Science Fiction Hard science fiction Hard SF near-future SF neanderthal

Too Close for Comfort

By Kyle Aisteach
Jul 11, 2019 · 3,343 words · 13 minutes

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From the author: Near-future hard science fiction shows its age very quickly. In fact, one scientific fact in this story was proven wrong between the time it was accepted for publication and when it actually came out. That trend has continued since it was first published in 2010, but I remain fond of this one, largely because I still don't know the answer to the central question: Is a Neanderthal a human or an animal?


It started with the deposition.  It started normally.  "State your name and occupation for the record." I said, glancing at the computer to make sure it was recording. 

"Sara Wiedergeburt."  She spelled it without me asking. 

Dr. Wiedergeburt carried herself with class.  She sat erect in the oversized leather chair, wrinkled hands folded on the oak table in front of her, silver-grey hair folded back in a style that should have looked thirty years out of date, but somehow just seemed right on her. "Ph.D.  Retired." 

"You understand," I continued, reading off the notes, "that this deposition is in connection with the disposal of the results of experiments in which you participated."   I looked for a non-verbal reaction.  "That would be prior to your 'retirement'?"

She inhaled deeply before answering.  "If by 'results of experiments' you mean my daughter," she said, "then yes, I'm aware they want to kill her."

The district attorney had warned us that the participants referred to the Neanderthals as their children.  Probably Dr. Wiedergeburt's idea -- her field was cognitive psychology. "According to the notes I've got from the depositions of the other participants, they say it was your idea."

"That's correct."

"Can you tell us how it came about?"

She nodded slightly to one side, a very distinctive gesture.  "I had a friend in Connecticut at the time who was working on sequencing the Neanderthal genome."

"That would be Dr. David Latham, is that right?"

"Yes." She seemed to relax, crossing her legs and placing her hands on her lap.  "You may recall that in the late 1990's, President Clinton ordered a total federal funding ban on human cloning." 

I think I just smiled politely.  I wasn't born until the following decade, but I've always looked older than I am.  Most people don't realize that the lawyers who get stuck taking depositions are the ones with the least seniority, and I considered myself lucky to even have a job, given the economy. 

"I was having lunch in the cafeteria with a geneticist colleague of mine, Dr. Babar Kurup," she continued.  "He passed away in 2020.  He had worked out a reliable way to clone apes.  He commented that the process was theoretically ready for human trials. But since the university, like most schools, received federal funding, human cloning was absolutely forbidden. I merely noted that a Neanderthal wasn't technically human, and I knew someone who had access to the genetic sequences."

I stared at her, dumbfounded, for a moment.  "You mean to tell me--"

"That the greatest paleo-anthropological experiment ever conducted was actually just an attempt to circumvent a stupid human-cloning ban," she finished for me. "Yes."

I remember I felt like laughing, but didn't.  "And you didn't think it through beyond that."

She shrugged. "In that moment, no, it was an offhand remark.  But Babar, David, and I gave it a lot of thought before we actually proceeded."

"What did you think you were going to do with a Neanderthal child?"

"Exactly what I did."  Her tone had turned suddenly clipped.  "I planned to raise it as my own child.  A Neanderthal child.  Raised in a human household with a human parent.  Brought up in our culture.  A firm experiment that would once and for all show what sort of cognitive and physiological differences between Homo sapiensand Homo neanderthalensis-- to let us see what was cultural, and what were, in fact, species-specific differences."

"And you thought this would work."

"Yes. My niece is autistic.  I saw no reason to predict, even based on low-end estimates of Neanderthal mental abilities, that it would be any harder. "

"And, what, you planned to send her to school like all the other kids?"

She smiled through tight lips.  "At the time, we did not know that Neanderthals were orange."

I remember just staring.  But, of course, it would have only been after the cloning that we actually knew what a Neanderthal looked like.  Pictures in old textbooks always showed Neanderthals appearing just like modern humans, but with shallow foreheads. "You planned to pass her off as human."

She closed her eyes and sighed slightly.  "Honestly, at the time, I thought she would be human.  There were two schools of thought then.  One said that Neanderthals were a different species, a genetic dead-end, and that Homo sapienshad emerged independently from Homo erectus. The other school of thought said that Neanderthals were modern humans, but basically a different ethnic stock, one not found in modern populations.  The genetics favored the former theory, but, as you know, I'm not a geneticist."

"And what were you going to do with her when your experiment was done?"

"Again," she remained cool this time, "exactly what I did.  Raise her as my child, let her become what she wanted to become, and then do what all parents do."

"And you never thought about the consequences."

"No," she said.  "And I still don't.  Rennie has done nothing wrong."

"Dr. Wiedergeburt," I said, "a man died."

"Rennie didn't do it." 

I looked at the notes.  They only said that a clan of Neanderthals deliberately stalked and killed a man.  Nothing indicated which of the animals had been involved.  "Do you have some evidence of that?"

"She was at home with me when it happened."  She said to the ceiling.  "But, I'm her mother.  Of course I'd say that." 

"You're aware of the laws that prohibit keeping and raising dangerous animals, right?"

"She's not an animal," she said.  "Mr. Jackson, I need you to understand that.  I accept now that she's a different species, but ...  She thinks.  She has hopes.   She has dreams.  The differences between our species -- they're so minor.  If it wasn't for the skin color and the body hair, you'd never doubt she was human."

I let myself go down the tangent. "What are the differences?"

She seemed to consider for a long time before answering.  "For one thing she only gestated seven months.  When I had the embryo implanted we just sort of assumed I'd carry her to a normal human term.  But she came out two months early, and appeared to be fully developed.  Orange and covered with body hair, but fully developed.  After that, we warned the obstetricians first." 

That was quite an image. But either she hadn't been joking or her timing was acute enough to know when to press on, because she continued immediately.  "I named her Rennie.  It's short for Renaissance. Sort of a bad joke, actually."

My mother's name was Renée, a more common take on the same theme. 

"She grew quickly," she continued.  "Very strong.  Linebacker build, and we had cloned one of the smaller female samples. Amazing sense of smell.  She can track me like a bloodhound.  But, she's red-green color-blind.  Another contribution to our gene pool from the genetic 'dead-end.'  We found, observing her, that she's much more literal than the average human.  Genuinely atheistic.  She and the later Neanderthal children all sincerely don't understand how we can imagine a God that can't be seen or touched.   And really, that's it.  Skin color, body hair, sense of smell, color blindness, different sense of symbolic representation.  That's all the differences there are.  Somehow that was enough to let our species out-compete their species 25,000 years ago. And really, except for the skin color, I could name a homo sapienswho exhibits every trait we've observed in a Neanderthal, behaviorally or physiologically.  Even the body hair."

"How many clones did you end up making?"

"Twelve." There were fifteen being held, which meant three were subsequently bred.  "When Rennie was two and the brouhaha had died down, we decided it was worthwhile to try again, to ensure that we had a broader sample base.  So we didn't conclude, for example, that all Neanderthals were good at math because Rennie was.  She was counting at eighteen months and adding at two.  And it's a good thing we did, because Rennie was unique in that.  The second one, Joseph -- that was Maria Rodriguez's son -- can barely add to this day. But, oh, what a talker he is."

"Was he one of the ones who killed Dr. Wanaker?" 

She exhaled deeply and studied the bamboo floor.  "I believe so, yes.  He was always very protective of Rennie."

The notes didn't give me any hint of what she might mean.  "I'm sorry?"

She looked directly into my eyes.  She had piercing grey eyes, as if she could read thought and emotion directly from my mind. "Didn't they tell you the circumstances, Mr. Jackson?"

"I have here that a group of five male and two female Neanderthals stalked and later killed Dr. Wanaker at his home.  Dozens of witnesses saw them drive him off the roof and then jump and cheer as he convulsed on the sidewalk.  They made no effort to summon help, and showed no remorse."

"They also didn't resist when the police placed them into custody."  She folded her arms.  "Nor did the others, when they came around to take them, too.  And if there hadn't been so much debate about how to kill them, they would have all been executed without due process before we got the injunction."

It's always a little annoying when laypeople spit out a vague legal principal out of context, but I pressed on.  "Dr. Wiedergeburt, the Neanderthals, by your own admission, are not human. Therefore they are animals.  That means they're dealt with according to the laws regulating any other animal.  And an animal that attacks a human is, by law, properly put down."

"Dr. Wanaker raped Rennie."

That stopped me cold.  But, of course, manipulating emotions was her expertise.  "That's a rather sensationalistic accusation."

"He submitted a paper about it!"  She nearly spat, the biggest crack I'd seen in her demeanor.  "Rennie has always been very passive.  Especially around men.  I'm not sure why.  She certainly didn't get it from me."

That I could see. "Is this paper available anywhere?"

She directed me to a pre-print online.  I scanned it quickly, but it was all written in technical jargon.  "In a nutshell," she explained, "it tells how he informed -- not asked -- Rennie that he was going to see if modern humans and Neanderthals could interbreed by impregnating her, and proceeded to try.  On four separate occasions.  She didn't tell me of course, until afterwards when I asked her down at the zoo what Joseph and the others had been thinking."

I scanned through some more.  It did seem to corroborate what she was saying, but none of that would change the law. "I don't think that's going to affect the case."

She stood up and walked over to the window, looking out across the rooftops below.  Our office had one of the best views in the city, if you were lucky enough to be near a window.  "Our lawyers agree," she said.  "The first step is to get them declared legal persons. Then, well, if we can get a fair trial we might use that as a mitigating factor."  She turned back to me, her arms folded authoritatively.  "I'm not asking you to condone what they did. None of us do.  Rennie doesn't.  I'm just asking you to accept that they're not animals.  They protected one of their own."

"Dr. Wiedergeburt, I'm afraid I'm only here to take your deposition."

She smiled. Genuinely, as best I could tell. "Of course."  She sat back down.

"Where did the Neanderthals learn to kill?" 

I remember the cold look that came across her face to this day.  It literally sent a chill down my spine.  You can almost hear the expression on the recording.  "That would be Dr. Llorneil's contribution." Again, she spelled it.  "He was interested in studying Neanderthal acquisition of life skills.  So he set out teaching them best-guess reconstructions of Neanderthal technology. Stoneworking.  Leather crafts.  Pitch-glue making -- they never did figure that one out, Lord knows how the prehistoric Neanderthals did it.  And, yes, hunting.  I have no idea what he got out of it, but the children seemed to enjoy it." 

"He thought these skills were innate or something?"

"Something like that."  She paused as if trying to recall something.  "Homo habilismade stone tools, but showed no evidence of evolution in toolmaking.  So it's thought that they made tools the way birds make nests, on instinct, not intellect." 

"And he taught them to chase prey with fire and sticks?" I asked.

"It's thought that they hunted larger prey by chasing it off cliffs, yes." Her voice had gone flat, resigned.  "The murder of Dr. Wanaker is exactly what Llorneil taught them to do ... only with human prey and a city environment."

"And no one thought that what they were being taught might be dangerous?"

She exhaled strenuously.  "You don't expect your children to grow up to be murderers, Mr. Jackson.  No parent does.  In hindsight, I think we were grateful for the break.  We had to teach them ourselves.  We couldn't send them to school, you know.  No, ten families, twelve children, and one really raucous home school.  And now three of them have children of their own..." She just shook her head as she trailed off into silence.

I waited a moment before pressing on.   "Do you feel you could have done something differently to prevent what happened to Dr. Wanaker?"

She pierced me with those eyes again.  "You mean would I advise another mother raising a Neanderthal child to do things differently, or was there something I should have known at the time?" 

"Either."

"I did the best I could.  We all did. We did nothing that any ten other families wouldn't have done. But obviously, we learned a lot in the process. Just as any grandmother has more experience than any new mother, yes, I could think of things I'd do differently. I still regret losing my temper when she chewed up my African woodcarving." 

I let a laugh escape.  "That wasn't on your list of differences in the species."

"That's because my brother also teethed on anything and everything," she said. 

"Did you have any other children?"  I realized only after the words came out how I had phrased the question.

"No," she said.  "I never married.  I was 37 when Rennie was born.  I think that was part of the reason I was so ready to volunteer."

"Just one more question, Dr. Wiedergeburt.  Were there any warning signs of violent tendencies among the Neanderthals?"

She stood up and walked to the window again, hesitating a long time before answering. "No more so than with any other child."

"But you had no children."

"I've studied child development extensively," she said quietly, not turning around, "and written two books on the subject." 

"Very good," I said, bringing the recorder back to the foreground. "Do you have anything to add?"

"Just that they're people," she said, still not turning around.

"Thank you," I said, pressing stop on the recorder.

"Is the recorder off?"

"Yes." 

She finally turned back around.  Her whole demeanor had changed.  Suddenly she looked frail, vulnerable.  "Mr. Jackson, there are fifteen scared people being held in a zoo.  A zoo, Mr. Jackson."

"Dr. Wiedergeburt--"

"I know," she said, holding her hands up placatingly.  "I know that officially you're powerless to do anything. But I'm not asking officially. I'm appealing to your humanity. They're trying to kill my daughter."

"There's really nothing I can do," I said, quite sincerely.

"Yes," her voice dropped a register as she sat back down across from me, reaching out to rest her hand on mine.  Her skin felt leathery, but her touch was gentle.  "Actually, there is."

"I'm just--"

"A junior lawyer at a law firm hired to take depositions for the government, yes," she said.  "But tell me, when was the last time you saw a dangerous animal case where the animals in question spoke English and could speak for themselves?"

She was, of course, correct.  The Neanderthals weren't human, but they weren't ordinary animals either.

She apparently took her cue from my reaction, because she continued, more earnestly. "Would it be unheard of for your firm to depose everyone involved in the case?"

The prosecutors really didn't seem to have given any thought to interviewing the Neanderthals. It would be unprecedented. "You think it will help your case."  Of course, under discovery rules, the district attorney would need to turn over any and all depositions to her lawyer.

"Having all sides out certainly wouldn't hurt anyone's case, unless the case is based on fallacy." 

I understood. "If I can get access."

She grinned wickedly.  "The zoo staff is pretty accommodating.  Especially if they think your presence might help calm their wards." 

"I assume they're not happy about keeping them?"

"No," she said.  "Even the ones who don't think the Neanderthals are human agree that they're human enough..." She looked down at our hands.

"Then, what, jail?"  I asked. "Put them in with human inmates? Isn't that asking for more trouble?"

She looked directly into my eyes again.  "And that, Mr. Jackson, is the part of the equation that we didn't really consider. All of us involved in the experiment, we believed, we knew, that Neanderthals were human -- or close enough that we could raise them as human."

"But they're not."

"No," she admitted.  "Off the record.  Or even on it, they're not.  They're Neanderthals.  Very, oh, so very nearly human, but not human."

"But not animals," I said.

"No more so than you or me," she said.  "People.  Different. The same.  People."

"So what do you want me to do?" I asked.

She inhaled deeply, letting go of my hand.  "I'm a mother, Mr. Jackson.  And my daughter is all grown up.  It's time for her to be on her own."

Again, I had no idea what she was getting at.

"Mr. Jackson," she said, voice dropping to a near whisper.  "They're perfectly capable of surviving in the wild."

Neanderthals. In the "wild."  It seemed an even bigger recipe for disaster, and certainly not legal.  "We're talking about a potentially dangerous species," I said.

"One that, if we believe the paleontologists, we competed with for tens of thousands of years," she said.  "That's the part of the experiment that went wrong, you see.  Two species with identical needs cannot exist in the same biome. Now that they're established, they must compete with us.  And we must compete with them."

"Now it sounds like you're arguing for putting them down," I said.

"No," she said deliberately.  "The part you're missing is 'in the same biome.'  If they were located elsewhere--"

"Our species wouldn't come into contact," I finished for her.  "At least not for now."

She nodded. "Believe me, I'd rather have Rennie just come home.  But we're past that point now.  But, they're well suited to living in cold climates, where we don't do as well.  The Yukon, maybe."

I had to admit, it was a more pleasant alternative to consider than simply killing them all. "What can I do?  Legally, I mean."

"For starters," she said, "get depositions from them all. And then, well, you know what to do from there." 

And I did. "You realize you're just delaying the inevitable."

She nodded. "I can hope that as a species, we've learned better."

"You can hope."  I stood up, making myself as professional sounding as I could.  "Dr. Wiedergeburt, I'm afraid that I'm in no official capacity to help you."

She laughed, rising, and held out her hand to shake mine.  "Then I shall leave you to your unofficial capacity."

I shook her hand. She was a smart lady.  "You have a good day, Dr. Wiedergeburt," I said, and slipped my computer into my hip pocket. 

I walked her to the elevator, which she entered silently.  As I headed back to my cubicle, I pulled out the computer again and scanned through my schedule.  I had time after lunch to run down to the zoo and take a few depositions --  Twelve, perhaps.  Plus a few zookeepers. 

And that's how, in my first year as a lawyer, I began my criminal career.

This story originally appeared in Cosmos Magazine.


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Kyle Aisteach

Kyle writes science fiction and fantasy and is mouthy about QUILTBAG issues.