I started work the next day. It wasn't particularly difficult work mind you but I was being entrusted with the wellbeing of future people of Vesta. So I was started off with detecting mutations in previously tested samples. On one occasion I found one deletion in the 13th chromosome that my instructor hadn't found, he claimed that I had made a mistake and started to go over the sequence again, only to notice one of the codons was missing an adenosine. He changed my assessment and mumbled something about how it must have happened after his own analysis. Regardless I found myself making almost as much as my share of a decent haul of ore back before we moved to Vesta and I was forced to leave the ship. And they made good on their promise to arrange for my Protection rates to be lowered, I still paid more than I had my first couple weeks in the asteroid but it was now affordable. Unfortunately there was only a couple hundred qcoins left after expenses to help my friends pay their fees, I sincerely hoped that they found some more valuable minerals like the mascon we had found just before the incident.
My job wasn't simply to detect mutations, it was also to determine whether a mutation was worth fixing. Many mutations, a few extra letters in an intron here, an alu element deleted there, were harmless and would have no effect on the parahuman being printed out. If there was something that actually changed the phenotype though, such as hemophilia, we then had to decide whether it would be more cost-effective to try and correct the defect with gene therapy, or throw out that batch and grow another one. Both would add significantly to the customer's final bill for the clone, the relative expense of either option depending largely on what stage the mutation was caught at. Preferably the mutations were to be caught early on, before too many nutrients had been expended growing defective cells. We had a database of several common genetic diseases, but sometimes we came across a deviation that we lacked a prior record for, in those cases we had a simulator.
The simulator had access to several times the total combined processing power of every computer that existed on the planet earth during the first couple decades of the 21st century. Now of course every major university on earth had a far more powerful machine than ours but it was still greater than most parahumans' entire guild or corporation's combined computing strength. And our simulator used every microsecond of its immense CPU cycles predicting the results of the completely unheard of mutations we fed into it. The results we got out of it were often astonishingly bizarre, one time it predicted that the fur of any parahuman fabricated with the mutation in question would grow in fluorescent green, another time it predicted that the cells would undergo apoptosis in 300-600 generations, we kept a sample from that one to confirm and indeed the cells did liquefy after 413 divisions. Then one day, about two months after I had started working full time in the lab and discarded my miners guild membership entirely, I came across a deletion in the promoter region of a certain gene that changed everything.
PROMOTER TO MOR10X-6 ENCODING GENE DISABLED, the readout from the simulator declared. PROTEIN MOR10X-6 EXPRESSION MINIMAL TO NON-EXISTANT, POSSIBLE RESUMPTION OF MEIOTIC DIVISION.
Meiosis? As in the form of cellular division whereby cells divide into cells with half the minimum number of chromosomes in preparation for fusion with another cell that lacks a full complement of chromosomes. I opened the genetic database and attempted to look up MOR10X-6. What I got was a message stating CLEARANCE REQUIRED, PLEASE INPUT REGISTRATION NUMBER AND PASSWORD.
Confused I showed it to Maximus. He took one look at it and shrugged. "A lot of our equipment and data comes from loot seized from the biogenesis corporations in the revolution. Occasionally you come across something that they tried to lock up, keep hidden from us peons and slaves." He then did something completely in violation of safety regulations, he opened his containment suit and started fishing around for something. "Some hackers cracked the codes a while ago and sold them to the SPPS, I've got them written down here somewhere." He explained, pulling out a folded square of flexible plastic. There were apparently a set of numbers and passwords printed on the inside fold of the plastic, as he entered three different sets of codes into the tablet before access was granted to the restricted files. When it opened he held the tablet up to his face, obscuring it from my view. As he read his expression changed from confusion, to surprise, then something I couldn't quite identify. He passed me the tablet.
I read the proffered entry. It was just as I suspected, MOR10X-6 was an artificial gene constructed by an agronomics corporation in the first quarter of the 21st century to protect genetic copyrights. It produced a protein that interfered in the process of meiotic division, making it all but impossible to proceed but allowing the gonads to otherwise function normally, apparently creating a healthy but infertile genetically modified organism that would not go around pirating their intellectual property all willy-nilly. In other words, it was the gene that made us reliant on cloning.
"This, is serious." Was all I could think to say at that time. It was certainly true, if a bit of an understatement, perhaps the biggest one of the century.
"I need to show this to my dad." Max grabbed the tablet back from me and held it tightly to his chest as he ran off to alert his progenitor. Expressing an exasperated sigh I picked out another tablet and returned to my work.
Approximately an hour and a half later I was called up to Jakob Griggs' office. I handed my current project off to a co-worker and walked out towards the elevator. The elevator car had seven buttons inside, one for each of the floors, one for a sublevel basement cut into the cavern floor, and another that was accessible only by biometric scan or remote operation. Before I could look up which floor the head of the Society's office was on the elevator started moving upwards. It went up, past the fifth floor to something marked with a "J" on the electronic readout. As I stood dumbfounded the door opened onto a wide open space overlooking the city below. It appeared that Jakob Griggs worked on the roof of the building.
In the middle of the expanse there stood a large table covered with food items that I had only seen in images and video before. Stuffed turkeys, carved t-bone steaks, lobster, ham with the bone still inside. How much had that whole thing cost. On a chair at the far side of the table sat a savannah cat, like Maximus, wearing a black robe embroidered with crystals forming the shapes of DNA helixes. He raised his head to glance at me as I slowly, nervously came forward.
"Ahh, Argentum. Good to finally meet you." He spoke to me in the same voice as my supervisor. "Please, get yourself into something more comfortable and join me for lunch." He gestured to my right and I followed his hand with my eyes.
I saw a coat rack with a white robe in the same patterns as the one Caleb Burns had been wearing when we first met, though fitted and sized more for a biped of my height and weight. I looked down at my own bulky and uncomfortable containment suit. "Oh, I guess this would be a bit awkward to eat in." But then I noticed a lack of enclosed spaces to change in.
Jakob saw me looking around puzzled and chortled loudly. "Don't worry." He made a show of covering his eyes with the sleeve of his own robe. "I won't look."
I supposed I could see where Maximus got his humor from. I unzipped myself from my hazmat suit as quickly as possible and threw the robe on, hopefully he wouldn't mind my getting sweat all over it. It was surprisingly comfortable, like it was made from soft plant fibers instead of the bacterial plastics we made most of our clothes from in the belt. It must have been made from materials imported from earth, like the feast before me.
I stepped awkwardly towards the chair on the opposite end of the table, presumably where I was meant to sit. At the sound of the chair legs scraping along the floor Mr. Griggs put his arm back down and saw me cautiously sitting down. "I take it you've never had real meat before Mx. Argentum?" He inquired, to which my only answer was a short nod. "Not surprising, it is quite expensive to import anything from earth or Mars to begin with. Perishable items such as animal flesh even more so." He speared another piece of steak on his fork and raised it to his mouth before speaking again. "Please, try the chicken, it's unlikely you'll get another chance to try it soon."
Knowing he was right, and finding the fragrance too hard to resist I tore off a leg from the roasted bird in the center of the table. Discovering it difficult to keep my manners I tore into it with a ferocity I found hidden deep within the few genes I had not inherited from any human. I had eaten vat-grown poultry before, partially to see Cole's reaction to my consuming tissue from his own taxonomic class (not much it turns out, apparently corvids are as close to fowl as foxes are to cows or something along those lines), but this bore little resemblance. This was juicy, tender, with a crisp skin that the tissue vats seemed to leave out. Within a matter of minutes I had stripped the leg to the bone.
As I tossed the oddly white and flexible bone aside Jakob Griggs spoke up again. "That was actually the turkey but whatever you prefer.” I made a vain effort to keep my embarrassment from showing but apparently he could see it anyways. "Don't worry about it." He told me with a dismissive wave of his hand. "I'm sure this is the first time you've been able to tell the difference between one meat or the other." But then his expression changed all of a sudden, becoming ice cold as he stared at me from across the table. "So, I hear you found out about one of the corps biggest secrets."
I think I felt my fur stand up at that simple statement, something about the tone those ordinary words were issued in made me feel a chill. "Well." I started to say, a bit nervous and taken off guard by the sudden shift in his demeanor. "I believe I discovered a mutation that deactivates the gene that renders us, I mean you and other parahumans with sex organs, infertile." I had to correct myself, there was definitely more than just one simple gene that prevented neuters like myself from making babies.
"I see." Jakob told me as he reached for a small box on the table with a set of holes in the lid. "And just what do you intend to do with that mutation?"
"Me?" I asked incredulously. "Well, I doubt I would do much with it, but I suppose one could use a targeted mutagen to damage the gene and enable their testes or ovaries to undergo spermatogenesis or oogenesis respectively. Possibly even use a CRISPr technique to knock out the entire gene." The equipment to do either was fairly plentiful, it was far safer than gene therapy to simply create a compound that would bond to a specific gene sequence and destroy it in the rare instance of a harmful mutation that involved an addition rather than a deletion or transposition.
"Yes," He then shot me a look that made me shrink back into my seat in primal fear. "And what do you think would happen to the Society for the Preservation of Parahuman Species if parahumans began to use that mutagen you're suggesting and started replicating themselves on their own?"
I paused as I thought about it for a minute. "Most people wouldn't need clones, they'd just find a friend of the opposite gender and produce new parahumans like most natural animals and humans do." I realized at that moment that my job could be at stake. "But there would still be neuters like myself who would still need clones to continue their genelines. And some people who simply prefer clones for some reason." I thought of one more thing. "And besides, wouldn't your goal of preserving parahumanity be accomplished?"
Jakob let out a low growl, my ears flattened and I felt my head slipping down beneath my robe, attempting to hide from the large and angry predator before me. He addressed me once more. "Our goal doesn't just encompass creating the next generation so that our species outlive our individual selves. There are other factors that we don't generally discuss with the public." He shook the box he had picked up a minute earlier and I could hear a faint squeaking sound from within. "Are you familiar at all with the net series 'Crowns of Furtopia'?" He asked me, I nodded faintly yes and he continued. "Feudalism is the default state of any large group of animals, individuals work to preserve their own genelines and band together with their kin to compete with other kin groups. The smart ones leave the weaker groups a portion of resources so that they may offer a portion of their resources to the dominant group in exchange for defense against more careless opportunists. Human history has proven time and time again that in the absence of any other form of government feudalism re-emerges. And I am sure that you are starting to see that to be true here on Vesta as well."
I thought back to the pop culture references to the Protectors Guilds as clans and houses, and how every high-ranking official in the Guilds that I'd met had been clones of the Guild leaders, and what they were getting away with because of their relationship. "But, your progenitor was the one who enabled them to form kinship groups in the first place?" I asked him nervously.
"Yes, and that is how I continue to keep them in line." Jakob Griggs let out another toothy grin that somehow intimidated me more than his growl had. "If I weren't able to threaten them with the revocation of their access to my cloning tanks they would be constantly fighting one another over territory like the animals they are. As is the balance of power between the Protection Guilds is as unstable as a barrel of nitroglycerin."
I believed that I understood now. "And you think if they were able to perpetuate their genelines on their own they would turn Vesta into a 22nd century version of Furtopia?"
"I know they will." Jakob informed me as he opened the box he was holding. He reached inside and withdrew a live mouse. I was amazed, that was the first time I had ever seen a non-sentient animal. My unspoken question of what he intended to do with the mouse was answered when he sung his head back, opened his mouth, and dropped the mouse in. There was a sickening snap and crunch of bones breaking and he swallowed loudly. Licking the remaining blood from his lips he started to explain. "Live mice, expensive even by my standards. Do you want to know why they're so expensive?"
"Because the freighters need extra life support to keep them alive all the way out to the belt?" I feebly suggested.
"That is the bulk of it, yes." Jakob nodded in response. "But another expense is the sterilization procedures they have to perform on every one of the mice before they leave earth orbit." Puzzled I gave him a confused expression prompting him to continue. "If so many as one male and one female mouse are fertile in the same cargo module, they will inevitably find a way to mate and produce dozens of baby mice every few weeks. And each of those babies will be able to make more babies within a month of birth. By the time they get all the way out here the life support system of their module is overtaxed and you get a load of decaying mouse carcasses. Do you see my point?"
I was afraid I didn't, but I wasn't sure I wanted to tell the very sure of himself cat that essentially owned all the law enforcement organizations on the asteroid that so I just stayed silent.
Apparently my silence was answer enough as he spoke again. "Sapient beings are no different. Humans almost depleted their own ecosystem on earth, it's the whole reason they sent us out into space to obtain more resources for them to consume. By controlling the price of cloning we prevent Vesta from becoming overpopulated and overstraining the flimsy life support systems we have in place."
"Surely, people are smart enough to stop reproducing before they reach the carrying capacity of their environment?" I objected, I could not imagine anyone being so stupid.
"And are you willing to bet the lives of everyone on this asteroid, possibly the entire belt, on that statement?" I could not, that was too big a decision for me to make, I slumped my head forward and shook it lightly. "So, you will not tell anyone else about your discovery?"
"Yes," I told him with an expression of defeat plain on my face.
"Excellent." Jakob Griggs said before popping another mouse into his mouth. After swallowing he asked me another question. "Did you tell anyone else before coming here?"
"Just your clone, Maximus."
"Good, I've already told him why he should keep his mouth shut." Jakob looked back into the box of mice one last time and turned back to me. "It appears that I have no more appetite for mice today, but there is still one left here. Would you care to try it?"
At that point, I was afraid to refuse anything he asked of me. I walked up to his side of the table and glanced down at the box. There was one white mouse remaining, among the stains left by its siblings in the container, still trying in vain to scurry up the slick walls of the box. I reached in and tried to grab it but it ran away to try and vault the opposite wall, I reached in with my other hand and managed to herd it between the two. At that point I managed to take hold of its tail and pulled it out by the thin appendage. Screeching in terror it tried to wriggle out of my hand, attempting to curl back on my fingers and claw at them, but to no avail. Looking into its beady black eyes I steeled myself for what would come next, I opened my mouth and tried to lead the rodent inside. Still clinging to a faint hope of survival it gripped onto my tongue with its sharp toes, the pain instead prompted me to bite down hard. I heard the ribs crack, felt the squishy organs spill out of the holes in its torso, the hot blood streaming down my chin. Not knowing exactly what to do next I flicked the corpse to the back of my mouth with my tongue, and with a great deal of effort swallowed.
"You have a bit of something there." Jakob Griggs, the shadowy director of the anarchy of Vesta, gestured to his left cheek. I picked up a napkin and dabbed it at the approximate area he had indicated, it came back stained dark red. If I had been superstitious I might have taken it as an omen of things to come.