Stories from the far side of research
BioPunk: Stories from the far side of research, is a newly published collection of short stories and commentaries exploring the human issues surrounding biomedical research. Fourteen authors explore themes such as programmable memories, fatherless reproduction, nanotech implants, amphibian-powered scar treatment, full body modification and brain-scanning lie detectors, with accompanying commentary from scientists and ethicists actually working in these fields today.
In this extract, Adam Marek tells a tale of chimeric animals and inter-species breeding.
An industrial evolution
‘I am jostling for position, trying to find a view in the gaps between elbows and bodies. I cannot miss it. This moment. Ellie gasps and grunts and groans. One of the surgeons shifts, and then… there it is. Pulled from her roughly, it seems to me, its orange fur dark and slicked down against its tiny frame. The world has just become a different place. Another genie is out of the bottle.’
Caspar Stak, BlackWindow, June 2024 Issue.
Even though the road from Kapas to Perjan Tungul is now so smooth that the bus glides with barely a bump, ten minutes into our journey a man in the back row gets travelsick and lays a Duty Free carrier bag on the floor to cover it. I spend the next four hours with a t-shirt tied round my face, my headphones in, and my eyes closed.
I arrive just after three in the afternoon, and am surprised to see here a big café with parasols, cushions on the chairs, waiters in white shirts, a fountain, and a bar made entirely from glass with an enormous fruit and flower arrangement in the centre. This is not the Sumatra I remember.
To step out of the bus, I must break through a wall of heat. It seems to roar in my ears. Eleanor has arrived on an earlier bus, and is sitting on her suitcase in the shade of a palm tree. Three young boys crowd her knees. All four are talking and laughing.
It has been twenty years since I saw her, and even though she has aged considerably during her exile in Canada, she is instantly recognisable: the conspiratorial hunch and sideways tilt of the head, the nodding, the emphatic hand ringing. Like her beloved orangutans, she is thick in body and long in limb. Her hair a comb-shy tangle of white weeds.
I can delay this moment no longer.
Eleanor doesn’t notice me, or doesn’t appear to, until I’m right by her side when, making a demonic shape of her face, she says to the children, ‘This is one of the most evil men in the world. Don’t even look at him. It will bring you nothing but misery.’
The boat we take is a public transit, holding about twenty people, and depositing them one or two at a time on the jetties that poke out of the riverbanks like a parade of eager tongues. Banau Batong is the last stop, more than an hour on from the penultimate drop off, and we are the only ones travelling there. Eleanor sits in the front of the boat, chatting with the captain, he letting her steer where the brown river runs straight. She has one leg crossed over the other, and has let her sandals slip off. The soles of her feet are leather, her toenails turquoise.
I sit at the back, in the panel of sunshine, growing giddy on the nostalgic pleasure of petrol fumes, enjoying the sun against my closed eyelids, listening to the engine, the water sloshing against the hull, and the few bird calls. When I made this journey, aged 23, I was enthusiastically pointing my phone this way and that, trying to film the gaudy sunbirds that flashed between the trees, and the crocs that crossed the river like zippers. I had wanted to capture the sounds, so I could spend time back at my desk in England describing faithfully the thrum of life, intoxicating in its richness, an aural assault from ten thousand throats and stridulating insect legs. Now, the sense of loneliness here is so eerie, I give up the sun to move to the front of the boat and sit on the cushioned bench close to the captain and Eleanor.
‘It was a good idea to take the scenic route,’ I say.
‘It’s so quiet though,’ I say, ‘isn’t it?’
Eleanor raises her eyebrows. She has the most remarkable eyes. Amber, flecked with gold. A toad’s eyes. Quite beautiful.
‘I barely recognise it,’ I continue. ‘It must be even stranger for you.’
She licks her lips. ‘Strange is what used to make this place special. Now it’s…’
She stares at the ripples we leave behind us, maybe searching for the right word, but doesn’t find it.
The Banau Batong base camp is surrounded by a moat. A slimy green mosquito nursery. A man is painting the wooden drawbridge that crosses it white. On the end of the bridge closest to us, there is an orangutan. This limp-limbed wookie is the first I’ve seen in twenty years, but unlike any I’ve ever seen.
The orang is standing upright, leaning on the wooden rail looking down into the moat. He is wearing a pair of cut off denim shorts, and a baggy yellow t-shirt that has a bib of berry stains and is stretched long around the neck. He has on a red baseball cap with the Banau Batong company logo – two black B’s placed back to back, like a butterfly.
‘Is it safe to cross?’ I call to the man, pointing at the orang.
The man seems puzzled. He gestures with a sweep of his paintbrush in the air that it’s okay to go.
Eleanor has already taken the initiative and is walking towards the ape with a kind of droopy body posture and her head flopped down, chin almost on her chest. The man stops painting to watch as she gets closer. The orang turns his glassy black eyes to her, then gives an eerily human upwards nod in greeting, and holds his fist out towards her.
Eleanor is confused. She looks across at the man, who smiles and comes over to demonstrate what we should do. He holds out his own fist and gently knocks knuckles with the orang.
‘This is Homer,’ he says.
Homer, we are soon to see, is not unusual here.
Base camp is a village of wooden cabins on short stilts, home to almost sixty workers and their families. When we arrive, most of them are out on the plantation, and the place feels deserted, but there are three old men on foldaway seats watching a Brazil versus Argentina match on a huge screen on the side of the largest building. Above them looms a water tower, and painted on its side is a cartoon orangutan face.
We are met hereby Adhi Perkasa, the Banau Batong Manager. He wears chinos, a pink polo shirt, white leather shoes and a white flat cap. I am relieved that his English is quite good, and that he seems pleased to see us. He gives me a two-handed handshake, and then kisses Eleanor on the cheek – it leads me to suspect that he doesn’t realise who she is.
It is now 6pm, and the humidity has turned the air to soup. Grey-brown clouds churn above us. There is nothing I want more than for them to break so I can stand here and rinse off the last 48 hours. They rumble, teasingly.
Adhi takes us to the cabins where we’ll be staying, on the way explaining that he has worked at Banau Batong since he was sixteen, working his way up through the ranks of harvesters and supervisor levels. He is now 29 and manages the whole plantation, an area of more than 90,000 hectares. This is the third largest oil palm plantation in Sumatra.
‘A big responsibility,’ I say. He raps on his chest with the side of his thumb, and gives a confident wink.
Two young girls, both wearing baggy dresses cut from the same floral fabric, run to him and stretch up to slap his slightly protuberant belly. He pinches both of their noses, and then reaches into his pocket and takes out two hard-boiled sweets in plastic wrappers.
‘How many orangutans do you have here?’ Eleanor asks.
Adhi looks confused. ‘These are not orangutans,’ he says, ruffling the girls’ hair. ‘These are our children.’ He pauses a moment before breaking into a big laugh that exposes the whole cavern of his mouth and all of his bright teeth.
Eleanor and I have our own cabin with adjoining rooms. The rooms are small, but surprisingly well kitted-out. I have a big plush bed, and the curtains match the bedspread – a tasteful pattern of overlapping orange, white and red circles. When Banau Batong was still a rainforest reserve, I had to share a shed with two volunteers and a pink tarantula, and I slept on a stinky camp bed.
‘There’s an insectocutor!’ I note with delight. ‘I was dreading getting eaten alive again.’
‘We look after you,’ Adhi says.
Eleanor and I are to share a bathroom that is sandwiched between our rooms. I notice that neither door to the bathroom has a lock.
‘We’ll have to whistle when we’re in there,’ I say.
‘I can’t whistle,’ Eleanor says. ‘But if you open the door while I’m in there, I’ll scream.’
Adhi loves this. ‘She’ll scream,’ he says, thumping me on the chest with the back of his hand. Even as he leaves us alone to unpack, he is still laughing about this. ‘She scream!’
We eat dinner in a big dining hall with the workers and their families. I’d been hoping there would be lots of orangutans at the base camp, but Adhi tells us Homer is the only ape that lives away from the main colony, a kind of mascot.
‘I take him from poachers when he was a baby,’ Adhi says. ‘My father was a boxer. He teaches me.’
Adhi’s father was one of fourteen people killed trying to control a fire that ripped through part of Banau Batong ten years ago. High up on the wall behind the serving counter, there’s a memorial collage of these people made from leaves and seeds.
The residents of Banau Batong bash elbows as they eat, talking over the top of each other. Their children sit on the tables, under the tables, run between the tables. The air conditioning in this room is set high and I am now kicking myself for not bringing a jumper.
I wish that I spoke a little of the language. My ignorance excludes me from most of the conversations. Eleanor’s tongue finds the words she hasn’t spoken for fifteen years as if it were only fifteen days.
Dinner is fried tofu with sticky rice, shredded cucumber and a spicy peanut sauce.
‘You like it?’ Adhi asks.
‘It’s actually really good,’ I say. He smiles and pats me on the back. When I’ve finished, he says I should follow him to the kitchen. Here, the larder shelves are stacked with hundreds of plastic gallon-bottles of dark red palm oil, all bearing the Banau Batong label – the same cartoon orangutan that is painted on the water tower.
‘We have this in England, too,’ I say. ‘You can’t eat or wash without using something that has this in the ingredients.’
Adhi looks genuinely moved by this.
On the first night, Eleanor and I slump in canvas deck chairs beside a fire in a metal drum. Above us is the big screen, which is now showing tennis. The clouds continue to rumble overhead but do not break. My eyes are stinging because I sprayed too much mosquito repellent on my face. It makes every sip of beer taste a little bit like lemon, and a little bit like poison. The repellent was not even necessary, as I’ve now noticed insectocutors, like blue lanterns, on every post around the moat.
‘I was surprised when my editor said you’d agreed to come back,’ I say. ‘Pleasantly surprised, I mean.’
‘I nearly didn’t.’
‘Well, I’m glad you did.’
She stares at me, maybe wondering if I’m being serious.
‘My little girl begged me not to come,’ I say. ‘She’s inherited a fear of planes from her mum.’
‘I didn’t know you had children,’ Eleanor says.
‘Just Hattie, she’s eight.’
‘How is Michael?’
‘How long has it been?’ I ask.
‘Even when I left a voicemail about my cancer he wouldn’t call.’
‘I didn’t know. Is it… one of the bad ones?’
‘I’ve already had it chopped off,’ she says, indelicately flipping her remaining boob up from underneath. ‘They caught it in time.’
‘I’m so sorry.’
‘Cancer’s one thing you’re not responsible for.’
We don’t say anything else for a long time, but just sit there and listen to a far away radio playing the Rolling Stones’ Paint it Black, and to the riot of cicadas – about the only wildlife that remains here in profusion. I’m exhausted after the two days’ travelling, but I don’t want to leave Eleanor out here alone. She sits there for so long, unmoving, that eventually I can’t bear it any longer. I’m about to say that I have to go to bed when she starts snoring. I crouch beside her and gently shake her arm. She wakes with a violent start, horrified to see my face so close.
The storm breaks during the night. Thunder and rain make a warzone of my dreams, and I wake exhausted.
Breakfast is rice with curried vegetables and a fried egg on top. Eleanor and I shovel the food into our mouths, both of us eager to get our first glimpse of the plantation, and especially the apes. Adhi takes us in a brand-new chilli-red jeep. He proudly strokes the cream leather upholstery and the glossy walnut dash. ‘It’s a work of art,’ I say, and this pleases him. The road through the plantation is so straight and flat that he has all the control of the jeep he needs with just one finger on the steering wheel.
The scale of the plantation is terrifying. We drive for maybe an hour before we reach the area where harvesting is happening today, a whole hour of exactly the same view, unchanging, identical tree after identical tree, perfectly spaced apart. It has a hypnotic effect, which seems to dilate time and make this journey torturous.
Finally, mercifully, I see an orangutan dragging a palm leaf across the orange dirt. ‘I see one!’ I call out, the way I used to call out ‘I see the sea!’ on trips to the beach. And then there are more. Lots more. Dozens of them.
‘Exactly how many orangs do you have here?’ Eleanor asks as Adhi stops the jeep.
‘Exactly is not possible to say,’ he says. ‘Maybe, in whole plantation, seven, eight hundred.’
Eleanor’s mouth drops open. At the peak of her orangutan reserve, she had around 90 apes, and they were spread over an area half the size of Greater London. Here, in tens times the number, and all working within a square mile, the sight is overwhelming. Beneath the canopy of palm fronds, the air is filled with the sound of their soft-hoot conversations and the hum of the buzz scythes that they wield. These industrious orange apes lurch to and fro, a sense of orderliness to their activities. There is co-ordination, co-operation. This is a factory floor, a production line, each ape engaged in his or her task but mindful of its neighbours, constantly reassuring each other with nods and an incredible array of elastic expressions.
The orangs all wear clothes, even the young ones clinging to their mothers’ stomachs while they work, T-shirts at least – most of them orange and bearing the Banau Batong logo. It’s easy to tell how old the orangs are, relative to each other, from the colour of their t-shirts. The older the ape, the more the sun has bleached the dye.
They all walk upright, lumbering in a kind of drunken way that makes the hairs on the back of my arms stand up because most of them are carrying highly dangerous tools.
Adhi makes a ‘give me’ gesture, and the orang nearest us gives up his buzz scythe. This is a seven-foot pole with a wicked-sharp sickle on the end that vibrates when a button on the handle is pressed.
‘When my grandfather worked in the plantation,’ he says, ‘he had a long pole with flat blade and he have to jab jab jab at each leaf to prune the tree, then jab jab jab, ten times for each fruit. It takes him fifteen minutes to harvest one tree. Now…’
He gives the buzz scythe back to the orang and makes a gesture, clapping his fingers against his thumb.
‘How many sign words do they know?’ Eleanor asks.
Adhi shrugs. ‘We have signs for everything we need to say.’
The orang responds by going at the tree with quick, accurate pulling motions, hooking the scythe round the thick stem of each leaf and pruning it away to reveal the red fruit balls that sprout from the top of the trunk like monstrous half-metre raspberries. The ape chops seven leaves in 30 seconds, then severs the short stem of the first fruit. While we have watched this, another orang has come over to stand at the base of the tree. It seems to practice the act of catching a couple of times in the air, and when the actual fruit topples, it clutches the heavy ball against its chest, wrapping its impossibly long arms around it, then sets the fruit gently on the ground and waits for the next one to fall.
‘Before apes,’ Adhi says, ‘the workers let fruit hit the ground. They get bruised. We lose many fruit this way. Now, all is perfect.’ He grins proudly and pinches his thumb and forefinger together to make a loop. The universal symbol of perfection.
Working together, these two apes strip the tree down to a bare nub, pile the six fruits in one of the many trailers, and stack the discarded pine fronds in a cage, all within about three minutes. Adhi says the trucks take the fruits to a processing factory at the northern edge of the plantation.
‘Are they engineered to be like this?’ I ask. ‘You know, so dextrous?’
Adhi doesn’t understand, but Eleanor interprets, and he responds in English that they are ‘normal apes’.
‘At the centre,’ Eleanor says, ‘we always had to be careful about the behaviours the orangs picked up from us, so they could still act like wild apes when we released them onto the reserve. The orangs were always inquisitive about what we were doing, but these apes here, this is…’
‘It’s amazing,’ I say.
Eleanor looks sour. ‘Is that what you’re going to write in your article, that this place is AMAZING?
‘We don’t teach them,’ Adhi says, ‘they teach each other.’
‘Monkey see monkey do,’ I say, and Adhi laughs.
‘Those cutting tools look very dangerous,’ Eleanor says. ‘How do you ensure the orangutans’ safety?’
‘We have ape hospital,’ Adhi says.
Eleanor and I both want to see where the orangutans live – Ape Town, as Adhi calls it – but he insists that there isn’t enough time, and the apes won’t be there now anyway. He promises to take us there tomorrow. I sleep most of the drive back, and wake to a fire-gold sunset so beautiful I send my wife and daughter a picture, along with one of the shots I took of an orang with a buzz scythe, and one of my tired face, with the message, ‘Perfect sunset. Clever monkey. I am miserable without you.’
After a long hot shower, I go to the dining hall for dinner. Eleanor is already there with Adhi. Tonight, dinner is a prawn curry that is so hot I sniff all the way through it. A teenage girl sitting beside me takes a hard-bound sketchbook from her canvas bag, and a little hand-stitched roll of pencils. She draws me in profile, licking the tip of her finger to smudge the soluble graphite, and complains whenever I turn my head and talk. I am a disobedient model for maybe fifteen minutes, during which I discover that her name is Ndari, she was born in Banau Batong, that her father was also one of the men killed in the great fire of 2034, and her ambition is to work on a ship. Nothing specific. Just any kind of work on a ship. Her drawing is not flattering, but her sketches of the orangutans are something else. I ask if I can buy one, a portrait of an old female that must have taken her hours. She tears it out of the book and refuses payment. So wrapped up am I in this sketch and questioning Ndari about her terrific gift that I miss the beginning of an argument between Eleanor and Adhi. I only become aware of it when I see at the edge of my vision Eleanor waving a dirty spoon at him in a threatening manner.
‘Come in my office,’ Adhi says to her. ‘I’ll show you my prizes.’
‘I don’t want to go in your office,’ she says. ‘They’re obviously idiots. You’ve not saved anything. You’ve ruined them.’
‘To be fair,’ I say, picking up the gist of the conversation, ‘these apes were never purely wild. Most of them will be descended from your apes, won’t they?’
Eleanor flushes white. I realise too late that maybe I shouldn’t have said that.
‘What?’Adhi says. ‘You’re Ellie Lundgren?’ He laughs out loud, claps his hands together, addresses the rest of our table in Indonesian, points at her. There is laughter that spreads infectiously. Her surname passes from mouth to mouth. Soon it seems the whole room is in hysterics, wiping coffee from their chins with the backs of their hands. It is a loud and ugly sound that drives Eleanor from the room, slamming the door shut behind her.
I leave shortly afterwards. Heading back to my cabin, I see Eleanor outside with Homer the orangutan, helping him fill a tin cup from a tap on the side of the building. The news is on the big screen, shining blue light onto them, but no one is watching it. This TV stays on all day and all night, the fire that never goes out.
I know I should go and apologise, but this moment doesn’t feel like the right one.
Back in my cabin, I try making some notes but cannot concentrate, so I stop and put my head on the pillow, leaving the lamp on. After an hour or so of restlessness, I hear Eleanor brushing her teeth in the bathroom. I get up and knock on the door.
‘I’m sorry,’ I say to the closed door. ‘You know, the whole reason I agreed to do this article was to try to make up for whatever part I played in how everything went before. I guess I’m failing at that.’
The bathroom door opens, and Eleanor is wearing a tight-fitting long-sleeved t-shirt tucked into some kind of long-johns, which are tucked into her socks. She has a toothbrush clamped in her mouth, and a little white foam on her knuckles.
‘This really isn’t all about you,’ she says. Flecks of foam fly in my direction.
‘Why did you agree to come back?’ I ask.
‘It was a mistake.’
The door behind her opens and Homer stands there looking into the cabin, silhouetted by the bright light outside. His shaggy fur makes a brilliant orange aura. ‘Off you shoo you big brute,’ she says, but he is reluctant and takes some physical pushing.
I tell her to lock her door, and she scoffs at this.
‘These aren’t the apes you used to know,’ I say.
A few minutes later, when I’m lying in bed, I hear the click of her door lock.
We have to set out for Ape Town at 4 am. Adhi says that at 7 am, all the trucks arrive to take the orangs out to whichever part of the plantation they’ll be working.
‘Today we see your babies Ellie,’ Adhi says, making his characteristic belly laugh that after 36 hours here is grating.
‘Be kind,’ I tell him, and he smiles, holding up his hands and bowing his head a little in deference.
Again the drive is long, ninety minutes through dismal monoculture. Every hour I spend here, the monotony of it depletes me a little more. My eyes ache for variety.
In my imagination, Ape Town would be a shanty town, reeking of garbage, the apes bundled together in nests they’d crudely constructed from the detritus of the palm oil industry. As we reach the outskirts, I realise how wrong I am.
The sun is just rising, and against the yellow sky are hundreds of cabins on stilts in long straight lines. Row after row of them. Adhi drives slowly through this grid of open-front cabins. Eleanor and I wind down our windows and hear the most extraordinary sound, the accumulated sleep noises of 800 apes. It’s like purring, like an old engine, like something bubbling up from underground.
In each of the cabins, sleeping orangs are heaped together. It is impossible to say how many are in each one, so enfolded are they, but I would guess at about four or five. Sleepy faces turn towards us. They make enormous yawns, stretch their long arms, shuffle for comfort and settle again.
‘There are males there too,’ Eleanor whispers.
‘They all sleep like this,’ Adhi says.
I ask what the significance of this is, and Eleanor says that in the wild, orangs didn’t form groups. Young apes stayed with their mothers for eight years until maturity, but the males were absent wanderers, seeking the company of females only to mate, occasionally fighting with another male for territory.
‘What about the senior males?’ Eleanor asks.
‘No top apes,’ Adhi says. ‘Listen, you will hear.’
We’re all quiet for a moment. From far away, we hear a series of drawn-out throaty calls. This, I come to understand, is a recording of an alpha male. The sound inhibits the release of hormones in the males, keeping them subservient to this facsimile ape, and even stops their wide cheek flanges from developing. This is not a trait that has been engineered into these clones. Adhi is simply utilising a natural tendency within the apes.
‘There’s nowhere for them to climb,’ Eleanor says.
‘They don’t like to climb so much.’
‘You’ve got a hell of a set up here,’ I say.
With her fingertips, Eleanor rubs her temples, her eyes, and then her whole face with both hands.
The hospital is a big wooden building at the edge of Ape Town. Like the base camp, it is surrounded by a moat and connected to the mainland by a drawbridge.
A young woman wearing khaki shorts, white linen shirt and green wellington boots comes out to greet us. Her hand is soft and sticky. She looks harassed, but happy to see us. Her name is Mariana. Originally from Brazil, she has worked at the Banau Batong ape hospital for two years now, managing a team of just two nurses. She shows us round the four wide rooms that comprise the treatment centre. This place reminds me of a children’s A&E department. Plastic boxes of toys are stacked up against the walls. Simple clouds are painted on the ceiling. Hanging in canvas sorters designed for shoes are vacuum-sealed packs of medical paraphernalia – bandaging, scissors, plastic devices the purpose of which I cannot guess. The whole place smells of pine.
On the day that we visit, there are seventeen orangs in the hospital with a mixture of maladies and injuries all the way from flu to severed limbs. On a blanket on the floor of one room is a young male ape called Lennie who flicks through a children’s board book with his one long arm. The other arm terminates before the elbow in a bulge of bandage.
A female ape totters through the doorway (again walking on two feet – I’ve yet to see a single dragged knuckle) and holds out her arms to demand a hug, which Mariana readily gives her. ‘This is Bonnie,’ Mariana says. ‘She’s going to be a mommie, aren’t you Bonnie?’
Eleanor gasps, and kneels down to hold Bonnie’s hand. I feel silly for not noticing the ape’s enormous pregnancy bulge right away.
‘She’s so young,’ Eleanor says.
‘She’s eleven. We find eleven to thirteen is about average here,’ Mariana says.
‘My goodness, and how long in between births?’
‘Usually three years.’
‘Three?’ Eleanor says.
‘Why the speed up?’ I ask. When Banau Batong was seized by officials, and Eleanor dragged in front of the ethics panel, she insisted she’d had to breach the conditions of her cloning permit, and risk her own life, because of the eight-year gap between orangutan pregnancies. If she hadn’t, the last few orangs would have died nearly two decades ago. This is a fact.
‘We’re not sure,’ Mariana says, ‘but it may be because they don’t have to face the same challenges that a true wild ape would have.’
‘Do you have any young ones here,’ Eleanor asks.
‘Oh yes,’ Mariana smiles. ‘Our nursery is through here.’
Eleanor comes to life in the nursery, as soon as she sees the little ones, three of them, sat on a fleece jumper in a wooden crate together. And they are impossibly cute. Their big black eyes and their dopey wide grins. Their wild orange hair that sticks up all over the place. Their lovely fat bellies. Their comical inquisitiveness. Cute in a way that makes human babies look boring. They are utterly adorable, and even I am down on my knees holding out a finger for one of the three to grip.
Eleanor coos over them, blowing their faces, and they love it, closing their eyes and wobbling. Eleanor asks Mariana a stream of questions about their care, about their mothers, about how long they spend socialising with mature apes, their diet, weight and whatnot, but I barely listen because one of these gorgeous little things has crawled onto my lap and is hugging me and I am giggling, enchanted.
We eat wedges of pineapple for lunch, flatbread and tall glasses of rice milk. Afterwards, Eleanor stays inside while Adhi and I walk the perimeter of the moat. We absently begin kicking an orange forward whenever we come to it again, and soon we organize ourselves into taking turns, passing it from one to the other.
I ask him about the future of the Banau Batong project. The ape population here now outnumbers the human population eight to one. It’s hugely successful. Where does he go from here?
‘Forty years ago, there were seven thousand orangutan in Sumatra,’ he says. ‘Now about eight hundred. We have a long way to go.’
‘So Ape Town will continue to grow, with more orangs working in the plantation every year?’
‘It is early days,’ he says. ‘But apes make good economy. They eat small. They like work. They make no complaint. What we have here, other places can have. Everyone profits.’
‘Franchising?’ I say.
Adhi smiles and raps the side of his thumb against his chest.
When we’ve finished a full loop of the moat, and Adhi has kicked the orange into the water, it is time to go. Eleanor and Mariana are outside. They have all three baby chimps in a half-barrel filled with soapy water, and are making hats and beards on the babies with bubbles. The orangs’ fur is flattened against their bodies. One of the apes slaps both hands into the water, sloshing a wave over the edge and right into Eleanor’s lap. She giggles. She is sparkling with joy.
I stand and watch them from a distance for a few moments before going over.
‘You’re not coming back, are you?’ I say.
Eleanor shakes her head.
‘These apes are barely apes any more. Someone has to teach them how to be wild again,’ she says. ‘They need me here.’
She picks up one of the babies, wraps it in a towel and cuddles it against her belly, resting the side of her face on the top of its head and rocking slightly. Deep down, I suspected she might stay. I hoped she would. I’ve always blamed myself for everything that happened here. This was my chance to make amends.
I stare at them, enjoying this sight for a few minutes, before noticing that Adhi has an expression of discomfort on his face. He is scratching the back of his head.
‘I’m sorry, Ellie,’ he says. ‘But you cannot stay here.’
Eleanor looks up at him. She withers, loosening her grip on the chimp ever so slightly.
‘What’s the problem?’ I say. ‘You couldn’t get a better orangutan expert anywhere in the world.’
‘We don’t need an expert. We don’t want wild apes. They are good now. Everything works.’
Eleanor hides her face against the baby orang. None of us speaks. We look at the ground. And then, I see she is shaking slightly, sobbing. Despite all my intentions to make things right, I brought Eleanor back here after twenty years to break her heart all over again. She was right about me.
Caspar Stak, BlackWindow, 25th Anniversary Issue, August 2044.
Read the accompanying commentary on the science behind this story by Professor Bruce Whitelaw of The Roslin Institute, Edinburgh.
Adam Marek is an award-winning short story writer. He won the 2011 Arts Foundation Short Story Fellowship, and was shortlisted for the inaugural Sunday Times EFG Short Story Award. His first story collection Instruction Manual for Swallowing (Comma, 2007) was nominated for the Frank O’Connor Prize. His stories have appeared in many magazines, including: Prospect and The Sunday Times Magazine, and in many anthologies including Lemistry, Litmus and The New Uncanny from Comma Press, The New Hero from Stoneskin Press, and The Best British Short Stories 2011. His second collection, The Stone Thrower, was published earlier this year.
This article was originally published in the book BioPunk: Stories from the Far Side of Research, supported by the Wellcome Trust and available now.