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12. Simian-ACTN3

The village of Lune lay in the broad, green valley that straddled the River Temz. From historical references, not to mention his personal experience on Search, Coel Rydin knew that once this area had contained a population of more than eight million jostling humans. They had pounded the earth with their feet, polluted the air and the river with their wastes, and covered everything with layers of stone and timber, steel and cement, asphalt and paper. While on Search he had witnessed with his own eyes that the only green things they allowed were certain trees and grasses selected for appearance alone and planted in artificial areas called “parks.” All else was dead castings from the earth.

Now, as Rydin left home to walk to his medical appointment, everything that met his eye was either the green and red-gold of variegated chlorophyll, the brown of moist earth, the white and pale gray of clean chalk, or the crystal blue of the river’s surface, the sky above it, and the glass bridge that soared over it.

Rydin himself lived in a treehouse. His residence was grown from a genetically modified species of the genus Acer. Rooms, passages, and stairways were all shaped by sequencing changes to the underlying structure of branches and leaves. The latter were now coded as perennial features of the organism, enduring through the years, and sealed against the weather with an adhesive secreted from the underside of each leaf. At designated gaps in the walls, hybridized Mollusca were gathered to secrete their thin, clear shells in strips that admitted sunlight, swiveled open to pass the cooling breezes, or closed to keep out wind and rain. Soft interior lighting came from bioluminescent buds. Hybridized river eels of genus Anguillidae traced out the plumbing and then expired in place, their bodies decaying into hardened pipes that drew clean water from deep under the ground. Electrical power and communication circuits were programmed into embedded-silicon channels running beneath the bark and connecting with municipal systems through the roots. Semi-sentient tortoises enhanced with a complex of genes from the Electrophorus fishes scuttled around the place to provide spot current for appliances, including the instruments in Rydin’s personal genetics lab.

All in all, the treehouse was weather-tight, temperate, stable, and self-regulating. And when Rydin was finished with it and ready to move on, he only had to spray the leaves with tailored enzymes to release the organic patterns. Within a matter of hours the tree would subside into a mound of soil and rapidly disintegrating organic compounds. Within a day there would be nothing but a low hummock covered with grass.

In this fashion did 5,600 humans now live in the valley and never leave a mark on the land … except for the pathways of crushed chalk that led from one cluster of dwellings to another, or to work centers that included the medical building where Rydin had his appointment.

Since it was impractical to base the clinic structure on a tree form, it was built from blocks of the local clay soil, knit together by semi-rigid tube worms which secreted a cement that hardened like concrete and had the strength of spun steel. The worms were organized into colonies and genetically trained to stabilize walls, floors, ceilings, and room partitions based on chemical signals sprayed on the ground. The clinic’s internal systems were those of his treehouse expanded a hundred-fold, with the addition of economy-scale infrastructures for power, water, and waste. But all of these features were likewise the product of genetic engineering among the biota. And all could be collapsed into the soil within forty-eight hours.

Far from making Lune a temporary place, Rydin knew, the achievements of his people had rendered the city virtually immortal and indestructible.

He passed through the clinic’s mollusk-shell doors, which opened for him as soon as they recognized his pheromone signature. A neural connection between the doors and the reception intelligence announced him to the building. “Good morning, Mir Rydin,” the intelligence in charge of administration greeted him. “I have already told Dottoressa Gerbus of your arrival.”

“Thank you,” he said.

“Coel!” Jena Gerbus called as she entered the reception area from one of the topical bays. “I think you’re early today. You must be eager for this procedure.”

“Eager for it to be over with, you mean. I know it will hurt.”

“Of course. Full body procedures always do.”

“I was afraid of that.” He grinned.

*   *   *

Jena Gerbus supervised most of Coel Rydin’s visits to the clinic, and the two of them had long ago formed a solid and respectful relationship. Of course, Rydin never came because he was ill. Like all human variants, he was genetically optimized for health.

More than three thousand years ago, give or take a few centuries, the culture which ultimately evolved into Rydin’s and Gerbus’s began concentrating its scientific inquiry in the domains of evolutionary biology, biochemistry, and genetic manipulation. While academics might argue about individual discoveries and influences, Gerbus personally attributed much of this shift in focus to the sudden abundance of long-dead animals and plants which the Jongleur Troupe—still in infancy at the time—and its illicit temporospatial predecessors were making available for study. Where once scientists might only contemplate past life forms and theorize about structure and function from the evidence of bony fossils and desiccated tissues, now geneticists could work directly with a universe of living specimens, indeed every species that ever existed, and all chemically intact, completely functional, and capable of breeding. Soon biology, and with it the urge to find biochemical solutions to social and technical problems, became their culture’s dominant meme.

From manipulating acorn embryos and engineering treehouses to manipulating human embryos and creating a superior race was just a short and technically uncomplicated step, although the ethical implications had ignited more social upheaval, schism, and war than all of humanity’s religions put together. In retrospect, Gerbus found it surprising that people should have feared future generations that were healthier, smarter, more emotionally stable, more robust, faster healing, and more chemically efficient. Perhaps their disquiet had sprung from age-old myths of the “superman” and the “master race.” In her professional capacity, Gerbus could understand and approve of each required genetic change and its effects. Come to think of it, Rydin would be quite knowledgeable, too, through his hobby as a biosculptor.

Their direct ancestors, who were now the progenitors of most humans alive on Earth, had started by cleaning their own children’s embryos in vitro of all known disease mutations. Next, they rearranged their chromosomes and eliminated redundancies—or engineered new ones, where having backup copies and variations of a gene made sense. They improved the genome’s native systems for trapping and fixing errors during chromosome replication, which served to prevent further damaging mutations. Then they streamlined the patchy and inconsistent coding which governed the timing of embryo development, cellular differentiation, and gene expression. They systematized the expression of regenerative stem cells throughout the body. Finally, they redesigned the entire organism for metabolic efficiency and longevity, with the ultimate goal of a human that had no natural life span—people who were potentially immortal.

Although nothing could be proved either way, the dottoressa knew of no one in her or Rydin’s generation who had yet died of natural causes. As far as Gerbus was concerned, that fact alone was conclusive.

But human advancement was never complete, never reached a stopping point. Over the years, for example, Rydin’s profession as section leader of the Jongleurs du Temps had required various genetic and phenotypic modifications, some permanent, some temporary, depending on his list of upcoming Searches.

Sometime within the next six months, Gerbus knew, he was due to visit Nortamerica in the late fourth millennium. That was a period of perpetual collapse, with no law and few customs invoking social restraint, where physical strength in combat would count for more than tactics or competence with weapons. In optimizing the modern human variant for efficiency, Gerbus’s culture had created a race that was small in stature, had minimal body weight, and presented the appearance of an ageless child. On this new assignment, Rydin would be at a serious disadvantage in any confrontation.

The solution was the procedure called Simian-ACTN3. Actually, it was a very old procedure, something a Jongleur team had picked up from the early twenty-third century in the research prisons of Greater China. The serum was supposed to recode the patient’s genes in situ, in vivo, and reportedly without lethal effect. The change lengthened and thickened the long muscle fibers, giving a human being the strength and endurance of the original non-human primates, the legendary chimpanzees and orang-utangs. Those creatures were reputed to be two to five times as strong as the genus Homo. The only difficulty was that the serum had been developed for the human genome of that distant century, not for the already modified genes of Rydin’s time. Since Gerbus knew his code pattern better than anyone, she had volunteered to make the necessary modifications.

She gave him a brief explanation of the process and its intended effects.

“And after all that,” he asked, “what is the worst that can happen?”

“You could die,” she replied. “That would be inconvenient.”

“But no permanent risk,” he concluded with a smile.

“No,” the dottoressa agreed. “Shall we begin?”

She led Rydin to one of the bays, where the clinic had grown a special room for this procedure. The floor and walls were uniformly gray and wrinkled, thickly padded, and soft underfoot.

“This surface reminds me of an animal,” Rydin said. “Not one I ever saw with my own eyes, but in a magazine or video from sometime in the twenty-first century.”

“Well,” she said, “a Jongleur must have captured those genes.”

“An elephant,” he remembered. “It was from Africa. Extinct by then, I think.”

Rydin turned around in the empty room and asked, “Don’t I get a field bed?”

“The plates are under the floor.” Gerbus pointed to an outline in white.

“How about some reading matter or light entertainment? Three days is a long time.”

“If you’re bored, the clinic intelligence can read or sing to you. His name is Homardi. But I don’t think you’ll have the … attention span for much amusement.” She hoped Rydin was setting his mind for the pain her comment implied.

Gerbus stepped out of the room to retrieve from the incubator a tray divided into shallow cups, each one holding a biota. They were pale implements of the genus Hirudo, the old medical leech. Each one was tattooed for a designated muscle group. There were twenty-one of them.

“Take off your clothes, please,” she said. “I have to attach these in a specific order.”

“How long do they stay on?” Rydin asked, unsnapping his jumpsuit.

“Until they complete the viral insertion. About four hours.”

“I’m going to want that sleeping field, won’t I?”

“I can also offer you restraints. The inserts are going to itch, and you must not pick at them.”

“Bind me, gag me, and put me in suspension.”

Rydin stood with feet apart and arms lifted slightly while she applied the leeches. After placing each one in its coded position, Gerbus glanced up at his face to see how he was accepting the experience. His dark-brown eyes remained serene, the lids drooping a bit, as if he was hypnotizing himself. But his mouth had acquired a certain grim set in the smooth and beardless face, suggesting he felt some discomfort.

She continued laying the leeches over his thin, hairless arms and legs, back and stomach. She soon noticed an odd reaction: each time one of the flat, moist bodies with its round, sucking mouth and three crystal teeth came close to Rydin’s skin, his flesh actually rippled and curled away, as if trying to avoid contact.

“You’re doing fine,” she said, halfway through.

“I know. This is really unpleasant.”

“Just wait. It gets worse.”

When the leeches were in place, the dottoressa picked up the empty tray and moved to the door.

“The field is pressure activated,” she said. “You just step into it—but get ready for the equilibrium change. Tell Homardi if you want those restraints. He can activate them from within the field. When the biota are finished, they’ll fall off. Just nudge them out of the field.”

Rydin nodded. “I can feel each of the bites now,” he said. “They’re … burning.”

“That must be psychosomatic. These Hirudo have been modified to add an anesthetic to their saliva.”

“It still hurts.”

“Just push the pain down and away,” she suggested. She let the door start to close itself. “Well … good luck.”

Gerbus could offer no more encouragement. For the next three days, Rydin would suffer the flaming tortures of a mythical second-millennium Hell.

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