Authors: John Boyd
Tags: #Science Fiction
The Gorgon Festival
For Leesa and Jennifer Le Doux
As a youth Alexander Ward had escaped from poverty into violence when he went from the Depression into World War II, and he had returned from the ruins of Hitler’s Reich accepting as his credo a remembered fragment from a medieval manuscript, “Because I did not lyke to fyte and wanted to rede, I went into the monasterie.”
Since there were no monasteries for free-thinkers, Ward entered the academic world and found even there, on administrative levels, competition and conflict. So he concentrated on teaching and research in molecular biology until the Student Rebellion reached Stanford. Then he retreated to the innermost cloister of scholarship, pure research.
Now, on a Friday afternoon in late May, he walked up the steps of his Palo Alto home feeling uneasily triumphant over a discovery that would probably earn him a Nobel Prize and bring the world into his cloister, unless he were ejected from the cell beforehand for non-payment of his academic fief. Ward had not published in a learned journal in three years.
Ester was approaching from the stepped-down dining room as he entered. As always, she walked in beauty, but there was petulance in her voice.
“Alex, you’re late. The caterers are here, Doctor Carrick’s on his way, and you haven’t shaved.”
It was also the day of the last faculty cocktail party of the semester, he remembered.
“I had photography to finish at the lab,” he explained. “Today I added some missing rungs to a DNA ladder and the molecule replicated itself. I’ve created life in a test tube.”
“That’s wonderful, but Carrick sent over only two bottles of vodka. If we run short, the guests will blame me.”
Ward was not crushed by her reaction. Had he been Champollion announcing translation of the Rosetta Stone, he knew she might have merely asked, “What did it say?”
It was not that Ester was unintelligent, it was merely that her area of specialization differed from his. Twelve years his junior, she had been his lab assistant until he married her to break the production bottleneck her presence in his working area created.
“Don’t worry, dear,” he said, bending to kiss her. “Guests at faculty cocktail parties rarely drink vodka.”
What a beautiful face, he thought as their lips touched; a pity no one ever noticed it, but understandable. Not until the third day of their honeymoon had he discovered she had green eyes.
“Ruth Gordon guzzles it,” she contradicted. “Besides, I’ve invited a gentleman from San Francisco who has to drink vodka.”
“Don’t worry about us peasants. Concentrate your charms on Carrick. If you can get him to extend my research grant, I’ll take you to Stockholm for your day’s work.”
He started up the stairs but, remembering, he stopped halfway to the landing and looked down at her. “Ester, there’s a fifth of vodka in my private stock if your policeman friend needs it.”
She slapped her hands to her hips and looked up at him in admiration mixed with exasperation. “Just how did you know Joe Cabroni was a policeman?”
In the fishnet cocktail dress she had picked up in Monterey during her fisherman period, above a waist so narrow he feared for her digestion, Ester’s torso was bifurcated by cleavage unequaled west of the Grand Canyon. She wore no brassiere, but her see-through dress had strategic triangles woven into the netting. Her breasts reminded him of the heads of two jewfish trying to batter out of a seine.
“If they have to drink vodka and it isn’t lunch time, you don’t figure them for bank tellers,” he said, and turned back up the stairs.
Actually he had been given stronger clues to Ester’s policeman period by her shopping trips to San Francisco; she was buying heavily in tailored blue outfits. But he was not concerned by his wife’s excursions. She was intensely loyal and he valued loyalty above fidelity, which he considered no more than canine expediency.
Besides, he was aware of his own deficiencies.
Once a fortnight was his connubial limit, and then he had to prime himself, at times, by peeking at certain paintings in his art folios. By the time he reached retirement age he might have to resort to hard-core pornography, but he doubted that every other Tuesday would ever become an evening reserved for Parcheesi.
Ward laid the before-and-after electron microscope photographs of the DNA he planned to show Ruth Gordon in his shirt drawer, undressed, and went into the shower. With Ruth he could make no claims to brilliance with his discovery, for his use of electrolysis as a bonding agent had been guesswork and he knew of no reason why an electric current should bring about molecular linkage.
He stepped from the shower to shave and practiced a smile in the mirror for Doctor P. Frederick Carrick, N.P. The N.P. stood for the Nobel Prize which Carrick shared with a biologist at Osaka University for discoveries relating to testosterone, and in this instance the initials were mildly pejorative. Carrick was an academic equivalent of a Texas oil man. He wore a vest in order to carry an old-fashioned watch because he needed the watch fob to display his Phi Beta Kappa key, and his money came from a family-owned pharmaceutical house. As head of the biology department, he okayed all requests for government research grants and acted as host at department cocktail parties.
A bachelor, he had enlisted Ester’s aid at such parties as hostess, an arrangement which suited her and did not displease Ward, particularly now that Carrick had been making oblique remarks about his difficulties with grant extensions. Ester had Lady Macbeth’s flair for politics and she might have gone far had she been married to Macbeth.
Voices were already rising from below when Ward descended the stairway, but he did not feel remiss about his tardiness. He was official greeter for Ruth Gordon only, and she was not due for another six minutes, precisely.
Ruth Gordon was rigid about schedules. Since God was dead and all morality relative, she had told Ward, she used the clock as a guide to conduct. Horological ethics were Ruth’s answer to the decay of morality.
Carrick was standing at the entrance with Ester, telling her of his visit to Soho during a recent biology conference in London. Ward crossed the living room, smiling, and extended his hand in greeting.
“Hello, Alex,” Carrick’s voice boomed for all to hear. “Where’ve you been? Upstairs writing a paper for publication, I trust.”
Instead of shaking Ward’s hand, Carrick put his empty glass in it and said, “One double bourbon, boy.”
Carrick’s pratfall humor had an edge, Ward knew, as he turned toward the bar with the glass. The department head was preparing him for a rejection of his request for a grant extension on the basis that his experiments were not being shared with the scientific community.
By the time Ward returned with the drink, Ruth Gordon was honking for him to come and move his VW, with which he blocked the drive when Ruth was coming to assure her a parking place.
Ward walked out, waved to the woman in her old Chevrolet, and began to push his car forward, calling back to her, “Weak battery.”
After he had pushed his car into the carport, he rushed back to assist Ruth, but she was slamming the door behind her and standing erectly outside the car without the aid of a cane.
At seventy, Ruth Gordon was still handsome, firm featured, clear-eyed, her steel-gray hair beautifully groomed. Smiling she swung toward him with military crispness caused by her arthritic spine.
“Alex, your antic steps tell me you’re excited. Another of your theories, no doubt. Did I see Carrick and your other half at the door? Well, get me past Narcissus and the Earth Mother quickly. I have two hours and twenty-three minutes allotted for freeloading.”
Smiling, Ward took her arm. With the arrival of Doctor Ruth Gordon, professor emeritus of gerontology, his boyhood friend and mentor, widow of his old headmaster, the party had begun for Ward.
Shadowed from the westering sun by a wisteria arbor, Ward sat with Ruth, a vacuum flask of vodka and orange juice on the patio table in front of them, sipping and listening to fragments of conversation from the patio. Four years ago, before she developed arthritis, Ruth had been a teetotaler. Her doctor had suggested a glass of wine at bedtime to aid her circulation, and when arthritis hit her, she increased the dosage to a fifth of vodka a day.
Beyond their bower, bits and pieces of gossip drifted to them. With the silence of long friendship, they listened.
“The filter separates the nuclei from the ribosome like whey from clabber… Did you get an eyeful of those breasts? No wonder Ward never publishes… Did you read Carswell’s paper on catalyst for amino linkage? Sound waves, and he tries to foist the idea off as original… He doesn’t have to publish. A pair like that’s worth six papers a year… I used a C-note tuning fork as an undergraduate… Ward should sell shares… Henderson asked for eighty thousand but Carrick cut his request to twenty grand.”
Ward never talked shop with other biologists, because he never knew when his listener might grab an idea and run with it.
“Donne is undone,” he commented to Ruth with a wave of his hand toward the guests in the patio. “Each man is an island entire of itself.”
“One more reason to keep open lines of communication with the young,” she said. “I’ve given up on intervening generations.”
“How are you coming with your youth movement?”
“Continuing the dialogue,” she said, with obvious satisfaction. “Tomorrow I lecture on roses to the San Jose Teen Horticulturists Club.”
“The anti-grass lecture?”
“Yes, and Sunday, at the Beethoven, Brahms, and Bach luncheon, to guests from Palo Alto High School. My anti-rock lecture.”
“Continue your dialogue, Ruth, but stay on the rostrum. Don’t get down among them.”
“You don’t talk down to today’s youth,” she flared. “They detest pomposity.”
Ruth was prickly in certain areas and Ward diverted her. “Speaking of pomposity, Carrick sounds as if he doesn’t intend to extend my research grant unless I publish, so I’m planning a paper to be read before the national convention.”
“That’s why you came skipping out to greet me. What have you done that’s worth a paper?”
“Reconstituted a fragmented DNA molecule from the ribosome of a muscle cell and observed its replication.”
He took the photographs from his pocket and handed them to her casually, figuring any onlooker outside the arbor would assume they were family snapshots.
“For your eyes only,” he said. “Before and after.”
She cupped the photographs in her hands and shuffled slowly through them. To an inexpert eye the DNA molecule resembled gray intertwined beads immersed in ashes, but Ruth grasped their importance at once. Her interest was so intense her expression seemed furtive.
“Have you translated the code of the replicated molecule?”
Ward shook his head. “I haven’t had time. Rungs in the ladder were supplied by a complex molecule of sugar phosphate I’ll describe in my paper, so the reconstituted DNA should not differ from the original.”
“I’ll decode from the photographs over the weekend,” she said.
If she had asked his permission to decode the DNA molecule, he would have refused in order to spare her feelings. The ribosome was from the muscle cells of a hamster, and Ruth was a woman with odd passions; schedules, roses, classical music, young people, and hamsters.
“How did you create the linkage?” She asked.
“Electrolysis,” he answered. “But I don’t know why. I was just playing around.”
“Don’t publish a single word, Alex, until you analyze the reaction. Why? Because Nobel Prizes aren’t awarded for happy accidents. Have you thought of practical applications of the discovery?”
“Casually,” he had to admit. “Such bonding in chromatin might prevent sickle cell anemia, haemophilia, or Mongoloid births. If it could be introduced into human body cells it might cure cancer.”
“That’s bush league, boy!” Her whisper was a snort of disgust. “Are you telling me you’ve never heard of the theory of random error…”
“Hide your French postcards, Ruth.” Ester’s voice, husky with an overload of hormones, sounded above their table. “I have a member of the San Francisco vice squad with me… Detective Lieutenant Joe Cabroni, Doctor Ruth Gordon, a specialist in old age, and my husband, Doctor Alexander Ward, her once and present student.”
Joe Cabroni’s lips smiled as he took the hand Ruth extended, but his eyes were cold. Ward rose to greet a man wearing the ringlets of Apollo above the face of Adonis atop the body of Hercules.
“Actually,” Cabroni said, “I’m with homicide.”
“Stay away from the vice squad, young man,” Ruth said. “Vice makes a man immoral.”
“Pleased to meet you, Joe,” Ward said, putting his hand into a mangle. “I rather expected a sergeant. Now I know where I can get my traffic tickets fixed.”
“I don’t handle traffic, but if you murder anyone, see me.”
“Isn’t he handsome, Alex?” Ester asked.
“Handsome and formidable. Welcome to the party, Joe, but don’t get too drunk to drive.”
“No sweat,” Cabroni said. “I know a man who can fix traffic tickets.”
As Ester ushered him away to meet other guests, Ward saw Cabroni’s face set in anger as he glanced down at her, and the policeman’s hostility alarmed Ward. Ester might find it harder to drop him than her poet, fisherman, interior decorator, et al.