Excerpt from 'Orfeo'

"Orfeo" by Richard Powers (Norton, January 2014). "Orfeo" by Richard Powers (Norton, January 2014). Photo Credit: Handout

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An overture, then:

Lights blaze from an American Craftsman home in a demure neighborhood, late on a spring evening, in the tenth year of the altered world. Shadows dance against the curtains: a man working late, as he has every night that winter, in front of shelves filled with glassware. He's clad in mufti, protective goggles, and latex hospital gloves, and his Giacometti body hunches forward as if in prayer. A gray but still-thick Beatles mop hangs in his eyes.

He studies a book on the gear-cluttered workbench. In one hand-a single-channel pipette, raked like a dagger. From a tiny refrigerated vial, he sucks up no more colorless liquid than a hoverfly might take from a sprig of bee balm. This pellet goes into a tube no bigger than a mouse's muzzle, a dollop so small he can't be sure it's really there. His gloved hands shake as he shoots the used pipette tip into the trash.

More liquids go from the beakers into the dollhouse cocktail: oligo primers to start the magic; heat-stabilized catalyzing polymerase; nucleotides that fall in line like enlisted men for a five a.m. reveille, a thousand bonds per minute. The man follows the printed recipe like an amateur cook.

The brew goes into the thermal cycler for twenty-five rounds of roller-coaster flux, swinging between near-boiling and tepid. For two hours, DNA melts and anneals, snatches up free-floating nucleotides, and doubles each time through the loop. Twenty-five doublings turn a few hundred strands into more copies than there are people on Earth.

Outside, budding trees submit to the whims of a light wind. A wave of holdout nightjars skim the air for bugs. The do-it-yourself genetic engineer removes a colony of bacteria from his incubator and sets it under the laminar flow hood. He stirs the flattened culture flask and dispenses the loosened cells into a twenty-four-well sample plate. This plate goes under a microscope, at 400x. The man puts his eye up to the lens and sees the real world.

Next door, a family of four watches the denouement of Dancing with the Stars. One house to the south, an executive secretary for a semi-criminal real estate development firm arranges next fall's cruise to Morocco. Across the double expanse of backyards, a market analyst and his pregnant lawyer wife lie in bed with their glowing tablets, playing offshore Texas hold 'em and tagging pictures from a virtual wedding. The house across the street is dark, its owners at an all-night faith-healing vigil in West Virginia.

No one thinks twice about the quiet, older bohemian in the American Craftsman at 806 South Linden. The man is retired, and people take up all kinds of hobbies in retirement. They visit the birthplaces of Civil War generals. They practice the euphonium. They learn tai chi or collect Petoskey stones or photograph rock formations in the shape of human faces.

But Peter Els wants only one thing before he dies: to break free of time and hear the future. He's never wanted anything else. And late in the evening, in this perversely fine spring, wanting that seems at least as reasonable as wanting anything.

I did what they say I tried to do. Guilty as charged.

On the tape, the hum of deep space. Then a clear alto says: Pimpleia County Emergency Services, Dispatcher Twelve. What is the location of your emergency?

There comes a sound like a ratchet wrapped in a towel. A hard clap breaks into clatter: the phone hitting the floor. After a pause, a tenor, in the upper registers of stress, says: Operator?

Yes. What is the loc-

We need some medical help here.

The alto crescendos. What's the nature of your problem?

The answer is a low, inhuman cry. The tenor murmurs, It's OK, sweetie. It's all right.

Is someone sick? the alto asks. Do you need an ambulance?

Another muffled bump turns into static. The silence ends in a stifled O. Rapid words shear off, unidentifiable even with digital filtering and enhancement. The sounds of failed comforting.

The dispatcher says, sir? Can you confirm your address?

Someone hums a muted tune, a lullaby from another planet. Then the line goes dead.

I was sure that no one would ever hear a note. This was my piece for an empty hall.

 

Excerpted from "Orfeo" by Richard Powers, © 2014 by Richard Powers. With permission of the publisher, W.W. Norton & Company Inc.

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