In a Japanese laboratory, a scientist embarks on an experiment that may have the power to change the future of humanity, by reaching deep into its evolutionary past…
The tour guide showed Representative Hamamoto through the sliding double doors, thick enough to belong on a bomb shelter she silently observed as she passed under the curved archway, and into an austere white laboratory. The air smelt strongly of disinfectant and a number of figures in shapeless white coveralls that almost caused them to disappear against the blank walls walked between benches carrying beakers, petri dishes, other equipment whose use she couldn’t begin to guess at. A man close by, obviously the nominated spokesman of this team, bowed to her. “Hamamoto-san,” he said in a neutral accent.
Hamamoto looked around the windowless laboratory. She had seen a dozen much like this already and, as important as this fact-finding trip to Hoshi-Wójcik’s national headquarters was to the Prime Minister, she was beginning to grow weary of it all. “What do you do here, Kimoto-san?” she asked her guide.
“Professor Matsumura,” the tall man answered with a smooth flick of his wrist towards the still bobbing scientist, “is our foremost expert on genetics.”
“Ah. So this is your fabled gene-splicing lab, is it?”
“It is, Representative,” Matsumura answered with just a slight hint of pride in his voice. Only a rounded face with soft, childlike features peered out from his outfit, but he seemed a diminutive, unprepossessing sort. A real nerd, like a turn-of-the-century otaku brought back to life. He showed her what his team were working on. It was fairly bland stuff, to her eyes. Wetware technology – organ replacements for the super-rich, advanced IVF that involved radical gene manipulation. Uncomfortable echoes of Nazi eugenics. Valuable work, no doubt, but hard to leverage on the political stage. No one wanted to touch anything quite that toxic. Her concerns were more practical.
“I was given to understand you had made great strides in modifying cereal genomes,” she said to Matsumura. Obviously he didn’t have a lot of coaching, because he stumbled over some half-baked explanation she could barely understand.
Kimoto cut in. “Representative, Hoshi-Wójcik has been pushing forward the technology of GM foodstuffs for decades now. By our most conservative estimates we have improved the productivity of global produce yields by five-hundred per cent, averting starvation in hundreds of nations.”
“I’m aware of that,” she murmured as she walked past another bench where a hunched scientist was peering through a microscope.
“But that is the least of what we do – that is…ah…workaday, you might say. This room is where the laws of science are bent and eventually broken. These are the finest minds our nation, or any other, has to offer.”
“I can see that,” Hamamoto said with a glance towards the shuffling Matsumura. She stopped at a bench where another small figure sat staring intently at a holoscreen suspended above the clean white surface of the table. The ‘screen showed a handful of images of different angles of what looked like a bundle of translucent pink sacs. Dark shapes moved languidly within them. She frowned. “What’s this?”
Matsumura looked panicked for a second and reached to turn off the holoscreen, but a hand slapped him away absently. “Leave it,” said the scientist at the bench, and Hamamoto was surprised to find out she was a woman. So far her tour of the Hoshi-Wójcik building had felt like being in the gender segregated Japanese business world of a century ago.
Kimoto stepped between her and the bench and gave her a fixed smile. “An experiment, Representative. As I said, here we push at the limits of what is known. Some of our scientists have some rather…eccentric…interests.”
“I told you to take the day off,” Matsumura was telling his colleague in a low voice, but he wasn’t very good at moderating his tone.
“It is at a critical juncture,” the female scientist replied acidly, “do you want the last two years to be a total waste of time?”
“Representative,” Kimoto said, placing a hand gently on her shoulder, “over here we are doing some work on muscle development that may well have important military applications. As you know, Hoshi-Wójcik are one of the contractors currently competing for…”
“Wait,” Hamamato said, brushing him away and stepping back towards the holoscreen, “what was that?” A tiny hand moved in one of the sacs. A human hand. “Is that a person?”
“In a manner of speaking,” the scientist said.
“Haruko,” Matsumura hissed.
“Representative, I really think we should…”
“What are you working on, Dr Haruko?” Hamamato asked the woman.
She looked up at her. Like her colleagues she was enclosed head to foot in the coveralls and her face was wide and plain, but her gaze had an intensity that momentarily took her back. She stared at her for a moment, then turned back to her work. “A personal project.”
“What kind of project?” she pressed over the feeble protestations of the man standing close by. “That looked like a hand, but human cloning is illegal.”
“It isn’t human, at least not entirely.”
Hamamoto frowned. “What does that mean?”
“Nothing,” Matsumura interrupted, “nothing at all.”
“I’m working on gene splicing techniques,” Haruko answered, ignoring him, “engineering hybrids.”
“Nothing unusual about that at all,” Kimoto said, “why, farmers have been doing the same thing for thousands of years. Some of the most ancient crops are actually hybrids of…”
“Vertebrate hybrids,” Haruko said, “complex organisms.”
“Like a mule?” Hamamoto asked.
“Yes, but this is an order of magnitude more complex.”
“Because there is no animal as closely related to humans as a horse is to a donkey.”
Hamamoto felt her blood run cold. Her eyes flicked back to the ‘screen, to the hand pushing against the pinkish material of the sac. Kimoto’s face had curdled, but she ignored him and leant closer. She spoke softly, carefully. “Could you explain that to me a bit more, Dr Haruko?”
“The most recent common ancestor of donkeys and horses lived around four million years ago. Humans diverged from chimpanzees almost twice as long ago as that. The genetic drift has long made hybridisation impractical – the odds of it occurring naturally, practicalities aside, are zero. This is a new splicing technique, using a completely reconfigured genome, that should enable us to birth living hybrids.”
“Hyrbids…of humans and chimpanzees…?”
“Yes,” she answered mildly.
Hamamoto tried to wrap her mind around what she was hearing and seeing. She pointed at the ‘screen. “And this is…?”
“A view of our gestation facility, underneath the building. These are artificial wombs.”
Her mind reeled again. Of course, if they could build an artificial human heart, why not a uterus? “Do you know how this could revolutionise infertility treatments?” she asked.
Haruko shrugged. “I have little interest in such things.” Indeed, the small, cold woman seemed wholly devoted to her work. Her fingers had been manipulating the holo-keys on the table throughout the conversation, and she’d barely looked up from what she was doing. Her colleagues had obviously hoped she wouldn’t be around to show off this particular experiment.
Hamamoto tried to decide what question to ask first. “A human-chimp hybrid. Why?”
“To see if it could be done.”
“Of course…” A noble aim, but in pursuit of this? “And what would such a creature look like? What would it be? I suppose, perhaps, like one of the strains of ancestral hominids?”
Haruko allowed herself a small smile, the first Hamamoto had seen from her. “Not exactly. We did not evolve from chimpanzees, we simply share a common ancestor, which had traits in common with both our species. And the evolutionary path of the genus homo was, like all evolution, guided by selection pressures. Our DNA does not contain any sort of ‘code’ for our ancestors. They were moulded by their environments, not predestined by their genes.” Hamamoto got the impression she’d had this conversation before.
“Are you student of palaeoanthropology, Representative?”
She lifted an eyebrow. “No, but I know a little. I can tell a homo erectus from a Neanderthal…”
Another faint smile from the little scientist. “According to my projections, the organisms will resemble something we might recognise as the archaic form that arose perhaps four or five million years ago on the emerging savannah of central Africa. Equidistant in time, in fact, between the present day and our divergence from our closest relatives. We know them as Australopithecus. But,” she added, “the resemblance is largely coincidental.”
Hamamoto looked at the image on the holoscreen, the little hand moving in the translucent womb. Beside it in the other wombs, she was certain, were siblings. Cloning humans was illegal, but versions of extinct hominids? She wasn’t sure where the law sat on that one. Some countries recognised Great Apes as beings with full human rights, but that kind of eco-moralising belonged to a lost age of plenty. These days, the last thing the world needed was more humans – or things like them. In her heart, she felt that this experiment was deeply, disturbingly wrong. But as her eyes adjusted to the dim light of the gestation suite and the dark shape in the artificial womb resolved itself into that of a not-quite-human foetus, curled up on itself like any other baby, she felt like she was witnessing some crucial juncture.
“What will it be like?” she asked Haruko. “Will it be intelligent? Will it think?” And, left unsaid, will it have a soul? Will it be like us? Will it be what we once were, or something wholly different?
“We will find out soon, all being well,” Haruko said as she continued to gaze intently at the ‘screen.