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IN THE GARDEN OF IDEN (Chapter One)
I AM A BOTANIST. I will write down the story of my life as an exercise, to provide the illusion of conversation in this place where I am now alone. It will be a long story, because it was a long road that brought me here, and it led through blazing Spain and green, green England and ever so many centuries of Time. But you’ll understand it best if I begin by telling you what I learned in school.
Once, there was a cabal of merchants and scientists whose purpose was to make money and improve the lot of humankind. They invented Time Travel and Immortality. Now, I was taught that they invented Time Travel first and developed Immortals so they could send people safely back through the years.
In reality it was the other way around. The process for Immortality was developed first. In order to test it, they had to invent Time Travel.
It worked like this: they would send a team of doctors into the past, into 1486 for example, and select some lucky native of that time and confer immortality on him. Then they’d go back to their own time and see if their test case was still around. Had he survived the intervening nine hundred years? He had? How wonderful. Were there any unpleasant side effects? There were? Oops. They’d go back to the drawing board and then back to 1486 to try the new, improved process on another native. Then they’d go home again, to see how this one turned out. Still not perfect? They’d try again. After all, they were only expending a few days of their own time. The flawed immortals couldn’t sue them, and there was a certain satisfaction in finally discovering what made all those Dutchmen fly and Jews wander.
But the experiments didn’t precisely pan out. Immortality is not for the general public. Oh, it works. God, how it works. But it can have several undesirable side effects, mental instability being one of them, and there are certain restrictions that make it impractical for general sale. For example, it only really works on little children with flexible minds and bodies. It does not work on middle-aged millionaires, which is a pity, because they are the only consumers who can afford the process.
So this cabal (they called themselves Dr. Zeus, Incorporated) came up with a limited version of the procedure and marketed it as truly superior geriatric medicine. As such it was fabulously profitable, and everyone commended Dr. Zeus.
Everyone, of course, except all those flawed immortals.
But about the Time Travel part.
Somehow, Dr. Zeus invented a time transcendence field. It, too, had its limitations. Time travel is only possible backward, for one thing. You can return to your own present once you’ve finished your business in the past, but you can’t jump forward into your future. So much for finding out who’s going to win in the fifth race at Santa Anita on April 1, 2375.
Still, Dr. Zeus played around with the field and discovered what could at first be taken as a comforting fact: History cannot be changed. You can’t go back and save Lincoln, but neither can you erase your own present by accidentally killing one of your ancestors. To repeat, history cannot be changed.
However—and listen closely, this is the important part—this law can only be observed to apply to recorded history. See the implications?
You can’t loot the future, but you can loot the past.
I’ll spell it out for you. If history states that John Jones won a million dollars in the lottery on a certain day in the past, you can’t go back there and win the lottery instead. But you can make sure that John Jones is an agent of yours, who will purchase the winning ticket on that day and dutifully invest the proceeds for you. From your vantage point in the future, you tell him which investments are sound and which financial institutions are stable. Result: the longest of long-term dividends for future you.
And suppose you have John Jones purchase property with his lottery winnings, and transfer title to a mysterious holding firm? Suppose you have an army of John Joneses all doing the same thing? If you started early enough, and kept at it long enough, you could pretty much own the world.
Dr. Zeus did.
Overnight they discovered assets they never knew they had, administered by long-lived law firms with ancient instructions to deliver interest accrued, on a certain day in 2335, to a “descendant” of the original investor. And the money was nothing compared to the real estate. As long as they stayed within the frame of recorded history, they had the ability to prearrange things so that every event that ever happened fell out to the Company’s advantage.
At about this point, the scientist members of the cabal protested that Dr. Zeus’s focus seemed to have shifted to ruling the world, and hadn’t the Mission Statement mentioned something about improving the lot of humanity too? The merchant members of the cabal smiled pleasantly and pointed out that history, after all, cannot be changed, so there was a limit to how much humanity’s lot could be improved without running up against that immutable law.
But remember, Gentle Reader, that that law can only be seen to apply to recorded history. The test case was the famous Library of Alexandria, burned with all its books by a truculent invader. Technically, the library couldn’t be saved, because history emphatically states that it was destroyed. However, Dr. Zeus sent a couple of clerks back to the library with a battery-powered copier disguised as a lap desk. Working nights over many years, they transferred every book in the place to film before the arsonist got to it, and took it all back to 2335.
Even though the books turned out to be mostly liberal arts stuff like poetry and philosophy that nobody could understand anymore, the point was made, the paradox solved: What had been dead could be made to live again. What had been lost could be found.
Over the next few months in 2335, previously unknown works of art by the great masters began turning up in strange places. Buried in lead caskets in cellars in Switzerland, hidden in vaults in the Vatican Library, concealed under hunting scenes by successful third-rate Victorian commercial painters: Da Vincis and Rodins and Van Goghs all over the place, undocumented, uncatalogued, but genuine articles nonetheless.
Take the case of The Kale Eaters, the unknown first version of Van Gogh’s early Potato Eaters. It wasn’t possible for the Company to go drug Van Gogh in his studio, take the newly finished painting, and leap home with it: nothing can be transported forward out of its own time. What they did was drug poor Vincent, take The Kale Eaters and seal it in a protective coat of great chemical complexity, paint it over in black, and present it to a furniture maker in Wyoming (old USA), who used it to back a chair that later found its way into a folk arts-and-crafts museum, and later still into other museums, until some zealous restorer X-rayed the chair and got the shock of his life. Needless to say, the chair was at that time in a collection owned by Dr. Zeus.
As it happens, there are all sorts of chests and cupboards in lonely houses that don’t get explored for years on end. There are buildings that survive bombings, fire, and flood, so that no one ever sees what’s hidden in their walls or under their floorboards. The unlikely things that get buried in graves alone would astonish you. Get yourself a database to keep track of all such safe hiding places, and you too can go into the Miraculous Recovery business.
And why stop there? Art is all very well and can fetch a good price, but what the paying public really wants is dinosaurs.
Not dinosaurs literally, of course. Everyone knew what happened when you tried to revive dinosaurs. But the Romance of Extinction was big business in the twenty-fourth century. To sell merchandise, you had merely to slap a picture of something extinct on it. A tiger, for example. Or a gorilla. Or a whale. Crying over spilt milk was de rigueur by that time. What better way to cash in on ecological nostalgia than to revive supposedly extinct species?
In May of 2336, people turned on their newspapers and learned that a small colony of passenger pigeons had been discovered in Iceland, of all places. In Christmas of that same year, four blue whales were sighted off the coast of Chile. In March of 2337, a stand of Santa Lucia fir trees, a primitive conifer thought extinct for two centuries, was found growing in a corner of the Republic of California. Everyone applauded politely (people never get as excited over plants as they do over animals), but what didn’t make the news was that this species of fir was the only known host of a species of lichen that had certain invaluable medical properties …
Miracles? Not at all. Dr. Zeus had collected breeding pairs of the pigeons in upstate New York in the year 1500. They were protected and bred in a Dr. Zeus station in Canada for over half a millennium and then released to the outside world again. Similar arrangements were made for the whales and the fir trees.
Anyway, when the public imagination was all aglow with these marvelous discoveries, Dr. Zeus let the truth be known. Not all the truth, naturally, and not widely known; business didn’t work that way in the twenty-fourth century. But rumor and wild surmise worked as well as the plushiest advertising campaign, and the Company didn’t have to pay a cent for it. It got to be known that if you knew the right people and could meet the price, you could have any treasure from the past; you could raise the lamented dead.
The orders began to come in.
Obsessive collectors of art and literature. Philanthropists sentimental about lost species. Pharmaceutical companies desperate for new biological sources. Stranger people, with stranger needs and plenty of ready cash. There were only two or three questions.
Who was running Dr. Zeus now? Even its founders weren’t sure. Its most secretive inner circle couldn’t have said positively. Suddenly they were surrounded by the prearranged fruits of somebody’s labor on their behalf—but whose labor? Just how many people worked for the Company?
Also, were they now faced with the responsibility of making sure history happened at all? Quite a few species had been declared extinct, only to turn up alive and well in unexpected places. Were these Dr. Zeus projects they hadn’t been aware of? Someone went digging in the Company archives and discovered that the coelacanth was a Dr, Zeus special. So was the tule elk. So was the dodo, the cheetah, Père David’s deer. And the Company archives had an unsettling way of expanding when no one was looking.
Finally, where do you get the support personnel for an operation the size that this one had to be? Besides the cost of sending modern agents to and from the past, the agents themselves hated it. They said it was dangerous back there. It was dirty. People talked funny and the clothes were uncomfortable and the food was disgusting. Couldn’t somebody be found who was better suited to deal with the past?
Well. Remember all those test-case immortals?
A team from the future was sent back to history’s predawn, to build training centers in unpopulated places. They went out and got children from the local Neanderthals and Cro-Magnons, and shaved their diverse little skulls and worked the Immortality Process on their little brains and bodies. They brought them up with careful indoctrination and superior education. Then they went back to their own time, leaving the new agents there to expand the operation.
And what did Dr. Zeus have then? A permanent workforce that didn’t have to be shipped back and forth through time, that didn’t suffer culture shock, and that never, never needed medical benefits. Or, to put it in the corporate prose of the Official Company History: slowly these agents would labor through the centuries for Dr. Zeus, unshakable in their loyalty. They had been gifted with Immortality, after all. They knew they had a share in the glorious world of the future. They were provided with all the great literature and cinema of ages unborn. Their life work (their unending life work) was the noblest imaginable: the rescue of living things from extinction, the preservation of irreplaceable works of art.
Who could ask for anything more, you say?
Ah, but remember that Immortality has certain undesirable side effects. Consider, also, the mental discomfort of being part of a plan so vast that no single person knows the whole truth about it. Consider, finally, the problem in logistics: there are thousands of us already, and as the operation expands, more of us are made. None of us can die. So where are they going to put us all, when we finally make it to that glorious future world our creators inhabit?
Will they allow us in their houses? Will they finally pay us salaries? Will they really welcome us, will they really share with us the rewards we’ve worked millennia to provide them with?
If you’re any student of history, you know the answer to that question.
So why don’t we rise in rebellion, as in a nice testosterone-loaded science fiction novel, laser pistols blazing away in both fists? Because in the long run (and we have no other way of looking at anything) we don’t matter. Nothing matters except our work.
Look. Look with eyes that can never close at what men do to themselves, and to their world, age after age. The monasteries burned. The forests cut down. Animals hunted to extinction; families of men, too. Live through even a few centuries of human greed and stupidity and you will learn that mortals never change, any more than we do.
We must go on with our work, because no one else will do it. The tide of death has to be held back. Nothing matters except our work.
Except our work.
IN THE GARDEN OF IDEN Copyright © 1997 by Kage Baker