by Gustavo Bondoni
The nearest mammoth bull reared up, aggressive pose indicating that he was master of all he surveyed. Behind him, the lead female brushed aside a recalcitrant bush with her colossal head. Nothing would stand in the way of this herd.
And yet something had, millennia ago. Something had transformed these magnificent beasts of the northern steppes into nothing more than a memory. The man who’d created the life-sized holosculpture was a great artist, but he would have had to be much more to bring his subjects to life.
Dr. Hideki Noda stared sadly at the raging bull. Mammoths should have been easy. The genome was mapped, the sperm and ova could be replicated and fertilization took place. And yet, he’d been completely unable to produce cloned mammoths of any kind. In vitro incubation invariably led to miscarriage, no matter what temperature was used. Implantation into elephants led to… elephants with strange bone structures. It was enough to make even the most jaded scientist cry, more than once in his own case.
A vibration in his right ear brought him out of his reverie. “I’m sorry to disturb you doctor, but there’s a young lady here to see you. She doesn’t have an appointment, but she’s very insistent.” Noriko’s voice seemed to reverberate inside his head, making him think it might be time to have his implants upgraded.
“Does this young lady have a name?”
“Yes, she says her name is Sarah Patrick, and that she’s a viral geneticist.”
“Please ask her to get an appointment.”
Sarah Patrick. Yes, he recalled the name. She’d been trying to get onto his holoconference schedule for over a year, but he’d always declined to see her. After all, while viral genetics was probably the noblest of the sciences – millions of lives were saved every year because of it – there was truly not much it could teach the world’s foremost expert in complex-organism genetics. He could only conclude that she either wanted his help climbing the scientific ladder or she wanted to say that she’d met him. He had time for neither.
Yet she’d flown out to Japan on the off chance that he might allow her to see him. It was enough to make him curious; he made a mental note to allow her fifteen minutes the next time she applied.
It most certainly wasn’t enough to make him regret sending her away. The only way he would solve the mammoth problem was if he allowed himself a good chunk of unstructured time to think about it. His few free moments, those precious minutes which a grateful world was unable to pry from him, were dedicated to this one final project. The people of earth might remember him for the protein whale, but he wanted to leave a more artistic legacy.
Sadly, the time he’d allotted to thinking was past, and he was no closer to the moment of inspiration that would allow him defeat the problem.
His responsibilities, heavy and unwanted and critical to the world, beckoned cruelly, and he wondered what today’s progress meeting held in store. Would it be yet another request from some interest group for him to support their research? Or would some religious faction ask him to make some changes to the protein whales’ DNA so that it would be more acceptable for their followers to eat the meat? Probably not. It was more likely just another meeting in which a hundred delegates would bombard him with yield numbers and hope he would give them a smile and tell them to go to the head of the class. He’d do so, of course – motivation here wasn’t just a question of economics. Lives were at stake: happy delegates pushing for expanded harvests meant more food for everyone.
Hideki crossed the glass-covered foyer, barely acknowledging the respectful smiles and greetings he received, and turned left along the corridor that led to the principal conference room. He could already hear the buzz of conversation from the well-attended meeting that would begin as soon as he arrived.
He imagined it: silence would fall as soon as he crossed the threshold and everyone would rise, composing their faces, trying to show a respectful front to the man responsible for banishing hunger from the face of the Earth. They would probably even recount, for the benefit of those delegates who were attending for the first time, the history of how Noda and his team had created the protein whale: an aquatic animal the size of a sperm whale whose meat was currently meeting the energy and protein requirements of nearly every human on the planet.
They’d gloss over the fact that the animal itself was a genetic Frankenstein whose DNA was part whale, part cow and more than a little soybean and insect and concentrate on the fact that its capacity for quick growth made it the ideal farm animal, and the fact that it could survive on the choking algae that had become prevalent back when the seas were polluted. He’d heard it before, countless times.
Half-way down the corridor, he realized that he didn’t want to hear it again. Hadn’t he done enough for humanity? He was being credited with solving the food crisis and stabilizing the political situation in every third-world nation. Did he really have to be a slave to interminable meetings as well?
“Noriko,” he subvocalized, “please inform the committee that I will not be attending the meeting today.”
“Yes, Dr. Noda. Is there any reason you’d like me to give them?”
Noriko was a treasure. No questions, no doubt, just pure, can-do efficiency. He was tempted to tell the committee that he’d decided to go for a walk, but instead replied, “Tell them I’m indisposed, and that I send them my deepest apologies.” He walked past the meeting-room door and onwards along the corridor. He could see sunshine illuminating the far end through the door that led to the complex’s back garden. Hideki redoubled his pace.
The garden was stunning. The late spring sun beat down on the small lawn behind the building, creating the illusion of an emerald carpet. Beyond it was a more traditional Japanese garden, complete with a thin stream and two pleasingly contrasting bridges. Tall trees lined the fences and clearly marked the limits of the complex.
Noda took a deep breath, trying to ignore the smell of the city beyond and simply become one with the natural scent of the garden itself. He’d ordered it built when the new building went up, at astronomical land cost. He’d argued that the garden would pay for itself many times over, by allowing the scientists to take a moment to breathe, and to think – and thereby to shave weeks off of projects when insight struck.
As he walked the expertly diagrammed paths, Hideki recalled why he used to spend so much time there, before the artists had completed the mammoth hologram. He could feel himself growing more and more relaxed with each step, actually feel the data regarding whale yields and algae banks slipping out of his head.
But something was amiss. In this tiny slice of nirvana, an unidentified intrusion seemed to want to force its way in. Hideki stopped on one of the bridges, fixed his gaze on the slowly running water and tried to understand what it might be. He let the world flow around him as the warm breeze caressed his arms. And then he knew.
Somewhere beyond the trees, the sound of chanting could be heard: rhythmic, repetitive, insistent. It reached him as a mere whisper, a suggestion on the wind. Normally, such a soft sound would never have been enough to disturb his meditations, but somewhere in his subconscious, the link between that sound and the inevitable protesters came to the fore. His subconscious remembered the days when starving masses came to his door every day, demanding that he release the protein whales already in captivity to feed them. No matter how many times he explained that the whale population needed to grow without culling for years in order to become self-sustaining and feed the world forever, they kept coming back the next day.
They used to leave their dead outside the vehicle entrance to the complex – as far as the heavily armed security detail allowed them to come.
He walked around the building, towards the gate. He thought that hungry masses were a thing of the distant past. His calculations proved that there should be no lack of nutrition, even for the lowliest inhabitant of the most remote village in sub-Saharan Africa. He turned the last corner, expecting to see a mob like those from his memories, all weak motions, anger and painfully visible ribs. He almost laughed out loud when the truth sank in.
The protester group consisted of what looked like college students. Most of them were young, most of them were well-dressed, and every single one of them looked extremely well fed. One thing that caught his eye immediately was that there were a huge number of Europeans in the mix – many more than one would normally expect from a crowd on the outskirts of Tokyo.
That was a dead giveaway. Only two or three European groups were against his work, all of them on the grounds that his genetically modified species was displacing the true ecology of the planet. They had no evidence to support this, of course, and most serious studies indicated quite the contrary, that the protein whales, in keeping down mutated algae, were actually helping the planet regain its biological equilibrium, but that didn’t stop them from recruiting huge numbers of volunteers from among the less-informed. Idealism and ignorance, always a touchy combination.
Hideki set his jaw and decided to deal with this the way he’d always dealt with protestors: head-on, armed with compassion, but also with facts. He made a beeline for the nearest gate.
The guard on duty wasn’t happy with his request. He attempted to explain politely that the crowd outside didn’t look like it had much patience, but Hideki brushed the objections aside. He’d dealt with people who were actually starving and, though they never quite saw eye to eye, he’d at least been able to make them understand the reasons upholding his position.
The barred door buzzed open, but the crowd seemed to take a while to react to his presence. At first, only a few people even noticed the door was open, and turned to see why it had opened. He saw shock on the faces of some of the nearest protesters as they recognized him, and soon enough the whole crowd was abuzz. He heard his name repeated, carried along to the front gates of the complex, where the crowd was thickest and most European. He walked in their direction.
For someone who’d lived through this before, it was easy to tell when word of his presence reached the leaders: it was when the nucleus of loud chanting nearest the entrance splintered. A few lieutenants were left to hold the position, but a very determined group was pushing through the crowds in his direction.
Moments later, Hideki faced a small knot of demonstrators, and immediately began to wonder whether he’d made a mistake in asking the guard to let him out unprotected. (He knew he was going to catch hell for it from Noriko, no matter what happened next, and probably from his security detail, too.) The man who stood in front of him was not what he’d become used to dealing with in the earlier demonstrations. Then, it had been desperate people looking for a solution to their trouble, but willing to listen. This guy didn’t seem willing to listen; he looked like a man with all the answers.
He wasn’t a young man, possibly mid-forties, but hard, tanned and fit, with cold blue eyes and short graying hair. “Dr. Noda, what a surprise. How nice of you to join us.” His accent sounded German, or possibly Scandinavian. “I suppose you’ve come to explain yourself?”
Noda pulled himself up to his full height, still disappointingly short of the other man’s. “I don’t need to explain myself. I think everyone knows what I’ve done, why I’ve done it, and the benefits it has brought to mankind.” He held the leader’s gaze. “But I would be happy to listen to your concerns and answer your questions.”
The man reacted as if he’d been slapped. “Listen to our concerns? Perhaps you should have listened to our concerns before we had to come all the way to Japan to speak to you in person. We’ve petitioned for changes in your processes countless times.”
“I’m sorry. I know that’s probably true, but if we created new processes every time someone asked us to, we would be completely unable to work towards our true goals, such as making certain that everyone on this planet has enough to eat. For that reason, I do not personally oversee the resolution of every conflict, only those that are a concern for more than one percent of the population.”
“How convenient. That way you can criminally ignore the concerns of the very few people who actually know and understand the consequences of what you’re doing.”
Oh, so it was one of those groups. “Which consequences?”
“Your wanton destruction of the balance of nature!”
Hideki was not surprised. Saddened, but not surprised. “How can you say that? Every single environmental group, even the true crazies, agrees that the marine environment is returning to its natural state faster than ever. Not only do protein whales feed on the alga that was choking the native life of the oceans, they also make it unnecessary to fish other species for food. We’re rediscovering species we’d thought were extinct every week – there hasn’t been this much self-sustaining biodiversity there in a hundred years!”
“The algae are there for a reason. Earth knows how to regulate itself!” The man was screaming now, eyes wide. The group nearest him seemed to believe everything he said, except for one, a curly-haired girl towards the back, who was obviously fighting to maintain a neutral expression while still seeming to fit in. “You’re just turning the ocean into the new Pampas. There, biodiversity was sacrificed on the altar of the almighty cow; here, it will be the protein whale.”
Noda was about to explain calmly, carefully that the biodiversity of the bovine-producing countries was coming back as the world’s population needed less and less cow meat when one of the followers pushed through the crowd screaming “It’s all his fault! He’s murdering the sea!” He grabbed Hideki’s tie and pulled. Noda stumbled into the group, bouncing into the leader and being pummeled by the followers. He tried to look over them but they were too tall, tried to escape, but they were too big. All of them had the unfamiliar features of Europeans, so cold, so bland, so undefined.
He waited for help from his security team, but none came. A final fist connected with his chin and the world went dark.
The world was still dark when he awoke, although he was lying on something soft which, in the dim light that gradually began to penetrate the fuzziness, turned out to be a bed. As more shapes resolved themselves, Hideki saw that he was in a hotel room – one of those large, luxurious ones.
He had to stifle a laugh. This was so typical of the new generation of protesters. While their predecessors had roughed it, living in tents in the freezing cold and rushing police barricades, the current crop, knowing their life expectancy was well over ninety years, played it safe. Kidnapping a defenseless old man was as far as they would go.
And when they had to stash him somewhere, they chose a hotel room, complete with dark forms that Hideki could identify as a minibar and a wide angle tri-d set. How Lenin would have sneered!
But despite the ridiculous outward nature of the situation, he knew his position was serious. There was no denying that he was under the power of a group of lunatics from the very extreme fringe of the eco-nuts, and that they’d already shown themselves to be both irrational and violent.
He wasn’t too worried, though. The comm implants would tell everyone who wanted to know that he was alive, as well as his current location. He activated the system by subvocalizing the word Noriko. A dial tone image appeared.
“You don’t want to do that, Dr. Noda.” The voice, rough and masculine, came from the deepest shadows of the room, causing Noda to sit up with a start. “Your personal unit isn’t strong enough to get through our block-lock. And it might make us mad.”
Noda turned his head towards the voice, wondering what they’d do if he tried to sit up. He could now see a figure seated on a chair in the darkest corner. He’d been so still that Hideki had completely missed him, but the human shape was obvious now that he knew it was there.
“Oh, so you are guarding me. I was beginning to believe you’d abandoned me here.”
“That’s funny, Doctor. I don’t think Thomas wants us to abandon you yet.”
Thomas, pronounced with the accent on the second syllable. Hideki thought it was probably the name of the poor misguided leader of this less than honorable pack. “That doesn’t sound very smart to me. Does he really think he or any of you will be able to get out of Japan once the police look through the security tapes?” Noda knew that arguing with the man would get him nowhere. Guards were chosen because they were too far down the food chain to make any decisions and because they had little or no imagination.
He heard the man shrug in the dark. “I don’t really care. I wasn’t at the rally, and I came in on a different flight. I had a feeling something like this might happen.”
All right, maybe he wasn’t guard material.
“But,” the guard went on, “I doubt he’ll care either. With you here, he has what he wants – everything he’s been after all those years. His heart seems to be in the right place from an ecological point of view, but he is a bit obsessive.”
“And what are you, exactly?”
“Me? I’m just a guard. Now please be quiet or I might have to gag you.”
Yeah, right, Hideki thought. The man was as much a guard as Hideki was a Sumo wrestler, but it seemed there was little to gain in arguing with him. He did as he was told.
A while later – Noda couldn’t have guessed whether it was ten minutes or an hour – someone knocked on the door. The guard stood up and opened it. Noda saw a silhouette in the passageway, a tallish woman with curly hair. “Thomas asked me to come take over. He wants to see you.” This accent was unmistakably American.
“And who, exactly, are you?”
“And why would Thomas trust you to guard our most precious hostage? I’ve never seen you before in my life.”
“Er… I’d rather not talk about it.”
The guard chuckled, a short, guttural noise. “Typical Thomas. Are you sure you can deal with him?”
“I don’t think he’ll get violent. Besides, Thomas gave me this.” Noda saw a hand reach into a pocket, but was unable to see what emerged.
Whatever it was, the guard seemed satisfied. “All right, but be careful.” He walked into the corridor, closing the door behind him.
“And who are you?” Hideki asked his new captor.
The girl laughed. “Let’s just say I’m your best friend right now. Are you well enough to walk? We don’t have much time.”
“Walk? Why would I need to walk? Are you going to let me go free?”
“I’m damn well going to try.”
But the woman wasn’t listening to him. She’d opened the door a crack and was looking down the corridor. “Come on!”
Hideki obeyed. The thought crossed his mind that he might be putting himself into the clutches of a splinter group – possibly even more hard-core and extreme than the people who had already shown a willingness to kidnap him – but he shouted it down. A small hope of escape was better than none at all.
They walked down the hallway in the direction opposite the guard. Hodeki had to stifle an urge to skulk, which would have been a dead giveaway. Soon enough, they came to a door to the fire stairs, at the very end of the corridor.
“If the alarm goes off when we open the door, run.”
Hideki nodded, and the woman pushed the bar. To their relief, no sirens sounded as the air from the pressurized stairwell brushed their hair aside. It would, however, be safe to assume that a light was blinking on a panel somewhere in the hotel’s security office. Someone would be around to investigate, sooner rather than later.
They ran down three flights and came to a door labeled ‘Emergency Exit’, at which the girl didn’t even slow down. They burst through and found themselves in an alley behind the hotel, clean as only a Japanese alley could be, but narrow. To one side Hideki could see movement, a busy street. The girl led him the other way. He rushed to catch up.
“Thank you,” he said, but she just walked on. “You never did tell me your name,” he insisted.
“My name doesn’t matter,” she said. “What matters is that, when you reach the corner, we’ll be half a block away from a traffic policeman. You’ll be safe.”
At that moment, shouts erupted behind them. A gravelly voice was unmistakable among them. Hideki turned, and saw the guard – easy to recognize despite the fact that the darkness had previously hidden his features – leading the chase, with Thomas behind him, in a strangely submissive attitude. They sped up.
Just before the corner, Hideki’s benefactor turned an ankle on a curb and plunged forward, breaking her fall with her hands. Hideki stopped and attempted to get her back on her feet, but he was too late. Their pursuers were upon them almost immediately.
The guard’s big hands pulled Hideki away from her and turned him around to face him. This man wasn’t quite as large as Thomas, and he didn’t look European – possibly Latin American – but his eyes were harder. Unlike Thomas’s dead eyes, these were full of fury.
“I warned you not to run,” the man panted.
Hideki ignored him. “I don’t want to waste my time talking to some guard.” He turned to Thomas. “What do you say? This has gone far enough. Tell me what your group wants and I’ll put together a meeting with my analysis people. I’m certain we can deal with this in a more civilized way.”
The guard moved over, blocking Hideki’s view of the Scandinavian. “His little group is of no consequence,” the man said. “As you observed before, they’re just a bunch of lunatics who are obsessed with very inconsequential things.” Thomas’ eyes blazed, but he said nothing.
So that’s how it is, Hideki thought. “Ah. And who are you?”
“I am a businessman. I’d like to make an offer.”
Hideki snorted. “Yes, I can see that now. The best way to arrange a meeting is to violently kidnap the person you’re trying to do business with. You must not get too many repeat customers.” Even as the words left his mouth, Hideki was surprised at the crude and undignified form of expression, worlds away from his habitual reserve. But he was even more surprised by how right it felt.
The would-be businessman hung his head. “I know. As I said before, Thomas’ group is often a bit overzealous. They were the ideal tool to make some noise, make you take notice and give me some time on your schedule. But when they saw you, emotion overcame them. They really believe that you need to be controlled.”
Hideki sighed. Everyone seemed to believe that he ran the way food was managed and distributed. The press had made him out to be some kind of omnipotent hero, and no one seemed to want to understand that he was just a genetic engineer. He could design organisms and recommend strategies for breeding them, but resource allocation was well beyond his responsibilities. “Why didn’t you get an appointment?” This man, a person who could fly protesters from Europe, should have had the pull to get an appointment.
The man laughed. “I did. They gave me a spot two years from now. Do you have any idea how hard it is to get on your schedule?”
“You can say that again,” the woman who’d rescued him chimed in.
Hideki turned to face her. “Once again, who are you?”
Thomas stepped forward, bitterness written on his face – the first emotion Noda had seen there. “Her name is Sarah Patrick, and she’s a traitor.”
“You’re Sarah Patrick?” Hideki asked, remembering the earlier conversation with Noriko. “The viral geneticist? And you’re with them?”
The young woman held up her hands, palms outward. “Technically, I’m not with them. I’m with Thomas – make that I was with Thomas. Met him on the airplane, actually.”
“To think I thought you believed in us.”
“Is that all you care about? I believe that some kind of public oversight needs to exist on the activities of the committee, but I certainly don’t think you should be kidnapping prominent scientists to get that done.”
“Any method is valid to save the planet.”
Sarah rolled her eyes and addressed Hideki. “As I said, I was with Thomas. But the reason I wanted to see you had nothing whatsoever to do with this bunch of lunatics. I guess there’s no chance of that now.”
Hideki turned back to the businessman. “I suppose you’re going to take me back into the hotel, now.”
The man thought for a second. “No. There are two of you now, and we’re in enough trouble as it is. Besides, when you ran out of the room, you went out of the range of our communications interdictor – which is still in the room. I assume your people are just about on top of us.”
Hideki nodded and turned away. He resisted the urge to run, covering the ten meters to the corner at a stately pace. Only when he was most of the way to the traffic cop did he realize that Sarah Patrick was behind him. He slowed and let her catch up. “I never got the chance to thank you for getting me free.”
She nodded. “I just wish I’d been able to prevent it. That way, maybe I’d have been able to get onto your schedule sometime.”
Hideki took a deep breath. It had been a strange day. And if he went back to the complex, they’d all be fussing over him. He took a deep breath. “Why don’t we talk about it now? I’m free all afternoon.”
Her eyes widened. “Really? I need to show you something about a hundred kilometers north.”
“Well, technically, I absolutely don’t have time to do that, but I don’t quite feel like going back just yet.” He smiled. “Do you mind if I bring a few of my security people with me?”
Sarah laughed. “Not at all.”
Upon entering the complex, Hideki couldn’t believe that this place existed so close to Tokyo. A sprawling tree-filled park, which doubled as a private zoo. From the outside, tall grey walls kept prying eyes from suspecting what it contained: it looked like a soulless industrial park.
Yet there was a magnificent private home, gardens, water, nature inside. Paradise on Earth.
Hideki ignored it all. His eyes were fixed on what he saw in front of him. “A wooly mammoth,” he whispered. “And it’s alive!” The beast was magnificent, a juvenile with dark brown hair and short tusks, and any doubts he might have had regarding its existence were dispelled by the smell of wet fur.
Sarah, standing between Noda and the park’s owner, the reclusive billionaire Satoru Mutoh, beamed with pride. “Not quite,” she explained. Right now, it’s more like a wooly elephant, but we’re getting there. All we need is your help.”
“But how…” Noda knew every scientist working on cloning mammoths, and he’d never seen, read or heard about anything this close to success.
“Smoke and mirrors, mostly. We injected a regular elephant with a virus that worked on activating dormant alleles. That’s how we got the hair. But if you look at the bone structure, you’ll find more elephant than mammoth there. We also activated some other mammoth traits, less visible ones, like as digestive processes and such.”
Sarah paused, letting the information, and its implications sink in before continuing. “But I thought that, if we use the same techniques on one of those mammoths you already cloned – the ones that look like elephants–”
She never got to finish. Hideki turned away from her and commed his assistant. “Noriko, I need you to reschedule all of my appointments.”
“For how long?”
“Let’s say… the next two months. If I need any more, I’ll let you know.”
“Yes Dr. Noda.”
The wooly elephant, having realized that these humans weren’t there to feed it, wandered off. Hideki never took his eyes off of it until it disappeared behind some trees.
Copyright © 2013 by Gustavo Bondoni
Gustavo Bondoni was born in Argentina and is probably the only current Argentinean fiction writer writing primarily in English. He moved to the US at the age of three because his father worked for a multinational company that caused the family to live, among others, in Miami, Zurich, and Cincinnati. He came back to Buenos Aires at the age of twelve. His writing spans the range from science fiction to mainstream stories, passing through sword & sorcery and magic realism along the way, and it has been published in five countries and three languages to date.
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