Science Fiction & Fantasy

IntheNightWood-Banner_Final_Lightspeed Oct 2018

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Fiction

Transitional Forms

At night, the hot zone was patched with drifts of soft pastel light. Violets and indigos; dark reds, translucent greens. Jellyfish genes for luminescence had been used as markers for tweaks in the first genetically modified organisms, and that tradition had been adopted by alife hackers. The colours were tags, territorial claims that pulsed and twinkled like spring blossom in an alien and verdant land.

Ray Roberts had been patrolling the hot zone and the desert around its perimeter for two years now, and he still thought it beautiful, at night. During the day, the trees and other alife organisms baked under the sunbleached sky. Black twisted lattices like the charred skeletons of cacti; carbonised spikes and spurs like the armatures of nuclear-blasted buildings. Tangles of burnt wire. Fields of grim sculpture. But at night, shrouded in soft clouds of colour, it was a fairyland.

That particular night, about a week after a salvage gang had infiltrated the zone and stripped copper and molybdenum beads from about twenty hectares of metal-concentrating trees, Ray was riding his bay gelding, Winston, along the dirt roads that switchbacked over the dump rock hills. He was plugged into the surveillance grid of cameras and drones. GPS tracked him to within a metre. He reported to dispatch every thirty minutes, and the reports of the other patrols crackled in his earpiece. The zone was on amber alert because the salvage gang would almost certainly be back for more, but that night everyone was reporting they’d nothing to report.

Around midnight, he met up with two colleagues at one of the monitoring stations near the pit of the exhausted copper mine at the core of the zone. They watered their horses from the standpipe, exchanged gossip, moved on. At sunup, Ray and Winston were heading home along the old boundary road when he spotted something up on a ridge. A glint, a speck in the eye, a dead pixel in a heads-up display. He glassed it in UV and infra-red, called up dispatch and sent a good shot from the video camera built into his glasses, got permission to check it out.

He kept a wary eye on the spot, let Winston pick his way between rocks and mini-cathedrals of black spikes and clumps of prickly pear. At the top of the ridge, he reined in his horse and sat and waited, one hand close to the taser holstered at his hip. He’d never yet used it in anger, but you never could tell.

To the naked eye, the tent’s canvas perfectly matched the ground’s dry pebbly texture. Pretty soon a woman emerged, as if climbing out of a rent in the air. T-shirt and jeans, dirty blond hair in a ponytail, sunglasses heliographing early morning sun as she looked up at him.

Ray asked her if she was alone. “Neither of us need any surprises.”

“There’s no one here but me and the ants.”

“They do thrive out here.”

“I saw an owl, too.”

“This area’s been cleaned up by the alife, pretty much. The desert’s coming back in.”

Ray’s glasses had grabbed the woman’s face by now, checked it against the government databases. Janine Childs. BSc, PhD, both degrees from UCLA. A spell of employment in the California Department of Fish and Game, then some startup funded by South Korea, working in Kazakhstan. Currently freelance. The usual traffic citations, a divorce, no criminal record. Thirty-one, five eleven, blond hair, blue eyes.

She didn’t flinch when Ray swung down from his saddle. She was exactly his height.

He said, “You know why I came up here?”

“I guess I picked the wrong place to camp.”

“I guess you did. You’re about ten kilometres inside a state-designated exclusion zone.”

“I’ll pack up and move on right away. Unless you’re going to arrest me,” Janine Childs said, with a nice smile. “Are you going to arrest me?”

“That depends on what you have cached up yonder.”

“Oh. I was hoping you hadn’t spotted that.”

“Your camo is good, but it’s military surplus. And it’s surplus because someone figured out how to detect it. Let’s go see what you’ve got.”

After Janine Childs had pulled back the camo tarp, Ray studied the fans and the tubing and the rolling strips of sticky paper, then said, “You’re collecting spores.”

“Suppose I said I was doing pollen counts?”

“In September? I’d say you’re either six months late or six months early. I’d also say you should have picked a spot a couple of kilometres further in, if you were expecting to pick up anything from the core. The spores don’t travel far, even on a good wind.”

“Then I guess I’ve only broken the law a little bit. Will I get to keep my equipment?”

“That’s not for me to say, ma’am.”

“Janine.”

“Yes ma’am.”

She was one of those who liked to play the good sport when busted, asking Ray if he got a bonus for bringing in bandits, asking him how long he’d been riding the range, asking him where he’d bought his cowboy hat.

“It’s a Stetson. Western Straw. There’s a place in Yuma sells them.”

“It suits you better than the yellow safety jacket and black coveralls combo. Do they sell cowboy boots, in that place in Yuma?”

“They sell just about everything in that line.”

Ray couldn’t tell if she was serious or was ragging on him, discovered he didn’t mind.

She said, “I was thinking of buying a pair. I bet you wear them, off-duty.”

Eventually the backup arrived, two troopers in a Blazer. Janine Childs handed over the keys to the rented 4×4 she’d hidden under a camo tarp on the back slope, submitted to being cuffed, and allowed Ray to help her into the rear seat of the Blazer.

“Maybe I’ll see you again,” she said.

Ray filed papers back at the station, heard a couple of days later that Janine Childs’ equipment had been confiscated and she’d been freed with a caution.

“Think she has a taste for it?” the section supervisor said.

“She seemed to be having fun,” Ray said.

“Then she’ll be back,” the supervisor said. “You ask me, people like her are being given too much slack, these days. We catch them and hand them over the troopers, and instead of prosecuting them the state throws them right back into the mix.”

“I guess it keeps everyone in business,” Ray said.

Everyone knew that most of the hackers and ware pirates were funded by the skunk works of biotech companies. The state confiscated the data and samples and equipment of everyone caught infiltrating the zone, sold it back to the companies. It was the only way anyone could make any money until ownership of the zone was resolved.

The supervisor was an old-time guy who’d been laid off the Phoenix police force when it had been privatised. He said, “It’s policy, and we get paid to enforce it, but I don’t have to like it.”

Two months passed. Ray helped round up the salvage gang when they came back for more, and caught a pair of ware pirates with rucksacks packed with samples sawn from alife trees and shrubs, but saw no sign or trace of Janine Childs. Then, early in November, a new tweak caused a serious stepwise change in the dense ecology of alife organisms growing in the core of the hot zone.

The original alife organisms had been designed to extract low levels of copper, gold, silver, and molybdenum from the bench terraces of the old copper mine and the dump rock hills around it. Powered by various forms of artificial photosynthesis, they put down long roots that ramified through bedrock like the threads of fungus through rotten wood, and selectively grabbed heavy metals and concentrated them in “berries” strung along their branches.

The process had worked pretty well until the third major recession since the turn of the century had bankrupted both the company that had planted the alife organisms and Arizona’s state government. The alife organisms had spread unchecked into the desert around the mine, and the biotech company that had purchased a license to use the site as an experimental facility was discovered to have been performing all kinds of clandestine work. Some of the original alife trees were still down in the mine’s pit, grown in huge latticed towers like mediaeval siege towers, but most had been swamped by vigorous new forms of alife. The rogue company had introduced an uncatalogued variety of organisms, many infected with so-called cut-up and misprint hacks that not only allowed the organisms to swap and recombine loops of their artificial DNA, but also created random transcription errors—mutations. Introducing a kind of sex into the mix; turning the core of the hot zone into an uncontrolled evolutionary experiment. While ownership of the area and responsibility for cleaning it up was disputed in the courts, new varieties of alife organism spread through the zone like bacterial colonies growing across an agar plate, and hackers and ware pirates tried to infiltrate the zone and quarry its biodiversity, or use it as a testbed for new tweaks.

Most organisms in the zone had already acquired the capability of shedding spores or live fragments. Now, this was a new twist, instead of developing into copies of their parents, airborne fragments of at least eight varieties were generating intermediate motile forms that ran off in every direction before settling down and developing into the adult form. The change had been quick and systemic, spreading like an old-fashioned computer virus, threatening to disperse rogue alife far beyond the quarantine strip bulldozed around the perimeter of the hot zone. No one knew if it had been caused by a hacker who’d managed to infiltrate the core, or by previously unexpressed code made active by some new, random recombination event. While government scientists scrambled to isolate and understand it, every security officer was seconded to firefighting, one shift on, one shift off.

Ray spent two weeks working in the area around the core, helping to locate and dig up and burn alife organisms that were spreading the new spores, then spent two weeks more riding through the zone, hunting down the so-called rollers. Things like pygmy tumbleweeds spun from wire; little latticed spheres like pillbugs. Ray captured some for analysis, sizzled the rest with a lance equipped with an arc-weld tip.

There were hard winds blowing from the north, driving the rollers fast and far, and whipping up dust and sand. Ray and the others wore masks and goggles; at the end of every shift Ray knocked about a pound of desert out of his Stetson. The fun of the chase quickly wore off. It became work. Hard, repetitive, frustrating work.

• • • •

There was a place where guards and hackers and ware pirates drank, at a crossroads where an enterprising family had set up a charge station, a motel, and a bar, the Rattler’s Nest. It was an old-fashioned roadhouse, with a pine board floor and a long counter and a couple of pool tables. A pickup band played Friday nights; it was playing the night Ray came in, two days before Christmas, just off a shift chasing down rollers, and saw her. Janine Childs.

She was sitting by herself in the corner by the unplugged jukebox, blond hair loose around the shoulders of a black riding jacket slashed with zipper pockets. Long legs in blue jeans and brown leather boots. Ray leaned against the bar, watched her watching the band. She seemed to be alone. After a while, one of the hackers drifted up to her, said something. She shook her head and after a brief exchange the hacker shrugged and drifted back to the knot of his buddies, bumping fists, and Ray bought a couple of bottles of Dos Equis from a barkeep wearing a Santa hat and walked over and stood there until she looked up.

“Hey, cowboy.”

“Ma’am.”

“If that beer’s for me, you can call me Janine.”

Her eyes were bright blue, with flecks of grey around the edges of the irises.

They sat and talked, awkwardly at first, finding it hard to fit into each other’s rhythms.

Janine said, “I see you favour the full-on cowboy look when you’re off duty. The boots and jeans, the sheepskin-collar jacket, that hat . . . In California they take off hats, in restaurants. In Arizona, I notice that they generally don’t. Can I try it?”

He gave her his hat, showed her how to handle it by the brim front and back, how to pinch the brim to pull it down over her eyes.

She looked good in it. Ray told her so. He said, “I notice you bought some good boots.”

“I can picture myself living out here. You on one side of the law and me on the other. Like one of the old songs.”

“Is that what this is about?” Ray said.

“It’s whatever we want it to be,” Janine said.

There was a silence they covered by drinking beer. The band was some kind of mutant Western swing deal. It wasn’t bad: two guitars and a stand-up bass, an accordion, a fiddle, a guy whaling a minimal drum kit. A few couples were dancing, shuffling and turning in a two-step.

Janine asked Ray how he’d come to work for the state; he told her how he’d joined the army and got into private security after he’d served his four years active duty, but hadn’t much liked it.

“The people I worked with were okay, mostly, but some of the clients weren’t. The second time one of them put me in a bad situation, I walked. After that, I did all kinds of jobs. Construction. Painting houses. I’ve always worked. One time I stood on a street corner with one of those big signs, pointing people to a sale of golfing equipment. And then someone told me about the company that provides security for the zone, and here I am. I thought I’d stick it out for six months,” Ray said. “But it stretched to two years, somehow. And since it doesn’t look like the lawyers are about to come to any kind of agreement about who owns the zone, I guess I’ll be here a while. Maybe I found my level. How about you?”

“I think that you don’t get on in life by sticking around in the same place,” Janine said.

“So this is just temporary,” Ray said.

“You’re wondering how I got into it.”

“I’m wondering why someone so smart isn’t working for one of the biotech companies.”

“When I was much younger and the ink was still wet on my PhD, I thought I could make a difference. I worked for a government project at the Salton Sea, using alife organisms to remove arsenic from the lakebed of the part that was allowed to evaporate. After that, I was recruited by a Korean biotech company. Have you ever been to Kazakhstan?”

“Not yet.”

“There’s a genuine space port, at Baikonor. And I’m sure some parts of the country are lovely. But the place where I was working was anything but. It was out on the steppe, nothing but grass and dust for hundreds of miles in any direction. It wouldn’t have been so bad if the research had been interesting, but it was production line stuff, testing varieties of alife organism for their ability to extract residual metals from the tailings of a uranium mine. And not as well paid as you might think. But I managed to save enough to try my luck here. And you know how that went.”

There was another space of silence while Ray wondered what to say to that. Janine asked him how the roller hunt was going; he said, “You heard about that, huh?”

He was relieved, in a way, that she’d finally gotten around to the point.

She said, “The same way everyone else did.”

“You know, only government scientists are allowed in the core. And grunts like me are watched all the time. The little cameras in our glasses, drones . . . There are pat-downs at the end of every shift, dogs trained to sniff out alife stuff. And if anyone approaches us, on the outside, chances are it’s a company agent.”

“I’m not an agent, Ray. And I’m not asking you to do anything illegal. Really. I’m just expressing an interest in your work.”

“As far as that goes, I guess you know we have it under control.”

“I know that’s what the spokesman for the Department of Agriculture has been saying for the past two weeks.”

“Well, it’s true,” Ray said. “We’ll soon have things back to normal.”

“But it isn’t over yet, and when it’s over, it won’t be over. It’ll be the new normal.”

Ray thought about that, said, “One of the scientists told me everything out there is a transitional form. On its way to becoming something else.”

“We haven’t started to find out what we can do with alife organisms. Or what they can do, given the chance. ‘From so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.’”

“Nice.”

“Charles Darwin.”

They clinked bottles, drank to good old Charlie Darwin.

“Do you dance?” Janine Childs said.

They danced. He discovered all over again that she was exactly his height. They drank a couple more beers, danced again. Around midnight, the band segued into “Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer” and every drunk in the place whooped onto the little dance floor.

Janine leaned against Ray and said into his ear, “I have a room, in the motel.”

He made the mistake of accepting her offer of a drink, in the motel. A generous shot of tequila in a glass she fetched from the bathroom. He remembered her watching him knock it back, and then he woke with a foul headache, alone on the untouched bed. Her stuff was gone. So was his Stetson.

He didn’t tell anyone about it. He wasn’t even sure exactly what had happened, but he had the feeling that he’d been fooled, somehow.

The roller hunt in the core of the hot zone continued over Christmas and into the New Year. Every shift, Ray found and dispatched fewer rollers than the last. There came a time when he spent three shifts in succession without spotting a single one. Soon afterwards, the Governor declared that the emergency was over.

The next day, Ray handed in his resignation. He told himself he’d put in enough time chasing down hackers and salvage gangs. He told himself that Janine Childs was right: it doesn’t pay to stick around in the same place for too long.

He tried to trace her, but had no luck. She was in the wind, as they said.

He drifted from job to job, ended up working security for the Salton Sea plantations where she had once worked. It was a monoculture of pretty basic alife organisms, but even so, hackers were slipping under the wire, inserting rogue traits. At night, patches of red or green bioluminescence showed where they’d been at work.

Ray had been there about a year when he saw a brief item in the news. The State of Arizona was suing an experimental alife facility that had recently started up in South Korea, on the grounds that the organisms it was using were based on code stolen from the hot zone. The head of the place was Dr Janine Childs. Ray emailed her, expecting to hear nothing. A reply hit his inbox the next day.

It wasn’t an apology or an explanation, but a tall story about this old scientist in Denmark who was into yeast and wanted to do research on the strains lager makers used, each one slightly different, each one producing a different brew. He wrote to the breweries, asking for samples, and without exception every one declined, citing commercial reasons. But the old scientist had what he wanted anyway: He took swabs from each rejection letter, swiped the swabs on agar plates, and cultured the yeasts that grew up. The air of each brewery was full of floating yeast cells and a few contaminated the paper of the rejection letters.

Ray thought about this, and realised that he had an answer to his little mystery. And the next day went back out on the line. Only a few forms are ready to make the transition into something new. Most have to make do with what they already are.

Paul McAuley

Paul McAuley

Paul McAuley is the author of more than twenty novels, several collections of short stories, a Doctor Who novella and a BFI Film Classic monograph on Terry Gilliam’s film Brazil. His fiction has won the Philip K Dick Memorial Award, the Arthur C. Clarke Award, the John W. Campbell Memorial Award, the Sidewise Award, the British Fantasy Award and the Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award. His latest novel is Something Coming Through.