FICTION: Enclaves by Aaron Emmel

I closed the window against the smoke and the sound of distant gunfire. As the shields slid up to block out the sky I felt restless for the world outside. Maybe just a walk around the block, I told myself. My eyes went to the gloves and respirator mask hanging by the door. But I shook my head at the thought. It was almost dark.

I checked to make sure the alarms were on and my doors were sealed. Then I went to the kitchen and allowed myself a small drink of water, even though I had promised myself that I would wait at least until eight in order to ration it. It was going to be another long night.

The inevitable wailing of sirens started early. I watched TV for a few minutes, then switched off the set and pulled a well-worn photo album from off of the shelf before settling back down into my ancient recliner. I had brought the chair with me from DC years ago, and even though its padding had migrated to all the wrong places and it no longer reclined, sitting in it provided me with a sense of continuity.

I opened the album. I didn’t know anyone else who still kept entire books of physical photos. But I never had to worry about these pictures getting corrupted or hacked or their format becoming obsolete. And the paper, for me, served the same function as my dilapidated chair. It reminded me that the past had truly existed, that some aspect of it still remained intact enough to hold.

Most of the pictures were of me and Laurel. The Grand Canyon, the Pacific coast, Disneyland. Places I would never see again. I was struck by how radiant she looked, how alive her hazel eyes were. She should see this, I thought. I made a mental note to bring the album with me to the hospital in the morning.

I turned the page and there was an old photograph of Sandra. She stood with her arm around the shoulders of a girl whose name I didn’t remember in front of the Museum of Natural History on the National Mall.

It occurred to me then, for the first time, that Sandra had never offered to give me the rhea.

#

It’s strange now to think that I once knew her. One of the Bonded. But things were different then.

From the beginning, the other kids seemed to recognize that Sandra didn’t belong in the small mountain town where we both grew up. They resented her the way they would have resented an outsider, except that most of the newcomers in the town at least paid the compliment of trying to break into the community, whereas with Sandra it was always evident that someday she would escape. Our classmates made her pay for it by constantly picking on her.

Our teacher loved to call on Sandra because she read a lot and always knew the answers. Everyone would turn to glare at her when the teacher singled her out. But she always gave the correct response, in a tiny voice with her eyes on the floor.

Sandra kept to herself on the playground, drifting by the other kids’ games and looking on at them silently. Once I invited her to play tag with us, but everyone kept making sure that she was always it, and for the rest of the week people called me her boyfriend. I didn’t invite her again.

There was a narrow, partly secluded area just off the playground between the fence and a portable classroom. One day, walking along the row of bushes that hugged the fence and imagining myself an intrepid explorer, I reached the end of the hedge and saw Sandra sitting cross-legged on the ground in front of me, her bob-cut hair falling like glossy curtains on either side of her face, absorbed in an elaborate construction project involving dirt, twigs, and stones. There were a notebook and a library book on the ground beside her.

Sandra looked completely at ease, almost grinning. Her clear brown eyes were intent on a tiny tower she was raising with rocks and the broken-off tips of fallen branches. I spent a minute watching her before she even realized I was there. But the moment she looked up and saw me, her cheeks flushed and her eyes widened like some terrible secret had been exposed.

I looked at her creation admiringly. “I like your castle.”

She dropped the stone she had been holding and bent lower over the project as if to shield it with her body. “It’s a palace,” she corrected in her quiet voice.

I stuffed my hands into my pockets. I wanted to ask if I could help, because I had seen a good place for a keep and maybe a curtain wall, but I was certain she would say no and I already knew what the other kids would say—I would probably be her husband this time, not her boyfriend. And I wasn’t even sure if palaces had keeps.

I was still trying to figure out what to say when I heard voices behind me. I turned around to see Robby approach with his two minions, Gus and Chris.

Robby stopped beside me and looked down at Sandra. “Why are you hiding back here?”

“I’m not hiding,” Sandra said.

“You’re making a castle?” Robby demanded.

Sandra didn’t say anything.

“It’s a palace,” I told him.

Robby stared at me. “I forgot she’s your girlfriend.”

Sandra raised her chin and straightened her shoulders, waiting.

Robby stepped up to the miniature structure and spread his arms. “Oh no!” he said. “A meteor!” He lifted his right foot. “It’s heading for the castle! Everybody run!” He slammed his foot down in a spray of dirt and stones.

I looked from the ruined mound surrounding Robby’s sneaker to Sandra sitting in front of it. I wanted to do something, to stand up for her, but I didn’t know what to say. Sandra looked at me expressionlessly before brushing the dirt off her knees, picking up her books and walking away.

“You jerk,” I said to Robby, but Sandra was already gone. I expected Robby to hit me for that, but instead he replied, “There goes your girlfriend, Jake. Go run after her.” He and his friends sauntered off in the opposite direction.

Sandra and I avoided each other for the next few weeks. But we went to a small school, so it was inevitable that eventually we would run into each other at lunch or stand next to each other in line. I finally worked up the nerve to talk to her. The first time, when I greeted her while we waited for the bus, she just looked at me as if she didn’t know me. Gradually, however, she let her guard down.

We never spoke about that day with Robby on the playground. And one afternoon, when I asked her about a book she was reading, she must have considered the question too personal, because she simply shrugged and glanced away. But she relaxed enough around me to discuss our homework, and our energetically bumbling teacher, and the gruel the school tried to convince us was food.

One day, while I was telling Sandra about a show I had watched the evening before, Gus passed us and said, “How’s your girlfriend, Jake?” loudly enough for everyone nearby to hear. I knew it wasn’t true—at least, I thought it wasn’t true, not being an expert on the subject—but instead of feeling ashamed I suddenly felt a little proud. My cheeks were hot, and when I looked up at Sandra I saw that even though she was looking to the side, as if she hadn’t heard, she was blushing.

My family left Colorado before I finished grade school, and I didn’t think much about Sandra again until 2019, when I was a graduate student at Georgetown. By those days everyone was on a social network called Facebook, so it didn’t surprise me when one day Sandra contacted me from out of the blue. She said she was going to John Hopkins University, she was interning over the summer at a biotech firm in Ballston, and did I want to get a drink.

We met at Capitol City Brewing Company. There was little connection between the serious little girl I remembered and the self-assured woman in front of me. Over the restaurant’s signature ale and free pretzels, she explained that she was getting a master’s degree in biochemistry. She was excited about her internship, because the company was doing cutting-edge research, had great pay and benefits, and had a history of giving their interns job offers. She told me the name of the company, Genocorp, which at the time meant nothing to me, and which I didn’t remember until it became such a fixture on the news a few years later.

She was equally excited about the work itself, and quite open to talking about it. She was part of a team designing bioengineered nanomachines that could monitor people’s health and perform simple tasks such as releasing medicines at prescribed times and doses, attacking cancerous cells and regulating blood glucose levels. I don’t believe she ever used the word “rhea,” and it’s possible that the nanomachines had not even been given that name yet.

“I don’t think people realize how far medical research has come,” she said, “or how quickly so many of the things we’ve taken for granted can change. Just think about the rise in life expectancy over the past century.”

Then she asked about me. I was living in Adams Morgan and doing part-time work for an NGO that monitored situations in conflict areas, and I was waiting for a call back for a job on Capitol Hill that I was pretty confident about.

When I asked about her life, Sandra mentioned friends in Arlington and described some clubs and art shows she had recently gone to, but it didn’t take long for her to move the conversation back to her research, and as soon as she did so her voice changed. She spoke more firmly, her eyes bold and intent.

“Our goal isn’t just automated medicine capsules,” she said. “Think more of mitochondria. They’re passed on through a mother’s eggs. But they started off as separate organisms, probably bacteria. At some point, though, we developed an endosymbiotic relationship. That set life on an entirely new path of evolution.” She swirled her drink in its glass. “What we’re working on now could represent just as big of a change.”

Sandra graduated the following spring and took a permanent position with Genocorp. On a couple of occasions I went to Smithsonian museums with her and some of her friends, and shortly after she arrived in DC we took a walk together to the Tidal Basin. But both of us had our own lives, and although we remained in touch, we saw little of each other over the next few years.

If you’re old enough, then you probably remember that 2023 was the year that Genocorp hit the news. Other than my conversations with Sandra, I had never heard their name before. But suddenly it seemed they were being mentioned in every message post, news feed and vid-cast. And that was before the riots.

They broke out all over the world. They began spontaneously, but the August 7 marches were coordinated in more than a dozen countries. Four people died in Paris, and in Puebla, Mexico, where Genocorp had a lab, the city was effectively shut down for four days. I was working for a lobbying firm on K Street by that time, and my coworkers and I gathered at the windows to watch protestors take over the sidewalks to shake “Shut Down Genocorp” signs and shout anti-cloning slogans. As far as I knew, Genocorp only had a minor therapeutic cloning program, but that wasn’t the point. Cloning or no, they were tampering with the human species.

I don’t think you can say there was a single turning point, but it’s clear that August 7 was the day that even the most news-averse people became aware that something was going on. That’s also the first time I heard the term “rhea” to describe the nanomachines that Sandra had told me about.

In September, the firm I worked for became a Genocorp client. I helped draft testimony for the inevitable congressional hearings. Congress ended up passing comprehensive new bills, but they were probably less comprehensive than they would have been without our efforts. That’s also about the time the first international treaties started getting drawn up.

Because of my professional involvement, combined with my natural curiosity and the fact that I felt I had at least a tenuous connection to the company through Sandra, I decided to take a public Genocorp tour. Its headquarters was a rather unremarkable twelve-story building with a brick façade, a few blocks from the Metro. About a dozen silent protestors stood on the sidewalk across the street, holding up signs that warned of dire genetic calamities and accused Genocorp of playing God. Five security guards watched them through sunglasses from their positions in front of Genocorp’s tinted glass doors.

My group had eight people. There was a family of four on vacation from Wisconsin, a student from American University working on a report, and a retired couple who apparently lived in the area and just wanted to see what all the fuss was about. Our tour guide, Henry, was nineteen or twenty and dressed in a black suit. His face looked so polished that his cheeks seemed to glow beneath the overhead lights, and he spoke with the forceful camaraderie of a car salesman or a senator.

Henry met us in front of the receptionist’s desk and introduced himself as he led us across the vast, black stone tile floor of the lobby. More security guards watched us from posts along the walls.

Henry took us to a model laboratory and hurried us through a small library, but most of the tour ended up being confined to a single long room, just off of the lobby, where rows of interactive video and holo-screens looped programs about all the ways that Genocorp was helping people live longer, saving sick kids’ lives, and generally making the world a brighter and happier place.

The college student raised his hand. “Can you explain why people with rhea have been refused visas to Singapore and other countries?”

“Sure,” Henry said. “That’s a really good question. I’m glad you asked that. We’ve been talking to Singapore, and we expect to get this cleared up. The problem really comes down to a simple misunderstanding, and the misunderstanding is based on the reality that because the rhea are so new, and so revolutionary, people who aren’t familiar with them don’t know how to describe them, and the terms they’re using really give an incorrect impression.”

He used images from a nearby holo-screen to make his point. “The issue is how the latest version of rhea are given, or ‘bonded,’ to a new patient,” he explained, as the screen illustrated the process. The video showed that the rhea were sheathed in a virus package, and like retroviruses their operating instructions were encoded in a single strand of RNA. When they entered a host cell, the rhea RNA used an enzyme to copy itself and insert its genes into the cell’s DNA. From that point forward, every time the cell divided, the rhea spread with it.

“The point to remember is that even though we borrowed tools from viruses to make the rhea, the rhea aren’t viruses,” Henry told us. “Genocorp built in protections to make sure that rhea can’t be spread accidentally from person to person. But most vloggers aren’t scientists, so to boost viewership they talk about the risk of people getting ‘infected’ with rhea, and that’s why people are scared.”

Despite his reassurances, what soon provoked the biggest backlash against Genocorp was what the company apparently hadn’t protected against: as everyone now knows, the rhea implant themselves in germ cells as well, which means that they are passed from a mother’s eggs on to her children. Just like mitochondria.

In 2024 there was an attack on Genocorp’s headquarters. The reinforced glass entrance doors were shattered and several security guards were injured. I called Sandra to make sure she was all right. She sounded angry, not scared. “People think that if they yell loud enough or break enough things they can stop progress,” she said on the other end of the phone. “But it can’t be stopped, because people will never stop asking questions.”

By 2025 I had returned to the Southwest and was living in Albuquerque, but that summer I went back to Washington for a public relations professionals conference, and Sandra and I met for coffee. It was the middle of the day, and she came to the coffee shop wearing her work ID badge, which had the Genocorp logo prominently displayed on it. I wouldn’t have thought most people would have recognized the logo any longer, since the media furor had died down, but the barista glared first at it and then at Sandra before handing over our coffee, and I saw a guy on a tablet staring at us, unhappily, from across the room. I have to admit I was uncomfortable.

I also wasn’t sure any more where I stood. I had defended Genocorp as a lobbyist, but they had made a lot of mistakes since then. I nodded when Sandra said, “The virus connection is what’s freaked a lot of people out. It’s kind of like giving vaccines to people who aren’t familiar with them. Their first reaction is, ‘Why is it a good thing for me to get injected with a disease?’ There’s a long educational process. Think of all the parents who try to keep their kids from getting vaccinated at school.”

As she leaned back in her chair, I noticed how fit she looked. She moved with a controlled strength I associated with professional athletes.

Later I asked her, “Are there many people who have been injected with rhea?”

“Oh, of course,” she said.

“Is there a signup list?”

“Oh, right now it’s not approved in the United States,” she said. “It’s still in the testing stages.”

I looked at her. “Do you have rhea?”

She smiled at me over her coffee mug. “Let’s talk about something else,” she suggested.

The next time I saw her was in 2027 in Montreal, where I had flown for a job interview. I had already decided that I wasn’t willing to relocate from New Mexico, but I had always wanted to visit Canada, and the combination of the interview and Sandra’s promise to show me around provided an opportunity I decided not to pass up.

Genocorp had recently moved its headquarters to the country, where apparently it faced less hostility than in the United States. Sandra met me at my hotel and took me to a lounge at the base of Mont-Royal. Although this time there was nothing about her to give away the fact that she worked for Genocorp, and Quebec’s government had lured Genocorp to its province with tax breaks, I remembered the looks we had drawn during our last encounter and couldn’t stop myself from feeling somewhat brave and loyal for being out with her.

There was a slow-moving line in front of the lounge. When we reached the door I saw that in order to enter each customer had to walk past a scanner. As soon as Sandra stepped in front of it, a red light flashed and a buzzer went off.

“You have rhea,” the bouncer explained to her. “You’re a Bonded.” He pointed a massive finger at the sign next to the door: No Bonded allowed.

“We just want a drink,” I told the bouncer.

The other people in the line stared at us, and the closest backed up a little.

“It’s nothing personal,” the bouncer said. “It’s a safety thing.”

I started to protest more loudly, but Sandra stopped me. We ended up going to a small Thai restaurant down the street. “You seem pretty unfazed about that,” I said after we had sat down.

She shrugged. “That’s the way some people are.”

I told her that I’d made several contributions to an organization that campaigned for equal rights for people with rhea. “Do you know if Genocorp’s supported that campaign at all?”

“I wouldn’t think so,” she said.

“Do you think it’s making an impact?”

“Campaign or no campaign,” she told me, “progress can’t be stopped.”

I was eager to talk about Laurel, whom I had just met a few weeks before, and that occupied our conversation after we ordered. Later, while we were waiting for the server to take our plates, I said, “People are treating the rhea like a disease. But even when someone does have an infectious disease we’ve gotten good about nondiscrimination, so why is this any different?”

Sandra took a sip of her iced coffee. “There are nondiscrimination laws, and Canada has some of the strictest, but not everyone’s following them, and in many cases the police aren’t enforcing them.”

“You just need to educate people,” I said. “If you explained more about what the rhea can do, and people understood why you have them, things like we saw tonight wouldn’t happen any more.”

Laurel and I started dating soon after that, and I put less effort into keeping up with my long-distance friends, including Sandra. In 2028 Laurel and I got married. Sandra tried to come, but even though she was still a U.S. citizen and the United States had thousands of residents with rhea, she was delayed at the border by the new Quarantine Laws. Eventually she gave up and returned home. The Bonded, as people with rhea were now called, were officially undesirable.

The last time I saw her was in 2030. Laurel had gotten sick and her doctors couldn’t determine the problem. They urged me to consult with a researcher at Genocorp who had published about a patient with similar symptoms. Laurel was already too weak to travel, so I went alone.

Sandra had changed so much, and I felt so inferior the moment I saw her, that I hesitated when I entered the room. Then I forced a smile onto my face and walked up to her table. Since I had seen her last I had gotten older, balder and heavier and a little bit wrinkled, but she looked even younger. She looked healthier than she had as a graduate student, healthier than she had a decade earlier in the coffee shop when I was certain she had started working out.

Along with her appearance, I was struck by how much her references had diverged from mine. When a particular song came on, she grinned and said, “Oh, this is just like Davie!”

I asked, “Davie?”

She looked at me for a long moment, shrugged, and said, “Oh, it’s a vid-cast. It’s gotten a lot of attention.”

I looked across the table at her and understood that I would never meet with her again. There was a gulf between us that was becoming too wide to cross.

Recognizing this made me think, for some reason, of that day long ago with Robby on the playground. It had always been hanging over me, I suddenly understood. I had wanted ever since then for Sandra to know that I was willing to stand up for her, willing to take a punch from the biggest kid in the class if necessary. Wanted her to know that I was sorry.

But the girl I wanted to speak to was decades in the past, and I was too embarrassed by the difference between us to say any of those things to the flawless woman sitting in front of me. So I reached for my drink and said nothing.

In 2031 came the pogroms. They started in South America and spread. In the United States the Bonded were rounded up and put into huge walled compounds outside of the major cities, for their own protection the government said, with autonomous strike vehicles stationed around their perimeters to guard against local vigilante groups. Vertical farming towers were erected so they wouldn’t have to rely on food shipments from outside.

Sandra got married in 2035. Her engagement pictures showed her looking exactly as she had in 2030. She invited me to go to the wedding, and on a whim I decided to buy a plane ticket. Laurel, who had been confined to bed for nearly three years by that point, encouraged me to go mostly, I think, because she wanted at least one of us to be able to spend some time away from the house. But I was denied entry into Canada. I was convinced there was a misunderstanding somewhere, because I had always thought that Americans could go anywhere. When I called the consulate I received a message I was to begin hearing a lot of: “We’re only accepting Bonded right now.”

Then came the floods of ’36 and the food shortages. We kept waiting and waiting for the food to come back into the stores and the prices to go down, until finally we realized that this time they weren’t. And that’s when people began trying to break into the Bondeds’ enclaves. And in ’37 the real riots began.

Even if we hadn’t been so far away, and Laurel hadn’t been in the hospital by then, I wouldn’t have joined the crowds at the northern border in February. I already knew what to expect. But I watched the broadcast. I saw the massing crowds of Americans, and the line of crowd control robots arrayed before them, keeping them out. I turned off the ’cast, because just as I had already realized I would never see Sandra again, I had also come to realize that all the time we thought we were locking the Bonded in, they were really locking us out.

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Aaron Emmel

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Aaron’s stories have appeared in Hypertext Magazine, Chicago Literati, Two Cities Review, and other publications. He also writes essays, comic books, and interactive fiction. The conclusion of his science fiction gamebook trilogy, Midnight Legion, will be released this winter by Studio 9. Visit him online at www.aaronemmel.com.

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