eidolon.net: The Moral Virologist by Greg Egan Jump to . . .Front Page (News)FeaturesFictionReviewsListsEidolon BooksEidolon MagazineMarketsAuthor/Artist sitesSF&F in AustraliaComing Soon! THE MORAL VIROLOGIST The Moral Virologist Greg Egan Out on the street, in the dazzling sunshine of a warm Atlanta morning, a dozen young children were playing. Chasing, wrestling, and hugging each other, laughing and yelling, crazy and jubilant for no other reason than being alive on such a day. Inside the gleaming white building, though, behind double-glazed windows, the air was slightly chilly - the way John Shawcross preferred it - and nothing could be heard but the air-conditioning, and a faint electrical hum. The schematic of the protein molecule trembled very slightly. Shawcross grinned, already certain of success. As the pH displayed in the screen's top left crossed the critical value - the point at which, according to his calculations, the energy of conformation B should drop below that of conformation A - the protein suddenly convulsed and turned completely inside-out. It was exactly as he had predicted, and his binding studies had added strong support, but to see the transformation (however complex the algorithms that had led from reality to screen) was naturally the most satisfying proof. He replayed the event, backwards and forwards several times, utterly captivated. This marvellous device would easily be worth the eight hundred thousand he'd paid for it. The salesperson had provided several impressive demonstrations, of course, but this was the first time Shawcross had used the machine for his own work. Images of proteins in solution! Normal X-ray diffraction could only work with crystalline samples, in which a molecule's configuration often bore little resemblance to its aqueous, biologically relevant, form. An ultrasonically stimulated semi-ordered liquid phase was the key, not to mention some major breakthroughs in computing; Shawcross couldn't follow all the details, but that was no impediment to using the machine. He charitably wished upon the inventor Nobel Prizes in chemistry, physics and medicine; viewed the stunning results of his experiment once again, then stretched, rose to his feet, and went out in search of lunch. On his way to the delicatessen, he passed that bookshop, as always. A lurid new poster in the window caught his eye: a naked young man stretched out on a bed in a state of postcoital languor, one corner of the sheet only just concealing his groin.
the nineteen eighties, spending a fortune on a thirty-second computer-animated station ID (a fleet of pirouetting, crenellated spaceships firing crucifix-shaped missiles into a relief map of the USA, chiselling out the station logo of Liberty, holding up, not a torch, but a cross), showing the latest, slickest gospel rock video clips, "Christian" soap operas and "Christian" game shows, and, above all, identifying issues - communism, depravity, godlessness in schools - which could serve as the themes for telethons to raise funds to expand the station, so that future telethons might be even more successful. Ten years later, he owned one of the country's biggest cable TV networks. John Shawcross was at college, on the verge of taking up paleontology, when AIDS first began to make the news in a big way. As the epidemic snowballed, and the spiritual celebrities he most admired (his father included) began proclaiming the disease to be God's will, he found himself increasingly obsessed by it. In an age where the word miracle belonged to medicine and science, here was a plague, straight out of the Old Testament, destroying the wicked and sparing the righteous (give or take some haemophiliacs and transfusion recipients), proving to Shawcross beyond any doubt that sinners could be punished in this life, as well as in the next. This was, he decided, valuable in at least two ways: not only would sinners to whom damnation had seemed a remote and unproven threat now have a powerful, worldly reason to reform, but the righteous would be strengthened in their resolve by this unarguable sign of heavenly support and approval. In short, the mere existence of AIDS made John Shawcross feel good, and he gradually became convinced that some kind of personal involvement with HIV, the AIDS virus, would make him feel even better. He lay awake at night, pondering God's mysterious ways, and wondering how he could get in on the act. AIDS research would be aimed at a cure, so how could he possibly justify involving himself with that? Then, in the early hours of one cold morning, he was woken by sounds from the room next to his.
window. What was this wild idea in his head? A true message from God, or the product of his own imperfect understanding? He needed guidance! He switched on his reading lamp and picked up his Bible from the bedside table. With his eyes closed, he opened the book at random. He recognised the passage at the very first glance. He ought to have; he'd read it and reread it a hundred times, and knew it almost by heart. The destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. At first, he tried to deny his destiny: He was unworthy! A sinner himself! An ignorant child! But everyone was unworthy, everyone was a sinner, everyone was an ignorant child in God's eyes. It was pride, not humility, that spoke against God's choice of him. By morning, not a trace of doubt remained. Dropping paleontology was a great relief; defending Creationism with any conviction required a certain, very special, way of thinking, and he had never been quite sure that he could master it. Biochemistry, on the other hand, he mastered with ease (confirmation, if any was needed, that he'd made the right decision). He topped his classes every year, and went on to do a PhD in Molecular Biology at Harvard, then postdoctoral work at the NIH, and fellowships in Canada and France. He lived for his work, pushing himself mercilessly, but always taking care not to be too conspicuous in his achievements. He published very little, usually as a modest third or fourth co-author, and when at last he flew home from France, nobody in his field knew, or would have much cared, that John Shawcross had returned, ready to begin his real work. Shawcross worked alone in the gleaming white building that served as both laboratory and home. He couldn't risk taking on employees, no matter how closely their beliefs might have matched his own. He hadn't even let his parents in on the secret; he told them he was engaged in theoretical molecular genetics, which was a lie of omission only - and he had no need to beg his father for money week by week since, for tax reasons, twenty-five percent of the Shawcross empire's massive profit was routinely payed into accounts in his name. His lab was filled with shiny grey boxes, from which ribbon cables snaked to PCs; the latest generation, fully automated, synthesisers and sequencers of DNA, RNA, and proteins (all available off the shelf, to anyone with the money to buy them). Half a dozen robot arms did all the grunt work: pipetting and diluting reagents, labelling tubes, loading and unloading centrifuges. At first Shawcross spent most of his time working with computers, searching databases for the sequence and structure information that would provide him with starting points, later buying time on a supercomputer to predict the shapes and interactions of molecules as yet unknown. When aqueous X-ray diffraction become possible, his work sped up by a factor of ten; to synthesise and observe the actual proteins and nucleic acids was now both faster, and more reliable, than the hideously complex process (even with the best short-cuts, approximations and tricks) of solving Schrödinger's equation for a molecule consisting of hundreds of thousands of atoms. Base by base, gene by gene, the Shawcross virus grew. As the woman removed the last of her clothes, Shawcross, sitting naked on the motel room's plastic bucket chair, said, "You must have had sexual intercourse with hundreds of men." "Thousands. Don't you want to come closer, honey? Can you see okay from there?" "I can see fine." She lay back, still for a moment with her hands cupping her breasts, then she closed her eyes and began to slide her palms across her torso. This was the two hundredth occasion on which Shawcross had paid a woman to tempt him. When he had begun the desensitising process five years before, he had found it almost unbearable. Tonight he knew he would sit calmly and watch the woman achieve, or skilfully imitate, orgasm, without experiencing even a flicker of lust himself. "You take precautions, I suppose." She smiled, but kept her eyes closed. "Damn right I do. If a man won't wear a condom, he can take his business elsewhere. And I put it on, he .
doesn't do it himself. When I put it on, it stays on. Why, have you changed your mind?" "No. Just curious." Shawcross always paid in full, in advance, for the act he did not perform, and always explained to the woman, very clearly at the start, that at any time he might weaken, he might make the decision to rise from the chair and join her. No mere circumstantial impediment could take any credit for his inaction; nothing but his own free will stood between him and mortal sin. Tonight, he wondered why he continued. The "temptation" had become a formal ritual, with no doubt whatsoever as to the outcome.
be, simply, more SVC. However, if the fingerprints failed to match, implying that the strain had now crossed into another person's body (and if gender-specific markers showed that the two hosts were not of the same sex), the daughter virus would be a third variety, SVM, containing both fingerprints. The M stood for "monogamous", or "marriage certificate". Shawcross, a great romantic, found it almost unbearably sweet to think of two people's love for each other being expressed in this way, deep down at the subcellular level, and of man and wife, by the very act of making love, signing a contract of faithfulness until death, literally in their own blood. SVM would be, externally, much like SVC. Of course, when it infected a T-cell it would check the host's fingerprint against both stored copies, and if either one matched, all would be well, and more SVM would be produced.
It was in the northern summer of 2000 that the virus was completed, and tested as well as it could be in tissue culture experiments and on laboratory animals. Apart from establishing the fatality of SVD (created by test-tube simulations of human sins of the flesh), rats, mice and rabbits were of little value, because so much of the virus's behaviour was tied up in its interaction with the human genome. In cultured human cell lines, though, the clockwork all seemed to unwind, exactly as far, and never further, than appropriate to the circumstances; generation after generation of SVA, SVC and SVM remained stable and benign. Of course more experiments could have been done, more time put aside to ponder the consequences, but that would have been the case regardless. It was time to act. The latest drugs meant that AIDS was now rarely fatal - at least, not to those who could afford the treatment. The third millenium was fast approaching, a symbolic opportunity not to be ignored. Shawcross was doing God's work; what need did he have for quality control? True, he was an imperfect human instrument in God's hands, and at every stage of the task he had blundered and failed a dozen times before achieving perfection, but that was in the laboratory, where mistakes could be discovered and rectified easily. Surely God would never permit anything less than an infallible virus, His will made RNA, out into the world. So Shawcross visited a travel agent, then infected himself with SVA. Shawcross went west, crossing the Pacific at once, saving his own continent for last. He stuck to large population centres: Tokyo, Beijing, Seoul, Bangkok, Manilla, Sydney, New Delhi, Cairo. SVA could survive indefinitely, dormant but potentially infectious, on any surface that wasn't intentionally sterilised. The seats in a jet, the furniture in a hotel room, aren't autoclaved too often. Shawcross didn't visit prostitutes; it was SVA that he wanted to spread, and SVA was not a venereal disease. Instead, he simply played the tourist, sight-seeing, shopping, catching public transport, swimming in hotel pools. He relaxed at a frantic pace, adopting a schedule of remorseless recreation that, he soon felt, only divine intervention sustained. Not surprisingly, by the time he reached London he was a wreck, a suntanned zombie in a fading floral shirt, with eyes as glazed as the multicoated lens of his obligatory (if filmless) camera. Tiredness, jet lag, and endless changes of cuisine and surroundings (paradoxically made worse by an underlying, glutinous monotony to be found in food and cities alike), had all worked together to slowly drag him down into a muddy, dreamlike state of mind. He dreamt of airports and hotels and jets, and woke in the same places, unable to distinguish between memories and dreams. His faith held out through it all, of course, invulnerably axiomatic, but he worried nonetheless. High altitude jet travel meant extra exposure to cosmic rays; could he be certain that the virus's mechanisms for self checking and mutation repair were fail-safe? God would be watching over all the trillions of replications, but still, he would feel better when he was home again, and could test the strain he'd been carrying for any evidence of defects. Exhausted, he stayed in his hotel room for days, when he should have been out jostling Londoners, not to mention the crowds of international tourists making the best of the end of summer. News of his plague was only now beginning to grow beyond isolated items about mystery deaths; health authorities were investigating, but had had little time to assemble all the data, and were naturally reluctant to make premature announcements. It was too late, anyway; even if Shawcross had been found and quarantined at once, and all national frontiers sealed, people he had infected so far would already have taken SVA to every corner of the globe. He missed his flight to Dublin. He missed his flight to Ontario. He ate and slept, and dreamt of eating, sleeping and dreaming. The Times arrived each morning on his breakfast tray, each day devoting more and more space to proof of his success, but still lacking the special kind of headline he .
longed for: a black and white acknowledgement of the plague's divine purpose. Experts began declaring that all the signs pointed to a biological weapon run amok, with Libya and Iraq the prime suspects; sources in Israeli intelligence had confirmed that both countries had greatly expanded their research programs in recent years. If any epidemiologist had realised that only adulterers and homosexuals were dying, the idea had not yet filtered through to the press. Eventually, Shawcross checked out of the hotel. There was no need for him to travel through Canada, the States, or Central and South America; all the news showed that other travellers had long since done his job for him. He booked a flight home, but had nine hours to kill. "I will do no such thing! Now take your money and get out." "But -" "Straight sex, it says in the foyer. Can't you read?" "I don't want sex. I won't touch you. You don't understand. I want you to touch yourself. I only want to be tempted -" "Well, walk down the street with both eyes open, that should be temptation enough." The woman glared at him, but Shawcross didn't budge. There was an important principle at stake.
unfaithfulness, no rape; every marriage lasting until death -" She grimaced with distaste. "For all the wrong reasons." "No! It might start out that way. People are weak, they need a reason, a selfish reason, to be good. But given time it will grow to be more than that; a habit, then a tradition, then part of human nature. The virus won't matter any more. People will have changed." "Well, maybe; if monogamy is inheritable, I suppose natural selection would eventually -" Shawcross stared at her, wondering if he was losing his mind, then screamed, "Stop it! There is no such thing as 'natural selection'!" He'd never been lectured on Darwinism in any brothel back home, but then what could he expect in a country run by godless socialists? He calmed down slightly, and added, "I meant a change in the spiritual values of the world culture." The woman shrugged, unmoved by the outburst. "I know you don't give a damn what I think, but I'm going to tell you anyway.