“Don’t look for what you don’t want to find…”
“So this is it; this is what I wished for; just isn’t how I envisioned it…”
— Eminem, from “Careful What You Wish For.”
Genaro tried to remember what happened. He’d been sleeping a lot lately but it wasn’t a natural sleep. They were trying to keep him quiet so he wouldn’t be a bother. Why couldn’t he see? Why were his arms and legs so heavy?
He tried to stand but although he could find the floor, he couldn’t find his feet. Something at the end of his leg was touching something below and to the side of him, but it wasn’t a foot. It was…was… What was it? What had happened? He realized now he couldn’t move his fingers. What was at the end of his arms? Why was it so hard to breathe?
He opened his mouth but couldn’t scream. He felt like he was suffocating. His head, yes he still had a head, was aching. The pain spiked and then there was nothingness.
Genaro Galindo stood at attention with the other volunteers although he was a civilian.
“Please be seated.”
He and the other twenty-nine men and women sat down in what looked like classroom chairs with attached desks. They reminded him of the school room from his childhood in rural Argentina.
“My name is Colonel Zachary Cox. I’m the military liaison between NASA and the Synthecon Corporation. You have all volunteered for the first Venera Mission, one of the several projects aimed at colonizing other planets in our solar system. You’ve each been selected for not only your professional qualifications, but your ability to manage radical life changes, tendencies toward xenophilia or at least an attraction to unusual or alien circumstances, and a certain, shall we say fluidity regarding body image and identity.”
Genaro looked around. He was the only representative of his country here and he recognized multiple ethnic groups from who knew how many nations. A few appeared to be what was called gender fluid but most of the others seemed a lot like him, people who had very definite ideas of who they were in terms of identity and gender. Of course, appearances weren’t always revealing
He knew what the Colonel meant, though. To volunteer for the project, to pass all the admission tests, and to qualify to become an explorer and ultimately a colonist meant leaving everything behind, everything, not just your family, your friends, your life, your nation, or even just your planet, but everything that made you a person, everything that made him Genaro Ventura Sandoval Galindo.
He realized that he’d been daydreaming while Colonel Cox was speaking and he hoped no one noticed.
“Now, I’d like to introduce Dr. Daniel Hunt, the inventor of the Synthecon process which, if you qualify, you will undergo in preparation for your assignment and relocation.”
Genaro had noticed the man sitting in the back of the room behind the podium but just assumed he was some sort of official observing the initial orientation.
He got up, exchanged nods with the Army officer, then the Colonel sat in a chair next to where Hunt had been a moment before while the scientist replaced him at the podium.
Daniel Hunt wasn’t just famous, he was legendary. The man who had made the breakthrough in DNA-based artificial intelligence at the age of 27. The designer of both a substance and a technological process that could physically adapt a human being to any circumstance, any environment on Earth. Now, if he passed all of the qualifications, Genaro would become part of a project to determine if a “Syntheorg” could be adapted to off-world environments as well.
“Good morning. You wouldn’t all be here if you were afraid of adventure, extreme challenges, and becoming pioneers. That’s who you’ll be…well, five of you anyway. Pioneers. However, our experience with the Poseidon and Icarus Projects tells us that out of a group of thirty, only between three to five of you will qualify for the permanent adaptation. The rest will wash out.”
About two-thirds of the volunteers were murmuring which Genaro thought rude. Hunt held up his hand and the room quieted.
“That’s not a pejorative statement. Think about what you’ll be giving up, not just your homes and your families, but the very physicality of your make up, your identity, your being if you will. Experience in supervising scores of adaptations has shown me that it’s not just your body that must adapt to the new environment, but your mind and your spirit. You must cease to be a native of your planet and become not just a visitor, but an integrated component of your new biosphere. That’s not to be taken lightly.”
Genaro thought he was prepared, but Dr. Hunt’s little speech was beginning to get to him a little. As he showed them films of the transition process of those to who had volunteered for and been accepted by the Poseidon Project, he could feel the bottom of his stomach drop out.
The first syntheorgs weren’t volunteers, they were accident victims. The prototype, her identity was still classified and all anyone knew was that she was a woman, had been mutilated in a nuclear plant accident. The second was an Israeli Air Force pilot whose ejection system had failed after a surface-to-air missile struck his F-15 over Syria. He had gone down with his aircraft and well, like the prototype, he survived but there wasn’t much left of him.
He and the others, the first ten to fifteen human-synthetic organisms, all victims of similar misfortunes, had all been reconstructed over a period of at first years, and then later months as the process was refined. Now the average “turnaround time” between the start and finish of the transition was something like eighteen months.
Particularly the beginning transition stages were very difficult to watch. It amounted to multiple amputations and other forms of mutilation to remove the traditional organic tissue, skin, muscle, fat, in many cases, blood, portions of the nervous system, eyes, lungs, much of the skeleton, and replace them with analogous biosynthetic structures and systems. In the case of the Poseidon Project, it was not to duplicate what was lost, but rather to adapt and amplify so that the subject would be able to live, breathe, work, and become part of a life under the surface of Earth’s oceans. The subjects could even ingest plastics and hydrocarbons in order to help purify their environment.
He and three others had to run out of the room, find the nearest lavatory (one person didn’t make it) and vomit.
He woke up again, this time remembering his dream, except it wasn’t a memory of a dream, it was a memory of his life.
Genaro opened his mouth again but nothing came out when he had intended to say, “Oh, Mother of God, it’s all real.”
The room he was in was still dark, or so it seemed to his adapted visual senses, but he could feel it was warm. He remembered the warmth was a combination of intense ultraviolet radiation and hydrochloric acid. He opened his mouth to take a deep “breath” recalling now that the “air” was actually carbon monoxide and sulphur dioxide. He would have chuckled if he still had the ability, recalling how a year or two ago, this atmosphere would have killed him in seconds.
He knew he was “exhaling” carbon dioxide and a small amount of hydrogen. At the same time, he had taken in as much water vapor as he’d need to quench his “thirst.”
The air was still too thin and he felt trapped against the oversized “bunk bed” in his environmental chamber. He was in a spacecraft. The Vesper III had left Earth orbit some three months ago with an estimated transit time to Venus of 119 days. No wonder they kept him asleep most of the time.
Genaro wondered how the other four were doing? Dr. Hunt had nailed it on the button. Exactly five volunteers out of the original thirty qualified for the full transition. Most willingly quit within the first forty-five days, but two had made it all the way to the initial injection of the nanoprobes, the thousands of tiny devices that performed almost all of the internal surgery and exchanges between organic and biosynthetic components, along with the reconstruction of the new physiology.
Cummings had panicked sixteen hours after the nanobots began their initial integration and went into a seizure. They were told it was a psychological rather than a neurological effect, and once the bots had been removed from her system (she demanded absolute proof that every single one had been purged from her body), she was on the next plane back to England.
Ayo Kwambai made it almost ninety-five hours before the medical team rather pointedly advised him they were removing the nanobots and expelling him from the program. Genaro thought Ayo was one of the bravest people he’d ever met. He was scared to death but insisted he was fit to go on every time he was questioned.
He was the only volunteer from Kenya in the program and the only one from the African continent to make it to the “finals”. He was proud of his country and wanted to represent his nation and his people as a colonist, but that was exactly the problem. He couldn’t let go. As much as he wanted to, as much as he realized that attachments to home and family would prevent him from being accepted for the full transition, he was and would always at heart be Kenyan.
Everyone, well, the five who were left, including Genaro, thought he’d have to be removed from the Project by force, but then, after finding out Ayo had lied on his application and that his mother was still very much alive, Joseph Kelly, the Project’s social worker, reached Budhya Kwambai by phone and asked her to speak to her only son. He was packed and gone two days later.
Had he been dreaming again? He felt awake, felt awkward, felt all but helpless. He couldn’t move much. He knew electrodes were attached to his new body to stimulate the muscles so they wouldn’t atrophy during transit. In fact, given that the transition occurred aboard the Intrepid, the multi-national large orbital platform that had replaced the International Space Station when it reached end of life about five years ago, he and the others had to be artificially sustained this way for over a month before their voyage began.
He felt so alone but he knew he wasn’t. Genaro wasn’t alone, just very rare, at least for the present. There were the others, Jonathan Warner, Tham Dao Lieu, Herman Leonov, and Latrisha Poole. They were in their own individual environmental pods, identical to Genaro’s. When they entered orbit around Venus, the Vesper would be maneuvered over the injection site. Their pods were contained in a large deployment module which would detach from the main ship and descend into the atmosphere. When the module reached an altitude of 51 kilometers above the Venusian surface, it would deploy a helium filled envelope allowing the craft to remain in the atmosphere long-term as a solar-powered airship.
At the same time, their individual pods would be ejected from the module and the access panels on each one blown allowing the five of them to escape into the atmosphere. The airship contained all of the raw materials they’d need to begin constructing the colony base and…and…
“Attention colonists. This is Captain Lisbeth Webber. We have been in geosynchronous orbit over the injection site for seventy-one hours. T-minus 15 minutes, 30 seconds to module detachment. You have all been fully revived and your electrodes have been detached and retracted. Try to relax. The atmospheric pressure in your pods has been modified and is now identical to the atmosphere at 51 clicks above the surface. That means when your pod panels eject, you’ll have to manually push your way outside. There won’t be any decompression to assist you.”
This was one of Genaro’s greatest fears, that he wouldn’t be strong enough to push out of the pod, that he’d be trapped inside as it fell toward the surface of the planet. His body was engineered to not only survive, but to thrive at an altitude of 50 to 52 kilometers high, but much closer to the surface, he wouldn’t be able to withstand the incredibly high temperatures (hot enough to melt lead), the intense atmospheric pressure, and if he were struck by lightning…
Captain Webber continued with the pre-deployment briefing. If Genaro had a conventional stomach, a fleet of butterflies would be assaulting it. He thought back. He remembered surfing at Villa Gesell when he was fifteen. He remembered his first kiss with a girl he’d met that evening around a bonfire. He remembered snorkeling at Peurto Piramides, the pine forests at Pinamar, the empanadas his Mama used to make him for dinner when he was a boy.
Why was he remembering all this now? He had passed every test, qualified when twenty-five other excellent candidates had left or been removed from the Project. He had allowed his body to be radically altered by amputation, surgery, and nano-reconstruction. Less than twelve percent of his original physiology still existed, the rest was a series biosynthetic compounds and structures built from artificial DNA. He could no more survive on the surface of the Earth anymore than could a Frilled Shark or a Viper Fish.
“T-minus 45 seconds, team. Good luck.”
That was the last time Genaro heard Captain Webber’s voice. The rest of the countdown was controlled by the ship’s on board computer. He could feel the vibration of the hatch panels opening at the bottom of the ship, hear the metallic sounds of the latches that held the deployment module in place disengaging.
He tensed his muscles. Genaro and the others were told that there might be an initial jolt when they were released from the Vesper.
“…four, three, two, one…detachment initiated.”
For once Genaro was grateful he didn’t actually have a stomach or an inner ear since otherwise he was sure the sensation of falling would have made him nauseous.
The module first used rocket thrusters to slow its descent and then when low enough, it deployed parachutes. Then those were detached and the large envelope that would transform the module into an airship deployed and began to fill with helium.
The noise of his pod’s hatch ejecting was deafening. The entire outward facing half of the compartment in which Genaro had been living (or existing really) for three-and-a-half months blew away. The pod was released from the large module and he was falling, the sound of the air rushing past sounded like screaming.
The opening. He twisted his body so he was facing the sky, then he pushed as hard as he could with his rear limbs against the wall behind him. He saw his forward limbs. The appendages at the end could adapt for gripping but the membranes along their length were more suitable for atmospheric gliding.
“Push you hijo de puta, push!” It didn’t come out as words but there was noise, a language, sort of what a dolphin or whale might sound like.
Then, like escaping the womb, the pod abruptly fell away from him and Genaro was free. The membranes along the length of his four limbs, now extended each to their full three meters, filled with a buoyant gas and he begin to rise. He reflexively extended the airfoils between his appendages and manipulated them so he was not only ascending but maneuvering. He was flying, and it was as natural to him now as it would be for a young colt to suddenly begin galloping.
He looked around the brilliant sky. Jonathan was thirty meters below him and to the left, and he saw Latrisha just a few meters underneath and rising rapidly right in front of him. Both Tham and Herman were above sailing toward the now fully capable airship.
Their initial supplies were in a gondola beneath the superstructure but after the first month, they would be making their own airborne colony structures. Their children would be the ones to build the first Cloud City of Venus.
“Genaro, it’s so good to see you again, my love. You’re looking more gorgeous than ever.”
“It’s fabulous to see you too, Latrisha. I’ve missed you so much.” He had no mouth as such to smile, but inside he was beaming and he knew his happiness was being carried by his “voice” and the shifting colors of his membranes.
Now that the five of them were hovering at the same level, they extended their appendages to touch each other forming a ring. They were the first colonists on or rather above Venus. Everything looked amazingly beautiful and his friends, his family, all looked so lovely, so natural, so normal. It had been a long journey, not just the trip from Earth but the journey of the heart.
The last few minutes Genaro was in the pod, he had said his goodbyes to everything he had known before, to everything he had been before. That part of his life had ended. The relentless voyage of searching had concluded. He was home. He and his family were finally home.
I wrote this for the Simply Marquessa Lyrical Fiction Friday challenge. The idea is to use part of all of the suggested lyric (or another lyric from the same song) as the inspiration for crafting a piece of short fiction. The lyric for November 23rd (which is actually a Thursday) is “Don’t look for what you don’t want to find…” If you’ll look at the very beginning of my story, you’ll see I also invoked a separate lyric, tune, and artist that seemed to parallel the first.
I’ve been writing a series of stories about a prototype human-synthetic organism or “syntheorg” named Mikiko Jahn including the latest entry titled The Vengeful. In today’s tale, I’ve adapted the basic process of how Mikiko was carefully and almost completely reconstructed with biosynthetic materials and processes after a catastrophic nuclear plant accident to serve a different purpose.
Decades ago, I read articles about how we might need to use cyborgs, or cybernetic organisms to explore the solar system, adapting human beings with mechanical, electronic, and other technologies so they could live more “naturally” on other worlds. The 1976 novel Man Plus by Frederik Pohl was just one fictionalized tale based on such a premise.
But the machine/organic interface always bothered me. How would you be able to get a human brain to interpret what the non-organic bits of you were trying to communicate. I thought that if you could build synthetic-organic parts out of artificial DNA you could not only tailor those parts to be accepted by the organic portions of a person’s body, but the process could be adapted for a wide variety of applications, including exploring under the oceans as well as on other planets.
After I read about NASA’s High Altitude Venus Operational Concept or HAVOC, including an article published by Space.com, I wanted to write a story addressing the concept of “colonizing” the atmosphere of Venus. I first thought of using AI or even sentient machines in the vein of Isaac Asimov’s Three Laws Robots, but rather than employ a concept that has been used and used in various science fiction works for decades, I decided on another course.
I mined information at Wikipedia and another article from Space.com, but it was this write up called Life on Venus? that gave me the critical data allowing me to envision macro-level life forms performing what, by rights is conceptualized as tiny microbes living off of radiation and carbon monoxide high in the Venusian atmosphere.
I should also mention that the air pressure at 51 kilometers is roughly what you and I experience here on Earth’s surface, so even if a hypothetical airship should spring a leak, there wouldn’t be explosive decompression as you’d expect if something made a hole in a pressurized craft in the vacuum of space.
I hope you enjoyed this rather strange trip into the future. Genaro and his four companions indeed did look for something they weren’t sure they wanted to find, but then having found it, couldn’t imagine living life any other way.
To read other stories based on the lyric, visit #LyricalFictionFriday – “Back It Up” #fictionfriday #marquessachallenge.