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Sight of Proteus

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Sight of Proteus

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Author: Charles Sheffield
Publisher: Ace Books, 1978
Series: Proteus: Book 1

1. Sight of Proteus
2. Proteus Unbound
3. Proteus in the Underworld

Book Type: Novel
Genre: Science-Fiction
Sub-Genre Tags: Colonization
Space Exploration
Human Development
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In the 22nd century a combination of computer-augmented bio-feedback and chemo-therapy techniques has given man the ability not only to heal himself, but to change himself - to alter his very shape at will. But Form Change has its darker aspects, ranging from unautorized experimentation on human subjects to a threat to the very essence of humanity.


Chapter 1

The new Fall Catalog had arrived that morning. Behrooz Wolf, like millions of others, had settled in for an evening of browsing and price comparison. As usual, there were many variations on most of the old forms, plus an intriguing set of new ones that BEC was releasing for the first time. Bey keyed out the catalog displays, studying the images and the prices, and occasionally marking a form for future reference.

After about an hour, his interest began to fade and his attention wandered. He yawned, put down the catalog, and went to his desk in the corner of the room. He picked up and looked through a couple of texts on form-change theory, then, restless as ever, leafed through his case-book. Finally, he went and picked up the BEC catalog again. When the phone buzzed he gave an instinctive mutter of annoyance, but the interruption was a welcome one. He pressed the wrist remote.

"Bey? Put me up on visual, would you," said a voice from the wall screen.

Wolf touched his wrist again and the cheerful, ruddy face of John Larsen appeared on the wall holo. Larsen looked at the catalog that Bey was holding and smiled.

"I didn't know that was out yet, Bey. Tomorrow's the official release date. I haven't had the chance to see if mine has arrived. Sorry to call you at this hour, but I'm still over here at the office."

"No problem. I couldn't get too interested in this, anyway. It's the same old irritation. The forms that appeal the most need a thousand hours of work with the machines, or else they have a lousy life-ratio."

"--or they require a whole mass of computer storage, if they're anything like last spring's releases. How are the prices?"

"Up again, and you're quite right, they need more storage, too. Look at this one, John." He held up the open catalog. "I already have a billion words of primary storage, and I still couldn't begin to handle it. Four billion words, or you shouldn't think of ordering it."

Larsen whistled softly. "That's certainly a new one, though. It's the closest thing I've ever seen to an avian form. What's the life-ratio on it? Bad, I'll bet."

Wolf consulted the tables in the catalog and nodded agreement.

"Less than 0.2. You'd be lucky to last ten years with it. You might be all right in low-g, but not otherwise. In fact, there's a footnote that says it can achieve flight in a lunar gravity or less. I suppose they're hoping for USF sales."

He closed the catalog.

"So, what's happening, John? I thought you had a date--why the midnight oil?"

Larsen shrugged. "We've got a mystery on our hands. I'm baffled and it's the sort of problem you thrive on. Do you feel up to a trip back to the office, tonight? You're the boss, but I'd really like to get your opinion."

Wolf hesitated. "I wasn't planning to go out again. Can't we handle it over the holo?"

"I don't think so. But maybe I can show you enough to persuade you to come over here." Larsen held out a sheet so that it could be seen on the holo screen. "Bey, what do you make of this I.D. code?"

Wolf studied it carefully, then looked back at Larsen questioningly. "It seems normal enough. Is it somebody I'm supposed to know? Let me just check it through my percomp."

Larsen watched in silence as Wolf entered the digits of the chromosome I.D. code that had replaced fingerprint, voiceprint and retinal patterns as the absolute identification method. The link from his personal computer to the central data banks was automatic and almost instantaneous. When the response came, Wolf frowned at it for a moment, then looked in annoyance at John Larsen.

"What's the game, John? There's no such I.D. in the central files. Is it one that you made up?"

"I wish it were, but it's nothing so simple."

Larsen reached behind him and picked up a printed report.

"I told you, Bey, this is a strange one. I had a call about three hours ago from a medical student. This afternoon, he was over in the transplant ward of Central Hospital when a liver transplant case came in. He's been taking a course in chromosome analysis, and he'd missed one of the lab sessions where they were supposed to try the technique out on a real case. So he had the idea of doing an I.D. check on a sample from the donor liver--just to see if he had the technique correct."

"That's illegal, John. He can't have the licenses to use that equipment."

"He doesn't. He did it anyway. When he got home, he fed the I.D. code into central files and asked for donor identification and matching. The files couldn't produce a match."

Bey Wolf looked sceptical--but intrigued. "He must have made a measurement error, John."

"That was my first reaction. But he's an unusual young man. For one thing, he was willing to call us, even though he knew he might get in trouble for doing the I.D. analysis without proper permission. I told him he must have done something wrong, but he said he'd done it three times, twice the usual way and once with a short-cut method that he wanted to try out. It came out the same each time. He's sure that he handled the technique correctly and didn't make any mistakes."

"But there's no way to fake a chromosome ID, and every human being is listed in the central files. Your student is telling us that he tested a liver that came from a person who never existed."

John Larsen looked pleased. "That's what I wanted to hear you say. It was my conclusion exactly. Well, Bey? See you over here in an hour or so?"

* * *

The evening shower was over and the streets were once again a wild, colorful chaos. Bey left his apartment and worked his way over to the fastest slideway, threading through the mass of people with practised ease. With the population over fourteen billion, crowding was normal, night or day, even in the most affluent parts of the city. Wolf, preoccupied with Larsen's problem, scarcely noticed the throng that surrounded him.

How could anyone have escaped the chromosome typing? It was performed at three months, right after the humanity tests--and it had been that way for a century. Could the donor be old, a dying ancient? That was ridiculous. Even if the donor wanted it that way, no one would use a century-old liver for a transplant operation. Bey's thin face was puzzled. Could it be that the donor was an off-worlder? No, that wouldn't explain it either. The ID's for people from the United Space Federation were all separately filed, but they were still in the records at the central data banks. The computer response would have been delayed a little, but that was all.

He was beginning to feel the old mixture, a tingle of excitement modulated by a fear of disappointment. His job in the Office of Form Control was a good one--he didn't know of a better. But although he had been highly successful in it, somehow it was not completely satisfying. Always, he felt that he was waiting for the big challenge, the problem that would stretch his abilities to their limits. Maybe this could be the one. At thirty-four, he should know what he wanted to do with the rest of his life--it was ridiculous to still be full of the heart-searching of adolescence.

In an attempt to suppress his illogical sense of anticipation and to prepare his mind for the problem ahead, Bey keyed his communication implant and tuned to the newscast. The familiar beaked nose and sloping brow of Laszlo Dolmetsch appeared, directly stimulated on his optic nerves. The people and the slideways were still faintly visible as a ghostly superimposed image--the laws forbade total exclusion of the direct sensory feeds. The early slideway deaths had taught that lesson.

Dolmetsch, as always, was holding forth on the latest social indicators, and making his usual pessimistic prophecies. If the concentration of industry around the Link access points were not lessened, there would be trouble.... Bey had heard it all before, and custom had staled the message. Sure, there were instabilities in the social indicators--but that had been the case ever since the indicators were first developed. Bey looked again at Dolmetsch's profile and wondered about the popular rumor. Instead of using form-change to diminish that great beak, the story went, Dolmetsch had increased it--to become an unmistakable figure, anywhere on Earth. That he certainly was. Bey could not remember a time when Dolmetsch was not a prominent prophet of doom. How old was the man now? Eighty, or ninety?

Bey mentally shrugged, and switched channels. He had to return to the real world for a moment, to move quickly out of the way of two red-coated medical emergency staff, hurtling at top speed along the fastest slideway, then he skipped through the other news channels. Not much there. A mining accident on Horus, so far from most Solar System activities that it would take months for relief to reach it; a promising discovery of kernels out in the Halo, which meant fortune for some lucky prospector, and more free energy for the USF; and the perennial rumor of a form-change that would give immortality to the wearer. That one cropped up every couple of years, regular as the seasons. It was a tribute to the continued power of wishful thinking. No one ever had any details--just the vaguest of hearsay. Bey listened scornfully, and wondered again how people could pay attention to such a flimsy prospect. He switched back to Dolmetsch--at least the old man's worries were comprehensible, and had a solid basis of fact. There was no doubt that the shortages and the violence were barely under control, and the population, despite all efforts, was still creeping upward. Could it ever hit fifteen billion? Bey remembered when fourteen had seemed intolerable.

The crowds surging along the slideways didn't seem to share Wolf's worries. They looked happy, handsome, young and healthy. To people living two hundred years earlier they would have seemed models of perfection. Of course, this was the west side, closer to the Link entry point, and that helped. There was plenty of poverty and ugliness elsewhere. But forget for the moment the high prices and the mass of computer storage that was needed. BEC--the Biological Equipment Corporation--could fairly claim to have transformed the world; that part of the world, at least, that could afford to pay. Here on the west side, affluence was the norm and use of the BEC systems a sine qua non.

Only the General Coordinators shared Laszlo Dolmetsch's view of the problems in keeping the economic balance of the world. Earth was poised on a knife edge of diminishing resources. Constant subtle adjustments, calculated by application of Dolmetsch's theories, were needed to hold it there. Every week, there were corrections for the effects of drought, crop failures, forest fires, epidemics, energy shortages, and mineral supplies. Every week, the General Coordinators watched the indices for violence, disease and famine, and waited grimly for the time when the corrections would fail and the system would run amok into world-wide slump and economic collapse. In a united world, failure of one system means failure of all. Only the off-Earthers, the three million citizens of the United Space Federation, could cling to their shaky independence--and the U.S.F. watched the economic indicators at least as closely and nervously as any Earth-based Coordinator.

As he neared his goal, Bey Wolf kept an automatic eye open for illegal forms. Make-up and plastflesh could hide a great deal, but with the Office of Form Control he had been specially trained to see past the outward form, through to the shape of the underlying body structure.

Here, on the public slideways, the chances of running into an outlawed form were small--but Bey still had occasional nightmares about the feline form he had spotted, less than a mile from here, two years earlier. That had cost him two months out of action, in the accelerated change and recovery room of the Form Control Hospital unit.

As he made the transitions back to the slowest slideway, he noticed again the large number of rounded Elizabethan foreheads on the people he was passing. That had been a minor special of the Spring Catalog, but had turned out to be a big hit. He wondered what the fall attraction would be--dimples? sabre scars? an Egyptian nose?--as he printed into Form Control and went up to Larsen's office on the third floor.

* * *

As Bey Wolf was climbing the stairs, a few miles east of him a solitary, white-coated figure dialed a vault combination and stepped through into the underground experiment room, four floors below City level. The face and figure would be familiar to any scientist. It was Albert Einstein--Einstein at forty, at the very height of his powers.

The man made his way slowly down the long room, checking the station monitors at each of the great tanks. Most received only a few seconds of attention and the occasional adjustment of a control setting, but at the eleventh station he halted. He examined the outputs closely, grunted, and shook his head. Several minutes passed while he stood motionless, deep in thought. At last he continued his patrol and went on into the general control area at the far end of the room.

Seated at the console, he called out the detailed records for the eleventh station and displayed them on the screen. Then he was again silent for many minutes, twisting around his forefinger a lock of his long, greying hair, as he bent over the displays of feed rates, nutrient mixes and other vital indicators. The program-swapping records occupied him for more long minutes, but finally he was finished. He emerged from his concentration, cleared the screen, and switched to voice recording mode.

"November 2nd. Continued deterioration in tank eleven. Response intensity is down by a further two percent and there is a renewed instability in the bio-feedback loops. Change parameters were recalibrated tonight."

He paused, reluctant to take the next step. At last he went on.

"Prognosis: poor. Unless there is improvement in the next two days, it will be necessary to terminate the experiment."

He sat for a moment longer, visibly shaken. At last he stood up. Moving quickly now through the dimly-lit room he re-set the monitors at each station and switched on the tell-tales. He took a final look around the room, locked the vault, and entered the elevator that would take him back to ground level. More than ever now, the face was that of Einstein. Over the warmth, intellect and humanity was etched the pain and torment of a man who worried and suffered for the whole world.

Copyright © 1978 by Charles Sheffield


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