A true flight saga, told through tweets.

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Book 35 of 52: "The Windup Girl" by Paolo Bacigalupi

If I had only one word to describe this book, I think I’d call it “harrowing.”

If I had a few more words, I might call it “a harrowing, twisted look at life in the third world in a plague-ravaged, genetically twisted post-apocalyptic, calorie-starved future.”

Yeah.  That sums it up pretty well.
The Windup Girl weaves together several interconnected threads in the Kingdom of Thailand, some years into the future.  And a lot’s gone wrong.  The sea level has risen, and pumps must run continuously to hold the water back from flooding the city.  Genetically engineered plagues have killed off most of the natural plant life, and calories must come from generipped, bioengineered new foodstuffs that are created by companies.  The oil has run out, so all power comes from people – who need their power from precious calories.

Doesn’t sound fun, does it?

Some of the main characters include Anderson, a “calorie man” working to bend Thailand to his biotechnology company’s interests, Emiko, a genetically created individual known as a “windup”, Kanya, an officer in Thailand’s Environmental Ministry who seeks to fight the incoming plagues, and Hock Seng, a Chinese migrant who fled to Thailand after his family was slaughtered in Malaysia.

There’s a lot of violence, plenty of death and destruction, and some parts of the book that are nearly X rated, but the story is gripping and compelling.  Bacigalupi has said that he’s not likely to do a sequel, which disappoints me, but the book is still amazing.

Time to read: about 10 hours.

Viruses.

Excerpt taken from a recording stored in the archives of the Maximegalon Institute, c.o./ZB.

Viruses.

Funny things, aren’t they?  Little buggers, not really alive.  Just a protein coat as a shell, wrapped around the most distilled and basic instruction of life.

Multiply.

Heck, some don’t even have a protein coat at all.  Naked DNA, floating through the void in search of a host.  Eternally patient, willing to wait forever.  And when that host comes, the virus exults in a brief flurry of wild, carefree activity, growing and spreading and conquering all in its path, before once again returning back to dormancy.

Most races try not to think about viruses much.

Oh, sure, there’s sanitary protocols.  Wash your appendages, don’t mix fecal deposits (a breeding ground for viruses, among their bacterial carriers and victims) with nutrient intake, avoid contact with those who are contaminated.  Well established protocols, all built around containment.

Why not eradication?

Well, it turns out that one of the many things viruses aren’t great at accomplishing is dying.  There are so few moving parts on a virus, you see – nothing’s there to break.

So, for most of existence, life has learned to adapt to viruses.  Contain them, avoid them, try to slow, maybe even stop their spread.

This leads to some… interesting outcomes.

Take the Wheelers, for example.  Quite a unique species – they adapted to the long, flat lava flows on their planets by developing the biological appendage for which we named them.  They quickly criss-crossed their planet, thanks to their high rate of speed.

The virus that brought down the Wheelers struck at this advantage.  A hijacked nervous system driven to crave speed, coupled with aerial dispersion through gas venting, rushed around the planet just as rapidly.  In the end, the Wheelers even bombed their own roads, trying to halt their infected kin.

We’ve had to work this all out from fossil records, of course.  Fortunately, the wheel was made from a biosilicon compound that endured for many millennia, long after the Wheelers themselves all perished.

The Spindle Kings, there’s another example.  That race seemed like one of the most likely to survive a virus – as far as we can tell, they were telepaths, and couldn’t stand crowding.  And for a Spindle King, a thousand members of their species per planet was far too overpopulated.

Naturally enough, the virus that got them traveled over those very same telepathic brain waves.  Like a meme, the message altered and shifted the underlying brain structure, reverberating and building to an overwhelming pitch inside their minds.  The Spindle Kings couldn’t help but broadcast it out.

This time, as well as fossil records, we had the actual records, left by the dying members of the Kings themselves.  Most of the records are incomprehensible gibberish, but some are still barely lucid enough for us to understand.

Perhaps the most dramatic response to a virus we’ve found have been the Kung.  “Bloodthirstiest race in the galaxy,” we call them, and they’re a staple villain of the most popular holotoons.  They conquered every other race they encountered – why not viruses?

Viruses, unfortunately, don’t form impressive lines on the battlefield.  They don’t surrender when surrounded.  They aren’t held back by blockades.

Towards the end, the Kung started slagging their own planets.  That’s the only explanation we can imagine, at least.  How else can we explain the apparently intact skeletons of their civilizations, buried under half a mile of perfectly smooth igneous rock?

How did a virus bring down the Kung?  We’re not sure, of course.  So much of history is unknown, lost to the ravages of time.  And perhaps there’s still a band of Kung out there, roaming, hoping to stay one step ahead of the virus that finally succeeded in conquering their unconquerable civilization, decimating their unstoppable army.

Viruses are a sobering realization of our own mortality.  We’ve tangled with them, of course.  Smallpox nearly wiped out our species before we even left the planet.  HIV followed us up from the surface as we spread, as did rabies.  Influenza still haunts us, and one particularly malevolent strain had us ejecting anyone who sneezed out the nearest airlock.

Even now, we can’t cure viruses.  Not quite.

But we’ve come a long way.  Antivirals block many targets of these viruses, and we can learn from weakened, attenuated strains how to combat their deadlier cousins.  Even when the ancient terror once called Dengue Fever re-emerged, threatening over a dozen star systems, we were able to synthesize enough of the receptor-blocking antidote to contain its wildfire spread.

We thought it normal, of course.  Until we met the Ehft, on the brink of collapse, and learned of humanity’s curse – and our greatest treasure.

As it turns out, we’ve been cursed by many viruses, far more than any other species.  On our ancestral world, well over a hundred thousand viruses still exist, and probably many more lay dormant and hidden.  When the Ehft learned of this fact, they considered this comparable to spending every second of life with a poisoned Sword of Damocles perched inches above one’s head.

Many viruses, all rotating through their own cycles of contagion and regression.  They ravaged our species, slaying us by the millions.

But we endured.  And in survival, we learned to fight them.

We found the Ehft ship drifting, most of its crew already victims of their Feathermoult virus.  We ascertained the totally alien structure of the viral attacker, but not before the last of the Ehft had succumbed.

They did leave us a message, however – the coordinates of their homeworld.

Another dozen solar cycles, and we would have been too late.  Over and over, scholars point to this as our greatest stroke of luck.  The first intelligence not long extinct, and we barely managed to save them!  Even as our ships touched down, the last Ehftians struggled to bury their millions of dead comrades.

It wasn’t until after we had treated them that we realized just how alien the concept of pandemic assistance truly was.

Resistance!  At first, the Ehftians didn’t understand.  And indeed, we soon found a disquieting lack of immune response within their huddled bodies.  Feathermoult didn’t need to overcome their defenses.  They had none to overcome.

When the Ehftians learned of our world, of how we fought off viral invasions almost every solar cycle, they were aghast, nearly to the point of shock.  That we survived even short visits back to our ancestral homeland, much less for long enough to evolve space travel, seemed truly impossible.

When we took to the stars, we brought our most powerful weapons, our most enduring defenses.  We imagined death rays, gamma bursts, entire star systems deployed as annihilation weapons.  Instead, we found ourselves already gifted with incredible immunity to the worst of the universe.

We imagined ourselves humbled before a tribunal of ancient and wise alien races, but we found them destroyed.  We imagined fighting for our lives, but found ourselves instead fighting to save the fragile lives of those we encountered.

Before we left our star system, we tried to build up our best physical defenses, even attempting to warp the very fabric of the universe about ourselves in stasis shields.

Who would have thought that our best defense against the horrors that utterly obliterated the other races would be a handful of specialized white blood cells?

Danni California, Part 28

Continued from Part 27, here.
Start the story here.

* * *

At this point, Jasper, the man in black, sat back, lowering his stack of meticulously typed up papers down onto the table in front of him.  His eyes came up to survey his stunned audience.

Whether she was truly the first to find her voice again, or if Old Hillpaw simply let her speak, Jenny became the one to break the silence.  “It… exploded?” she asked, sounding more bewildered than anything else.

Jasper nodded.

The waitress shook her head.  “But… but why?”
“The explosives,” Hillpaw answered the question for her, before the man in black could do so.  “That must have been their plan all along, why they had to take the detour up to Minnesota in the first place.  Remember, he bought all those explosives?  He used them on the Organization’s headquarters.”

Jenny nodded, but she still looked mostly lost.  “And Danni was still alive?  I feel so lost.”

“Well, of course I’m alive!”

The new voice made both of Jasper’s listeners spin around, their heads jerking in unison like marionettes.  A new woman stood at the entrance to the bar, the midday sun streaming in from behind her and illuminating her in a halo of light.  No details were clear – except for her hair, which glowed in a corona of bright orange red around her head.

For a moment, the newcomer stood in the entrance, and both Jenny and Hillpaw could see the light glinting off her smile.  Then, moving with confidence despite a slight limp, she advanced into the bar, heading for their table.

Of course, as she settled into the last open seat at the table, there was no mistaking her identity.  Danni looked older, no longer a completely carefree teenager, but even the slightly darkened burn scar that curled up one side of her neck couldn’t ruin her smile.  She eyed the waitress and the old man with curiosity as she lightly patted Jasper’s shoulder.

“So,” she asked, “these are your captive audience, listening to all your autobiographical ramblings?”

Jasper smiled back at her, and his audience saw a new emotion on the man in black’s face: clear, shining love.  “They do keep on coming back, as if they want to hear more,” he pointed out, his frown ineffectual below his crinkled eyes.

“It’s all a ruse, my dear.”  Danni leaned in, totally unfazed by the audience, to plant a long, passionate kiss on Jasper’s lips.  “Did they figure out the little twist in your story, yet?”

She glanced over at the listeners, still smiling.  “What I’m sure Jasper neglected to tell you, downplaying his heroic role, is how he dug through the rubble of that cabin in North Dakota, finding where I’d been thrown by the blast,” she explained.  “And as I proved, I’m just too tough and full of life to be killed!”

Danni grinned, and Jenny couldn’t help but smile back at her.  Jasper, however, still looked sober for a moment.

“It was a close thing,” he pointed out.  “For a while, I wasn’t sure which way you would end up going.”

Danni shook her head, as though dismissing this, but the observers didn’t miss how she reached over and laid one hand on top of his, squeezing gently.  “As I recovered, we knew that we’d never be free of this until the Organization was well and truly gone,” she went on.  “And we didn’t have the time or ammunition to gun down everyone in that tower – so we chose to simply remove the tower.”

“The first few days in Philadelphia, I spent most of my time crawling through the sewers, planting the explosives,” Jasper added.  “We timed everything to go off at nine, but there were a million things that could go wrong.”

“And yet, despite you somehow getting yourself shot, we made it work,” Danni finished.  “And since then, the Organization has largely collapsed.”

Jenny was smiling, glad to hear that the story had a happy ending, but Old Hillpaw still wore a slight frown.  “But isn’t it still possibly dangerous to tell us?” he asked, his eyes on Jasper.

For a moment, the smile disappeared from the man in black’s face, and he nodded.  “There’s still a bit of danger, yes,” he acknowledged.  “But no one knows about our involvement in the Organization’s disappearance – and after its collapse, most of the politicians were quick to distance themselves from it and disavow it.”

“And just to be sure, we chose to settle out here, practically on the frontier,” Danni added.  “In a small town like this?  Easy to hear about any newcomer who might skulk around.”

Both of the audience members nodded to this.  Sure enough, the arrival of anyone new generally spread through the little town like wildfire.

“So,” asked Jenny at length, “what are you going to do, now that you’ve typed up the story?”

Jasper glanced down at the stack of pages.  “I think I’m going to send it off to New York, one of the big publishing houses,” he said reflectively.  “Anonymously, of course.  But I think it’s a story that ought to be told, nonetheless.”

“And I’m sure they’ll love it,” Danni added, standing up and wrapping her arms around the man in black from behind.  Even standing, it was easy to miss that she even had a limp at all, and her smile still lit up her face.  She leaned down, kissing Jasper on the cheek, holding on to him as though he was her rock, her anchor.

It was a strange combination, to be sure.  The assassin, and the woman he’d been sent to kill.  And yet, looking at the pair, both Jenny and Hillpaw had to admit, in the privacy of their own minds, that the two seemed to fit together perfectly.

And all in all, it was a good story, they both agreed.  A story, they felt, that ought to be told.

The man in black, the Priest, and the girl with hair of fire, the bank robber, the outlaw.

A good match.

The end!  Finally!  Wow, that story went on quite a bit longer than expected.  I think I’ll need to recover with some short stuff before undertaking another epic of such size.