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Pitfalls and Promises of Retroviral Engineering

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The files were unusually well protected, albeit only by University standards, but getting them had been the easy part. Slogging through the scientists' unpolished jargon was far more difficult. Fortunately, Sinder Roze was not only coder and confidence trickster extraordinaire, but also excellent at skimming. After struggling through mountains of text, she figured out what she had actually stolen: The blueprints for easily modifiable, completely synthetic viruses and techniques how they might be used.

In itself that was nothing special. Similar viruses had been around for absolutely ages. There had even been some primitive ones back on Earth. Like pretty much all its predecessors, this novelty would be another tool for genetic engineers.

But the scope of what it promised made it stand out. It could be buzzword Bioengineering all over again, but with a wider scope, a more precise delivery and even cheaper. Roze was no geneticist, so she didn't understand the details, but the implications could be vast. That much was obvious. As was that it was potentially very dangerous. Actually, given the personalities involved, scratch the potentially.

Roze grinned. She had mostly stopped snooping around the University's networks. While they were pretentious pissants who desperately needed an ego deflation, it was just too easy. They practically begged for their information to be freed and there was little glory in leaking stuff that would be officially released in a few days anyway. The University was a great place for newbie Angels to learn to fly, but pros ought to aim higher. Challenges were where fun was to be had. Stuff like hijacking the Hive and tweaking the Spartans' military algorithms. But info like this made checking back once in a while worth it. She couldn't let this languish in some stuffy journal to be ignored by the public until it was too late.

She didn't include all the files in the package she would forward to the other factions. They had far more resources than a lone hacker, so they ought to do some work themselves. Okay, technically, she was the leader of the Data Angels, but that was like herding lolcats. It was surely bad manners to take something without giving something back though. So she included the entire code for another kind of virus instead. She'd been wanting to test it anyway.

Roze paused to listen to a particularly favoured section of the Chromatic Fantasia. Was it right to send such information to the Hive or the Spartans? This was not the kind of toy power-drunk people ought to be given and those two were the worst of a very bad bunch. Whatever, it was more fun this way. They'd find it out anyway and her final gift might make up for that.

Nearly getting caught was exciting, but this time she had something else in mind. Lovely as life in the Rachel Carson Communal Housing project and Forest Primeval in general was, it made for a tragically boring tale. Roze would give the intelligence agencies' poor overworked drones something more interesting. Taking all possible steps to make her real location untraceable, she added a couple of intriguing hints suggesting that the real source was a seemingly trustworthy base governor of the receiving faction. They all deserved it, none more so than the Hive's. If the governor of Communal Nexus were made to pay for the brutal reprisals following the doomed uprising, then this would be worth it, no matter what else it set in motion.

Not wanting Zakharov to feel left out, she sent him a package as well, telling him what had happened and that her virus was better than his. Come to think of it, he (or one of his minions) might be just about intelligent enough to not need to be told. They would probably be noticing its effects on their computers. Then again, the University's academicians were nowhere near as smart as they pretended to be. A little reminder wouldn't go amiss.

The piece was nearly over, so Roze waited until the music finished. Then she leaned back and hit "send". The shitstorm this would stir up was bound to be highly amusing.

oOo

Miriam stood at the pulpit, overlooking her followers. Hundreds of the faithful were packed in the church, listening attentively. Thousands more were watching the service on holovid. She smiled. Others wished to destroy them, but her flock was strong. They had to prepare for the coming tribulations, but God would not abandon them.

The evening sermon was a little less well prepared than usual, but due to her amount of practice, she doubted that many would notice. Having read about Zakharov's latest immoral research in the morning's intelligence reports, she knew that she must address it as soon as possible. Condemning the University had become a bit of staple, but they kept giving her reasons.

The Plagues of Egypt had been a good starting point to get her followers rightly worried. She paused briefly to catch her breath before continuing, "Attempting to defy God will only lead to your downfall. But as obvious as this appears to be, not everyone in this fallen world understands..."

Of course, the Data Angels were anything but angelic, so perhaps they sent a message filled with lies to alarm her. The suggestion that Brother Eli might be involved with them was just that. Hopefully this was the case with the substance of the report too. The thought of her faithful followers being whittled away by some hellish disease or slaughtered by genetically enhanced super-soldiers made her shudder, even though they would meet again in heaven.

When she had shown the data to her most trusted scientist, Brother Westcott, he said that it was probably possible to create that kind of virus and felt that the research was authentic, but had no idea if this particular approach would work. He would gladly obey her reminder not to attempt to reproduce the result. If it didn't work it would be a waste of resources and if it did... This was meddling in God's work.

Whether or not the reports were true in this instance, this was entirely typical of Zakharov. Did he have no morals? Actually, she knew the answer to that question. It was her duty to protect her flock from that madman.

"Let me introduce one of the worst of them to you, although you have no doubt already heard about this man. This is Prokhor Zakharov." The screen behind her changed to show a picture of Zakharov, prompting angry muttering from the congregation.

She paused until these subsided before continuing, "Grace, mercy, faith... All of these are worthless and alien to him. He hopes to dissect the universe until he has found the answers he seeks. But he shall never find them, no matter how much he destroys in the search. For in his pride, he chooses to ignore the truth of God.

"Some among you are asking, 'Will the Lord not deal with the unbeliever as he sees fit?' Of course he will. Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall. Zakharov will find out how interested God is in his research when his time comes." Digital flames started licking at the bottom of Zakharov's image.

"Hopefully soon!" several people in the congregation cried out, which merited a round of applause.

Miriam agreed with the sentiment, but didn't expand on it. She had other points to make. Once the commotion quieted a little, she continued talking,"The question is: How many innocents should we allow Zakharov to drag down with him?" She waited to let this sink in. Her congregation was staring back at her, wide-eyed and worried. They deserved a better world, not one so beset with sin.

"The tyrant has a faction of fools blinded by their pride to help him in his quest. But God has a faction of the righteous on this planet."

"Now listen, my children. When the prudent see danger they take refuge, but the University tries to research it. They will pay the price, for God has shown the foolishness of those who trust in the wisdom of this world. We must pray for their souls, and hope that they too will come to see the light of the Lord before it is too late. But for now, it has been revealed to me that the their hellish labs have cooked up a new and terrible threat..."

oOo

Pravin Lal flipped through Miriam's latest proposal. Actually, it was a thinly veiled demand, but he wasn't going to sign it just because she had thousands of fanatical followers, although that was sufficient to give it priority status. It would have to stand on its own merits. At least it was more sensible than the last few. If God were not referenced almost every second paragraph he wouldn't have immediately known its source. Assuming he somehow missed her name and the Believers' insignia on the cover anyway.

That the University was researching retroviral engineering was news to Lal. Upon reviewing the recent reports, an aide did find the Data Angels' package. It even had "URGENT" in the file name, but everything claimed to be. As the Peacekeepers were fighting three weeks of backlog, there was no way that he'd have normally seen something that just arrived the previous morning, from an initially anonymous source. Opening that innocent looking file had caused the rest of the system to crash, upon which the source declared itself to be Sinder Roze. The technicians assured him that the system would be back and running soon enough, although Lal honestly wanted to tell them that there was no hurry. He had enough work as it was.

Genetic engineering absolutely wasn't his field, but he could see that the "devilish" research actually looked promising, despite being seemingly incomplete. That was possibly due to omissions in the report though. Lal's obligations to the Peacekeeping Forces meant he didn't have time to keep up with the medical literature, let alone see any patients, but he was still a doctor. And as one, the potential fascinated him. Researchers would be able to create treatments as fast as nature could conjure up new plagues. If it worked, and he saw no reason why it shouldn't, this discovery would be the crowning jewel of the bioengineering breakthroughs of the last decades. It would certainly be of the significance of CRISPR and might even be of the same magnitude as penicillin. Disease could be a thing of the past.

Lal briefly considered asking his scientists to try to reverse engineer this, but decided against it. The University was always willing to share their research. That was one of the things Lal liked about them.

But for all their talk of a technological utopia, everybody knew their society had, to put it politely, more disturbing aspects. Zakharov himself had been a military researcher and was well aware of "potential applications" or whatever doublespeak was currently popular. Biological warfare had been used to kill for centuries, but coupled with this discovery it would allow for horrors never before contemplated. Diseases created to resist all known treatments, with the symptoms limited only by the imagination and cruelty of their designers. Would he unleash the mother of all plagues on the Lord's Believers or some other group that annoyed him? Perhaps something tailored specifically to infect those protesting his regime? Lal didn't know. But with that sort of technology in their hands, even if the University didn't use it, another faction was sure to. If there was one thing Lal had learned since planetfall, it was that even when he feared the worst, he failed to imagine the depths the others would cheerfully sink to.

Miriam was right to demand a group of independent genetic inspectors, although insisting that they all adhered to Conclave Christianity was against the U.N. Charter. The University's many experiments could do with more outside oversight anyway. Lal wished he could enforce that, but feared trying to do so would cause Zakharov to ignore him completely. Still, trying to regulate one particular project, while being backed by most other factions, was a start. With luck it would lead to more comprehensive action. Lal guessed that was what Miriam was hoping too, otherwise she probably would have demanded a downright ban, if not the Peacekeepers' support in a crusade against them.

He toyed with the idea of leading the endeavour himself. His medical training could qualify him as chief inspector and it would add a certain weight to the endeavour. Then he realised that his main motivation was that it would be a good reason to leave the sea of paperwork for a short time. The notion was not only selfish, but dangerous as well. "Accidents" happened, particularly when other factions would benefit from his demise. While one of democracy's many strengths was that they could continue without his guidance, it would still be a major blow to the Peacekeeping Forces if anything happened to him. He should offer the assignment to Sarita instead. She could benefit from gaining some experience in dealing with obstinate factions directly.

Progress could not be stopped, but it could be directed. In his capacity as the Planetary Governor, Pravin Lal signed and passed an amended form of Miriam's proposal. Perhaps this would appease her a little, but he doubted it.

oOo

The Vavilov Biology Centre at University Base was one of the first labs built after planetfall which was evident in its comparatively small size. Nonetheless it was fitted with the latest equipment and had garnered a reputation as being one of Zakharov's private labs, despite that not being particularly true. The emergency meeting was being held there, although Fedor Petrov would have preferred it to take place in a more sensible location, like a conference hall. Unfortunately, "sensible" just wasn't the Provost's style. Why be sensible when you could all cram into a tiny lab? You'd miss out on the biohazard décor!

It had not been easy, but Petrov succeeded in dragging Zakharov away from the lab bench to attend. Zakharov had snatched a test tube before coming along. It was not actually being used in any experiment. Zakharov wasn't even part of the retroviral research team, although perhaps he'd decided that biology was a soft science and therefore could be effortlessly improved by the mere presence of a physicist, particularly one as brilliant as himself. Petrov supposed he was used to that sort of passive-aggressive behaviour.

About twenty scientists, all of whom had taken part in the retroviral research, although in Zakharov's case that meant excitedly assigning funds and personnel, were standing around in the centre of the lab. Petrov would have preferred it if there were fewer. Their presence was a waste of time and resources, as only Zakharov and perhaps Karanth were likely to say anything at all. They too were surplus to requirements really. Petrov already knew perfectly well what the best course of action was, he just needed their cooperation. He briefed them on the situation.

"It's none of their business. We don't interfere more than absolutely necessary with their irrational societies, so they have no right to prevent us from performing research without ideological meddling," Karanth said once he'd finished.

Petrov could hardly be bothered replying to that. It was political rhetoric to reassure the other scientists that they were indeed in the right. Come to think of it, she was probably hoping to get permission to deal with the situation. Unless he intervened, Zakharov would almost certainly give his protégée the chance. Petrov shook his head. He was much better qualified to deal with this. He had a degree in sociology, specialising in public perception and crisis management, while she was just a biologist. "It doesn't matter if they have a right to do this. They don't, but they will anyway unless we stop them. There is only one feasible response-"

Zakharov interrupted him. "Exactly. We have to make it clear that we are researching retroviral engineering, demand that they cite our work if they use it and focus our efforts on finishing this. We will publish first." The other scientists murmured in agreement. A few even clapped.

Petrov thought that, given their security record, if Zakharov wanted everyone to know, he need only put it in the top-secret files. He did his best to sound calm, "I'm afraid that approach is unworkable. What we have to do is deny everything. The Data Angels spread a fabricated story to cause trouble and the Believers were gullible enough to believe it. Miriam Godwinson, in her fanatical crusade against reason, has forced Lal's hand. This is really a plot to spy on us. We have nothing to hide, but we have a right to privacy!"

Zakharov was staring morosely at his test tube. Petrov hoped that the chance to present the Believers in as bad a light as possible would tempt him, but was disappointed. "But we have been working on this and they have at least some of our research. They will be able to reverse engineer it. If we don't announce our discovery, our contributions will be forgotten. It's happened to plenty of scientists. Darwin withheld his work so long that he nearly missed his chance. Who is more famous, Crick or Franklin? Ever heard of Marthe Gautier? Of course not."

The first example was practically irrefutable, but not particularly relevant to the topic at hand, the second used to be true, but wasn't any more, and the last was easy to counter. "Marthe Gautier was a French medical doctor and researcher, best known for her role in discovering the link of diseases to chromosome abnormalities." Petrov had not actually heard of Gautier before and he would wager that Zakharov had only known about her for the past minute. The datalinks combined with neural implants offered something akin to human omniscience. "Anyway, as a sociologist, I must point out that two of your three examples were at least partly rooted in the sexism of old Earth academia. These conditions don't apply here in the University. We don't have to worry about scientific glory, we have it by the crawler-load."

Zakharov shrugged. "It was a mistake to be secretive in the first place. We should have been open about our project from the start. That way, scientists from other factions doing similar research could have shared their results with us."

Petrov gritted his teeth. That level of naivety ought to be criminal. "Scientists from other factions know better than to give away their research."

"And which faction is renowned for its scientific achievements? Anyway, if their research was the quality of your last paper, I'd understand why they'd rather hide their work. Would you like to take a sabbatical to write something better?"

Ignoring the unsubtle hint, Petrov tried to get back on topic. "Why can't you be realistic?" Appealing to common sense was a last ditch effort.

"We are being realistic. Denial will just make it worse, as they'll find out eventually," Karanth said.

"Precisely. We have to make it clear that there is nothing wrong with our research. Science is free of values." Zakharov turned around and walked back to the lab bench to return the test tube.

With that, Petrov knew the discussion was over. He gave a cinematic sigh. "If you say so. I'll let you go back to your research and write the press report." It didn't really matter that he had failed to convince Zakharov. Karanth had a point, but she just didn't realise how politics worked. It would be easy enough to act behind his colleagues' backs while their faces were pressed against their precious microscopes.

oOo

While walking down the corridors of University Base, Zakharov heard Petrov deliver a tirade about how the labs were off-limits, they were being subjected to witch-hunts, and that they didn't have any retroviral capability anyway. The halls always had carried voices a bit better than intended. While the indignation was impressive, by the sound of it, Nataliya's suspicion that Petrov was not going to follow their plan was correct. But what did you expect? He was just a sociologist who somehow succeeded in getting appointed Vice Provost for University Affairs and had been a tenured annoyance ever since. With a sigh, Zakharov started walking towards the commotion.

"Phrased like that, the entire University would be off-limits. That simply isn't possible. We want to inspect the labs, that isn't the same as going through his underwear or reading his diary." That struck Zakharov as quite a poor comparison, as his diary was publicly available on the datalinks anyway.

A different voice added, "Besides, what 'faction privileges' are you talking about? We are bound by the U.N. Charter, which stipulates that we share our research, particularly when it is in such a delicate area."

"Now that's simply preposterous. Do you demand that the Spartans as much as lay open their weapon development programmes or ask the Hive to even justify their social experiments?" Now that was a good question. Why was the Council always harassing the University? They were much more peaceful than those two and actually willing to explain what they were doing. The answer was probably that the University couldn't simply point to their military and tell the botherers to go away.

"There is no need to justify the actions of the enlightened Chairman." The Hive's brainwashed citizens could be almost as dumb as the Believers. Still, with the Believer threat, having a Pact of Brotherhood with Yang was useful.

There was a pause before someone answered more intelligently. "It may be true that we demand more openness from the University, but I would like to think of yours as a civilised faction. This is a legitimate inquiry, not a witch-hunt. I can see the promise of this research, but it is simply too dangerous to go completely unsupervised." Zakharov would have pointed out that it wasn't unsupervised at all. If there weren't scientists there making records, the endeavour would be pretty pointless.

"I'm pleased that you can see the potential, unfortunately we aren't researching retroviral engineering!" There was a brief pause before Petrov continued speaking,"This discussion is over. Please leave now or I will be forced to call University Enforcement."

"In that case, we will return tomorrow and hope that you have seen sense by then. If you haven't we will be forced to impose sanctions on the University." Well, they wouldn't have to wait that long. Zakharov didn't particularly want a drawn-out argument with the Planetary Council just because a sociologist thought that was the best approach. He was already quite close, but there was still a small crowd of people watching their argument separating them. Zakharov quickly went through his appointments to see if there was anything he absolutely had to attend in the next hour and a half. Fortunately, the upcoming security committee meeting was going to be deathly dull, so he wouldn't regret missing it. Hopefully they wouldn't wait for him to start. He messaged them not to.

"Sanctions, because we won't let you into a biohazard area to inspect research that we aren't even performing? Are you out of your collective minds?"

"Is there a problem?" Zakharov asked, pushing his way through the group of onlookers. Petrov and the five inspectors turned to look at him. He smiled at the crowd.

The inspector who bore the Gaian insignia next to the Planetary Council's answered first, "We are the Interfactional Genetic Inspectors and would like access to your laboratories. We hope you are more reasonable than your deputy."

While Petrov's direct insubordination annoyed him, Zakharov decided that he ought to defend him in front of those ignoramuses. "I can assure you that Petrov is the very voice of reason. However, I suppose you're interested in our research on retroviral engineering? Our initial results are truly fascinating!"

The Believers' inspector raised an eyebrow. "So you are researching it. Your deputy spent the last half hour passionately insisting that you weren't."

Zakharov looked at her. "I'm sure it's very easy to keep track of all the Believers' research. However, we are actually running quite a lot of programmes, so it's difficult to stay up to date. In fact, I feel that my colleague deserves a holiday." He hoped Petrov took the hint.

"In that case, may I recommend visiting Morgan Bank Casino? It's an experience that should not be missed!" The Morganite inspector pulled a leaflet out of her jacket and pushed it towards Petrov, who reluctantly took it. Clearly this was something she didn't only have a stake but also stock in. The Peacekeeper gave her a dirty look.

"But enough of this, I'll show you the laboratory. Follow me." While walking from the administrative sector to the biology labs, Zakharov continued talking. "We aren't pleased at the leak. Our research is still far from complete and there are still several points that need further testing. I understand your excitement at our results, but I'd have appreciated it if you had waited for us to publish."

"But I'm sure that you understand our concerns," the Peacekeeper quickly said.

"Not really, to be honest." Zakharov waved his hand dismissively. "It's pure research, although I'm certain that the applications will prove beneficial to society."

"You mean the devil's work," the Believer said. Zakharov shrugged. They weren't worth arguing with.

About halfway to the Vavilov Biology Centre, Petrov realised that he was expected to remember an urgent appointment elsewhere and scuttled off. The rest of them arrived just under three minutes later.

Zakharov turned to the inspectors. "Put on protective clothing first." It was more to protect the specimens from them than vice versa, but they needn't know that. Otherwise the Believer would probably put hers on wrong deliberately, rather than merely due to general incompetence. Zakharov pulled a suit for each of them out of the locker next to the entrance. Being practised, he was dressed up long before the others and relaxed to watch them struggle, occasionally correcting the inevitable mistakes.

When they were nearly finished, the Peacekeeper was already affixing her Very-Official-Person badge to the outside of her suit, Zakharov said, "I'd like to ask a question. This is supposed to be an interfactional team, so why don't we have a representative? As far as I can see, every other faction, except the Spartans, has one." Santiago was bound to be annoyed, but that was the Peacekeepers' problem and the Peacekeepers had the advantage of not sharing a continent with the Spartans. They were stuck on one with the Hive though, so they clearly hadn't dared snub Yang.

"Neither you nor the Spartan Federation have submitted the forms. We will definitely consider your request, but you have to allow for up to six weeks processing time."

But they had enough time to inspect the University? And the other requests had travelled back in time so that they could be approved? A likely story. It was unfair, but he doubted that pressing the point would help. They might agree and then tell him that the research had to be put on ice until they had approved of the University's candidate. At least he wouldn't have to try and find some brilliant military applications to sway the Spartan, while trying to convince the Peacekeeper that there were none. When they had finally all put on the gear, Zakharov opened the door. A couple of researchers looked up from whatever they were doing when they walked in.

"The very den of sin." Zakharov wondered how anyone could say that without being sarcastic, but the Believer continued, "I'm looking forward to shutting this down."

The Peacekeeper shook her head and turned around. "We aren't actually going to close any laboratories. Our inspection concerns itself solely with the recent research in the field of retroviral engineering and we are not necessarily forbidding it. Only if we find that this is unethical."

Zakharov blinked. Aside from the fact that "unethical" could mean absolutely anything, did they honestly think they could stop scientific progress with a veto? He'd ignore it. While this would mean accepting the trade embargo, the Hive, the Spartans and the Morganites disregarded those when it suited them and the only things he traded with the Believers were insults. It was only the sea and the Hive that kept their vendetta theoretical. Even if everyone accepted it, when it came down to the basics, the University was mostly self-sufficient. Zakharov felt they could wait out a decade or so for retroviral engineering to become too commonplace to worry anyone. In fact, sanctions would probably hurt the Peacekeepers more than him, but that wouldn't stop Lal from imposing them.

Still, if he could avoid sanctions, so much the better. Research was anything but cheap.

He needed some time to think this through. He should probably have done that earlier, but recent experiments had shown that Einstein's theories, although a very good model, needed adjustments and the group at Sakharov Lab had come up with a convincing solution. Now they just had to build a supercollider to test their theory. Preferably one without leaky fibre-optic cables. That sort of thing was simply more interesting than dealing with dense diplomats. Well, he could stall for time and improve their education in one. "Academician Nataliya Karanth, could you explain the basics of our project to our guests?"

Nataliya nodded and walked over to the genetic inspectors. It was for the best to have her explain, she had actually worked on the project. Jokes about everything being applied physics aside, Zakharov knew that he was really just an enthusiast. He'd like to be at the cutting edge of everything, but there were only eighteen hours in a day.

Regrets aside, he needed a plan now. The Hive inspector and the Believer would have been told how to vote and no amount of persuasion would change that. One for and one against no doubt. Similarly, someone would have bought the Morganite's decision and there was no way he could outbid them while being watched. Besides, some Morganites had ridiculous amounts of money. This left the Peacekeeper and the Gaian to convince. He could do that. Those were the factions he felt most affinity with anyway, even if they had lots of idiotic idiosyncrasies. Learning the names of those two inspectors would probably be a good start.

When Nataliya paused, Zakharov asked the Believer if she'd understood a word so far. Admittedly not diplomatic, but he couldn't help himself. The glare he got was really worth a picture. Perhaps he'd go through the University's security footage and find one to give her; although it occurred to him that there were better ways to spend his time.

He'd have gloated a little, but the Gaian, whose name tag read Ash Sewick, interrupted him, "We've got the gist, but it strikes me as dangerously irresponsible."

"Knowledge means accepting risks. If we'd never undertaken anything, Earth would still be intact, but we wouldn't even have reached the Stone Age."

"Equating all innovation with your particular discovery is a fallacy and you know it," the Peacekeeper, Sarita Nayak, said, "Why should we accept the dangers this particular one brings? And don't even bother trying to tell us that there aren't any applications."

Zakharov smiled at her. The Peacekeepers were all about humanitarianism, so that was probably a good approach to take. "Of course there are applications. Just think of the possibilities it will bring for medicine."

"We have," Sewick said. "It's a bit of an improvement on common bioengineering, with the main 'improvement' being how easy it would be to weaponize."

Hearing that at least one of them had actually thought about anything was quite good, although it meant that he couldn't waste some time waffling about those benefits. Zakharov also wanted to avoid talking about the military applications. "We could go further than merely curing diseases. We could improve humanity-"

Nayak interrupted him. "We've seen what happens when people try to 'improve' humans."

Zakharov paused for a moment. "Not like this though. For example, we could engineer people to be able to breath in Chiron's natural atmosphere as easily as in our artificial one." If he could pick one modification for himself, that would be it.

"That sounds really great," Nayak said, "Now we can impose a caste based society even more easily. Why not have separate rooms for the genetically enhanced and for those too poor to afford it? No breathing if you're the wrong sort! And don't say that there is no danger of that as the University is a classless society."

"Actually, I'm pretty sure we could make ourselves capable of breathing both. Barring that, you could still use a breathing mask. Either way, the University has never claimed to be a classless society. We offer many different courses."

Sewick and the Morganite laughed, as did a fair number of the scientists. The Believer glowered and the Hive inspector didn't seem to understand the joke. Nayak shook her head. "The material differences between the social strata in the University may be comparatively negligible, Provost Zakharov, but you are deluding yourself if you believe that everyone is equal in your society."

"Should I tell the pure mathematicians to stop oppressing the sociologists then?"

"You're not being witty. Even if you were, this isn't funny. However, we are not here to discuss this with you. The applications might not increase discrimination within the University of Planet, but what about Morgan Industries? Should the rich be able to buy themselves good genes on top of everything else, leaving the poor even further behind?"

"Why not?" the Morganite asked.

Zakharov didn't really see why he was supposed to be personally responsible for what the Morganites or any other faction did with the University's research. Besides, how much would it really change? "They can already get genetic enhancements for their children and cybernetic ones for themselves." Still, as predictable as the Morganite's answer was, it suggested that she had been paid to vote for his research. Or maybe she just felt compelled to defend their ideology.

Sewick scowled. "True, but that's wrong too. People should be equal."

Zakharov was about to mention that people could win or lose in the genetic lottery even without genetic engineering, but Nayak spoke first. "And aside from using it to oppress their own citizens, how can we know that no one will use it to wage war?"

They couldn't. Zakharov definitely understood the temptation to unleash a deadly virus on another faction, namely the Lord's Believers, but he realised that it was probably too risky. It wouldn't win him many friends on the Planetary Council either, even although they agreed that they were annoying as hell. "Some people might use it as a weapon, but this would also give us the tools to protect ourselves. Having already opened Pandora's box, should we try to force it shut again and never allow Hope to emerge?" It was probably best to move on to the next topic. "But forget about the social implications for a moment. Think about how it could advance our knowledge of Planet!"

Sewick stroked his chin. "I'm trying, but I can't really imagine a way."

In that case, he wasn't very imaginative, but Zakharov managed not to point that out. "Academician Karanth, could you explain?" Again, he didn't want to risk mangling it.

Nataliya was quick to respond. "We've already sequenced the genome of many native species, but this new technique, combined with the vast computing power we've acquired, should speed up the process exponentially! We should be able to decipher their underlying structure, finally giving us a complete understanding of the underlying structure of Centauri genetics. In turn, this will greatly help us in understanding when we can expect fungal blooms and what we can do to prevent them."

"That actually sounds quite intriguing," Nayak said. Any interest was a good sign.

"I probably shouldn't tell them about our hopes for using this to further our plans for biomachinery," Nataliya messaged Zakharov over the neural interface.

"No, not this crowd." A pity that they couldn't understand how cool it would be, but the Peacekeepers in particular were a bit uneasy about the MMI already.

Nataliya continued, "Further, by understanding the native organisms, we could learn how to adapt Earth's plants so that they thrive. We have tried this before, but our methods were crude and haphazard. We could greatly increase our agricultural capacity, without requiring more land, fertiliser or water."

That all sounded like an oversimplification, but Zakharov realised Nataliya knew that the audience probably couldn't cope with a more detailed explanation. They could look it up once the data was published, if they actually cared. They probably didn't.

Zakharov grinned at his audience, hoping to hear some encouragement for Nataliya, but was disappointed.

"I'm sick of this godless place." The Believer looked over her shoulder. "Shall we hold the vote now?"

"Unless Provost Zakharov has any new points to make, we can," Nayak said.

Zakharov realised that the discussion was nearing an end. There was indeed a lot more to say, but the others were tiring. If he stopped now, he could have the last word. In a debate that was often all that mattered. Now he just needed a good conclusion. "Only this. Those who have tried to suppress the truth and halt progress have always been proven foolish by history. People might use knowledge to do terrible things, but knowledge itself isn't evil. Science describes how things are, not how they should be. No amount of wishful thinking is going to change that. That might sound bleak, but it isn't. It is our desire to find out how the universe truly works and our ability to use that knowledge to improve the world that makes us human."

"A hundred platitudes can't disguise the truth either," the Believer muttered.

"How true," Zakharov said.

Nayak stepped in before they could argue. "Thank you for taking your time."

Once they left the laboratory, Nayak turned to the other inspectors. "Okay, then. You will use the supplied software to cast your vote and I will announce the result. The vote is confidential and about whether or not the University of Planet's research on retroviral engineering can proceed at the current time, or if humanity is not ready for it yet." She glanced at Zakharov. "Even if we vote that you are allowed to continue in general, we will still set up ethical standards for this. Has everyone understood?" She pulled out her datapad. The others did the same.

"There's no need for the vote to be secret. This is obviously against God's will," the Believer said, causing Nayak to start berating her on the principles of democracy.

In other circumstances, Zakharov would have found listening to that a lot more satisfying, although a vote with only five people involved could never be truly confidential anyway. He called up some administrative work on his neural interface while he waited for the result, but found himself too nervous to concentrate. Why hadn't he insisted that the University got an inspector?

After what seemed like forever, but was really only two minutes and thirty seconds, Nayak announced the result. "Two against, three in favour. You can continue your research."

The Believers were definitely against it, but who had supplied the second nay? Some rich Morganite hoping to protect their Bioengineering business probably. Not that it mattered.

He smiled. "Thank you for your enlightened attitude." It probably sounded a little more sarcastic than he had wanted it to, but then again, he didn't feel that this was something he needed to thank them for. Still, it sounded a lot more polite than, "Thank you for only wasting a bit of my time."

"Have human trials begun yet?" Sewick asked.

"Yes, we're strapping unwilling subjects to operating tables and injecting various strains of the virus." Seeing that nobody except his own researchers was getting the joke, Zakharov continued, "That means no. Tissue tests and computer models have delivered promising preliminary results, but we aren't actually anywhere near real humans yet."

"That's good. The Peacekeeping Forces demand that every human experiment and every human subject are vetted by an impartial ethics committee."

Zakharov frowned. Impartial meant interfactional and ethics committees were always stuffed with religious know-nothings and served no purpose other than slowing him down. He'd suffer them as long as they didn't interfere.

Nayak continued, "Further, we will include a measure in the U.N. Charter that will classify genetic warfare as an atrocity equal to the use of biological warfare. Please tell that to your superiors." That was a touch silly. Using modified viruses already was biological warfare. No wonder the Peacekeepers weren't on top of their bureaucracy.

The inspectors nodded. "I shall report that to the Glorious Chairman," the Hive inspector said. Zakharov had almost forgotten about him. He realised that this was the first time the man had said anything since he had interrupted Petrov. Well, if you drilled your followers only to speak when spoken to, you couldn't be surprised if they didn't get a word in edgeways. Then again, Yang was almost certainly supporting him, so he didn't feel too annoyed.

Nayak sighed. "And, Provost Zakharov? I have a message from Commissioner Lal for you."

She handed him her datapad. The message was short, but pompous. "So far we have been very tolerant of your research. If you want this to continue, I'm expecting you to help me ratify the treaty." Lal's signature was scrawled underneath.

Zakharov shrugged and gave it back. "I will." Fine with him, as long as he didn't have to spend too much time on it. All he wanted was to be left to his research.

oOo

Zakharov was glad when the inspectors left. They had been let in only because it seemed the path of least resistance. He was happy to share their work, but he hated having to justify himself. Wasn't an increase in knowledge reason enough? Had they been genuinely interested in retroviral engineering it would have been different, but they just wanted to interfere. He gave a short, humourless laugh. As if progress could be stopped.

At least the inspection had given him an excuse to miss that meeting, which apparently had been every bit as dull as anticipated.

They had left a couple of hours ago and he had since retreated to his office. He preferred being in a lab, but administration had to be dealt with, even though he was pretty good at delegating. Zakharov poured himself another cup of hot water and added a couple of caffeine pills. With so much to do, sleep was rather low on his list of priorities.

Zakharov was reading the daily report from Mir Lab, where everything was going smoothly for a change, when Nataliya walked into the room. "Good evening, Provost Zakharov."

She could drop that formality, considering that she'd been one of his closest friends for roughly half a century, but by now he rather expected that she would still call him that if he were to resign. Not that there was any danger of that. He smiled. "Same to you, Academician Karanth. I suppose you're not just here for a chat and some coffee?"

"Sadly not. I've debriefed the researchers working on the retroviral project." She shifted her weight. "There's a problem."

Zakharov wished people would stop using such imprecise language. A problem could mean a lot of things. Had the vote been retroactively overturned? Had the Believer planted a bomb in the laboratory? Had the virus escaped and mutated into a killer pandemic that was now running rampant at University Base? The last one was so unlikely that it was quite an amusing thought.

Of course, being one of the University's brightest talents, she elaborated before he asked her to. "Some of our materials are missing. While we have yet to eliminate the possibility that we simply misplaced them, I consider it unlikely."

"But why steal from us? Didn't the Data Angels already give them all the information they need?" At least that's what the note they sent him said. Their virus had gummed up his systems for several infuriating hours, but at least there didn't seem to be any lasting damage. He'd sent Academician Gurnah a message saying that, if she was behind this, he admired her computing skills, but felt the effects lasted too long to be funny. "What's actually missing?"

"Either they didn't or they were simply hoping to sabotage our efforts. It's also very possible that they were trying to do both." Nataliya shrugged. "Anyway, Professor Dmitri Tamas' datapad is gone and all the necessary data is on it. Worse, they've also taken a couple of our strains."

"How will that affect us?" Surely that was not enough to cause a long setback, but one could never know.

"Not too badly. We've got replacements for most of the strains and can reconstruct the rest quite easily. Unfortunately, whoever has stolen them should now be able to completely reverse-engineer our achievements."

Zakharov could guess who'd taken it. As they were too stupid to do their own research, why not steal the University's? Pretending to be completely against it was just a cover. Had they simply asked for the data, they could no longer pretend to be self-righteous crusaders against it. Although it would be a miracle if they understood it, even if the University had prepared it specially for them, writing the instructions in nice big comic sans letters. But they believed in miracles, didn't they? "Damn Godwinson!"

oOo

Sitting alone in his study, Yang read through the report. His plan had worked almost perfectly. Not that this was surprising, given that he was behind it. Stealing from the University of Planet was no great accomplishment.

His scientists were already evaluating the data and Shimoda had assured him that the first experiments on humans could start in a week, two at most.

Yang smiled. He had long dreamed of altering the very core of humanity. A functioning society needed to be founded on the principles of security and control. Unfortunately, people kept getting dissatisfied with their lot and tried to rebel against their rightful masters. Putting them back in their place devoured far too many resources. It would be much easier if people were manufactured to fit the role they were given, if dissenters could be repaired. Now Yang finally had the tools to do so economically.

The Data Angels had given him a wonderful gift by pointing the development out, although they would be horrified if they realised what they had done. Not that this would incline him to have any mercy if his security forces captured any of them. Their anarchic ideals were even more dangerous than the Peacekeepers' whimpering as they were so talented at communicating them. Besides, their viruses had inflicted serious damage.

He didn't actually think that Kanya was associated with them and the idea that she might be the real Sinder Roze, if such a person actually existed, verged on the ridiculous. She had certainly seemed clueless during the interrogation. Yang had ordered her nerve-stapled anyway. The loss of a talent was unfortunate, but she was not irreplaceable and the possibility of a base governor gone rogue was just too dangerous to allow. Besides, she had hesitated too long during the recent drone riots, squeamish in the face of what needed to be done. Chao could handle the oversight of Communal Nexus to a similar standard. The fate of his predecessor would hopefully remind him of the price of disloyalty.

Yang had known for decades that it could only be a matter of time until the University found a way to achieve his dreams. While their obsession with ferreting out the secrets of the physical universe prevented them from achieving true enlightenment, they were admittedly much better scientists than his followers. Maybe, when he succeeded in uniting Planet under his rule, he'd allow Zakharov to keep his little faction, albeit under close supervision and with the provision that all their research would be given straight to him. His rioting drones would serve as an excellent example of what happened to those who rebelled against their masters. But maybe rebellion would be literally unthinkable by then.

The slight glitch in his plan was annoying, as he valued perfection, although it had been beyond his control. Had the inspectors voted against Zakharov, it would have stalled his research and further estranged the University from the Peacekeepers, pushing them closer to the Hive. That this had not happened was just another example of the dangers of democracy.

Maybe that would still come to pass. Zakharov might bitterly resent the struggle to find volunteers and the wait for the committee to vet them. They weren't going to approve of many of his typical solutions, such as offering criminals reduced sentences in exchange for participating in trials. Yang would never allow the Peacekeepers to impose such bureaucracy on him. Every citizen of the Hive could be sacrificed for the goals of the group.

Of course, he could simply have demanded that the University hand over the data, as part their Pact of Brotherhood, in exchange for his continued goodwill. Not that he really needed to cite a reason, they always shared their research with everyone anyway. If Zakharov had sudden doubts, Yang could be very persuasive. Not that Zakharov would have had any, aside from disliking being ordered about, as his idea of morality was a cost/benefit analysis, if he bothered thinking about it at all. And everyone knew that trying to resist the Human Hive was a foolish endeavour.

The problem with that approach was that the other factions would hear about it. They would pressure Zakharov to delay handing over the information and, at the very least, demand that they be given it at the same time. As it was, the Hive had a definite edge.

Such technology needed to be in the right hands. His hands. His plans would benefit humanity, although people were not yet enlightened enough to understand.

 

THE END