“The Magic Bullet”

My look at the stories in Brian Stableford’s Sexual Chemistry collection continues.

Review: “The Magic Bullet”, Brian Stableford, 1989.

Cover by Bruce Hogarth

This is the first genuinely apocalyptic tale in the collection, and, like its predecssor “Cinderella’s Sisters”, it’s something of a feminist tale too.

The story opens with Lisa Friemann, a woman nearing her 60th birthday and retirement from her job as a police scientist. She has a degree in Applied Genetics, and is called in by the UK’s Ministry of Defence not to investigate the firebombing of Morgan Miller’s lab but as an expert witness, an advisor. She is not eager to talk about her 40 yearlong private relationship with Miller, a genetics researcher. 

Miller has had a building full of a thousand mice for over 40 years as successive generations were bred. Lisa suspects Miller, a man of habitual secrecy, had some secret that caused someone to destroy his research animals. It was a secret kept from her, one secret, and it hurts her pride that her longtime lover kept it from her. It might also make her look bad to whatever department is really investigating, under the umbrella of national security, the bombing. 

The destruction of the building and all its mice was complete. Lisa asks the caretaker if Miller has been informed. After calling the fire department, he tried to call Miller, but he couldn’t reach him. He also tried calling Miller’s research assistant, a Dr. Stella Filisetti. 

A man named Peter Smith (no doubt an alias, thinks Lisa) introduces himself and says he’s leading the investigation. Miller hasn’t been contacted yet, but the police and Miller’s department are sending people over to his house. Smith asks Lisa about Miller’s work. She says that Stella Filisetti could tell him more. Filisetti, she’s told, hasn’t been located. From that, Lisa infers Filisetti is suspect number one. 

Going over to Miller’s house, we learn a little more about his him and this world. It seems to be the mid-21st Century. Miller is 77 years old and was trained during the

golden age of genetic engineering, before the greenhouse crisis and the energy drought and the Great Economic Collapse. 

At the house, they see a cracked window, and, inside, find Miller with two bullet holes in his chest though still alive and conscious. It seems someone shot him from the roof of an adjoining building. Lisa is disturbed that her “friend, lover, and supposed confidante” doesn’t know why he was shot. Lisa knows that the shooting and firebombing were undoubtedly done by different people which means a conspiracy she will be suspected to be a part of. 

Smith talks to Lisa since they have no file on Miller. He wants to understand his work. Lisa tells him there are 30,000 discs in the house with Miller’s research data on them. Smith says he needs to know now.

 So then we get Lisa’s back story. When she got into police work, “gene-typing” (what we would call DNA analysis now) was becoming standard, and most police forensic trainees were going into computer forensics. She was more interested in applied genetics. Before the Crash, there was a lot of interest in genetically engineering animals. Engineering plants and bacteria had helped food production, and there was also an interest in engineering animals for meat production. Problems from rising sea levels due to greenhouse warming were foreseen. 

When she met Miller at university, he was heavily involved in research on animals. Animals reproduce sexually making it much more difficult to reproduce modified animals than modified plants and bacteria. Taking ova and modifying them in vitro would usually produce one surviving animal out of a thousand modified ova. (As I understand it, our modern CRISPR technology makes this much easier to do.) One way around this was trying to develop artificial viruses that would enter egg cells and modify them. These were dubbed “magic bullet” or MB viruses. But the developed viruses were hard to target to just egg cells. Almost all the female mice Miller tried MBs on developed into sterile adults. Miller persisted, though, over decades while other researchers laughed at him and went to other projects.

Miller was also interested in a “strange fact about mamallian egg cells”. The number of egg cells in a female maximizes when she is still an embryo. A human female will have seven billion when she is an embryo and only two million when she is born. By puberty, most of them are gone. Miller wanted to stop that degeneration of egg cells. He wanted many more mice egg cells to work on and to put in artificial wombs. But he never accomplished his goals, just a lot of sterile adult female mice. There were a few surviving and fertile mice in each generation, but mating them only produced interesting freaks. 

But Miller, asks Smith, must have found something making him worth killing. You would have to ask Filisetti, says Lisa. She doesn’t know Filsetti well but doubts she is a “dab hand with a high-powered rifle”. Smith says they know a little about Filsetti. She is unmarried, 32 years old, has degrees in Applied Genetics, and, politically, is a radical feminist and Green. Smith says they’ll have to wait to see if Miller is well enough to question. 

Smith notes that Lisa, like Miller, never married. Miller liked his “relationships casual and occasional”. Smith hints that he knows both Lisa and Filsetti were Miller’s lovers, Lisa says neither is of the jealous type to kill Miller. 

A sterile tent is put up over Miller in his own bed, and Lisa is asked to stay at the house to help question Miller who probably won’t live longer than a couple of days. 

When Miller is told he’s been shot twice, he quips “magic bullets”. He breaks down in tears when told his lab has been burned. Smith, introducing himself as being from the Ministry of Defence, tells Miller he needs to know what Miller was working on. Miller strangely says,  “Defence? . . .  There is no defence.” Lisa thinks he might be thinking of the Plague Wars he lived through and that killed a third of humanity and “might not have been wars at all”.  (Presumably, implying some accidental release of a disease from a lab or naturally evolved diseases.)

Smith says Miller doesn’t have to speak about his work, just tell him where the record of it is. “It’s hidden. Nobody knows” is all Miller will say under Smith’s questioning and Lisa’s pleading. 

Lisa starts to feel personally betrayed at whatever secret Miller is definitely hiding. When Smith insists Miller has to tell him everything, Miller just responds “What will you do? . . . Torture me?”

Lisa tries a different tack. She tells him they want to find out who burned his mice. Was it Filisetti?  “Must be Stella. How . . . nobody knows!”

Just then, Smith is informed that Filisetti has been located and under observation. He leaves, and Lisa says she will continue to question Miller. 

After they are alone, Lisa pockets a bug Smith put on Miller’s bed. At one time, Lisa would have said she loved Miller, but her passion and affection for him have all but receded over the years. Still, she wants to know Miller’s secret. Miller is astounded that he really is going to die. Yes, he is, says  Lisa, and he should tell her his secret before he dies.

“’Lisa,’ he said quietly, ‘You’re not going to like it.’

’Tell me anyway,’ she said, in a cold, sarcastic tone that he must have heard a hundred times before, and probably liked no better. ’You wouldn’t want to go to your grave keeping secrets from the only woman you ever really loved, now would you?’

(Spoilers ahead) 

By “pure fluke”, Miller discovered a “key protein” involved in switching genes on and off in specialized cells. It was the magic bullet he had hoped to discover. It drastically reduced the “wastage rates” of ova. Female mice infected with it had ninety percent of their egg cells intact when born. At first, he thought those female mice had no “somatic transformation”. It seemed he was back to the old problem, just involving a bigger quantity. The transformed mice were all sterile. However, he decided to observe them. 

Dissecting them, he saw slowed rates of the usual tissue degeneration. One even had a sort of tumor in it, and its cells looked like a metastasizing cancer. He observed them to track the progress of the disease. “They didn’t die. Ever.” He found out the mice produced new juvenile cells to replace the adult cells. It was as if a new mouse was being formed, but not an individual mouse, but “clone-daughters” of the original. Each mouse “was living a whole series of lifetimes, cannibalizing her own egg-cells”. Miller had created immortal mice. Their bodies slough off old cells like a snake sloughing off skin.

The infectitious capacity of the MB virus was targetted to mice, but the DNA responsible for the rejuvenation wasn’t. Miller developed a MB virus that could infect human egg-cells. Anybody could synthesize the MB virus if they had the “gene map”, but Miller hid it. 

Listening to Miller, Lisa feels as if he’s challenging her to figure out his motives. 

‘You discovered immortality’, she said sarcastically, ‘and you decided to keep it a secret between you and the mice?’ 

Yes, he nods. A way to make only females immortal? Yes. Did he try to develop a similar modification for sperm cells? Can’t be done, says Miller. Sperm cells are like viruses; they just contain chromosomes that need to be activated by another cell. 

How long ago did he make his discovery? Forty years. 

Forty years ago, though Lisa, coldly. I was in love with Morgan Miller then, and my body contained hundreds of thousands of egg-cells. Hundreds of thousands of potential lifetimes. And he knew then; even then, he knew

Lisa knew Morgan didn’t love her then and would never give her a child. Why should she be shocked he didn’t give her an “elixir of life”? And now it’s too late. She has no eggs left. But what of Filisetti? She’s only in her thirties.

Why did he tell Filisetti about his discovery? He didn’t, replies Morgan. She was cleverer than he thought. After all, who would notice a dozen immortal mice hidden among a thousand regular ones? 

’She always liked the mice, though; She had a curious, silly fondness for them. Sentimentality is so out of place in a biologist.’

’You bastard, Morgan,’ said Morgan, levelly. ‘If she hadn’t set you up, I swear I’d shoot you myself.’” 

Feeling a “white heat of passionate rage”, she is tempted to coolly kill Morgan by suffocating him with a pillow. 

Well, says, Morgan, Filisetti did find out and must have gone through his records where there were too many maps of his discovery. “I should have destroyed it, if I really wanted to save mankind.” 

In spite of all the world’s past problems, Morgan says he rather liked the world as it was.

 I’m glad I had no sons, though – Stellas’s people will make sure that the future’s very different. 

Lisa tells Morgan that Smith has already found Filisetti and will find the map providing she didn’t make a thousand copies of it and distribute them. 

‘I think they want to keep it for themselves. Not so sentimental after all, you see.’ 

‘So much for the spirit of sisterhood’

Lisa asks Morgan why he didn’t tell Smith all this. Morgan claims he didn’t have time. Yes, he did, says Lisa. He counters by asking why she pocketed Smith’s bug. To give them privacy, says Lisa. Morgan agrees with that. He doesn’t like telling the government things.

It seems . . . that your first inclination is to tell everyone nothing. 

Morgan protests that he told his secret to Lisa. Forty years too late is her reply. Morgan says that was because he never thought of Lisa as a selfish person, always admired her sense of duty, that she was always his favorite. 

Lisa knows Morgan is manipulating her, that he enjoys trying to shape the future while on his deathbed. They just sit in silence, Lisa waiting to see if Morgan will tell her where the map is or let Smith try to find it. 

At the end of the story, Filisetti and seven others are arrested and tried in a secret court. Morgan lives long enough to tell Smith what he told Lisa. 

But Lisa has disappeared. 

The concluding paragraph is: 

By then, far too many people had seen the map, and the world was already embarked upon its new era. 

With that end, Stableford leaves the apocalyptic implications to his reader. What will a world of immortal women be like? Can they exist by themselves? Will they clone themselves? Does Stableford subscribe to the view that a world of women would be free of competition and violence and war? What will men do with their very much shorter end of the stick? 

It’s interesting that feminist concerns have been escalating throughout the collection. “Bedside Conversations” briefly touched on abortion rights and whether artificial wombs are better than surrogate mothers. “A Career in Sexual Chemistry” partly concerned women sexually manipulated, via genetic engineering, by men and doing the same in return. “Cinderella’s Sisters” concerns the social effects on women of being considered ugly. Here women seem to end up with the ultimate prize. 

It’s also interesting that Stableford leaves the motives of Morgan, Lisa, and Stella murky. Did Morgan really not want to release a world changing technology or was he just egotistical and selfish and wouldn’t even give his “favorite” a child? Did Stella steal the technology to realize some feminist Green ideaology of sterile but immortal women and no men, an Earth less polluted and violent? It seems that she really just wanted it for her comrades, but perhaps they planned a wider rollout of it. Does Lisa act out of spite in the end or altruism for women? 

Most importantly, was Morgan right in suppressing such a world-altering invention? But, if so, his own ego, as he acknowledges, kept him from thoroughly completing the job.

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