The Great Chain of Being and Other Tales of the Biotech Revolution
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by Brian Stableford
Category: Science Fiction/Fantasy
Description: Here are seven tales of the near future, part of the author's long-running and cutting-edge "Biotech Revolution" series, including one story published for the first time. Contents: "Following the Pharmers," "The Unkindness of Ravens," "The Great Chain of Being," "Sleepwalkers," "The Beauty Contest," "Burned Out," and "Inherit the Earth." Brian Stableford has written and edited over 100 volumes of science fiction, horror, fantasy, literary criticism, and reference, among others, many of them being published by the Borgo Press Imprint of Wildside Press. He lives and works in Reading, England.
eBook Publisher: Wildside Press, 1993
eBookwise Release Date: September 2009
15 Reader Ratings:
Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [314 KB]
Reading time: 197-277 min.
"When tillage begins, other arts follow. The farmers, therefore, are the founders of human civilization."
It was early in June that the antheric alates began appearing on my verandah. At first I assumed that they were natural insects--some new species of miniature butterfly nurtured in the evolutionary hothouse that the Holderness had recently become. Their tiny wings were brightly-colored, with a quasi-metallic sheen that enabled them to flare like sparks in the bright light of noon and twinkle like stars in the evening, when the sun sank into the bosom of the Wolds. Initially, I welcomed their arrival as a fortunate discovery, a safe distraction from the burdensome aspects of my isolation.
Once I had examined a couple of the motiles with a magnifying glass I realized that they weren't insects, but I was still possessed by the idea that they might be some new kind of invertebrate animal--perhaps an entirely new branch of the arthropoda, spun off by bold mutation from one of the many former sea-creatures that were adapting with astonishing rapidity to the Yorkshire Everglades. Once I had put one under the microscope, though, I realized that they were vegetal, and also that they were artificial.
That was when I started cursing. It meant that I had a new neighbor. The whole point of our moving to Hollyn--a place that wasn't even supposed to exist any more, in the official cartography of New England--had been to give us the opportunity to do our work in peace. I hadn't wanted neighbors when Marie was still around; I certainly didn't want one now that she was gone, unable to return.
I wasn't completely isolated from human contact, of course, but I didn't count the Patrington communards as "neighbors". They performed a useful intermediary function in transmitting my produce to the wholesalers in Hull--a necessary function, given the amount of chemical assistance I'd have needed to go all the way to the city on my own behalf. In any case, Patrington, which had also benefited from an unexpected and so-far-unrecorded re-emergence from the shallows of the Holderness to become a substantial new island, was a good seven kilometers away. The alates, I judged, must have come from somewhere considerably closer.
The communards were small pharmers like me; they planted, nurtured and processed their crops according to strict chemical rituals, never taking the risk of producing anything new. Whoever was producing plants with alate pollen-sacs, on the other hand, had to be an artist: an innovator of considerable daring as well as abundant talent. From the viewpoint of a small pharmer, artists qualify as loose cannons: mad, bad and dangerous to have around. I knew, because I'd fancied myself as a bit of an artist in the days of my folie à deux with Marie, and even before that, in the days when we had both been wage-slaves in one of the corporate giants making up Big Pharma.
My verandah faced north, in order to give me shade from the hostile UV of the noonday sun, and that was the direction from which the alates were coming. There shouldn't have been anywhere in that direction for them to come from, but I knew that if the stubborn ancient walls of Hollyn and Patrington could provide the foundations for marvelous growths of littoral limestone, and hence for newborn islands where plastishacks could be securely bedded, there was every possibility that parts of Withernsea could do likewise.
Of all the former dwelling-places in the Holderness, Withernsea was the one that generated the most legendary echoes--far more than Hornsea, which had been a considerably bigger town in the Ice Age. As its name proudly declared, Withernsea had been on the coast in those days, and would now be unsheltered on its eastern shore from the full wrath of the North Sea storms--but what it lacked in safety it might make up in romance, at least in the eyes of an artist.
Withernsea was a lot closer to Hollyn than Patrington, as any sort of creature might fly, but I had no idea whether there was a navigable channel through the algal dendrites that reared up from the new sea bed, whose colonization of the Holderness grew more insistent with every year that passed. I never went out in the motor-boat for "leisure purposes", but if I ever had I would have headed vaguely eastwards, in the direction that would have qualified as "inland" before the old Ice Age land had been gradually swallowed up by the salt-marsh.
I considered the possibility of ignoring the matter, simply hoping that it wouldn't become a problem. If I had been a fungal specialist, like the communards of Patrington, that would have been a justifiable strategy, but I wasn't. I had three species of flowering plants producing reliable cash crops. The rape and the poppies were safe enough for the time being, but there was no way of knowing how far across the angiospermal spectrum the artist's experiments might eventually range, and the foxgloves might already be in hazard. Pharmed foxgloves are notoriously vulnerable to what the technical jargon terms "bizarre pollination", in spite of the insect-repellents built into their nectar. I didn't suppose for a moment that those inbuilt insect repellents would have the slightest effect on antheric alates.
For that reason, I really needed to talk to my new neighbor about the situation, if I could. With luck, all I'd have to do would be to ask him politely to tighten up his security-measures, and he'd be willing to oblige. There is, after all, a certain code of politeness involved in living outside the law; no one with any sense wants to give anyone else too powerful a reason to stir up trouble. I'd have to get my head in condition to make the trip, but I trusted my own products and visiting wasn't something I'd ever had to do with sufficient frequency to risk another hook.
I didn't know how long it would take me to find a viable route to Withernsea, but I didn't dare set off in the early morning, even with a canopy over the boat and the shade of the algal dendrites to limit my UV exposure. Given that it was June, when the days lasted far longer than the nights, the prudent thing to do was to pop the requisite pills in late afternoon and set off in the right direction, establishing a deadline for the search that would guarantee me a safe passage home before the twilight dwindled away.
I didn't make it on the first day, but I figured out a mazy route that got me close enough to the re-risen Withernsea not merely to estimate the contours of the island but actually to glimpse the roof of the largest of the plastishacks in which the artist had set up production. It was hard to miss, not only because of its capacious size and flamboyant architectural design, but because of its blatant disregard for the most elementary camouflage. If a copter were ever to fly over my place, its pilot would need a keen and attentive eye to make it out, but the new building stuck out from its surroundings like a tarantula on a lacy net curtain. The Hull police had far more urgent things to do at present than explore the Holderness, which lay outside their jurisdiction, but the boldness of the new development was still reckless.
The next day, I followed the mazy path I'd already mapped out with all possible speed, starting at four-thirty, and had found a way to the shore of the new island by six. I tied the boat up in the shade of a mock-willow, and made my way stealthily over the virgin coraloids to the sturdy platform on which the complex of plastishacks had been erected. The central element, at least, was more mansion than shack.
Ever since the Great Migration had begun, technologies for erecting instant houses had been subject to tremendous selective pressure, forcing them to evolve with the same tachytelic fervor as the new littoral ecosystems that were recolonizing the drowned land. Even so, the house seemed to institute a significant step forward. I'd never seen anything like it advertised on TV. The artist was obviously an exceedingly rich amateur rather than the kind of impoverished optimist who was accustomed to starving in the proverbial garrets of the Ice Age.
My heart sank as I looked at the place from a distance, sheltered by the algal undergrowth, and I nearly lost my nerve. In spite of the chemical fortification, I wanted to change my mind, turn around and go back home. I knew, though, that if I did that I'd eventually have to come back, probably sooner rather than later. The combination of necessity and curiosity was just powerful enough to give me the courage to continue going forward and knock on the door. My approach was tentative, as much for fear of guard dogs or an entourage of bodyguards as my native inclinations, but the place was utterly quiet. If there was anyone at home, they were busy about their daily toil.
I knocked, and waited.