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Are You Lacking "Science Acid-Trip Pulp-Horror"? Try Some of This

Science Not Fiction
By Amos Zeeberg (Discover Web Editor)
Jul 15, 2010 12:36 AMNov 20, 2019 3:06 AM


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New York Times bestselling author Scott Sigler has just come out with another novel in the fast-moving, horrific, science-tastic style that he's made his trademark. The new book is about a creature engineered to be the perfect organ donor--the ANCESTOR of the title--and he (and his publisher, Crown) have agreed to let us run an excerpt right here on SNF for your reading pleasure. To entice you to read on, check out the great blurbs from these top-notch reviewers:

"ANCESTOR isn't science fiction. It's science acid-trip pulp-horror, an irresistible genre unique to Scott Sigler's wonderfully warped mind." —Carl Zimmer "Fun, creepy, and impossible to stop reading, ANCESTOR is the rare thriller that's based on cutting-edge science and is entirely possible. Long after you're done with the book, you'll still be looking over your shoulder. Just in case." —Phil Plait

Without further ado, here is your ANCESTOR excerpt:

The tiny, floating ball of cells could not think, could not react. It could not feel. If it could, it would have felt only one thing . . . Fear. Fear at the monster floating close by. Amorphous, insidious, unrelenting, the monster reached out with flowing tendrils that touched the ball of cells, tasting the surface. The floating ball vibrated a little each time one of its cells completed mitosis, splitting from one cell into two daughter cells. And that happened rapidly . . . more rapidly than in any other animal, any other life-form. Nothing divided this fast, this efficiently. So fast the living balls vibrated every three or four minutes, cells splitting, doubling their number over and over again. The floating balls had begun as a cow’s single-celled egg. Now? Only the outer membrane could truly be called bovine. The interior contained a unique genome that was mostly something else. The amorphous monster? A macrophage, a white blood cell, a hunter/killer taken from that same cow’s blood and dropped into a petri dish with the hybrid egg. The monster’s tendrils reached out, boneless, shapeless, flowing like intelligent water. They caressed the rapidly dividing egg, sensing chemicals, tasting the egg for one purpose only: To see if the egg was self. It was not. The egg was other. And anything other had to be destroyed. Jian knew, even at this early stage, that failure had come calling once again. She, Claus Rhumkorrf, Erika Hoel and Tim Feely watched the giant monitor that took up an entire wall of the equipment-packed genetics lab. The monitor’s upper-right-hand corner showed green numbers: 72/150. The rest of the huge screen showed a grid of squares, ten high, fifteen across. Over half of those squares were black. The remaining squares each showed a grainy-gray picture of a highly magnified embryo. The “150” denoted the number of embryos alive when the experiment began. Fifty cows, three genetically modified eggs from each cow, each egg tricked into replicating without fertilization. As soon as a fertilized egg, called a zygote, split into two daughter cells it became an embryo, a growing organism. Each embryo sat in a petri dish filled with a nutrient-rich solution and immune system elements from the same cow: macrophages, natural killer cells and T-lymphocytes, elements that combined to work as the body’s own special-ops assassins targeted at viruses, bacteria and other harmful pathogens. The “72” represented the number of embryos still alive, not yet destroyed by the voracious white blood cells. Jian watched the counter change to 68/150. Rhumkorrf seemed to vibrate with anger, the frequency of that vibration increasing ever so slightly each time the number dropped. He was only a hair taller than Jian, but she outweighed him by at least a hundred pounds. His eyes looked wide and buglike behind thick, black-framed glasses. The madder he became, the more he shook. The more he shook, the more his comb-over came apart, exposing his shiny balding pate. 65/150 “This is ridiculous,” Erika said, her cultured Dutch accent dripping with disgust. Jian glared at the demure woman. She hated Hoel, not only because she was a complete bitch, but also because she was so pretty and feminine, all the things that Jian was not. Hoel wore her silvery-gray hair in a tight bun that revealed a haughty face. She had the inevitable wrinkles due any forty-five-year-old woman, but nothing that even resembled a laugh line. Hoel looked so pale Jian often wondered if the woman had seen anything but the inside of a sunless lab for the last thirty years. 61/150 “Time?” Rhumkorrf asked. Jian, Tim and Erika automatically looked at their watches, but the question was meant for Erika. “Twenty-one minutes, ten seconds,” she said. “Remove the failures from the screen,” Rhumkorrf said through clenched teeth. Tim Feely quietly typed in a few keystrokes. The black squares disappeared. Sixty-one squares, now much larger, remained. Tim was Jian’s assistant, a biologist with impressive bioinformatics skills. He wasn’t on Jian’s level, of course, but his multidisciplinary approach bridged the gap between Jian’s computer skills and Erika’s biological expertise. He was bigger than Rhumkorrf, but not by much. Jian hated the fact that even though the project had two men and two women, she was always the largest person in the room. Jian focused on one of the squares. The tiny embryo sat helpless, a gray, translucent cluster of cells defined by a whitish circle. At sixteen cells, the terminology changed from embryo to morula, Latin for mulberry, so named for its resemblance to the fruit. It normally took a mammalian embryo a few days to reach the morula stage — Jian’s creatures reached this stage in just twenty minutes. Left alone, the morula would continue to divide until it became a hollow ball of cells known as a blastocyst. But to keep growing, a blastocyst had to embed itself into the lining of a mother’s uterus. And that could never happen as long as the cow’s immune system treated the embryo like a harmful foreign body. 54/150 Jian focused on a single square. From the morula’s left, a macrophage began oozing into view, moving like an amoeba, extending pseudopodia as it slid and reached. All along the wall-sized monitor, the white squares steadily blinked their way to blackness. 48/150 “Dammit,” Rhumkorrf hissed, and Jian wondered how he could speak so clearly with his teeth pressed together like that. The macrophage operated on chemicals, grabbing molecules from the environment and reacting to them. The morula’s outer membrane, the zona pellucida, was the same egg membrane taken from the cow. That meant it was 100 percent natural, native to the cow, something macrophages would almost never attack. But what lay inside that outer shell was something created by Jian . . . Jian and her God Machine. 34/150 “Clear them out again,” Rhumkorrf said. Tim tapped the keys. The black squares again disappeared: the remaining grayish squares grew even larger. Instantly, the larger squares started blinking to black. 24/150 “Fuck,” Erika said in a decidedly uncultured tone. Inside the morula, a cell quivered. Its sides pinched in, the shape changing from a circle to an hourglass. Mitosis. A macrophage tendril reached the morula, touched it, almost caressing it. 14/150 The macrophage’s entire amorphous body slid into view, a grayish, shapeless mass. 9/150 The squares steadily blinked out, their blackness mocking Jian, reminding her of her lack of skill, her stupidity, her failure. 4/150 The macrophage moved closer to the morula. The dividing cell quivered once more, and the single cell became two. Growth, success, but it was too late. 1/150 The macrophage’s tendrils encircled the ball, then touched on the other side, surrounding it. The tendrils joined, engulfing the prey. The square turned black, leaving only a white-lined grid and a green number. 0/150 “Well, that was just spectacular,” Rhumkorrf said. “Absolutely spectacular.” “Oh, please,” Erika said. “I really don’t want to hear it.” Rhumkorrf turned to face her. “You’re going to hear it. We have to produce results. For heaven’s sake, Erika, you’ve built your whole career on this process.” “That was different. The quagga and the zebra are almost genetically identical. This thing we’re creating is artificial, Claus. If Jian can’t produce a proper genome, the experiment is flawed to begin with.” Jian wanted to find a place to hide. Rhumkorrf and Erika had been lovers once, but no more. Now they fought like a divorced couple. Erika jerked her thumb at Jian. “It’s her fault. All she can do is give me an embryo with a sixty-five percent success probability. I need at least ninety percent to have any chance.” “You’re both responsible,” Rhumkorrf said. “We’re missing something here. Specific proteins are producing the signals that trigger the immune response. You have to figure out which genes are producing the offending proteins.” “We’ve looked,” Erika said. “We’ve gone over it again and again. The computer keeps analyzing, we keep making changes, but the same thing happens every time.” Rhumkorrf slowly ran a hand over his head, putting his comb-over mostly back in place. “We’re too close to it. We’ve got to change our way of thinking. I know the fatal flaw is staring us in the face, we just don’t recognize it.” Tim stood up and stretched. He ran both hands through his short but thick blond locks, looking directly at Rhumkorrf when he did. Jian wondered if Tim did that on purpose, to mock Rhumkorrf’s thinning hair. “We’ve been over this a hundred times,” Tim said. “I’m already reviewing all of Jian and Erika’s work on top of doing my own.” Erika let out a huff. “As if you could even understand my work, you idiot.” “You shut up!” Jian said. “You do not talk to Tim like that.” Erika smirked, first at Jian, then at Tim. “Such a big man, Tim. You need a fat old woman to fight your battles for you?” Tim’s body stayed perfectly still except for his right hand, which extended and flipped Erika the middle finger. “That will be enough, Mister Feely,” Rhumkorrf said. “If you’re not smart enough to contribute to the work, the least you could do is shut your mouth and focus your worthless brain on running your little computer.” Tim’s hands clenched into fists. Jian felt so bad for him. All his life, Tim Feely had probably been used to being the smartest person in the room. Here, he was the dumbest — something Claus never let him forget. “I realize we’re all frustrated,” Rhumkorrf said, “but we have to find a way to think in new directions. We’re so close, can’t you all feel it?” His bug-eyed glare swept around the room, eliciting delayed nods of agreement from all of them. They were close, maddeningly so. Jian just couldn’t find that missing piece. It almost made her long for the days before the medicine, when the ideas came freer, faster. But no, that wouldn’t do — she knew all too well where that led. Rhumkorrf took off his glasses and rubbed his eyes. “I want you all to think about something.” He put the glasses back on. “It took us an hour to conduct this experiment. In that hour, at least four people died from organ failure. Four people who would have lived if they had a replacement. In twenty-four hours, almost a hundred people will die. Perhaps you should consider that before you start bickering again.” Jian, Tim and even Erika stared at the floor. “What ever it takes,” Rhumkorrf said. “What ever it takes, we will make this happen. We’ve just failed the immune response test for the sixteenth time. All of you, go work from your rooms. Maybe if we stop sniping at each other, we can find that last obstacle and eliminate it.” Jian nodded, then walked out of the lab and headed back to her small apartment. Sixteen immune response tests, sixteen failures. She had to find a way to make number seventeen work, had to, because millions of lives depended on her and her alone.

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