead, he must settle for shifting his weight in glitchy artificial gravity, watching, for the second time in his life, the pale curve of Europa rise in the main viewer, the clouds of Jupiter looming large beyond. He feels the crew’s eyes on him. Jonas runs his tongue over chapped lips; it has been months since his feet have touched soil.
The trip has been monotony incarnate. Each day his eyes open to the same spectrum of whites and greys as they close to. Walls of corrugated bioplastic, soft lights that dim but never darken, the subaural hum of engines running through the night. Here, day and night describe only who he’ll likely pass in the corridors. If, upon rising from his Spartan bunk in the aft of the small freighter and staggering to the washroom, he should bump into Selene, or Niall, it is night. Day means he may come across Subha, and must back up until he can squeeze himself into the nearest open doorway. She passes with the clanking of engine components, and responds to his greeting with silence. She drips a trail of coolant down the narrow corridor.
The Siberian tundra is once again home to vast herds of woolly mammoth. Thousands of jellyfish float high over Rio. Visual artists paint with fluorescent bacteria.
Jonas is a passenger, and thus exempt from shipboard duties. This also means he is restricted from entering the engine room and cockpit, present circumstances excluded. This doesn’t trouble him. He cares little for space propulsion, and to call the central control room the “cockpit” lends a nonexistent gravitas to the business of travel by the Interplanetary Transport Network, a path of least gravitational resistance through the Solar System. Passage on a freighter winding along the ITN costs a lot of time but little money, and Jonas has more of one than the other. He tries to look on it with optimism: the long months spent aboard ship have given him many opportunities to consolidate his frenzied field notes and relay completed papers back to Earth. He rarely receives any response, given the serious impediments to off-world communication these days.
Space travel has its share of hazards now. For the three days it takes them to cross the asteroid belt, the whole crew is on high alert. The ship runs cold and quiet, minimal life support only. They cut engines, take no hot showers, play no music. Jonas chews his packaged meals slowly and carefully. Every member of the crew seems glued to an interface terminal, watching with bated breath. Jonas hasn’t the heart to tell them it’s hopeless –that, if they’re noticed, they will be crushed almost instantly. On the third day they pass the wreckage of a vessel like theirs, ripped apart by a creature on whose behavior Jonas has written two papers.
The next day, sick of his bunk, he reads in the crew’s hold. Here, at least Jonas doesn’t feel in the way. In the adjoining garishly painted kitchenette, Idris cooks the evening meal, grumbling something about the fuckin’ sea monsters. He yanks a handful of leaves from his curry plant and throws them in with vat-grown meat and hydroponic vegetables. Jonas pretends not to notice, but sqeaks a little in the cracked leather seat.
The crew’s animosity has been tangible from the beginning. A shortcoming of sharing a name with the most hated man alive. Dr. Henrik Hengist, famous geneticist and visionary founder of Recombinant Bioscience. The company itself is the figurehead of a gen-eng boom which spawned the American Applied Life Sciences, Inc., the Chinese-owned Consumer Helix Corp., and innumerable other startups that emerge and are subsumed like the tides.
In the space of twenty years after the founding of Recombinant Biosciences, the Earth and its off-world colonies are transformed. The great gen-eng firms patent new species at the rate of a dozen a month. Biomolecular computing revolutionizes information technology, allowing the sum of human knowledge to be encoded within mere grams of RNA. City lights shine with the brilliance of millions of bacteria, powered only by sugar. The Siberian tundra is once again home to vast herds of woolly mammoth. Thousands of jellyfish float high over Rio. Visual artists paint with fluorescent bacteria. Genes from spiders spin steel, bringing a sea change in manufacturing. Algae dispersed into the seas suck carbon dioxide out of the air, healing the world. Organisms are crossed, recrossed, reimagined, reinvisioned. New forms of life transcend classification, transcend evolution. The human genome tours the world, set to music and performed by the London Symphony. Short of sapience, anything goes. The worlds operate, to quote Dr. Hengist, “at the speed of life.” Children beg their parents for grow-your-own-dog kits. Institutions of higher learning see sharp increases in life-sciences enrollment. The global economy blooms.
Jonas can remember trips to the company aquarium, where he would stare for hours into the enormous tanks, some designed to replicate entire prehistoric ecosystems. He presses his nose against the glass and watches C. megalodon glide past; regal, victorious. His uncle has done this, and Jonas hungers for it.
Oslo finds itself at a nexus of the bioscience revolution. The cold climate superbly fits the temperatures required for extensive wetwork, and the remote northern stretch of coast becomes home to the world’s premier research labs. Recombinant Bioscience, and Jonas’s uncle, are the envy of the world.
Jonas sees the man seldom. He lives for Christmas, when he can tout his most recent science projects. He lives for Uncle Henrik’s nod, for the slow frown that means consideration, approval. When he is young, his projects are simple, and he spends hours formatting his reports despite never having read a proper one himself. When he is thirteen he reads his first paper by Dr. Mathias Syse, a prominent researcher in the Field. Hugging the article to his chest, Jonas asks what he hopes to be a measured and insightful question. At the mention of the man’s name, Uncle Henrik rips the paper from the boy’s grasp. “Don’t read this trash,” he snaps.
Jonas receives his undergraduate degree in two years. In three and a half more he’s received his PhD from the University of Oslo. His parents, a data analyst and a psychiatrist, are thrilled. They throw a lavish graduation party in his honor, where from the mist in his mother’s eyes as she toasts him you would have thought he was getting married. Dr. Hengist, for several years now having ceased responding to “Uncle,” merely sends his regards. Jonas taps his champagne glass with his ring finger and makes small talk with his mother’s friends. After a week an invitation arrives for him to interview with Recombinant Bioscience. To the shock of nearly everyone, Jonas makes two announcements. First, that he has accepted a research position at the University of Oslo, and second that he has fallen in love.
Her name is Nina, and she is a graduate student, born in Brazil. A fit of madness has led her to study in the snowy northern wastes, Jonas likes to say. Her Norwegian is awful, so they speak in English. In the mornings they discuss the human mind over espresso she grinds by hand. A rare spat of grandiosity sees Nina speak of the divine spark that she believes resides in every human being, quoting Plutarch. Jonas describes the process of meiosis from a sperm’s point of view. At her first Christmas with his family, he watches with a strange sort of pride as his cousins try to pinpoint her area of expertise, to no avail. She is conversant on almost any subject. Her energy inspires him, he tells his mother.
She navigates his chilly relatives with outward ease, though twice during their wedding preparations she breaks down over spiteful comments uttered in passing. Jonas holds her in his arms, wishing for half her grace.
He loves her heavy curls, the way she ties them up, wrenching them back and wrapping them around and around themselves with seeming disregard. The way their Milo would tug them loose and hang on as if for dear life. The way, out of some reflex, she halfway closes one eye as their son suckles at her breast. These are the images he keeps with him when he works late into the night in his small office at the university, and on the weeks his research takes him abroad.
One day he calls Nina from the University campus on Luna, but misjudges the time, waking her at five in the morning. He begs her to bring Milo, to look out over the entire planet. Ignore the Great Pacific Algae Bloom, he says. Those tiny creatures cleaned the air for us all. Ignore the smoldering brands of eleven million stamped upon the continents; they are where we live. The curve of the Earth is smooth as the shell of an egg. Up here, you can see the whole of creation as it hangs in the sky. Nina assents, sleepily, and hangs up. Jonas returns to work. He deeply regrets being unable to tell her about their current project. He is to oversee a University team tasked with writing the genome of a new bacterium, similar to the one used to scrub the Earth’s atmosphere of CO2. Each day of work hums with the anticipation of it.
Jonas is the conductor of a symphony, and must be familiar with each part, every section. He must keep them working in tandem, so he flits from group to group, giving encouragement. Visitors to the University wonder at the man skidding on the marble floors, running from A to E wing and back again. He reviews twenty sequences a day, though he is pleased to find few errors. His team works late. He works later. The key genes are reserved for his eyes alone, and when he sits back to watch the simulations play out he pictures the Watchmaker. He lays himself beside Nina’s still form each night, mind buzzing with the next day’s tasks. They are close. Four letters fill his dreams: C-A-T-C-C-G-A.
Rumors abound. On television Jonas is asked to reveal the nature of his new project by an eager journalist hoisting a camera. Jonas recognizes its living iris, one of many designed by his uncle. He remains vague, elusive; the University does not wish to count their chickens before they’ve hatched. He smiles sheepishly. Suffice it to say their next undertaking is ambitious. They are turning their attentions outward and upward. This project is dedicated to the children of Earth.
The morning he is to leave, he rushes around the flat, collecting the things he cannot do without. Nina has run out of things to say to him. She scrunches the ends of her sleeves in balled fists and looks at Milo’s science projects decorating the refrigerator. He says he’ll see her soon. Good bye, she says. Their last embrace leaves a dark spot on Jonas’s shoulder. Nina brings up the phone as she closes the door.
Solar reflection arrays ring Europa like a crown of birds, continuing their slow work. He and his colleagues watch from orbit as the frozen surface of Europa, rumored to hide an ocean of liquid water, melts and glows blue.
Then, there were still advantages to sharing a name with the world’s foremost innovator, even if they hadn’t spoken in years. The observation deck of the University yacht, generously donated by an anonymous sponsor, is adorned with wreaths. Jonas fidgets in his rented tuxedo, avoiding reporters’ eyes by staring intently out at the black. Solar reflection arrays ring Europa like a crown of birds, continuing their slow work. He and his colleagues watch from orbit as the frozen surface of Europa, rumored to hide an ocean of liquid water, melts and glows blue. In the culmination of five years’ work, a cocktail of anaerobic bacteria and several algaes are introduced at strategic points around the moon. Among them is the University team’s most recent triumph. In a matter of years, the moon will be able to sustain human life.
He is overjoyed, sending an exuberant message to Nina. She is his center, the reason he can be proud of his work, despite the dark mutterings that seem to be growing towards his field at home. He thanks her from the bottom of his heart for being so… just for being, and looks forward to seeing how tall Milo has become. Could she imagine herself the mother of a world? He waits, giddy, for her reply. Her return message details the reasons she is leaving him.
Jonas returns to Earth. Counting travel time and periods of preparation and observation, he has been gone two years, long enough to have to think for a moment to know that his son will be twelve in the fall.
In Oslo, he searches for her, but they are long gone. Their flat is empty, save for a stack of five boxes in the corner of what used to be their living room. Jonas weeps as he sifts through his only possessions on hands and knees. She has managed to pack his books like cobblestones into a single box. She has left him their bedclothes and taken the bed. They have returned to Rio, a city Milo has never seen. He spends almost a week in a state of paralysis, unsure whether to stay or leave. Visits to the University find him assailed by the press. Some clamor for a word from the man who has secured their children’s futures; some ask him how he rationalizes playing God.
What can he do but continue his work? He tries to reconnect with his colleagues and waits for some stimulus to find him again. He spends several months reviewing papers and even writing some of his own, but there is no joy in it. What’s more, attitudes toward his kind are becoming increasingly hostile. Videos leak to the public of failed or unfinished experiments, and there seem to be more demonstrators in the streets every day. Some of them carry signs depicting Jonas’s uncle, hideously deformed, reading “Kill Me!” Jonas finds these in very poor taste.
Before the year is out, however, Jonas finds himself joining the second wave of what is already being called the exodus from Earth. Some eco-terrorist group has released an aggressive species of Sequoiadendron across North America. Within months the trees tower over landmarks, crumbling roads between their roots, springing up like kudzu almost overnight. Gradually, much of the continent is rendered uninhabitable. The fools have sealed the industry’s death warrant. It will seal his own as well if he is not careful. The elder Dr. Hengist lives under constant guard. Every day Jonas hears of more violence; outlets for the rage of the displaced, the newly destitute. All he can think to do is return to Europa, the world he helped create. It takes almost no time at all to liquidate his assets and book passage on a resupply freighter headed to Jupiter’s second moon. The crew detests him from the start, and Jonas allows them. It has been a long voyage.
Today is the morning of their arrival and the crew is gathered in the cockpit. Jonas shifts from one foot to the other. The usual automated media broadcasts flood their receivers, but Subha is the first to point out that there is no radio chatter. All conversation stops at once. Selene brings them in cautiously on the sunlit side of the colony, and city-clusters housing thousands pass under them in silence. From the air, it looks like a beautiful day. Before long the ship’s instruments report their findings: carbon dioxide concentration astronomical. Nothing can live on the surface. The crew of the Low October looks at Jonas.
He has no words. He knows precisely what did it, down to the species, down to the gene. One letter out of place. His mind is awash in the same four letters: one where another should have been, one removed, one added, zipped and shipped out and replicated over and over and over. It makes sense. In the atmosphere of oxygen, there is no future for the bacterium who eats CO2. Opportunity and environment, trade scarcity for plenty and there’s your omelette, children. One letter. One letter among all the rest, passed quietly on, passed to children and grandchildren and nieces and nephews. The seas churning at the speed of life. See a tee tee, see gee a. There are no words.
When Jonas swallows his ears pop. The crew looks at him. Every face is closed.