Hydra

Someone just died. You probably didn’t know the person, but they died nonetheless. It’s 4:30 p.m. Central Time, and just now, a person died again.

Frontspiece. Night thoughts on life, death and immortality : Young, Edward, 1683, remixed by Paul Jarvey

Someone just died. You probably didn’t know the person, but they died nonetheless. It’s 4:30 p.m. Central Time, and just now, a person died again.

Maybe you knew that one. There are so many, so fast.

I don’t like it any more than you do. That’s why I’m trying to do something about it.

I’ve been told by my peers that if I achieve my goals, I’ll contribute to the demise of the human race, that the planet won’t be able to hold all the people, that the act of saving so many will result in the ultimate death of us all.

Maybe they’re right. Or maybe they’re just jealous.

Had we remained hunters and gatherers, spread out across acres, we would’ve reached Earth’s carrying capacity at 100 million people. Today, with people living vertically in high rises, we have wiggle room. At 6.974 billion, we’re doing okay. We grow at 1.2% annually.

That figure is about to change.

In the last three years of intense experimentation, I’ve been able to isolate subgenetic material from the freshwater Hydra polyp. I’ve labelled this material GX-439.

In several minutes, I have a video phone conference scheduled with my lawyer, the U.S. Patent Office, and Gen Corporation. The plan is to proceed with larger-scale study and then commercialization.

The Hydra polyp is a remarkable life form that is for all intents and purposes immortal. Each polyp Hydra contains an endless proliferation of stem cells. When enough cells are produced, the Hydra buds. The key is the FoxO gene. This gene appears in all animals. But it’s the activity of this gene that determines how long we live. Human centenarians, for example, show much higher FoxO activity rates.

When GX-439 is embedded into the exoskeleton of humans, remarkable changes occur. Muscle tone improves. Visual acuity increases. Sex drive revs up. By all accounts, every facet of human health is affected. I’ve watched a ninety-year-old man revert to a fifty-year-old man. I’ve watched a woman cursed with multiple sclerosis walk out of my lab symptom free.

There will be consequences for my actions. I’m not a fool.

As the human population explodes, wild places will shrink, as will the endangered species that depend on them. We’ll need to build even higher to offset the coming sprawl. Quality of life, from a physical standpoint, will improve. But there may be psychological ramifications as we watch the natural world disappear around us. We will live much longer, but most of that life will be on pavement and within walls. You have to ask yourself if this is a fair trade. If you could live two hundred years, while everything around you changes, while Yellowstone is developed for condos, while the Amazon is turned to strip malls, would you?


I could stop this now, of course. I could call up Gen Corp and my lawyer, tell them that I had lost my mind, jumped the gun, that I never discovered a magic pill and that they’d misinterpreted my proposal. But then you would have to watch your mother and father die. You would be robbed of the opportunity to see them healthier, all rosy cheeks and smiles. Cheated of another hundred years with them.

Yes, your father’s cabin on that beloved lake in the country would have to go, the lake sucked dry for a growing population. Yes, water and air quality across the planet would decline, but this would be remedied internally with applications of GX-439.

And your pets: another sixty years for Fido on top of his twelve. Sick animals could be saved. The bottleneck here is of course their habitat. That could not be saved. Our fellow earth-bound companions would be limited to domesticated animals that share our spaces. But everyone within those walls and upon that concrete would get to live much longer.

I sit at my desk and turn my laptop so the embedded video camera faces me. The circular wall clock seems louder to me. I tap my long fingers on the desk, then straighten the cuff of my lab coat. I clear my throat. Sunlight warms the office window and the low bookshelf beneath it. Far below, I can hear horns honking on the city avenue. Light glints on the faux-metal frames that hold my certifications and awards.

The computer beeps.

I click the flashing icon after several seconds, not wanting to appear anxious.

A man appears on screen. My lawyer, Robert. Not a hair out of place nor a stain to his teeth.

“Doctor, in a few moments Gen Corp will be on the line. Are you ready?”

“Yes,” I say.

“You’ve gone over the meeting notes I faxed you?” he says.

“Yes.” I take a look at the printout next to the laptop, detailing the applications for GX-439 and any potential adverse side effects.

“I’m bringing them on now,” Robert says, averting his gaze to his keyboard, his voice calm and cool.

Another window pops up, and in it I see the face of a tan, grey-haired gentleman. His eyes are eager and sly.

“Good afternoon, Doctor,” the Gen Corp executive says. “Shall we proceed?”

The sun brightens through the window. I hear wings flapping, and a magnificent raptor lands upon the sill.

A peregrine falcon.

It watches me with dark brown eyes, then blinks.

 


Michael Hodges lives and writes in Chicagoland, but often dreams of the Northern Rockies. He is almost always working on novels. His story, “Grangy,” appeared in AE #9.

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