Dairy farms tend to keep a steer or two every year, from the otherwise unwanted male calves, for meat. Most also keep an entire bull. Of course, the best cows on the farm, the mothers of the next generation, are inseminated artificially,1 but the lesser cows – those whose breeding and dairy worth fall between the magic numbers that make them worth breeding from, at the higher end, and not worth keeping, at the lower end – are inseminated the old fashioned way, by a surly, muscular, snorting lump of beef. Of course, farmers burn the horn stubs when the cattle they’re keeping are just calves, but a ton of flesh and bone is still not to be trifled with, and many farmers caught on the wrong side of the fence with a rampaging bull have reached inside to find hitherto unguessed abilities in sprinting and the high jump.

In this case, it stomped one of our pig’s heads in, at which point we discovered why they were so docile. They didn’t have any brains to speak of.

Of course, there was brain there, but half the headcase was empty – enough, in fact, that the pig was still wandering around quite happily when the bull had charged on to eventual capture. Infection set in quickly, but not before we were able to see that the brain was perfectly formed, but shrunken. This was no clumsy surgery, but a quality of the way the pig had grown.

From this, we figured out that the Professor had tried to create humanised pigs that wouldn’t raise so many “ethical dilemmas” (most of which, when it comes to biotechnology, are based on misunderstandings of the procedures involved). Since they didn’t have brains, they couldn’t have whatever it is that makes killing a human murder, just because they shared a few genes. By that age, I could see that such an attempt was naïve, but we kept the secret for him, and indeed from him. The pig had died, and that was all he knew. We never even told him that it was delicious.

1This is the famous procedure involving Putting One’s Hand Up A Cow’s Bottom, in a long plastic sleeve; in this position, the farmer can feel through the walls of the rectum to guide the inseminating probe to its target. It is exactly as disgusting as it sounds, and it’s the reason why you can afford to buy milk at all.

It helps, in understanding this narrative (which I’ll keep short), to know that pigs have organs which are approximately the same size and shape as those of humans. The liver, heart etc are all the right size to fit in the spaces left by the removal of their diseased counterpart, but they’d be torn apart by the immune system if doctors tried to use them. So it’s well known that one of the Big Projects in genetics for the early 21st century is to produce humanised pigs – that is, pigs with human immune indicators, so they can be transplanted – and to make them socially and politically acceptable.

The pigs had arrived shortly after our sixteenth birthdays; just weaned, and with a note from the Professor saying he’d pay us to raise them to adulthood. So, of course, we did. And they were basically ordinary pigs, which is to say eating machines. There was something a little odd about them; they seemed to operate on autopilot, rather than the usual piggish intelligence. They’d wander to the trough, eat, then wander back to the warm hut in the corner of the pen. Still, they grew normally, and James and I speculated that maybe they were an experiment in breeding for docility. Then the bull got out.

When Darwin had joined us at the waterfall end of the pool, hot water cascading down on our submerged shoulders, washing away the tension of the last few weeks, James spoke up.

Okay, now that we’re in clothes that the CIA never touched, and sitting under a white noise generator… what do we know?” He turned to me, as he always has.

Everything that’s happened over the last three weeks has been bullshit.”

Everything?” Alex drawled, raising an eyebrow at me.

Well… our training wasn’t completely bunk, and Charles really was brought up at the time we saw him, but let’s see… they didn’t knock us out, they killed us. The body identified to us as Charles Darwin is the one I’m wearing now; it just had to put on a little weight in the tank. We weren’t given anything like the real story and I still have no idea who actually calls the shots in this program, though I suspect the Professor has a lot of influence, and I’m pretty sure the US government has no idea this is going on.” I took a deep breath.

For what it’s worth, Crenshaw’s a CIA man. I’ve… encountered him before.” She said no more.

How do you know they killed us?” James asked.

Feel behind your neck, right up against your skull. Remember when they unplugged our friend here?” I indicated Darwin. “Plus it makes more sense that they’ve got one crazily complicated scheme for turning people into supersoldiers, rather than two. They didn’t put Darwin through the tests we got because they didn’t want to show us how similar the results were. Is Crenshaw competent?” I directed this last question to Alex, who immediately gave a wry smile.

He’s a stuffed shirt with a rich dad. Likes to think he’s something out of a James Bond novel, though.”

I figured as much. He should have taken us in a blacked-out van to some little anonymous warehouse and told us nothing. Instead he let the Professor browbeat him. That means we probably have a way of circumventing the listeners, if we can only find it.”

How do you figure that?”

And so James and I told her the story of the pigs.

The sun was definitely westering as we turned off the main highway onto an unpaved forestry road leading into the pines near Rotorua. It was a weekday, so our chances of having the swimming hole to ourselves were average, rather than awful.

Perhaps that needs a little explanation. Kerosene Creek is one of those places the native inhabitants of tourist destinations keep to themselves, in order to remain sane. It’s a hot-water river, very poorly signposted; either you know where it is already or you’re not local enough to know about it at all. There’s a waterfall that does for a shower, then a deepish pool where one can soak, in pristine natural surroundings if one ignores the large sign warning of the danger of meningococcal infection that comes with putting one’s head underwater.

Okay, let’s see… can you remember which is girls and which is boys, Will?”

I think that clump over there is the girl’s changing rooms, and this one right here is ours.”

I don’t see any buildings…” Alex said uncertainly.

No, the clumps themselves are the changing rooms. If we put facilities here, people might start using them!”

James was already wearing his togs instead of shorts, so he just whipped his shirt off and ran for the river; Darwin retreated behind a bush, where he began to reconstruct the function and use of modern swimwear from first principles. And so it was that I was alone when I stepped out from behind our changing-bush and was confronted by Alex in a beautifully simple one-piece which somehow conveyed her perfection of form better than nudity could, the golden light streaming through the branches, shadow and radiance making a pattern on the fabric that accentuated her curves. I clapped my folded towel over the front of my togs, then tried to act as though I’d been meaning to do that even if I hadn’t bumped into her. She gave me a tolerant little smile.

It’s all right, Will. I mean, you don’t treat me like an object, and… well, to tell you the truth I can smell the hormone surge every time you see me.” She was grinning.

Well, I just… uh, I mean… we’re, you know… not meant to, uh… objectify -” she placed a finger on my lips, and I silently berated myself for not buying the next size up.

You treat me like a person, and then every once in a while your biology gets in the way. But you make an effort to keep it under control, and that’s the important thing.” Her grin broadened. “Now… race you to the pool!”

Not that it was much of a race, given that I was waddling, but it meant she had her back turned and was wading out into the deep when I plunged in up to the neck and stayed there.

Taupo is a fairly large town, serving a wide swathe of dairy and sheep farms and forestry around the lake. Its main industry, however, is the road which curves around the waterfront before ducking across the Waikato over the flood control gates and heading north to connect with the Tourist Triangle.1 Trout fishers, skiers, backpackers hoping to bungie jump, kayakers… Taupo had something for everyone. For us, it had lunch.

James handed each of us a card and told us the PIN. He then imparted the information that the Professor had mentioned a limit of some sort, in the same way that if one happens to pass the heliopause, one is no longer in the solar system.2 I suggested we all buy new swimsuits and stop by at Kerosene Creek on the way home, to which James immediately agreed. Darwin was instructed to put his card in his pocket, with a promise of an explanation later, and James went off to buy food – taking Darwin into a Subway and going through the whole ordering process struck us as a daunting prospect – while the rest of us wandered down to the waterfront, looking out at the faded imprint of the volcanoes on the horizon.

What is that, a swimming-raft, or mooring-platform, or something of that sort?” Darwin asked, pointing at a square construction bobbing gently out in the bay.

Well, no, uh, actually… it’s a golf green. One of those, uh, diversions you tend to find in… places like this.” I nearly said seaside towns, but of course Lake Taupo is not a sea.

Shall we give it a go?” Alex asked with a playful smile. She’d changed her uniform for a white summer dress which came to mid-calf, presumably so as not to shock our guest, though he seemed to be taking the swimmers in bikinis in his stride, and I remembered he’d travelled the Pacific as a young man.

Well… we’re probably supposed to stay out of the spotlight… and…”

You think we’ll be as naturally good at golf as we were at everything else?”

Yeah… that, and our lunch has arrived.”

After we’d eaten, and Darwin had urinated again, we went to a shop on the main drag and all chose swimwear in our size, and then we were on the way. It was still a long way home.

1Auckland, the main airport, Rotorua, which is a perfect storm of geothermal attractions, Maori culture and golf courses, and Waitomo, a tiny little town in the middle of nowhere which happens to have ridiculous numbers of caves in the surrounding countryside, including the famous glowworm grotto.

2James’ comparison involved sports in some way. I didn’t really pay attention.

We drove in silence. We three moderns had agreed without speaking that we shouldn’t discuss things just yet, and Darwin was occupied by the view out the window, which admittedly was spectacular; the summer heat had stripped the volcanoes to the west of the road of their snow cover, but Ruapehu and Ngauruhoe still loomed majestically. I had the feeling he wanted to stop, though whether to look more closely at our surroundings or to vomit I had no idea. James kept vomit bags in the pockets of his car to ease the work of the designated driver, and I stayed alert.

We were coming again into the more verdant terrain north of the Central Plateau, near the southern tip of Lake Taupo, when James suggested I put on a little music.

You have instruments?” The bewilderment in Darwin’s voice was, I think, only loosely connected to the prospect of our having musical instruments in such a confined space. He’d just seen the service station at Taumarunui, as outlandish a piece of architecture as a Victorian gentleman would ever see, flash past the window at almost inconceivable speed.

Uh… no. Not really. We… well, it’s going to take a while to explain. Basically we’ve found ways of recording music and then replaying it later.” As I spoke, the strains of Handel filled the car, Alex having selected something that wouldn’t be too shocking to our friend’s sensitivities.

Lake Taupo stretched out before and beside us shortly after that, and the view, coupled with the wonder of being serenaded by an invisible orchestra, was enough to keep him occupied as we wound our way towards the town of Taupo at the northern end of the lake. The rest of us were scared out of our minds, though I’m not sure that’s the right word. It was like being visited by your rich cousins, the ones who know how everything ought to be done, and you’ve been working hard to make your house presentable but still have no idea if you’ve dusted well enough. We joked that we’d been promised jet packs, but with someone from more than a hundred years ago actually sitting there, suddenly I was intimidated, both by how much we had done, and how much we had failed to do. On top of all that, there was the elephant in the room, the thing we couldn’t mention yet, of which Darwin was utterly oblivious.

So what happens now?” Charles had been shown to the shower, still a little dazed. A bar of soap was a piton of familiarity, and I didn’t have the heart to explain the array of bottles he’d be facing once James started teaching him about modern grooming. While he was washing, we had a chance to talk to the professor. Somehow it had escaped our notice that our training had covered general skills without delving into the specifics.

You take him home in that wonderful vehicle of yours and answer his questions as they come up. You’ll be observed,” which made James and I share a Look, “and we’ll give you a number to call if there’s any trouble, but mostly you’ll be able to act as seems best to you. The point of this is, after all, to introduce him to the world as it is today, and acclimate him.” I nodded as he said this, as though it wasn’t a crock of shit. He went to the other room, presumably to turn the machine off, leaving the three of us alone again for a moment. Alex gave me a probing look, to which I replied with a circular flick of my finger over my left wrist – later. I went to my bag and took out another set of clothes, since Charles was my size.

I’ll show him how to get dressed, you guys pack the car. If we leave within an hour or so we can be home for dinner.” The other two took their cue from my casual tone, and we each made the necessary preparations without undue any signs of rushing or nervousness.

Charles had apparently figured out the taps for himself, and the small bathroom we’d been sharing was full of steam when I opened the door. I flicked the switch for the extractor fan and called out into the cloud.

I brought you some clothes. Shall I pass them over or bring them in?” The water shut off.

Oh… pass them over, I’m sure I can dress myself.” There was the sound of rustling for a moment or two.

Er…”

The tags go inside and to the back, the smallest item goes on first, legs through the small holes.”

…Thank you.”

James charged through the door at his usual pace.

You guys ready?”

Charles opened his door, his shirt slightly askew but otherwise looking somewhat presentable, I guess.

Holy crap, you two really do look like twins. Come on, the car’s packed. I wanna be in Taupo for lunch.”

Erm… before we leave… could one of you two gentlemen please direct me to the… conveniences?”

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