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Donald looked blank. During the pause, a waiter passed and inquired if they wanted anything; Deirdre ordered coffee.

“Come off it!” she continued as the man moved away. “You must know what the set-up’s like in this country—it positively breeds non-stories!”

“I don’t really,” Donald said. “I’ve never been here before.”

“But they said something about you speaking the lingo.”

“I do—just a little. But this is my first visit.”

“Why, those blockbottomed…! No, that’s unfair. I guess there can’t be too many people around who know genetics and Yatakangi both—it’s the son and daughter of a bitch of a language.” Deirdre sighed, leaning back in her chair and putting her fingers together.

“Better fill you in on the scene, then—clear away some of the crazy ideas they seem to keep at Engrelay HQ. Let’s begin with me, since they probably didn’t advertise the full details of my status. I’m here primarily for the Cape Broadcasting Commission. Since Cape doesn’t yet stretch its funds to satellite relay stations they don’t object if I act as stringer for one—maximum one—beam agency that does have satellites. I used to represent the Common Europe Satelserv, but a year or two ago I managed to change horses in midstream. Didn’t expect much to come of the new status. Like any other country where the government keeps a tight rein, most of what you pipe through is handouts and your own stuff has to be carefully tailored to avoid offending the censors.

“Then suddenly the only big story in five years breaks, and here I am. For a bit I thought wow. But what have I had since the first day? Official propaganda and official brushoffs. For a reason I cannot figure out but can make some educated guesses about, the lid is on and the pressure is rising.”

“What sort of guesses?” Donald demanded. “Do you mean Sugaiguntung can’t do what—?”

“Sugaiguntung’s tinkered with genetics here before. Moving him over to people instead of rubber-trees is a change of quantity, not quality. But if rumour’s to be trusted this place is going to be turned over and shaken.” Deirdre let her voice drop almost to a whisper after a quick survey of their neighbours in the library.

“I hear Jogajong is back.”

Donald stared.

“Do I have to tell you what that means? If it’s true, Yatakang is going to go up in a fashion that makes the Singhalese Revolution look like the Wars of the Roses!”

There was a pause. Eventually Deirdre said, “Okay. Before you ask why I told you that, I’ll explain. Don’t kid yourself you can stick to your brief and cover nothing but the Sugaiguntung story. Scientific expert or not, if anything does blow, you’ll be Engrelay’s man on the spot and I’ll be what I’ve always been—a local stringer. I want to strike a bargain with you.”

“Such as…?”

“Share leads. A four-hour beat on any genuine new story either of us picks up solo.”

Donald thought that over. He said at length, “I can’t think of any reason why not, except I don’t see that I’m likely to pick up much that you can use.”

“I’m no expert. I may be wrong about the optimisation programme. What I have to go on is political, not scientific.”

The waiter delivered her coffee, and she poured a cup before resuming what she was saying.

“You see, I’ve been here long enough to recognise the typical official smokescreen. Solukarta is generating window for all he’s worth. This genetic programme is supposed to be developed from Sugaiguntung’s work on apes, right? In every country people are clamouring for the process because they’ve been forbidden to become parents, right? Yet no foreign correspondent, not even the Chinese and Japanese, has managed to get at Sugaiguntung without some ‘interpreter’ or other. I speak Yatakangi—what’s more Sugaiguntung studied in your country and wrote his scientific papers in English before the government hinted that it was—ah—‘unpatriotic’. For me he needs an interpreter?”

“Editing,” Donald said.

“You’re on the orbit.” Deirdre poured the first of her coffee over her large lower lip and set the cup down with a chinking noise. “Right—your turn to do some talking. I want to know about the scientific side. Far as I can figure out, the only part of the optimisation process which has been properly discussed is a cloning technique—that the right word? Thought so. But as I understand it … Well, Sugaiguntung’s a genius and nobody says otherwise, but for this you’d need not geniuses but assembly-line technicians.”

“That’s pretty well right,” Donald agreed. “But how about all these doctors and nurses from outlying islands, coming to Gongilung to be taught the method?”

Deirdre gave a coarse laugh. “They came, all right. But they haven’t been sent up to the university for instruction. They’ve been told to go home and await receipt of a printed manual.

“It sounds as though I’m chasing shadows,” Donald said.

“We think so. Of course, the people don’t, and that’s where trouble may arise. If they decide they’ve been deceived—boom!”

Donald pondered. He had no doubt that this was exactly what the people who had sent him wanted to hear: that the optimisation programme was a fraud mounted for political reasons. But surely a man with an international reputation like Sugaiguntung’s wouldn’t allow his government to let itself be caught out in a flagrant lie? Sugaiguntung was at least as much of a patriot as any member of the world-wide confraternity of science could be. Besides, he’d be blamed along with Solukarta if the calamity occurred.

“Come on!” Deirdre said. “I want to hear your view. There isn’t an expert on genetics in this country who’ll talk freely to a foreign reporter—they just roll their eyes as though Sugaiguntung was Grandfather Loa incarnate.”

Donald drew a deep breath. What he was going to say could have been found as easily through an encyclopedia connection over the phone, but laymen possibly wouldn’t have known the right questions to ask.

“Well, there are three main ways of optimising your gene-pool without diminishing your population. Solukarta seems to be trying to keep it steady—I recall seeing that his planners were assuming a plus two per cent value for the year 2050—so we can disregard culling.”

“What’s that?”

“Selective eugenic extermination of bad hereditary lines.”

Deirdre shuddered. “They were talking about that in my country before the War of Independence—but never mind. Go on.”

“One way is what’s now generally adopted in countries with a suitable enforcement agency: eugenic legislation. Without actually killing off the bad heredities, you make it difficult or impossible for them to reproduce. That’s not much more than a directed version of natural selection, and people have grown used to it.

“Another technique is the one you mentioned—cloning. You implant a sound cell-nucleus in an ovum in place of the faulty one which results naturally from conventional fertilisation. This has drawbacks—it costs a fortune because it takes skilled tectogeneticists to do the job, and it’s susceptible to unforeseen side-effects. Even if you make the transplant with apparent success you may induce recessive mutations that crop up in a future generation. The child is necessarily of the parent’s sex. It takes anything up to twenty attempts before you get a viable ovum. And so on.

“The third way is the easiest. You deliberately breed from sound lines only, as you do with domestic cattle. This can be simple—you merely send the mother to bed with a healthy partner—or it can have luxy elaborations, up to and including external fertilisation by AID and reimplantation in the mother.”

“I’ve been wondering,” Deirdre said, “whether the outcome of all this is going to be no more than a national sperm bank, so people can have cubs by Solukarta and other prominent figures.”