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Future Tense: Gut Feelings

From the intersection of computational science and technological speculation, with boundaries limited only by our ability to imagine what could be.
Even a little genetic engineering can render us too comfortable for our own good.
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Gut Feelings, illustration

I’m a tax inspector. I don’t expect to be liked.

‘They’re up to something in there,’ said Geraldine Myles, her finger-tap casting a black shadow on the map projection. ‘I can feel it.’

‘We can all feel it, chief,’ I said. ‘It’s getting the evidence that’s the problem.’

The LifeCycles forest covered most of Fife. Its export record didn’t square with its revenue. The product’s popularity was as inarguable as it was unaccountable. Every inspector we’d sent in had returned glowing reports. The young lady from Environment was so impressed she’d chucked in her job and joined it. Drones? The forest found a way to swat them. The tiny wreckage was always returned, with a bland apology and a note on commercial secrecy.

‘Evidence? That’s where you come in.’ Myles shot me an evil smile. ‘Or rather, that’s where you’re going in.’

Talk in private? Sure, happy to do that. We’ve got nothing to hide. Everything’s open and above board, even if it’s a bit dark and gloomy looking. But what’s private these days? The trees don’t talk, but the walls listen; that’s what we say around here.

Walls? I’m confused for a moment, until I realize this friendly foreman is referring to the densely interwoven genetically modified hedge that surrounds and covers this place deep in the forest. It’s one of the LifeCycles recreation spots, modeled on an old-fashioned pub. The lighting is bioluminescent tubes. The floor is like pine needles, the furnishings cork. The bar at the center is conventional polished hardwood, but seamless in a way that makes me suspect it’s GM, too. A couple dozen people are here, at the end of the working day. Folks come and go through gaps in the hedge. Talk is careless when loud. I can’t hear what it’s like when it’s quiet. But the wire can.

It’s not the walls he should be worrying about.

We call the transmitter injected across my collarbones ‘the wire,’ but that’s just a skeuomorph. It’s a new device. It’ll be about a fortnight before it disintegrates. Subcutaneous, organic, undetectable … and now, with a carefully casual shrug of my shoulders


Sit yourself down and let me get you a pint. No, no … it’s nothing, it’s a local brew, you can see the kegs right there. Yes, it’s all covered in the forest bylaws; you can look it up.

Cheers! Good stuff, eh?

You were saying? Oh yes! The trees. Well, I can see how you might get that impression. A lot of folks do, the first time. Oppressive and sinister, they tell me. It’s dark beneath the trees—but the leaves are designed to catch as much sunlight as possible.

And the branches … nothing but bicycle frames, thousands of them. It looks sinister only when you let daft ideas into your head, about a crooked arm, maybe, with clawed fingers, but it’s just the frame and the forks and the mudguards. The saddles look weird before they’re fully grown, on the trunks like cankers, but that’s all they are. Growths, like the seats we’re sitting on. Don’t get up. It’ll only go out of shape.

There’s a skill to the job, you know. Say you see a growth that’s going wild, or a stray sapling from another plantation, and you have to prune it before it spreads. OK, I’ll put the knife away. I don’t want you to feel uncomfortable.

Settle in. Take it easy.

I know, I know. The lab boys—and girls of course—will tell you it’s all predictable, like a chemical factory. But biology’s not like that, even when it’s synthetic. I’m not mystical about it. It’s just mutation and natural selection. We have a joke—that we’re for intelligent design, and against evolution. Intelligent design is what the company does, and evolution is what it pays us to prevent.

But you can’t. Not completely.

Time for another. No, not at all, my treat. You’re our guest here. And have a shot of spirit on the side; yes, we do our own distilling. Careful though, you’re probably not used to it.

Just a sip, that’s it. Oh! There’s a napkin. A gulp of beer afterward, that’s the trick. Gesundheit! Here, have another napkin.

Where were we? Oh yes. This tax business you’re on about. Well, the company takes care of all that. We get our bank statements on our phones. Take a look. Yes, the balance does mount up. Not much we need to spend money on here. Every so often some government department sends in someone young and keen like yourself who thinks they can make a big deal of some little thing and make a name for themselves. But they soon come round, every one of them.

Take Jess over there. Lovely girl. No, she’s not smoking. Good grief, do you think we’re crazy? It’s some kind of steam, you just roll up the leaf real tight like, and it heats up in the center. Some experimental thing that blew in, no doubt. Like I was saying, evolution.

Got him right there, admitting a breach of the GM regulations. My cheerful host waves a hand around the crowded recreation shelter, oblivious to his own carelessness … but the offense is trivial compared to the tax evasion, and I doubt he knows anything about how the company pulls it off.

Anyway, Jess. Oh, hi. Just telling him about you, but I’m sure you can … ah, be off with you!

That woman will be the death of me some day. Likes her fun. Loves her work. But you should have seen her when she came here two years ago. Health and Safety inspector. Hard hat and high heels and a clipboard. Wouldn’t touch the beer, insisted on fruit juice. None of ours, either. She took a bottle from her own handbag and sipped from it.

Sit yourself down, I said, and got a beer for myself and started talking to her, just like I’m talking to you. After a while she began to come round to my way of seeing things, just like you are.

So that’s what became of the young lady from Environment … I find myself enjoying the sound of the forester’s voice, and somehow that lazy enjoyment is more important than the discovery. Must be the vague benign glow from the drink. The drink! Have I been slipped something?

Nah, don’t look at your pint like that, or even your shot. It’s good beer and good grain spirit with a touch of flavoring, that’s all. It’s not what’s bringing you round. And it’s not what’s been making you sneeze.

It’s the spores.

Told you, the seat’s made from the same stuff as the bike saddles. Just another mutant growth. But it’s not just the shape that’s mutated.

The spores waft out whenever you shift your weight. You can’t help but inhale them. The people who designed the bikes wanted people to feel confident riding them, so they did a bit of tinkering with the spores. Put a bit of genetic code in to work on the old nervous system. Give feelings of confidence and rightness and wellbeing.

So that’s why LifeCycles bikes sell so well, why their customers are so loyal. And their employees, too … and why everyone who finds out about this massive, brazen violation of the GM regulations and all the relevant international conventions keeps quiet about it. And why every tax inspector who goes in finds the accounts add up. Or if they don’t, they like the people here too much to tell on them.

Just as I won’t.

The funny thing is, I should be feeling outraged, but I’m not. I’m laughing at the ingenuity and effrontery of it all. I look at the guy, grinning stupidly. There’s something I want to tell him. It’s just on the tip of my tongue. But I can’t.

And our bar seats have the same effect on anyone who sits on them—good feelings.

Gut feelings, you might say. Because that’s where they come from—your intestinal flora tweaked by the spores to pump out mood-modifying molecules to your bloodstream.

Doesn’t mean they’re not real feelings.

You’ll like it here.

And I did, for several days. The feelings were real all right. I loved the place. I looked around and considered what job to apply for, and kept phoning in glowing reports to the office. Meanwhile, the polycarbonate strands under my skin kept reporting back what was really going on. Then, the next morning, I woke to the sound of helicopters.

The Revenue knew what the wire had reported, but back at the office they got nothing out of me. Geraldine was very understanding, and put me on sick leave until the artificial loyalty wore off.

Now it has, I can tell the story. But one question still bothers me: What stopped me, for those days of synthetic love for the company, from telling them about the wire?

Only now, when the wire has disintegrated, do I realize one obvious answer—the wire itself. The Revenue has its own biochemical tricks to ensure loyalty and secrecy. And it isn’t telling anyone about them.

When I ask Geraldine if I’m right, she looks vague.

‘It’s just on the tip of my tongue,’ she says. ‘It’ll come back to me.’

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