Feb 23 2013 11:00am
Pandemonium by Warren Fahy is an alternate-world creature feature thriller complete with monsters out to destroy the world as we know it (available March 19, 2013).
Deep beneath the Ural Mountains, in an underground city carved out by slave labor during the darkest hours of the Cold War, ancient caverns hold exotic and dangerous life-forms that have evolved in isolation for countless millennia. Cut off from the surface world, an entire ecosystem of bizarre subterranean species has survived undetected—until now.
Biologists Nell and Geoffrey Binswanger barely survived their last encounter with terrifying, invasive creatures that threatened to engulf the planet. They think the danger is over until a ruthless Russian tycoon lures them to his underground metropolis, where they find themselves confronted by a vicious menagerie of biological horrors from their past—and by entirely new breeds of voracious predators. Now they’re rising up from the bowels of the Earth to consume the world as we know it.
- 1957 -
“Poékhali!” bellowed Taras Demochev, Guard No. 114 of Corrective Labor Camp No. 479. He pushed through the men in the tunnel as he walked beside a mining car carrying a load of blasting powder. “Why aren’t we moving?”
For nine days, prisoners had struggled with faulty pneumatic jackhammers and pickaxes to widen the last fifty yards of the tunnel so that a newly arrived boring machine could gnaw through a stubborn layer of dolomite. Tethered by straining cables a hundred yards up the grade behind Taras, the borer steamed like a locomotive on wide-gauge rails.
Taras barely regarded the half-starved prisoners clogging the tunnel ahead, casting them aside like scarecrows as he bulled forward. The wretched convicts, even the ones in their twenties, were already dokhodyaga, “goners,” buying their last hours of life by digging their own graves. “Move your asses!” Taras yelled. “Out of my way!”
A young subordinate guard rushed to meet him.
“What’s the holdup, Yvgeny?”
“Some zeks fell out of the airshaft.”
As the men parted before him, Taras saw five men sprawled on the ground under a hole in the ceiling twenty yards ahead. He had sent the men up that morning to continue drilling the ventilation shaft. Their heavy pneumatic drills had battered and mangled them on the way down, and the men lay tangled under the heavy equipment and hoses in a pitiful heap. Taras strode forward and fired his revolver into the groaning pile, shocking the younger guard. Many of the prisoners doubled over at the earsplitting gunshot, though most could not hear.
Since they had come under Taras’s command, none of these men officially existed anymore. Once they were sent to Corrective Labor Camp No. 479, their lives were erased. Sixty thousand ghosts labored in this ancient salt mine near the village of Gursk in the Kaziristani highlands. Criminals and lawyers, rapists and poets, murderers and doctors, all were now zeks to the guards. Like ants, they worked until they died and were carried away.
On the mountainside above, the zeks slept in rough wooden barracks slapped together with timber from the foothills of Mount Kazar. Each of their dormitories was the size of a double-wide trailer and housed 120 men by day and 120 by night. Hundreds of the ramshackle dormitories dotted the mountain slopes around the salt mine that, until now, had provided the nearby town’s sustenance for seven centuries. Since their new rulers confiscated the mine four years ago, the villagers of Gursk called the mine that once fed them, “Stalin’s Mouth.”
Over twenty thousand men had been swallowed by the mine. Convicts continuously arrived, but the camp’s population never grew. The townspeople rarely saw salt harvested these days. Instead, an endless stream of mining cars and conveyors disgorged a miniature mountain range of pulverized rock at the foot of the mountain.
More bewildering to the villagers was what they saw going into the mine. Endless shipments arrived by train and were taken by truck and mining car into the mountain—cement and ceiling fans, bricks and marble bathtubs, Persian rugs, alabaster pillars, terra-cotta tiles, bronze streetlamps, bicycles, beds, even baby carriages. Some whispered that they had seen crates of French champagne, beluga caviar, even ZIS-115 limousines straight from Automotive Factory No. 2 in Moscow, all fed into the mine’s mouth.
Taras fired another round at the hesitating prisoners, this time dropping one with a gut shot. “Get going!” he shouted at the rest. He had outlived 61 guards who came before him and 122 guards after. He knew he would be executed along with any convicts who tried to escape on his watch. This had never become a problem for him, since most of Taras’s zeks were dead after only a few weeks. His superiors did not complain about this. In fact, they began deliberately assigning certain prisoners to his detail, which Taras Demochev took as a compliment.
Taras waved away the smoke of his pistol, questioning his eyes: instead of running away from the bullets, this time the zeks were running toward him. A terror rehearsed in his dreams gripped him. He backed away, but as he turned to run, he noticed blue and green sparks gushing out of the unfinished ventilation shaft. An oval of light oozed from the hole and glided like a flashlight beam over the ceiling. Then it peeled from the roof and landed on the back of a screaming convict.
Taras decided to hold his ground. He fired his gun, and two men fell as the rest retreated. But one of the zeks leaped like a gazelle over his comrades’ heads, shrieking and soaring with superhuman force. He landed on all fours at Taras’s feet, his back covered by a glowing mass. The convict jackknifed upright, and as he recognized Taras, an expression of relief came over his face. Taras was horrified, having never provoked that response in a zek before.
The convict reached forward and clutched Taras’s arm. Two white ovals glided down the prisoner’s wrist, over Taras’s gun, and under the guard’s sleeve.
“Shit!” Taras yelled. He felt tongues fringed with needles sliding up his arm. Leeches! he thought. With urgent strength, the zek jerked the barrel of Taras’s pistol to his own forehead with pleading eyes. Taras obliged him, squeezing the trigger and blasting his head apart. Then he pulled himself away as the prisoner dropped like a marionette whose strings had been cut.
Half a dozen glowing ovals were now sliding over the tunnel’s ceiling toward him. Hundreds of glowing red and yellow goblinlike creatures poured from the ventilation shaft onto the men. Taras turned and ran as the tunnel was filled with shrieks. “Let the Grinder go!” he screamed at the men in the tunnel up ahead.
Rising on all fours behind him, the dead zek leaped into the air.
Taras did not look back as he made it to the narrow-gauge rails beside the tunnel borer and shouted, “Cut it loose!”
As the dead zek landed on all fours in front of the hissing machine, Taras reached the far side and the convicts there uncoupled the cables, unleashing the machine’s two hundred tons of mass, which gathered a terrible momentum as it rumbled down the tracks.
Taras scratched at his chest as he charged up the tunnel, past laborers who were plastering and tiling the walls. “Out of my way!” Taras snarled, kicking them aside.
The boring machine accelerated as it mowed over miners and smashed into the mining cart that carried the blasting powder. Driving the cart like a warhead through a forest of flesh and bone, it finally crashed into the dolomite dead end of the tunnel and detonated its payload, rupturing the tunnel like a backfiring cannon.
When the first inspection team arrived, the only human remains visible at the edge of the rubble were Taras Demochev’s hand, disembodied, still clutching his Tokarev pistol.
It was soon determined that it was more practical to cement over this tunnel and memorialize the loss of men with a plaque, and then try drilling in a different direction.
Guard No. 321 took the undamaged gun and pushed some gravel over Guard No. 114’s hand with his boot.
- Present Day -
Toughened and tanned by salt spray and sun, the mummified corpse of Thatcher Redmond resembled beef jerky. His formerly red hair and beard were now snow white. The remains of the zoologist had meandered across the open sea in a partially deflated raft for 134 days.
As though conveyed by a series of belts, the sagging Zodiac had drifted on Pacific currents for thirty-five thousand miles. Sucked east into the Peru–Chile Current, the raft was slung around the South Pacific gyre to the west along the top of the South Equatorial Current, where it was sloughed by the remnants of a storm into the North Equatorial Current. Now it glided on an eddy of the Kuroshio Current, passing the spray of volcanic islands north of Japan.
As it wandered too close to a rocky islet, a large wave caught the Zodiac and pushed it out of the sea, depositing it high up a pebble beach on a colorful tide line of trash.
The first sand flies from the island arrived. As they scribbled the air around the beached raft, a wasplike creature with five wings like a whirlybird emerged from the mummy’s mouth. Its five quivering legs gripped the man’s chin as it basked in the sun to warm its copper blood. Its five upper legs opened and snapped like praying mantis claws, methodically snatching sand flies two at a time out of the air and feeding them like popcorn into a mouth at the end of its distended abdomen. From each of the corpse’s eye sockets two more of these bugs emerged, emulating the first as they stood on each of his cheekbones.
Beach fleas and crabs began invading the Zodiac.
Like a sand dollar fringed by a centipede, a disk the size of a dime rolled on its edge out of the zoologist’s ear. . . .
Drawn by a scent signal from the scout, a few dozen more of the rolling bugs emerged from the watertight corpse, which had been hollowed out like a leather flask by the creatures that had sought refuge inside it.
Like discuses, the bugs launched at the advancing sea roaches, sand flies, and crabs. Generations of juveniles unloaded from the backs of the disk-shaped bugs and gnawed through the joints of the island’s native arthropods, consuming them from the inside, and recycling them into more of themselves, each one of them an assembly line.
The zoologist’s bony hands clutched a jar on his chest. A breeze moaned in the jar’s mouth as a winged creature with three legs and wings took flight from the jar, drawn by the smell of land. A single green scale of what appeared to be lichen clung to one of its three legs.
Out of every thousand juveniles clinging to the sides of the rolling bugs, one dropped off and extended legs on one side like mangrove roots. Then their disk-shaped bodies expanded into tiny cylinders as their upper legs morphed into fronds. Multicolored egg clusters formed like coconuts under the fronds. Within each color of egg, a different species of “tree” began to incubate. . . .
Clouds colored the sea gray like the shore except for a spill of vivid hues on the rocky coast of a tiny island Captain Tezuka was studying with his binoculars. His crab boat, the Kirishima, had been poaching the contested waters north of Japan when his crew drew his attention to the strange sight on the shore. It looked like a melted circus growing out of the island. He rubbed his eyes and smoothed back the white stubble on his shaved scalp, stumped.
This fragment of the Khabomai Rocks was one of a hundred islets dotting a political limbo claimed by both Russia and Japan. With both countries’ navies asserting their authority over them, it was effectively a no-man’s-land, where a fortune in snow and king crab could be harvested for a gambler like Tezuka.
“Captain, we shouldn’t stay here any longer,” his first mate implored.
Captain Tezuka knew he was right, but in all his travels, he had never seen what he was looking at now. “Send three men in for a closer look, Hiro. Have them bring back some of that stuff,” he ordered. Tezuka had a gut feeling this might be a lot more valuable than crabs, to the right buyer. And he knew the right buyer. Telling the authorities was out of the question, of course. After all, it was illegal for him to be here in the first place. “Tell them to use your camera case!”
Hiro sighed. In that camera case was his new video camera, which he was hoping to use to make a reality show pilot of their crab-fishing adventures and sell it to one of Japan’s television networks.
“Empty the case and give it to them,” Tezuka ordered.
Hiro sadly removed his camera and the foam forms inside, placing them inside an empty ice chest. Tezuka threw the empty aluminum case down to three men in the inflatable launch, who gunned the outboard engine and whipped a creamy curve across the sea toward the eruption on the shore of the island.
When they hit the shore, one man dragged the launch above the surf onto the gray pebble beach as the other two men trotted toward the lurid garden growing on the rocky shelf above.
At the base of the ledge, they found the remains of a large Zodiac, half-buried in seaweed. Oddly, no swarms of flies rose as they approached to inspect it. Inside the raft was a corpse wearing a bleached cargo vest, jeans, and shriveled Nikes. The mummy’s bearded face was frozen in a scream and its eye sockets followed them as they passed.
The younger man took the aluminum camera case and lunged up footholds in the escarpment to the ledge. He reached out to a purple coral-like growth and broke off a branch, throwing it into the open case. Reaching down with his other hand, he scooped handfuls of some kind of flat-leafed square-edged moss into the open case, along with what looked like two hard brown dates and some skittering white bugs that suddenly appeared all around him, crawling over the rock.
Transparent blue flower petals popped out on the branches of the coral tree next to his face, startling him. The heel of his hand burned suddenly, and pain scorched the skin on his legs. The three-petaled flowers shot out of the purple branches, revealing insect bodies hanging under three beating wings, hovering a few inches in front of his face, like whirligigs. Before the young man could react, two inch-long bugs had bitten into his neck.
A five-winged creature dived into his cheek and bounced off into the case as he slammed it shut. The case banged down the ledge as he dropped it, where his shipmate caught it and saw the young man collapse, blood spraying from his neck. His mate was about to climb up to help when an angry swarm of strange bugs appeared and instantly covered the young man’s body as he screamed.
His older crewmate turned and ran, embracing the suitcase. Thousands of tiny disks rolled, bounced, and hurled after him like miniature Frisbees. They caught up to the veteran crabber, who had come ashore barefoot with pants rolled up above his knees.
Seven of the pale disks stuck like Chinese throwing stars into his calves, and he ran twenty more steps before falling in crippling agony, dropping the case. It slid down the pebbled beach toward the water as he shrieked and the bones of his calves were exposed as his flesh melted off his legs before his eyes. Attracted by his screams, two flying bugs shot down his throat, silencing him.
The third shipmate, who had stayed with the launch, heard his muffled scream as a wave embraced the camera case and sucked it into the surf. A number of large flying bugs headed toward him, buzzing loudly as he shoved the launch into the water, leaping in. He saw the case floating near the boat and pulled it aboard, throttling the launch toward the Kirishima.
The flying bugs turned away, heading back to shore.
Through his binoculars, Captain Tezuka saw the body of his crew chief rolling in the surf. “Kuso!” he cursed.
“We must report this, Captain,” said Hiro.
Tezuka scoffed. “And get ourselves arrested?” The captain rubbed his head. “Rikio is coming.”
They saw the weeping man in the raft, holding the aluminum case over his head.
“He got it!” Tezuko shouted.
5:27 A.M. Central European Time
Otto Inman heard the e-mail beep while he was typing his notes. He had been up all night, working on a book about his experiences on Henders Island.
Several of his colleagues had made a bundle off book deals and product endorsements since the species they discovered on the island had added an entire branch to the tree of Earth’s evolution. All the creatures that had evolved on that isolated, crumbling fragment of an ancient supercontinent had been sterilized with a nuclear weapon—except for the incredibly alien and astonishingly sentient “hendros,” who were now kept in an undisclosed location.
Though virtually imprisoned since their public debut on the reality TV show that had first encountered them, the five surviving hendros had become world famous. Even in their seclusion, they had each made a fortune in sponsorship deals, their likenesses appearing in comic books, movies, trading cards, action figures, board games, children’s cartoons, and commercials for hundreds of brands around the world.
Otto was one of the first scientists to encounter life on Henders Island, and was instrumental in designing the doomed NASA mobile lab the navy had flown in to investigate the island, yet he was having trouble spinning his story into gold, as so many others had. He did appreciate, and accept, a lucrative fellowship at the University of Berlin to study the legacy of Henders Island and the vast array of animals from its now extinct ecosystem, but he knew he was letting a golden opportunity pass.
Bored with his ideas, Otto welcomed the distracting e-mail. At first, it seemed like an offer to help an African prince withdraw money from a frozen bank account:
Dear Dr. Inman,
It is with the greatest respect that I solicit your expertise on a matter I believe to be of professional interest to you, and to the scientific community at large. We are prepared to make your acceptance of our offer quite lucrative, in the amount of two million American Dollars to be discreetly deposited into a private Swiss bank account with appropriately exclusive access.
I hope you will meet me at 5 o’clock this afternoon at Maruoosh restaurant in Charlottensburg to discuss the project, which, you should understand, we expect you to keep in perfect confidence.
I look forward to making your acquaintance and to discussing this matter further. We hope very much you will be agreeable to assisting us in this important scientific investigation, which promises to be very much more than professionally rewarding.
Very truly yours,
Human Resources Procurement Director
GEM Worldwide Holdings
Well, why not, he thought, and replied:
See you there!
6:59 P.M. Eastern Standard Time
The placard onstage in Lillie Auditorium read:
TONIGHT’S FIRE-BREATHING CHAT:
What Is Human?
The cozy theater in Woods Hole, Massachusetts, was packed as people continued to crowd in, standing behind the seats.
“Good evening, ladies and gentlemen.”
Nell stacked her index cards on the lectern, pushing back a strand of her auburn hair, which was trimmed after her first trip to a hairdresser in three months. Tall, slender, with engaging mahogany brown eyes and an easily freckled complexion, Nell surveyed the crowd. “Tonight I must start with the confession that I am not an anthropologist. However, I would like to discuss a new force in evolution, which I believe may explain the rise of sentient life on Earth. My husband, the founder of the Fire-Breathing Chat, who seems to be late, informs me that this audience, above all others, might welcome such an unconventional proposal as I am about to propose, if only to rip it to pieces.” She smiled wryly, and the audience congratulated itself with applause.
A few wolf whistles pierced the humble auditorium where three dozen Nobel Prize–winning scientists had spoken over the last century. Nell scanned her cue cards and kicked a leg out of the hula skirt she was wearing, which got a big cheer. “Now, now.” She arched a brow and waggled her finger at the audience of rambunctious nerds. The Fire-Breathing Chat tradition required her to wear a random garment of ethnic origin, so she had chosen a pa’u, or Hawaiian “hula skirt,” as well as her husband Geoffrey’s torn Conserve Island Habitats T-shirt, which had somehow survived Henders Island.
“I have spent the last six months with hendropods, the marvelously intelligent species that my colleagues and I helped rescue from Henders Island. And during this extraordinary time, I have concluded that there is something unique about the development of sentient beings that both of our species share despite the vast biological differences that separate us. Indeed, a unique evolutionary force distinguishes us, in a very real way, from all other life on Earth.”
Nell peered over the audience but still saw no sign of Geoffrey. Though she and her husband enjoyed a very special relationship with the hendropods, it had not come without a cost. Shy of human contact, the hendros interacted with only a very exclusive group of humans. For any biologist, it was the greatest opportunity in history to be one of those they had chosen. These intelligent creatures inhabited the Earth and yet were not of human, primate, or even mammalian origin. Their mere existence was the most exciting discovery of all time, even more astonishing than would be the discovery of intelligent life on another planet. Nell and Geoffrey treated this privilege, moreover, as a solemn duty, vowing to protect the brilliant beings who now depended on them.
But the responsibility had proved exhausting, and this brief furlough away from the hendros was their first separation since encountering them on Henders Island. Even so, apart from getting married in a quick wedding ceremony in New York two days ago, attended by Geoffrey’s rushed parents, she and Geoffrey had so far spent their marriage separated from each other. Geoffrey had had to attend several high-level meetings at the United Nations to lobby for the hendros’ freedom while Nell departed for Woods Hole to give this lecture. Both of them realized, however, that their fates were inextricably intertwined with that of the hendropods. The sooner the hendropods won their freedom, the sooner Nell and Geoffrey would regain theirs.
An athletic man with a coffee and cream complexion, handsome African features, and pale blue eyes burst through the doors at the back of the auditorium. With relief, Nell recognized her husband, despite his new haircut. Geoffrey’s dreadlocks were shorn, and she noticed the pleasing shape of his cranium in the soft light. “Hi, husby!” she said.
A round of laughter and applause acknowledged the newlywed scientists. He waved back as an audience member offered him his seat near the back. After dealing with UN diplomats for two days, Geoffrey had been flown from LaGuardia to Logan Airport only three hours ago, racing in a government limousine to get here. He thanked the man and sat, sighing, as he waved at her.
“Now, then,” she said. “To the topic of tonight’s chat. Most scientists claim no special origin for human beings out of a desire to acknowledge that the same evolutionary processes that created all life on Earth produced us, as well. I believe, however, that this bias might have obscured an essential factor in the understanding of human evolution, one which may well explain the spectacularly rapid rise of our species in such a relatively short time. In fact, I think that humans and hendros, unlike all other species, share a unique and powerful evolutionary dynamic: We are both the product of intelligent design!”
The feisty first row harrumphed, ready to pounce, as she knew they would, and catcalls rose in the back of the auditorium. Geoffrey braced himself.
Nell smiled and squeezed the clicker to project an image of a cute wallaby. “Kangaroos and this Henders species helped retire Plato’s definition of human beings as the ‘featherless biped.’ ” A series of images showed a furry biped with an anvil-like head bashing the window of a doomed NASA lab abandoned on Henders Island. The pictures elicited gasps, as did all pictures of Henders organisms. “Benjamin Franklin defined man as the ‘tool-making animal.’ ” Nell put up a photo of a wise bonobo ape with penetrating eyes. “Jane Goodall disproved his definition by discovering toolmaking chimpanzees. We now know that some birds, like crows, also fashion twigs into tools. After the discovery of the hendros, however, I believe that an entirely new distinction redefines ‘humanity.’ Humans, I suggest, are the only animals that create themselves.”
The theater hummed with tension as she projected an image of a primitive stone ax. “Nature still had to provide the raw material: DNA sequences that produced a brain that could conceptualize, a vocal apparatus that could create sounds to symbolize concepts, and coordinated hands with opposable thumbs that could facilitate creativity. But this potential was all nature could provide. When a human ancestor with these innate abilities made the giant innovation of assigning a vocalized sound to an abstraction—a specialized grunt symbolizing ‘lion,’ for example—that creative act connected these aptitudes in a new way and introduced a unique evolutionary force to the animal kingdom, and this new force could operate over generations just like DNA. Creative behavior that required specific physical aptitudes was transferred by language from generation to generation, creating a new evolutionary pressure.”
Nell gauged the audience as she took a breath and they settled back in their seats.
“Language required aptitudes for conceiving, communicating, and implementing ideas and at the same time set conditions for selecting those aptitudes over generations. It would not have mattered if the ancient genius who thought of the first word had the best vocal cords or brain specialization to fully exploit speech. The invention of language conferred benefits on those equipped to take advantage and pass those genetic traits to their descendants. In this way, humans created themselves as their own ideas influenced their evolution.”
Nell clicked to a close-up of a gibbon gripping a branch. “When a prehuman ancestor suited to tree-swinging thought of a new use for hands—making tools—an idea, once again, became an adaptive force. Without language, such a creative breakthrough could not have been passed through offspring long enough to have an evolutionary effect. But with language—the DNA of ideas—a toolmaking culture could be transmitted from generation to generation over a sufficient amount of time to select for improved opposable thumbs, hand-to-eye coordination, geometric thinking, and a host of other complementary adaptations.”
Nell clicked through a series of primitive stone axes now, all of which appeared roughly the same. “This identical style of stone tool was made by Homo erectus for nearly one-and-a-half million years with no significant variation. But the hands and the brains making them over that time were changing and adapting to the task at hand along with the teaching of it. Just as Edison, Einstein, Ford, or Gates did in the modern day, one person finally improvised, long ago—and that innovation could be passed on through language, changing and focusing the pressures of adaptation.” Nell clicked to an image of a diverse collection of stone knives, spearheads, tools, and adornments made by Homo sapiens. “By the time we appeared, an explosion of biological and technological adaptations had already occurred.”
Nell clicked through a gallery of skydivers, spacewalkers, ballerinas, and Olympic swimmers. “We recognize in our hands, our mouth, our mind, our face, and our feet customizations that serve the needs of the spiritual, creative, inquisitive, and intellectual being that we are. There is something unique about human evolution, something that has made our bodies specialized vessels for the human spirit. Unlike any other animal, we ski on snow, skydive through air, swim in water, and walk in space. Something tells us that our origin could not simply be the result of purely mechanical or physical forces acting on the randomly mutating sequence of nucleotide bases in our genes. Our evolution is most profoundly of intellectual origin, expressed and carried forward, I submit, through language. Speech joined with DNA to complete a unique feedback loop between our minds and bodies, which over time accelerated and directed our own evolution. The intuition inspiring creationists—that humans must be different in some special way from all living beings and that there must be a conscious plan in our design—is not mistaken. Strictly physical theories of evolution are blind to an empirically obvious truth: We are the product of conscious design in almost every way that distinguishes us from other living things. But the designer we have searched for from time immemorial is us.”
The audience churned like waves kicking up ahead of a storm. Nell showed an image of the famous biologist Richard Dawkins, whose picture elicited cheers, boos, scolds, and laughter. “The eminent evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins has introduced a corollary to my hypothesis with his theory of ‘memes.’ His genetic metaphor suggests that ideas, or memes, are selected in the same way mutations are selected, leading to the evolution of human cultures. Good ideas have a way of surviving, along with their hosts. Bad ones perish, taking their hosts with them. I propose that not only do ideas select for or against their human hosts, as Dawkins postulates, but that successful ideas biologically alter their hosts over time, leading to the seemingly miraculous creation of both humans and hendros.”
Nell clicked on a photo of a heavy-browed man wearing thick-framed glasses and shaggy hair. “Jacob Bronowski, in his seminal book, The Ascent of Man, postulated that the first step in the rise of humans was the ‘biological revolution,’ in which our ancestors domesticated the living world. Bronowski noted that wheat was created by people plucking the plumpest grass grains from the surrounding countryside, accidentally concentrating them at their campsites, where they cross-pollinated into a superproductive hybrid. The hybrid’s high yield enabled our ancestors to establish permanent farming communities. At the same time, humans selected other species, changing them, too, over time, into crops, chickens, dogs, and cattle.” Nell flicked through images of livestock and vegetables “domesticated” by humans. “Nobody would argue that wheat, pugs, corn, or Secretariat evolved naturally. But I propose tonight that Bronowski’s observation applies to humans, as well, over the millions of years of our own evolution. Just as we domesticated horses, pigs, and peas based on criteria we created, we ‘domesticated’ ourselves, as well. And we have been domesticating ourselves to suit our purposes far longer than any other species.”
Nell clicked to an image of Michelangelo’s God touching Adam’s finger. “The final blasphemy I offer tonight is this: The failure to acknowledge a role for intelligence and its innovations in our physical evolution is often ridiculed by science’s detractors. What is probably most controversial about this proposition is that I agree with them. Yet I believe they, along with the scientific community, ignore the true origin of the divine spark they insist must exist: we are animals that invented ourselves.”
Nell cued an image of one of the six-limbed hendros. The strange creature stood between Nell and Geoffrey with four arms stretched around them, grasping their arms with four hands. Gratified oohs and ahs swelled in the audience as she clicked through a succession of hendro family photos.
“Many have expressed confusion about how such intelligent, civilized, and gentle beings as hendropods could emerge from the biological slaughterhouse of Henders Island. Some wondered how they could have deviated from such an environment to develop the anatomy of speech, which their crustacean ancestors never exhibited.”
Nell watched the awe-smitten faces in the audience as they looked at images of the colorful hendropods playing video games, drinking from mugs, using laptops, cooking on a stove, eating popcorn, and waving at the camera with multiple hands.
“Many have questioned whether or not hendropods—or ‘sels,’ as they prefer to call themselves—should truly be considered ‘people.’ Lawsuits and petitions are wending their way to the U.S. Supreme Court and the United Nations as we speak.” She glanced in Geoffrey’s direction.
Geoffrey nodded back at her and grinned, eager to give her the news after the lecture.
“The ecosystem on Henders Island began its separate evolutionary trajectory over half a billion years ago on a much larger landmass,” Nell explained. “It was completely isolated from the rest of life on Earth. The same adaptive force that accelerated and distinguished Homo sapiens in only five million years from all other mammals also acted on sels to shape a species that is just as human in its own way—spiritually, physically, intellectually—millions of years before us.” She clicked on an image of Geoffrey and Hender hunched over a chessboard like mismatched bookends.
“Yes, they play chess,” Nell nodded. “And they mostly win. Those who are incredulous that a species from Henders Island could be sentient or civilized, I would point out that some of the most inhospitable environments, the Congo and the Amazon jungles, have given rise to some of the most peaceful cultures of Homo sapiens.
“Species that innovate take control of their evolutionary destiny and steer it in a unique and special way toward their own purposes. I propose tonight for your consideration that this is what distinguishes humanity and is the true definition that separates us from the rest of the animal kingdom. And we share this with only one other earthly species: our hendropod cousins.”
Nell flourished a hand over the audience. “And so, without further adieu, you may attack my proposition without mercy.” She bowed, inviting the post-lecture scrum that traditionally followed Fire-Breathing Chats.
Applause rose and hands ascended in front.
Nell pointed to a questioner stretching her arm in the third row. “Yes?”
“Don’t you regret that it was your own human curiosity that caused the destruction of an entire ecosystem on Henders Island, Dr. Binswanger?” the frowning woman accused more than asked.
A nervous gasp audibly spread over the audience.
Nell tilted her head toward the lectern. It was odd hearing her new last name. She realized that she and Geoffrey would both be taking this heat from now on, and she caught Geoffrey’s eyes looking back at her ruefully. “That’s an excellent question, and one I think about every day. Henders Island was sterilized with a nuclear weapon, as you all know. All I can say is that I do not regret it. I’m glad there is not even the slightest possibility that any species, other than the sels, of course, can ever reach the rest of our planet from Henders Island. Any species from that ecosystem would have eradicated all life as we know it. I hear that half of Henders Island has already crumbled into the sea, as nature itself seems to be bringing that evolutionary detour to a dead end. If we had not intervened, it would have been destroyed in short order, and nothing from Henders Island would have survived. If Hender, one of the five surviving sels inhabiting the island, had not figured out how to activate an emergency beacon on a beached sailboat, and if we had not been there to answer, they would have been lost, too, along with everything else. And we would have all lost what they can teach us about ourselves.” She called on a man in the third row.
“Dr. Binswanger, considering the fact that the hendropods are intelligent beings like us, don’t you acknowledge the fact that they might be the most dangerous creatures from Henders Island?”
“Well. That was certainly the belief of Thatcher Redmond, one of my colleagues who was lost at sea while we were rescuing the hendropods. As sentient beings, hendropods are as capable of good and evil as we are, I suppose. It depends on whether one is a pessimist or an optimist about the power of autonomy. But I would say they are no more or less dangerous than we are.”
“My very point!” the man answered.
The audience punctuated his point.
“It’s a risk we take every day with our own species. It’s a risk I believe is worth taking.” Nell called on an elderly woman in the tenth row.
“Is this how you are spending your honeymoon?” she said, to spluttering laughter.
“We are flying to one of the Hawaiian Islands tomorrow for two glorious weeks of seclusion. We’ve always wanted to check out wolf spiders in lava tubes.” Nell nodded. “Really!” She called on another.
“Is it true that sels see much better than humans can? And do they close their eyes?”
“Yes, they see millions of colors we cannot see, much like modern-day stomatopods, or mantis shrimp, which might be distant relatives and may even have originated on Henders Island, or at least the continent that Henders Island used to be. And yes! Their eyes are dry and they shed periodically like crab shells, but they can close them and also extend them on three-inch stalks. It’s a bit disconcerting, like a Tex Avery cartoon, but it seems perfectly natural after being with them for a while. Yes, you in the blue shirt?”
“Do the hendros have any body odor, and if so, can you describe it?”
Nell smiled as laughter twittered. “They smell sweet, like pennies. Perhaps that’s because they have copper-based blood. Yes?”
“Do the hendros have Internet access, and if so, what do they think of porn?”
“Uh, no, they don’t have access yet. Our own bashfulness may be why, but I’m not sure. We’re working on it, though. They really want it. And I’m not sure what they’ll think of porn, now that you mention it. . . . Yes?”
To Geoffrey’s frustration, virtually none of the questions were about Nell’s topic. The audience wanted to hear about the sels: What did they eat or drink, had they tried alcohol, did they have any favorite video games or favorite movie stars or television shows? Geoffrey sighed and realized that this was the way it would be—probably for the rest of their lives.
Geoffrey hugged her behind the curtain. “You knocked ’em out, sweetheart.” He handed her a dry airport rose. “Congratulations!”
She smelled the pink bloom. “That was so much fun. Thanks for arranging it, sweetheart.”
“Don’t mention it. You were brilliant.”
“What’s the news?”
“Well, we got them high-speed Internet.” He smiled tentatively.
“Thank God! And?”
“And . . . Hender has been invited to London for a party in his honor.”
“Fantastic . . .”
“It’s a step.”
“So . . . that’s it?”
“So it’s . . . a trial, then?”
“More like a debut, I think.”
“Come on, let’s get out of here! I made some arrangements.” He whispered in her ear. “We can give the Secret Service the slip and tell them where we are later. Or just take a cab to the airport in the morning.” Geoffrey shouldered his bag and grabbed Nell’s suitcase, which had been stowed backstage.
“OK! Sounds like fun.”
Geoffrey whispered to a stagehand, “Keep it on the down-low.” The man winked back as they slipped out the emergency exit and ran down the alley behind Lillie Auditorium.
They sneaked down the tiny streets of Woods Hole to Brick Dorm, the old dormitory of the Marine Biological Laboratory. Inside, they found the room Geoffrey’s friend had reserved for them. Geoffrey was disappointed to find that the room’s window faced a Dumpster in an alley instead of Eel Pond, where they could have watched the sailboats. At least no one knew they were here, he thought.
Nell sat on the bed and reflexively called Andy to check in, and Geoffrey stammered belatedly in protest. She looked at him apologetically as she answered. “I know they miss us, Andy. Could you just tell them that we miss them—? Oh, hi, Hender!”
Geoffrey sighed and stretched back on the bed next to her, placing his hands on his forehead. All five sels demanded to speak to her in succession. By the time she finished, the sleep-depleted Geoffrey snored loudly.
She decided not to wake him up and curled up beside him, still coming down from the high of delivering her first Fire-Breathing Chat at the legendary Lillie Auditorium.
Copyright © 2013 Warren Fahy