Wednesday, September 23, 2009

The Windup Girl 1-9 - Paolo Bacigalupi

"Anderson spits the black pit into his hand, smiling. He has read travelogues of history's botanists and explorers, the men and women who pierced the deepest jungle wildernesses of the earth in search of new species—and yet their discoveries cannot compare to this single fruit.

Those people all sought discoveries. He has found a resurrection.

The peasant woman beams, sure of a sale. "Ao gee kilo kha?" How much?

"Are they safe?" he asks.

She points at the Environment Ministry certificates laid on the cobbles beside her, underlining the dates of inspection with a finger. "Latest variation," she says. "Top grade."

Anderson studies the glinting seals. Most likely, she bribed the white shirts for stamps rather than going through the full inspection process that would have guaranteed immunity to eighth-generation blister rust along with resistance to cibiscosis 111.mt7 and mt8. The cynical part of him supposes that it hardly matters. The intricate stamps that glitter in the sun are more talismanic than functional, something to make people feel secure in a dangerous world. In truth, if cibiscosis breaks out again, these certificates will do nothing. It will be a new variation, and all the old tests will be useless, and then people will pray to their Phra Seub amulets and King Rama XII images and make offerings at the City Pillar Shrine, and they will all cough up the meat of their lungs no matter how many Environment Ministry stamps adorn their produce.

Anderson pockets the ngaw's pit. "I'll take a kilo. No. Two. Song."

He hands over a hemp sack without bothering to bargain. Whatever she asks, it will be too little. Miracles are worth the world. A unique gene that resists a calorie plague or utilizes nitrogen more efficiently sends profits sky-rocketing. If he looks around the market right now, that truth is everywhere displayed. The alley bustles with Thais purchasing everything from generipped versions of U-Tex rice to vermilion-variant poultry. But all of those things are old advances, based on previous genehack work done by AgriGen and PurCal and Total Nutrient Holdings. The fruits of old science, manufactured in the bowels of the Midwest Compact's research labs.

The ngaw is different. The ngaw doesn't come from the Midwest. The Thai Kingdom is clever where others are not. It thrives while countries like India and Burma and Vietnam all fall like dominoes, starving and begging for the scientific advances of the calorie monopolies.

A few people stop to examine Anderson's purchase, but even if Anderson thinks the price is low, they apparently find it too expensive and pass on.

The woman hands across the ngaw, and Anderson almost laughs with pleasure. Not a single one of these furry fruits should exist; he might as well be hefting a sack of trilobites. If his guess about the ngaw's origin is correct, it represents a return from extinction as shocking as if a Tyrannosaurus were stalking down Thanon Sukhumvit. But then, the same is true of the potatoes and tomatoes and chiles that fill the market, all piled in such splendid abundance, an array of fecund nightshades that no one has seen in generations. In this drowning city, all things seem possible. Fruits and vegetables return from the grave, extinct flowers blossom on the avenues, and behind it all, the Environment Ministry works magic with the genetic material of generations lost.

Carrying his sacked fruit, Anderson squeezes back down the soi to the avenue beyond. A seethe of traffic greets him, morning commuters clogging Thanon Rama IX like the Mekong in flood. Bicycles and cycle rickshaws, blue-black water buffaloes and great shambling megodonts.

At Anderson's arrival, Lao Gu emerges from the shade of a crumbling office tower, carefully pinching off the burning tip of a cigarette. Nightshades again. They're everywhere. Nowhere else in the world, but here they riot in abundance. Lao Gu tucks the remainder of the tobacco into a ragged shirt pocket as he trots ahead of Anderson to their cycle rickshaw.

The old Chinese man is nothing but a scarecrow, dressed in rags, but still, he is lucky. Alive, when most of his people are dead. Employed, while his fellow Malayan refugees are packed like slaughter chickens into sweltering Expansion towers. Lao Gu has stringy muscle on his bones and enough money to indulge in Singha cigarettes. To the rest of the yellow card refugees he is as lucky as a king.

Lao Gu straddles the cycle's saddle and waits patiently as Anderson clambers into the passenger seat behind. "Office," Anderson says. "Bai khap." Then switches to Chinese. "Zou ba."

The old man stands on his pedals and they merge into traffic. Around them, bicycle bells ring like cibiscosis chimes, irritated at their obstruction. Lao Gu ignores them and weaves deeper into the traffic flow.

Anderson reaches for another ngaw, then restrains himself. He should save them. They're too valuable to gobble like a greedy child. The Thais have found some new way to disinter the past, and all he wants to do is feast on the evidence. He drums his fingers on the bagged fruit, fighting for self-control.

To distract himself, he fishes for his pack of cigarettes and lights one. He draws on the tobacco, savoring the burn, remembering his surprise when he first discovered how successful the Thai Kingdom had become, how widely spread the nightshades. And as he smokes, he thinks of Yates. Remembers the man's disappointment as they sat across from one another with resurrected history smoldering between them.



* * *

"Nightshades."

Yates' match flared in the dimness of SpringLife's offices, illuminating florid features as he touched flame to a cigarette and drew hard. Rice paper crackled. The tip glowed and Yates exhaled, sending a stream of smoke ceilingward to where crank fans panted against the sauna swelter.

"Eggplants. Tomatoes. Chiles. Potatoes. Jasmine. Nicotiana." He held up his cigarette and quirked an eyebrow. "Tobacco."

He drew again, squinting in the cigarette's flare. All around, the shadowed desks and treadle computers of the company sat silent. In the evening, with the factory closed, it was just possible to mistake the empty desks for something other than the topography of failure. The workers might have only gone home, resting in anticipation of another hard day at their labors. Dust-mantled chairs and treadle computers put the lie to it—but in the dimness, with shadows draped across furniture and moonlight easing through mahogany shutters, it was possible to imagine what might have been.

Overhead, the crank fans continued their slow turns, Laotian rubber motorbands creaking rhythmically as they chained across the ceiling, drawing a steady trickle of kinetic power from the factory's central kink-springs.

"The Thais have been lucky in their laboratories," Yates said, "and now here you are. If I were superstitions, I'd think they conjured you along with their tomatoes. Every organism needs a predator, I understand."

"You should have reported how much progress they were making," Anderson said. "This factory wasn't your only responsibility."

Yates grimaced. His face was a study in tropic collapse. Broken blood vessels mapped rosy tributaries over his cheeks and punctuated the bulb of his nose. Watery blue eyes blinked back at Anderson, as hazy as the city's dung-choked air. "I should have known you'd cut my niche.""


5 out of 5

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