Paul Di Filippo, Bruce Sterling
The Scab's Progress
The federal bio-containment center was a diatom the size of the Disney Matterhorn. It perched on fractal struts in a particularly charmless district of Nevada, where the waterless white sands swarmed with toxic vermin.
The entomopter scissored its dragonfly wings, conveying Ribo Zombie above the desert wastes. This was always the best part of the program: the part where Ribo Zombie lovingly checked out all his cool new gear before launching into action. As a top-ranking scab from the otaku-pirate underground, Ribo Zombie owned reactive gloves with slashproof ligaments and sandwiched Kevlar-polysaccharide. He owned a mother-of-pearl crash helmet, hung with daring insouciance on the scaled wall of the 'mopter's cockpit. And those Nevada desert boots!—like something built by Tolkien orcs with day-jobs at Nike.
Accompanying the infamous RZ was his legendary and much-merchandised familiar, Skratchy Kat. Every scab owned a familiar: they were the totem animals of the gene-pirate scene. The custom dated back to the birth of the scab subculture, when tree-spiking Earth Firsters and obsessive dog breeders had jointly discovered the benefits of outlaw genetic engineering.
With a flash of emerald eyes the supercat rose from the armored lap of the daring scab. Skratchy Kat had some much cooler name in the Japanese collectors' market. He'd been designed in Tokyo, and was a deft Pocket-Monster commingling of eight spliced species of felines and viverines, with the look, the collector cachet, and (judging by his stuffed-toy version) plenty of the smell of a civet cat. Ribo Zombie, despite frequent on-screen cameos by busty-babe groupies, had never enjoyed any steady feminine relationship. What true love there was in his life flowed between man and cat.
Clickable product-placement hot-tags were displayed on the 'mopter screens as Ribo Zombie's aircraft winged in for the kill. The ads sold magnums of cheap, post- Greenhouse Reykjavik Champagne. Ringside tix to a Celebrity Deathmatch (splatter-shields extra). Entomopter rentals in Vegas, with a rapid, low-cost divorce optional.
Then, wham! Inertia hit the settling aircraft, gypsum-sand flew like pulverized wallboard, and the entomopter's chitinous canopy accordioned open. Ribo Zombie vaulted to the glistening sands, clutching his cat to his armored bosom. He set the beast free with a brief, comradely exchange of meows, then sealed his facemask, pulled a monster pistol, and plucked a retro-chic pineapple grenade from his bandolier.
A pair of crystalline robot snakes fell to concussive explosions. Alluring vibrators disoriented the numerous toxic scorpions in the vicinity. Three snarling jackalopes fell to a well-aimed hail of dumdums. Meanwhile the dauntless cat, whose hide beneath fluffy fur was as tough as industrial Teflon, had found a way through the first hedge-barrier of barrel cacti.
The pair entered a maze of cholla. The famously vicious Southwestern cholla cactus, whose sausage-link segments bore thorns the size of fishhooks, had been rumored from time immemorial to leap free and stab travelers from sheer spite. A soupcon of Venus flytrap genes had turned this Pecos Pete tall-tale vaporware into grisly functionality. Ribo Zombie had to opt for brute force: the steely wand of a back- mounted flamethrower leapt into his wiry combat-gloves. Ignited in a pupil-searing blast, the flaming mutant cholla whipped and flopped like epileptic spaghetti. Then RZ and the faithful Skratchy were clambering up the limestone leg of the Federal cache.
Anyone who had gotten this far could be justly exposed to the worst and most glamorous gizmos ever cooked up by the Softwar Department's Counter- Bioterrorism Corps.
The ducts of the diatom structure yawned open and deployed a lethal arsenal of spore-grenade launchers, strangling vegetable bolas, and whole glittering clouds of hotwired fleas and mosquitos. Any scab worth his yeast knew that those insect vectors were stuffed to bursting with swift and ghastly illnesses, pneumonic plague and necrotizing fasciitis among the friendlier ones.
"This must be the part where the cat saves him," said Tupper McClanahan, all cozy in her throw rug on her end of the couch.
Startled out of his absorption, yet patiently indulgent, Fearon McClanahan froze the screen with a tapped command to the petcocks on the feedlines. "What was that, darling? I thought you were reading."
"I was." Smiling, Tupper held up a vintage Swamp Thing comic that had cost fully ten percent of one month's trust-fund check. "But I always enjoy the parts of this show that feature the cat. Remember when we clicked on those high-protein kitty treats, during last week's cat sequence? Weeble loved those things."
Fearon looked down from the ergonomic couch to the spotless bulk of his snoring pig, Weeble. Weeble had outgrown the size and weight described in his documentation, but he made a fine hassock.
"Weeble loves anything we feed him. His omnivorous nature is part of his factory specs, remember? I told you we'd save a ton on garbage bills."
"Sweetie, I never complain about Weeble. Weeble is your familiar, so Weeble is fine. I've only observed that it might be a good idea if we got a bigger place."
Fearon disliked being interrupted while viewing his favorite outlaw stealth download. He positively squirmed whenever Tupper sneakily angled around the subject of a new place with more room. More room meant a nursery. And a nursery meant a child. Fearon swerved to a change of topic.
"How can you expect Skratchy Kat to get Ribo Zombie out of this fix? Do you have any idea what those flying bolas do to human flesh?"
"The cat gets him out of trouble every time. Kids love that cat."
"Look, honey: kids are not the target demographic. This show isn't studiogreenlighted or even indie-syndicated, okay? You know as well as I do that this is outlaw media. Totally underground guerrilla infotainment, virally distributed. There are laws on the books—unenforced, sure, but still extant—that make it illegal for us even to watch this thing. After all, Ribo Zombie is a biological terrorist who's robbing a Federal stash!"
"If it's not a kid's show, why is that cute little cartoon in the corner of the screen?"
"That's his grafitti icon! The sign of his street-wise authenticity."
Tupper gazed at him with limpid spousal pity. "Then who edits all his raw footage and adds the special effects?"
"Oh, well, that's just the Vegas Mafia. The Mafia keeps up with modern times: no more Rat Pack crooners and gangsta rappers! Nowadays they cut licensing deals with freeware culture heroes like Ribo Zombie, lone wolf recombinants bent on bringing hot goo to the masses."
Tupper waved her comic as a visual aid. "I still bet the cat's gonna save him. Because none of that makes any difference to the archetypical narrative dynamics."
Fearon sighed. He opened a new window on his gelatinous screen and accessed certain data. "Okay, look. You know what runs security on Federal Biosequestration Sites like that one? Military-grade, laminated, mouse brains. You know how smart that stuff is? A couple of cubic inches of murine brain has more processing power than every computer ever deployed in the twentieth century. Plus, mouse brain is unhackable. Computer viruses, no problem. Electromagnetic pulse doesn't affect it. No power source to disrupt, since neurons run on blood sugar. That stuff is indestructible."
Tupper shrugged. "Just turn your show back on."
Skratchy was poised at a vulnerable crack in the diatom's roof. The cat began copiously to pee.
When the trickling urine reached the olfactory sensors wired to the mouse brains, the controlling network went berserk. Ancient murine anti-predator instincts swamped the cybernetic instructions, triggering terrified flight responses. Mis-aimed spore bomblets thudded harmlessly to the soil, whizzing bolas wreaked havoc through the innocent vegetation below, and vent ports spewed contaminated steam and liquid nitrogen.
Cursing the zany but dangerous fusillade, Ribo Zombie set to work with a back- mounted hydraulic can opener.
Glum and silent, Fearon gripped his jaw. His hooded eyes glazed over as Ribo Zombie crept through surreal diorama of waist-high wells, HVAC systems and plumbing. Every flick of Ribo Zombie's hand torch revealed a glimpse of some new and unspeakable mutant wonder, half concealed in ambient support fluids: yellow gruel, jade-colored hair gel, blue oatmeal, ruby maple syrup.…
"Oh, honey," said Tupper at last, "don't take it so hard."
"You were right," Fearon grumbled. His voice rose. "Is that what you want me to say? You were right! You're always right!"
"It's just my skill with semiotic touchstones, which I've derived from years of reading graphic novels. But look, dear, here's the part you always love, when he finally lays his hands on the wetware. Honey, look at him stealing that weird cantaloupe with the big throbbing arteries on it. Now he'll go back to his clottage and clump, just like he does every episode, and sooner or later something really uptaking and neoteric will show up on your favorite auction site."
"Like I couldn't brew up stuff twice as potent myself."
"Of course you could, dear. Especially now, since we can afford the best equipment. With my inheritance kicking in, we can devote your dad's legacy to your hobby. All that stock your dad left can go straight to your hardware fetish, while my money allows us to ditch this creepy old condo and buy a new modern house. Duckback roof, slowglass windows, olivine patio—"Tupper sighed deeply and dramatically. "Real quality, Fearon."
* * *
Predictably, Malvern Brakhage showed up at their doorstep in the company of disaster.
"Rogue mitosis, Fearon my man. They've shut down Mixogen and called out the HazMat Squad."
"You're kidding? Mixogen? I thought they followed code."
"Hell no! The outbreak's all over downtown. Just thought I'd drop by for a newsy look at your high-bandwidth feed."
Fearon gazed with no small disdain on his bullet-headed fellow scab. Malvern had the thin fixed grin of a live medical student in a room full of cadavers. He wore his customary black leather lab coat and baggy cargo pants, their buttoned pockets bulging with Ziploc baggies of semi-legal jello.
"It's Malvern!" he yelled at the kitchen, where Tupper was leafing through catalogues.
"How about some nutriceuticals?" said Malvern. "Our mental edges require immediate sharpening." Malvern pulled his slumbering weasel, Spike, from a lab coat pocket and set it on his shoulder. The weasel—biotechnically speaking, Spike was mostly an ermine—immediately became the nicest-looking thing about the man. Spike's lustrous fur gave Malvern the dashing air of a Renaissance prince, if you recalled that Renaissance princes were mostly unprincipled bush-league tyrants who would poison anyone within reach.
Malvern ambled hungrily into the kitchen.
"How have you been, Malvern?" said Tupper brightly.
"I'm great, babe." Malvern pulled a clamp-topped German beer bottle from his jacket. "You up for a nice warm brewski?"
"Don't drink that," Fearon warned his wife.
"Brewed it personally," said Malvern, hurt. "I'll just leave it here in case you change your mind." Malvern plonked the heavy bottle onto the scarred Formica.
Raised a rich, self-assured, decorous girl, Tupper possessed the good breeding and manners to tolerate Malvern's flagrant transgressive behavior. Fearon remembered when he, too, had received adoring looks from Tupper—as a bright idealist who understood the true, liberating potential of biotech, an underground scholar who bowed to none in his arcane mastery of plasmid vectors. Unlike Malvern, whose scab popularity was mostly due to his lack of squeamishness.
Malvern was louche and farouche, so, as was his wont, he began looting Tupper's kitchen fridge. "Liberty's gutters are crawling!" Malvern declaimed, fingersnapping a bit to suit his with-it scab-rap. "It's a bug-crash of awesome proportions, and I urge forthwith we reap some peptides from the meltdown."
"Time spent in reconnaissance is never wasted," countered Fearon. He herded the unmannerly scab back to the parlor.
With deft stabs of his carpalled fingertips, Fearon used the parlor wallscreen to access Fusing Nuclei—the all-biomed news site favored by the happening hipsters of scabdom.
Tupper, pillar of support that she was, soon slid in with a bounty of hotwired snackfood. Instinctively, both men shared with their familiars, Fearon dropping creamy tidbits to his pig while Malvern reached salty gobbets up and back to his neck-hugging weasel.
Shoulder to shoulder on the parlor couch, Malvern and Fearon fixed their jittering attention on the unfolding urban catastrophe.
The living pixels in the electrojelly cohered into the familiar image of Wet Willie, FN's star business reporter. Wet Willie, dashingly clad in his customary splatterproof trenchcoat, had framed himself in the shot of a residential Miami skyscraper. The pastel Neo-Deco walls were sheathed in pearly slime. Wriggling like a nautch dancer, the thick, undulating goo gleamed in Florida's Greenhouse sunlight. Local bystanders congregated in their flowered shirts, sun hats, and sandals, gawking from outside the crowd-control pylons. The tainted skyscraper was under careful attack by truck-mounted glorp cannons, their nozzles channeling high-pressure fingers against the slimy pink walls.
"That's a major outbreak all right," said Fearon. "Since when was Liberty City clearstanced for wet production?"
"As if," chuckled Malvern.
Wet Willie was killing network lagtime with a patch of infodump. "Liberty City was once an impoverished slum. That was before Miami urbstanced into the liveliest nexus of the modern Immunosance, fueled by low-rent but ingenious Caribbean bioneers. When super-immune systems became the hottest somatic upgrade since osteojolt, Liberty City upgraded into today's thriving district of artlofts and hotshops.
"But today that immuconomic quality of life is threatened! The ninth floor of this building houses a startup named Mixogen. The cause of this rampaging outbreak remains speculative, except that the fearsome name of Ribo Zombie is already whispered by knowing insiders."
"I might have known," grunted Malvern.
Fearon clicked the RZ hotlink. Ribo Zombie's ninja-masked publicity photo appeared on the network's vanity page. "Ribo Zombie, the Legendary King of scabs—whose thrilling sub rosa exploits are brought to you each week by Fusing Nuclei, in strict accordance with the revised Freedom of Information Act and without legal or ethical endorsement! Click here to join the growing horde of cutting-edge bioneers who enjoy weekly shipments of his liberated specimens direct to their small office/home office wetware labs.…"
Fearon valved off the nutrient flowline to the screen and stood abruptly up, spooking the sensitive Weeble. "That showboating scumbag! You'd think he'd invented scabbing! I hate him! Let's scramble, Mal."
"Yo!" concurred Malvern. "Let's bail forthwith, and bag something hot from the slop."
Fearon assembled his scab gear from closets and shelves throughout the small apartment, Weeble loyally dogging his heels. The process took some time, since a scab's top-end hardware determined his peer ranking in the demimonde of scabdom (a peer ranking stored by retrovirus, then collated globally by swapping saliva-laden tabs of blotter paper).
Devoted years of feral genetic hobbyism had brought Fearon a veritable galaxy of condoms, shrinkwrap, blotter kits, polymer resins, phase gels, reagents, femtoinjectors serum vials, canisters, aerosols, splat-pistols, whole bandoliers of buckybombs, padded cases, gloves, goggles, netting, cameras, tubes, cylinder dispensers of pliofilm—the whole assemblage tucked with a fly fisherman's neurotic care into an intricate system of packs, satchels, and strap-ons.
Tupper watched silently, her expression neutral shading to displeased. Even the dense and tactless Malvern could sense the marital tension.
"Lemme boot up my car. Meet you behind the wheel, Fearo my pard."
Tupper accompanied Fearon to the apartment door, still saying nothing as her man clicked together disassembled instruments, untelescoped his sampling staff, tightened buckles across chest and hips, and mated sticky-backed equipment to special patches on his vest and splashproof chaps.
Rigged out to his satisfaction, Fearon leaned in for a farewell kiss. Tupper merely offered her cheek.
"Aw, come on, honey, don't be that way! You know a man's gotta follow his bliss: which in my special case is a raw, hairy-eyed lifestyle on the bleeding edge of the genetic frontier."
"Fearon McClanahan, if you come back smeared with colloid, you're not setting one foot onto my clean rug."
"I'll really wash up this time, I promise."
"And pick up some fresh goat's-milk prestogurt!"
"I'm with the sequence."
Fearon dashed and clattered down the stairs, his nutraceutically enhanced mind already filled with plans and anticipations. Weeble barreled behind.
Malvern's algal-powered roadster sat by the curb, its fuelcell thrumming. Malvern emptied the tapering trunk, converting it into an open-air rumble seat for Weeble, who bounded in like a jet-propelled fifty-liter drum. The weasel Spike occupied a crash-hammock slung behind the driver's seat. Fearon wedged himself into the passenger's seat, and they were off with a pale electric scream.
After shattering a random variety of Miami traffic laws, the two scabs departed Malvern's street-smart vehicle to creep and skulk the last two blocks to the ongoing bio-Chernobyl. The federal swab authorities had thrown their usual cordon in place, enough to halt the influx of civilian lookyloos, but penetrating the perimeter was child's play for well-equipped scabs. Fearon and Malvern simply sprayed themselves and their lab animals with chameleon-shifting shrinkwrap, then strolled through the impotent ring of ultrasonic pylons. They then crept through the shattered glass, found the code-obligatory wheelchair access, and laboriously sneaked up to the ninth floor.
"Well, we're inside just fine," said Fearon, puffing for breath through the shredded shrinkwrap on his lips.
Malvern helped himself to a secretary's abandoned lunch. "Better check Fusing Nuclei for word on the fates of our rivals."
Fearon consulted his handheld. "They just collared Harry the Brewer. 'Impersonating a Disease-Control Officer.' "
"What a lack of gusto and panache. That guy's just not serious."
Malvern peered down streetward through a goo-dripping window. The glorp-cannon salvos had been supplemented by strafing ornithopter runs of uptake inhibitors and counter-metabolizers. The battling federal defenders of humanity's physiological integrity were using combined-arms tactics. Clearly the forces of law and order were sensing victory. They usually did.
"How much of this hot glop you think we ought to kipe?" Malvern asked.
"Well, all of it. Everything Weeble can eat."
"You don't mind risking ol' Weeble?"
"He's not a pig for nothing, you know. Besides, I just upgraded his digestive tract." Fearon scratched the pig affectionately.
Malvern Velcroed his weasel Spike into the animal's crittercam. The weasel eagerly scampered off on point, as Malvern offered remote guidance and surveillance with his handheld.
"Out-of-Control Kevin uses video bees," remarked Fearon as they trudged forward with a rattle of sampling equipment. "Little teensy cameras mounted on their teensy insect backs. It's an emergent network phenomenon, he says."
"That's just Oldstyle Silicon Valley," Malvern dismissed. "Besides, a weasel never gets sucked into a jet engine."
The well-trained Spike had nailed the target, and the outlaw wetware was fizzing like cheap champagne. It was a wonder that the floor of the high-rise had withstood the sheer weight of criminal mischief. Mixogen was no mere R&D lab. It was a full- scale production facility. Some ingenious soul had purchased the junked remains of an Orlando aquasport resort, all the pumps, slides, and water-park sprinklers. Kiddie wading pools had been retrofitted with big gooey glaciers of serum support gel. The plastic fishtanks were filled to overflowing with raw biomass. Metastasizing cells had backed up into the genetic moonshine somehow, causing a violent bloom and a methane explosion as frothy as lemon meringue. The animal stench was indescribable.
"What stale hell is this?" said Malvern, gaping at a broken tub that brimmed with a demonic assemblage of horns, hoofs, hide, fur, and dewclaws.
"I take that to be widely variegated forms of mammalian epidermal expression." Fearon restrained his pig with difficulty. The rotting smell of the monstrous meat had triggered Weeble's appetite.
"Do I look like I was born yesterday?" snorted Malvern. "You're missing the point. Nobody can maintain a hybridoma with that gross level of genetic variety! Nothing with horns ever has talons! Ungulates and felines don't even have the same chromosome number."
Window plastic shattered. A wall-crawling police robot broke into the genetic speakeasy. It closed its gecko feet with a sound like Venetian blinds, and deployed a bristling panoply of lenses and spigots.
"Amscray," Malvern suggested. The duo and their animal familiars retreated from the swab machine's clumsy surveillance. In their absence came a loud frosty hiss as the police bot unleashed a sterilizing fog of Bose-Einstein condensate.
A new scent had Spike's attention, and it set Malvern off at a trot. They entered an office warren of glassblock and steel.
The Mixogen executive had died at her post. She sprawled before her desktop in her ergonomic chair, still in her business suit but reeking of musk and decay. Her swollen, veiny head was the size of a peach basket.
Fearon closed his dropped jaw and zipped up his Kevlar vest. "Jeez, Malvern, another entrepreneur-related fatality! How high do you think her SAT got before she blew?"
"Aw, man—she must have been totally off the IQ scale. Look at the size of her frontal lobes. She's like a six-pack of Wittgensteins."
Malvern shuddered as Spike the weasel tunneled to safety up his pants leg. Fearon wiped the sweat from his own pulsing forehead. The stench of the rot was making his head swim. It was certainly good to know that his fully-modern immune system would never allow a bacteria or virus to live in his body without his permission.
Malvern crept closer, clicking flash-shots from his digicam. "Check out that hair on her legs and feet."
"I've heard about this," marvelled Fearon. "Bonobo hybridoma. She's half chimp! Because that super-neural technique requires … so they say … a tactical retreat down the primate ladder before you can make that tremendous evolutionary rush for breakthrough extropian intelligence." He broke off short as he saw Weeble eagerly licking the drippy pool of ooze below the dead woman's chair. "Knock it off, Weeble!"
"Where'd the stiff get the stuff?"
"I'm as eager to know that as you are, so I'd suggest swiping her desktop," said Fearon craftily. "Not only would this seriously retard police investigation, but absconding with the criminal evidence would likely shelter many colleagues in the scab underground, who might be righteously grateful to us, and therefore boost our rankings."
"Excellent tactics, my man!" said Malvern, punching his fist in his open palm. "So let's just fall to sampling, shall we? How many stomachs is Weeble packing now?"
"Five, in addition to his baseline digestive one."
"Man, if I had your kind of money … Okay, lemme see … Cut a tendril from that kinesthetically active goo, snatch a sample from that wading-pool of sushi-barf— and, whoa, check the widget that the babe here is clutching."
From one contorted corpse-mitt peeked a gel-based pocket lab. Malvern popped the datastorage and slipped the honey-colored hockey puck into his capacious scabbing vest. With a murmured apology, Fearon pressed the the tip of his sampling-staff to the woman's bloated skull, and pneumatically shot a tracer into the proper cortical depths. Weeble fastidiously chomped the mass of gray cells. The prize slid safe into the pig's gullet, behind a closing gastric valve.
They triumphantly skulked from the reeking, cracking high-rise, deftly avoiding police surveillance and nasty street-spatters of gutter-goo. Malvern's getaway car rushed obediently to meet them. While Malvern slid through traffic, Fearon dispensed reward treats to the happy Spike and Weeble.
"Mal, you set to work dredging that gel-drive, okay? I'll load all these tissue samples into my code-crackers. I should have some preliminary results for us by, uhm … well, a week or so."
"Yeah, that's what you promised when we scored that hot jellyfish from those Rasta scabs in Key West."
"Hey, they used protein-encrypted gattaca! There was nothing I could do about that."
"You're always hanging fire after the coup, Fearon. If you can't unzip some heavy- duty DNA in your chintzy little bedroom lab, then let's find a man who can."
Fearon set his sturdy jaw. "Are you implying that I lack biotechnical potency?"
"Maybe you're getting there. But you're still no match for old Kemp Kingseed. He's a fossil, but he's still got the juice."
"Look, there's a MarthaMart!" Fearon parried.
They wheeled with a screech of tires into the mylar lot around the MarthaMart, and handed the car to the bunny-suited attendant. The men and their animals made extensive use of the fully-shielded privacy of the decon chambers. All four beings soon emerged as innocent of contaminants as virgin latex.
"Thank goodness for the local franchise of the goddess of perfection," said Fearon contentedly. "Tupper will have no cause to complain of my task-consequent domestic disorder! Wait a minute—I think she wanted me to buy something."
They entered the brick-and-mortar retail floor of the MarthaMart, Fearon racking his enhanced memory for Tupper's instructions, but to no avail. In the end he loaded his wiry shopping basket with pop bottles, gloop cans, some recycled squip, and a spare vial of oven-cleaning bugs.
The two scabs rode home pensively. Malvern motored off to his scuzzy bachelor digs, leaving Fearon to trudge with spousal anxiety upstairs. What a bringdown from the heights of scab achievement, this husbandly failure.
Fearon faced an expectant Tupper as he reached the landing. Dismally, he handed over the shopping bag. "Here you go. Whatever it was you wanted, I'm sure I didn't buy it." Then he brightened. "Got some primo mutant brain-mass in the pig's innards, though."
* * *
Five days later, Fearon faced an irate Malvern. Fearon hedged and backfilled for half an hour, displaying histo-printouts, some scanning-microscope cinema, even some corny artificial-life simulations.
Malvern examined the bloodstained end of his ivory toothpick. "Face defeat, Fearon. That bolus in the feedline was just pfisteria. The tendril is an everyday hybridoma of liana, earthworm, and slime mold. As for the sushi puke, it's just the usual chemosynthetic complex of abyssal tubeworms. So cut to the chase, pard. What's with those explosively ultra-smart cortical cells?"
"Okay, I admit it, you're right, I'm screwed. I can't make any sense of them at all. Wildly oscillating expression-inhibition loops, silent genes, jumping genes, junk DNA that suddenly reconfigures itself and takes control—I've never seen such a stew. It reads like a Martian road map."
Malvern squinched his batrachian eyes. "A confession of true scabbing lameitude. Pasting a 'Kick Me, I'm Blind' sign on your back. Have I correctly summarized your utter wussiness?"
Fearon kept his temper. "Look, as long as we're both discreet about our little adventure downtown, we're not risking any of our vital reputation in the rough-andtumble process of scab peer-review."
"You've wasted five precious days in which Ribo Zombie might radically beat us to the punch! If this news gets out, your league standings will fall quicker than an Italian government." Malvern groaned theatrically. "Do you know how long it's been since my groundbreaking investigative fieldwork was properly acknowledged? I can't even buy a citation."
Fearon's anger transmuted to embarrassment. "You'll get your quotes and footnotes, Malvern. I'll just shotgun those genetics to bits, and subcontract the sequences around the globe. Then no single individual will get enough of the big picture to know what we've been working on."
Malvern tugged irritably at the taut plastic wrapper of a Pynchonian British toffee. "Man, you've completely lost your edge! Everybody is just a synapse away from everybody else these days! If you hire a bunch of scabs on the net, they'll just search-engine each other out, and patch everything back together. It's high time we consulted Dr. Kingseed."
"Oh, Malvern, I hate asking Kemp for favors. He's such a bringdown billjoy when it comes to hot breakthrough technologies! Besides, he always treats me like I'm some website intern from the days of Internet slave labor."
"Quit whining. This is serious work."
"Plus, that cobwebby decor in Kemp's retrofunky domicile! All those ultra-rotten Hirst assemblages—they'd creep anybody out."
Malvern sighed. "You never talked this way before you got married."
Fearon waved a hand at Tupper's tasteful wallpaper. "Can I help it if I now grok interior decor?"
"Let's face some facts, my man: Dr. Kemp Kingseed has the orthogonal genius of the primeval hacker. After all, his startup companies pushed the Immunosance past its original tipping point. Tell the missus we're heading out, and let's scramble headlong for the Next New Thing like all true-blue scabs must do."
Tupper was busy in her tiny office at her own career, moderating her virtual agora on twentieth-century graphic narrative. She accepted Fearon's news with only half her attention. "Have fun, dear." She returned to her webcam. "Now, Kirbybuff, could you please clarify your thesis on Tintin and Snowy as precursor culture-heroes of the Immunosance?"
Weeble and Malvern, Spike and Fearon sought out an abandoned petroleum distribution facility down by the waterfront. Always the financial bottom-feeder, the canny Kemp Kingseed had snapped up the wrecked facility after the abject collapse of the fossil-fuel industry. At one point in his checkered career, the reclusive hermit- genius had tried to turn the maze of steampipes and rusting storage tanks into a child-friendly industrial-heritage theme park. Legal problems had undercut his project, leaving the aged digital entrepreneur haunting the ruins of yet another vast, collapsed scheme.
An enormous spiderweb, its sticky threads thick as supertanker hawsers, hung over the rusting tanks like some Victorian antimacassar of the gods.
Malvern examined the unstable tangle of spidery cables. "We'd better leave Weeble down here."
"But I never, ever want to leave dear Weeble!"
"Just paste a crittercam on him and have him patrol for us on point." Malvern looked at the pig critically. "He sure looks green around the gills since he ate that chick's brain. You sure he's okay?"
"Weeble is fine. He's some pig."
The visitors began their climb. Halfway up the tank's curving wall, Kemp Kingseed's familiar, Shelob, scuttled from her lair in the black pipe of a giant smokestack. She was a spider as big as a walrus. The ghastly arachnid reeked of vinegar.
"It's those big corny spider-legs," said Malvern, hiding his visceral fear in a thin shroud of scientific objectivity. "You'd think old Kingseed had never heard of the cube-square law!"
"Huh?" grunted Fearon, clinging to a sticky cable.
"Look, the proportions go all wrong if you blow them up a thousand times life-size. For one thing, insects breathe through spiracles! Insects don't have lungs. An insect as big as a walrus couldn't even breathe!"
"Arachnids aren't insects, Malvern."
"It's just a big robot with some cheap spider chitin grown on it. That's the only explanation that makes rational sense."
The unspeakable monster retreated to her lair, and the climbers moved thankfully on.
Kemp Kingseed's lab was a giant hornet's nest. The big papery office had been grown inside a giant empty fuel tank. Kingseed had always resented the skyrocketing publication costs in academic research. So he had cut to the chase, and built his entire laboratory out of mulched back issues of Cell and Nature Genomics.
Kingseed had enormous lamp-goggle eyeglasses, tufts of snowy hair on his skull, and impressive white bristles in his withered ears. The ancient Internet mogul still wore his time-honored Versace labcoat, over baggy green ripstop pants and rotting Chuck Taylor hightops.
"Africa," he told them, after examining their swiped goodies.
"I never thought I'd see those sequences again." Kingseed removed his swimmy lenses to dab at his moist red eyes with a swatch of lab paper. "Those were our heroic days. The world's most advanced technicians, fighting for the planet's environmental survival! Of course we completely failed, and the planet's ecosystem totally collapsed. But at least we didn't suck up to politicians."
Kingseed looked at them sharply. "Lousy, fake-rebel pimps like that Ribo Zombie, turned into big phony pop stars. Why, in my generation, we were the real, authentic transgressive-dissident pop stars! Napster … Freenet … GNU/Linux … Man, that was the stuff!"
Kingseed beat vaguely at the air with his wrinkled fist. "Well, when the Greenhouse started really cooking us, we had to invent the Immunosance. We had no choice at that point, because it was the only way to survive. But every hideous thing we did to save the planet was totally UN-approved! Big swarms of rich-guy NGOs were backing us, straight out of the WTO and the Davos Forum. We even had security clearances. It was all for the public good!"
Malvern and Fearon exchanged wary glances.
Kingseed scowled at them. "Malvern, how much weasel flesh do you have in your personal genetic makeup?"
"Practically none, Dr. Kingseed!" Malvern demurred. "Just a few plasmids in my epidermal expression."
"Well, see, that's the vital difference between your decadent times and my heroic age. Back in my day, people were incredibly anxious and fussy about genetic contamination. They expected people and animals to have clean, unpolluted, fully natural genelines. But then, of course, the Greenhouse Effect destroyed the natural ecosystem. Only the thoroughly unnatural and the totally hyped-up could thrive in that kind of crisis. Civilization always collapsed worst where the habitats were most nearly natural. So the continent of Africa was, well, pretty much obliterated."
"Oh, we're with the story," Fearon assured him. "We're totally with it heart-ofdarkness- wise."
"'Ha!" barked Kingseed. "You pampered punks got no idea what genuine chaos looks like! It was incredibly awful! Guerrilla armies of African mercenaries grabbed all our state-of-the-art lab equipment. They were looting … burning … and once the narco-terror crowd moved in from the Golden Triangle, it got mondo bizarre!"
Malvern shrugged. "So how tough can it be? You just get on a plane and go look." He looked at Fearon. "You get on planes, don't you, Fearon?"
"Sure. Cars, sleds, waterskis, you bet I get on planes."
Kingseed raised a chiding finger. "We were desperate to save all those endangered species, so we just started packing them into anything that looked like it would survive the climate disruption. Elephant DNA spliced into cacti, rhino sequences tucked into fungi … and hey, we were the good guys. You should have seen what the ruthless terrorists were up to."
Malvern picked a fragment from his molars, examined it thoughtfully, and ate it. "Look Dr. Kingseed, all this ancient history's really edifying, but I still don't get it with the swollen, exploding brain part."
"That's also what Ribo Zombie wanted to know."
Fearon stiffened. "Ribo Zombie came here? What did you tell him?"
"I told that sorry punk nothing! Not one word did he get out of me! He's been sniffing around my crib, but I chased him back to his media coverage and his high- priced market consultants."
Malvern offered a smacking epidermal high-five. "Kemp, you are one uptaking guru! You're the Miami swamp yoda, dad!"
"I kinda like you two kids, so let me cluetrain you in. Ever seen NATO military chimp-brain? If you know how to tuck globs of digitally altered chimp brain into your own glial cells—and I'm not saying that's painless—then you can radically jazz your own cortex. Just swell your head up like a mushroom puffball." Kingseed gazed at them soberly. "It runs on DNA storage, that's the secret. Really, really long strands of DNA. We're talking like infinite Turing-tape strands of gattaca."
"Kemp," said Fearon kindly, "why don't you come along with us to Africa? You spend too much time in this toxic old factory with that big smelly spider. It'll do you good to get some fresh jungle air. Besides, we clearly require a wise native guide, given this situation."
"Are you two clowns really claiming that you wanna pursue this score to Africa?"
"Oh sure, Ghana, Guinea, whatever. We'll just nick over to the Dark Continent duty- free and check it out for the weekend. Come on, Kemp, we're scabs! We got cameras, we got credit cards! It's a cakewalk!"
Kingseed knotted his snowy eyebrows. "Every sane human being fled out of Africa decades ago. It's the dark side of the Immunosance. Even the Red Cross ran off screaming."
" 'Red Cross,' " said Malvern to Fearon. The two of them were unable to restrain their hearty laughter. " 'Red Cross.' "What ineffectual lame-os! Man, that's rich."
"Okay, sure, have it your own way," Kingseed muttered. "I'll just go sherlock my oldest dead-media and scare up some tech-specs." He retreated to his vespine inner sanctum. Antic rummaging noises followed.
Fearon patiently sank into a classic corrugated Gehry chair. Malvern raided Kingseed's tiny bachelor kitchen, appropriating a platter of honey-guarana snack cubes. "What a cool pad this rich geezer's got!" Malvern said, munching. "I am digging how the natural light piped in through fiber-optic channels renders this fuel- tank so potent for lab work."
"This place is a stinking dump. Sure, he's rich, but that just means he'll overcharge us."
Malvern sternly cleared his throat. "Let's get something straight, partner. I haven't posted a scab acquisition since late last year! And you're in no better shape, with married life putting such a crimp in your scabbing. If we expect to pull down big- time decals and sponsorships, we've just got to beat Ribo Zombie to a major find. And this one is definitely ours by right."
After a moment, Fearon nodded in grim commitment. It was impossible to duck a straight-out scab challenge like this one—not if he expected to face himself in the mirror.
Kingseed emerged from his papery attic, his glasses askew and the wild pastures of his hair scampering with dustbunnies. He bore a raven in a splintery bamboo cage, along with a moldy fistful of stippled paper strips.
"Candybytes! I stored all the African data on candybytes! They were my bonanza for the child educational market. Edible paper, tasty sugar substrate, info-rich secret ingredients! "
"Hey yeah!" said Malvern nostalgically. "I used to eat candybytes as a little kid in my Time-Warner-Disney Creche. So now one of us has to gobble your moldy old lemon-drops?" Malvern was clearly nothing loath.
"No need for that, I brought old Heckle here. Heckle is my verbal output device."
Fearon examined the raven's cage. "This featherbag looks as old as a Victrola."
Kingseed set a moldy data strip atop a table, then released Heckle. The dark bird hopped unerringly to the start of the tape, and began to peck and eat. As Heckle's living read-head ingested and interpreted the coded candybytes, the raven jumped around the table like a fairy chess knight, a corvine Turing Train.
"How is a raven like a writing desk?" murmured Kemp.
Heckle shivered, stretched his glossy wings, and went Delphic. In a croaky, midnight-dreary voice, the neurally-possessed bird delivered a strange tale.
A desperate group of Noahs and Appleseeds, Goodalls and Cousteaus, Leakeys and Fosseys had gathered up Africa's endangered flora and fauna, then packed the executable genetic information away into a most marvelous container: the Panspecific Mycoblastula. The Panspecific Mycoblastula was an immortal chimeric fungal ball of awesome storage capacity, a filamentously aggressive bloody tripe- wad, a motile Darwinian lights-and-liver battle-slimeslug.
Shivering with mute attention, Fearon brandished his handheld, carefully recording every cawed and revelatory word. Naturally the device also displayed the point of view of Weeble's crittercam.
Suddenly, Fearon glimpsed a shocking scene. Weeble was under attack!
There was no mistaking the infamous Skratchy Kat, who had been trying, without success, to skulk around Kingseed's industrial estate. Weeble's porcine war cry emerged tinnily from the little speakers. The crittercam's transmission whipsawed in frenzy.
"Sic him, Weeble! Hoof that feline spy!"
Gamely obeying his master's voice, the pig launched his bulk at the top-of-the-line postfeline. A howling combat ensued, Fearon's pig getting the worse of it. Then Shelob the multi-ton spider joined the fray. Skratchy Kat quickly saw the sense of retreat. When the transmission stabilized, the superstar's familiar had vanished. Weeble grunted proudly. The crittercam bobbed rhythmically as the potent porker licked his wounds with antiseptic tongue.
"You the man, Fearon! Your awesome pig kicked that cat's ass!"
Kingseed scratched his head glumly. "You had a crittercam channel open to your pig this whole time, didn't you?"
Fearon grimaced, clutching his handheld. "Well, of course I did! I didn't want my Weeble to feel all lonely."
"Ribo Zombie's cat was watergating your pig. Ribo Zombie must have heard everything we said up here. I hope he didn't record those GPS coordinates."
The possessed raven was still cackling spastically, as the last crackles of embedded data spooled through its postcorvine speech centers. Heckle was recaged and rewarded with a tray of crickets.
Suddenly, Fearon's handheld spoke up in a sinister basso. It was the incoming voice of Ribo Zombie himself. "So the Panspecific Mycoblastula is in Sierra Leone. It is a savage territory, ruled by the mighty bushsoldier, Prince Kissy Mental. He is a ferocious cannibal who would chew you small-timers up like aphrodisiac gum! So Malvern and Fearon—take heed of my street-wisdom. I have the top-line hardware, and now, thanks to you, I have the data as well. Save yourselves the trouble, just go home."
"Gumshoe on up here, you washed-up ponce!" said startled Malvern, dissed to the bone. "My fearsome weasel will go sloppy seconds on your big fat cat!"
Kingseed stretched forth his liver-spotted mitt. "Turn off those handhelds, boys."
When Fearon and Malvern had bashfully powered down their devices, the old guru removed an antique pager from his lab bench. He played his horny thumb across the rudimentary keypad.
"A pager?" Malvern goggled. "Why not, like, jungle drums?"
"Pipe down. You pampered modern lamers can't even manage elementary anti- surveillance. While one obsolescent pager is useless—two are a secure link."
Kingseed read the archaic glyphs off the tiny screen. "I can see that my contact in Freetown, Dr. Herbert Zoster, is still operational. With his help, you might yet beat Zombie to this prize." Kingseed looked up. "After allowing Ribo Zombie to bug my very home, I expect no less from you. You'd better come through this time, or never show your faces again at the Tallahassee ScabCon. With your dalkon shields— or on them, boys."
"Lofty! We're outta here pronto! Thanks a lot, gramps."
* * *
Tupper was very alarmed about Africa. After an initial tearful outburst, hot meals around Fearon's house became as rare as whales and pandas. Domestic conversation died down to apologetic bursts of dingbat-decorated e-mail. Their sex life, always sensually satisfactory and emotionally deep, became as chilly as the last few lonely glaciers of Greenhouse Greenland. Glum but determined, Fearon made no complaint.
On the day of his brave departure—his important gear stowed in two carry-on bags, save for that which Weeble wore in khaki-colored saddle-style pouches—Fearon paused at the door of their flat. Tupper sat morosely on the couch, pretending to surf the screen. For thirty seconds the display showed an ad from AT&T (Advanced Transcription and Totipotency) touting their latest telomere upgrades. Fearon was, of course, transfixed. But then Tupper changed channels, and he refocused mournfully for a last homesick look at his frosty spouse.
"I must leave you now, Tuppence honey, to meet Malvern at the docks." Even the use of her pet name failed to break her reserve. "Darling, I know this hurts your feelings, but think of it this way: my love for you is true because I'm true to my own true self. Malvern and I will be in and out of that tropical squalor in a mere week or two, with minimal lysis all around. But if I don't come back right away—or even, well, forever—I want you to know without you, I'm nothing. You're the feminine mitochondrium in my dissolute masculine plasm, baby."
Nothing. Fearon turned to leave, hand on the doorknob. Tupper swept him up in an embrace from behind, causing Weeble to grunt in surprise. Fearon slithered around within the cage of her arms to face her, and she mashed her lips into his.
Malvern's insistent pounding woke the lovers up. Hastily, Fearon redonned his outfit, bestowed a final peck on Tupper's tear-slicked cheek, and made his exit.
"A little trouble getting away?" Malvern leered.
"Not really. You?"
"Well, my landlady made me pay the next month's rent in advance. Oh, and if I'm dead, she gets to sell all my stuff."
"Just the kind of treatment I expect."
* * *
Still flushed from the fever-shots at U.S. Customs, the two globetrotting scabs watched the receding coast of America from the deck of their Cuba-bound ferry, the
"I hate all swabs," said Malvern, belching as his innards rebooted.
Fearon clutched his squirming belly. "We could have picked better weather. These ferocious Caribbean hurricane waves—"
"What 'waves'? We're still in the harbor."
"Oh, my Lord—"
After a pitching, greenish sea-trip, Cuba hove into view. The City of Havana, menaced by rising seas, had been relocated up the Cuban coast through a massive levy on socialist labor. The crazy effort had more or less succeeded, though it looked as if every historic building in the city had been picked up and dropped.
Debarking in the fragrant faux-joy of the highly colored tropics, the eager duo hastened to the airfield—for only the cowboy Cubans still maintained direct air- flights to the wrecked and smoldering shell of the Dark Continent.
Mi Amiga Flicka was a hydrogen-lightened cargolifter of Appaloosa-patterned horsehide. The buoyant lift was generated by onboard horse stomachs, modified to spew hydrogen instead of the usual methane. A tanker truck, using a long boom- arm, pumped a potent microbial oatmeal into the tethered dirigible's feedstock reservoirs.
"There's a microbrewery on board," Malvern said with a travel agent's phony glee. "Works off grain mash just like a horse does! Cerveza muy potenta, you can bet."
A freestanding bamboo elevator ratcheted them up to the zeppelin's passenger module, which hung like a zippered saddlebag from the buoyant horsehide belly.
The bio-zep's passenger cabin featured a zebrahide mess hall that doubled as a ballroom, with a tiny bandstand and a touchingly antique mirrorball. The Cuban stewards, to spare weight and space, were all jockey-sized.
Fearon and Malvern discovered that their web-booked "stateroom" was slightly smaller than a standard street toilet. Every feature of the tiny suite folded, collapsed, inverted, everted, or required assembly from scattered parts.
"I don't think I can get used to peeing in the same pipe that dispenses that legendary microbrew," said Fearon. Less finicky, Malvern had already tapped and sampled a glass of the golden boutique cerveza. "Life is a closed loop, Fearon."
"But where will the pig sleep?"
They found their way to the observation lounge for the departure of the giant gasbag. With practiced ease, the crew detached blimp-hook from mooring mast. The bacterial fuel cells kicked over the myosin motors, the props began to windmill and the craft surged eastward with all the verve and speed of a spavined nag.
Malvern was already deep into his third cerveza. "Once we get our hands on that wodge of extinct gene-chains, our names are forever golden! It'll be vino, gyno, and techno all the way!"
"Let's not count our chimeras till they're decanted, Mal. We're barely puttering along, and I keep thinking of Ribo Zombie and his highly publicized private entomopter."
"Ribo Zombie's a fat show-biz phony, he's all talk! We're heavy-duty street-level chicos from Miami! It's just no contest."
"Hmmph. We'd better vortal in to Fusing Nuclei and check out the continuing coverage."
Fearon found a spot where the zep's horsehide was thinnest, and tapped an overhead satellite feed. The gel screen of his handheld flashed the familiar Fusing Nuclei logo.
"In his one-man supercavitating sub, Ribo Zombie and Skratchy Kat speed toward the grim no-man's land of sub-Saharan Africa! What weird and wonderful adventures await our intrepid lone-wolf scab and his plucky familiar? Does carnal love lurk in some dusky native bosom? Log on Monday for the realtime landing of RZ and Skratchy upon the sludge-sloshing shores of African doom! And remember, kids—Skratchy Kat cards, toys, and collectibles are available only through Nintendo- Benz—"
"Did they say 'Monday'?" Malvern screeched. "Monday is tomorrow! We're already royally boned!"
"Malvern, please, the straights are staring at us. Ribo Zombie can't prospect all of Africa through all those old UN emplacements. Kingseed found us an expert native guide, remember? Dr. Herbie Zoster."
Malvern stifled his despair. "You really think this native scab has got the stuff?"
Fearon smiled. "Well, he's not a scab quite like us, but he's definitely our type! I checked out his online resume! He's pumped, ripped, and buff, plus he's wily and streetsmart. Herbie Zoster has been a mercenary, an explorer, an archaeologist, even the dictator of an offshore datahaven. Once we hook up with him, this ought to be a waltz."
In the airborne hours that followed, Malvern sampled a foretaste of the vino, gyno and techno, while Fearon repeatedly wrote and erased apologetical e-mail to his wife. Then came their scheduled arrival over the melancholy ruins of Freetown—and a dismaying formal announcement by the ship's Captain.
"What do you mean, you can't moor?" demanded Malvern.
Their captain, a roguish and dapper, yet intensely competent fellow named Luis Sendero, removed his cap and slicked back the two macaw feathers anchored at his temple. "The local caudillo, Prince Kissy Mental, has incited his people to burn down our trading facilities. One learns to expect these little setbacks in the African trade.
Honoring our contracts, we shall parachute to earth the goods we bring, unless they are not paid for—in which case, they are dumped anyway, yet receive no parachute. As for you two Yankees and your two animals—you are the only passengers who want to land in Sierra Leone. If you wish to touch down, you must parachute just as the cargo."
After much blustering, whuffling, and whining, Fearon, Malvern, and Weeble stood at the open hatch of Mi Amiga Flicka, parachutes strapped insecurely on, ripcords wired to a rusty cable, while the exotic scents of the rainy African landscape wafted to their nostrils.
Wistfully, they watched their luggage recede to the scarred red earth. Then, with Spike clutched to his breast, Malvern closed his eyes and boldly tumbled overboard. Fearon watched closely as his colleague's fabric chute successfully bloomed. Only then did he make up his mind to go through with it. He booted the reluctant Weeble into airy space, and followed suit.
* * *
"Outsiders never bring us anything but garbage," mumbled Dr. Zoster.
"Is it Cuban garbage?" said Malvern, tucking into their host's goat-and-pepper soup with a crude wooden spoon. "Because if it is, you're getting ripped off even in terms of trash."
"No. They're always Cubans bringing it, but it's everybody's garbage that is dumped on Africa. Africa's cargo-cult prayers have been answered with debris. But perhaps any sufficiently advanced garbage is indistinguishable from magic."
Fearon surreptitiously fed the peppery cabrito to his pig. He was having a hard time successfully relating to Dr. Herbie Zoster. It had never occurred to him that elderly Kemp Kingseed and tough, sunburnt Herbie Zoster were such close kin.
In point of fact, Herbie Zoster was Kingseed's younger clone. And it didn't require Jungian analysis to see that, just like most clones, Zoster bitterly resented the egotistical man who had created him. This was very clearly the greatest appeal of life in Africa for Dr. Herbie Zoster. Africa was the one continent guaranteed to make him as much unlike Kemp Kingseed as possible.
Skin tinted dark as mahogany, callused and wiry, dotted with many thorn scratches, parasites, and gunshot wounds, Zoster still bore some resemblance to Kingseed— about as much as a battle-scarred hyena to an aging bloodhound.
"What exactly do people dump around here?" said Malvern with interest.
Zoster mournfully chewed the last remnant of a baked yam and spat the skin into the darkness outside their thatched hut. Something with great glowing eyes pounced upon it instantly, with a rasp and a snarl. "You're familiar with the Immunosance?'"
"Oh yeah, sure!" said Malvern artlessly, "we're from Miami."
"That new Genetic Age completely replaced the Nuclear Age, the Space Age, and the Information Age."
"Good riddance," Malvern offered. "You got any more of that cabrito stew? It's fine stuff!"
Zoster rang a crude brass bell. A limping, turbaned manservant dragged himself into their thatched hut, tugging a bubbling bucket of chow.
"The difficulty with massive technological advance," said Zoster, spooning the steamy goop, "is that it obsolesces the previous means of production. When the Immunosance arrived, omnipresent industries already covered all the advanced countries." Zoster paused to pump vigorously at a spring-loaded homemade crank, which caused the light-bulb overhead to brighten to its full thirty watts. "There simply was no room to install the new bioindustrial revolution. But a revolution was very necessary anyway. So all the previous junk had to go. The only major planetary area with massive dumping grounds was—and still is—Africa."
Zoster rubbed at his crank-stiffened forearm and sighed. "Sometimes they promote the garbage and sell it to us Africans. Sometimes they drop it anonymously. But nevertheless—no matter how we struggle or resist—the very worst always ends up here in Africa, no matter what."
"I'm with the sequence," said Malvern, pausing to belch. "So what's the 411 about this fabled Panspecific Mycoblastula?"
Zoster straightened, an expression of awe toughening his face below his canvas hatbrim. "That is garbage of a very special kind. Because the Panspecific Mycoblastula is an entire, outmoded natural ecosystem. It is the last wild continent, completely wadded up and compressed by foreign technicians!"
Fearon considered this gnomic remark. He found it profoundly encouraging. "We understand the gravity of this matter, Dr. Zoster. Malvern and I feel that we can make this very worth your while. Time is of the essence. When can we start?"
Zoster scraped the dirt floor with his worn boot-heel. "I'll have to hire a train of native bearers. I'll have to obtain supplies. We will be risking our lives, of course.… What can you offer us in return for that?"
"A case of soft drinks?" said Malvern.
Fearon leaned forward intently. "Transistor radios? Antibiotics? How about some plumbing?"
Zoster smiled for the first time, with a flash of gold teeth. "Call me Herbie."
* * *
Zoster extended a callused fingertip. It bore a single ant, the size and color of a sesame seed.
"This is the largest organism in the world."
"So I heard," Malvern interjected glibly. "Just like the fire-ants invading America, right? They went through a Darwinian bottleneck and came out supercharged sisters, genetically identical even under different queens. They spread across the whole USA smoother than marshmallow fluff."
Zoster wiped his sweating stubbled jaw with a filthy bandanna. "These ants were produced four decades ago. They carry rhizotropic fungi, to fertilize crops with nitrogen. But their breeders overdesigned them. These ants cause tremendous fertile growth in vegetation, but they're also immune to insect diseases and parasites. The swabs finally wiped them out in America, but Africa has no swabs. We have no public health services, no telephones, no roads. So from Timbuktu to Capetown, cloned ants have spread in a massive wave, a single super-organism big as Africa."
Malvern shook his head in superior pity. "That's what you get for trusting in swabs, man. Any major dude could've told those corporate criminals that top-down hierarchies never work out. Now, the approach you Third Worlders need is a viral marketing, appropriate-technology pitch …"
Zoster actually seemed impressed by Malvern's foolish bravado, and engaged the foreign scab in earnest jargon-laced discussion, leaving Fearon to trudge along in an unspeaking fug of sweat-dripping, alien jungle heat. Though Zoster was the only one armed, the trio of scabs boldly led their little expedition through a tangle of feral trails, much-aided by their satellite surveillance maps and GPS locators.
Five native bearers trailed the parade, fully laden-down with scab-baggage and provisions. The bare-chested, bare-legged, dhoti-clad locals exhibited various useful bodily mods, such as dorsal water storage humps, toughened and splayed feet, and dirty grub-excavating claws that could shred a stump in seconds. They also sported less rational cosmetic changes, including slowly moving cicatrices (really migratory subepidermal symbiotic worms) and enlarged ears augmented with elephant musculature. The rhythmic flapping of the porters' ears produced a gentle creaking that colorfully punctuated their impenetrable sibilant language.
The tormented landscape of Sierra Leone had been thoroughly reclaimed by a clapped-out mutant jungle. War, poverty, disease, starvation—the Four Landrovers of the African Apocalypse—had long since been and gone, bringing a drastic human population crash that beggared the Black Death, and ceding the continent to resurgent flora and fauna.
These local flora and fauna were, however, radically human-altered, recovering from an across-the-board apocalypse even more severe and scourging than the grisly one suffered by humans. Having come through the grinding hopper of a bioterror, they were no longer "creatures" but "evolutures." Trees writhed, leaves crawled, insects croaked, lizards bunny-hopped, mammals flew, flowers pinched, vines slithered, and mushrooms burrowed. The fish, clumsily re-engineered for the surging Greenhouse realities of rising seas, lay in the jungle trails burping like lungfish. When stepped upon, they almost seemed to speak.
The explorers found themselves navigating a former highway to some long-buried city, presumably Bayau or Moyamba, to judge by the outdated websites. Post- natural oddities lay atop an armature of ruins, revealing the Ozymandias lessons of industrial hubris. A mound of translucent jello assumed the outlines of a car, including a dimly perceived skeletal driver and passengers. Oil-slick–colored orchids vomited from windows and doors. With the descending dusk invigorating flocks of winged post-urban rats, the travelers made camp. Zoster popped up a pair of tents for the expedition's leaders and their animals, while the locals assembled a humble jungle igloo of fronds and thorns.
After sharing a few freeze-dried packets of slumgullion, the expedition sank into weary sleep. Fearon was so bone-tired that he somehow tolerated Malvern's nasal whistling and Zoster's stifled dream shouts.
He awoke before the others. He unseamed the tent flap and poked his head out into the early sunshine.
Their encampment was surrounded by marauders. Spindly scouts, blank-eyed and scarcely human, were watching the pop-tents and leaning on pig-iron spears.
Fearon ducked his head back and roused his compatriots, who silently scrambled into their clothes. Heads clustered like coconuts, the three of them peered through a fingernail's width of tent-flap.
Warrior-reinforcements now arrived in ancient Jeeps, carrying anti-aircraft guns and rocket-propelled grenades.
"It's Kissy Mental's Bush Army," whispered Zoster. He pawed hurriedly through a pack, coming up with a pair of mechanical boots.
"Okay, girls, listen up," Zoster whispered, shoving and clamping his feet in the piston-heavy footgear. "I have a plan. When I yank this overhead pull-tab, this tent unpops. That should startle the scouts out there, maybe enough to cover our getaway. We all race off at top speed just the way we came. If either of you survive, feel free to rendezvous back at my place."
Zoster hefted his gun, their only weapon. He dug the toe of each boot into a switch on the heel of its mate, and his boots began to chuff and emit small puffs of exhaust.
"Gasoline-powered seven-league boots," Zoster explained, seeing their stricken expressions. "South African Army surplus. There's no need for roads with these things, but with skill and practice, you can pronk along like a gazelle at thirty, forty miles an hour."
"You really believe we can outrun these jungle marauders?" Malvern asked.
"I don't have to outrun them; I only have to outrun you."
Zoster triggered the tent and dashed off at once, firing his pistol at random. The pistons of his boots gave off great blasting backfires, which catapulted him away with vast stainless-steel lunges.
Stunned and in terror, Malvern and Fearon stumbled out of the crumpling tent, coughing on Zoster's exhaust. By the time they straightened up and regained their vision, they were firmly in the grip of Prince Kissy Mental's troops.
The savage warriors attacked the second pop-tent with their machetes. They quickly grappled and snaffled the struggling Spike and Weeble.
"Weeble, hang loose!"
The animals obeyed, though the cruel grip of their captors promised the worst.
The minions of the Prince were far too distanced from humanity to have any merely ethnic identity. Instead, they shared a certain fungal sheen, a somatype evident in their thallophytic pallor and exopthalmic gaze. Several of the marauders, wounded by Zoster's wild shots, were calmly stuffing various grasses and leaves into the gaping suety holes in their arms, legs, and chests.
A working squad now dismantled the igloo of the expedition's bearers, pausing to munch meditatively on the greenery of the cut fronds. The panic-stricken bearers gabbled in obvious terror, but offered no resistance. A group of Kissy Mental's warriors, with enormous heads and great toothy jaws, decamped from a rusty Jeep. They unshouldered indestructible Russian automatic rifles and decisively emptied their clips into the hut. Pathetic screams came from the ruined igloo. The warriors then demolished the walls and hauled out the dead and wounded victims, to dispassionately tear them limb from limb.
The Army then assembled a new booty of meat, to bear it back up the trail to their camp. Reeking of sweat and formic acid, the inhuman natives bound the hands of Fearon and Malvern with tough lengths of grass. They strung Weeble and Spike to a shoulder-pole, where the terrified beasts dangled like pinatas.
Then the antmen forced the quartet of prisoners forward on the quick march. As the party passed through the fetid jungle, the Army paused periodically to empty their automatic weapons at anything that moved. Whatever victim fell to earth would be swiftly chopped to chunks and added to the head-borne packages of the rampaging mass.
Within the hour, Fearon and Malvern were delivered whole to Prince Kissy Mental.
Deliberately, Fearon focused his attention on the Prince's throne, so as to spare himself the sight of the monster within it. The Army's portable throne was a row of three first-class airplane seats, with the armrests removed to accomodate the Prince's vast posthuman bulk. The throne perched atop a mobile palanquin, juryrigged from rebar, chipboard, and astroturf. A system of crutches and tethers supported and eased the Prince's vast, teratological skull.
The trophy captives were shoved forward at spearpoint through a knee-deep heap of cargo-cult gadgets.
"Holy smallpox!" whispered Malvern. "This bossman's half-chimp and half-ant!"
"That doesn't leave any percentage for human, Mal."
The thrust of a spear-butt knocked Fearon to his knees. Kissy Mental's coarse- haired carcass, barrel-chested to support the swollen needs of the head, was sketched like a Roquefort cheese with massive blue veins. The Prince's vast pulpy neck marked the transition zone to a formerly human skull whose sutures had long since burst under pressure, to be patched with big, red, shiny plates of antlike chitin. Kissy Mental's head was bigger than the prize-winning pumpkin at a 4-H Fair—even when "4-H" meant "Homeostasis, Haplotypes, Histogenesis, and Hypertrophy."
Fearon slitted his eyes, rising to his feet. He was terrified, but the thought of never seeing Tupper again somehow put iron in his soul. To imagine that he might someday be home again, safe with his beloved—that prospect was worth any sacrifice. There had to be some method to bargain with their captor.
"Malvern, how bright do you think this guy is? You suppose he's got any English?"
"He's got to be at least as intelligent as British royalty."
With an effort that set his bloated heart booming like a tribal drum, the Prince lifted both his hairy arms, and beckoned. Their captors pushed Mal and Fear right up against the throne. The Prince unleashed a flock of personal fleas. Biting, lancing, and sucking, the tasters lavishly sampled the flesh of Fearon and Malvern, and returned to their master. After quietly munching a few of the blood-gorged familiars, the Prince silently brooded, the tiny bloodshot eyes in his enormous skull blinking like LEDs. He then gestured for a courtier to ascend into the presence. The bangled, headdressed ant-man hopped up and, well-trained, sucked a thin clear excretion from the Prince's rugose left nipple.
Smacking his lips, the lieutenant decrypted his proteinaceous commands, in a sudden frenzy of dancing, shouting, and ritual gesticulation.
Swiftly the Army rushed into swarming action, trampling one another in an ardent need to lift the Prince's throne upon their shoulders. Once they had their entomological kingpin up and in lolling motion, the Army milled forward in a violent rolling surge, employing their machetes on anything in their path.
A quintet of burly footmen pushed Malvern and Fearon behind the bluish exhaust of an ancient military jeep. The flesh of the butchered bearers had been crudely wrapped in broad green leaves and dumped into the back of the vehicle.
Malvern muttered sullenly below the grumbles of the engine. "That scumbag Zoster … All clones are inherently degraded copies. Man, if we ever get out of this pinch, it's no more Mr. Nice Guy."
"Uh, sure, that's the old scab spirit, Mal."
Fearon followed Malvern's jerking head-nod. A split-off subdivision of the trampling Army had dragged another commensal organism from the spooked depths of the mutant forest. It was a large, rust-eaten, canary-yellow New Beetle, scribbled over with arcane pheremonal runes. Its engine long gone, the wreck rolled solely through the juggernaut heaving of the Army.
"Isn't that the 2015 New Beetle?" said Fearon. "The Sport Utility version, the one they ramped up big as a stretch HumVee?"
"Yeah, the Screw-the-Greenhouse Special! Looks like they removed the sunroof and moonroof, and taped all the windows shut! But what the hell can they have inside? Whatever it is, it's all mashed up and squirmy against the glass—"
A skinny Ant Army courtier vaulted and scrambled onto the top of the sealed vehicle. With gingerly care, he stuffed a bloody wad of meat in through the missing moonroof.
From out of the adjacent gaping sunroof emerged a hydralike bouquet of heterogenous animal parts: tails, paws, snouts, beaks, ears. Snarls, farts, bellows and chitterings ensued.
At length, a sudden flow of syrupy exudate drooled out the tailpipe, caught by an eager cluster of Ant Army workers cupping their empty helmets.
"They've got the Panspecific Mycoblastula in there!"
The soldiers drained every spatter of milky juice, jittering crazily and licking one another's lips and fingers.
"I do wish I had a camera," said Fearon wistfully. "It's very hard to watch a sight like this without one."
"Look, they're feeding our bearers into that thing!" marvelled Malvern. "What do you suppose it's doing with all that human DNA? Must be kind of a partially-human genetic mole rat thing going on in there."
Another expectant crowd hovered at the Beetle's tailpipe, their mold-spotted helmets at the ready. They had not long to wait, for a fleshy diet of protein from the butchered bearers seemed to suit the Panspecific Mycoblastula to a T.
Sweating and pale-faced, Malvern could only say, "If they were breakfast, when's lunch?"
* * *
Fearon had never envisioned such brutal slogging, so much sheer physical work in the simple effort of eating and staying alive. The Prince's Army marched well-nigh constantly, bulldozing the landscape in a whirl of guns and knives. Anything they themselves could not devour was fed to the Mycoblastula. Nature knew no waste, so the writhing abomination trapped in the Volkswagen was a panspecific glutton, an always-boiling somatic stewpot. It especially doted on high-end mammalian life, but detritus of all kinds was shoved through the sunroof to sate its needs: bark, leaves, twigs, grubs, and beetles. Especially beetles. In sheer number of species, most of everything living was always beetles.
Then came the turn of their familiars.
It seemed at first that those unique beasts had somehow earned the favor of Prince Kissy Mental. Placed onboard his rollicking throne, the trussed Spike and Weeble had been subjected to much rough cossetting and petting, their peculiar high-tech flesh seeming to particularly strike the Prince's fancy.
But such good fortune could not last. After noon of their first day of captivity, the bored Prince, without warning, snapped Spike's neck and flung the dead weasel in the path of the painted Volkswagen. Attendants snatched the weasel up and stuffed Spike in. The poor beast promptly lined an alimentary canal.
Witnessing this atrocity, Malvern roared and attempted to rush forward. A thorough walloping with boots and spear-butts persuaded him otherwise.
Then Weeble was booted meanly off the dais. Two hungry warriors scrambled to load the porker upside down onto a shoulder-carried spear. Weeble's piteous grunts lanced through Fearon, but at least he could console himself that, unlike Spike, his pig still lived.
But finally, footsore, hungry, and beset by migraines, his immune system drained by constant microbial assault, Fearon admitted despair. It was dead obvious that he and Malvern were simply doomed. There was just no real question that they were going to be killed and hideously devoured, all through their naive desire for mere fame, money, and professional technical advancement.
When they were finally allowed to collapse for the night on the edge of a marshy savannah, Fearon sought to clear his conscience.
"Mal, I know it's over, but think of all the good times we've had together. At least I never sold Florida real estate, like my Dad. A short life and a merry one, right? Die young and leave a beautiful corpse. Hope I die before I get—"
"Fearon, I'm fed up with your sunnysided optimism! You rich-kid idiot, you always had it easy and got all the breaks! You think that rebellion is some kind of game! Well, let me tell you, if I had just one chance to live through this, I'd never waste another minute on nutty dilettante crap. I'd go right for the top of the food chain. Let me be the guy on top of life, let me be the winner, just for once!" Malvern's battered face was livid. "From this day forth, if I have to lie, or cheat, or steal, or kill … aw, what's the use? We're ant meat! I'll never even get the chance!"
Fearon was stunned into silence. There seemed nothing left to say. He lapsed into a sweaty doze amidst a singing mosquito swarm, consoling himself with a few last visions of his beloved Tupper. Maybe she'd remarry after learning of his death. Instead of following her sweet romantic heart, this time she'd wisely marry some straight guy, someone normal and dependable. Someone who would cherish her, and look after her, and take her rather large inheritance with the seriousness it deserved. How bitterly he regretted his every past unkindness, his every act of self- indulgence and neglect. The spouses of romantic rebels really had it rough.
In the morning, the hungry natives advanced on Weeble, and now it was Fearon's turn to shout, jump up and be clouted down.
With practiced moves the natives slashed off Weeble's front limbs near the shoulder joints. The unfortunate Weeble protested in a frenzy of squealing, but his assailants knew all too well what they were doing. Once done, they carefully cauterized the porker's foreparts and placed him in a padded stretcher, which was still marked with an ancient logo from the Red Cross.
They then gleefully roasted the pig's severed limbs, producing an enticing aroma Fearon and Malvern fought to abhor. The crisped breakfast ham was delivered with all due ceremony to Prince Kissy Mental, whose delight in this repast was truly devilish to watch. Clearly the Ant Army didn't get pig very often, least of all a pig with large transgenic patches of human flesh. A pig that good you just couldn't eat all at once.
By evening, Fearon and Malvern were next on the menu. The two scabs were hustled front and center as the locals fed a roaring bonfire. A crooked pair of nasty wooden spits were prepared. Then Fearon and Malvern had their bonds cut through, and their clothes stripped off by a forest of groping hands.
The two captives were gripped and hustled and frogmarched as the happy Army commenced a manic dance around their sacred Volkswagen, ululating and keening in a thudding of drums. The evil vehicle oscillated from motion within, in time with the posthuman singing. Lit by the setting sun and the licking flames of the cannibal bonfire, big chimeric chunks of roiling Panspecific Mycoblastula tissue throbbed and slobbered against the glass.
Suddenly a brilliant Klieg light framed the scene, with an 80-decibel airborne rendition of "Ride of the Valkyries."
"Hit the dirt!" yelped Malvern, yanking free from his captor's grip and casting himself on his face.
Ribo Zombie's entomopter swept low in a strafing run. The cursed Volkswagen exploded in a titanic gout of lymph, blood, bone fragments, and venom, splattering Fearon—but not Malvern—from head to toe with quintessence of Mycoblastula.
Natives dropped and spun under the chattering impact of advanced armaments. Drenched with spew, Fearon crawled away from the Volkswagen, wiping slime from his face.
Dead or dying natives lay in crazy windrows, like genetically modified corn after a stiff British protest. Now Ribo Zombie made a second run, his theatrical lighting deftly picking out victims. His stagey attack centered, naturally, on the most dramatic element among the panicking Army, Prince Kissy Mental himself. The Prince struggled to flee the crimson targeting lasers, but his enormous head was strapped to his throne in a host of attachments. Swift and computer-sure came the next burst of gunfire. Prince Kissy Mental's abandoned head swung futilely from its tethers, a watermelon in a net.
Leaping and capering in grief and anguish, the demoralized Army scattered into the woods.
A swarm of mobile cameras wasped around the scene, carefully checking for proper angles and lighting. Right on cue, descending majestically from the darkening tropic sky came Ribo Zombie himself, crash-helmet burnished and gleaming, combat boots blazoned with logos.
Skratchy Kat leaped from Zombie's shoulder to strike a proud pose by the Prince's still-smoking corpse. The superstar scab blew nonexistent trailing smoke from the unused barrels of his pearl-handled sidearms, then advanced on the cowering Fearon and Malvern.
"Nice try, punks, but you got in way over your head." Ribo Zombie gestured at a hovering camera. "You've been really great footage ever since your capture, though. Now get the hell out of camera range, and go find some clothes or something. That Panspecific Mycoblastula is all mine."
Rising from his hands and knees with a look of insensate rage, Malvern lunged up and dashed madly into the underbrush.
"What's keeping you?" boomed Ribo Zombie at Fearon.
Fearon looked down at his hands. Miniature parrot feathers were sprouting from his knuckles.
"Interesting outbreak of spontaneous mutation," Ribo Zombie noted. "I'll check that out just as soon as I get my trophy shot."
Advancing on the bullet-riddled Volkswagen, Ribo Zombie telescoped a razorpincered probe. As the triumphant conqueror dipped his instrument into the quivering mass, Malvern charged him with a levelled spear.
The crude weapon could not penetrate Ribo Zombie's armor, but the force of the rush bounced the superstar scab against the side of the car. Quick as lightning a bloodied briar snaked through a gaping bullet hole and clamped the super-scab tight.
Then even more viscous and untoward tentacles emerged from the engine compartment, and a voracious sucking, gurgling struggle commenced.
Malvern, still naked, appropriated the fallen crash helmet with the help of a spear haft. "Look, it liquefied him instantly and sucked all the soup clean out! Dry as a bone inside. And the readouts still work on the eyepieces!"
After donning the helmet, a suspiciously close fit, Malvern warily retrieved Ribo Zombie's armored suit, which lay in its high-tech abandonment like the nacreous shell of a hermit crab. A puzzled Skratchy Kat crept forward. After a despondent sniff at the emptied boots, the bereaved familiar let out a continuous yowl.
"Knock it off, Skratchy," Malvern commanded. "We're all hurting here. Just be a man."
Swiftly shifting allegiances, Skratchy Kat supinely rubbed against Malvern's glistening shins.
"Now to confiscate his cameras for a little judicious editing of his unfortunate demise." Malvern shook his helmeted head. "You can cover for me, right, Fearon? Just tell everybody that Malvern Brakhage died in the jungle. You should probably leave out the part about them wanting to eat us."
Fearon struggled to dress himself with some khaki integuments from a nearby casualty. "Malvern, I can't fit inside these clothes."
"What's your problem?"
"I'm growing a tail. And my claws don't fit in these boots." Fearon pounded the side of his head with his feathery knuckles. "Are you glowing, or do I have night vision all of a sudden?"
Malvern tapped his helmet with a wiry glove. "You're not telling me you're massively infected now, are you?"
"Well, technically speaking, Malvern, I'm the 'infection' in this situation, because the Mycoblastula's share of our joint DNA is a lot more extensive than mine is."
"Huh. Well, that development obviously tears it." Malvern backed off cautiously, tugging at this last few zips and buckles on his stolen armor to assure an airtight seal. "I'll route you some advanced biomedical help … if there's any available in the local airspace." He cleared his throat with a sudden rasp of helmet-mounted speakers. "In any case, the sooner I clear out of here for civilization, the better."
All too soon, the sound of the departing entomopter had died away. After searching throught the carnage, pausing periodically as his spine and knees unhinged, Fearon located the still-breathing body of his beloved pig. Then he dragged the stretcher to an abandoned Jeep.
* * *
"And then Daddy smelled the pollution from civilization with his new nose, from miles away, so he knew he'd reached the island of Fernando Po, where the UN still keeps bases. So despite the tragic death of his best friend Malvern, Daddy knew that everything was going to be all right. Life would go on!"
Fearon was narrating his exploit to the embryo in Tupper's womb via a state-of-theart fetal interface, the GestaPhone. Seated on the comfy Laura Ashley couch in their bright new stilt house behind the dikes of Pensacola Beach, Tupper smiled indulgently at her husband's oft-polished tale.
"When the nice people on the island saw Daddy's credit cards, Daddy and Weeble were both quickly stabilized. Not exactly like we were before, mind you, but rendered healthy enough for the long trip back home to Miami. Then the press coverage started, and, well son, someday I'll tell you about how Daddy dealt with the challenges of fame and fortune."
"And wasn't Mommy glad to see Daddy again!" Tupper chimed in. "A little upset at first about the claws and fur. But luckily, Daddy and Mommy had been careful to set aside sperm samples while Daddy was still playing his scab games. So their story had a real happy ending when Daddy finally settled down and Baby Boy was safely engineered."
Fearon detached the suction cup terminal from Tupper's bare protuberant stomach. "Weeble, would you take these, please?"
The companionable pig reached up deftly, plucked the GestaPhones out of Fearon's grasp, and moved off with an awkward lope. Weeble's strange gait was due to his new forelimbs, a nifty pair of pig-proportioned human arms.
Tupper covered her womb with her frilled maternity blouse and glanced at the clock. "Isn't your favorite show on now?"
"Shucks, we don't have to watch every single episode.…"
"Oh, honey, I love this show, it's my favorite, now that I don't have to worry about you getting all caught up in it!"
They nestled on the responsive couch, Tupper stroking the fish-scaled patch on Fearon's cheek while receiving the absent-minded caresses of his long tigerish tail. She activated the big wet screen, cohering a close-up of Ribo Zombie in the height of a ferocious rant.
"Keeping it real, folks, still keeping it real! I make this challenge to all my fellow scabs, those who are down with the Zombie and those who dis him, those who frown on him and those who kiss him. Yes, you sorry posers all know who you are. But check this out—who am I?"
Fearon sighed for a world well lost. And yet, after all—there was always the next generation.
1) entomopter, noun: a small flying vehicle whose wings employ elaborate, scissoring insectoid principles of movement, rather than avian ones; abbreviated as 'mopter.
2) ribo, adjective: all-purpose prefix derived from the transcriptive cellular organelle, the ribosome; indicative of bioengineering.
3) scab, noun: a biohacker.
4) otaku, noun: Japanese term for obsessive nerds, trivia buffs.
5) polysaccharide, noun: an organic polymer such as chitin.
6) familiar, noun: the customary modified-animal partner of a scab.
7) hot-tag, noun: clickable, animated icons.
8) jackalope, noun: the legendary antlered rabbit of Wyoming, now reified.
9) HVAC, noun: heating, ventilation, air-conditioning system.
10) wetware, noun: programmed organic components; software in living form.
11) clottage, noun: residence of a scab.
12) clump, verb: to enjoy meditative solitary downtime
13) uptaking, adjective: a term of scably approbation.
14) neoteric, adjective: a term of scably approbation.
15) duckback, noun: a water-resistant building material.
16) slowglass, noun: glass in which light moves at a radically different speed than it does elsewhere; term invented by Bob Shaw.
17) olivine, noun: a naturally occuring gemstone used as a building material.
18) HazMat, noun: hazardous materials.
19) jello, noun: culture and transport medium.
20) nutriceutical, noun: a foodstuff modified with various synthetic compounds meant to enhance mental or physical performance.
21) glorp, noun: an antibiological sterilizing agent used by swabs.
22) infodump, noun: large undigested portion of factoids.
23) Immunosance, noun: the Immunological Renaissance, the Genetic Age.
24) bioneer, noun: a bioengineering pioneer.
25) femto-injector, noun: a delivery unit capable of perfusing substances through various membranes without making a macroscopic entry wound.
26) buckybomb, noun: an explosive in a carbon buckminsterfullerene shell.
27) pliofilm, noun: all-purpose millipore wrap.
28) prestogurt, noun: instant yogurt modified to be a nutriceutical.
29) swab, noun: governmental and private agents of bioregulation; the cops; antagonists to every scab.
30) lookyloo, noun: a gaping bystander at a public spectacle, usually the cause of secondary accidents.
31) crittercam, noun: small audio-video transmitter mounted on animals.
32) Bose-Einstein condensate, noun: ultra-frigid state of matter.
33) extropian, noun, adjective: one who subscribes to a set of radical, wild-eyed optimistic prophecies regarding mankind's glorious high-tech future.
34) gel-drive, noun: organic data-storage unit.
35) gattaca, noun: DNA; any substrate that holds genetic information.
36) gloop, noun: a foodstuff.
37) squip, noun: a foodstuff.
38) billjoy, noun: a doomsayer; derived from Bill Joy, a fretful member of the twentieth-century digerati.
39) NGO, noun: non-governmental organization.
40) WTO, noun: World Trade Organization.
41) candybytes, noun: an educational nutriceutical.
42) Panspecific Mycoblastula, noun: a MacGuffin.
43) lysis, noun: cell destruction.
44) bio-zep, noun: a pseudo-living, lighter-than-air zeppelin.
45) vortal, noun, verb: virtual portal.
46) supercavitation, noun: process of underwater travel employing leading air pockets.
47) evoluture, noun: an artificially evolved creature.
48) somatype, noun: the visible expression of gattaca.
49) thallophytic, adjective: mushroom-like.
50) exopthalmic, adjective: pop-eyed.
51) 4-H, noun: an amateurs' club, primarily for children, that focuses on homeostasis (bodily maintenance through negative feedback circuits), haplotypes (gamete amounts of DNA), histogenesis (cell differentiation from general to specific), and hypertrophy (gigantism).