The sky was blue. A real sky, a real color, with real clouds, not a collection of pixels in a virtual-reality Box. Every once in a while, when he had a brief moment to himself, Corgan would let this real world seep into his senses, reminding him how much better even one minute of reality felt compared with the fourteen years of virtuality he'd experienced inside his Box.
He bent down to pick up a rock, a hardened piece of the lava that a couple million years earlier had spewed out of the ocean to create the Isles of Hiva. The rock filled his cupped hand with a satisfying weight. He ran his thumb across its porous surface and then, taking aim, hurled it toward the top of a tall coconut palm, smiling when he heard the thwack of rock hitting nut. The coconut he'd chosen fell neatly into the sand at his feet.
For no particular reason Corgan calculated the speed of his throw and the arc of its trajectory. At one time he'd been able to split microseconds in his mind, but not anymore. Glancing again at the treetop, mentally computing its height to be 11.47 meters, he happened to notice a small black dot moving in the sky above the palm fronds.
Too high for a seagull, it might be a frigatebird, but frigatebirds didn't fly that fast. As the object grew larger he heard the drone of an airplane. The Harrier jet! But the lab at Nuku Hiva wasn't scheduled to receive a flight for a couple more weeks, so why would the Harrier be coming now? Corgan ran toward the landing strip and reached it just as the jet dropped vertically onto the concrete pad.
After the engines slowed and quieted, the hatch opened, allowing the passenger seated behind the pilot to climb out. A helmet and a blue LiteSuit hid the passenger's identity until gloved hands reached up to remove the headgear, releasing a cascade of golden hair. Sharla!
Corgan's heart beat loudly enough that he could calculate its rhythm without even trying. Four months earlier he and Sharla had said good-bye, not long after celebrating their fifteenth birthdays together. Now here she was again, for whatever reason -- it didn't matter. She'd come back to Nuku Hiva; that was enough.
He reached her and threw his arms around her, but she returned only a one-armed hug because her right hand clutched a flight bag. "Wait!" she told him as she carefully set the bag onto the tarmac. "Make sure you don't step on it," she said, laughing a little, and then both her arms flew around him, and she kissed him until he grew dizzy.
"Where can we go to talk?" she whispered. "Privately, I mean."
"Uh...you remember the barn where I work with the transgenic cattle?"
"It's only been four months -- of course I remember. I'll meet you there. Take this bag, handle it very carefully, and don't look inside until I get there. I have to check in at the lab first. As soon as I can get away, I'll come to the barn."
Waiting beside the Harrier jet, Pilot called out, "Sharla, hurry," and then both of them were gone. Corgan stood there, bewildered, growing even more perplexed when he thought he saw the bag move slightly, not more than a few millimeters, but...no, he must have imagined it.
When he picked it up, it was heavier than he'd expected. Trudging up the hill toward the barn, he started to swing the bag, then remembered Sharla telling him to handle it carefully.
The barn smelled of hay and manure, which Corgan didn't mind. During the fourteen years he'd spent inside his virtual-reality Box, he'd never smelled anything the least bit unpleasant. Here on Nuku Hiva this pungent, earthy order in the barnyard was just one of many signals that he had his freedom now.
He set the bag on a shelf in the back room where he stayed when he waited for the cows to give birth. The herd numbered forty-seven now; no bulls, all cows, and twenty-eight of them were pregnant. Nuku Hiva was such a lush, green, overgrown island that a hundred times as many cattle could have grazed there without depleting the forage.
Since one of the cows was due to deliver any day now, Corgan went to check her. "Hey, Fourteen, how's it going?" he asked her. "Gonna give us what we want?" They were
trying to create one perfect calf with a human clotting gene, another with a gene to help diabetics, and others that would produce disease-fighting compounds in their milk. Cow pregnancies lasted 284 days, a long time to wait to find out whether a genetic transfer had worked.
Fourteen answered with a loud moo. Corgan never named the cows; he'd been instructed not to treat them like pets or get attached to any of them. That rule wasn't hard to follow. Cows were not especially endearing.
He kept wandering out to the brow of the hill to search for Sharla. She had to be down there in the lab with the pilot and the two scientists -- except for the barn, the lab was the only building standing on Nuku Hiva. Enough of his time-calculating ability remained to let him know that seventy-two minutes and fourteen and a half seconds had gone by since she'd left him at the landing strip.
At last he saw her coming, and he ran down the hill to meet her. "Race you to the barn," she said. Sharla -- always competitive. The first time he met her she'd beaten him at Go-Ball. Virtually.
She was panting a little when they reached the barn. Noticing that, Corgan felt satisfaction because his breathing hadn't sped up at all -- he might have lost his mental time-splitting ability, but physically he was in superb condition. Although his heart might have been beating a little faster at the moment, that was because he wanted to kiss Sharla again. She pulled away, saying, "Later. Lots to talk about now. Did you open the flight bag?"
"No. You told me not to."
She smiled. "Still Corgan the obedient. Never does anything he's told not to do, no matter how curious he is."
Flushing, he asked her, "So, what's this all about? Should I open it now?"
"No. Let me give you all the news first."
Corgan glanced at the flight bag and again thought he saw a fleeting ripple of movement against one of its sides. Whatever was in there, whether mechanical or biological, seemed to be capable of motion.
"Come sit beside me," Sharla offered, curling herself on a loose pile of straw. "You'll need to sit down to handle what I'm going to tell you."
"Is it bad?" he asked.
"Part of it." She took a deep breath. "Brig died."
It wasn't a shock; they'd known it had to happen. Still, Corgan had hoped that somehow Brig might grow strong again. Brig, the whiny, brilliant, deformed, demanding, great-hearted mutant who'd been the third member of their Virtual War team. Brig the strategist who'd helped win the War for the Western Hemisphere Federation. The War had taken such a toll on Brig's already weak body that it was only a matter of time before his meager strength gave out.
"The only thing that kept him going toward the end was his battle to keep the mutants alive," Sharla said. "He won that battle. At least no mutants were terminated while Brig still lived."
Turning to face Corgan, Sharla shifted on the straw. "It's such a long story. Really complicated."
"Start with why you're here," he prompted.
"Do you want the official reason or the real reason?"
"Both, I guess."
"Well, as you already know," she began, "I am the most incredible code breaker the world has ever known."
"And so humble, too," he muttered wryly, even though what she'd said was true. Just as Corgan had been genetically engineered to have fast reflexes and time-splitting ability, just as Brig had been artificially created as a superstrategist, Sharla had been bred to break codes. All three of them had come out of the same laboratory, genetically engineered in the same domed city.
"DNA coding is no mystery to me," Sharla continued. "I can anticipate every step, cellular and chemical, in the creation of humans -- or animals. And a few months ago I figured out a way to hurry up gestation. So now your calves can develop and get born in just three months, instead of forty-plus weeks."
"That's incredible," Corgan breathed.
"Yeah, like I said, I'm incredible. Naturally, the Supreme Council ordered me to come here to show your scientists how it's done."
The two scientists on Nuku Hiva, a woman named Delphine and a man named Grimber, shared a badly underequipped laboratory during the day and shared a bed at night. Every day and well into the evening they bent over their lab tables, probing with thin pipettes to laboriously suck the nucleus out of cows' eggs, then replacing them with a human nucleus that contained a gene for whatever trait they were trying to replicate.
In the evening Corgan would help them. He could tell to the tenth of a second when a zygote had reached eight cells, the point at which the cells had to be separated so that each could be genetically altered, one at a time. When it was time for a blastocyst to be implanted, Corgan would select a cow from the free-ranging herd and lead it down to the laboratory. After implantation the cow would be penned in the enclosure outside the barn where Corgan stayed. Eighty percent of the implanted blastocysts failed to take. Of the ones that "took," at least half were lost to miscarriage. Of the calves born, only four of them so far had carried the desired traits, and two of those had died soon after birth. The work was tedious, the equipment meager, and the success rate low. Still, Delphine and Grimber struggled on.
"So, what did they say when you told them the news?" Corgan asked.
"What do you think? They were thrilled. At least Delphine was. You know Grimber -- nothing ever makes him smile. But it will mean a lot more work for them, since the cows will have to be implanted three times as often. They want to teach you the techniques so you can help them."
That sounded good to Corgan. He was growing tired of being nothing more than a cow nursemaid. Only a year ago he'd been the champion of the Western Hemisphere Federation, the player who'd won the Virtual War -- with help from Brig and Sharla. After the horrible War he'd wanted to hide forever in the Isles of Hiva, the prize the three federations had been fighting over, the only uncontaminated land left on Earth. He'd won the War, and as his reward he'd chosen to live on Nuku Hiva.
At first it was everything he'd dreamed of. Now -- well, peace and tranquility were good, but he was getting a little bored. On Nuku Hiva the seasons hardly changed. The temperature stayed pretty much the same, and it rained so often that the island was perpetually green. Fruit fell from the trees into his waiting hands. He could swim in the surf, slide down roaring waterfalls, sleep on warm sand. And all the while, his skills kept eroding like the island's lava rock, ground down by rain and ocean waves.
"So that's why you came here, to teach Delphine and Grimber?" he asked.
"That's the official reason," Sharla answered. "There's a much, much bigger reason, but it's only for you and me."
That excited him because he thought she meant the bond between the two of them. She was the first girl, the first human being, he'd ever touched. For fourteen years he'd lived without any human contact, surrounded by electronic images that to him seemed real because he'd never experienced anything different. Then Sharla broke him free, unlocked the door to his Box, and showed him a world both better and worse than he'd ever imagined. He'd been afraid to touch her, afraid of contamination, but when she laughed at him and kissed him, he'd come shockingly alive, aware of blood pounding in his veins and the scent of warm breath against his skin. From that moment he'd loved her, and he thought she loved him, too, yet he was never entirely sure of her.
Now she was pointing to the flight bag. "Are you ready to see inside?" she asked.
"Sure. I guess so." He lifted it from the shelf, again surprised at the weight of it. "Where should I put it?"
She knelt and gestured for him to kneel facing her on the straw. "Put it between the two of us," she said. "Like a Christmas scene."
"A Christmas scene?" As usual, he hadn't a clue what she was talking about.
Sharla opened the zipper only an inch at a time, amusing herself by teasing him. When it was open all the way, Corgan bent down to peer in.
A doll? He saw pale pink flesh and then actual movement -- this time it was not his imagination. A small hand lifted no more than thirty millimeters. Corgan pulled apart the sides of the flight bag, and there lay a human baby, sound asleep.
"Where'd you get it?" he sputtered. "Whose is it?"
Sharla laughed. "For now, he's yours."
He stared at the baby; it smiled in its sleep. Corgan didn't know anything about babies, but this one didn't look like a newborn. It was pretty big, and it had tufts of bright red hair. "You mean it's been asleep in this flight bag all along?"
"Don't call him an it. He's a he. He's been asleep ever since we left the domed city. I drugged him."
"Drugged him! That's terrible! How could you do that to a baby?"
"I had to," she explained. "Nobody knows he exists, so no one can know that I brought him here. Since I needed to smuggle him out, I had to make sure he wouldn't wake up." Indignantly she asked, "Do you think I'd do anything that would put him in danger? Trust me -- I'd never hurt him. He's my own creation."
"He's...he's yours?" Corgan stammered. "Your own baby?"
She laughed without inhibition, the laugh that always made him feel off-balance because half the time he couldn't tell what was so funny. "Oh, Corgan, as if I could have given birth since the last time I saw you!" Then the laughter faded and she said, "But I guess in a way he is mine. He's Brig."
"He's Brig's?" This kept getting crazier; it was making no sense at all. Brig had been only ten years old when he died. There was no way he could have fathered a baby.
"I didn't say he's Brig's. I said he's Brig! Right before Brig died, I took tissue from his brain -- with his blessings. The baby lying there is a clone. Of our dear, departed Brig. And now" -- Sharla slid her hands beneath the sleeping baby and held him up toward Corgan -- "he's yours."
Copyright © 2002 by Gloria Skurzynski