Today's Reading

There was a reason Brahmasamudram Mining Company had set her up in a lab on board the Varuna when she could perfectly easily have worked from the Swedish coast. It was one of those psychological tactics, tribal rites, that lurked so often inside even the most impersonal transactions of the multinationals she worked for. Like most of her clients, Brahmasamudram wanted her to have it always in the back of her mind that, for the duration of her contract, she belonged to them. She lived in their domain and she worked in their domain and there was nothing beyond that domain but chilly Baltic water.

And yet you weren't supposed to say that out loud. Yes, she was dependent, surveilled, confined, a vassal of the Varuna just like every other crew member. But the premise of her work was that she was a scientist making objective judgements, uninfluenced by the client who was paying for her time. And everybody involved benefited from that premise—from her immaculate priestly aura. For Devi to treat her like this—to reveal so blatantly the coercion behind their hospitality—was a sullying not only of her current assignment but of every assignment she had ever taken.

At least Devi seemed as uncomfortable as Resaint was indignant. Clearly this wasn't her choice. Somebody was making her do this. "Your own cabin," she said. "Please."

Resaint knew she could refuse. Devi was hardly going to drag her out of here by her hair. And yet if she made Abdi's cabin into her last stand, things would get a lot more awkward for Abdi, and she didn't want that. "If we go back to my cabin, are we going to sort out whatever the fuck is going on here?"

"Yes," said Devi, relieved to see an opening. "Yes, we will sort it out.

I promise. Someone is coming to talk to you."


CHAPTER TWO

Earlier that same night, Halyard was in a taxi on his way to dinner when he saw a tumor crash to earth like a meteorite.

They were at the back of the convoy, a minibus and three overflow taxis shuttling everybody from the Mosvatia Bioinformatics headquarters outside Copenhagen to a hotel on the waterfront. He wasn't sure what would have happened to the taxi up ahead if it hadn't swerved off the road at the very last moment. It was an interesting rock-paper-scissors-type question, because the tumor was made of flesh, and flesh was traditionally the loser against car bumpers, but on the other hand he knew you could get killed hitting a deer on the road, and this thing had to weigh at least three times as much as a deer.

His own taxi hadn't swerved, it had just braked—hurling him and his three fellow passengers forward into their seatbelts, and his phone out of his hands and into the footwell—which meant he now had a clear view through the front windscreen. The monstrosity, which had burst apart when it hit the asphalt, now lay there in four ragged chunks, and even those were the size of shipping crates. The sound of impact had been just one sharp drum hit, but somehow also symphonic—deep and wet and ruptive and sproingy all at the same time, really remarkable Foley work on the tumor's part—and yet in terms of textural horror the sound had nothing on the image. The meat was reddish-white, glistening, ruffled and pleated, except in some places where it was wrapped like tenderloin in translucent epimysium, and in others where it had thick black or white fur. Here and there a nub of bone poked through.

For Halyard the experience was startling, yes, but not quite as nightmarish as it might have been if he hadn't known what he was looking at. And he did know, because he'd seen coverage of the last time this had happened, during a conference outside Madrid. What had just landed was a teratoma, meaning a tumor made of germ cells that could resolve themselves into any type of tissue (so there were probably teeth buried in there somewhere, brain matter, even eyeballs, like an anagram of a mammal's body). It had been grown in an unlicensed laboratory somewhere using DNA bootlegged from Chiu Chiu, the "last" giant panda. And it had been launched from a catapult as a protest against what Halyard did for a living.

Chiu Chiu had died twelve years ago of a fungal respiratory infection in the intensive care unit of the Giant Panda Breeding Research Base in Chengdu. At that time, he was the last giant panda. But he was not the last giant panda for very long afterward, because plenty of clones followed, nurtured in the wombs of black bears. Still, he would always be the last in an unbroken chain of wet begetting, the last panda who came out of a panda who came out of a panda who—ellipsis here—came out of the very first panda.

In terms of sheer emotional tonnage, Chiu Chiu's death may have been a convulsion unprecedented in the history of the human race, the largest number of people multiplied by the deepest sincerity of feeling. You couldn't usually make generalizations about a nation of 1.4 billion people, but pretty much everybody in China loved Chiu Chiu. In his last days, no hour-to-hour news of his condition was permitted to leak out of the Research Base because of its potentially destabilizing effects on the stock market. This mysterious fungal blight, which scoffed at even the tightest quarantines, had already killed hundreds of wild and captive pandas around the world, and when it killed Chiu Chiu too, the Chinese fell into a frenzy of lamentation and self-reproach. They had failed to safeguard their own national animal, and they were tortured by the shame. For days, the streets were crowded with what appeared to be howling ghouls released from the netherworld: these were in fact children who had put on panda makeup in tribute to ji mo de Chiu Chiu (lonely Chiu Chiu) but whose uncontrollable weeping had slubbered it down their cheeks. A Beijing journalist who wrote a column with the headline "Why I do not care about Chiu Chiu" was forced to go into hiding. Yes, there would soon be cloned pandas, but this was the period of the Communist Party's campaign against "lying goods," and clones were often compared to blood pudding illicitly thickened with formaldehyde.


This excerpt ends on page 15 of the hardcover edition.

Monday, October 3rd, we begin the book The Ice Ghost by Kathleen O'Neal Gear.
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