Part I, Chapter 1
Dr. Shannon Jones, unable to ignore logic, even after years of neglecting his mind, rethinks his plan while his body submits to the task assigned to the work crew. He hammers rods of iron into the top of a retaining wall, waiting, watching, his dark skin glowing with heat in the sun. Hot mud in the ditch fills the air with metal ions—metal he can taste. He is a big man despite years of working in laboratories (thanks to an ACNT3 hack dreamed up by his mentor and "creator" of sorts, the geneticist Dr. White). The strength is still there. The strength that let him kill a young man with his bare fists—it's still there. Ready for a sudden burst of effort.
The problem is that he doesn't have the right tools. Woven from buckyfibers, his ankle bracelet is impossible to cut with normal blades. The best he can hope to do is crush the transmitter, a daunting task if all he has are rocks and maybe a hammer. He needs the two-handed loppers from the tool box on the bus. He tried to bring the box out here, up into the hills of Griffith Park, which despite being thinly wooded are welcoming: deserted, steep, mostly inaccessible to vehicles . . . but Officer Kyle was there in a flash: "Hol' up, nigger. Who said get the box?"
"Who said get the box? You see HEDGES? You see fruit trees? You see ANYTHING except a hill? We're just goin' up that hill."
"I'm bringin' some tools."
"This ain't roadside today." The CO's wiry body was like a contraption of rods jerking under his uniform. His eyes took a hurried inventory of the other inmates while he talked. "No flowers, Jones. Sorry. No standin' with a sign, no rich honeys drivin' by scared, spyin' at us, scared again. You boys are gonna WORK today, like con-vicks. Put that shit back. Park Service got us a pickup."
The CO shoved the tool box for emphasis. Shannon could have caught Kyle's wrist, twisted, and taken the handgun off his hip . . . but he let the moment pass. Too many cars down there. Hikers. Park-service uniforms.
That was his chance. Close quarters, the toolbox in his hands . . . he could've dashed into the hills and the scrub and vanished. He has to be ready next time. Any small opening . . . even if he has to drag the transmitter along for a while. There would be something, a door, a gun . . . something that could disable it.
Prisoners at the Mack aren't expected to contemplate escape, the Mack being a minimum-security "campus" sporting a college, soccer field, gymnasium, "business center," and so on. But the place has never been much of a home for Shannon. He can't be reformed through education, and to play soccer or foosball, Scrabble . . . his mind would recoil from the pedantry. The most he does is exercise and work shifts at the factory, necessary if he wants any spending money.
Until now, escape fantasies have been hard to sustain because not much has been waiting for him on the outside. In ten years he hasn't had a single visitor. While the other prisoners line up for visiting hours, he lies under a tree turning over the same bits of science that have been in his head for a decade: knowledge held prisoner, cut off from its own busy society thanks to an injunction forbidding him from reading academic publications, including the Bureau of Prisons' high-school biology textbook.
He didn't expect to hear from his Caltech colleagues, who publicly condemned the human-embryo experiments that got him here, but in ten years not a single person has phoned, written, or come to visiting hours. His mother, estranged from him since high school, quit speaking to him before the end of the trial. His father and stepfather had walked out decades earlier, both gone before he was eight. His letters to the house in the Palisades don't bounce back, but neither do they elicit replies from his mother. He doesn't write to his two fathers, because even if he had addresses for them he wouldn't have anything to put into a letter.
A more probable visitor is Dr. White, but even Dr. White ran for cover when the full scope of the Caltech experiments became public. The daily samples of Shannon's blood, taken by the prison nurse, probably make their way to his lab, but that's all the contact with his test subject the old scientist is willing to risk.
The woman Shannon loved and might have married (who, out of everyone, could have been counted on to come see him) has been dead for more than a decade: Maribel Sanchez, a friend from grade school. Of their daughter, María, he has only pictures, old pictures stored on his computer.
Very few of the pictures of María are real, the newest being an old film-camera snapshot of her at six years of age standing on a bare concrete floor beside a coal-burning stove . . . in Nacozari, Mexico, where she and her mother were in hiding, a town he has never seen. The other images are age-enhanced. He relies on software to give him a glimpse of the woman María might have grown up to be, if in fact she survived the border crossing that killed her mother. He sits at the computer looking at the images before lockdown, seeing her face so often that he doesn't perceive the slight changes calculated by the aging algorithm. Various circumstances, mostly his own fault, have systematically severed her life from his. Not one word of his has ever reached her. He has been unable to give her anything, not even the explanation she deserves. She was his first and least considered experiment: two teenagers' rebellious ideas crammed into a zygote.
Often he goes along with the guards that this is a delusion, an echo of his life "on the outs," but now—and this is the reason for his recent change of heart—he is not so sure. During a work detail two weeks ago, for the first time in his life, he saw María in person. The correctional officer on duty, Officer Kyle, hired a couple of East Hollywood prostitutes to take a ride with the prisoners, making a few bucks for himself in the bargain. One of the prostitutes, incredibly, was María. She was ignorant of her past and had nothing to tell him about the Program, yet her walk, the sound of her voice, her eyes, the clean smell of her hair when she bent close . . . filled his head with a lifetime of memories: imaginings come to life with one quick touch.
He told the other prisoners this, yet to them, even now, María is nothing more than a hooker called "Luz," a hot piece of ass they want to make into a regular thing. And they're serious, too. Representing the crew in this matter, the VC has joined Kyle across the road, where the CO has been guarding the water cooler.
"Girl's too good for con-vicks," Officer Kyle says. "I'ma keep her for myself if y'all don't ante up."
The VC wets his fingers at the spigot and smoothes his hair back. "Credit isn't a four-letter word. Call it an opportunity cost. You can see her any day you want. We're not so fortunate, remember."
"It's MY ass, man. Think I'm lettin' CON-vicks go on a payment plan?"
Shannon leans on his iron tie, pretends to twist and push it into the hole drilled that morning, listening.
They're going to do it again—pass María up and down the aisle of the prison bus. His child . . . a discarded piece of trash in a translucent silk dress, tinted brown from the skin beneath, short, snug as a slip as she strutted up the steps of the bus two weeks ago with the blunt frown of a boxer. She knew that right then she was everybody's trash, but she still swatted the hands of inmates who tried to touch her and dismissed the whistling and catcalls by proudly tossing her head . . . so much like Maribel, her mother . . . boundless strength no matter what the world threw at her.
He had paid his fifty bucks to Officer Kyle and was waiting in the last row. María scissored her legs over his lap, draped an arm behind his neck, and combed her nails through his tough, short, curly hair. "Wha'chu want, hun?"
He felt her body rock against his as Kyle put the bus in gear for a tour of the back roads.
"You just wanna talk? Huh?" she said. "It's your money."
He was staring into the face of his child, for the first time. Was it possible? . . .
María's partner was already on the floor with one of the inmates. Some of the men glanced at the prone woman when there was a change in her metronomic gasps, but in general this operation was a tense business for them. They looked out the windows and waited their turns. When Jesse Greene finally butted in, he did so in a subdued and serious tone. "People are waitin', Jones."
María's nails scratched Shannon's scalp. So much like her mother, Maribel . . . the striking whites of her eyes, small chin, hard planar cheek bones, lovely waves of black hair . . . Maribel still alive and safely back in his arms.
"Man's right, big guy. I'm on the clock." María pressed her free hand down on his crotch.
He leapt to his feet. "No!"
She was knocked against the seatback.
He watched her hand holding her hip where he'd hurt her.
Officer Kyle yelled from the front of the bus, "Jones! Hey, yo, nuh-uh, none of that shit. Let Greene go. You're done."
Shannon watched Jesse Greene's fat pink fingers fumble at María's leg and then her hand. His daughter gave in slowly, rigid with anger, a look of murder on her face that warned him back. He watched Jesse's pink hands move up the outsides of her legs to her pelvis. "No, man," Shannon said.
Jesse pressed his face into her belly and inhaled, shaking his head, eyes shut in an exquisite release. "Snooze and lose, Jones."
He tried not to watch. He heard the sough of clothing being pushed up and down, finally smelled her, his daughter, rank with sex, opened up, flattened onto the floor of the bus, a pug-dog meanness in her eyes as she waited for the next prisoner, then a faraway gaze at the ceiling.
No, he can't go through that again.
He told himself that he could track her down later, maybe under the assumed name she had given Kyle, but she isn't in the phone book or in search engines. When he asked Officer Kyle to give him her phone number, the CO brushed him off with flip comments about him being a "too-late Harry" and saying, "Can't even order a pizza and you wanna call in a whore to Dorm Eighteen? That's the whole point. That's how I make a PROFIT."
Kyle is more of a gang leader than a guard. On the way here, he walked the bus, climbing in and out of the unlocked hatchway in the mesh cage at the front, slapping prisoners' hands, giving speeches on how to stay out of trouble, and selling tiny joints for five bucks. He's nervous, unpredictable, and alert. Shannon has waited in vain for him to let his guard down.
The VC and Kyle shake hands, having reached some sort of agreement. As the VC steps gingerly across the muddy road, Shannon looks over at Ryan, one of the other inmates. "Motherfuckers know what I do if they go see María."
"Chick's name is Luz."
"Her real name is María."
Ryan just laughs. "You still think she your sweetheart?"
Shannon shoves the tie further into the stone. No one listens to a word he says. He has an exact time-enhanced photograph on his computer . . . but no one even believes he has a daughter.
Ryan turns away, smiling. He hammers at his own crosstie with a small steel sledgehammer.
The VC (short for "Venture Capitalist") shows up by the retaining wall without a spot of mud on his shoes. He is using an iron tie as a walking stick, not obligated to do anything more with it.
As the work-release inmate who usually does the driving, he could stay with the bus and still make his $12 per hour, but he can't stand being left out of a deal. He has tried to make friends with Shannon by getting him to answer questions about biotech firms—curious about every detail, though to Shannon's knowledge he has never solicited funds for a real company. "What's going to pay—antibodies or gene therapy?" "What the hell's an oligonucleotide?" "Whose patentable offenses are the least offensive to Senate Republicans?"
Shannon catches the little man's eye. His dialect shifts automatically when he talks to the VC. "Hey, Lenny, why María? Kyle said there were other girls."
Using the tie for balance, one foot on the wall, the VC stops and smiles. "Holy shit." He openly laughs. "Oh my God! Hey, Ryan, hear that?"
Ryan is six inches away from driving his tie home, the blows of the hammer barely ringing at all. "Huh?"
"Dr. Jeckle has something he wants to say! Charlie! Hey, Kyle, get this!"
At the far end of the wall, Jesse Greene slips and falls, pulling at the cliff's scrub with mad swimming arms. Red mud and gravel burst like silent Party Popper fireworks, leaving cavities in the cliff face. Roots crack like bones as he drops like a skydiver separated from a parachute and lands on his butt.
"Sla-a-a-a-am DUNK!" Ryan shakes his sledgehammer above his head.
"Look at the fool. He stuck."
"Get up, Greene." Kyle leans on the cooler to show his impatience.
"I'm hearing you. The things that are being said. I'm sitting here in the mud, and I'm hearing everything."
Shannon balances the head of his hammer on his tie. Damn right he has something to say.
Laughter fills the saporous air, loud, close, a sound absorbed quickly into the open space around the long deserted hiking trail.
"Smart Indian no stand up in canoe."
"Hey, Jesse, you got a fat ass."
"Look at him," Ryan confides to Shannon. "He don't even care. He give up."
"I'm sitting here. I'm sitting here getting wet and I'm waiting to see who gives a shit."
Shannon doesn't get it. Sometimes he doesn't get a thing that comes out of people's mouths. He goes fishing in his mind and finds only the jowly black face of Dr. White, the jovial old Brit who invited himself into his test subjects' childhoods and made himself at home there, an angel perched on their shoulders: "You're the top, Shannon. Regular humans are animals by comparison. It's true, dear boy—we're just a tribe of Neanderthals marveling at a hairless child. Oh yes! We'll teach you how to grunt, but you do the rest—all the rest is you!" He can't even imagine what it would be like to be laughing right now. Is this funny? What's funny about it?
"So, Shannon"—the VC has taken a spot on the wall one hole down—"if you're so interested in saving people, why don't you go help our dear friend Jesse out of the mud?"
Kyle is talking on his small gray phone, smiling like a pirate.
The VC's face is pink, all smile, María just a whore to him, a thing he can't help but hate after being locked up for years, no matter how much he wants what she can give him.
Shannon's hands tremble. If only Kyle was a few steps closer—then he'd dive this instant into the red of a fight and a rush of vengeance and a headlong sprint into the hills.
"Hey, Shannon. I said go help Jesse if you're such a good Samaritan."
Shannon doesn't know why everyone treats him like a child. The change has taken several years.
"Shannnnon. . . ." The VC whistles at his subject. "I know you're listening to me. . . ."
Once, at Caltech, he had to behead an infant with a fireman's axe. Usually they sent sodium pentothal into the system, followed by sodium pentobarbital, but this time they didn't know the thing was deformed until the lid came off. The skin was bad—a bad membrane binding-protein, a new M130 sequence . . . plus a theory he had about alpha-spectrin's involvement with the phospholipids, some other tinkerings . . . It wasn't even alpha-spectrin. They would have called it Jones-spectrin, he supposed, if the experiment had worked. The skin tore even in the gentle grasp of the lab robot's rubber hands. It had slightly more strength than a wet sheet of construction paper. Perfect conditions in the incubator had prevented hemorrhaging, but he could see that gravity and friction would be cataclysmic forces for the small creature. Earth was not her planet. Michelle, his senior graduate student, tried to calm the infant but came away with bloody hands. The screaming was horrible and small like a spreading wound, unanswerable, naked, more alive than anything in the incubation chamber—a small dark opening into the trauma of living matter. Tissue abnormalities would be general, meaning full-body disintegration, a slow chemical burning. Dr. White, alerted by the noise, strolled into the room just as Shannon threw down the IV equipment, punched out a glass panel, and grabbed the axe. The scientist watched calmly as his subordinate chopped the bloody mess in two. With a slight shake of the head, he placed the clean silver key to the incinerator on the counter and walked back to his office.
Shannon told Michelle that he would do the analysis. It was simple DoH research with obvious conclusions, bread-and-butter stuff neither of them could stand. He had calculated that a freak accident in the control group would raise few eyebrows. The next day he delivered some nonsense about a splice site mutation, which she never believed but kept quiet about until the trial ten months later.
"Yoo-hoo . . ."
"Haven't you noticed? Brother don't want to talk."
"It's better if he talks. Makes him think."
"Come on, man, he don't mean no harm."
Ryan could be a friend sometimes.
Everyone at the Mack treats him like this, but his mind is still the same on the inside, the mind that drove the fusion of computer science and biology to its logical end, opening a new era for a species on the verge of replacing itself. People forget what he can do. They forget the ruthlessness of his thinking, his willingness to follow an idea. They forget, too, about how he almost did time for starting a fight and killing somebody, years before the genetics experiments that got him here. He picks up his sledgehammer and gets back to work. Twang! Twang! He can do it again. Twang! He can do it, and he will. Today.