Being green

Chapter One

It is 2135, smack in the middle of the 6th Great Extinction. Humanity has been reduced to small pockets of civilization, some operating at a subsistence level through foraging and small scale farming, others, by remaining technologically advanced and with sufficient energy sources pursuing science and longevity.

Longevity, in this case, means survival of the species. The world has changed so drastically during the past century the entire adaptive ecospheric system is in chaos; seasonal change, ocean temperature and currents, atmospheric gasses, plant and animal life have all been deeply and disastrously affected.

In a small laboratory located in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Pierre Gittleman, PhD in organic chemistry with a specialty in combinatorial genetics gazes at a screen displaying what appears to be a green slug. The color of the microscopic, multicellular animal is the result of a high concentration of chlorophyll throughout its surface membrane. Nicknamed “Kermit,” this particular creature is a lab-baby, a scientifically designed animal whose genetic and epigenetic components were compiled by computer and body grown in a nutritive medium within a glass dish.

Pierre leans back into his chair, turning his gaze and attention to thoughts and images of the past. This Kermit, the latest in a long line of Kermits, reminds Pierre of his own age, now 125 years. He is approaching his death; the drugs, organ replacements, assist devices and vast skills of medicine no longer enough to stave off the inevitable.

Pierre and none of his contemporaries are well-suited to life on earth anymore, which is why he has been working so furiously these past 75 years. Early on, Pierre saw the writing on the wall about humanity’s future, unlike so many who vainly looked for solutions to climate change, global warming and collapse of the ecosphere. Pierre understood that if humanity were to survive in any form, it was not the environment that had to be rescued or changed, but the human species itself, its redesign and reinvention. Convinced, he set about his life’s work amidst society’s desperate and sometimes violent clamor for survival; the collapse of civilization is not pretty.

“Would you like some tea, Pierre?” asks Len, who without waiting for an answer, places a small tray on the table next to Pierre. “Oolong. From Fujong. 180 degrees.”

Pierre is lost in his reverie, so Len gently touches his shoulder to get Pierre’s attention. The Oolong tea is not Oolong, of course. Such delicacies became unavailable many years ago, and what passes for Oolong is an artificial, lab-made approximation containing flavorings and a mix of nutrients vital to Pierre’s survival.

“Oh. Yes. Thank you Len. Perfect, just the way I like it. But” he adds, “I guess you already know that!” The two of them chuckle, even though they have repeated this particular back-and-forth hundreds of times.

Pierre glances at Len’s hand and leans closely forward as if peering at one of his computer screens. He reaches out his own withered index finger, touches the top of Len’s wrist, then traces a line upwards to Len’s elbow. Where Pierre’s touched, Len’s skin markedly changes color from warm green to light brown. Ultra-sensitive to light intensity, Len’s skin responds in milliseconds, resonant chlorophyllic chromatiphores activating in waves across its surface. Pierre has never tired of pausing to review his work, hands on.

Len represents the culmination of Pierre’s efforts, a re-engineered Homo sapiens combining genetic components of varied plants and animals such as algae, octopus, and human. Pierre’s great breakthrough in molecular biology, overcoming the rejection cycle in a consistent and predictable way, opened to door to what many feared, the chimera effect. And indeed, Pierre had created and subsequently destroyed, hundreds of chimeras. In some cases, the chimera effect only showed up in successive generations, which meant allowing some creations to reach reproducible maturity. Despite whatever level of paternalistic affection Pierre might develop towards any particular individual, however, he nonetheless ruthlessly pursued his goal, reminding himself of the cruel mercilessness of nature.

Len, however, is not a prototype; rather, Len is simply one of the first of the new humans, a member of growing family better-suited to a carbon-dioxide rich atmosphere and bright sunlight. In the changed conditions of Halifax, tribes of chimeras descended from Pierre’s efforts have slowly repopulated what is now a dense, subtropical forest.

At the heart of Pierre’s insight was the understanding of how craving food had driven animal life to destroy itself by aggressively over-exploiting earth’s natural ecology. Incorporating elements of a chlorophyll-based metabolism into animal cells, he felt, would break the chain of human food dependency, thereby allowing a new society of re-engineered people to live in peace with the planet. Nourished through the photosynthesis of sunlight alone, people’s need for farming, agriculture, raising livestock, and sustaining fisheries would all greatly diminish, and the earth could, he believed, return to a more balanced state of equilibrium.

The idea, although its fulfillment would require decades of refinement and experimentation, was not farfetched. Every animal cell already contains multiple mitochondria, an energy-conversion organelle animals hijacked billions of years ago from bacteria. In this respect, the rise of animal life, Pierre understood, can be simply viewed as a survival strategy of the plant world, a way to populate the planet with CO2 emitting creatures whose waste products and eventually decaying bodies enrich soil and provide useful nutrients. It was a highly successful strategy for perhaps a billion years, until the exploding population of Homo sapiens mucked it up.

Animals and plants share many characteristics, and their differences get increasingly fewer as they approach the microscopic. Flagellate algae such as Chlamydomonas, single-called plants with whip-like “tails,” swim as vigorously as paramecium. Mobility, a trait commonly associated with animal life, is also present in plants, albeit generally reduced in large forms to the effects of environmental forces like wind and water.

“I think I’ll lie down for a while, Len,” Pierre says softly. “I’m feeling rather tired today.” Len helps Pierre up out of his chair, his green, hairless arms reaching under Pierre’s armpits and supporting him across the room where a cot has been placed. Light from the room’s grow lamps shine off Len’s smooth scalp, and an almost imperceptible glow of heat waves and gas shimmers like an aura around his naked body.

Len covers Pierre with a comforter pieced together with rags of old clothes, some discarded remnants of the industrial age of humanity that’s quickly drawing to a close. “Have a good nap, father,” he whispers, lightly touching Pierre’s cheek.

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