Symbiosis, by Anne Cleasby

algae girl(1)
Artwork by Helen Dunning

Sleet turned to hail as the sky darkened into evening. An occasional streetlight still functioned, flickering with a dull orange glow, but Tiffany was grateful when the last working lamp disappeared behind the car, and the decaying city faded into the gloom. As they drove into the heart of the old factory district, the only illumination came from the headlights of the SUV.

‘We’re almost there.’ Francis’s voice broke the silence.

Here?’ She shifted on the heated seat. ‘There’s nothing here, Francis. Where’s the Biotech Hub? I thought you said –’

Her fiancé kept his gaze on the road ahead. ‘We got a good deal on the space.’

Tiffany stared at his profile. Francis had a perfect profile, dominated by a straight nose and sculpted lips, but perhaps she should have paid more attention to what lay behind his classical features. She folded her arms and turned back to the window. Good deal or not, the district must have long ago given up on any possibility of a bright future. She should have found out more about his plans before she’d agreed to accompany him. ‘You said we were moving to a Science Park. This isn’t …’ She took a deep breath. ‘Why couldn’t we have stayed in England?’

‘You know why. I…’

Tiffany did know. Francis would never work in England again. The scandal had been too far-reaching. It had been a surprise when he’d told her about the opportunity in the States.

‘You’ll love it.’ He glanced sideways at her, his eyes like dark pits, before returning his attention to the road. ‘I’ve had a local building firm in. They’ve set up the labs for us. Everything’s state of the art. And all our own.’

‘But—’

He cut her off. ‘Now Tiff, don’t make a fuss. I didn’t have much choice when my funding was cut, did I? When no one appreciated my work, I couldn’t –’

‘They didn’t sack you because they didn’t appreciate your work.’ Tiffany wasn’t a fan of sugar-coating the truth.

‘I –’

‘They sacked you because you broke the law.’

Francis had never had much of a grasp of reality. She shot a sidelong glance at him. He needed a keeper. His vivid imagination made him a brilliant scientist, but it took him to places where no sane person should go, and that was why he’d lost his prestigious research position. He was lucky he hadn’t lost her as well. She’d had to think hard before agreeing to move to Detroit with him. And where, she wondered for the umpteenth time, was the funding for this new project coming from? He wouldn’t say.

The SUV slowed and pulled into a parking bay in front of one of the street-length buildings. A security light came on, illuminating the area around them and emphasizing the white flakes against the dark white of sky and the even darker building. Sleet had turned to snow and was falling heavily now, forced sideways by the wind, spiralling in the artificial light. Tiffany peered through the escalating blizzard, her heart sinking to her stomach. The parking lot was a tangle of dead vegetation and construction site refuse and, across the front of the entrance, a dull metal sign arched over the road, sagging at one end and rusting on all its edges. The faded red letters no longer made sense. The only word left intact was ‘MOTORS’.

Francis opened his door and climbed out of the car. After a moment Tiffany followed his example, hooking her rucksack over one shoulder, jumping down into the ankle-deep snow and slamming the door behind her. She turned in a circle, arms wrapped round her body as the dropping temperature penetrated her coat. ‘What a dump.’

‘Let’s get inside. It’s freezing.’ Francis tugged on her arm.

She shivered, and not only with the cold. There was something menacing about this building, squatting amongst the ruins of its neighbours.

‘Hope the power doesn’t fail,’ Francis muttered under his breath.

‘Is that likely?’ Tiffany asked. Why he’d chosen Detroit to establish his new lab escaped her completely. The building he’d bought looked as though it had started life as an assembly plant for one of the defunct car companies. No one lived in this district now. The assembly line workers had moved out decades ago, leaving their homes behind to be reclaimed by nature. She kicked at the layer of white with the toe of her boot. She would have to spend the night here, but she was leaving tomorrow.

‘Not really. And we’ve got backup generators.’ Francis pulled out a key and opened the steel door. The expansive reception hall was bathed in orange light that diffused from suspended glass globes. The temperature was no warmer than outside. ‘We can’t take any chances with the samples.’

‘What am I supposed to do here?’

Francis took her arm and urged her through the door. ‘There’s work for you. We’ve a cell biology facility and –’

‘You know I’m not doing that anymore.’

‘Barnaby should be here already.’ Francis marched down the length of the hall to a row of doors at the end. His boots thudded on the polished concrete of the floor.

She lengthened her stride to catch up with him. ‘Barnaby?’

‘I must have told you?’ He glanced away, eyes moving furtively from Tiffany’s. ‘I’ve employed him and another scientist on a two year contract.’

‘Barnaby who?’ Surely Francis wouldn’t…?

‘Barnaby Smodoser.’

‘Francis.’ Tiffany could feel her voice squeaking.

Barnaby Smodoser had been deported from the UK three years ago, and had just come out of a prison sentence in the US for aggravated assault. He’d picked up a homeless drunk near his Baltimore lab, paid him for cell samples and, after some fairly creative gene editing, had grown a foetus to the four month stage. The research board had taken away his licenses. Permanently.

‘And Sally Mae Wang.’

Sally Mae had worked in Tiffany’s old Oxford lab, and been sacked a few weeks earlier. No one knew why, but rumours had spiralled.

Sally Mae came from a rich West Indian family and had won the title of Miss Trinidad or something similar; Tiffany couldn’t remember the exact details but Sally Mae had followed a slavish beauty regime ever since, and her black curls tumbled in well-oiled glory to her waist. She wore tiny sequins along her eyebrows, and dressed like a Vegas showgirl. She made it plain that she despised Tiffany.

‘I can’t stand her.’

‘She’s a good scientist,’ Francis said. ‘Brilliant really. She’s done all that work with artificial wombs and …’ He pushed one of the heavy steel doors open. ‘They must be here somewhere.’

Tiffany followed him into a spacious laboratory, blinking in the sudden blaze of bright light. Francis was right; this was state of the art. Long, white-topped benches, well stocked with thermal cyclers, benchtop centrifuges, and pipette men, ran down the centre of the room, while freezers, floor-standing centrifuges, incubators and so on lined one wall. The beauty of it was ruined by the two people standing at the far end of the bench: hunched Barnaby, with his thinning brown hair, and tall, dark, dramatic Sally Mae. Their heads were close together, as they examined something on the bench’s surface. Francis hurried to join them, and she followed him.

‘We managed to get your samples up and running.’ Sally Mae gave Francis a flirtatious glance from under long, artificial eyelashes. Tiny birds of paradise fluttered from the outer corners.

On the bench top, in a white plastic tray, a nude mouse lay on its side, pink eyes bulging from its head and its flanks heaving. Scattered around it were little maggoty things. Tiffany leaned forward, peering past Francis. Baby mice. There was something wrong with them though. They had strange protrusions on their backs, their skin was a weird colour, and the heads looked misshapen.

‘Francis –’

‘It worked.’ Francis’s voice was loud with triumph. ‘Look Tiff, they’re green.’ He picked one up and it wriggled weakly on the palm of his hand.

Barnaby glanced at her. ‘I see you brought little Miss Ethics along with you.’

Tiffany swallowed her instinctive nausea and looked closer. The baby mouse’s skin did have a green tinge, but the bulges on its back were much more deeply coloured. Were the algal cells concentrating in tumours? Her nerves throbbed with the need to investigate.

‘What happened to its head?’  She couldn’t bring herself to ask where the cell samples had come from, because they looked like her work, work she’d abandoned when it led her into areas she didn’t want to go.

Barnaby shrugged, spreading purple-gloved hands. ‘It hasn’t got a mouth. We’ll fix it with the next round of manipulation.’

Francis tossed it into the yellow bin.

‘For Chrissake.’ Barnaby scrabbled amongst the waste, fishing it out again. ‘We haven’t finished with them. I need to extract some DNA. And Francis?’

‘What?’

‘I’ve managed to get the human cells to grow. They’re at the twelve cell stage and—’

Tiffany spun round and stalked to the door.

Human cells. The mice were bad enough, but making mutated humans? No. Suppose they were born without mouths as well? Francis had promised he would stop this. If he was caught again, he wouldn’t just lose his job and have his license revoked. He’d be executed. Along with his team. And her as well. She’d developed the technology.

Tears filled her eyes. She’d supported Francis, believed him when he said he’d stop breaking the law, and he’d repaid her by stealing her research. She wiped her hand across her eyes. She thought she’d sent all her original samples to recycling, so where had he found them?

A heavy hand dropped onto her shoulder. ‘Come on. I’ll show you the living quarters.’

She shrugged off his hand and followed him silently. Her mouth set in a straight line, the corners twitching with tension.

Once they were in the small apartment she turned to face him.

‘What?’ Hands on narrow hips, he frowned down at her.

‘You can’t do this. Seriously. I mean it.’

He sank onto the sofa, pulling her down beside him and resting his arm across her shoulders. ‘We’ve got to,’ he said. ‘Look at the implications.’

‘I have.’

‘We could solve the food crisis. The ability of the algae to photosynthesize in human cells is –’

Tiffany buried her head in her hands. ‘That’s what I thought, but—’

‘It would be a miracle, Tiff.’ He pulled her hands away from her face and kissed her cheek. ‘Imagine? Babies wouldn’t die in the famine areas. People wouldn’t starve to death; they’d be able to get energy from solar –’

‘That’s what they said about the Pansies.’

Francis shrugged irritably. ‘The Pansies are plants.’

‘They look like people. They talk like people.’

‘They’re legally classified as plants. They have plant DNA.’ He sat up straight, shifting away from her. ‘They’re green.’

‘The algae are green,’ Tiffany twisted to face him. ‘If they assimilate into human cells, those will turn green as well. The symbionts will be green.’

‘Who cares what colour they are? They’ll be people. Superior people.’

‘You know what the military wanted them for?’ Tiffany prodded him in the chest with her forefinger. ‘Desert warfare for a start? You know why I stopped the work and left.’

‘I’m going to see how things are going in the lab.’ He stood up.

‘Francis?’

‘What?’

‘Those mice?’

He turned slowly, impatience written on his features.

‘They were all wrong. Suppose your modified human embryos are like that?’

‘For Christ’s sake, Tiffany.’ He stamped to the door. ‘Will you get that negative rubbish out of your head? Do you want to become a boring risk-averse loser? Like the rest of the Oxford idiots?’

‘Don’t speak to me like that.’

Francis slammed the door behind him.

‘And it’s illegal.’ She jumped up, hurled her rucksack at the door and kicked the wall.

 

#

 

Francis didn’t reappear until it was time for bed. He lay next to her in the dark, caressing her face with a long forefinger and talking into her ear in a low voice. He wanted her to do the amalgamation of the algae into the ovum. She’d always been good at it; nine out of ten of her experiments worked. Barnaby was having problems. Only one of his cultures had grown past twelve cells so far, and that one had died before the blastocyst stage. And Sally Mae was having problems with her artificial wombs; even the normal cultures were being rejected.

‘It’s a huge challenge,’ he murmured. ‘Just your sort of thing, Tiff. And what will you do if you leave science? You need to work.’

‘I’ll find something.’

‘It’s such a waste. All those prizes you won and everything. No one else understands how to keep the cells alive like you,’ He propped himself on one elbow and leaned over her.

‘No. I told you no.’ She jerked her head away and turned on her side, back to him. As soon as the snow stopped, she was heading back to civilisation.

‘Please, Tiff?’ He hovered over her, his breath caressing her ear.

‘No.’ She didn’t care how interesting the problem was.

 

#

 

The weather worsened overnight. It was impossible to leave the building. Snow drifted around the SUV, burying it to the top of the windows.

Francis sulked.

He and Barnaby whispered together in the lab, conversations that broke off abruptly when Tiffany appeared. Sally Mae seemed to have been left out of the loop as well. Her lips twisted into a scowl every time Tiffany saw her, and with that expression on her face, it was hard to believe she’d won anything other than ‘Queen of the Grotesque’.

At three o’clock on day three, Tiffany put her book down and headed to the laboratory coffee room. Usually she had it to herself but today, Francis and Barnaby were huddled round the sink.

‘Tiff?’ Francis waved the kettle at her. ‘Coffee?’

The door opened and Sally Mae stalked in.

‘Coffee?’ Francis smiled his bright, innocent smile at her.

Something was going on. Tiffany squinted suspiciously round the room.

Barnaby smiled at her, looking like a malevolent weasel.

Something was definitely going on.

‘Thanks.’ Sally Mae sank into one of the low-slung armchairs, crossing one leg over the other, and letting her high-heeled shoe dangle from her foot.

Barnaby handed one mug to Tiffany and another to Sally Mae.

Tiffany grimaced. They’d put sugar in her drink.

‘You two’ve been busy.’ Sally Mae eyed her colleagues closely.

Barnaby glanced at Tiffany.

Sally Mae smirked. ‘Oh.’

Tiffany wrapped her hands round the warm mug. If they didn’t want to discuss their work in front of her, why should she care? ‘I’ve got a novel to read.’

Back in the apartment, she took a tiny sip of the coffee. It was undrinkable, and it smelled weird too. She poured it down the sink in her cloakroom, thinking that at least Francis had made an effort. Maybe she should cook him a romantic meal. Maybe they could talk, and maybe this time she could make him see sense. She headed back to the lab, grabbed a lab coat from the anteroom, and pushed the door open.

A naked human body lay on the bench in the centre of the room.

Francis and Barnaby looked up.

‘Shit.’ Barnaby’s face flushed. ‘You didn’t lock the door.’

‘You should be asleep.’ Francis frowned at Tiffany.

‘Asleep? Why?’ She couldn’t take her eyes off the body.

Where had that man come from? She would have assumed Barnaby had been up to his old tricks, if the weather hadn’t kept casual outsiders well away from the labs. The body sprawled, legs apart, one arm dangling off the edge of the table. It was dark brown in colour, with very short, tightly curled black hair on its head, and a torso that looked as though it had been waxed. She averted her eyes from the evidence of masculinity.

‘Don’t worry about it.’ Francis’s voice was soothing. He pulled off his purple gloves and walked towards her. ‘Just go back to –’

‘Francis?’ Barnaby’s eyes fixed on Tiffany, flaring as they scanned down below waist level. ‘She’s a woman.’

‘What?’ Francis frowned.

‘Tiffany,’ Barnaby said. ‘She’s a woman, isn’t she?’

Tiffany dodged round Francis and shuffled further into the lab. On the floor next to the bench was a black, furry rug-like object. It was a wig. She checked out the body on the table again, as an unpalatable thought swirled through her confusion. ‘Is that –?’

‘Sally Mae.’ Francis said. ‘She’s a man.’

‘I can see that.’ Tiffany squinted at Sally Mae’s limp form. ‘Is she dead?’

‘Of course not.’ Francis ran a hand through his dark curls. ‘Why would she be dead?’

‘So what the hell are you doing with her? Did you know she was a man?’

‘No. Of course I didn’t.’ Francis twisted irritably as Barnaby grabbed his arm, whispering into his ear.

Tiffany strained to hear what he said, but only caught the words – womb – opportunity – resource.

‘No.’ Francis folded his arms. ‘It’s a rotten idea.’

Barnaby sidled past him and closed the laboratory door, positioning himself in front of it. ‘It’s the best we’ve got. It won’t hurt her.’

Tiffany’s eyes flew to him and then to Francis. ‘What are you talking about?’

‘You’ve always wanted children, haven’t you?’ Francis pursed his lips.

‘Once I’m married.’

‘We’ll get married. Soon.’

Barnaby glanced at Francis. ‘Has she always been like this?’

Francis shrugged.

Tiffany leaned over Sally Mae, re-focussing on the immediate problem. ‘What’s wrong with her?’

‘Nothing,’ Francis said. ‘She’s asleep.’

Tiffany placed her lab coat across the lower half of the body. Sally Mae needed it more than she did. ‘Has she been a man all along? You didn’t –’

‘Of course I didn’t.’ Francis was impatient. ‘Why would I be interested in making a transsexual? We needed a womb. She was supposed to have one. I thought she was a woman. So did Barnaby.’

‘Enough.’ Barnaby moved towards Tiffany, lifting his hand. A small pain stung her neck, an insect bite. She slapped it with one hand, before the world started to spin. Her legs buckled.

Francis grabbed her, supporting her weight. ‘You shouldn’t have done that.’

The light disappeared. His voice faded.

 

#

 

When she woke, she lay on the bed in her apartment. She was naked and covered only in a sheet. Pain radiated from her abdomen. A dim overhead light barely cut the darkness. She was alone.

‘Francis?’ She screamed his name.

The door flew open, and the main lights came on. Tiffany squeezed her eyes closed against the sudden brightness.

‘How do you feel?’ Francis helped her to sit up, piling a heap of pillows behind her.

‘Ow.’ The hurt was a knife in her gut. Her memory came back, with a surge of rage, and dread. She opened her eyes. ‘What have you done to me?’

‘You wanted a baby.’ He handed her a glass of water and a pill. ‘Take this. It’ll help with any discomfort you feel.’

‘Discomfort?’ She reached out automatically and took the offerings. ‘I’m in agony.’

‘Take the pill, will you? Just do as you’re told, for once.’

Tiffany flung the water into his face. ‘Tell me what you’ve done.’

He wiped the water from his face with his sleeve. ‘Now, Tiff, don’t get hysterical. You’ll be fine. We needed a uterus for the experiment. As a scientist yourself –’

Tiffany clutched at her stomach. ‘Which experiment?’

‘You know we’ve been having problems with the artificial wombs? That was Sally Mae’s area, so we thought … She’s always been keen on the path we’ve taken.’

‘Sally Mae knew?’

‘We didn’t tell her exactly what her new role would be.’ Francis took his glasses off and wiped them on the edge of the sheet. ‘In hindsight, we probably should have. We never knew she was a man. It was a bit of a blow to our strategy. I thought it was a brilliant idea when Barnaby suggested it, but Sally Mae messed things up.’

Tiffany waited until the next wave of pain passed. ‘Will you get to the point? What have you done to me?’

Francis shifted. ‘You’re going to have a baby.’

‘No.’

He winced. ‘Barnaby’s last attempt at infection worked. We needed to implant the blastocyst and –’

The door opened and Barnaby sidled into the room.

‘Tiffany.’ He smirked at her from the foot of the bed. ‘I managed to get it to work. Your technology. We implanted my modified blastocyst in your womb.’

Tiffany pushed herself into an upright position, leaning forward and ignoring the cramp that burned through her lower body. She clutched the sheet to her throat. ‘I’m going to kill you.’

Francis watched her anxiously. ‘I told you to take the painkillers.’

‘You as well. We’re through. You’re dead.’

‘We didn’t do much,’ Francis’s mouth curved into a cajoling smile. ‘You’ve always wanted children. You said so.’

His charm had never failed to win her round. Not this time, though. ‘Children? We’re not even married and you’re incubating monsters in my body. I’m going to report you to the authorities.’

‘You wouldn’t dare,’ Barnaby said. ‘They’d assume you were complicit.’

Francis ignored him and fixed earnest eyes on Tiffany’s face. ‘It won’t be a monster, Tiff. We used your own cells as a base, so it’s mostly your child.’

Mostly? When did you get my cells?’ The betrayal was too huge.

‘The algae colonised your cells,’ Barnaby interrupted. ‘You were right, Tiffany. Your methods worked, just like you said they would. You’re going to have a cute little green clone baby, and once Sally Mae manages to get her artificial wombs functioning, we can try all sorts of modifications.’

Tiffany rubbed her eyes.

‘Now don’t cry.’ Francis backed towards the door. He’d never been comfortable with emotion. ‘It’ll be all right. We’ll get married. We’ll be a family.’

‘You … I… It’s …’ Tiffany stuttered. ‘I’m not crying.’

‘I’ll make you a cup of tea. Just take it easy for now. You’ll feel better after a hot drink.’ Francis reached for the door. It slammed open, sending him staggering backwards.

Two men exploded into the room. Behind them, more men blocked the doorway. All of them wore heavy combat uniforms, boots and weapon belts.

One of intruders had a snub-nosed semi-automatic already in his hand. He raised it, pointing it at Barnaby. ‘Barnaby Smodoser? You’re under arrest. Violation of parole.’

Tiffany gaped.

The other man pushed Barnaby roughly against the wall, cuffing his hands behind his back, before dragging him through the door.

The gunman pointed his weapon at Francis, while another man secured his wrists. ‘Francis Mason? You’ll be coming with us. We’ve got your colleague, Dr Sally Mae Wang, in our custody. You’ve both got questions to answer.’ Francis staggered as the man shoved him out of the room.

Tiffany shrank back against the pillows. She cleared her throat as the gunman turned his gaze on her. ‘Who are you?’ Her voice wobbled. That was a real gun.

‘We represent the US government, Ma’am.’

‘This must be the experimental subject? The one Dr Wang mentioned.’ A middle-aged man, in a business suit pushed into the room. He frowned at her, shaking his head. ‘Cuff her, as well. She’ll be coming with us.’

The gunman lowered his weapon, and grabbed Tiffany’s arm.

She screamed, as the sudden movement pulled at her aching abdomen.

The man in the suit bent to examine her, his frown deepening. ‘How much did they pay you for this? Whatever it was, it wasn’t enough.’

‘They didn’t.’ She squeezed her eyes tightly closed as sharp pain radiated out, sparking behind her eyes.

‘Sedate her, and let’s get going.’

For the second time in one day, Tiffany lost consciousness.

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