Fear of Man
by Ros Jackson
I'm afraid they will change me back.
For four hours they have held me in this sterile cube three metres long. It's transparent and I can see the clock in the room outside, but they took away my comlink, my watch, my belt, even my wallet. I'm being kept in some kind of laboratory, I think. I'm the only specimen. I'm not sure whether or not I should be comforted by that fact.
The cube seems to have no door. I was unconscious when they put me in here so I'm not sure how they did it. The building looked as grey and unprepossessing as any other in the night. I could have broken into any one on this street. Instead I chose this one, the national headquarters of the Organic Alliance. Being an extremist group they don't exactly advertise their presence, and the sign at the front saying "Oggson's Accountants" gives little away. My luck tonight is just ghastly. I can't bear the thought of losing my new body. But I can't imagine the Organic Alliance letting me go intact after what I've done. One of them said I'd "polluted their ecohabitat". I`m not even a person in their eyes, I'm a contaminant. Worse, a contaminant who tried to hijack their share portfolios for my own personal gain. So they've arrested me. All I can hope is that the police will be involved at some stage, but I'm beginning to wonder. The Organics don't involve outsiders unless it really can't be helped. This is because most of the police and rescue services are genetically modified too ~ it goes with the job. It's the waiting that I can't stand. I close my eyes, more as an attempt to imagine myself elsewhere than an expression of my need to sleep, although I'm still quite woozy.
I am interrupted.
"So, this is the intruder."
A tall man walks in. He is middle-aged, and his stance and tone suggest authority. His full dark hair is clipped short, his clothes pressed razor-sharp. Two others follow him, a man and a woman. The second man is clean-shaven and uniformed, and younger than the first. The woman is made up lightly, and wears a suit. Her expression is severe, in contrast with the softness of her wavy blonde hair.
"I caught him in the business room, sir," says the shorter guy. "He had our passwords and was trying to
transfer funds. I thought we'd better check him out."
"You did right. The blood sample we took shows up fifteen percent more genetic code than normal. It's one of them all right, even though it looks almost human," says the first man.
"Not as bad as some of them, is it? At least it's not a bloody plant."
"Don't be fooled, Peters. This is the worst sort. Posing as our kind, you have no idea of the corruption underneath. Disgusting."
"What are we going to do with him?" The female wrings her hands. I don't think she's worried for my welfare, though. She's afraid of me.
"Are we going to call the police?" asks Peters.
"No," the leader says, " I don't think we need involve them."
"Let me out!" I bellow, surprising myself with the volume of my rage.
"I don't think we can do that," says the authoritative one, coming closer.
"You're breaking the law by keeping me here."
"That makes us even." His speaking voice is just above a whisper, and I have to strain to hear him.
"I still have rights."
"Perhaps you had rights. People have rights." He's so calm, I want to smash his face in. "I take it you used to be one, before you had this abomination done to you?"
Is he trying to trick me into giving something away? I think quickly.
"No. I was born like this."
I can see the younger pair cringe. But if I can get him to believe that, he won't know that nobody has my new DNA on file. Officially I disappeared last year, leaving behind a pile of debts. So the authorities won't come looking for me, because for the moment I'm outside the system. I have to convince these people otherwise...
"Are you trying to tell me you're a vegeburger? You're a pathetic liar." Still he doesn't raise his voice.
"I'm a prototype."
I'm clutching at straws, and he knows it. He turns his back on me to address the others.
"Too old. Twenty years ago humans were being modified by splicing their genes with plant and animal DNA, and the technology was crude. They are easy to distinguish from real people. This... actually chose to become a GM creature. What was left of the human being was destroyed by those injections. A lesson for us all."
"All that's left is a lying, thieving cancer," pipes up Peters. He sounds as if he's rehearsing a set text. "May I suggest, sir, that we ... put it out of its misery."
I can feel the blood leaving my face.
"Can't we change him back?" asks the girl.
"Absolutely not," the leader replies. "We should not meddle with nature. Two wrongs will not make a right, Cerise."
They leave quietly. I want to scream, to rant and plead and pound the walls. I'm caged like an animal and they want to slaughter me. I want to roar and let rip, but some small instinct tells me not to. I obey it, although I'm not sure why.
The irony of my situation has not escaped me. I got modified in order to survive, and to live longer. I should live three hundred years in this body, barring accidents. Barring murder by some crazed New Age ecopurist cult who see themselves as the self-appointed enforcers of the Laws of Nature. It's 2097, they ought to realise it's too damn late to oppose the march of science now.
I test the walls,which look soft, but don't give a millimetre. How did I get in? Escape seems impossible. The only part of me I can get out is my voice, and nobody's listening. I sit cross-legged on the floor. Vint Nielson, aged 28, rest in peace. I wonder what people will say about me at my funeral? Except that I won't have a funeral, a gravestone, or even an obituary. The garbageman who takes out the bag won't know that it's me in there, and my family won't know I've died.
Peters returns, this time on his own. He's less stiff, and he comes right up, slapping his hand on my cell wall with a cocky arrogance I hadn't noticed before.
"Get lost," I say.
"I came here to watch the freakshow."
"You're not even human. You're monstrous. You have no idea what diseases you've helped to spread, the depravity you're bringing down on us. What crimes did you commit before you had to change your face, you scum? Murder? Rape? How many throats did you slit, whoremonger?"
Why does he hate me? Is he afraid?
"Does he tell you to say that?"
"No." He reddens and backs away at this, though.
"Spare me the lectures, Peters. You need to think for yourself, instead of 'Yes, sir, no, sir, lying thieving cancer, sir.' It must bother you that you won't live past eighty. Don't tell me you've never been tempted."
"Of course not!"
I have struck a nerve.
"And your leader, do you think he's really as young as he says he is? I've seen the files. He's modified too. A hundred if he's a day."
"You're a liar, he was right. You're an insect, a cockroach! I'll see you die in pain. I'm going to enjoy it."
He strides out, pausing to turn the lights out. As it is early morning, I can only interpret this as a snub.
With the lights out I focus my remaining senses. The room is comfortably warm. I can hear the ticking of the clock in the lab, as well as some more outside the room. It is probably the antique timepieces I saw as I came in. I can hear people talking, but they are quite a distance away. The smells of disinfectant, air freshener, and my own sweat fill the air. There's a faint hint of wine. I'm no expert, but it has the insipidity of an organic variety. I pick this up with my enhanced senses, which have often surprised me. It seems strange that I can detect so much through these solid walls.
Venison wafts in, mixed with the tang of loganberries and pepper. I can pick out every vegetable served, each herb on the meat. They are pretty barbaric, these Organics. Hardly anyone else eats real meat nowadays, but these people defend their privilege madly. I don't see the deer protesting about its right to be eaten, but animal rights mean nothing to these people. I don't waste my time wondering whether they will be bringing me some leftovers. I am the deer.
They suggest I'm some kind of pervert, guilty of a crime against nature. It wasn't like that at all. I lost my job at the power plant when it went fully automated. I didn't want to lose my home. There's no work for the unmodified and poorly qualified. I left school at 20, and a year ago I had neither the funds nor the aptitude for long years of study. It's qualifications inflation ~ I would need a wheelbarrow full of worthless bits of paper just to deliver pizza. I had just enough in the bank to pay the clinic's deposit, so I went ahead and booked the operation.
I went in expecting to see something sparse and sterile, like a hospital. The place was more like a tattoo parlour, with images of exotic creatures papering the walls. They looked like comic book heroes, and I immediately said " I don't want anything like that."
"I'd take them down," said the female doctor, "but they brighten the place up a bit."
She showed me a catalogue of second-generation genetics.
"These are sequenced using the Change of Gene software. It's wholly artificial, so there's no danger of unexpected... flowerings."
Most looked very human, to my relief. I chose a model called Buzz because it appeared to have no unusual features.They all cost the same amount, which was more than I like to think about. The doctor ran a program which showed me how I would look. She suggested a few cosmetic changes, and I concurred. I had never liked my weak chin. She was herself almost impossibly beautiful. She took a swab from my throat then disappeared for several hours. I waited in the lobby, unable to distract myself. Returning with a full syringe, she injected me in six places, three on each side of my body.
"Go home," she said, "You'll need to get some rest."
Transformation was not instantaneous. It operates like a cancer. Gradually the new genetic material worked its way through my tissue, replacing it with improved matter. Not even the original brain remains, although by some miracle of science memory is perfectly preserved. Did I sign my death warrant in favour of some soulless clone? I don't think so. I now have an entirely new brain, but I didn't feel the change. There was some tingling as nerves died and regrew, but nothing as vulgar as pain. I had a ravenous appetite and ate like a starving man. This was necessary to fuel the change, which took place over only two days. I was able to watch my skin changing bit by bit, gradually taking on the light tan of the new, improved me. I'd recommend it to anyone.
Cerise interrupts my reverie, switching the lights back on.
"Cerise. I hope you haven't come to gloat over the condemned too."
She wrinkles her button nose.
"You may call me Miss Coldwood. I came to see how you are."
She's not like the others. If I can gain her trust she may help, but she keeps her distance as though she is wary of me. I hang my head and lower my voice.
"My head's woozy and my legs are weak. I don't think I have been acting myself. I feel ... unwell. Did you enjoy your meal?"
"I ... Are you hungry?"
She's a softer touch than I hoped.
"Starving. Are you going to let me have one last meal?"
Her full soft lips take on a determined expression. I want to kiss them.
"It won't be your last. But I`m not allowed to breach your containment."
This gives me an idea.
"A PVC containment cube. That's pretty dirty for people like you, isn't it?"
"It's not PVC, you idiot. It's a particle wave generator. Unlike you, we Organics work with the environment."
I see it now, three units. One above, one behind and one beside the cube. Each generates two waves which form the walls.
"We like to think so," Cerise says.
It is the leader.
"Cerise, what are you doing in here?" His tone is brisk and acidic.
"I was just - "
"You must not talk with the intruder alone. He will lie in order to gain your sympathies. Go and help Peters with the newsletter."
She trots away. The leader turns around to glare at me.
"You leave her alone."
His voice is full of icy menace.
"Miss Coldwood came to see me. I couldn't send her - "
"Silence!" It's the first time I've heard him raise his voice.
"One more word to my niece and I won't wait for a decision from our president. Do you understand me?"
I nod, just wanting him to go away. He checks the room briefly, scowling all the while, then leaves. I don't think he can stand me either.
I think about the days just after the change, to cheer myself up. It was a good time when anything seemed possible. My new body allowed me to work in space, in submarines, or in the fire service. It took me fifty minutes to land my new job as an astrotechnician. I direct and service small shuttles around the Earth's orbit which mop up all the space debris. Some people tell me they envy the fantastic view, but it's lonely up there. The work is not exactly challenging either. Basically I'm a jumped-up garbageman.
There's more than just garbage up there, though. Only yesterday I was working at the same altitude as the wreck of the Cassiopeia. It's spread fairly thinly now, but I still managed to pick up two or three bits worth smuggling back down. We're not supposed to check the refuse, but most astrotechs do. Even though it was only thirteen years ago, souvenirs of that accident are worth a fair bit.
Because my job is low skilled, the wages are nothing to write across the sky. It's less than I earned at the power plant, in spite of the space worker's danger premium. Half of it went on my debt to the clinic, so I moved to a smaller apartment. After three months I moved again and sold my dog. In the early hours of this morning I came here.
I'm bursting for a pee. I don't expect they'll let me out to visit a toilet if they won't even open the cube to feed me. I've got to go. At least if I do it now whilst nobody's watching, I'll have a scrap of dignity left. I turn away from the the lab door and unzip my fly.
As I watch the yellow liquid pooling on the floor something occurs to me. The floor is solid, but the walls are porous and it is slowly sinking through.
I zip up, and collect what's left of the urine in my hands. The generators are less than a metre from the cell walls. Maybe I can get the circuits wet? I have to at least try, ridiculous though it seems. Pressing my cupped hands to the wall in front of one of the machines, I breathe deeply. Then I close my eyes and blow hard. It's so noisy I'm sure they'll hear. Some gets through the wall, but hardly a drop reaches the machine. I scoop up some more and try again. Nada. I have no chance of short-circuiting it from inside this box.
My situation is hopeless whichever way I look at it. I slump down and stare at the ceiling. The contraption above me stares back. I feel better knowing it's not a camera. There are cobwebs in the corners, as well as a smoke detector and some sprinklers. If only I could set off the sprinkler system! From in here, though, escape seems impossible.
I feel a broad grin spreading across my face, and reach for my foot. Of course! Sure enough it's still there, under my insole, one of those paper souvenir matchboxes, compliments of the doomed Startours Cruises. I remove my shirt. It's cotton, although there's a bit more fabric than I want to burn. I rip it in half. The first match lights easily, but the shirt doesn't. I need something more flammable. Finding a tissue in my pocket, I light it. I hold the shirt over it until it catches. It doesn't burn well, but there's plenty of smoke and that's what I want. I take a huge gulp of air in. Smoke stings my eyes. Soon there's smoke everywhere, so I drop to the floor and leave the shirt to smoulder. I can't see the top of the cube. I have no idea if any smoke is escaping at all. At some point I'll have to take another breath.
Outside it is quiet as the grave. I exhale slowly, my lungs burning. This was a stupid idea, and now I'm going to suffocate. I sip what's left of the clean air, counting in my head. At fifteen the shrill beep of the alarm sounds. I can see the sprinklers going. Perhaps they won't be enough to short out the particle wave gizmos? I can feel the panic rising. I have to escape, I can't breathe!
The wall in front flickers. Some of the smoke escapes. There`s a spark and a crackle, and the walls disapppear. Gasping, I leap forward. I run through a corridor. Turning a corner I find a group of people evacuating that way. I run the other way - in here they'd recognise a stranger instantly. I find a window, thinking that I might be able to jump out. It's no good, I'm on the sixth floor. But there's a lift further down the corridor. I gamble that they're good citizens who won't take the lift when there's a fire in the building. I'm right, and I go to the first floor, praying that I don't meet anyone when I get there.
As I step out Peters and Cerise are leaving a nearby room, each holding sheaves of papers. Cerise spots me and drops her pile. Peters gives chase. I have a head start, and he's no match for me anyway. I plunge through a closed window, trying to hit the ground rolling whilst shards of glass dig into me. Within seconds I'm over the fence and on the streets. They won't dare shoot me down on a public road, but I don't stop running. I run down the street bleeding and shirtless, not caring what anyone thinks.
I'm standing in my own flat now, holding a fly poster I've torn from a wall in the street below. It reads :
Looking at this rain-spattered scrap of propaganda brings back my escape four months ago, and the sickening unease that followed it.
I remember how I ran all the way home that day, twelve miles through rush-hour London. Incredibly nobody stopped me. Perhaps once the bleeding had stopped I looked like just another jogger. I have never felt so terrified. I had to report my credit cards stolen in order to get hold of new ones. Obviously I couldn't say anything to the police, so I lied and told them I thought it had been a pickpocket. I knew I'd never see my possessions again.
Since my ordeal nothing new has come of it. I have begun to believe that the Organics Alliance won't go to the police. I have to assume that they have as much to lose as I do. Nevertheless they are known for taking direct and often violent action. I can't help looking over my shoulder every time I leave my flat. I crumple the piece of paper and fling it in the bin. I clench my fists tight but it does little to stop me from shaking.
As for my apartment, I have enough room to lie down in it if I tidy up. I'm still working as a space garbageman. The repayments will last another thirty years, but when I could live to be 300 it doesn't seem so bad. I won't be going back to a life of crime, not ever. The Organics Alliance have put the fear of man into me.
But that's not the main reason I have decided to stop. It seems that I'm going up in the world, and not just because I work in space. My new body has its share of admirers as well as its detractors, it turns out, and this has been keeping me out of trouble. I'll be meeting one of these in particular tonight, and we'll be going to a quiet, out of the way restaurant. Very out of the way, in fact, because her family would murder me if they found out. I suspect that the excitement of secret meetings and the chance to rebel holds most of the attraction for her, but I can forgive her this. Especially if the young lady lets me call her Cerise.