by Linda Nagata
$4.99 (Novel) ISBN 978-0-9831100-6-4
Survive long enough, and strangeness becomes cliché.
Virgil Copeland, Randall Panwar, and Gabrielle Villanti are all brilliant young biotechnologists, working together on an artificial life-form affectionately known as “LOVs,” an acronym for Limit Of Vision, because in size LOVs are just at the boundary of what the human eye can easily see. LOVs contain bioengineered human neurons. They enhance brain function when implanted in test animals. Experimentation on humans is, of course, highly illegal.
But it’s the nature of brilliant and ambitious young minds to ignore the rules. Believing the LOVs to be perfectly safe, Virgil, Panwar, and Gabrielle experiment on themselves, using implanted LOVs to enhance their own cognitive abilities.
But there is a limit of vision, too, when we try to foresee the consequences of technology—especially of a living, thinking technology that can evolve into new forms in a matter of hours.
When the experiment goes terribly wrong, the consequences are bizarre and unforeseeable. Virgil finds himself on the run, riding the whirlwind of a runaway biotechnology that could lead to the next phase of human evolution.
“[A] compelling biotech thriller. Nagata…enlivens this extended chase through the steamy murk of Mekong swamps and the monsoons of the southeast Pacific with fascinating biotech hardware and gadgetry as well as clever extrapolations into nanotech potential…an idea-provoking narrative that is genuinely innovative in conception.” –Publishers Weekly
“The death of a young researcher exposes a conspiracy involving an illegal experimentation in sentient nanotech lifeforms, forcing co-conspirator Virgil Copeland to flee for his life…Nagata (Vast) blends hard science with cutting-edge technology in a fast-paced technothriller that is recommended for most sf collections. Copyright 2001 Reed Business Information, Inc.” –Library Journal
Read a sample chapter online…
(The following text is an excerpt from Limit of Vision by Linda Nagata. Copyright © 2001 Linda Nagata. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or republished without permission in writing from the author.)
The age had its own momentum. Virgil Copeland could sense it. Even here, now, as he waited anxiously for Gabrielle it tugged at him, whispering there was no going back.
He stood watch by the glass doors of the Waimanalo retreat center, willing Gabrielle’s car to appear at the end of the circular driveway. He imagined it gliding into sight around the bank of lush tropical foliage–heliconia and gardenias, ornamental ginger and potted orchids–their flowers bright in the muted light beneath heavy gray clouds.
But Gabrielle’s car did not appear. She didn’t call. All afternoon she had failed to respond to Virgil’s increasingly frantic messages. He couldn’t understand it. She had never been out of contact before.
Randall Panwar stopped his restless pacing, to join Virgil in his watch. “She should have been here hours ago. Something’s happened to her. It has to be.”
Virgil didn’t want to admit it. He touched his forehead, letting his fingertips slide across the tiny silicon shells of his implanted LOVs. They felt like glassy flecks of sand: hard and smooth and utterly illegal.
“Don’t do that,” Panwar said softly. “Don’t call attention to them.”
Virgil froze. Then he lowered his hand, forcing himself to breathe deeply, evenly. He had to keep control. With the LOVs enhancing his moods, it would be easy to slide into an irrational panic. Panwar was susceptible too. “You’re doing all right, aren’t you?” Virgil asked.
Panwar looked at him sharply, his eyes framed by the single narrow wrap-around lens of his farsights. Points of data glinted on the interactive screen.
Panwar had always been more volatile than either Virgil or Gabrielle, and yet he handled his LOVs best. The cascading mood swings that Virgil feared rarely troubled him. “I’m worried,” Panwar said. “But I’m not gone. You?”
“I’ll let you know.”
Panwar nodded. “I’ve got sedatives, if you need them.”
“I’ll try to message her again.”
He bowed his head, raising his hand to touch his farsights, as if he had to shade out the external world to see the display. He’d had the same odd mannerism since Virgil had met him–eight years ago now–when they’d been assigned to share a frosh dorm room, shoved together because they’d both graduated from technical high schools, and because they were both sixteen.
Panwar’s dark brown hair displayed a ruddy Irish tinge, courtesy of his mother. By contrast his luminous black eyes were a pure gift of his father: Ancient India in a glance. At six-three he was several inches taller than Virgil, with the lean, half-wasted build of a starving student out of some 19th century Russian novel. Not that he had ever wanted for money–his parents were both computer barons and all that he had ever lacked was time. Then again, it would take an infinite amount of time to satisfy his curiosities.
He looked up. A short, sharp shake of his head conveyed his lack of success. “Let’s drive by her place when we get out of here.” His own implanted LOVs glittered like tiny blue-green diamonds, scattered across his forehead, just beneath his hairline. Like Gabrielle, he passed them off as a subtle touch of fashionable glitter.
Virgil’s LOVs were hidden by the corded strands of his Egyptian-wrapped hair, and could be seen only when he pulled the tresses back into a ponytail. “Maybe she just fell asleep,” he muttered.
Virgil glanced across the lobby to the half-open door of the conference room where the droning voice of a presenter could be heard, describing in excruciating detail the numbers obtained in a recent experiment. It was the sixth project review to be laid before the senior staff of Equatorial Systems in a session that had already run three hours. The LOV project was up next, the seventh and last appeal to be laid before a brain-fried audience charged with recommending funding for the coming year.
Gabrielle always did the presenting. The execs loved her. She was a control freak who made you happy to follow along.
“Maybe she lost her farsights,” Virgil suggested without belief.
“She would have called us on a public link. Maybe she found a new boyfriend, got distracted.”
“That’s not it.”
It was Virgil’s private theory that in a world of six and a half billion people, only the hopelessly driven obsessive could out-hustle the masses of the sane–those who insisted on rounded lives, filled out with steady lovers, concerts, vacations, hobbies, pets, and even children. Sane people could not begin to compete with the crazies who lived and breathed their work, who fell asleep long after midnight with their farsights still on, only to waken at dawn and check results before coffee.
Gabrielle had never been one of the sane.
So why hadn’t she called?
Because something had stopped her. Something bad. Maybe a car accident? But if that was it, they should have heard by now.
Virgil’s gaze scanned the field of his own farsights, searching for Gabrielle’s icon, hoping to find it undiscovered on his screen.
Panwar was pacing again, back and forth before the lobby doors. Virgil said, “You’re going to have to do it.”
Panwar whirled on him. “God no. It’s 5:30 on a Sunday afternoon. Half the execs are asleep, and the other half want to get drunk. They emphatically do not want to listen to me.”
“We haven’t got a choice.”
“You could do it,” Panwar said. “You should do it. It’s your fault anyway Nash stuck us in this time slot. If you’d turned in the monthly report when it was due–”
“Remember my career day talk?”
Panwar winced. “Oh Christ. I forgot.” Then he added, “You always were a jackass. All right. I’ll give the presentation. But the instant Gabrielle walks through that door, she takes over at the podium.”
Virgil skulked in the conference room doorway, as much to make it awkward for anyone to leave early, as to hear what Panwar had to say. The LOV project always confused the new execs, stirring up uncomfortable questions like: What’s it for? Where’s it going? Have any market studies been done?
The project was the problem child in the EquaSys family, refusing to stay on a convenient track to market glory. It was Panwar’s job to make the execs love it anyway.
Or rather, it was Gabrielle’s job. Panwar was only subbing.
“…At the heart of the LOV project are the artificial neurons called asterids. Conceived as a medical device to stabilize patients with an unbalanced brain chemistry…”
Virgil scowled. Wasn’t Panwar’s passion supposed to illuminate his voice, or something? Why had this sounded so much better when they’d rehearsed it with Gabrielle?
“Test animals used in this phase of development began to exhibit enhanced intelligence as measured on behavioral tests, though never for long. The cells tended to reproduce as small tumors of intense activity. Within an average sixty days post-implantation, every test animal died as some vital, brain-regulated function ceased to work.”
Not that Panwar was a bad speaker. He was earnest and quick, and obviously fascinated by his subject, but he wasn’t Gabrielle. The rising murmur of whispered conversations among the execs could not be a good sign.
“The tumor problem was eliminated by making asterid reproduction dependent on two amino acids not normally found in nature. Nopaline is required for normal metabolism, while nopaline with octopine is needed before the asterids can reproduce.”
Virgil shook his head. Nopaline, octopine, what-a-pine? The nomenclature would have been music coming from Gabrielle’s mouth, but from Panwar it was just noise. Virgil glanced wistfully at the lobby door. Still no Gabrielle.
“In the third phase of development, the asterids were completely redesigned once again. No longer did they exist as single cells. Instead, a colony of asterids was housed within a transparent silicate shell, permitting easy optical communication. In effect, EquaSys had created the first artificial life form, a symbiotic species affectionately known as LOVs–an acronym for Limit of Vision, because in size LOVs are just at the boundary of what the human eye can easily see.”
A new species. To Virgil, the idea still had a magical ring. It was the lure that had drawn him into the project, but to the execs it was old news.
“When implanted on the scalps of test animals, the asterids within each shell formed an artificial nerve, able to reach through a micropore in the skull and past the tough triple layer of the meninges to touch the tissue of the brain. To the surprise of the development team, the LOV implants soon began to communicate with one another, and once again, long-term behavioral effects were observed in test animals. They became smarter, but this time without the development of tumors, or failures in vital functions.”
The momentum of discovery had taken over the project. Virgil had not been part of it then, but he still felt a stir of excitement.
“The original medical application was expanded, for it became apparent that the LOVs might be developed into an artificial or even an auxiliary brain.
“Then came the Van Nuys incident.”
EquaSys had not been involved in that debacle, but the company had been caught in the fallout, when the U.S. government agreed to a two year moratorium on the development of all artificial life forms. One of the witnesses in favor had been the original LOV project director. To Summer Goforth, Van Nuys was a wake-up call. She’d publicly renounced her work, and the work of everyone else involved in developing artificial life forms. Virgil had been brought on board to take Summer Goforth’s place.
“In a compromise settlement EquaSys agreed to abandon animal testing and to export the LOVs to a secure facility aboard the Hammer, the newest platform in low-earth-orbit. From such a venue, the LOVs could not possibly “escape into the environment,” as happened in Van Nuys.
The LOVs had been so easy to contain. That’s what made them safe.
“Since then our research has been limited to remote manipulation, but that could soon change. The two year moratorium will expire this June 30. At that time EquaSys will be free to exploit an unparalleled technology that could ultimately touch every aspect of our lives….”
All that and more, Virgil thought, for if the LOVs could be legally brought Earth-side, then no one need ever know about the LOVs the three of them had smuggled off the orbital during the moratorium period. He still could not quite believe they had done it, and yet…he could not imagine not doing it. Not anymore.
It had been worth the risk. Even if they were found out it had been worth it. The LOVs were a gift. Virgil could no longer imagine life without them.
The original studies suggested the LOVs could enhance the intelligence of test animals, but Virgil knew from personal experience that in humans the LOVs enhanced emotion. If he wanted to lift his confidence, his LOVs could make it real. If he sought to push his mind into a coolly analytical zone he need only focus and the LOVs would amplify his mood. Fearlessness, calm, or good cheer, the LOVs could augment each one. But best of all–priceless–were those hours when the LOVs were persuaded to plunge him into a creative fervor, where intuitive, electric thoughts cascaded into being, and time and hunger and deadlines and disappointments no longer mattered. With the LOVs, Virgil could place himself in that space by an act of will.
“All of our research to date,” Panwar said, concluding his historical summary, “has shown without doubt, that LOVs are perfectly safe.”
An icon winked into existence on the screen of Virgil’s farsights–but it was not from Gabrielle. He felt a stir of fear as he recognized the symbol used by EquaSys security. He forced himself to take a calming breath before he whispered, “Link.”
His farsights executed the command and the grim face of the security chief resolved within his screen. Beside it appeared a head-and-shoulder image of Dr. Nash Chou, the research director and Virgil’s immediate boss. Nash had hired Virgil to handle the LOV program. Now he turned around in his seat at the head of the conference table, a portly man in a neat business suit, his round face looking puzzled as he gazed back at Virgil.
“Dr. Chou,” the security chief said. “There’s been an incident in Dr. Copeland’s lab.”
A cleaning robot had found Gabrielle. The little cindy had gone into the project suite just after five, tending to the carpets in the hallway and offices before entering the common room. At five nineteen it contacted security, reporting that its air quality sensors had detected the presence of noxious or hazardous airborne vapors.
Security discovered her body at five thirty two.
“Oh God no,” someone said. “It can’t be true.”
That was Panwar. He sounded like a kid again, sixteen years old and scared.
Virgil sat hunched on a sofa in the retreat center’s lobby, his face in his hands. “God, my chest hurts.”
Panwar’s hand closed awkwardly on his shoulder. “Hold onto yourself, Virg. Don’t lose it. We still have to get there. Find out what happened.”
Virgil nodded. They’d driven over together from Honolulu. Significantly, Gabrielle had declined to carpool. She’d been in a hurry Saturday, when Virgil had called. “You two go ahead. I’ve got some business to take care of, so I might be a few minutes late.”
So. Time to head back, then. He started to rise.
“No, wait here,” Panwar said. “I’ll get your car.”
“Get it tomorrow,” Nash Chou interrupted from somewhere near by. His voice was soothing, fatherly. “It’s getting dark, and neither of you is in any shape to drive.”
So Nash drove them back in the rain. Virgil sat in the shotgun seat, his head bowed against his hand, drowning slowly in a grief that seemed to have nothing to do with feedback from the LOVs. How? he wondered. Why? He was dimly aware of Nash behind the wheel of the Mercedes. The windshield wipers were on. Veils of rain pattered against the glass as the car accelerated into heavy traffic on the freeway.
A light started blinking, somewhere close to Virgil’s eye. Its insistent optical bleating tugged at his consciousness, teased him, forced him to look at it.
It was Panwar’s icon–an infinity sign made to look like a twisted lane of black space containing thousands of stars, set against a powder blue background. Why was it there on the screen of his farsights? Panwar was only a couple feet away, behind him in the back seat.
Still, it was easier to accept the link than to turn around. He tapped a quick code with his fingers, stimulating the microchips embedded in his fingertips to emit faint radio signals, detectable by his farsights.
Panwar’s face replaced the glittery icon. He looked wary, almost defensive as his gaze fixed on Virgil, but he didn’t speak. Instead, typed text in bright white letters appeared in Virgil’s field of view:
–>Don’t say a word! Understand me? Don’t let Nash know we’re talking.
Virgil stared at the message, trying to make sense of it, until a new couplet replaced the original sentences:
–>Virg? You understand?
Without looking up or lowering the hand that shaded his farsights, Virgil dipped his head in a slight nod. More words arrived:
–>Pull yourself together, man, because you are scaring the shit out of me!!!
Virgil started to open his mouth.
–>No! Don’t talk!!! Listen to me, and try to remember what’s at stake. Gabrielle’s dead. I can’t believe it either, but we can’t bring her back. We’re not that far along yet.
Virgil squeezed his eyes shut, wondering if they ever would have the power to heal death. The human body was a machine; he knew that. He had looked deep into its workings, all the way down to the level of cellular mechanics and there was no other way to interpret the processes there than as the workings of an intricate, beautiful, and delicate machine.
Machines, though, could be repaired. They could be rebuilt, copied, and improved–and sometimes it seemed inevitable that all of that would soon be possible for the human machine too.
But not soon enough for Gabrielle.
When Virgil looked again, new words had replaced the old ones on his farsights: –>Remember the LOVs, Virg. HER LOVs. The coroner could find them.
Panwar had found the arrow to pierce Virgil’s confusion. He sat up. His hand fell to his side. Every communication their farsights handled was encrypted and passed through anonymous servers, protecting them from pirate spammers and data thieves. Most farsights worked that way, producing messages that were untraceable and unreadable except by their intended recipient. Virgil felt grateful for that security as he scanned Panwar’s next message. –>You see it now, don’t you, Virg? EVERYTHING is at stake.
Nash glanced over at Virgil, his hairless brow furrowed in concern. “Better now, son?”
Virgil said: “I think so.” His voice was hoarse and thick with grief, but he was thinking again.
“It’s an unimaginable thing,” Nash said. “I can’t tell you how sorry I am.”
Virgil’s hand rose again to his forehead, this time to touch the tiny glass shells of his implanted LOVs.
More words appeared in his field of view:
–> Answer him.
Virgil shook his head. Unimaginable. He turned to Nash. “What was she doing there? That’s what I can’t figure out.”
“She wasn’t scheduled to be in?”
“No. We had all agreed to take the weekend off. She was supposed to meet us at the retreat.”
“Maybe she had a private experiment underway,” Panwar said, his voice low, angry, coming from the blackness of the backseat.
Nash frowned. “Was competition a problem?”
It took a moment for Virgil to understand what he was asking. “God no! We got along fine.”
“That’s right,” Panwar said. “Of course there was competition. There always is at this level, but we understood one another.”
Nash spoke delicately: “Gabrielle had been working hard. All of you had. I’ve seen your logs. You’re all utterly dedicated to your work. Sometimes that’s good, but sometimes…it inflates the importance of what you’re doing. Had there been any…setbacks recently? Something that might have…disturbed her? Disappointed her? Nothing was mentioned in your last report, I know, but….” He let his question trail off.
Virgil stared at the rain shooting down through the headlights, momentarily hating Nash for asking such a thing. “She was happy,” he said, each syllable crisp. “There were no setbacks. And if there were, she would have handled them. She was tough, Nash. Smart.” Beautiful. Virgil could almost taste her skin; feel its softness beneath his lips.
“Sorry,” Nash said. “I had to ask.”
Virgil turned to look out the side window at traffic flowing in parallel lanes and the black wall of rain forest beyond it. On the screen of his farsights, Panwar nodded. –>Good man. Now think.
Virgil didn’t want to. But Panwar was right, damn him. If Gabrielle’s implanted LOVs were discovered, they could lose everything. Their jobs. Their freedom.
Their own LOV implants.
That frightened him most of all. The implants were part of him now. Taking them away would be like taking away part of his mind–
Keeping his right hand low against his thigh, Virgil started tapping codes, trying to remember the procedure for sending typed messages. His ROSA–his ROving Silicon Agent–appeared onscreen, ready to help him. A ROSA was an artificial intelligence program personalized for its user. Virgil’s ROSA appeared as a tiny, idealized woman of ancient Greece, her tawny face framed in iridescent hair. He called it Iris.
Iris whispered questions. Virgil tapped his responses, and a keyboard display appeared. After that it was easy. All he had to do was gaze at a letter. Iris would place it on a working line. With three or four letters in place the ROSA could usually guess the remainder of the word. Sometimes it only took one or two.
The only danger – if they find her LOVs.
The answer came back immediately. –>Exactly.
Will coroner ask questions? Should assume body jewelry.
–>Maybe. Maybe not. But if Nash looks close, HE’ll know.
Virgil gave a slight, negative shake of his head and typed: Squeamish. Won’t look close.
–>Bet your life?
Virgil sighed, pressing his head against the cold glass of the side window. It came to exactly that, didn’t it? Gabrielle was gone and all they could do now was try to save themselves. WHAT HAPPENED TO HER???
–>Later!!! Now, LOVS! Have to extract, before body’s removed. How?
HER body , Virgil reminded, sending the little jibe without really thinking.
Panwar glared at the words. Then his eyes darted as he composed a retort. –>Fuck you V. Think I don’t care?
Virgil leaned against the seat back, trying to slow the beating of his heart. Her skin had been like cinnamon cream; her breasts smooth and full, the nipples honey-brown.
“You were very close to her, weren’t you?” Nash asked, his voice low, and a touch embarrassed. He cleared his throat. “I wouldn’t ask this, except…the investigation. They’ll want to know. Were you…lovers?”
Virgil shook his head. Then he shrugged. In a choked voice he answered, “Sometimes.”
Panwar’s image displayed comical surprise. Then the expression vanished like hail on a hot street. His black eyes radiated a terrible anger. Aloud he said, “I didn’t know.”
In type face he added, –>You bastard.
She wanted it private.
–>You used LOVs?
Virgil stared straight ahead, not wanting to answer, not wanting to remember what was lost, but Panwar wouldn’t let it rest.
Yes then! Yes, yes, yes! Her LOVs had spoken to his in a closed loop of enhanced emotion. Never had he felt more connected with another human being.
No response came from Panwar, not right away. He brooded as they descended into the city. A few minutes later, Nash took the off-ramp to H-1. Traffic was almost bumper to bumper, but it hadn’t come to a stop yet. Virgil watched the skyscrapers slide by, until they reached the exit to downtown. The EquaSys building was only a few blocks from the waterfront. Virgil looked for it, picking it out from the surrounding towers. Gabrielle would be there.
New words printed themselves across his field of view: –>Only one thing matters now, Virgil Copeland. If anyone discovers Gabrielle’s LOVs, both of us are good as dead. Remember that! And don’t fuck up.
Virgil didn’t answer. Nash stopped at the security gate to the underground garage. The guard stepped out of his booth to scan their faces. Virgil ignored the formalities. At the bottom of the ramp, parked beside the elevator bank, were two squad cars and a coroner’s white van.
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