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"Try and Try Again"

 by Wayne Faust  

© 2013 by Wayne Faust
All rights reserved

 

            The jungle steamed and hissed like a dragon. It was home to lush trees, to fruits in all the colors of the rainbow, to clinging vines that practically grew while you watched. Small animals scurried everywhere through the underbrush. Birds and monkeys played a raucous symphony among the vines.

            Heavy footsteps sounded from down the path.

"Here comes one now," said Theobald.

Colson gazed at the wallscreen, twisting her dark hair between her fingers.

A naked man skipped into the clearing. He stood erect, gazing left and right. The hair on his body was sparse and his skin was pleasantly tan. His face sported an enormous beard and the top of his head was shiny-bald. He was a healthy specimen, probably in his mid-thirties.

                        "Do you see his eyes?" asked Theobald.

“Yes,” said Colson. "They look kind of dull."

"Precisely. That's the problem with this group. Keep watching."

The man snorted and grunted, then picked his nose and put the results into his mouth, munching happily. A woman skipped into the clearing and stood beside him.

“They seem to do a lot of skipping,” commented Colson.

“Tell me about it," said Theobald. “I suppose that means they’re happy. Maybe ignorance really is bliss."

"Grffl!" the man said, and the woman passively got down on all fours. They began to mate. The whole thing lasted about three minutes and was abruptly over.

"How often does that go on?" asked Colson.

"Usually about three times a day for most of them."

"Lucky them."

Theobald frowned. He did not take well to humor, especially in the midst of another failing project.

"How does the camera show us this?" asked Colson. "Wouldn't we just see a blur, considering how fast time is passing for them compared to us?"

Theobald sighed and spoke to Colson as if to a child. "Yes, time runs incredibly fast on their planet in relation to Earth. The cameras send the images through the Fold to the lab, where the computer slows them down so we can watch. What you’re seeing is already 200 years ago in their time frame, even though we just got the images yesterday. You’re looking at ancient history."

Colson chewed on a fingernail as she watched. "I never really understood the Fold," she remarked. "I had it explained to me once in physics class but it went over my head."

"I'm not surprised," muttered Theobald under his breath.

"What?"

"Nothing."

On the screen, the man and woman were resting on the jungle floor. In the aftermath of their mating, they didn’t notice that they were lying on top of a large anthill. Soon swarms of bugs were crawling all over their stomachs and legs. They sat up quickly and the man gathered up a handful of ants and popped them into his mouth. The woman did the same.

"Grrby," the man uttered. He smiled and bits of ant juice filtered out through his teeth.

"Gogg!" answered the woman.

Theobald hit the desk with his fist. "Eight thousand, seven-hundred and thirty-six generations and that’s all they come up with for a vocabulary. No signs of intellectual growth. No structure building, no hunting, nothing."

"But aren't they peaceful?" asked Colson.

Theobald let out a grim chuckle. "Of course they‘re peaceful. That was the point. I took out any gene that would have given them the slightest inclination to violence. So consequently they didn't protect themselves. They didn't fight over territory. If one tribe moved in on another, the first tribe just wandered off, sometimes starving to death. They didn't even fight over mates. It was a very calm society. Very non-polluting too; the rain forests were in fine shape. Unfortunately they were all a bunch of muttering, idiotic, ignorant dolts."

Theobald shut off the screen. "Complete failure, pure and simple. Again."

Colson winced. "Complete failure? What does that mean?"

"It means I have to start all over again. This will be the fifth time now."

"Start over? But what about them?" Colson pointed at the now blank screen.

"I deleted them," said Theobald.

"Deleted?"

"Yes, of course. Delete. Erase. Finish. Kaput. I did it after viewing the images yesterday. I only put the recording up there so you could see it. Surely they must have explained the whole process to you before they sent you blundering over here to check on me."

"But how could you delete them? Weren't they flesh and blood?"

"Of course they were. But we need the planet clear in order to try again. They would have contaminated the next experiment."

"But how can you get rid of a whole planet full of people?"

"It’s easy. I program anaphylactic shock into their genes. Then when I need to, I trigger it from here. They all die off. It's very humane."

"But how can you do that?" asked Colson. She began to twist her hair between her fingers faster and faster.

"I can do what I want. It's my project."

Colson gaped at Theobald and shook her head. "I can't believe this. Turn it back on." She opened her briefcase and took out the shiny, hand-held device they had just given her back at the office. She began punching buttons, looking for regulations that might apply.

"It‘s no use," said Theobald. "Everyone on that planet is long since dead. You can’t do anything to save them.”

Colson looked up. "Turn the screen back on. I want to watch."

"What for?"

"Humor me."

"Suit yourself." Theobald pushed a button and the man and woman reappeared on the screen. They had just risen from the anthill and were busily skipping down the jungle path.

"What happens now?" asked Colson.

"Simple. They all get colds. They start sneezing. They start coughing. Their lungs fill up with fluid. They can't breathe. They die. Enjoy yourself. I'm going for coffee."

Theobald left the room and Colson stared at the screen. The speakers produced the sounds of chirping birds, animals, and insects in lifelike surround-sound and Colson could almost smell the vegetation of that far-away planet. The floating camera followed the man and woman through the jungle.

They came to a clearing where there was a small group of children. Quite a few of them were coughing and sneezing. One lay on his back at the foot of a tree, staring blankly into the sky and wheezing. The woman ran over to the child, shook him, and glanced up at the man in dismay.

“My God,” whispered Colson.

For a brief moment, the woman looked toward the camera and Colson’s heart skipped a beat. It was almost as if she was pleading with Colson to help her. Colson unconsciously reached out her hand.

The woman on the screen began to cough. Soon her face turned beet-red. The man rushed over and began hitting her on the back. Her chest heaved as she strained to take a breath. Finally, she could only manage a series of wheezing, whistling gasps. She made one last, horrible grunting noise and fell forward onto her face. The man let out an agonized wail and tears ran down his ruddy cheeks. He turned the woman over and shook her like a kid shaking a broken toy. Then he too began to cough. Before long, he was face down on the ground, shuddering and kicking his legs. In a few moments, he was still.

Ten minutes later, everyone in the clearing was dead, leaving only the sounds of the jungle coming through the speakers. Colson tried pushing a few random buttons on the console and more camera shots appeared from other places on the planet. Each view showed the same thing - bodies lying on the ground everywhere, many of them already being overrun with ants.

Colson wiped her eyes.“This is obscene,” she whispered. “I'm going to put a stop to this.”

Theobald bounced into the room carrying a cup of coffee. "Seen enough?" he asked.

“I’m giving you official notice that I plan to shut this project down," she said, her voice quavering.

"That's what the last guy said,” answered Theobald cheerfully. “And you'll notice I'm still here."

Colson gaped. She was used to everyone showing her deference, maybe even being afraid of her because she was from the government, the people who gave out the grant money. She steeled herself.

"I‘m going to shut you down," she said evenly.

Theobald sighed, and for the first time, he looked into Colson’s eyes. “What’s the world like these days? Earth, I mean. I don’t get out much.”

Colson blinked, not sure how to answer.

“Come on, humor me,” said Theobald. “Are things good out there?”

“Of course not,” said Colson reluctantly.

“That’s right,” said Theobald. “People are dying, aren’t they? They’re killing each other off. Would you say that’s right?”

Colson nodded reluctantly.

Theobald continued. “I know, it’s always been that way. I’m sure that’s what you’d say. But it’s gotten lot worse now, hasn’t it? It’s chaos out there and you know it. We’re all on the edge of a very large cliff, just like a bunch of lemmings. Millions are dying in every country in the world, no matter what kind of government they have.”

Theobald rose to his feet. He glared down at Colson. “What I’m doing here might just save us. And you think they’re going to shut me down?"

Colson visibly flinched at this unexpected onslaught. Then she glanced over at the wall screen. "But…there’s got to be a better way. You can't just create a whole civilization out of nothing and then..."

“What else would you have me try? In all of the universe, we've only discovered one time anomaly. And it happens to exist around a planet that can sustain human life. For the first time in history, we have the perfect laboratory. During one hour on Earth, people on that planet go through one whole generation. That’s nine thousand generations a year.”

Theobald managed a brief smile. “I was the first one to see the possibilities. What if we could alter our genetic code and send embryos up there? Then we could watch the results on a grand scale. Eventually we would come up with a better sort of human being - one that we could bring back here to populate the Earth with, so we wouldn’t end up destroying ourselves and the Earth too. It was an inspired idea if I must say so myself.”

"But didn’t you see what just happened up there?” asked Colson. “Those people were sentient. They tried to save their children. They fought for their lives."

"So do dogs, but we still put them to sleep. Nobody complains about that." Theobald took off his thick glasses and wiped them on his white lab coat. Retina replacement made him nervous, even though it was supposed to be completely safe these days. Way down deep, he supposed was just an old-fashioned kind of guy.

"Tell me about the other times," said Colson.

"What other times?"

"You said you were starting over for the fifth time. What happened before?"

Theobald settled back down into his chair. "Well, let's see,” he said. “You just watched the fourth experiment. I started the first one four years ago. In my early bouts with idealism, I began with the fine idea that money is the root of all evil. Believe it or not, there's a gene that makes us want what somebody else has, a sort of ‘greed gene.’ I removed that gene from a hundred prototype embryos and shipped them out through the Fold, along with some incubators and child-raising drones. I programmed the drones to self-destruct as soon as the prototypes were old enough to survive on their own; otherwise they would have contaminated the experiment. You can look it up in the research if you want.

"I planned to wait a few generations and see what I came up with. After all, these were fully developed, modern human embryos, minus the greed. Unfortunately, they didn’t last even one generation. Evidently, absence of greed equals absence of want. No wants means no structure building, which means no cultivation. By the time the local food supply ran out, they all starved to death."

Colson reached her hand beneath the jacket of her business suit and began scratching her stomach. Theobald made a face. He’d never been comfortable with some of the more distasteful things about human bodies. He cleared his throat and continued.

"So number one was a complete failure. Then I figured that maybe humans just needed to be smarter. I used some new enhancing techniques on the next batch of embryos until I came up with a group that Einstein would have been proud of. It was amazing to see the technology they came up with in the first generation. But they ended up blowing themselves up eight generations later; there was nuclear winter and everything. I had to wait a while before I could start the next experiment."

Theobald suddenly felt a sharp itch on his leg. He scratched it with his other leg, not wanting to reach his hand down there under his pant leg; that would be disgusting. He fondly thought of his bathtub at home, where he would soak away the day and have a glass of wine. But instead, here he was trying to satisfy some government hack so she’d keep the funds coming. He’d dealt with them before, but one of these times…Well, he would just have try and hurry things up.

"So then I tried cloning the genes of prominent citizens,” he said quickly. “That included me, of course. I figured that if everyone in a civilization had brains and wisdom and drive, they might be able to cooperate until they figured out how to make a utopia."

"You cloned yourself?"

"Of course. I'm a prominent citizen, aren't I?"

"What happened?"

"They fought like cats and dogs from day one. I found out that it’s not good to have an entire society of leaders. Somebody has to collect the garbage, cook the meals, drive the taxicabs. You know. This experiment had nobody like that, so it went nowhere. I finally deleted it. That was the first one I had to delete and I admit it was hard, considering that at least one-third of them had my genes, but the show must go on. Say, are you all right?"

Colson was squirming like she had ants in her stockings. She seemed to be having trouble concentrating on what Theobald was saying. "Um...go on...I'm all right," she mumbled.

"Oh. Very well. So now I had another failure on my hands. Your department was getting impatient with me and I was under a lot of pressure. I thought that this time I might try combining certain genes, instead of removing or enhancing ones that were already..."

Colson began to gasp for air. Her face broke out in bright, red spots, like pimples ready to burst. Finally she flopped forward and down onto her face. Her body shuddered.

"Oh my," exclaimed Theobald. "This won't do at all." He reached down and turned the woman over. He thought about trying mouth to mouth but was stopped by the sight of the red spots. He got up from his chair and headed for the door. Somebody up front in the lobby would have to deal with this. They could send an ambulance or something…

Before he could take another step, the itch on Theobald’s leg suddenly intensified, crawling up towards his crotch like a swarm of fire ants. In horror, he reached down, but the agonizing itch had already covered his genitals and spread to his stomach, well on its way up to his face.  Within seconds, it felt like a million needles were gouging every pore of his body.

Theobald collapsed to the floor and began rolling around on the antiseptic tile. Every time he stopped, the room swam in front of his eyes like he had just stepped off a roller coaster. He was suddenly chilled all over and he began to shake. He dug his fingernails into his face until blood trickled down his chin. His neck began to swell and it was suddenly very hard to breathe.

Theobald crawled over towards his desk like a man in the desert crawling towards water. He managed to reach up and knock the telephone onto the floor. Gasping and wheezing, he dialed ‘0’ for the front desk. It rang ten times, then twenty, as Theobald’s vision began to dim.

He punched ‘011’ for the Personnel Department. As he listened to it ring once, twice, three times, he twisted and turned like a person in the last stages of Parkinson’s. When no one answered, he tried calling Maintenance, Lab Services, Administration, and anything else he could think of. By the time he was done dialing all of those numbers, someone had dimmed the lights nearly all the way down. He just barely managed to dial 9-1-1. No one answered there either.

Theobald pushed the phone away and crawled towards the door, wheezing like a ninety year old fat man. He only made it halfway before his throat swelled completely shut. He rolled over onto his side, his purple face frozen in surprise.

Theobald was not a medical doctor. But before he died, he had just enough air left to gasp out a final sentence:

“I may be wrong, but this feels like anaphylactic shock…”

END

 

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