“What will happen to life when science identifies the genetic basis of happiness? Who will own the patent? Do we dare revise our own temperaments?…”
I once met a physics teacher who immediately recognized me as the main character in the play he was nearly finished writing.
Born to Be Happy
After reading an article “Born to Be Happy“, I found myself emailing Hagop Akiskal, M.D., Professor of Psychiatry and Director of the International Mood Center at the University of California at San Diego whose “work on dysthymia, cyclothymia and hyperthymia challenged the concept of personality disorders, led to the development of a new instrument (Temperament Evaluation of Memphis, Pisa, Paris and San Diego (TEMPS-A)), thereby contributing to the worldwide renaissance of the temperament field.”
“Information may travel at light speed, but meaning spreads at the speed of dark.”
But being told that I was “hard wired for happiness” seemed a bit over simplified and “hard wired” seemed an insult to this interaction-designer-wannabe-cognitive scientist studying neurogenesis and neuroplasticity.
On “Rewiring the Real“
“Digital and electronic technologies that act as extensions of our bodies and minds are changing how we live, think, act, and write. Some welcome these developments as bringing humans closer to unified consciousness and eternal life. Others worry that invasive globalized technologies threaten to destroy the self and the world. Whether feared or desired, these innovations provoke emotions that have long fueled the religious imagination, suggesting the presence of a latent spirituality in an era mistakenly deemed secular and post-human.”
Excerpts from the novel Generosity: An Enhancement, by Richard Powers.
Interested? Please order the book on Amazon.
When Chicagoan Russell Stone finds himself teaching a Creative Nonfiction class, he encounters a young Algerian woman with a disturbingly luminous presence. Thassadit Amzwar’s blissful exuberance both entrances and puzzles the melancholic Russell. How can this refugee from perpetual terror be so happy? Won’t someone so open and alive come to serious harm? Wondering how to protect her, Russell researches her war-torn country and skims through popular happiness manuals. Might her condition be hyperthymia? Hypomania? Russell’s amateur inquiries lead him to college counselor Candace Weld, who also falls under Thassa’s spell. Dubbed Miss Generosity by her classmates, Thassa’s joyful personality comes to the attention of the notorious geneticist and advocate for genomic enhancement, Thomas Kurton, whose research leads him to announce the genotype for happiness.
Russell and Candace, now lovers, fail to protect Thassa from the growing media circus. Thassa’s congenital optimism is soon severely tested. Devoured by the public as a living prophecy, her genetic secret will transform both Russell and Kurton, as well as the country at large.
What will happen to life when science identifies the genetic basis of happiness? Who will own the patent? Do we dare revise our own temperaments? Funny, fast, and finally magical, Generosity celebrates both science and the freed imagination. In his most exuberant book yet, Richard Powers asks us to consider the big questions facing humankind as we begin to rewrite our own existence…
He clicks on link after link, diving down into the maelstrom of discovery, not sure what he is looking for, but finding no end of things he isn’t.
Russell finds what he’s after at last, not online but in archaic print. He sees it in a sidebar in his latest bedside happiness manual, a tinted box with the heading “The Better Without the Bitter?”
Have you ever come across someone with an oversized appetite for life? Someone who seems to feel nothing but major keys, resiliently joyous, impervious to distress? Some people are simply the big winners in genetics’ happiness roulette. They live every day bathed in renewable elation, enjoying a constant mania without the depression, ecstasy without the cyclic despair. These people (and they are very rare) may possess a trait called hyperthymia…
He hasn’t made it up. It’s biological. Researchers study it. It has a Greek name.
But don’t be fooled: people who are exhilarated, inspired, and full of vibrant life may actually suffer from hypomania, a condition associated with full-fledged bipolar disorder. Hyperthymia is a durable trait; hypomania is a cyclical state. The first can be life-enhancing, the second, deadly. As usual, it’s best to leave a full diagnosis to the professionals.
“From what I understand, if she’s truly hyperthymic, then she doesn’t need anything from anyone. But if she has hypomania, she’s in trouble. All that elation is just waiting to crash.”
She breathed in and transcribed his words, not for the first time in her counseling career silently cursing Wikipedia. Out loud, she said, “She’d have to make an appointment for me to do a complete assessment.”
He shut his eyes, then opened them. “Of course. I just don’t know how I can ask her to do that without ”
“Without asking her to see a psychological counselor?”
He nodded, defeated.
“I understand,” she said. “Tough to tell someone, ‘Get help. You’re too happy.’ ”
He nodded again, his lip half curling. Fyodor smiled.
“You should consult with her other instructors. See if any of them are also concerned.”
“Okay,” he said, not even pretending that he might.
Obeying the protocols, Candace Weld bit down and started again. Would he say that Thassadit Amzwar was sociable?
The question amused him. “Every single person she meets is a long-lost friend.”
Did Thassadit race or free-associate when she talked?
“Just the opposite. She brings everyone back down to a reasonable pace.”
Did she fidget or jiggle or bite her nails?
“She sits beaming for the whole class period.”
Did she ever seem cryptic or allusive or grandiose?
“My God, no.”
Was she ever edgy or aggressive?
He twisted his lips and shook his head, the question too ludicrous to humor.
What did she eat? How much did she sleep? He answered the best he could. Something heartbreakingly amateur clung to him. But he wasn’t the subject of the consultation.
The psychologist set down her pen. She steepled her fingers to her lips. “Maybe someone should get a urine sample from this woman?”
He took his time answering. She admired that.
“If I knew a drug that produced sustained, intense, level, loving well-being without any trace of stupor or edge, I’d take it myself.”
She cocked her head and twisted her lips. “You’d have to. Everyone else would already be on it.”
He laughed then, a sharp little bark of alarm. She caught her hand smoothing her cheek and dropped it into her lap. “You’ve never seen her get irritable?”
He waited a beat, but only out of respect. “I’ve watched her for almost two months, and I’ve never seen her even grimace.”
She flipped through her notes for a hidden explanation. “Obviously, I can’t say anything without seeing her in person. This isn’t a diagnosis. I’d never say you have no cause for concern. But you aren’t really describing mania, from what I can tell.”
He couldn’t even pretend composure. She liked that in him. “What am I describing?”
She wants her assailant free.
Now the police are all attention. They ask if there’s anything about the woman-any health conditions, behavioral quirks-anything that he should mention.
Well, there’s a set of careful notes sitting in a psychologist’s office just a few floors up. There’s a telephone call-perhaps recorded by conscientious antiterrorist agents listening for references to students of Algerian origin-where a psychologist says that the woman should be studied in a lab.
Stone doesn’t know what is confidential anymore and what the state owns. He hasn’t a clue what he owes to professional discretion, what to justice, what to Candace Weld, what to Thassa Amzwar, and what to basic truth. But it’s pointless to hide from the Informational Oversoul. Everything in the full digital record will be discovered. An hour of digging in the likeliest place and they will find him out.
“It’s possible she might be hyperthymic.” And to their inevitable, blank stares, he explains: “Excessively happy.”
He only answers what the law asks. The policeman with the notebook asks him how to spell the word.
Weld calls Stone three days later, to postmortem the meeting. He’s in his other life, at Becoming You. She’s the first person from the college to use this listed contact number. It’s Halloween, and he’s dressed up as himself.
“I’ve been thinking a lot about Thassadit,” the counselor says.
Russell suppresses a grunt. The lamb has crossed the lion’s mind. But there’s something in her voice, some professional reticence that worries him. “You think there’s reason for concern?”
“No. I wouldn’t say concern. But I’d like to talk to you about some possibilities.”
He says, “What kind of possibilities?”
She’s silent one beat too long. “I think someone should work her up. Take a good look. She seems immune to anxiety. Her positive energy is amazing. She maintains a continuous state of flow. Maybe she’s benefited from some kind of post-traumatic growth.”
A sick feeling comes over him. “It sounds like you’ve already worked her up.”
“Well, she did stick her head in the counseling center over lunch. Just to say hello.”
“And stayed for a chat?”
“We talked a little.”
“And now you’re her new best friend.”
“Russell, I think she should be explored.”
He catches himself gouging the margins of the manuscript in front of him with red pen. “You’ve seen her. You said she’s okay.”
“I mean really looked at, under controlled conditions. There’s a research group over at Northwestern ”
She trails off when he says nothing.
He no longer thinks anyone needs to test anything but Thassa’s journal entries. “You said this isn’t hypomania.”
“It isn’t. I would bet my career.”
“Do you think it’s hyperthymia?” The better without the bitter.
Her silence oozes dislike for the term. “I think a professional researcher should look at her.”
“She likes you,” he says.
“I like her. Anyone would.”
This woman is not Grace. Grace always thought he was attacking when he was making nice. Constance Weld thinks he’s making nice when he’s attacking.
“Why are you asking my permission?”
“Well, I’m not, really. But I am asking your feeling.”
Testing is an excuse. The psychologist just wants to spend more time around the Berber woman, like everyone else.
“You asked her already? About Northwestern?”
“I mentioned the possibility.”
“And she said that sounded like more fun than a roadside explosive.”
“You don’t have to be like this,” the counselor says.
He watches himself regress. “No? What do I have to be like?”
“All right. Let’s not talk about this right now.”
He’s pathetic. Worse than a prepubescent. “I’m sorry,” he says. “I’m out of line.”
“No,” the psychologist replies. “I understand entirely.”
Cold, wet leeches attach to his brain, the way they did when his first writing successes turned into nightmare. “Look,” he tries. “I don’t mean to Maybe you and I could talk about this sometime. Coffee or lunch, or something.”
He means fake lunch. Purely symbolic hostage swap. Nothing she might take him up on.
Luckily, her acceptance is as hypothetical as his offer. “Sure,” she says, her voice weird. “I think I’m Are you free Saturday?”
For want of anything more appropriate, he says, “Saturday’s good.”
“Good,” she says, meaning nothing. They make plans, plans the Kabyle might just as well have written for them. Candace Weld names a place dangerously close to Water Tower, a nice Moroccan restaurant. “That’s next to Algeria, right?”
“Streeterville, I think.”
She waits just a beat, her silence wicked. “Am I supposed to laugh at that?”
No one at Truecyte searches for the story. They come across it by data mining, scouring the Web with automated scripts and prospecting bots. The company’s intelligent agents race from server to server at all hours, extracting patterns and converging on the next genetic trends before they’ve even materialized.
Nodes, clusters, trackbacks, memes Truth follows bandwidth, as sure as use follows invention. By now, the idea is a commonplace: only that massively parallel computer, the entire human race, is powerful enough to interpret the traffic that it generates. No single expert can calculate the outcome of tomorrow’s big game. But the averaged aggregate guess of hundreds of millions of amateurs can come as close as God.
In this way, a self-assembling network of page traffic presents itself daily to three graduate-student interns trained to prowl around each morning’s tidal pools and pull out shiny things. If two out of the three of them tag the same story, it goes to Kurton’s own news aggregator. And for an hour every morning before dawn, the inventor of rapid gene signature reading mulls over the day’s trove of stories.
He consumes the feeds, looking for new upheaval, the same constant upheaval that has carried him this far. He still remembers the Boethius that his ex-wife made him read at Stanford a third of a century ago, insisting it would make him a better person: no one will ever be safe or well until Fortune upends him.
As Kurton reads, he drags various links into tree branches in his visual concept-mapper, trees that start out as bonsais but-tended and grafted and trained toward the light-grow into redwoods.
- People who read stories about subjective well-being also subscribe to posts about affective set point.
- People who subscribe to posts about affective set point are also interested in genetic basis of happiness.
- People who follow genetic basis of happiness.
- comment and respond to/.
- spend many page minutes with/.
- rate highly/.
- frequently link to.
- one of several mutually quoting accounts of Kabylia’s outpost in Chicago, stories that spread the keyword hyperthymia like a pheromone trail.
He reads the Reader story and feels the journalist’s excitement. This Kabyle woman has grown up in a vicious free-for-all that makes the stoic Boethius look like a bed-wetting schoolboy. And despite the worst that environment can contribute, her body pumps out the standing gladness that should be every human’s birthright.
Hunch’s role in science has never embarrassed Kurton. And he has a hunch that this woman may be the missing datum that Truecyte’s three-year study needs. If she isn’t, the study will only be strengthened by learning why. He checks with his schedule keeper, who tells him he’ll be at the University of Chicago in the second week of January, for a debate with an Australian Nobelist in literature who believes that scientific investigation has killed the world’s soul.
With six clicks, Kurton finds a contact for the immigrant student. He composes an e-mail, using a Tamazight greeting that he picked up on one of his trips to Morocco. He tells her about his work in understanding what makes humans happy, and his hopes for using genetic information to heal the future. He describes how much his lab has already learned by exploring people like her, and he says how much she would contribute to the study. Everyone alive would love to know a little more about how you tick! He mentions that he’s coming to Chicago and asks if they might meet when he’s in the city. He gives her five ways to contact him. And his e-mail software automatically appends, beneath the obligatory block of personal data, his signature quote:
“whatever was the beginning of this world, the end will be glorious and paradisiacal, beyond what our imaginations can now conceive.”—Joseph Priestley
The meeting has already lasted longer than Kurton planned. They haven’t even glanced at the consent paperwork. He should be anxious, but he’s not. He has seen five previous cases of reputed hyperthymia without mania. This one is the first that might be real. Just being around her is a mild euphoric.
Half an hour in the woman’s presence and Kurton makes a decision. Science is half hunch, and his funding is ample, anyway. This one needs more than DNA genotyping. She merits the full workup. He asks her, “How would you like to fly out to Boston for a weekend?” He lays it out: a full suite of psychological tests. Comprehensive biochemical analysis. Functional brain imaging. Salivary cortisol levels. Protein counts. Finally, genetic sequencing, beginning with three chromosomal areas of special interest
“What are you looking for?” she asks.
He tells her about the hot sites already located: the dopamine receptor D4 gene on chromosome 11, whose longer form correlates with extroversion and novelty-seeking. He describes the serotonin transporter gene on the long arm of chromosome 17, whose short allele associates with negative emotions.
“You want to see how long my genes are?”
“We’re studying a genomic network that’s involved in assembling the brain’s emotional centers. A few variations seem to make a lot of difference. We’d like to see what varieties you have.”
“Your hyperthymic subject the one with the optimal combination? How many others like her would you say there are, walking around out there?”
Kurton can’t suppress a covert grin. “We need more data on the frequency of alleles in different populations and the way they assort with regard to one another. Akiskal estimates that about one in a hundred people in the general population meet the research criteria for hyperthymia. If you forced me to guess right now, I’d say about one in ten thousand of those already fortunate subjects are also immune to unstable negative moods and intemperate behavior.”
She does the math. “So roughly one in a million?”
His grin fades, unsure where she’s going. “You could put it that way.”
She means to ask: Why is the “optimal” configuration so damn rare? What doesn’t natural selection like about it? Why should perfect bliss be hundreds of times less common than cystic fibrosis? But she misses her chance, and the rest of the conference plays out in variations on: How soon can you make the rest of us feel a little better?
Even those journalists who use a question mark in their headlines barely disguise their excitement. Science has found a chief genetic contribution to bliss. Genomics now knows what combinations of inherited material help lower negative affect and raise positive. Happiness gene identified? Did you think it would evade detection forever?
The Alzheimer’s gene, the alcoholism gene, the homosexuality gene, the aggression gene, the novelty gene, the fear gene, the stress gene, the xenophobia gene, the criminal-impulse gene, and the fidelity gene have all come and gone. By the time the happiness gene rolls around, even journalists should have long ago learned to hedge their bets. But traits are hard to shake, and writers have been waiting for this particular secret to come to market since Sumer.
The wire services each run their own account, reaching a whole rainbow of conclusions about what, if anything, the new findings mean. The 1,100-word Science Times article makes only five to seven errors, depending on who’s counting. Newsweek puts the story on their cover: Better than sex, stronger than money, more lasting than prestige The secret of happiness? BeBorn Happy. Page 28 of the same issue is an ad for a drug company with a substantial financial interest in Truecyte.
Two of the big-four late-night comedians incorporate the story into their monologues:
So science has finally discovered that happiness is mostly inherited. But just remember, these are the guys who discovered that sterility may be inherited It’s interesting that, for some reason, the happiness genes aren’t particularly widespread. Not as widespread as, say, the obesity gene. Now the obesity gene: talk about wide spread
The Truecyte announcement runs through the meme pool like a wave through a football stadium. Websites everywhere poll user responses; the story gets four stars for newsworthiness, four stars for importance, and five stars for entertainment value. By rough count, two-thirds of the commenting public believe that nature contributes more to happiness than nurture, up from 50 percent a year ago. Two in five believe that science will soon be able to manipulate the genetic component of happiness to our advantage. Most people believe that if Truecyte has done original work to make a useful discovery, they should be able to profit exclusively from it. Eleven percent of the general public thought the happiness gene had already been found.
The discovery hits at the perfect time. The war has spilled over into a third neighboring country, and fatalities are at a forty-five-month high. A new study from the Union of Concerned Scientists shows that global greenhouse-gas emissions may have been greatly underestimated. Scattered outbreaks of a new fatal flu strain come in from central Asia. Recent tests show heavy-metal contaminants increasing dramatically throughout the food chain. Two decades of Ponzi schemes have unraveled the global financial markets and erased trillions of dollars of imaginary wealth. A terrorist cell in Southern California is rounded up, halfway to constructing a dirty bomb.
And scientists discover the genetic cause of joy.
In the final cut of “The Genie and the Genome,” finished just after the first article comes out in The Journal of Behavioral Genomics, Kurton refers to her simply as “Jen.” He describes how the group predicted her genomic signature, based solely on her psychological tests. He shows a color-enhanced animation of her fMRI:
Coordinated activity in these areas associates with sustained positive emotions. Look at her baseline: it’s a symphony.
His excitement ratchets up when talking about the process:
You feed the amplified DNA fragments into this high-throughput optical reader We can do a temperament analysis for under $1,000.
“Do you take Visa?” the off-camera host asks. His smile says: Choose your payment method.
He’s guarded about the interconnected patents his data rely on, but more voluble about the countless interconnected enzyme factories that contribute to the brain’s reward circuitry. He concedes the many genes that emotional well-being involves. Genes that control the pathways and synthesis of crucial neurotransmitters. Genes that assemble the machinery of neurotransmitter release and reuptake. Genes that wire together the centers of perception, memory, and emotion
But after another splice, he’s addressing an auditorium full of electrified people. Sixty percent of the room wants to sic the government regulators on him and the other forty are ready to send him to Stockholm. He’s in front of a huge projected slide, twenty feet wide. As he paces in front of the image, waving and conducting, a graph dances across his body.
The cloud of scatterplots is a thin cigar tipped along a rising diagonal. The vertical axis aggregates selected indicators of subjective wellbeing. The horizontal axis aligns the alleles for genes whose precise identities Thomas Kurton and company now make public for the first time.
He doesn’t have to draw the implied rising line. The line is there, running through the densest section of the cigar-shaped cloud. Data points fall all over the plane, but not randomly. The points rise as the number of repeated segments in certain gene polymorphisms changes. He focuses on a point high up to the far right, and calls it Jen.
Jump back to the smart house in Maine. Kurton’s eyes shine for the show’s host, or maybe its million viewers, live and on the Web.
Think about falling in love. How vibrant and wise you feel. Everything full of meaningful secrets. Amazing things, just about to happen Well, Jen and others up at the high end are like natural athletes of emotion. They fall in love with the entire world. And the world can’t help reciprocating. Genes plus environment, in a positive-feedback loop
Schiff lobs all the familiar criticisms at him, but he stays Zen.
Sure, well-being is a quantitative trait. Yes, these genes interact with dozens of others, and with scores of other regulatory factors. We are devoting a whole lot of microarrays and computer cycles to untangling those interactions Of course environment plays a role in their expression. But all these genes affect the way we engage the environment in the first place. There’s even some evidence that an adverse environment can strengthen the expression
Off camera, Tonia asks:
But the more of these alleles I have, the greater my joie de vivre?
His face admits to complexities.
We don’t even say that. We’ve simply noted a correlation
Shot-reverse to Schiff, who is enjoying this ride. She herself is far too sunny for her own good. It hasn’t yet dawned on her that this story might actually be nonfiction. She doesn’t get that until a few hours after they stop filming. For the moment, she asks:
And you can look directly at my genes and tell me my alleles?
Kurton beams and says:
Give me your coffee cup. We can take a swab off that.
They cut the sequence into the piece’s climax. The assembled show airs two weeks later.
The footage of Thassa on The Oona Show made an eerie art film in its own right: her far-focusing eyes, the ecstatic fear, the angelic irritation shaking free of all human markets. Schiff couldn’t get enough. She studied the shots of the genetically blessed woman, already splicing them into a much larger script: a single forty-two-minute hour about how the eons-long pursuit of happiness was at last cutting to the chase.
She and the Over the Limit crew worked from a rough outline: nine minutes on the chemical bases of moods; eight on neurogenetics; eleven on hyperthymia and its now famous mascot, Thassa Amzwar; and ten on the coming ability to manipulate genetic disposition. That left four minutes for transitions and Schiff’s interludes. She’d already done two interviews with key researchers in the biology of contentment. The show interns were busy raiding the archive for usable footage, while the art team set to work on fantastic animation.
The day after The Oona Show, Schiff and Garrett arrived to film Thassa in her dorm. The building had thinned out for the summer break, but a cluster of Jen-spotters loitered in the entrance. They clamored around Garrett’s tripods and lights, bugging him for information. A sallow ectomorph asked Schiff to sign his iPod with a Sharpie. One woman of about thirty, puffy and near tears, tried to force her way into the building alongside them, saying it was absolutely essential that she talk to the happiness girl right away. The lobby security guard turned her away, not for the first time.
Upstairs, in Thassa’s narrow, film-filled efficiency, they found a woman far from ecstatic. She sat holding her elbows on a small, three-colored kilim that stretched across the room. Garrett barely had space to mount the camera and lights, unfurl the reflectors, and still get both women into the shot. As he started filming, Thassa wrapped herself in stoicism. Schiff, stripped of sass, transformed into some kind of acolyte. She asked Thassa about her upbringing. Garrett, nonplussed, kept shooting. But when the two women began to talk about Kabylia, Thassa relaxed and showed the first sparks of a spirit that might be worth filming, let alone engineering.
Schiff asked, “Do Algerians trust happiness?” Garrett almost knocked the tripod over. But Thassa fielded the question on the fly. “We say, Ki nchouf ham el nass nansa hami: ‘When I see someone else’s desolation, I forget mine.’ Every Algerian knows that every other Algerian has seen great miseries. And that is consolation? Do any of my countrymen hope that science will discover a solution to the sorrow of history? Please! How can even Americans believe this?”
Instead of volleying, as she usually would have, Schiff gave one of the lamest follow-ups Garrett ever heard her deliver. “What makes you happy?”
Before Garrett could stop shooting, the Algerian woman smiled for the first time all interview. She lifted one thin, brown finger, and pointed at him. “That. Oh my God! If I could do what this man does, all day long? That would be a life. I love to look at the world through a viewfinder. I just love it. The worst things about life are beautiful on film.”
Garrett killed the camera and asked to talk to Schiff out in the hall. He started in before she could defend. “You aren’t exactly advancing the frontiers of science here.”
Schiff leveled him with her unnerving hazel eyes. “Not my job, Nick.”
“No? What exactly is your job? I thought it was to give me something engrossing to-”
“We’re telling this woman’s story.”
The words slowed him. But only a little. “You’re supposed to interview hyperthymia, not befriend it. This woman is not exactly a bottomless wellspring of cheer.”
“We’re supposed to film whatever is really there.”
“Oh, shit. Don’t get righteous on me. Not the time for philosophy, Ton. We’re on a deadline here.”
“This girl is not what Kurton says she is. I just think our viewers want to see-”
“Our viewers want science. It’s a science show.”
A voice called from inside the apartment. “Everything okay out there?”
When they slunk back into the room, they found Thassa filming Garrett’s camcorder and lighting gear with her own MiniDV. “Someone wants to pay for my eggs,” she told them. She lifted up her camera coolly and filmed their faces as understanding spread across them: Her eggs. Her eggs.
Garrett asked her to repeat the fact on film. Thassa laughed him off. “Interviews must be spontaneous. You can’t tell your subjects what to say. That’s what they teach in film school, en tout cas.”
Then, a thought that sits him up in bed. Those essays are not her only fiction. She has been authoring something else. How high is her real emotional set point, by nature? How happy is she, really? All of that testing, out in Boston, the psychological measurements so carefully correlated with the rigorous gene sequencing: nothing but self-reportage. Even science asked her to tell them a story.
Maybe she has faked a good half of her bliss.
And now, when he most needs time to think, to process the causal chains rippling through his head, she chooses that moment to come out of the bathroom at last. She’s in a loose, rose-colored shift that falls to her knees, a towel wrapped around her head. She tries to beam at him, as if she were the same content creature she ever was. Only now, the act exhausts her.
She sits on the end of her own bed, loosens the towel from her head, and squeezes clumps of hair in the roll of terry cloth. “You know, Mister Stone, if this were Algeria, my brother and uncle would have to come here tomorrow morning and kill us both.”
A forced laugh escapes her. She tilts her head and begins running a hairbrush through her now red tangles. Her hand moves slowly, as if combing oatmeal. He can see the outline of her tiny breasts through the billow of her shift and looks away.
He thinks of anything but her, listens to anything but that brush wicking through her ruined hair.
She stops dead still. “What is that beeping?”
“What beeping?” he echoes. He sits up, and his bed rustles.
“Shh. Listen. There. That.”
He titters, in case she’s joking. She isn’t. “That? That’s a bird, Thassa.”
Her words come out flushed and wild. “A bird? Oh my God, Russell, you’re right. It’s a bird. A bird, beeping.” Something small hits the floor with a soft thud. The hairbrush. And something larger falls back on the squeaking bed: Thassadit Amzwar. These sounds are followed by another one, even stranger. It starts as almost a whistle, then a low wail turning terrified. Weeks of bombardment, and she breaks.
She tries to turn the keening into words. “Something’s happening to me, Russell. I have to get out of this place.”
He does not move. He feels himself go weirdly calm. “Tomorrow,” he promises. “It will be okay. You’ll feel stronger. You should call your uncle now.”
“I can’t. I just can’t.” The words are clayey, distorted through a horrible mouth that can’t hold its shape.
“That’s fine,” he tells her. “We’ll do it in a little while.”
She’s hyperventilating. Long, muffled sobs rise up in her. “I’m sorry,” she keeps repeating. “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.” And then, would-be businesslike, “I dropped my hairbrush.”
She tries to move her arm, to sit up. He recognizes the complete debilitation-the outermost promontory of an outcrop he’s visited. If the hairbrush were God’s magic talisman for returning the world to Eden, she would not be able to sit up and take it. She’s defeated by the future, and a few shots of follicle stimulating hormone.
He raises himself upright but can’t move either. He, too, is paralyzed, by a realization all his own. Maybe she doesn’t have hyperthymia after all. Maybe it’s the other, wilder ride, there all along and undiagnosed, hidden by a mighty effort of will. Only: what is will but what the body allows? If she has been acting up until now, she’s an actress of unthinkable natural gifts.
The dread that grips him lasts only half a minute, wiped away by surprise relief. Their problem is over. Her haplotype has no bio-value whatsoever. She’s just another garden-variety mood-swinger. The world will finally leave the woman in peace. When this news gets out, it will delay genetic improvement by years. The race will be thrown back on inescapable, everyday, ordinary, glorious, redeeming moodiness.
“Russell? Are they going to come after us?”
“No,” he tells her. Something lifts him up bodily, from the inside out. Happiness. “No one even knows we’re here.”
Her torso goes limp and drops back. She can’t have plunged often into this abyss. There’s too much shock in the fall.
He turns on his side and watches her sleep, across the gap of beds. Her chest moves so slightly that he must almost supply the motion himself. Even now, she amazes him, how she can find such peace, in the middle of her magnetic storm. It seems to Stone, in this moment, a greater gift: not something given; something made.
Today she felt what he has felt, one day out of every thirty. And she’ll feel worse tomorrow. She must live now with everyone, in turbulent smashed hope. Despair: the mother of science, father of art, discarder of hypotheses, a thing that wants only to eliminate itself from the pool.
In the infinite wait, he replays everything. All day long he saw her drowning. Yet he turned his back on her for who knows how long, to make his call. Left her alone in a fetid room with cable TV and all the toxins of the dial. Abandoned her to twenty-four-hour headlines, “The Pursuit of Happiness.” She had no antibodies for the dark. No practiced resistance.
He watches her, stretched out peacefully on her bed-almost a sane escape. He bargains, ready to accept anything in science’s arsenal. Cloning. Genetic editing. Yes to it all. Anything but this. He prays to something he doesn’t believe in, begging that she might already have visited a Chicago clinic and harvested.
He can do nothing for her but revise. And he has time to rework entire world anthologies. In the scene he keeps returning to, all the principals assemble in her hospital room. Aunt and uncle, brother, scientists, legal counsel. The group comes to a decision: posthumous reproduction. Try the whole experiment again, in vivo.
He promises God that if she lives, he’ll become another person.