Authors: Greg Bear
Tags: #Science Fiction, #Science
Each hour, a myriad of trillions of little live things—microbes, bacteria, the peasants of nature—are born and die, not counting for much except in the bulk of their numbers and the accumulation of their tiny lives. They do not perceive deeply, nor do they suffer. A hundred trillion, dying, would not begin to have the same importance as a single human death.
Within the ranks of magnitude of all creatures, small as microbes or great as humans, there is an equality of “elan,” just as the branches of a tall tree, gathered together, equal the bulk of the limbs below, and all the limbs equal the bulk of the trunk.
We believe this as firmly as the kings of France believed in their hierarchy. Which of our generations will come to disagree?
LA JOLLA, CALIFORNIA
The rectangular slate-black sign stood on a low mound of bright green and clumpy Korean grass, surrounded by irises and sided by a dark, cement-bedded brook filled with koi. Carved into the street side of the sign was the name GENETRON in Times Roman letters of insignia red, and beneath the name the motto, “Where Small Things Make Big Changes.”
The Genetron labs and business offices were housed in a U-shaped, bare concrete Bauhaus structure surrounding a rectangular garden court. The main complex had two levels with open-air walkways. Beyond the courtyard and just behind an artificial hummock of earth, not yet filled in with new greenery, was a four-story black glass-sided cube fenced with electrified razor-wire.
These were the two sides of Genetron; the open labs, where biochip research was conducted, and the defense contracts building, where military applications were investigated.
Security was strict even in the open labs. All employees wore laser-printed badges and non-employee access to the labs was carefully monitored. The management of Genetron—five Stanford graduates who had founded the company just three years out of school—realized that industrial espionage was even more likely than an intelligence breach in the black cube. Yet the outward atmosphere was serene, and every attempt was made to soft-pedal the security measures.
A tall, stoop-shouldered man with unruly black hair untangled himself from the interior of a red Volvo sports car and sneezed twice before crossing the employee parking lot. The grasses were tuning up for an early summer orgy of irritation. He casually greeted Walter, the middle-aged and whippet-wiry guard. Walter just as casually confirmed his badge by running it through the laser reader. “Not much sleep last night, Mr. Ulam?” Walter asked.
Vergil pursed his lips and shook his head. “Parties, Walter.” His eyes were red and his nose was swollen from constant rubbing with the handkerchief that now resided abused and submissive, in his pocket.
“How working men like you can party on a weeknight, I don’t know.”
The ladies demand it, Walter,” Vergil said, passing through. Walter grinned and nodded, though he sincerely doubted Vergil was getting much action, parties or no. Unless standards had severely declined since Walter’s day, nobody with a week’s growth of patchy beard was getting much action.
Ulam was not the most prepossessing figure at Genetron. He stood six feet two inches on very large flat feet. He was twenty-five pounds overweight and at thirty-two years of age, his back hurt him, he had high blood pressure, and he could never shave close enough to eliminate an Emmett Kelly shadow.
His voice seemed designed not to win friends—harsh, slightly grating, tending toward loudness. Two decades in California had smoothed his Texas accent, but when he became excited or angry, the Panhandle asserted itself with an almost painful edge.
His sole distinction was an exquisite pair of emerald green eyes, wide and expressive, defended by a luxurious set of lashes. The eyes were more decorative than functional, however; they were covered by a large pair of black-framed glasses. Vergil was near-sighted.
He ascended the stairs two and three steps at a time, long powerful legs making the concrete and steel steps resound. On the second floor, he walked along the open corridor to the Advanced Biochip Division’s joint equipment room, known as the share lab. His mornings usually began with a check on specimens in one of the five ultra-centrifuges. His most recent batch had been rotating for sixty hours at 200,000 G’s and was now ready for analysis.
For such a large man, Vergil had surprisingly delicate and sensitive hands. He removed an expensive black titanium rotor from the ultracentrifuge and slid shut the steel vacuum seal. Placing the rotor on a workbench, one by one he removed and squinted at the five squat plastic tubes suspended in slings beneath its mushroom-like cap. Several well-defined beige layers had formed in each tube.
Vergil’s heavy black eyebrows arched and drew together behind the thick rims of his glasses. He smiled, revealing teeth spotted brown from a childhood of drinking naturally fluoridated water.
He was about to suction off the buffer solution and the unwanted layers when the lab phone beeped. He placed the tube in a rack and picked up the receiver. “Share lab, Ulam here.”
“Vergil, this is Rita. I saw you come in, but you weren’t in your lab.”
“Home away from home, Rita. What’s up?”
“You asked me—told me—to let you know if a certain gentleman arrived. I think he’s here, Vergil.”
“Michael Bernard?” Vergil asked, his voice rising.
“I think it’s him. But Vergil—”
I’ll be right down.”
He hung up and dithered for a moment over the tubes, then left them where they were.
Genetron’s reception area was a circular extrusion from the ground floor on the east comer, surrounded by picture windows and liberally supplied with aspidistras in chrome ceramic pots. Morning light slanted white and dazzling across the sky-blue carpet as Vergil entered from the lab side. Rita stood up behind her desk as he passed by.
“Thanks,” he said. His eyes were on the distinguished-looking gray-haired man standing by the single lobby couch. There was no doubt about it; Michael Bernard. Vergil recognized him from photos and the cover portrait Time Magazine had printed three years before. Vergil extended his hand and put on an enormous smile. “Pleased to meet you, Mr. Bernard.”
Bernard shook Vergil’s hand but appeared confused.
Gerald T. Harrison stood in the broad double door of Genetron’s fancy for-show office, phone receiver gripped between ear and shoulder. Bernard looked to Harrison for an explanation.
“I’m very glad you got my message…” Vergil continued before Harrison’s presence registered.
Harrison immediately made his farewells on the phone and slammed it on its cradle. “Rank hath its privileges, Vergil,” he said, smiling too broadly and taking a stance beside Bernard.
“I’m sorry—what message?” Bernard asked.
“This is Vergil Ulam, one of our top researchers,” Harrison said obsequiously. “We’re all very pleased to have you visiting, Mr. Bernard. Vergil, I’ll get back to you later about that matter you wanted to discuss.”
He hadn’t asked to talk to Harrison about anything. “Sure,” Vergil said. He rankled under the old familiar feeling: being sidestepped, pushed aside.
Bernard didn’t know him from Adam.
“Later, Vergil,” Harrison said pointedly.
“Sure, of course.” He backed away, glanced at Bernard pleadingly, then turned and shambled back through the rear door.
“Who was that?” Bernard asked.
“A very ambitious fellow,” Harrison said darkly. “But we have him under control.”
Harrison kept his work office in a ground floor space on the west end of the lab building. The room was surrounded by wooden shelves neatly filled with books. The eye-level shelf behind the desk held familiar black plastic ring-bound books from Cold Spring Harbor. Arranged below were a row of telephone directories—Harrison collected antique phone books—and several shelves of computer science volumes. His graph-ruled black desktop supported a leather-edged blotting pad and a computer monitor.
Of the Genetron founders, only Harrison and William Yng had stayed long enough to see the labs begin work. Both were more oriented toward business than research, though their doctorates hung on the wood panel wall.
Harrison leaned back in his chair, arms up and hands clasped behind his neck. Vergil noticed the merest hint of sweat stains in each armpit.
“Vergil, that was very embarrassing,” he said. His white-blond hair was artfully arranged to disguise premature thinning.
“Sorry,” Vergil said.
“No more than I. So you asked Mr. Bernard to visit our labs.”
“I thought he would be interested in the work.”
“We thought so, too. That’s why we invited him. I don’t believe he even knew about your invitation, Vergil.”
“You went behind our backs.”
Vergil stood before the desk, looking glumly at the back of the VDT.
“You’ve done a great deal of useful work for us. Rothwild says you’re brilliant maybe even invaluable.” Rothwild was the biochips project supervisor. “But others say you can’t be relied upon. And now…this.”
“Not Mr. Bernard, Vergil. This.” He swung the monitor around and pressed a button on the keyboard. Vergil’s secret computer file scrolled up on the screen. His eyes widened and his throat constricted, but to his credit he didn’t choke. His reaction was quite controlled. “I haven’t read it completely, but it sounds like you’re up to some very suspect things. Possibly unethical. We like to follow the guidelines here at Genetron, especially in light of our upcoming position in the marketplace. But not solely for that reason. I like to believe we run an ethical company here.”
“I’m not doing anything unethical, Gerald.”
“Oh?” Harrison stopped the scrolling. “You’re designing new complements of DNA for several NIH-regulated microorganisms. And you’re working on mammalian cells. We don’t do work here on mammalian cells. We aren’t equipped for the biohazards—not in the main labs. But I suppose you could demonstrate to me the safety and innocuous nature of your research. You’re not creating a new plague to sell to Third World revolutionaries, are you?”
“No,” Vergil said flatly.
“Good. Some of this material is beyond my understanding. It sounds like you might be trying to expand on our MABs project There could be valuable stuff here.” He paused. “What in hell are you doing, Vergil?”
Vergil removed his glasses and wiped them with the placket of his lab coat. Abruptly, he sneezed—loud and wet.
Harrison looked faintly disgusted. “We only broke the code yesterday. By accident, almost. Why did you hide it? Is it something you’d rather we didn’t know?”
Without his glasses, Vergil looked owlish and helpless. He began to stammer an answer, then stopped and thrust his jaw forward. His thick black brows knit in painful puzzlement.
“It looks to me like you’ve been doing some work on our gene machine. Unauthorized, of course, but you’ve never been much for authority.”
Vergil’s face was now deep red.
“Are you all right?” Harrison asked. He was deriving a perverse pleasure from making Vergil squirm. A grin threatened to break through Harrison’s querying expression.
“I’m fine,” Vergil said. “I was…am…working on biologics.”
“Biologics? I’m not familiar with the term.”
“A side branch of the biochips. Autonomous organic computers.” The thought of saying anything more was agony. He had written Bernard—without result, apparently—to have him come see the work. He did not want to hand all of it over to Genetron under the provisions of the work-for-hire clause in his contract. It was such a simple idea, even if the work had taken two years—two secret and laborious years.
“I’m intrigued.” Harrison turned the VDT around and scrolled through the file. “We’re not just talking proteins and amino acids. You’re messing with chromosomes here. Recombining mammalian genes; even, I see, mixing in viral and bacterial genes.” The light went out of his eyes. They became rocky gray. “You could get Genetron shut down right now, this minute, Vergil. We don’t have the safeguards for this kind of stuff. You’re not even working under P-3 conditions.”
“I’m not messing with reproductive genes.”
“There’s some other kind?” Harrison sat forward abruptly, angry that Vergil would try to bullshit him.
“Introns. Strings that don’t code for protein structure.”
“What about them?”
“I’m only working in those areas. And…adding more non-reproductive genetic material.”
“That sounds like a contradiction in terms to me, Vergil. We have no proof introns don’t code for something.”
“But—” Harrison held up his hand. “This is all quite irrelevant. Whatever else you were up to, the fact is, you were prepared to renege on your contract, go behind our backs to Bernard, and try to engage his support for a personal endeavor. True?”
Vergil said nothing.
“I assume you’re not a sophisticated fellow, Vergil. Not in the ways of the business world. Perhaps you didn’t realize the implications.”
Vergil swallowed hard. His face was still plum red. He could feel the blood thudding in his ears, the sick sensation of stress-caused dizziness. He sneezed twice.
“Well, I’ll lay the implications out for you. You are very close to getting your ass canned and sold for bully beef.”
Vergil raised his eyebrows reflexively.
“You’re important to the MABs project. If you weren’t, you would be out of here in a flash and I would personally make sure you never work in a private lab again. But Thornton and Rothwild and the others believe we might be able to redeem you. Yes, Vergil. Redeem you. Save you from yourself. I haven’t consulted with Yng on this. It won’t go any further—if you behave.”
He fixed Vergil with a stare from beneath lowered eyebrows. “Stop your extracurricular activities. We’ll keep your file here, but I want all non-MABs experiments terminated and all organisms that have been tampered with destroyed. I’ll personally inspect your lab in two hours. If this hasn’t been done, you’ll be fired. Two hours, Vergil. No exceptions no extensions.”