science fiction and fantasy writer

Triceratops

Nishitokyo, Tokyo Metropolis, Japan

It’s warm in Tokyo, with the stuffy humidity of late summer. In the garden on the other side of the window, there are shade trees and running water to keep the space cool. The Neanderthal sitting on the grass a few feet away wears only grubby y-fronts and a brown t-shirt that proclaims “This is my angry face.”

His name is Jiro. From time to time he looks up from the project in his hands, peering out from under his thatch of startling yellow hair. He’s whittling something with a box cutter from a piece of balsa wood. Shavings litter his hairy blond thighs like giant dandruff. His industriousness is intermittent, a picture of a man with no deadline, no ultimate purpose to his activity.

I’ll shortly be travelling to the Athabasca-Slave Conservation Park in Canada, where modern science has resurrected the Pleistocene. There are Thalers there. I’ve never met one because there’s only a couple of dozen countries outside of Europe and North Asia where they’re legal. Australia, where I live and mostly work, isn’t on the list. I was curious to see the real thing first, to compare.

Jiro is short, with stocky limbs and a barrel chest and obviously thick bones. There’s no way I’d get my hand around one of his wrists. His face isn’t remotely “apelike”, as non-Sapiens humans are so often lazily characterised, but nor could it be mistaken for a Sapiens face, receding sharply as it does from the brow ridge and prominent mouth that frame his beaky, overlong nose.

Whenever Jiro looks up at the window, his eyes meet mine. I had expected to feel some spark of excitement, some thrill of the moment at locking stares with a different human species. His utter indifference kills the moment cold. His gaze travels over me, then over my companion – a woman he has known for much of his adult life – and back to his project with no hint of recognition of one person by another. No different to a bored lion in a zoo, glancing at the upright monkeys on the other side of the fence.

Doctor Choi Seo-yun, a prim Korean with threads of silver in her tightly bound black hair, shows me a slight compression of her lips that carries the weight of fourteen years of exasperation – the length of time she’s been at the Nishitokyo Centre for Hominin Genomics. “They were communicative until puberty,” she says. “For the girls that was age eleven and Jiro and Haruki a year later. All of them became hyper-aggressive against any outsider entering their garden.”

Jiro and his two female companions, Kaede and Izumi, are now thirty-five. For more than twenty years they have steadfastly refused to interact with the world outside their garden. In Oslo, Buenos Aires and Shanghai, where Neanderthals were also raised, the same thing happened. In Shanghai, the Neanderthals were a breeding pair – not sterilised, as elsewhere – but the male killed their solitary child shortly after birth. There was a second male here, Haruki, but Jiro killed him at age fifteen in a fight over the females.

“They have invented their own language,” Doctor Choi tells me. “They have borrowed the Japanese grammar that they learned as children, but using only a very limited range of concepts. Not that they talk a lot, even to each other, and not at all to us, even when we address them in their language.”

Their teenage aggression has subsided somewhat as they’ve grown older. The Neanderthals now submit to haircuts and basic health checks. I witness one such examination of strawberry-blonde Izumi later in the day. She stands, quivering, with the same affronted stoicism that a dog will adopt against the prodding of a vet. They have to be sedated for dental check-ups.

I ask Doctor Choi why she thinks they stopped talking. She gives another of her minimalist grimaces. “It is like a switch was flipped in their brains. They have better results with the Floriensis in Singapore, and those are not much smarter than chimps.

“These?” she gestures towards Izumi, who is baring her teeth at the nurse checking her blood pressure. “They are a dead end.”

#

North of Lake Athabasca, Alberta, Canada

“There.”

The truck is an elderly manual-driver. Kip takes both hands off the wheel to point at the same time as she starts grinding down through the truck’s gears. The muscles of her right arm, the thickest I’ve ever seen on a woman, flex as she works the column shift.

Kip is one of the Thalers working and residing in the park. She only superficially resembles the Neanderthals I saw in Tokyo, although she clearly has a lot more of their genetic material than the few per cent that most non-African Sapiens possess. She’s bigger, heftier than a Neanderthal, fair skinned but dark haired, the proportions of her face exotic without being so completely foreign. An idealised version of what we wished our nearest cousins could have been.

Then I look out the window, following the direction of her pointing finger, and I can’t keep my excitement bottled inside. “Mammoths!”

“Hybrids,” she corrects me.

I don’t know enough yet to tell the difference. The two animals wrestling a short distance from the road are noticeably larger than the Asian elephants I’ve seen in zoos, and covered in that distinctive shaggy pelt that sets steppe mammoths apart from most Proboscidea. They have the high shoulders and sloping backs of Asian elephants but more of the lankiness associated with their African cousins. The wool of one of the wrestling animals is noticeably orange, rather than the classical mammoth brown.

“Elephant genes,” says Kip, when I comment on it.

“What are the other differences?”

“Bigger ears, usually.” I hadn’t noticed because the ears looked normal against my childhood memories.

“The mammoths don’t have much to do with the hybrids,” Kip adds. When I ask why not, the corner of her mouth quirks as if at a private joke. “Nothing to talk about,” she says, then adds, “Mammoths don’t get musth, either.” Musth in bull elephants raises testosterone levels by around fifty times and makes them a danger to anything nearby. “These guys do,” Kip continues, “so the mammoths don’t trust them and chase them away.”

We see more animals on the way to the camp, proxy species like modern musk oxen and grey wolves and – once, at a distance – a woolly rhino.

“They weren’t sure about having the rhinos here, originally,” Kip tells me. “In Africa they’ve had problems reintroducing rhinos and elephants together because the young bull elephants kill the rhinos.”

“Not here?”

She shakes her head. “Asian elephant genes don’t seem to carry the same homicidal urges,” she says, drily. “Mammoth genes certainly don’t. There’s a bit of rhino tipping among the mammoths, but no killing.”

“‘Rhino tipping?'”

“Two sisters started it. They taught it to their kids and it’s spread through the population from there. They find a rhino and annoy it until it gets angry enough to charge them, then they wait until the last instant, step aside, grab the rhino with their trunk on the way past and flip it onto its back.”

I’m sure she’s pulling my leg, but, “Woolly rhinos are slow and mammoths are light on their feet,” she says. “We recorded it once. I’ll show you.”

It’s hard to believe they have video like that and it hasn’t gone global. When I say so, Kip gives a shrug that emphasises the heaviness of her shoulders. “We mostly stay off the web.”

The camp is a compact square of prefabricated bungalows, housing laboratories, dormitories, mess and administration facilities. A tiny patch of human geometry jutting up from the spare wilderness all around. The admin block, I learn later, doubles as an armoury. The compound is protected by a ten-foot reinforced fence, watchtowers at its corners. Similar fences close the gaps between the lakes and rivers along the park’s boundaries. Around the camp buildings, the fence looks like the ones that surround refugee camps at home. I asked if they’ve had any problems with poachers.

“Just once,” Kip says. She falls silent. Her lips twitch as though there are more words but she’s not letting them out. “There isn’t the black market for ivory anymore, with the quality of vat-grown stuff now, and all the Pleistocene stuff being dug out of the permafrost – what used to be permafrost.”

I learn later that the poachers were kids from one of the local reservations, trying their hands. They shot at the drone sent to track them and RCAF fired back. The Rangers – some of them men and women from the same community as the poachers – arrived to clean up the pieces.

“The fence is mostly for rhinos and grolars,” Kip says. “The rhinos would just wander in because they’re not paying attention. The bears come looking for food.”

Grizzly-polar bear hybrids, with their jumbled instincts and physiologies, tend to maladaptation in the prototypical habitats of their parent species, I learn while I’m at the camp. In mixed terrain, like that of the park, they dominate.

The population of the camp is both mixed and segregated. The residents are a roughly equal mix of Sapiens and Thaler. There’s also a fluctuating number of non-resident indigenous workers from Fort Chipewyan and the Chipewyan and Cree reservations near the park. The groups muck in together when the work demands it, such as unloading Kip’s supply truck.

I get my first look at the Thaler men in that swarming operation. Most of them are no taller than Kip, who stands as high as my shoulder, but some of them are so heavyset they look almost cubical. Most of the Thalers have blond or red hair. I’m introduced to several, men and women – Doro, Pek, Yellen, Jussy, I’m certain I won’t keep them straight in my head – and experience several minutes of terror, watching their thick hands engulf mine, one after another, while the muscles of their forearms knot like rope as they take their grips. My knuckles survive with only mild crushing.

After the truck is unloaded, the groups part. The Thalers have coffee and lunch with the Cree and Chipewyan workers, or go back to joint tasks with them. They have a shared manner, animated speech followed by reflective pauses before someone else in the group speaks up. The non-indigenous Sapiens keep themselves largely separate, friendly with the others but lacking a common language, a division of scientists and academics versus tradespeople and labourers.

Kip says, “Come on, I’ll introduce you to Gnarly.”

#

The reason there’s a nucleus community of Thalers out here is Professor Joana Almeida Borges – or Gnarly as she’s known here – the first Thaler to complete a university doctorate. For good measure, she did two: in biochemistry and then palaeontology.

Gnarly is the senior researcher here and the project’s driving force. She used to teach at Universidade de Lisboa, in Portugal – where she was born and raised – and later at the University of Toronto. She’s tiny and squat, the top of her head not much higher than Kip’s chin, and her build and features have much more of the pure Neanderthal about them than Kip’s and most of the other Thalers’. Her hair is buttercup-yellow, like Jiro’s. Gnarly is from the first generation, a couple of decades older than Jiro and his companions. When she fixes me with a stare that would sit well on an irritable hawk, I can imagine what a terror she was in the classroom. Her students must have adored her.

“We – Thalers – are illegal in one hundred and fifteen countries around the world,” she tells me, over coffee. “If I cross the border into the United States, I am illegal. Not allowed. If I fly to Australia, it is the same. What will happen to me?”

Lots of people are illegal in Australia, I tell her.

“One hundred and fifteen countries,” she says, again. “Why is this? Is it because we are made? Against God? In Saudi Arabia, there is a fatwah that says so. In Portugal – my country, where we are legal – a politician said that we have no souls, because we are made. Kip is not ‘made’. Her father is like me, her mother was Sapiens.

“Many children, in the same United States where we are illegal, are ‘made’, as we are. They are designed and made before they are put into their mothers’ wombs. The politicians in the United States, the muftis in Saudi Arabia, do not say that their beautiful made children have no souls. Why us?” She pauses, as if I might have an answer for her. Then, “Is it because we are not Sapiens enough? Not the right kind of human? Perhaps.”

She swirls the dregs of her drink. “Perhaps it is just because we are only a few, and it is easier to say you are afraid of a few than of many.”

She stands, which doesn’t make her much taller. “Tomorrow, you will see mammoths. Here, we have woolly mammoths. They have Colombian mammoths in the United States, which they made.”

#

After dinner, beers are handed around. I take mine up a watchtower with Kip and Jonathan, one of the scientists. Jonathan is Cree, but from Ontario, one of Professor Almeida Borges’s post-doctoral students from Toronto.

The park sits within the aspen parkland that predominates around the western end of the lake: grassland dotted with colony groves of trees, where the prairie and the boreal forest go to war. With the changing climate, the prairie is winning, pushing northward. The leaves of some of the aspen groves are beginning to turn yellow with the arrival of autumn. They flare brightly in the light of the slow northern sunset.

Kip points out a cluster of brown shapes in the distance.

“Mammoths,” she says.

I can barely make them out as individuals.

“Sharper eyes,” Jonathan tells me.

The stars are out early, away from city lights, bright and unfamiliar to my eyes. The sky seems oddly empty, too, with the great sweep of the Milky Way low on the southern horizon rather than directly overhead. Jonathan points out constellations.

After full dark, I notice firelight in the distance, the bright spark of a campfire. “Someone’s out there.”

The corner of Kip’s mouth comes up in that knowing smirk. “Yeah,” she says. “Every night.”

The fire looks to be near where we saw the mammoths, earlier. “You know who?”

Jonathan nods. “We do.”

#

The mammoths do come to the camp the next day.

“They always come the day after the truck’s back,” says Kip. “In case we have any treats for them.”

On this occasion, the treats are several cases of old fruit from the markets in Fort McMurray, where she collected me. The mammoths approach in three groups of ten to fifteen individuals, coming in from different directions. I watch, alongside Kip, Jonathan and Professor Almeida Borges and several other camp residents, from the gantry built partway up one side of the perimeter fence, with feeding troughs on the other side.

The mammoth groups hail each other as they near, raising their trunks and trumpeting. Some break from their groups, twining trunks and bumping shoulders when they come together.

“Brothers and sisters,” says Jonathan. “The males spend more time with the herds where they have calves than elephants do. No musth, so the females don’t chase them away. Some of the boys are going to have to go to other parks, though.”

The mammoths transport me, fill me with a child’s wonder and I wonder aloud what it would be like to ride one. Gnarly snorts and I’m certain I’ve made a faux pas. But Kip says, “When I was a kid, I always wanted to ride on a triceratops. I didn’t understand how science could make mammoths and Neanderthals again but not dinosaurs.” She flashes her teeth. “These guys are fine, but I’d still like to ride a triceratops one day.”

It’s an astounding experience to be close to such large animals, let alone so many at once. The shoulders of the tallest are level with the top of the fence, their eyes level with mine standing on the gantry. Miniature elephant ears flick back and forth, absurd-looking if the animal themselves weren’t so regal. The great snow plow tusks of the adults keep them back a way from the trough and fence.

Some of the adults, I notice with an exclamation of surprise, have canvas grocery bags hooked over their tusks. Everyone near me has a chuckle at my reaction.

“They like the bags to put their things in,” says Jonathan.

Kip takes pity on me. “We give them soccer balls for the calves. A few other odds and ends.”

The adults’ trunks are just long enough to reach through the bars of the fence and take fruit directly from our hands. The prehensile tips are soft and slightly wet.

The younger mammoths take their fruit from the troughs, peering up at us over the metal rims if they’re tall enough, or questing about blindly with their trunks if not. Occasionally an adult or older juvenile will help the babies find what they’re looking for, or else hand them down a piece. Some of the adults stash a few fruits in their grocery bags.

They’re quiet, remarkably so for such massive creatures, aside from the occasional bleat for help from the very youngest. There’s no frenzy about their feeding. They’re orderly, patient – polite, even, taking their turns and then yielding their positions to the next in line.

I watch as Professor Almeida Borges holds up a hand between the bars of the fence. The mammoth in front of her reaches up with its trunk and clasps her fingers. Kip and Jonathan both do the same. Others are touching, making contact, as they give out fruit.

“Now you,” says Kip.

I hold out my hand to the mammoth that has just taken an apple from me. It hesitates, trunk still in its mouth, watching me. Then it uncoils its trunk again, reaches back and the lips close, just briefly, wetly, around my fingers. One liquid, brown-black eye looks into mine, so knowing that I have the uncanny sense that I’m holding hands with another person. The mammoth exhales as it releases me, its breath hot on my palm.

A fourth group of animals has appeared, half a dozen adults and a couple of juveniles. They stop a distance back from the camp, obviously uncertain. The mammoths ignore them.

“Hybrids,” I guess.

Kip nods. “They won’t come over until the mammoths are done. We’ll save them a crate.”

“There is a park in Manchuria where they have only hybrids,” says Gnarly. “It will be a significant undertaking, but we are hoping to send them there. They will be happier.”

#

“Why did they make us?” she asks me, later, pinning me with her best professorial glare. “Why did they continue to make us after they brought back the real thing? What is this urge, this opposite urge, to the fear that makes us illegal in so much of the world?”

She lets the questions hang long enough for me to be certain that I have no good response, then answers them herself. “It is not because we are strong, not because we are useful.” She grunts. “Outside of Russia, anyway. Why did they keep making us? One can build stronger workers on a factory production line. Exoskeletons are cheap.” There are a couple in the camp, mostly disused now, dating back to before Gnarly’s Thaler recruitment drive. She gestures vaguely towards the corner of the compound where they stand, covered by tarpaulins. “Attach armour and there is a tougher, stronger soldier. Wires and drugs will make super soldiers faster and cheaper than meddling with genetics. No.”

I mumble something about the quest for knowledge. The hawk stare fixes on me again and I have an acute insight into how a rabbit might feel, having indiscreetly poked its head out of its hole.

“Knowledge? Then why so many of us? What can science learn from so many that it cannot learn from a few? What can science learn from us at all, really? We are not Neanderthals, we cannot teach science very much about Neanderthals.” She raises a stout finger.

“Humankind is lonely,” she says. “You cannot bear the thought that there is no-one else out there to talk to. There might have been, right under your noses, but you exterminated most of those without even realising, including all your nearest relatives. The few that are left are too foreign. Even as you fear the possibility, you want – desperately want – for there to be someone else, someone different but enough like you. That is why the Neanderthals were such a crushing disappointment. They were the closest thing to you that ever existed, and they do not want to know you.”

Her choice of “you” rather than “we” is both striking and discomforting. I comment on it.

“Ah!” she says. “But we are not just Sapiens with a robust chassis, are we? No. And neither are we Neanderthal. We are something else. Our quest is to find out what.”

I ask if that’s why she has brought so many of her fellows to join her in the park.

“Yes,” she says, simply.

When I ask the other Thalers why they’re out here, they all give similar enough answers to suggest that it’s a matter that’s been much discussed.

“Looking for who I am, I guess,” from Kip, with that heavy-shouldered shrug of hers.

“Don’t belong anywhere else, do we?” from Doro.

“Where else would I be?” from Pek, after a thoughtful chew on his cigar.

Yellen has the answer that, perhaps, sums up all of them. “Look at us. We’re made from nothing, out of nowhere. I went to Gibraltar, once, to see the caves where Neanderthals used to be. I went to the one where there’s those carvings that they say were by Neanderthals. I got a tattoo.” He rolls up his sleeve to show me the crosshatch design on his bicep. “But what does it mean, really? The last people like us, Sapiens and Neanderthal in one, they were forty thousand years ago. A person needs to fit, and we got nowhere to fit.”

Overhearing this, Daniel, one of the Chipewyan men, leans across to add, “My people have told stories here since time immemorial. Even your archaeologists say our stories go back ten thousand years in this country.”

Yellen nods. “Maybe here is a place where we can find a way for us to fit together, find a reason to be a people. Make our own stories.”

“And are you? Finding something?”

He gives me a crooked grin, that curl of his lip that shows off the gap in his teeth, and sweeps his arm around, a gesture that encompasses the horizon. “Of course. Who wouldn’t find something out here?”

Northern Canada is like that, with its heavy, intrusive quiet and the even greater weight of emptiness, of human absence, all around. It’s a place where you feel like the world is talking directly to you, with none of the usual clutter in between, and you can almost – almost – hear what the world is saying.

I share beers up on the watchtower again with Jonathan. He tells me that he was raised among his mother’s Cree people, but his father is Métis.

“They started out as the children of English and French fur trappers and First Nations women,” he says. “No one wanted them. But there were so many, they made their own culture. Some of it’s from indigenous traditions, some of it’s European, some of it they invented themselves.”

A campfire springs to life, light invented in the dark. Someone’s out there.

#

A couple of days later, I catch Yellen and Kip carving at knuckles of sheep bone. They hunch over their projects, intent, holding them close to their faces. Kip’s expression is set in a scowl of concentration, brow furrowed, eyes narrow. Yellen gurns while he etches the fine details.

They’re shy when I ask to see, but Yellen holds up his. It’s a mammoth, stylised but not quite like any style I know.

Kip is more diffident. Eventually, Yellen’s cajoling gets her to open her hand. She’s carving a fat little woman figure, clearly inspired by the Paleolithic Venus figurines that have been found across northern Europe.

I tell her it looks like Gnarly. Yellen thinks that’s hilarious.

“What does she mean?” I ask Kip.

She gives her heavy shrug, looks me in the eye.

“Something.”

<END>

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