Free Extract: Ghost Species by James Bradley

By Fleur Clarke

Posted on September 21, 2020 in Extract, Science Fiction with tags Extract, ghost species, james bradley

ONE: IMPOSSIBLE THINGS

Later, Kate will wonder whether any of it would have happened if they had been somewhere less isolated, whether normality might have put a brake on their actions if they had been closer to other people. For though in those years that very notion – normality – had already begun to bend, giving way as the planet itself began to buckle and shift, there is no doubt that up there, cut off from the rest of the world, it sometimes seemed that anything was possible and nothing was forbidden. When she comes to look back she will realise that this was not an accident, that even though Davis’s other schemes had come to naught, this at least he had understood, planned for even, and the realisation that he had manipulated them will make her feel ill.

Today, though, she thinks none of this. Instead, as the helicopter shoots over the forest, its sleek shape slicing through the coiling breath of the mist that rises from the treetops, she is absorbed by the landscape beneath, its silent presence. For years now there has been drought here, but as the canopy moves past below there is little sign of it. Instead the forest that carpets the hills and the enfolded flanks of the mountains with their outcrops of grey, volcanic stone looks impenetrable, primeval.

Only the scurf of smoke on the horizon betrays the truth, the degree to which this landscape is already convulsing.

In the seat beside her Jay sits, unspeaking, his dark eyes focused on the view below. His silence is perhaps a sign he is anxious about what lies ahead. When the invitation arrived Kate had recoiled from its gnomic wording, the assumption they would drop everything to head south to meet with an unidentified benefactor who was interested in discussing a mysterious project they thought the two of them would find ‘intriguing’. ‘American,’ she had snorted contemptuously when she first saw the email. ‘Or Chinese.’

But Jay had grinned.‘We should go. After all, what’s the worst that could happen? We get a few days to ourselves in Hobart? I could do with the time away; we both could.’

Aware he was making an effort, she had forced herself to smile and agree. And so, a week later, they are here, in a helicopter somewhere over the Tasmanian bush, heading for a rendezvous at an unknown location with a potential employer whose name they did not know.

Jay twists in his seat, his attention caught by something below. She follows his gaze. At first her eyes cannot makes sense of what she is seeing: the cubic buildings scattered on the hillside are rendered almost invisible by the way their smoke-grey glass exteriors reflect the surrounding landscape, dissolving the perfection of their geometry into a mirrored infinity of grass, stone and sky.

In front of her in the cockpit the assistant – Madison, she reminds herself – swivels in her seat and looks back, her face hidden behind her oversized sunglasses, the inscrutable armour of her pale makeup and carefully painted lips. In the two hours since she met them at the airport she has offered no hint of where they are going or, indeed, any personal information at all.

‘We have to walk the last bit,’ she says, lifting her voice over the roar of the rotors and engine. ‘Helicopters aren’t permitted to approach the facility.’

Jay leans forward.‘Facility? What is this place? Are those buildings labs?’

Madison smiles and stares over their shoulders. Kate realises she is looking at some kind of display in her sunglasses. ‘You’ll be given a full briefing once we’re on-site.’

The helicopter swings around, passing over a low hill towards an open space on its far side. Jay leans back into his seat.‘Who the hell are we meeting?’ he says, his voice pitched low enough to ensure only Kate can hear him over the engine. Kate just shakes her head and looks out the window again.

The grass flows outward in waves beneath them as they descend, exposing the bleached textures of its roots, the darker hues of earth and stone. At the last moment the helicopter seems to hesitate, the pitch of the engine rising, then there is a jolt as the rear wheels make contact with the ground, followed by the gentler bump of the front. A moment later the engine spins down, the space left by the absence of its sound immense.

With a practised motion the pilot opens the door and climbs out. Reaching up she takes their bags, one by one, then helps each of them down. As Kate climbs out she catches a glimpse of herself reflected in the plexiglass canopy. At Jay’s insistence she dressed well, taking more care than she has in months, the black shirt and dark jeans she has chosen emphasising her lean figure. Yet when she looks at her face, its thinness beneath her pulled-back blonde hair emphasised by her scrubbed skin and hollow cheekbones, all she sees are her eyes, lost, numb, emptied out.

Picking up her bag she stares up the hillside while she waits for Jay to arrange himself, dully grateful she packed lightly and is not required to drag a suitcase over the ground.

Once Jay has his bags Madison heads off up the slope, moving remarkably sure-footedly given she is wearing heels, Jay beside her. Kate watches them ascend for a second or two and then follows, a few metres behind.

The hill is high enough to block the view of the facility – or, Kate realises, to block the facility’s view of the landing area – so it is only as she reaches the top that she has a chance to observe it properly. Seen from ground level it is, if anything, even more beautiful than it was from the air: its interconnected cubes seem to float above the hillside opposite, as weightless and inscrutable as some kind of alien artefact.

Jay stops to let Kate catch up with him. ‘Who do you think designed this place?’ he asks. Kate glances at him – he is easily seduced by wealth – but before she can answer, a strange cry echoes across the hillside, a strangled howl like nothing she has heard before. She stares around.

‘What was that?’ she asks.
Jay shrugs. ‘A bird? Some kind of possum?’
Kate stares at him. Jay is a creature of the city, his interactions with wild animals and the bush confined to the occasional documentary, yet even so she cannot believe he is not at least slightly unsettled by the sound. Ahead of them Madison is already halfway down the hill. Adjusting her bag on her shoulder Kate stares across the open space towards the building one more time, the cloud-filled surfaces of its mirrored walls depthless, unbounded. Then she adjusts her bag on her shoulder and heads down after Madison, Jay beside her.

Madison stops by the base of the nearest cube. Where its cantilevered shape meets the hillside a door is cut into its side, the outline almost invisible; beside it a small panel is set into the surface at chest height. Madison waves a hand in front of the panel, and the door slides open. Stepping aside, she motions to Kate and Jay to enter. Inside is an entrance area, its double-height space subtly illuminated to emphasise its simplicity, the way its stark lines are rendered calming, even comfortable, by the perfection of its dimensions. One of Kate’s colleagues once joked that you always know you’re in the presence of real money – corporate money – when there is no sign of advertising, an observation that comes back to Kate as they are led through the space and up a staircase into an open area above.

Unlike the quiet atmosphere of the entrance area, this second space has the hushed power of a stone circle or temple. Unfurnished save for a long table in its centre and a pair of chairs to one side, its angles direct the eye to narrow floor-to-ceiling windows set into the walls, each of which frames a different slice of the landscape. Kate comes to a halt.

Off to one side, somebody moves. Kate turns to see a male figure standing by one of the windows. As if Kate’s attention were some kind of signal he steps into the light, his pale eyes focused on her and Jay.

Kate hesitates, aware he is familiar but unable to place him. He is young – no more than thirty, or perhaps thirty-five – with tousled blond hair and the narrow frame and large-eyed, slightly ungainly features of a 1960s pop star, although under the rumpled Nirvana T-shirt he wears his body looks well maintained. He stops in front of them, and as he does Kate realises who he is. Davis Hucken. Tech billionaire. Founder of Gather, the social network whose user base now surpasses those of Instagram and Twitter combined.

Next to her, Jay has fallen still.

‘You came,’ Davis says, opening and closing his hands as he speaks. ‘I was worried you might change your minds.’

His voice is oddly pitched, almost adolescent, its carefully neutral Californian tones not quite disguising the edge of something harder beneath. Still startled, Kate realises she remembers reading about him buying large areas of land here in Tasmania, supposedly because of its relative isolation and potential resilience in an unstable world.

‘This place belongs to you?’ she asks.

Davis blinks. ‘Technically it belongs to the Hucken Foundation, but yes, I suppose so.’

Kate keeps her face blank.‘What is it? Some kind of retreat?’

Davis smiles again, his expression unreadable. There is, she sees now, something odd about his affect, an awkwardness, as if his reactions are not natural but somehow acquired.

‘What do you know about the Foundation?’
Kate and Jay exchange a glance.
Jay steps forward. ‘A little. It’s an offshoot of Gather, a kind of charitable or benevolent arm of the main organisation. You’ve been funding the creation of seed banks and genetic repositories, and giving money to a whole range of environmental programs, a lot of them in developing countries. I’m pretty sure I read about something to do with river dolphins in the Amazon just recently? And the coral restoration program in East Africa? Also I know you were involved in the work Narayan and her team have done tweaking plankton DNA up in Alaska.’

‘That’s correct. The Narayan project in particular has been a huge success. And we have twelve of the repositories now, all fully self-sufficient and capable of surviving ten thousand years without maintenance. We’re also working on repositories for cultural materials: artefacts, literature, music, technology. Again, all designed to last a hundred centuries.’

Kate doesn’t speak. This kind of talk has always made her uncomfortable; the very qualities people like Davis find so intoxicating seeming arrogant and preening to her.

‘But there’s another strand to our work. One that’s less public.’ Davis glances at Madison. ‘Have they signed the non-disclosure agreements?’

Madison checks her screen and tells him they have. Davis nods. Turning away from them, he moves back towards the window and stares out. Looking at his slim figure silhouetted in the light Kate is struck by the disconcerting sense that they are watching a rehearsed performance, as if he is acting out a private TED video. Or is it just that he has so internalised this mode of performance it has become second nature?

‘When we set up the Foundation we thought we were in the business of saving things, of doing what we could to stop what we have disappearing. That’s why we built the repositories. The seeds and biological material stored in them mean we have a safeguard that will allow the planet – and us – to survive an extinction-level event.’

‘Like an asteroid?’ Jay asks.

Davis turns back to them. His eyes are a colourless blue; combined with his sandy hair and pale lashes they make him seem almost transparent.

‘Did you see the news this morning?’
Jay and Kate look at one another.
‘The last white rhino. Gone.’
Kate nods. ‘I saw. But what does that have to do with this facility?’ ‘Let me tell you a story. A hundred thousand years ago there was megafauna all over the world. Woolly rhinoceroses and mammoth and elk in Europe and Asia, giant sloths and sabre-toothed tigers and monster armadillos in the Americas, huge marsupials and massive reptiles here in Australia. But then, about eighty or ninety thousand years ago, they began to disappear. If you plot those disappearances on a map it looks like a wave, washing across the world, following the migration of our ancestors across the planet’s surface. Some places lasted longer: in America the megafauna survived until twelve thousand years ago, in New Zealand the moas and the giant eagles lasted until about six hundred years ago. In the southern oceans the whales and the seals survived until the beginning of the nineteenth century. But wherever you look, these collapses coincided with the arrival of Homo sapiens.’

He stops and stares at them both for a second or two. ‘And the megafauna was just the beginning. In the past fifty years we’ve killed two-thirds of the wildlife on Earth. The handful of megafauna species that survived our arrival – the elephants, the giraffes, the rhinos – are almost gone, bird numbers are in freefall, insect populations and ocean ecosystems are collapsing. And that’s only going to get worse. We’re on track for – what? Four degrees? Five? Six? I was in the Arctic last week, at an archaeological dig near Alakanuk in the Yukon. A decade ago the permafrost was only a few centimetres below the surface. Now it’s a metre down. The ground is collapsing. There are fires on the tundra – fires! This last winter it barely snowed. The sea ice is almost gone. We’re not at a tipping point, we’re past the tipping point. The world we knew, it’s over. Our civilization is already dead. The question now isn’t how to save what we had, it’s how we make something new.

‘Obviously part of that process is technological. We need to develop better energy systems, more effective farming techniques, better ways of managing water. But if we’re concentrating on that we’re missing the big picture. This isn’t just about technology or economics or politics. It’s goes deeper than all of them. We have to accept that the old binaries, nature and technology, the human and the environmental, no longer make sense, that it’s up to us to re-engineer the world.’

‘You’re talking about, what?’ Jay asks. ‘Genetic engineering? Synthetic biology? Biotech?’

‘Partly. We’re working on engineered species: plants that will sequester carbon dioxide, plankton that absorb acids to help slow down ocean acidification, corals and mangrove species that grow faster and are more tolerant of temperature variation. But that won’t be enough.’

Jay and Kate must look confused, because Davis smiles.
‘Come with me. I want to show you something.’
He crosses to a window and waves his hand in front of the wall.

With a soft whirr the glass slides away to reveal a narrow balcony. Davis steps out and gestures to the two of them to follow him.

The balcony looks out along the valley, offering a view of the hill- side, the dark line of the trees above, the grassy space beyond the last of the cubes. On the ground just beneath it, a stand of eucalypts has taken root in the lee of a broken hump of stone, their pale limbs twisted, warped and wizened by the wind. Kate folds her arms against the chill, but Jay is so focused on Davis he seems not to notice.

Davis looks up the slope. ‘It won’t be long.’

A moment later the cry Kate heard earlier echoes out again, only this time it fades away to become a series of strangled yelps. Stepping closer to the edge of the balcony, she closes her hand around the timber railing, suddenly alert. For several seconds nothing happens. Then, a lean shape appears from the trees above. It pauses briefly, then lopes down towards them. A second or two later another appears, and then another, the three flowing down the hill together, like a pack, until they reach the stand of eucalypts. At first Kate thinks they must be dogs, but then she registers their curious gait and the black stripes on their backs and gasps.

‘How?’ she manages to say. ‘When?’

‘Three years ago.’

Kate nods, only half-hearing him. Davis whistles, and the three creatures look up as one and then dart around the base of the eucalypts towards them. Davis picks up a bucket that stands against the wall of the building and extracts a piece of meat. Holding it up so they can see it he waits for a moment and tosses it down to them. They shoot forward, growling and snapping, but the largest is too quick. Clutch- ing the meat in its jaws it backs away, dragging the other two after itself, until they finally relinquish. With a shake of its head the victor jogs away and drops its prize on the ground.

Davis slings another hunk of meat after the first, and the remaining pair fall on it, snapping and snarling. Kate cannot take her eyes off them. Although they are right in front of her her mind rebels at the sight of them, their presence weird, unnatural, like glimpsing dinosaurs or aliens. Yet unlike the jerky film of the last specimen pacing around its cage in the 1930s, they are pulsing, alive, and – perhaps most unsettlingly – fitted to the landscape.

Davis throws down a third piece of meat, watching impassively as they leap on it. And then from somewhere up the hill there are voices. Beneath them the creatures freeze, listening. Somebody laughs, and, as one, the three of them turn and lope away, disappearing back into the trees like ghosts.

Kate and Jay stare at one another. Kate is not sure whether she is horrified or elated, but Jay’s eyes are wide with delight.

‘It’s incredible,’ he says. ‘People have been talking about de-extincting thylacines for years, but you’ve actually done it.’ He hesitates, and Kate can see him turning the possibilities over in his mind. ‘Obviously they’re a good choice – relatively intact genetic material, living analogues, but still, they look healthy, self-sustaining.’ He pauses. ‘What did you use to gestate them? Devils?’

‘Dunnarts. Although because they’re born relatively undeveloped and raised in the pouch, we also created an artificial pouch based on the design of humidicribs.’

‘Are they fertile?’ Kate asks.

Davis inclines his head. ‘That’s been more complicated, but yes, we believe so.’

She glances back up the slope to where the creatures disappeared. She can feel Davis watching her. She knows she should be excited, exultant even, but she is afraid to give way to the feeling, afraid of where it will lead.

‘And they’re living wild?’
‘We raised them with as little human contact as possible.’
‘Is this why you want us?’ Kate asks. ‘So we can help you re-create . . .what, dodos? Auks?’
Davis shakes his head.‘I said before that the time had come for us to realise we are no longer separate from nature, that the binary between nature and technology no longer makes sense. What surrounds us is a new nature, one in which humans play an active part.’

‘By resurrecting extinct species?’

Davis smiles. ‘When I first thought of this program I imagined it would be a way of saving species that were in danger of extinction. Even if the technology wasn’t there for resurrection yet, it would be soon, and at the very least we could preserve the genetic information, provide the infrastructure for when it eventually did become feasible. We now know we can do more than just pull species back from the brink. We can actually reverse extinction, resurrect species that were lost decades – even centuries – ago.’

‘But?’ Kate prompts him.

‘The problem is that until now our horizons have been too limited. The damage we’ve done to the planet doesn’t go back fifty years, or a hundred, or even five hundred, it goes back millennia. That means it isn’t enough to bring species back. Animals don’t make sense in isolation, they only make sense as part of a living whole. That means that if we’re going to do this we need to do more than resurrect individual animals, individual species, we need to reconstruct entire ecosystems.’

‘I don’t understand. What are you proposing? Geoengineering?’

‘In the first instance. As you perhaps know, we have several facilities in Russia and Canada. As the Arctic warms, the forest is spreading north, covering what used to be tundra. The trees are darker than grasses, so that increases the albedo and makes the land absorb more heat—’

‘Which is causing the permafrost to melt faster,’Jay says.

Davis looks at him and blinks. ‘That’s correct. And as the permafrost melts, the methane that is locked up in it is being released, hastening the warming that’s already taking place. If we can’t slow that down, it’s game over for the climate.’

‘But how do the thylacines fit into that?’ Kate asks.

Davis smiles. ‘A few years ago, there was a project to reintroduce wolves to Yellowstone. At first they thought the wolves would help control the number of deer and other herbivores in the park. But as the population of herbivores fell so did their impact on the banks of the streams, meaning the rivers began to change course and grow more winding. Before long beavers moved back in as well, creating ponds and waterfalls and new habitat for fish and other species. Within a few years the entire landscape was transformed. What that study demonstrated was that reintroducing even one species can have profound effects on the landscape.

‘In the case of the tundra, it’s mostly grassland, which is a relic of the last Ice Age. But the grasses only exist because large herbivores prevent the forest from taking root. Those large herbivores are now almost gone, meaning the forest is free to spread. But as the example of the wolves demonstrates, if we can reintroduce large herbivores we can re-create the conditions of the last Ice Age and keep the forest at bay.’

‘Thereby slowing or even preventing the release of the greenhouse gases in the permafrost,’ Jay says.

Davis nods. ‘Precisely.’

‘When you say large herbivores, what do you have in mind? Reindeer? Elk? Moose?’

‘Musk oxen. Aurochs. Mammoths. And the Arctic is just the beginning. We need to reconstruct ecosystems all over the planet. Rebuild what’s been lost. What we’ve destroyed.’

There is a moment of silence. Jay glances at Kate. He is smiling, his excitement palpable.

‘You think what you’re describing is possible?’ he asks.

Davis pauses, then takes a step forward. ‘We know it’s possible. Ecosystems are really just cycles of energy. We have the computational power to model them, to understand the way energy flows through them. But I want you for something else.’

Kate shifts uncomfortably, but Davis has not finished.

‘The further we’ve come with this project the clearer it’s become that resurrecting lost species and re-creating ecosystems is just the beginning. We’re talking about entirely re-engineering our relationship with nature. But to do that we need to reimagine ourselves, the way we think, the sorts of attitudes that have got us where we are. We’re so used to the dichotomies between human and nature, the individual and the whole, we can barely imagine the world without them. But we have to. And if we’re going to do that we need to let go of the idea we’re distinct, separate, unique.’

Kate and Jay glance at one other. ‘I don’t understand,’ Kate says. ‘Yes you do,’ Davis says, staring at her.
Kate hesitates.‘You’re talking about creating other human species?’ Davis nods. ‘Not creating. Re-creating.’

‘You mean, what? Neanderthals? Denisovans?’
Davis smiles. ‘To begin with.’
‘Why?’
As he smiles again, Kate feels the uneasy prickle of something.

Charm, or perhaps the power to change the world that often passes for it.

‘Because we can. Because it gives us the chance to undo the wrong that was done when they were wiped out. But also because we need them; the world needs them. Look at the Earth, at what our carelessness has done to it. We can’t let that happen again. We need to be tested by other minds, other perspectives. We need to learn how other eyes see the world. Think what we could learn from them, from their minds! Imagine speaking to another species!’

Kate shakes her head in disbelief. ‘Without an evolutionary context, a community, they wouldn’t be another species, they’d be an exhibit, an experiment. All we’d see when we looked into their eyes would be a reflection of our own hubris.’

Davis gives her an oddly blank look. ‘Perhaps at first. But you know as well as I do that the nature of life is to adapt, to change.’

‘Even if you could reassemble the genetic material, you would require human surrogates,’ says Jay. ‘As well as human eggs. And I can’t begin to imagine how you’d get ethical clearance. Human cloning is banned in almost every country in the world.’

Kate looks at him in dismay, aware from his tone of voice that he is thinking the idea through, weighing its possibilities. But he does not notice.

‘We’ve already had some very productive conversations with both state and federal governments, so we’re confident that suitable exemptions can be arranged.’

‘But what about the scientific community?’ Kate asks. ‘They’re likely to have significant objections as well.’

Davis smiles.‘That won’t be an issue.The arrangements we’ve made with the relevant authorities are confidential.’

‘And they agreed to that?’
‘These are exceptional times.They call for exceptional measures.’ Kate hesitates at this non-answer. In recent years Gather has come under attack for its business practices, with widespread allegations its executives have manipulated government policy through lobbying and donations. Jay gives her a warning glance.

‘You’d also need significant resources,’she says.
‘That shouldn’t be a problem.’
‘I still don’t see where we fit in,’ she counters.
Davis blinks. ‘Don’t you? You two know as much about human genetics as anybody alive. Your work as a genetic programmer is without parallel, and Jay’s recombinant techniques have shown remarkable results.’

‘Why not use the team behind your thylacines?’ ‘They’re working on the Arctic project.’ ‘Making mammoths?’
Davis nods. ‘Among other things.’

Jay steps forward. ‘You must know that what you’re talking about is orders-of-magnitude more complicated than thylacines or mammoths. And the level of failure that can be tolerated is much lower.’

‘Yes,’Davis agrees.‘That’s why I want the two of you.’As he speaks he turns to Kate.

For several seconds there is silence.

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