The illicit words escaped into the sterile air of the culture chamber.
Roz’s stomach clenched and she clapped a hand over her mouth, simultaneously squeezing her nostril flaps shut. Her eyes raked the splicing lab, visible through the transparent sheet wall. Had anybody heard?
More crucially, had she expelled any germs along with her words? Most pathogens had been eliminated from the closed environment before the worldship left Earth, but a small number had hitched a ride, and it was their presence that required Roz’s specific genetic modification—the nostril flaps of the grey seal—which sealed her breath within her lungs for as long as she worked inside the chamber.
And now one startled exclamation might have brought ruin to the twenty fragile lives under her care. All she could do was hope that luck was on her side. So far it smiled upon her—no one had looked her way, her misdemeanour going unremarked.
If only she could be as fortunate with the microbes.
With trembling hands, she raised the dish of nutrient gel to eye level. The eight shrivelled cells that had once been a viable embryo were too small for her to see with her naked vision, but under the lens she used for stem cell harvesting, the evidence had been painfully clear; there was no coming back from that level of desiccation.
But why? Roz was certain she’d programmed the nutrient stream correctly; it wasn’t as if this was the first time she’d prepared a source embryo for harvest; it was an integral part of her working life.
Cycling back through decon with the dish still in her hand seemed to take forever, and before she was through, someone noticed. By the time she stepped back into the lab proper, all the techs had gathered around, shock and sorrow dragging their faces down.
She nodded, a tear trickling down her cheek. “Yes, it’s David. I’ve no idea why.”
Her supervisor, Splicer Chao-xing, pushed through the crowd, anger pinching the small woman’s delicate features. Roz cringed.
“You must have made a mistake,” Chao-xing accused. “Did you check the nutrient levels?”
Roz’s hands shook even harder, and someone gently removed the dish containing the dead embryo from her grasp before she could drop it. With stiff shoulders, Roz marched over to her work station and pointed at the readouts.
“See? No mistake.”
Chao-xing leaned in close to study the control panel, her jaw tightening when she found nothing to criticise. She moved to the next console where she made a deliberate show of inspecting the levels of the hormone mix being fed into the general water supply. The concoction, which kept the GM population of the worldship sterile, was on a completely separate system, and could never have contaminated the embryos’ discrete nutrient supply, but she checked it anyway.
“Hmph. There must be an explanation.” She glared up at Roz, intimidating despite standing only as tall as Roz’s shoulder. “Find it,” she ordered, and stormed back to her work, the many slender tendrils she possessed in place of fingers knotting in a visible display of annoyance.
Roz shook her head and wondered, not for the first time, how someone so small could be so menacing.
When Roz had first entered the hallowed world of the gene splicers as a young tech assistant, she’d been wide-eyed with awe, and proud that she’d been designed to be a part of the worldship’s elite and not one of its menials. Even better, she was part of the generation—gen 312—that was destined to oversee the resurrection of the human race, just as soon as the worldship made landfall on the promised planet.
But now, despite a rapid climb in rank to senior lab tech, the highest position available to a non-splicer, that shiny new excitement had tarnished and turned to disillusionment when the predicted arrival date came and went with no sign of a habitable solar system. The journey continued with no end in sight. The pilots had no answer. Unknown variables must have affected the calculation, they said; no way to predict when they would arrive.
So the splicers continued creating GM humans to take the place of the increasing tech failures in apparatus made to last only as long as the planned voyage. Already the original four splicing labs had been forced to amalgamate, with only enough equipment left now to operate one. Without a way for the worldship to garner physical material for replacement parts, it relied increasingly on genetech.
“We’ll have to inform all the male D’s,” a sorrowful voice intoned behind her, bringing Roz back to the immediate situation. David was dead, his line at an end. If the voyage continued, it would be several gens before a D designation was used again.
Roz glanced towards the incubator housing her own progenitor, Rachel, as one of the techs stumbled forward.
“I’m a D,” he choked out.
“Oh, Daniel, of course you are! We are all so sorry for your loss.”
As the techs made plans for a memorial service, Roz turned her attention back to her readouts. Surely the answer must be there. Her nimble fingers raced across her control panel, trying everything she could think of, but in the end she could find no answer.
A shadow fell across her workstation and Roz glanced up. Chao-xing stood over her.
“We need to cultivate another embryo; you are authorised to enter Store N5 and withdraw a male DNA sample.”
Roz blinked up at the woman; had the splicers no compassion? David was not yet disposed of, and they were ordering a replacement.
Compassion. What an alien concept to the splicers. They were scientists, creators of whatever GM individual the worldship’s maintenance required. They were almost gods, in that respect. No one existed that they had not designed and created, splicing genes from whichever animal or plant species they deemed appropriate into the human DNA that was the raw material of their craft.
They didn’t see the embryos as potential people, not as Roz did. Even knowing that those small bundles of cells were at too early a stage in their development to feel awareness or pain, still they were the building blocks of individual human beings. Deep down, Roz harboured the conviction that the endless forced replication of source embryos for harvesting was just plain wrong. Even if the creation of the GM workforce was essential to maintain the worldship, surely there should be a limit to the number of times an embryo could be split: there should be a point at which it was allowed to grow on and develop into the person it was destined to become, before it suffered the same fate as David.
Indignant and angry with Chao-xing’s attitude, Roz rose to leave.
Perhaps the time to act had arrived.
* * * * * * *
Roz sidled in at the back of the crowded meeting hall and slid onto a chair in the hope that nobody would notice her arrival. The wooden seat creaked a protest as she perched on its front edge, and she drew a couple of deep breaths to settle her pounding heart. Accustomed to the sterile atmosphere in the lab, she almost choked on air thick with the smells of so many bodies.
She glanced from side to side to check who else was there, and met a pair of beautiful velvet brown eyes, almond-shaped above sculpted cheek bones. Sam’s lips curved up, and her stomach flip-flopped. She’d met him at her second meeting, and they’d made an instant connection, though under normal circumstances their paths would never have crossed. As a gardener, Sam’s was not a profession normally found in the social circle of a lab tech, but these secretive gatherings defied the usual conventions, and for that, she was glad. Their relationship was blossoming fast, and even as Sam smiled at her, Roz’s mind was darting ahead, imagining how his unique, fuzzy-tipped fingers might feel against her bare flesh. The tech side of her brain speculated what genes might have produced the specialised modification that allowed Sam to pollinate plants with just his finger tips.
Just then, Garth, the huge man responsible for instigating the budding revolution, rose to his feet at the front of the hall, towering over everyone else, even those still on their feet. Roz’s face snapped forward, severing the delicious promise in Sam’s gaze. The assembly—several hundred, by Roz’s reckoning—settled into reverent silence, overawed by the spectacle that was their leader. With the dense double muscling of his bovine GM bulging beneath his skin, Garth looked like he could take on the world and win. Charolais genes, a mutation that had proven fortuitous for the beef industry, supplied the tech side of Roz’s mind. Sometimes she wished she could switch it off.
She’d seen countless modifications, but few as visually impressive as Garth’s. Specially designed for heavy lifting, his super-manly physique had quite swept her off her feet when they’d first met, but things had not gone so well thereafter. She crossed her legs and squeezed her thighs together, recalling their embarrassing attempt at sex.
She’d heard all the jokes about ‘size matters’, but she didn’t think that was quite what they meant.
“Friends,” boomed Garth’s deep voice. “Fellow slaves to the splicers, are we ready to carve out our own destinies?”
Masses of people lunged to their feet, roaring their support while Roz squirmed in her seat. No one on the worldship was really a slave, but once this group had named themselves so, they’d clasped the identity to their bosoms as a rallying cry for all GMs designed for menial labour.
Apart from the splicers, the lab techs, and the ship’s skeleton crew, that meant pretty much all of the worldship’s inhabitants. There were no pure humans on board; at least, not in human form. They existed solely as DNA, thousands upon thousands of minute samples, reverently preserved and stored in sealed containers throughout the ship, spread around to minimise the risk of any catastrophe short of the ship’s total demise.
The seeds to restart life on a new world.
Roz dragged her wandering thoughts back into the packed meeting room. Garth was holding forth in the confident manner that had so impressed her when they’d first met, although she had her suspicions that such a chance meeting might not have been chance after all, nor Garth’s attentions fully genuine. He had a plan, and Roz was his key component.
“We must tear the lab down, and smash everything until no splicing can ever be done again. Human beings were not designed to do the tasks they make us for. Look around you, my friends—we are so accustomed to seeing our modifications that they seem normal. But that does not make it right! We come from pure stock, untainted human genomes, warped by the genes spliced into us to create monsters. Should we allow this to continue? I say no. What say you?”
More howls of approval almost drowned the few dissenters, but Garth noticed the doubters and held up a hand for silence. He was fair-minded, Roz couldn’t fault him on that score; he was always willing to hear differing viewpoints.
“Rita, you don’t agree?”
Roz craned her neck, peering through the crowd for a glimpse of her genetic sibling— another of Rachel’s offspring—and was rewarded when Rita stood up. It was eerily akin to looking into a slightly distorted mirror. Rita’s skin glowed with the same rich earthy brown complexion as Roz’s. The broad brow, the tightly curling black hair, the round face and full lips; all the same. Only the nasal shape was different; no seal flaps for Rita, just a plain, straightforward human nose. Rita’s GM was apparent only in the eteliolated slenderness of her physique, suited to fitting through narrow gaps and probably down pipes where no one else would be able to venture.
“What’s the point?” Rita asked, her voice a reedy imitation of Roz’s own. “Even if we were able to destroy the lab, what then? It’s not as if we can change what we are.”
Garth’s face took on a patient mien. “No, we can’t. But we can stop them from ever making others like us.”
“But if the splicers don’t produce any more children, who will run the ship?”
The question came from deep in the crowd, asking the very question to which Roz had the answer. Losing her inhibitions in her eagerness to reply, she surged to her feet.
“We don’t need splicers to produce children—we only need to allow our progenitors to develop! For centuries they’ve provided the genetic material from which we are all formed; isn’t it about time they were given the chance to grow on and become adults?”
Rita turned to face her. “I don’t see how that will help. They’ll only make one more generation, and we don’t know how much longer this voyage will take—it’s already over schedule, isn’t it? Have they found the new world yet?
“You’re missing the point,” said Roz, getting into her stride. “Pure humans can procreate and produce future gens in the good old-fashioned way described in our archives.”
“Really?” Rita sounded sceptical. “We can’t. What makes you so certain it’ll be different for them?”
Sidestepping the real answer—that the GM population would be able to reproduce just as readily as pure humans, if they didn’t consume hormone suppressants every day of their lives—she offered the standard spin.
“Because there’s nothing to stop them. They don’t have the incompatible chromosomes, ribosomes or enzymes that we do; there’s absolutely no reason why they shouldn’t have offspring naturally.”
Garth beamed his approval. This wasn’t the reason Roz was crucial to his plans, but his appreciation of her backing radiated from his smile.
Silence fell in the wake of Roz’s speech, and her heart began to thunder as she realised that everyone had turned to look at her. She swallowed, fighting the urge to flee the meeting and regain her anonymity.
Garth never gave her that chance.
“I hope that quells your doubts?” he asked, beckoning for Roz to come and join him on the platform at the front. On legs that suddenly seemed to resemble jelly, she tottered towards him as another voice raised the question she knew Garth was about to answer with her help.
“But how can we get in there? We’ve been talking about this for generations, even before the labs amalgamated. Talk is easy, but without access it’s all a pointless waste of breath.”
“And that,” began Garth, taking Roz’s small hand in his huge fingers and drawing her up to stand beside him, “is why this lady is here. Allow me to introduce you all to Roz. She’s a tech employed in the splicing lab.”
For a moment the stunned crowd was silent. In that brief hush, Roz wondered if she’d made a terrible mistake. Perhaps they would satisfy themselves with tearing her to pieces, in lieu of the supposedly impregnable lab.
Next second, a barrage of noise slapped her squarely across the face. Cheers, jeers and questions all vied for dominance. Garth motioned for quiet as Roz sidled closer to his powerful form for protection.
“Why should we trust her?”
Garth heaved a deep sigh, making clear his disappointment. Roz could almost see the words: ‘because I say so’ hovering on his lips, but he restrained himself.
“Because she wants change,” he said instead. “Because she wants to see the embryos they harvest allowed to grow into the human beings they were destined to be. And because she wants the infants and children in the crèche right now to be the last monsters produced by the splicers.”
“Chimeras, not monsters,” muttered Roz, but the swell of approbation from the crowd drowned her out. Garth held up a hand again, and quiet descended. Heart pounding against her ribs, Roz forced herself to step forward.
“It’s as Garth says. I’m sick of the splicer’s callousness; I don’t believe the architects of this mission ever meant for the embryos to be harvested for as long as they are now, and it’s killing them. David died today and—”
Once more, Roz’s voice was drowned out. She could feel the shockwaves of her announcement rebounding around the room, punctuated by wailing from those she guessed to be David’s offspring. Even Garth struggled to regain order in the wake of such news, and the mood of the gathering shifted perceptibly from discussion to militancy.
In that instant, Roz realised there was no going back; she’d made her choice when she’d decided to attend the meeting, and her words had sealed the pact. She was about to betray the splicers, the very people she’d been designed to assist and raised to work alongside. And all for the sake of a few tiny cells of living matter.
People, she reiterated inside her head. Those microscopic cells have the potential to become real people—in fact, more real than we are.
“When can we do it?”
Garth’s face swam across her vision, and Roz realised she was crying, welling up with conflicting emotions. Relief, joy and terror all rolled together. She scrubbed a hand across her face, feeling the contours of her nasal flaps as she wiped away her tears.
She was doing the right thing, she was sure of it.
Burying any lingering concerns, she raised a fist and miraculously the room fell quite.
“Tomorrow,” she declared. “Tomorrow we will destroy the last remaining splicing equipment and allow the embryos—”
The roar of approval cut off her final words, but Roz understood that her fellow revolutionaries were simply too excited to let her finish.
She turned to Garth, catching his sleeve as he moved away from her.
“Nobody’s going to get hurt, right? And you will make sure the embryos are safe, won’t you? Their environment is so fragile.”
Tugging his sleeve from her grasp and turning away, Garth waved at a couple of his lieutenants and pointed at certain people in the crowd.
“Yes, yes. Of course,” he threw over his shoulder as he stepped down from the platform. “We’ll talk details later.”
Left alone on the raised dais, Roz surveyed the heaving mob of menials as Garth waded through them, gathering his task force.
They’re not details, she grumbled to herself, they’re people.
Or they would be, after tomorrow. No matter how difficult things might become without a modified workforce, Roz was certain that they would find a way to cope. Human beings were resourceful. Hopefully more resourceful than their chimera offspring.
This is the right thing to do, she repeated inside her head, it is the right thing to do.
* * * * * * *
With absolute conviction that the word traitor was inked across her face for all to see, Roz kept her head down as she entered the lab and scuttled across to her work station. She sucked air into her lungs as if she’d done a serious workout, and her hands shook so badly she struggled to work her console’s delicate controls. Her mind flitted stubbornly from topic to topic, refusing to focus. She had no idea what she might say if Chao-xing showed up to find out why she hadn’t yet begun cultivating a new DNA sample.
As her respiration started to settle and the world beyond her guilty feelings re-emerged, she became aware of a conversation behind her. Ice trickled down her spine as she identified the voices as two splicers.
“Did we make a mistake with gen 312, allocating them those extra few IQ points?”
“Maybe we did, but we were following the colonisation plan; how were we supposed to know they got the calculations wrong? It’s not our fault.”
“Well I, for one, am worried; I’ve heard rumours of secret meetings and a plot to take over the ship. Before now I’d have laughed it off, but this gen has the brains to do it.”
Sweat trickled down Roz’s back, and when a hand alighted on her shoulder, she almost leaped out of her chair.
“In a world of your own were you, Roz? Daydreams make for mistakes, and we don’t want any more of those, do we? Anyway, just a quick question: I believe you have friends amongst the menials—have you heard any rumours?”
Roz’s insides clenched in panic, and she forced her face to blankness before looking up.
“Rumours?” She shook her head, running her fingers through her hair to disguise the tremors that ran down her arms. “Can’t say I’ve heard anything of the sort. But then, when I’m with Sam, I’m kinda busy, if you know what I mean.”
The younger of the two splicers nearly choked on his laughter, while his older companion’s expression wavered between fascination and disgust, his tentacle digits writhing in indecision. Stuff of nightmares, those tentacles. Or the exact opposite, perhaps, depending on what, precisely, he did with his suckers behind closed doors. Roz had always wondered. A bit like she wondered how Sam’s fingers would feel against her skin; despite what she wanted her colleagues to believe, that was something she still hadn’t had the pleasure of exploring.
“Time we were at work,” said the tentacled splicer, and stomped away with stiff shoulders, trailed by his younger colleague, still shaking with mirth. The fact that a dalliance between a lab tech and a menial could be the cause of so much hilarity settled the knot of anxiety in Roz’s stomach into a hard lump of righteousness; why was it so inconceivable that love might be found between folk outside of their normal social circles? It wasn’t as if the worldship had a class system. Not really. Or if it did, it was the fault of the splicers, looking down on those they created as lesser individuals and as a result, somehow less human.
The splicers were chimeras too; they just liked to think they were superior.
Roz checked the time and, following a quick glance around her corner of the lab to ensure no one was watching, she rose and hurried to the sealed outer door. She pressed her finger to the keypad and the door slid open. She stepped halfway through, standing firmly in place when the door tried to slide shut again. The corridor outside looked empty and for a heart-stopping moment she thought that Garth and his followers had changed their minds, and she would be found holding the door open without a plausible excuse.
Then her ears filled with the rustling sound of footsteps, and she pushed back, forcing the door wide as Garth approached at the head of a seething horde of wild-eyed menials. Adrenalin spikes shot through Roz’s body: this was really happening!
She plucked at Garth’s sleeve as he drew level.
“Remember what I told you: don’t break the sterile seal on the culture chamber—it’s back in the right hand corner of the lab and it’s fragile...”
“I told them,” said Garth, and moved on to join the conspirators. The trickle of bodies through the open door turned rapidly into a flood, and moved in a fraction of a second from silent to roaring anger, almost drowning out the cries of the lab techs and splicers, and the sound of smashing equipment.
Alarmed, Roz dashed back inside.
“Be careful!” she screeched, unheeded. “The embryos! Don’t hurt them!”
But she was too late. In no time at all, the lab was trashed beyond repair, microscopes and lasers smashed underfoot, and the fragile plastic sheets that formed the culture chamber hung in shreds from the ceiling, incubators overturned and tiny gobs of nutrient gel plastered across the floor with their precious cargos exposed to contaminated air. Roz dashed over and fell to her knees amidst the devastation, tears rolling down her cheeks to splash onto the fading remnants of the progenitor embryos.
Rachel, John, Chow, Tanu, Aziza, and all the others.
And she was responsible.
A huge hand grasped her shoulder, pulling her up to her feet. Garth’s jubilant face swam past her blurred vision.
“We did it! We did it! We’re free of them at last!” He shook Roz roughly, and whirled her in a jubilant circle. “We couldn’t have done it without you!”
Bile shot up Roz’s throat and she pulled away from Garth with a strength she did not know she possessed. She staggered a few steps and dropped to her knees, retching. He was right; they couldn’t have done it without her. She was responsible for all this wanton destruction; for the deaths of the embryos.
A hand clasped her shoulder, pulling. Through her misery and shock she realised that it could not be Garth; the strength of the grip was far too weak, and when she turned her head she saw delicate fronds atop her uniform, undulating as though rippling in the gentle current of a calm sea.
When she glanced up, the eyes she met were anything but calm. Chao-xing’s dainty features twisted with fury and despair. Blood ran from a cut on her forehead, dripping into the corner of one eye as she pinned Roz with her black gaze.
“Do you know what you’ve done? You’ve committed genocide. You. One of our trusted elite, yet you let those animals in here. They’ve destroyed everything! There’s no way left to replicate workers. No workers, no way to keep the ship functional. I hope you’re happy with yourself? Pity you didn’t think through the consequences first.”
And she staggered away, cowering as some of the menials spotted her and began jeering.
Dry gasps wracked Roz’s already shuddering frame. She didn’t think her shaking legs would hold her upright, but she had to move; she couldn’t bear sitting in the wreckage of her life any longer. She stumbled to her feet and tottered to the place she knew best; her workstation, miraculously unscathed as yet, while the revolutionaries continued to wreak havoc inside the main lab. From habit, she scanned the now useless readouts, noting how the nutrient feeds were running at full capacity, emptying out into thin air, their delicate entrails torn until they bled out, like the blood vessels they were modelled upon.
The one piece of equipment left intact was the hormone feed, obliviously pumping its programmed concoction into the worldship’s water supply, maintaining the illusion that the GM population was unable to reproduce.
But what if they could?
Chao-xing’s words rang in her ears: ‘No workers, no way to keep the ship functional.’
But what if there was another way to produce workers? Okay, the outcome would be markedly more random, with no way of knowing how the spliced genes might be passed on, or how they would affect future generations. But that would make life more like it had been, back on old Earth, before genetech became such a feature of reproduction. It was worth the risk, wasn’t it? They might still reach their destination, and with the fresh materials a new planet would provide, they could fabricate a new culture lab and use the stored DNA to rebuild a pure human race.
But not the splicing lab. That must never be rebuilt.
Roz reached out and shut off the hormone feed.