"Downcast is an example of how human, science-fiction can be. We also hope that it's an example of how science-fiction can help us look differently at ourselves and at others. The seeds of Downcast were planted in a personal experience that I had dealing with the possibility that my second child might be born with a genetic disorder. He was born healthy, but the issue never left me. Later, and around the time this story was written, I came across a photograph on the front page of a major Toronto newspaper. It was of a father and daughter holding hands, shut out of an MP's office. They were denying her an education because she suffered from the same disorder that my son didn't. It opened the floodgates to this story and to the premise that denying someone an education, anyone--no matter who they are, is denying ourselves our future. Those sentiments were echoed in Eugene's own personal philosophies and in our desire to produce work that effects a positive change in how we live our lives. It's our first work together and close to both our hearts. We hope you enjoy it. Most of all, we hope the world looks slightly different to you by the time you've finished reading it." Isaac Szpindel
Downcast was first published in the Summer 2000 issue of Parsec Magazine.
Contact Isaac Szpindel at email@example.com
Click here for Isaac's homepage.
by Isaac Szpindel
& Eugene W. Roddenberry
Nicky liked the gorillas best because their faces were the friendliest of all the animals at the zoo. Nicky was certain of it, and if anyone had bothered to ask him, he would have told them so. But no one ever did. Even though he was thirty-five years old, Nicky's thoughts and desires didn't seem to matter much to anyone at all. Instead, people made his decisions for him and simply told him what to do.
At the zoo, things were different. Nicky could spend hours at the gorilla habitat and no one would tell him what to do and no matter what Nicky said or did, the gorillas regarded him calmly, letting out an occasional grunt, but never a command.
Because of the sun accident and the radiation, the summer days were getting hotter. So on this day, Nicky had slipped out early to get to the zoo in the morning when the air was still cool and the gorillas were at play. He pressed himself up against the habitat's observation window and ignored everything but the world inside.
Dodo, the largest of three silver-back mountain gorillas rubbed his flanks against a thick artificial log. Tufts of sterling-grey hair joined the patches of black that had accumulated on the concrete floor. The size of four men, Dodo finished scratching and moved through the habitat on two massive arms and a pair of shorter legs.
Mimi, a smaller female with long breasts, and Bubu, a toddler the size of Nicky's two-year-old neighbour, lived in the habitat with Dodo.
The habitat was made up of a wall-sized plexi-glass observation window set in a large concrete box. At its centre a large fake tree spread its branches. A mess of artificial vines formed a web on the limbs. At the back a barred holding-cage stuck out of one corner beside a metal door that the zookeepers came through to fill a large grey food barrel.
Nicky watched Bubu jump onto and spin from a tire-swing that hung from the tree's largest branch. Mimi perched on a root nearby, munching a handful of fruit and grass. Dodo was in his usual spot, hidden in a corner behind the observation window's frame. It was a good hiding spot. Most people who visited the habitat noticed only Mimi and Bubu and left complaining about how small and disappointing the gorillas were. Those who looked closer to find Dodo often jumped back when they saw how huge he was. Nicky had once seen a young lady run off screaming after she found Dodo. To Nicky this was unbelievable. Dodo's thin lips always seemed to smile at Nicky and Dodo's dark generous eyes seemed to almost speak to him. At that moment, they did something that Nicky had seen before. They looked away for a moment to tell Nicky that someone was coming.
Nicky followed the direction from Dodo's eyes to find two pimply boys trading punches and running up the treeless path toward him. The first was a tall boy in a bright red head-shield with a racing stripe down the middle. The second boy looked smaller beside him and wore a plain gray head-shield and a big new leather jacket that made him sweat. As the boys came closer, the smell from the boy's Jacket was so strong that Nicky could taste it.
"Hey, Monkey-boy, want a banana?" The tall boy asked Nicky, even though he didn't seem to have a banana in his hand.
"You going to answer us, Monkey-boy?" asked the boy in the jacket.
"Forget it," said the tall boy. "Monkeys don't talk."
"I know all their names," said Nicky, searching for a response.
"He can talk," said the boy in the jacket. "Looks like we got us the missing link here." The boys laughed. Nicky didn't understand the joke.
"Got that, Monkey-boy?" said the tall boy, slapping Nicky's back so hard that it made a sound like a drum and knocked Nicky forward into the observation window.
Nicky felt an arm go up around the back of his neck and braced himself for a beating. He had been beaten many times and in many places before, but the zoo was different. The zoo was supposed to be his place. A place to feel safe and the fact the beating was coming in front of Dodo, made it worse. As Nicky suspected, Dodo didn't take it well.
A second blow to Nicky's head brought Dodo to his feet. Teeth bared, he beat his chest, let out a furious roar, and charged at the window. Nicky felt the boys loosened their hold for a moment as they froze at the sight, but only for a moment. Dodo had run out of room and stood trapped behind the observation window, his breath steaming the inside surface.
The boys laughed, then the tall boy pressed his face to the window and stuck his tongue out at Dodo. Dodo blinked slowly and steamed a patch of breath the size of the boy's head onto the window. The boys laughed louder as Dodo raised his arm in the air, but stopped when Dodo's palm came crashing down in a deafening slap into the patch of breath. The observation window bounced out, smacked the tall boy in the face and sent him tumbling, blood dripping from his nose.
The boy in the jacket released Nicky and went to help his friend straighten his head-shield and get to his feet. Together, they took a long look at Nicky and Dodo and ran back the way they came.
On their way, they nearly knocked someone over coming up the path the opposite way. Nicky could tell from the person's head-shield that it was his sister, Aegie. She would be mad enough that he had slipped out without telling her. If she had seen what had happened with the boys she'd be even madder.
"I was worried," said Aegie, stopping and straightening Nicky's hair.
"I-I'm okay," said Nicky.
"Look at what they did to you," said Aegie, her cheeks red, like her hair, and the skin around her eyebrows white like when she was angry.
"Nothing happened," said Nicky, too quickly. The thickness of his tongue made him trip over his words.
"You're better than they are," said Aegie, offering her hand. Aegie said that all the time when Nicky got into trouble. Nicky didn't believe it any more now than he had after the first few times. "Now, come on."
Nicky turned back to the habitat. Dodo was back in his corner. Except for the palm mark in the breath on the observation window, it was like nothing had happened. Nicky's bruises told him otherwise. Slowly he waved goodbye and took Aegie's hand. Her touch was warm and comforting as always and it made Nicky feel safe and ashamed all at once.
Aegie's face changed as the redness flowed out of her cheeks and back around her mouth and eyebrows. "Come along, now. Let's get back to work."
Nicky passed the familiar drive from the zoo to Aegie's lab at Duquesne watching for the main battery level on the car's dash to change. The distance from the zoo was sometimes enough to drain a battery, especially during the weekday Pittsburgh rush. But it was summer so the traffic was light and the temperature warm enough that even Aegie's old car could go long without a recharge. It was one of the things that Aegie let Nicky do and Nicky had to pay attention and charge the car when it needed so they wouldn't get stuck on their way to work.
Aegie provided for everything in Nicky's life, including his work. She ran the laboratory and Nicky was the janitor, mostly. Sometimes, Nicky helped Aegie's research by himself taking tests, and by letter Aegie take samples from the inside his cheek. It wasn't a part of his job that he liked, but it was important to Aegie. The rest of his work he enjoyed because he knew he was good at it.
Nicky kept the lab spotless. Every day, when they left, Nicky made sure the lights and water-taps were shut-off, the windows closed, and the door was locked. It annoyed Nicky that Aegie always double-checked him, because he had never forgotten. Until now.
It hit Nicky as soon as they came up the stairs. The laboratory door open. Shocked, he moved toward it, but Aegie raised a finger to stop him and stepped ahead of him. Nicky caught enough of a glimpse from behind her to see movement inside the lab. Holding Nicky back, Aegie slid through the doorway. Nicky tried to push in quietly behind her, but bumped into the door and made it creak.
The sound startled a man that Nicky hadn't seen before and made him look up from Aegie's computer. He had a serious expression, but a kind smile, and he was almost as short as Nicky. The overhead lights shined off his bald head, and he wore a charcoal three-piece suit over a white shirt with no tie. An ID tag swung from his breast pocket.
Nicky looked around quickly, checking for damaged or missing items. A jungle of sinks, fume hoods, beakers, pipettes and complicated machinery seemed undisturbed along the three Formica topped benches that supported them. Off the end of the middle bench, a cart held a large computer. Numbers, letters and pictures streamed down the computer's panel making the man's face glow and flicker.
"What the hell is this?" Aegie barked, the skin around her eyebrows and mouth creasing and going pale.
Without waiting for an answer she removed her head-shield, handed it to Nicky and confronted the man. Aegie examined his identification tag and asked, "Dr. Little?"
"Yes, I've been authorized to--," the man tried to answer.
"To break and enter?" Aegie accused, her long red hair falling onto Little's scalp like it was trying to cover his baldness.
Nicky almost laughed, but he could tell by the sound of Aegie's voice and the way she looked that she wouldn't think it was funny. Instead, he focused on her head-shield. Its shape and the gauges in its surface reminded him of Fred Friendly's helmet from the old Mutant Motorcycle-Men comics. Still, it felt heavy and looked uncomfortable. Nicky was glad he didn't have to wear one and he was glad for the building's insulation so that people like Aegie didn't have to wear them inside.
Dr. Little's head-shield already hung on an old-style hat rack in the corner of the lab. As Nicky approached it, his reflection distorted and stretched in its polished black surface. It was a funny sight, but it didn't help distract Nicky from Aegie and Little's conversation.
"I expected more cooperation," said Dr. Little, softly.
Aegie's voice grew louder. "Cooperation? You've intruded on my lab unannounced and uninvited."
"You are publicly funded," said Little. "You agreed to regular reviews."
Aegie snapped back at Dr. Little with such anger that it made it difficult for Nicky to understand why she was so upset or to follow the conversation. Instead, Nicky lost himself in his work and the security of his cleaning supplies.
The bottles, sprays, and tools were well organized in their plastic basket, as usual. The order helped Nicky concentrate and it helped him think. No doubts about where to start or what to do next. The detergent meant the floor; the spray bottle, the countertop. Nicky simply started with the first item in the basket, used it, then moved on to the next. Simple decisions that filled Nicky with pride because they were his own, no one else's.
"...Down's Syndrome." Dr. Little's words drew Nicky back to the conversation. Words he recognized, words that told Nicky they were talking about him.
"Trisomy 21." Aegie corrected.
"You are supposed to be researching the source of their radiation immunity, that's all. Your most recent materials requests: retroviruses, recombinant vectors and gene fragments. They're curious, to say the least."
"I need a more precise map of the genome."
"The genome, Dr. Hoberman, has been fully mapped and available since 2000. These are invasive technologies. Ones that imply experimentation in genetic modification."
"You want a cure, don't you?" said Aegie.
"That's someone else's job, once you accomplish yours and we understand what makes them immune. So few Down's cases remain, we don't want to risk them on unauthorized experimentation."
Nicky noticed Dr. Little watching him mop his way across the laboratory floor. It made Nicky uncomfortable and it made him feel like he had to speak. "I'm her brother," he said, hoping it was an appropriate comment.
Little's eyebrows shot up and his eyes went wide. "Oh," said Little, gently. "I... I'm sorry."
Now Nicky was surprised. People talked about him like he wasnít there all the time. This was the first time that anyone had actually spoken to him and it was definitely the first time anyone had apologized.
"You're experimenting on family members?" Dr. Little asked.
"How dare you." Aegie's voice rose again. "I've protected him his entire life, when our parents walked out, when no one else would. Who the hell are you to question me?"
Dr. Littleís kindness and Aegieís anger confused and upset Nicky. He could tell they were arguing and it made it hard for Nicky to concentrate on his work. There were too many words and too many were about him. The argument was his fault. They were being mean to each other because of him.
Nicky stopped cleaning as the sick feeling rose in his stomach. He had always thought he was helping Aegie, that she needed him in some way. Now, he wasnít so sure.
"I'm just following protocol," said Little, "Protecting our resources. Allow me to run a genetic profile on him. If it reveals no genetic manipulation or experimentation, we'll be satisfied. We'll leave you alone."
Nicky didnít hear any more. He didn't want tests, he didn't want profiles, and he certainly didn't want to cause Aegie trouble. He didn't like arguments and he was tired of other people deciding what he should do. The problem was that he didnít know what to do. What to do? What could he do, except...
Nicky knew which buses to take to the zoo, whether it was from home or from work. He also always carried his public transit-chip with him in case he got lost, so it was no problem for him to get back to the zoo and to Dodo.
The habitat was as he had left it. Dodo's hand-print stayed stamped on the observation window and reminded Nicky of the morning's events. Fascinated, he tried to fit his own palm into its huge shape. But Nicky's fingers were too short and plump. He had the same number of fingers, but the fingerprints, creases and swirls were fewer and more spread out. Before long, Nicky noticed something else. One wide line ran all the way across Dodoís palm-print from end to end. Nicky looked at his own hand. He had one, too. Excited that he and Dodo had something in common, Nicky continued to look for other similarities. Caught up in this new adventure, it took a few moments for Nicky to notice Aegie's helmeted reflection bob onto the observation window.
"I didn't know what to do," said Nicky to Aegie's reflection. "You were so mad. And, and it was because of me."
"No. I'm sorry, I was trying to protect you... us." Aegie stroked Nicky's back affectionately. Dodo watched on silently through the window then looked away, following something down the path behind them.
Nicky turned, expecting to see the boys again. Instead, he found Dr. Little running toward them. Dr. Little stopped running as he reached Nicky and Aegie. He didn't look angry and he even looked relieved despite the fact that he had forgotten his head-shield.
Aegie spun around. "What are you doing here?"
Dr. Little held his hands up. "I-I thought I might help you find him. I felt responsible."
"And you forgot your head-shield? How considerate." Aegie used her nasty tone, like when she didn't mean what she said.
"We really are concerned for his safety," Little answered.
"I'm his sister, Dr. Little, I'll decide what's best for Nicky." It's what she had done for Nicky his entire life. He should have been more grateful for it too, but lately it had started to frustrate Nicky. Nicky wanted to be more independent. To be treated more like an adult. But Aegie wouldn't let him.
"What about your research?" asked Little. "Isn't this a small inconvenience to subject him to, if it allows you to continue your research?"
Aegie didn't answer right away. "I can be there? For the tests?" she asked. "If he checks out, you won't bother us?"
Little nodded, but wouldn't look at Aegie or Nicky.
"Then I'll have to consider it." Aegie took Nicky's hand and led him down the path, away from the habitat, stopping only to call back to Dr. Little. "Come by the lab tomorrow. This time don't let yourself in, and please, don't follow us home."
Nicky's room at their apartment was cluttered with i-toys, holo-comics and morph-models that surrounded a twin bed made-up in Fred Friendly linen. A long window let the sunset draw an angry red square on the floor behind a small writing desk that supported a VR net-node and an e-art-pad. Nicky preferred crayon and paper, but Aegie said they were too messy and that paper was getting hard to find.
Aegie sat beside Nicky on the bed, helping him on with his pajamas. Nicky hated when she did this because it made him feel like a kid and he was a man now.
"We have to be careful, Nicky. Most people don't want to help you."
"Like Dr. Little?" Nicky asked, hoping he was wrong.
"No. I think his problem is with me."
"Because of me?" Nicky asked, again hoping to be wrong.
"No, it's my fault," Aegie answered and buttoned his top. "I'm not really doing the research I'm supposed to be doing." Her answer relieved Nicky. He always assumed that any trouble they had was his fault, and he was usually right. Since the sun accident, normal people blamed Nicky and people like him for not having the same problems that they did. It was all very confusing.
Nicky understood very little of what had happened. He remembered being told that the scientists tried to make energy by using a huge machine they built in space on the sun. But it didn't work. Instead, the machine made the sun start to get old and eat helium. It sounded funny to Nicky, and even though nobody could really see or feel it yet the scientists said the sun was going to get bigger and turn red. The sun was making more radiation, so things on earth were going to get hotter and brighter, and all the water was turning into clouds.
Aegie said that for now the clouds were protecting everyone because the problems were just starting, but that even the clouds couldn't protect some plants and animals that ate them. Because of that there was already less food for people to eat even though there were more an more people all the time. What was worse was that the sun was hurting the people too. Aegie told him that people were growing things like golf-balls and grapefruits in their heads, but not the kinds you could eat. That's why they had to wear head-shields. Nicky and people like him didn't grow anything in their heads and it was Aegie's job to find out why. Nicky liked to help, but people didn't care. Since there was less food and more population, lots of people were starving. Nicky had heard people say that people like him were wasting food.
"People will appreciate you," said Aegie, reading his mind. "When my research makes you like them."
"But you're supposed to be helping them. So they won't have to wear head-shields. Won't they be mad if you help me instead?"
"Not when they realize that it won't work. Not unless we make everyone like you."
"Oh," said Nicky, knowing that nobody wanted to be like him. Still, he liked who he was, so he never really understood why Aegie wanted to change him. "Will I have to wear a head-shield?"
"I don't know," Aegie answered. "Probably."
"Then can I have a motorcycle, Like Fred Friendly?"
"If you want one. But first we have to satisfy Dr. Little."
"He's a nice man," said Nicky, sliding under his covers and snuggling into his pillow.
"I don't know," said Aegie. "Still, he seems to be concerned for your safety." Aegie kissed Nicky's forehead, tucked him in, then pulled the blind and switched off the light.
"You're going to let him test me?" Nicky asked.
"I'll have to decide," Aegie answered in the darkness.
Nicky was sure his mind was playing tricks on him. The scene was almost the same as the day before. The laboratory door was open, but this time men in uniforms stood outside. Maybe, thought Nicky, Dr. Little had let himself in again.
Aegie must have thought the same thing, because instead of acting surprised she just walked right in. "I thought I told you not to--"
Aegie stopped. This time the man who stood over Aegie's computer wasn't Dr. Little. The new man was tall and thin like a skeleton. He wore an extra thick head-shield and had a jagged scar up the center of his forehead. Nicky had seen this scar before on people who had their golf-balls and grapefruits taken out.
The man checked the computer and the bench behind it with a laser attached to a small machine that made lots of fingerprints glow red on the surfaces.
"What the hell is this? Where the hell is Little?" Aegie demanded, clamping her hand down on Nicky's shoulder to tell him not to speak or move.
"Sorry, Ma'am. Samuel Yazik, SIA," said the man, flashing his badge and holding out his hand. Aegie didn't take it. "We have reason to believe that you've been a victim of industrial espionage." He held his PDA out to Aegie. A bad picture of Little with a number and bar-code underneath showed on the screen.
"That's Dr. Little," Nicky blurted out.
"He said he was a Doctor," Aegie added.
"He is. This one likes to grab Retards. Hard to come by Tards these days," said Yazik, glancing at Nicky. "I'm sure you know." Nicky hated being called a retard and he didn't like Yazik, the way he spoke, or the way he smelled of stale cherry lozenges.
"He's our janitor," answered Aegie, the skin around her eyebrows and mouth going an angry white. Nicky wondered why Aegie looked so mad, but acted so nice.
Yazik considered Nicky like something he'd scraped off his shoe. "Lots of normal people looking for honest work these days."
Nicky searched for his equipment. He hadn't finished cleaning the lab the day before and it looked like someone else had put his cleaners away. What if they were in the wrong order?
"He's also part of my shield research," said Aegie, tapping her forehead in a place that might have matched Yazik's scar. Nicky shifted uncomfortably, but Aegie wouldn't let go. He needed help with his cleaners and he was afraid of Yazik. He needed Aegie to let go, or tell him what to do.
"How did he contact you?" asked Yazik.
"He just showed up. Same as you," Aegie answered.
"Did he take anything, try to take anything?"
"No, nothing, except..." Aegie glanced at Nicky.
"Wanted your Tard, huh?"
Aegie's eyes narrowed. "He was looking through my data."
"Then probably got it all, lucky he didnít get your Tard too. Cure for the brain-balls is worth a lot of food. If you ask me, though, the Tards aren't worth it--eat too much."
Aegie's whole face lost its colour and she began to shake. Nicky knew she didn't like bad talk. Why wasn't she yelling at Yazik or threatening him? "He's meeting us here today," she said.
Nicky was confused. He knew that Aegie hated words like Tard, but she was being nice to Mr. Yazik, even helping him. Dr. Little behaved nicely and Aegie had been mean to him. Something was wrong, but Nicky couldn't figure out what it was.
"Then I'll wait here." Yazik sat down on the chair at the computer and unbuttoned his jacket so that Nicky could see his stunner. Aegie must have seen it too because she started to speak quickly, like when she got nervous and her face looked serious.
"If you won't be needing us," Aegie suggested to Yazik.
"Later, to ID the perp," Yazik answered, absently. "Just you, though, Ma'am. Your Tard stays here, for insurance."
"Why? Why would you need insurance?" Aegie asked.
Yazik was silent for a moment, like he was thinking. "Those are my orders, Ma'am."
"Of course," Aegie said, giving in too easily, "He'll need to relieve himself first."
Even Nicky knew that Yazik was lying. If he could figure it out, then why didn't Aegie? Why was she cooperating?
"No," answered Yazik.
"Fine, you deal with the mess."
Yazik looked at Nicky, disgusted. "Fine. Suit yourself."
Aegie led Nicky out of the lab, past the guards, then down the brick hall to the bathroom. She surprised Nicky by following him in, then confused him completely by climbing onto a toilet, opening the window above and climbing through. Once outside, she reached down to help Nicky do the same. Nicky hardly had time to worry about where they were going or why.
Finding himself back at the zoo, Nicky quickly forgot his confusion. Aegie led him up the path toward the Gorilla habitat so fast that Nicky had to skip every few steps just to keep up. Finally, he gave up, and ran ahead to the habitat.
Things had changed. Dodo's hand-print was gone and Dodo was missing from his usual spot. Instead, a man in a khaki zoo uniform and matching head-shield mopped the habitat floor with a green liquid from a large barrel like the one that held the gorilla food. Nicky recognized the liquid as Mr. Sparkle, The Dirt Destroyer, from its bright green colour. It was supposed to smell like a pine tree but Nicky found that it was much stronger and that it burned his nose. Nicky watched the man spray water from a hose over the area he had mopped and knew he was doing it because Mr. Sparkle was a skull and cross-bones cleaner.
Behind the man, Nicky found Dodo locked in the holding area and looking out from between the bars. Nicky could also see Mimi pacing back and forth past Dodo, but he couldn't see Bubu.
"Where's, Bubu," Nicky asked the window and himself and started searching for Bubu until he became distracted by Aegie's reflection in the observation window.
Aegie's reflection sat beside another reflection of a man sitting on the bench behind Nicky. Nicky forgot Bubu and focused on the reflection. The man looked very much like Dr. Little. So much so that Nicky turned to check. It was Dr. Little.
"I barely avoided Yazik at the lab. I knew he'd be watching your home, so this was the next best place," said Little.
"I thought you might turn up here sooner or later," Aegie confessed.
"Then why didn't you turn me in?"
"I needed to figure things out for myself. Yazik lied to me." Aegie spoke calmly so Nicky had to strain to listen.
"I lied to you, too," said Little.
"Yes, but you were concerned for Nicky when he ran--like he was a human being, not a lab rat. That doesn't sound like an industrial spy to me."
"I'm not," said Dr. Little. "I want Nicky."
"Why? You must have interpreted my data by now. It's useless, the radiation immunity trait requires three chromosome twenty ones. You have to have Down's for it to work."
"Then what good is he?" asked Aegie.
"I'm not interested in radiation immunity. I'm interested in the continuation of humanity."
"Then why do you need people with Down's?"
"We want him and everyone like him to live out their lives," said Little, removing his head shield and wiping away the sweat, "free to interact with each other, happy safe and free."
"Like a concentration camp. Put them to work and get rid of them so there's more food for everyone else?"
"No. Like Adam and Eve. Gene therapies are preventing Down's in utero. They're dying out. If it wasn't for their radiation immunity, they'd be legislated out of existence. We've thought about reproducing the factor that gives them a higher chance of having Down's offspring but, as you know, no one's been able to identify it."
"So you want to preserve them, like some pathetic museum exhibit? That's just as bad."
"Those neurofibrillary tangles and amyloid deposits that accumulate in their brains. The ones that stunt their intelligence and cause Alzheimer's when they get older? Now they're soaking up all that excess solar radiation, absorbing it and breaking it down. Constituent amino acids and protein bases are being redistributed. According to our tests, their levels of intelligence have shown a steady improvement since the accident. Furthermore, ..." Nicky lost the conversation and returned his attention to the habitat. He knew he was looking for something, but he had forgotten what. Nicky searched for a while until some words in the conversation drew him back again.
"It sounds plausible," said Aegie. "So they'll develop normal intelligence in several hundreds instead of millions of years? Nicky can't wait that long, nor can I."
Little continued, "Our sun is only at the earliest stages of its accelerated shift to red giant. So far, the brain tumours and the food supply are the only physical manifestations. Soon there will be others due to the effects of the sun's changing gravitation and higher ambient luminosity to name a few. Our estimation is that, to best survive, people will need to be strong and of short stature. They'll probably need thick muscular tongues to help them just to speak properly; Epicanthal folds to protect their eyes from the bright light. Just like people with Down's--" Little's PDA beeped at him. He lifted it from his pocket and scanned the screen with an expression that now matched Aegie's.
"Are you suggesting that Trisomy Twenty-one is the next adaptation? The next step in human evolution?"
Little fidgeted with his shield and spoke more quickly. "It wasn't supposed to happen for billions of years, but our technological arrogance has advanced the time-table. The sun's killing the rest of us and we're nowhere near developing space travel or off-world colonization capabilities. Unless the Down's population survives to carry on, we never will, and the human race dies out with the sun."
A shrieking sound drew Nicky's attention back to the habitat. Through the observation window he found Dodo roaring furiously and slamming his body repeatedly into the holding area bars. The noise distracted the man cleaning the habitat for only a moment before he returned to his mopping, ignoring Dodo's wild tantrum. Nicky searched the habitat, desperate to find some way to help Dodo. Instead, he found something else--Bubu. Bubu was locked out of the holding area and playing behind the man, near the barrel of Mr. Sparkle.
Bubu danced around Mr. Sparkle and, ignoring Dodo's screams, climbed the barrel, and slid inside. Green water splashed from the barrel onto the concrete floor, but the man didn't notice. Nicky knew he had to do something, and quickly, before Mr. Sparkle hurt Bubu.
"Aegie?" Nicky called.
Aegie held her finger out to Nicky. She didn't want him to bother her.
"But, Aegie?" Nicky whined desperately.
"Not now, Nicky, this is important," Aegie called back.
Bubu's splashing slowed and the shrieking got louder now that Mimi had joined in. Nicky paced back and forth in front of the window. Finally, he couldn't take it anymore, turned, and ran down the path to Little and Aegie.
Aegie looked up. "I thought I told you, this is imp--"
Nicky ignored her and grabbed Little's head-shield.
"Hey!" Little shouted, as Nicky bolted back up the path to the habitat window.
Smack. Little's head-shield bounced off the observation window. Through the reflection, Nicky could see Aegie and Little coming up the path after him.
Smack. The plexi-glass scuffed the shield. The man inside still didn't notice. Aegie and Little neared.
Smack. The man looked up curiously at Nicky and looked annoyed when he noticed the head-shield in Nicky's hands. Nicky didn't have time to apologize, Bubu's splashing had almost stopped. He waved his arms wildly at the man and pointed to the barrel behind him. The man frowned, turned to see what the fuss was about, then found Bubu drowning in the barrel.
The man rushed over, reached into the barrel and dragged Bubu out onto the floor. Bubu struggled on the concrete and coughed Mr. Sparkle as a blast of water from the man's hose hit him. Green water ran off Bubu, continuing until the colour became clear and the stream from the hose stopped.
Bubu coughed, got up on his arms and wobbled over to the bars and his parents. Their arms reached through and hugged him close.
The man put down his hose and smiled at Nicky. It looked to Nicky like Dodo was watching him and doing the same thing.
"We saw that, Nicky," said Little breaking the spell.
"You saved him," Aegie said. "I-I'm sorry, I should have listened."
She should be, thought Nicky, he was a hero and it was because he done something himself. He had made a decision for a change. Aegie and Dr. Little must have known it too. They were looking at him and smiling like they may even have respected him. But there was more from Little. He was moving around, fiddling with his PDA. Nicky raised his eyebrows at him.
"Yazik's people followed you here," said Little, between checks of his PDA, "I have a way out, but not enough time to explain. I want Nicky to come with me and I need a decision."
"Even if I believed you," said Aegie. "I still think he's better off with me."
Aegie and Little stared each other, but no one spoke. This was Nicky's chance. He had showed Aegie that he could do things on his own. Good things. Maybe, living on his own with other people like him he could do more good things. Like Dr. Little said. If Aegie would let him. But why was it her choice?
"Ask me," said Nicky, "I heard what you said. I know what you want."
"He's right," said Little. "It should be his choice."
Aegie seemed to be looking though the window at Bubu, still up against the bars in his parents' arms.
"I know," said Aegie quietly. Nicky could see tears forming in her eyes. It almost never happened, but Nicky had seen her cry before. "You heard?"
"I didn't mean to." Nicky apologized.
"No, it's okay," Aegie continued. "You understood?"
"I want to go," said Nicky, almost afraid.
"You realize how close I am to curing you," said Aegie. "My research is going to make you normal, like the rest of us."
"I know," Nicky answered. "But I want to be like me. I want to be where that's okay." Nicky didn't want to make Aegie cry, but he could tell from the tears on her face that that's what he was doing.
"I don't know if I can let you," said Aegie through the tears. "You don't know what you're..."
"Let him find out," said Dr. Little. "You owe it to him. He's free to leave us if he's ever unhappy."
"But how do we know we can trust you?" Aegie asked.
"You don't," answered Little.
"Then I'll come too. I'll continue my research with you."
"I'm afraid that's impossible," Little said. "Don't forget, we've analyzed your data. You're close. Too close. If you reverse Down's, you'll eliminate what's left of their population. The few remaining live births that slip through the genetic screens, even the spontaneous mutations will be reversed and genetically modified by the therapies that you've developed. The Down's predisposition may be lost forever and we can't take that risk."
"What if you convince people of your theories, let people choose for themselves, until we can find a way to isolate and reproduce the Down's producing factor?"
"Do you think people will really accept Down's as the next stage in their evolution? How do you think the general public will react? With acceptance and gratitude, or with the same resentment and hostility they've shown so far?"
"It's my life's work--for Nicky," Aegie protested. "You can't be asking me to abandon it."
"It's too late for that. Yazik has no doubt downloaded and distributed your data by now. You can't just abandon your research, you must discredit your work so others don't complete it."
"But that'll destroy me professionally. What if I refuse? Leaving me behind gains you nothing."
"It gains us our only real chance at discrediting your research--something that at this stage only you can accomplish. Taking you with us guarantees that will not happen."
"Then I'll join you--after. Tell me how."
"It will be anticipated. You will be watched and you will give us away."
"Did you hear that, Nicky?" Aegie turned to Nicky, tears flowing past her mouth. "You may never see me again."
Nicky nodded his head. He had heard Aegie say things like that before. They were like threats that she made when she wanted Nicky to do something. Aegie would find a way to be with him. He would see her again.
"What if I don't, can't let you go?" Aegie asked.
"You can't stop me," said Nicky, fighting back tears of his own. She couldn't stop him. He was smaller, but he was stronger than her, had always been, and now for the first time, knew why: he was better than other people.
"Nicky?" Aegie implored, extending her hand.
Nicky looked down at her palm and its broken folds. Two deep creases never meeting; so different from him and Dodo. He felt excited afraid and something else all at once. He could always go home if he didn't like it at Dr. Little's place.
"I'm sorry," said Little, reading off his PDA, "but we must leave now."
"Nicky?" Aegie pleaded. "I'll do it for you. I'll destroy my research, my reputation, but please. Please come home with me now."
Nicky shook his head, squeezing tears from the corners of his eyes. He had made the right decision. He was his own man now and that's what he had wanted for a long time. Something that Aegie wasn't helping him with. He didn't mean, didn't want, to hurt Aegie, but he was going to be important now and he was going to be himself.
Nicky looked past Aegie to Dodo. For a moment, it seemed like Dodo had lost his smile. Nicky waved him a weak goodbye with the tips of his fingers then turned to face Little.
"I'm scared," said Nicky, over the sound of Aegie crying.
"I know, Nicky," said Dr. Little, offering Nicky his hand. "So am I."
Nicky looked down at Little's palm. Like Aegie's, two deep separate lines across its surface all broken-up. Not like Nicky's and Dodo's lines at all. Still, Nicky had decided and, reaching out, he took hold of Little's hand, imagining for a moment his own perfect fold completing the broken lines underneath.