"Welcome to the house that Augustine built. How is Mark, anyway?"
"Not happy, last time I saw him," Dicken said.
"Why am I not surprised? Of course, I should be charitable. Mark moved me up from studying chimps to studying Mrs. Rhine."
Twelve years before, Freedman had headed a primate lab in Baltimore, during the early days when the Centers for Disease Control had launched the task force investigating Herods plague. Mark Augustine, then director of the CDC and Dickens boss, had hoped to secure extra funding from Congress during a fiscal dry spell. Herods, thought to have caused thousands of hideously malformed miscarriages, had seemed like a terrific goad.
Herods had quickly been traced to the transfer of one of thousands of Human Endogenous RetrovirusesHERVcarried by all people within their DNA. The ancient virus, newly liberated, mutated and infectious, had been promptly renamed SHEVA, for Scattered Human Endogenous Viral Activation.
In those days, viruses had been assumed to be nothing more than selfish agents of disease.
"Shes been looking forward to seeing you," Freedman said. "How long since your last visit?"
"Six months," Dicken said.
"My favorite pilgrim, paying his respects to our viral Lourdes," Freedman said. "Well, shes a wonder, all right. And something of a saint, poor dear."
Freedman and Dicken passed junctions with tubes branching southwest, northeast, and northwest to other shafts. Outside, the summer morning was warming rapidly. The sun hung just above the horizon, a subdued greenish ball. Cool air pulsed around them with a breathy moan.
They came to the end of the main tube. An engraved Formica placard to the right of the elevator door read, "MRS. CARLA RHINE." Freedman punched the single white button. Dickens ears popped as the door closed behind them.
SHEVA had turned out to be much more than a disease. Shed only by males in committed relationships, the activated retrovirus served as a genetic messenger, ferrying complicated instructions for a new kind of birth. SHEVA infected recently fertilized eggsin a sense, hijacked them for a higher cause. The Herods miscarriages were first-stage embryos, called "interim daughters," not much more than specialized ovaries devoted to producing a new set of precisely mutated eggs.
Without additional sexual activity, the second-stage ova implanted and covered themselves with a thin, protective coating. They survived the abortion of the first embryo and started a new pregnancy.
To some, this had looked like a kind of virgin birth.
Most of the second-stage embryos had gone to term. Worldwide, in two waves separated by four years, three million new children had been born. More than two and a half million of the infants had survived. There was still controversy over exactly who and what they werea diseased mutation, a subspecies, or a completely new species.
Most simply called them virus children.
"Carlas still cranking them out," Freedman said as the elevator reached the bottom. "Shes shed seven hundred new viruses in the last four months. About a third are infectious, single-stranded RNA sense negative, potentially real bastards. Fifty-two of them kill pigs within hours. Ninety-one are almost certainly lethal to humans. Another ten can probably kill both pigs and humans." Freedman glanced over her shoulder to see his reaction.
"I know," Dicken said dryly. He rubbed his hip. His leg bothered him when he stood for more than fifteen minutes. The same White House explosion that had taken his eye, twelve years ago, had left him partially disabled. Three rounds of surgery had allowed him to put aside the crutches but not the pain.
"Still in the loop, even at NCI?" Freedman asked.
"Trying to be," he said.
Excerpted from Darwin's Children by Greg Bear. Copyright© 2003 by Greg Bear. Excerpted by permission of Del Rey, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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