SAGITTARIUS WHORL—The Rampart Worlds: Book 3
Behold a comatose human guy in a dystasis tank, hooked to a psychotronic apparatus that plays the same lovely dream over and over and over and over. He is being genetically engineered.
That much he knows, because he's been in one of the damned vats before3—sometime, somewhere. The details are a mystery. He drifts in the glass coffin of bubbly oxygen-charged goo, too stoned by the drugs to react rationally during his brief interludes of semiconsciousness.
The wakeful bits, when he manages to force open his eyes and peer myopically through the perfluorocarbon liquid, are fuzzy and surreal and punctuated by stabs of fear and helpless anger. During them, the floater recalls one vivid short-term memory snippet . . .
He sits in a smoke-filled bar in a hollow asteroid in the distant Sagittarius Whorl, and the Haluk smiles at him as his consciousness starts to drain away. He remembers his despairing certainty, in the final instant before oblivion, that the aliens are probably going to subject him to something outrageously weird this time around, having failed to finish him off during their previous assaults and batteries.
He squirms in the dystasis tank, making a futile attempt to swim up, push off the lid, and break free. But his limbs and trunk are firmly clamped in an upright frame. Only his head, gripped less tightly, is able to move a little.
He remembers a few more things.
He can swim. He can cook. He can pilot a starship. He can ride a horse.
He's a disgrace. He's a lawyer. He's a scuba diver. He's a zillionaire.
He was a cop. He was a suicidal drunk. He was a political gadfly. He was
. . . doing something that got him in deepest shit.
When he finishes wrenching his head around uselessly, he sees another transparent-walled container next to his own. Inside it another body is dimly visible in reddish womb-light, a companion in dystasis. Straining, he tries to get a better view of the other person, but finds it impossible.
His mouth opens in a silent roar of frustration. With his lungs and the rest of his respiratory tract full of liquid, his vocal cords are as impotent as those of an unborn baby. The dystasis monitoring equipment detects his frantic muscle contractions and the hormonal flood that indicates an agitated mental state.
Naughty, naughty! His struggles are disrupting the genetic engineering procedure. The apparatus programs deeper anesthesia. He plummets back into slumber mode and the umpteenth dream replay begins.
He's always with his wife, whose name he can't recall any more than he can remember his own. There is background music—Scott Hamilton playing "Round Midnight" on a tenor saxophone. The bedroom is very large and of a rustic southwestern ranch style, with a high-beamed ceiling and walls of whitewashed adobe, adorned with antique Native American weavings and artwork featuring elegantly lewd pastel flower shapes. Double-glazed sliding doors with parted curtains reveal that it's night and snowing hard outside. The sound of the blizzard wind occasionally breaks up through cascades of gentle jazz. White drifts are piling up outside on the patio.
He and his wife, young newlyweds, sit side by side on a shearling rug before a blazing fire. They're naked, propped happily against each other, sipping Roederer Cristal while they watch the dancing flames. Her hair is ash-blond, rippling after being released from its braided chignon, and reaches halfway down her back. Her eyes are the color of deep ocean waters beyond the reef. She is striking rather than pretty, and her features in repose are solemn until he caresses her and makes her smile.
Time to make love again.
And again, and again, as the psychotronic machine endlessly loops his most exquisite memory to facilitate the dystasis procedure.
The poor happy schmuck in the tank is me.
Drifting and dreaming.
Tap tap tap.
Someone spoke, an alien voice filtered through a translator device. "How interesting. It looks as though he is waking up."
Someone else: "This is the template individual, Servant of Servants. The original. The transformed human object is recovering in another room, attended by one's technicians. We will interview him shortly, just as soon as he is lucid."
"Let's see if this creature recognizes one."
Tap tap tap.
I slowly opened my eyes. The room outside was dimly lit, as always, with most of the illumination coming from a bank of alien equipment some distance away. The dark floor was intricately veined with a glowing web that converged on my tank and the one beside mine, which was now empty.
Three Haluk stood looking at me, two males and a female, all wearing translator pendants. The tallest of the aliens knocked on the glass wall to get my attention as though I were a sulky specimen in an aquarium.
Tap tap tap. "Wag! Can you hear one, Earth life-form?"
Of course I could. My ears worked just fine while submerged in the oxygenated glop, and he must have known it.
He pursed his lips in the racial smile-equivalent and twiddled his four-fingered hand in mock playfulness. "Do you recall this one's identity?"
With difficulty, I focused my eyes and concentrated.
Well, sure. The last time I'd seen him, he was wearing a conservative human-style business suit of dark green with faint white pinstripes, tailored to set off his wasp waist and accessorized by a scarlet foulard scarf and a diamond stickpin. He was now attired in exotic haberdashery appropriate to his high station: bronze-purple robes with glittering jeweled trim, an elaborate spiked diadem of platinum, and a matching necklace inset with large fossil cabochons. But that ugly blue face was unmistakable, and so were the oddly beautiful eyes with their sardonic, hyperintelligent glint.
The perfluorocarbon bath had rendered me mute, but I snarl-mouthed: You friggin' zeno bastard! Damned right I know you. You're the Servant of the Servants of Luk, the head honcho of the Sovereign Haluk Confederation.
"Bravo," he said dryly. The Haluk aren't telepathic, but my response had evidently been clear enough. "Please accept the profound gratitude of this one and of the Council of Nine. Thanks to you"—he nodded toward the tenantless second tank—"and to the turncoat rascal with whom you shared your vital substance, one has high hopes of an accelerated schedule for our Grand Design."
Suddenly, a surprisingly concrete recollection popped into my skull. The alien leader and I had had a nasty confrontation a couple of years ago outside the Assembly Chamber of the Commonwealth of Human Worlds in Toronto. At the invitation of Liberal Party members sympathetic to Reversionist principles, I had finally testified about . . . something important having to do with the Haluk and their trade treaty with humanity. My speech had really pissed off the Servant of Servants and the members of his alien entourage, as well as a sizable percentage of the Assembly Delegates.
But what had I said? And who the hell was I?
I hadn't a clue.
The Servant said, "Feeling all right, are you? Archiator Malotuwak assures one that you came through the human-to-human genetic exchange in fine fettle. Unfortunately, we can't let you out of the dystasis tank just yet. We require a second demiclone."
Demiclone? . . . What the hell are you talking about, huckleberry balls?
"Take one's advice, human. Cooperate willingly when you're called upon later for tutorial duties. Extracting the pertinent information by means of psychotronic interrogation machines is so uncomfortable. Who knows? If you do well, one might even allow you to live. Common laborers are always in demand on our newly colonized planets."
Screw you! With a magnum drill press!
The second male Haluk spoke up. Short and stocky, he wore a plain mustard-colored smock tightly clinched about his slender middle and carried an elaborate Macrodur magslate of the type favored by hotshot human scientists. "He's becoming excited, Servant of Servants. This is not a good thing for a dystasis subject. It could delay initiation of the second demiclone procedure. One will program a calming medication for him."
He prodded the slate and a warm woozy feeling began to seep into my body, dulling anxiety and slowing my thoughts. I fought the desire to relapse into sleep.
Demiclone! I should know what that meant. I did know. It was a highly illegal genetic engineering procedure. The Haluk had stolen some of my DNA and used it to—to—
To duplicate me. To morph some other guy into a replica of my precious person. I mouthed helpless obscenities. The Servant of Servants had already lost interest in me and turned his attention to the Haluk woman standing beside him.
She was elderly, her skin faded to the color of well-washed denim, and she wore robes of glistening black with a hood that nearly concealed her mane of pale hair. A very important-looking polished fossil on a long chain hung about her neck.
"Is it certain, Archiator Malotuwak," she inquired of Mustard Smock, "that the newly created duplicate of this individual retains his own mentality? It would be disastrous to the Servant's Grand Design of the demiclone were to be. . . contaminated, as it were, by the mind-set of this template life-form."
"That is quite impossible, Council Locutor Ru Kamik. Only the physical aspect of the demiclone has been altered." A grimace of distaste. "That other human's mind—such as it is—remains his own. One might mention that he was most uncooperative during the preliminary procedures, insulting one's assistants and behaving in an arrogant and offensive manner."
The Servant of Servants uttered the grotesque laugh of his species, which sounded like a miniature poodle choking to death. "Fortunately for us, the rascal's usefulness to the Sovereign Haluk Confederation does not require a congenial disposition."
"Yes," the Locutor said. "However, his usefulness does require that his true identity not be detected. One was somewhat disconcerted to learn that the demiclone is not, after all, an essentially perfect replica of this original."
"True enough," Mustard Smock conceded. "The restricted time frame we were allowed precluded optimal DNA transfer. It was necessary to use an abbreviated genetic engineering procedure. One made this quite clear to the Servant of Servants and to the demiclone subject himself at the outset. Even using the most advanced human equipment and techniques, along with broad-spectrum PD32:C2 transferase agents, four weeks in the dystasis tank is inadequate for complete chromosomal transformation, given the relatively large amount of intron material in the human genome. Introns are more difficult to exchange than exons3/4"
The Servant of Servants interrupted, addressing the female. "Nobody's going to test him, Ru Kamik. They'll have no reason to doubt his identity. He will be carefully coached in his role."
"Nevertheless," said the Locutor firmly, "please explain to this one the circumstances under which the demicloned person might be differentiated from the original subject by expert investigators of the Commonwealth of Human Worlds"
The Haluk scientist made the gesture signifying self-abasement. "You'll forgive of one gets a bit technical, Great Lady?"
The Locutor steepled her four-fingered hands in a gesture of condescending assent. "Continue. One is by no means completely ignorant of genetics."
"As you may know, not all of the DNA within body cells acts as a blueprint for life processes. Those segments that are active are often called exons. They trigger protein production—build the body and keep it in operation. The other DNA segments, those with no known function, are called introns. The noncoding introns are intermingled with the exons. In the human genome, about ninety percent of the DNA is noncoding. By comparison, we Haluk have a smaller percentage of introns, even though our total number of exons is close to the human complement.
"Because one was commanded to perform this procedure in the shortest possible time, one transferred only the exon DNA and about one-tenth of the introns from the donor to the recipient. As a consequence, even though the recipient exhibits the physical characteristics of the template as perfectly as an identical twin, he nevertheless retains a large part of his original intron DNA—the genetic material that seems redudant."
"And this can be detected by forensic analysis?"
"Readily, Council Locutor. Most of the genetic variation among human individuals is in the introns. Even a rough comparison of the demiclone's DNA with that of the original will reveal the fake. If one had only been allowed more time."
"It was not practical," the Servant of Servants said dismissively. "And one must repeat: the chance of the demiclone undergoing DNA testing during his mission are vanishingly small."
The Locutor spoke in a neutral tone to the Servant of Servants. "Certain members of the Council of Nine have very grave misgivings about this stratagem. Using the human demiclone, that is, rather than one of our own race."
"Their doubts are groundless, Ru Kamik," the leader insisted. "The revised Grand Design is going to succeed! Almighty Luk will shower his beneficence upon us and shatter the spines of the human despots."
"There is still great danger," she said softly. "And this one is not speaking only of the possibility that the turncoat agent's identity may be detected. He himself is a traitor to his race and perhaps not entirely sane. One has seen his personality analysis—"
"Yes yes, curse it for a wad of odoriferous lepido nose wax! One knows all about that. But the scheme he proposed is brilliant. If it succeeds, our grand expansion strategy will be accomplished in years, rather than centuries or even millennia."
"If the scheme succeeds."
Excerpted from The Sagittarius Whorl by Julian May. . Excerpted by permission of Del Rey, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.