Three Hearings on the Existence of Snakes in the Human Bloodstream.
Asimov's Science Fiction, Feb 1997
1. Concerning an Arrangement of Lenses, So Fashioned
as to Magnify the View of Divers Animacules, Too Tiny to be Seen with
the Unaided Eye:
His Holiness, Supreme Patriarch Septus XXIV, was an expert on chains.
By holy law, chains were required on every defendant brought to the
Court Immaculate. However, my Lord the Jailer could exercise great latitude
in choosing which chains went on which prisoners. A man possessed of a
healthy fortune might buy his way into nothing more than a gold link
necklace looped loosely around his throat; a beautiful woman might visit the
Jailer privately in his chambers and emerge with thin and glittering silver
bracelets -- chains, yes, but as delicate as thread. If, on the other hand,
the accused could offer neither riches nor position nor generous physical
charms... well then, the prison had an ample supply of leg-irons, manacles,
and other such fetters, designed to show these vermin the grim weight of
The man currently standing before Patriarch Septus occupied a
seldom-seen middle ground in the quantity of restraints: two solid handcuffs
joined by an iron chain of business-lute gauge, strong enough that the
prisoner had no chance of breaking free, but not so heavy as to strain the
man's shoulders to the point of pain. Clearly, my Lord the Jailer had
decided on a cautious approach to this particular case; and Septus wondered
what that meant. Perhaps the accused was nobody himself but had sufficient
connections to rule out unwarranted indignities... a sculptor or musician,
for example, who had won favor with a few great households in the city. The
man certainly had an artistic look -- fierce eyes in an impractical face,
the sort of high-strung temperament who could express passion but not use
"Be it known to the court," cried the First Attendant, "here stands one
Anton Leeuwenhoek, a natural philosopher who is accused of heresy against
God and Our Lady, the Unbetombed Virgin. Kneel, Supplicant, and pray with
his Holiness, that this day shall see justice."
Septus waited to see what Leeuwenhoek would do. When thieves and
murderers came before the court, they dropped to their knees immediately,
making gaudy show of begging God to prove their innocence. A heretic,
however, might spit defiance or hurl curses at the Patriarchal throne -- not
a good way to win mercy, but then, many heretics came to this chamber intent
on their own martyrdom. Leeuwenhoek had the eyes of such a fanatic, but
apparently not the convictions; without so much as a grimace, he got to his
knees and hewed his head. The Patriarch quickly closed his own eyes and
intoned the words he had recited five times previously this morning: "God
grant me the wisdom to perceive the truth. Blessed Virgin, grant me the
judgment to serve out meet justice. Let us all act this day to the greater
glory of Thy Divine Union. Amen."
Amens sounded around the chamber: attendants and advocates following
the form. Septus glanced sideways toward Satan's Watchboy, an ominous title
for a cheerfully freckle-faced youth, the one person here excused from
closing his eyes during the prayer. The Watchboy nodded twice, indicating
that Leeuwenhoek had maintained a proper attitude of prayer and said Amen
with everyone else. Good -- this had just become a valid trial, and anything
that happened from this point on had the strength of heavenly authority.
"My Lord Prosecutor," Septus said, "state the charges."
The prosecutor bowed as deeply as his well-rounded girth allowed,
perspiration already heading on his powdered forehead. It was not a hot day,
early spring, nothing more... but Prosecutor ben Jacob was a man famous for
the quantity of his sweat, a trait that usually bothered his legal
adversaries more than himself. Many an opposing counsel had been distracted
by the copious flow streaming down ben Jacob's face, thereby overlooking
flaws in the prosecutor's arguments. One could always find flaws in ben
Jacob's arguments, Septus knew -- dear old Abraham was not overly clever. He
was, however, honest, and could not conceive of winning personal advancement
at the expense of those he prosecuted; therefore, the Patriarch had never
dismissed the man from his position.
'Your Holiness," ben Jacob said, "this case concerns claims against the
Doctrine of the, uhh... Sleeping Snake."
"Ah." Septus glanced over at Leeuwenhoek. "My son, do you truly deny
The man shrugged. "I have disproved the doctrine. Therefore, it can
hardly be God's."
Several attendants gasped loudly. They perceived it as part of their
job to show horror at every sacrilege. The same attendants tended to whisper
and make jokes during the descriptions of true horrors: murders, rapes,
maimings. "The spectators will remain silent," Septus said wearily. He had
recited those words five times this morning too. "My Lord Prosecutor, will
you please read the text?"
"Ummm... the text, yes, the text."
Septus maintained his composure while ben Jacob shuffled through papers
and parchments looking for what he needed. It was, of course, standard
procedure to read any passages of scripture that a heretic denied, just to
make sure there was no misunderstanding. It was also standard procedure for
ben Jacob to misplace his copy of the relevant text in a pile of other
documents. With any other prosecutor, this might be some kind of strategy;
with ben Jacob, it was simply disorganization.
"Here we are, yes, here we are," he said at last, producing a dog-eared
page with a smear of grease clearly visible along one edge. "Gospel of
Susannah, chapter twenty-three, first verse." Ben Jacob paused while the two
Verification Attendants found the passage in their own scripture books. They
would follow silently as he read the text aloud, ready to catch any slips of
the tongue that deviated from the holy word. When the attendants were ready,
ben Jacob cleared his throat and read:
After the procession ended, they withdrew to a garden outside the walls
of Jerusalem. And in the evening, it happened that Matthias beheld a serpent
there, hidden by weeds. He therefore took up a stone that he might crush the
beast; but Mary stayed his hand, saying, '"There is no danger, for look, the
"Teacher," Matthias answered, "it will not sleep forever."
"Verily," said Mary, "I promise it will sleep till dawn; and when the
dawn comes, we will leave this place and all the serpents that it holds."
Yet still, Matthias kept hold of the stone and gazed upon the serpent
"O ye of little faith, " said Mary to Matthias, "why do you concern
yourself with the sleeping creature before you, when you are blind to the
serpents in your own heart? For I tell you, each drop of your blood courses
with a legion of serpents, and so it is for every Child of Dust. You are all
poisoned with black venoms, poisoned unto death. But if you believe in me, I
will sing those serpents to sleep; then will they slumber in peace until you
leave this flesh behind, entering into the dawn of God's new day."
Ben Jacob lowered his page and looked to the Verifiers for their
confirmation. The Patriarch turned in their direction too, but he didn't
need their nods to tell him the scripture had been read correctly. Septus
knew the passage by heart; it was one of the fundamental texts of Mother
Church, the Virgin's promise of salvation. It was also one of the most
popular texts for heretics to challenge. The presumption of original sin, of
damnation being inherent in human flesh... that was anathema to many a fiery
young soul. What kind of God, they asked, would damn an infant to hell
merely for being born? It was a good question, its answer still the subject
of much subtle debate; but the Virgin's words were unequivocal, whether or
not theologians had reasoned out all the implications.
"Anton Leeuwenhoek," Septus said, "you have heard the verified word of
scripture. Do you deny its truth?"
Leeuwenhoek stayed directly back. "I must," he answered. "I have
examined human blood in meticulous detail. It contains no serpents."
The toadies in the courtroom had their mouths open, ready to 'gasp
again at sacrilege; but even they could hear the man was not speaking in
deliberate blasphemy. He seemed to be stating... a fact.
Septus straightened slightly in the Patriarchal throne. This had the
prospect of more interest than the usual heresy trial. "You understand," he
said to Leeuwenhoek, this passage is about original sin. The Blessed Virgin
states that all human beings are poisoned with sin and can only be redeemed
"On the contrary, Your Holiness." Leeuwenhoek's voice was sharp. "The
passage states there are snakes in human blood. I know there are not."
"The snakes are merely..." Septus stopped himself in time. He had been
on the verge of saying the snakes were merely a metaphor; but this was a
public trial, and any pronouncements he made would have the force of law. To
declare that any part of scripture was not the literal truth ... no
Patriarch had ever done so in open forum, and Septus did not intend to be
"Let us be clear on this point," Septus said to Leellwenhoek. "Do you
deny the Doctrine of Original Sin?"
"No. I could never make heads or tails of theology. What I understand
is blood; and there are no snakes in it."
One of the toadies ventured a small gasp of horror, but even a deaf
mall could have told the sound was forced.
Prosecutor ben Jacob, trying to be helpful, said, "You must appreciate
that the snakes would be very, very small."
"That's just it," Leeuwenhoek answered with sudden enthusiasm. "I have
created a device that makes it possible to view tiny things as if they were
much larger." He turned quickly toward Septus. "Your Holiness is familiar
with the telescope? The device for viewing objects at long distances?"
The Patriarch nodded in spite of himself.
"My device," Leeuwenhoek said, "functions on a similar principle -- an
arrangement of lenses that amplify one's vision to reveal things too small
to see with the naked eye. I have examined blood in every particular; and
while it contains numerous minute animalcules I cannot identify, I swear to
the court there are no snakes. Sleeping or otherwise."
"Mm." Septus took a moment to fold his hands on the bench in front of
him. When he spoke, he did not meet the prisoner's eyes. "It is well-known
that snakes are adept at hiding, are they not? Surely it is possible that a
snake could be concealed behind... behind these other minute animalcules you
"A legion of serpents," Leeuwenhoek said stubbornly. "That's what the
text said. A legion of serpents in every drop of blood. Surely they couldn't
all find a place to hide; and I have spent hundreds of hours searching, Your
Holiness. Days and weeks and months."
Troublesome to admit, Septus didn't doubt the man. The Patriarch had
scanned the skies with an excellent telescope, and had seen a universe of
unexpected wonders -- mountains on the moon, hair on the sun, rings around
the planet Cronus. He could well believe Leeuwenhoek's magnifier would
reveal similar surprises... even if it didn't show serpents in the
bloodstream. The serpents were merely a parable anyway; who could doubt it?
Blessed Mary often spoke in poetic language that every educated person
recognized as symbolic rather than factual.
Unfortunately, the church was not composed of educated persons. No
matter how sophisticated the clergy might be, parishioners came from humbler
stock. Snakes in the blood? If that's what Mary said, it must be true; and
heaven help a Patriarch who took a less dogmatic stance. The bedrock of the
church was Authority: ecclesiastic authority, scriptural authority. If
Septus publicly allowed that some doctrines could be interpreted as mere
symbolism -- that a fundamental teaching was metaphor, not literal fact --
well, all it took was a single hole in a wineskin for everything to leak
On the other hand, truth was truth. If there were no snakes, there were
no snakes. God made the world and all the people in it; if the Creator chose
to fashion human lifeblood a certain way, it was the duty of Mother Church
to accept and praise Him for it. Clinging to a lie in order to preserve
one's authority was worse than mere cowardice; it was the most damning
Septus looked at Leeuwenhoek, standing handcuffed in the dock. A living
man with a living soul; and with one word, Septus could have him executed as
a purveyor of falsehood. But where did the falsehood truly he?
"This case cannot be decided today," Septus announced. "Mother Church
will investigate the claims of the accused to the fullest extent of her
strength. We will build magnifier devices of our own, properly blessed to
protect against Satan's interference." Septus fought back a smile at that;
there were still some stuffy inquisitors who believed the devil distorted
what one saw through any lens. "We shall see what is there and what is not."
Attendants nodded in agreement around the courtroom, just as they would
nod if the sentence had been immediate acquittal or death. But ben Jacob
said, "Your Holiness -- perhaps it would be best if the court were to... to
issue instructions that no other person build a magnification device until
the church has ruled in this matter."
"On the contrary," Septus replied. "I think the church should make
magnifiers available to all persons who ask. Let them see for themselves."
The Patriarch smiled, wondering if ben Jacob understood. A decree
suppressing magnifiers would simply encourage dissidents to build them in
secret; on the other hand, providing free access to such devices would bring
the curious into the church, not drive them away. Anyway, the question would
only interest the leisured class, those with time and energy to wonder about
esoteric issues. The great bulk of the laity, farmers and miners and
ostlers, would never hear of the offer. Even if they did, they would hardly
care. Minute animalcules might be amusing curiosities, but they had nothing
to do with a peasant's life.
Another pause for prayer and then Leeuwenhoek was escorted away to
instruct church scholars in how to build his magnification device. The man
seemed happy with the outcome -- more than escaping a death sentence, he
would now have the chance to show others what he'd seen. Septus had met many
men like that: grown-up children, looking for colorful shells on the beach
and touchingly grateful when someone else took an interest in their sandy
As for Leeuwenhoek's original magnifier -- Septus had the device
brought to his chambers when the court recessed at noon. Blood was easy to
come by: one sharp jab from a pin and the Patriarch had his sample to
examine. Eagerly he peered through the viewing lens, adjusting the focus in
the same way as a telescope.
Animalcules. How remarkable.
Tiny, tiny animalcules... countless schools of them, swimming in his
own blood. What wonders God had made! Creatures of different shapes and
sizes, perhaps predators and prey, like the fishes that swam in the ocean.
And were there snakes? The question was almost irrelevant. And yet ...
very faintly, so close to invisible that it might be a trick of the eye,
something as thin as a hair seemed to flit momentarily across the view.
Then it was gone.
2. The Origin of Serpentine Analogues in the Blood of Papist Peoples:
Her Britannic Majesty, Anne VI, rather liked the Star Chamber. True,
its power had been monstrously abused at times in the past five centuries --
secret trials leading to secret executions of people who were probably more
innocent than the monarchs sitting on the judgment seat -- but even in the
glorious Empire, there was a place for this kind of hearing. The queen on
this side of the table, one other subjects on the other... it had the air of
a private chat between friends: a time when difficulties could get sorted
out, one way or another.
"Well, Mr. Darwin," she said after the tea had been poured, "it seems
you've stirred up quite a hornet's nest. Have you not?"
The fiercely bearded man across the table did not answer immediately.
He laid a finger on the handle of his cup as if to drink or not to drink was
some momentous decision; then he said, "I have simply spoken the truth,
ma'am...as I see it."
"Yes; but different people see different truths, don't they? And a
great many are upset by the things you say are true. You are aware there has
"I know about the riots, ma'am. Several times they have come
uncomfortably close to me. And of course, there have been threats on my
"Indeed." Anne lifted a tiny slice of buttered bread and took what she
hoped would seem a thoughtful nibble. For some reason, she always enjoyed
eating in front of the accused here in the Star Chamber; they themselves
never had any appetite at all. "The threats are one reason We invited you
here today. Scotland Yard is growing rather weary of protecting you; and Sir
Oswald has long pondered whether your life is worth it."
That got the expected reaction -- Darwin's finger froze on the cup
handle, the color draining away from his face. "I had not realized...." His
eyes narrowed. "I perceive, ma'am, that someone will soon make a decision on
"Exactly," the queen said. "Sir Oswald has turned to the crown for
guidance, and now We turn to you." She took another tiny bite of the bread.
"It would be good of you to explain your theories -- to lay out the train of
reasoning that led to your... unsettling public statements."
"It's all laid out in my book, ma'am."
"But your book is for scientists, not queens." Anne set down the bread
and allowed herself a small sip of tea. She took her time doing so, but
Darwin remained silent. "Please," she said at last. 'We wish to make an
Darwin grunted... or perhaps it was a hollow chuckle of cynicism. An
ill-bred sound in either case. "Very well. Your Majesty," he nodded. "It is
simply a matter of history."
"History is seldom simple, Mr. Darwin; but proceed."
"In... 1430-something, I forget the exact year, Anton Leeuwenhoek
appeared before Supreme Patriarch Septus to discuss the absence of snakes in
the bloodstream. You are familiar with that, ma'am?"
"Certainly. It was the pivotal event in the Schism between Our church
and the Papists."
Anne could see Darwin itching to leap off his chair and begin prowling
about the room, like a professor lecturing to a class of dull-lidded
schoolboys. His strained impetuosity amused her; but she hoped he would keep
his impulses in check.
"Pray continue, Mr. Darwin."
"It is common knowledge that the Patriarch's decision led to a... a
deluge, shall we say, of people peering at their own blood through a
microscope. Only the upper classes at first, but soon enough it spread to
the lower levels of society too. Since the church allowed anyone to look
into a microscope without cost, I suppose it was a free source of amusement
for the peasantry."
"An opiate for the masses," Anne offered. She rather liked the phrase
-- Mr. Marx had used it when he had his little visit to the Star Chamber.
"I suppose that must be it," Darwin agreed. "At any rate, the
phenomenon far outstripped anything Septus could have foreseen; and even
worse for the Patriarchy, it soon divided the church into two camps -- those
who claimed to see snakes in their blood and those who did not."
"Mr. Darwin, we are well aware of the fundamental difference between
Papists and the Redeemed."
"Begging your pardon, ma'am, but I believe the usual historical
interpretation is... flawed. It confuses cause and effect."
"How can there be confusion?" Anne asked. "Papists have serpents in
their blood; that is apparent to any child looking into a microscope. We
Redeemed have no such contaminants; again, that is simple observational
fact. The obvious conclusion, Mr. Darwin, is that Christ Herself marked the
Papists with Her curse, to show one and all the error of their ways."
"According to the Papists," Darwin reminded her, "the snakes are a sign
of God's blessing: a sleeping snake means sin laid to rest."
"Is that what you think, Mr. Darwin?"
"I think it more practical to examine the facts before making any
"That is why we are here today," Anne said with a pointed glance.
"Facts... and judgment. If you could direct yourself to the heart of the
matter, Mr. Darwin?"
"The heart of the matter," he repeated. "Of course. I agree that today
any microscope will show that Papists have snakes in their bloodstream... or
as scientists prefer to call them, serpentine analogues, since it is highly
unlikely the observed phenomena are actual reptiles--"
"Let us not bandy nomenclature," Anne interrupted. "We accept that the
entities in Papist blood are unrelated to cobras and puff adders; but they
have been called snakes for centuries, and the name is adequate. Proceed to
your point, Mr. Darwin."
"You have just made my point for me, ma'am. Five centuries have passed
since the original controversy arose. What we see now may not be what people
saw then." He took a deep breath. "If you read the literature of that
long-ago time, you find there was great doubt about the snakes, even among
the Papists. Serpentine analogues were extremely rare and difficult to
discern... unlike the very obvious entities seen today."
"Surely that can be blamed on the equipment," Anne said. "Microscopes
of that day were crude contrivances compared to our fine modern
"That is the usual argument," Darwin nodded, "but I believe there is a
"My argument, ma'am, is based on my observations of pigeons."
Anne blinked. "Pigeons, Mr. Darwin?" She blinked again. "The birds?"
She bit her lip. "The filthy things that perch on statues?"
"Not wild pigeons, Your Majesty, domestic ones. Bred for show. For
example, some centuries ago, a squire in Sussex took it into his head to
breed a black pigeon from his stock of gray ones."
"Why ever would he want a black pigeon?"
"That remains a mystery to me too, ma'am; but the historical records
are clear. He set about the task by selecting pigeons of the darkest gray he
could find, and breeding them together. Over many generations, their color
grew darker and darker until today, the squire's descendants boast of
pigeons as black as coal."
"They boast of that?"
Darwin seized up a piece of bread and virtually stuffed it into his
mouth. The man had apparently become so engrossed in talking, he had
forgotten who sat across the table. Good, Anne thought; he would be less
"We understand the principles of animal husbandry," Anne said. "We do
not, however, see how this pertains to the Papists."
"For the past five centuries. Your Majesty, the Papists have been going
through exactly the same process... as have the Redeemed, for that matter.
Think, ma'am. In any population, there are numerous chance differences
between individuals; the squire's pigeons, for example, had varying shades
of gray. If some process of selection chooses to emphasize a particular
trait as desirable, excluding other traits as undesirable -- if you restrict
darker birds to breeding with one another and prevent lighter ones from
contributing to the bloodline -- the selected characteristic will tend to
become more pronounced with each generation."
"You are still talking about pigeons, Mr. Darwin."
"No, ma'am," he said triumphantly, "I am talking about Papists and the
Redeemed. Let us suppose that in the times of Patriarch Septus, some people
had almost imperceptible serpentine analogues in their bloodstream -- a
chance occurrence, just as some people may have curls in their hair while
others do not."
Anne opened her mouth to say that curls were frequently not a Chance
occurrence at all; but she decided to remain silent.
"Now," Darwin continued, "what happened among the people of that day?
Some saw those tiny, almost invisible snakes; others did not. Those who saw
them proclaimed, This proves the unshakable word of Mother Church. Those who
saw nothing said, The scriptures cannot be taken literally -- believers must
find the truth in their own hearts. And so the Schism split the world,
pitting one camp against another."
"Yes, Mr. Darwin, We know all that."
"So, ma'am, you must also know what happened in subsequent generations.
The rift in belief created a similar rift in the population. Papists only
married Papists. The Redeemed only married the Redeemed."
"Consequently," Darwin stressed the word, "those who could see
so-called snakes in their blood only married those of similar condition.
Those who saw nothing married others who saw nothing. Is it any wonder that,
generation by generation, snakes became more and more visible in Papist
blood? And less and less likely to be seen in the Redeemed? It is simply a
matter of selective breeding, ma'am. The Papists are not different from us
because the Virgin put her mark on them; they are different because they
selected to make themselves different. To emphasize the difference. And the
Redeemed have no snakes in their blood for the same reason -- simply a side
effect of our ancestors' marital prejudice."
"Mr. Darwin!" Anne said, aghast. "Such claims! No wonder you have
angered the Papists as much as your own countrymen. To suggest that God's
sacred sign is a mere barnyard accident...." The Queen caught her breath.
"Sir, where is your decency?"
"I have something better than decency," he answered in a calm voice. "I
"Proof? How could you prove such a thing?"
"Some years ago, ma'am," he said, "I took passage on a ship sailing the
South Seas; and during that voyage, I saw things that completely opened my
"More pigeons, Mr. Darwin?"
He waved his hand dismissively. "The birds of the Pacific Islands are
hardly fit study for a scientist. What I observed were the efforts of
missionaries, ma'am; both Papists and the Redeemed, preaching to the natives
who lived in those isles. Have you heard of such missions?"
"We sponsor several of those missions personally, Mr. Darwin."
"And the results, ma'am?"
"Mixed," Anne confessed. "Some tribes are open to Redemption, while
others..." she shrugged. "The Papists do no better."
"Just so. Your Majesty. As an example, I visited one island where the
Papists had been established for thirty years, yet the local priest claimed
to have made no true converts. Mark that word, true. Many of the natives
espoused Papist beliefs, took part in Papist worship, and so on... but the
priest could find no snakes in their blood, so he told himself they had not
truly embraced Mother Church."
"You would argue with the priest's conclusion?"
"Certainly," Darwin replied. "In my eyes, the island tribe was simply a
closed population that for reasons of chance never developed serpentine
analogues in their blood. If you interbreed only white pigeons, you will
never develop a black."
Anne said, "But--" then stopped stone-still, as the words of a recent
mission report rose in her mind. We are continually frustrated in our work
on this island; although the people bow before God's altar, their blood
continues to show the serpent-stain of the Unclean...
"Mr. Darwin," Anne murmured, "could there possibly be islands where all
the people had snakes in their blood, regardless of their beliefs?"
"There are indeed, ma'am," Darwin nodded. "Almost all the island
populations are isolated and homogeneous. I found some tribes with snakes,
some without -- no matter which missionaries ministered there. When the
Papists land among a people who already have analogues in their bloodstream,
they soon declare that they have converted the tribe and hold great
celebrations. However, when they land among a people whose blood is clear...
well, they can preach all they want, but they won't change the effects of
generations of breeding. Usually, they just give up and move on to another
island where the people are more receptive... which is to say, where they
have the right blood to begin with."
Anne lowered her eyes. Darwin had been speaking about the Papists, but
she knew the same was true of Redeemed missionaries. They tended to stay a
year in one place, do a few blood tests, then move on if they could not show
results -- because results were exclusively measured in blood rather than
what the people professed. If missionaries, her own missionaries, had been
abandoning sincere believers because they didn't believe the conversions
were "true"... what would God think of that?
But Darwin hadn't stopped talking. "Our voyage visited many islands,
Your Majesty, a few of which had never received missionaries of any kind.
Some of those tribes had serpentine analogues in their blood, while some did
not... and each island was homogeneous. I hypothesize that the potential for
analogues might have been distributed evenly through humankind millennia
ago; but as populations grew isolated, geographically or socially--"
"Yes, Mr. Darwin, We see your point." Anne found she was tapping her
finger on the edge of the table. She stopped herself and stood up. "This
matter deserves further study. We shall instruct the police to find a place
where you can continue your work without disturbance from outside sources."
Darwin's face fell. "Would that be a jail, ma'am?"
"A comfortable place of sanctuary," she replied. "You will be supplied
with anything you need -- books, paper, all of that."
"Will I be able to publish?" he asked.
"You will have at least one avid reader for whatever you write." She
favored him with the slightest bow of her head. "You have given Us much to
"Then let me give you one more thought. Your Majesty." He took a deep
breath, as if he was trying to decide if his next words would be offensive
beyond the pale. Then, Anne supposed, he decided he had nothing to lose.
"Papists and the Redeemed have been selectively breeding within their own
populations for five hundred years. There may come a time when they are too
far removed from each other to be... cross-fertile. Already there are rumors
of an unusually high mortality rate for children with one Papist parent and
one Redeemed. In time -- millennia perhaps, but in time -- I believe the two
populations may split into separate species."
"Separate species? Of humans?"
"It may happen, Your Majesty. At this very moment, we may be witnessing
the origin of two new species."
Queen Anne pursed her lips in distaste. "The origin of species, Mr.
Darwin? If that is a joke, We are not amused."
3. The Efficacy of Trisulphozymase for Preventing SA Incompatibility
Reactions in Births of Mixed-Blood Parentage:
The hearing was held behind closed doors -- a bad sign. Julia Grant had
asked some other colleagues what to expect and they all said, Show trial,
Show trial. Senator McCarthy loved to get his name in the papers. And yet
the reporters were locked out today; just Julia and the Committee.
A very bad sign.
"Good afternoon, Dr. Grant," McCarthy said after she had sworn to tell
the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. His voice had a
smarmy quality to it; an unpleasant man's attempt at charm. "I suppose you
know why you're here?"
"Come now, doctor," he chided, as if speaking to a five-year-old.
"Surely you must know the purpose of this Committee? And it therefore
follows that we would take great interest in your work."
"My work is medical research," she replied tightly. "I have no
political interests at all." She forced herself to stare McCarthy in the
eye. "I heal the sick."
"There's sickness and there's sickness," the senator shrugged. "We can
all understand doctors who deal with sniffles and sneezes and heart
attacks... but that's not your field, is it?"
"No," she answered. "I'm a hematologist, specializing in SA
"Could you explain that for the Committee?"
The doctor suspected that every man on the Committee -- and they were
all men -- had already been briefed on her research. If nothing else, they
read the newspapers. Still, why not humor them?
"All human blood," she began, "is either SA-positive or SA-negative--"
"SA stands for Serpentine Analogue?" McCarthy interrupted.
"Yes. The name comes from the outdated belief--"
"That some people have snakes in their bloodstream," McCarthy
"Do some people have snakes in their bloodstream?" McCarthy asked.
"Snake-like entities," another senator corrected... probably a
"Serpentine analogues are not present in anyone's bloodstream," Julia
said. "They don't appear until blood is exposed to air. It's a specialized
clotting mechanism, triggered by an enzyme that encourages microscopic
threads to form at the site of an injury--"
"In other words," McCarthy said, "SA-positive blood works differently
from SA-negative. Correct?"
"In this one regard, yes," Julia nodded.
"Do you think SA-positive blood is better than SA-negative?"
"It provides slightly more effective clotting at wounds--"
"Do you admire SA-positive blood, doctor?"
Julia stared at him. Mentally, she counted to ten. "I am fascinated by
all types of blood," she answered at last. "SA-positive clots faster...
which is useful to stop bleeding but gives a slightly greater risk of
stroke. Overall, I'd say the good points and the bad even out. If they
didn't, evolution would soon skew the population strongly one way or the
McCarthy folded his hands on the table in front of him. "So you believe
in evolution, Dr. Grant?"
"I'm a scientist. I also believe in gravity, thermodynamics, and the
universal gas equation."
Not a man on the Committee so much as smiled.
"Doctor," McCarthy said quietly, "what blood type are you?"
She gritted her teeth. "The Supreme Court ruled that no one has to
answer that question."
In sudden fury, McCarthy slammed his fist onto the table. "Do you see
the Supreme Court in here with us? Do you? Because if you do, show me those
black-robed faggots and I'll boot their pope-loving asses straight out the
window." He settled back in his chair. "I don't think you appreciate the
seriousness of your situation, Dr. Grant."
"What situation?" she demanded. "I am a medical researcher--"
"And you've developed a new drug, haven't you?" McCarthy snapped. "A
new drug. That you want to loose on the public. I wonder if the person who
invented heroin called herself a medical researcher too?"
"Mr. McCarthy, trisulphozymase is not a narcotic. It is a carefully
"Which encourages miscegenation between Papists and the Redeemed,"
McCarthy finished. "That's what it does, doesn't it, doctor?"
"No!" She took a deep breath. '"Trisulphozymase combats certain medical
problems that occur when an SA-positive father and an SA-negative mother--"
"When a Papist man sires his filthy whelp on a Redeemed woman,"
McCarthy interrupted. "When a Papist fucks one of the Saved! That's what you
want to encourage, doctor? That's how you'll make the world a better place?"
Julia said nothing. She felt her cheeks burn like a child caught in
some forbidden act; and she was infuriated that her reaction was guilt
rather than outrage at what McCarthy was saying.
Yes, she wanted to say, it will make the world a better place to stop
separating humanity into hostile camps. Most people on the planet had no
comprehension of either Papist or Redeemed theology; but somehow, the
poisonous idea of blood discrimination had spread to every country of the
globe, regardless of religious faith. Insanity! And millions recognized it
to be so. Yet the McCarthys of the world found it a convenient ladder on
which they could climb to power, and who was stopping them? Look at Germany.
Look at Ireland. Look at India and Pakistan.
Ridiculous... and deadly, time and again throughout history. Perhaps
she should set aside SA compatibility and work on a cure for the drive to
demonize those who were different.
"A doctor deals with lives, not lifestyles," she said stiffly. "If I
were confronted with a patient whose heart had stopped beating, I would
attempt to start it again, whether the victim were an innocent child, a
convicted murderer, or even a senator." She leaned forward. "Has anyone here
ever seen an SA incompatibility reaction? How a newborn infant dies? How the
mother goes into spasm and usually dies too? Real people, gentlemen; real
screams of pain! Only a monster could witness such things and still rant
A few Committee members had the grace to look uncomfortable, turning
away from her gaze; but McCarthy was not one of them. "You think this is all
just ideology, doctor? A lofty discussion of philosophical doctrine?" He
shook his head in unconvincing sorrow. "I wish it were... I truly wish it
were. I wish the Papists weren't trying to rip down everything this country
stands for, obeying the orders of their foreign masters to corrupt the
spirit of liberty itself. Why should I care about a screaming woman, when
she's whored herself to the likes of them? She made her decision; now she
has to face the consequences. No one in this room invented SA
incompatibility, doctor. God did... and I think we should take the hint,
The sharp catch of bile rose in Julia's throat. For a moment, she
couldn't find the strength to fight it; but she couldn't be sick, not in
front of these men. Swallowing hard, she forced herself to breathe evenly
until the moment passed. "Senators," she said at last, "do you actually
intend to suppress trisulphozymase? To withhold life-saving treatment from
those who need it?"
"Some might say it's a sign," McCarthy answered, "that a Redeemed man
can father a child on a Papist without complications, but it doesn't work
the other way around. Doesn't that sound like a sign to you?"
"Senators," she said, ignoring McCarthy, "does this Committee intend to
Silence. Then McCarthy gave a little smile. "How does trisulphozymase
Julia stared at him, wondering where this new question was going.
Warily, she replied, "The drug dismantles the SA factor enzyme into basic
amino acids. This prevents a more dangerous response from the mother's
immune system, which might otherwise produce antibodies to the enzyme. The
antibodies are the real problem, because they may attack the baby's--"
"So what you're saying," McCarthy interrupted, "is that this drug can
destroy the snakes in a Papist's bloodstream?"
"I told you, there are no snakes! Trisulphozymase temporarily
eliminates the extra clotting enzyme that comes from SA-positive blood."
"It's only temporary?"
"That's all that's needed. One injection shortly before the moment of
"But what about repeated doses?" McCarthy interrupted. "Or a massive
dose? Could you permanently wipe out the SA factor in a person's blood?"
"You don't administer trisulphozymase to an SA-positive person," Julia
said. "It's given to an SA-negative mother to prevent--"
"But suppose you did give it to a Papist. A big dose. Lots of doses.
Could it destroy the SA factor forever?" He leaned forward eagerly. "Could
it make them like us?"
And now Julia saw it: what this hearing was all about. Because the
Committee couldn't really suppress the treatment, could they? Her results
were known in the research community. Even if the drug were banned here,
other countries would use it; and there would eventually be enough public
pressure to force re-evaluation. This wasn't about the lives of babies and
mothers; this was about clipping the devil's horns.
Keeping her voice steady, she said, "It would be unconscionable to
administer this drug or any other to a person whose health did not require
it. Large doses or long-term use of trisulphozymase would have side effects
I could not venture to guess." The faces in front of her showed no
expression. "Gentlemen," she tried again, "in an SA-positive person, the
enzyme is natural. A natural component of blood. To interfere with a body's
natural functioning when there is no medical justification..." she threw up
her hands. "Do no harm, gentlemen. The heart of the Hippocratic Oath. At the
very least, doctors must done harm."
"Does that mean," McCarthy asked, "that you would refuse to head a
research project into this matter?"
"You're the top expert in your field," McCarthy shrugged. "If anybody
can get rid of the snakes once and for all, it's you."
"Senator," Julia said, "have you no shame? Have you no shame at all?
You want to endanger lives over this... triviality? A meaningless difference
you can only detect with a microscope--"
"Which means they can walk among us, doctor! Papists can walk among us.
Them with their special blood, their snakes, their damned inbreeding --
they're the ones who care about what you call a triviality! They're the ones
who flaunt it in our faces. They say they're God's Chosen. With God's Mark
of Blessing. Well, I intend to erase that mark, with or without your help."
"Without," Julia told him. "Definitely without."
McCarthy's gaze was on her. He did not look like a man who had just
received an absolute no. With an expression far too smug, he said, "Let me
tell you a secret, doctor. From our agents in the enemy camp. Even as we
speak, the Papists are planning to contaminate our water supply with their
damned SA enzyme. Poison us or make us like them... one way or the other. We
need your drug to fight that pollution; to remove the enzyme from our blood
before it can destroy us! What about that, Dr. Grant? Will your precious
medical ethic? let you work on a treatment to keep us safe from their damned
Julia grimaced. "You know nothing about the human metabolism. People
couldn't 'catch' the SA factor from drinking water; the enzyme would just
break down in your stomach acid. I suppose it might be possible to produce a
methylated version that would eventually work its way into the
bloodstream..." She stopped herself. "Anyway, I can't believe the Papists
would be so insane as to--"
"Right now," McCarthy interrupted, "sitting in a committee room of some
Papist hideaway, there are a group of men who are just as crazy as we are.
Believe that, doctor. Whatever we are willing to do to them, they are
willing to do to us; the only question is, who'll do it first." McCarthy
settled back and cradled his hands on his stomach. "Snakes all 'round, Dr.
Grant. You can make a difference in who gets bitten."
It was, perhaps, the only true flung McCarthy had said since the
hearing had begun. Julia tried to doubt it, but couldn't. SA-positive or
negative, you could still be a ruthless bastard. She said nothing.
McCarthy stared at her a few moments more, then glanced at the men on
both sides of him. "Let's consider this hearing adjourned, all right? Give
Dr. Grant a little time to think this over." He turned to look straight at
her. "A little time. We'll contact you in a few days... find out who scares
you more, us or them."
He had the nerve to wink before he turned away. The other senators
filed from the room, almost bumping into each other in the hurry to leave.
Complicitous men... weak men, for all their power. Julia remained in the
uncomfortable "Witness Chair," giving them ample time to scurry away; she
didn't want to lay eyes on them again when she finally went out into the
Using trisulphozymase on an SA-positive person... what would be the
effect? Predictions were almost worthless in biochemistry -- medical science
was a vast ocean of ignorance dotted with researchers trying to stay afloat
in makeshift canoes. The only prediction you could safely make was that a
large enough dose of any drug would kill the patient.
On the other hand, better to inject trisulphozymase into SA-positive
people than SA-negative. The chemical reactions that broke down the SA
enzyme also broke down the trisulphozymase -- mutual assured destruction. If
you didn't have the SA enzyme in your blood, the trisulphozymase would build
up to lethal levels much faster, simply because there was nothing to stop
it. SA-positive people could certainly tolerate dosages that would kill a...
Julia felt a chill wash through her. She had created a drug that would
poison SA-negatives but not SA-positives... that could selectively massacre
the Redeemed while leaving the Papists standing. And her research was a
matter of public record. How long would it take before someone on the Papist
side made the connection? One of those men McCarthy had talked about, just
as ruthless and crazy as the senator himself.
How long would it take before they used her drug to slaughter half the
There was only one way out: put all the snakes to sleep. If Julia could
somehow wave her hands and make every SA-positive person SA-negative, then
the playing field would be level again. No, not the playing field -- the
Insanity... but what choice did she have? Sign up with McCarthy; get
rid of the snakes before they began to bite; pray the side effects could be
treated. Perhaps, if saner minds prevailed, the process would never be
deployed. Perhaps the threat would be enough to force some kind of bilateral
Feeling twenty years older, Dr. Julia Grant left the hearing room. The
corridor was empty; through the great glass entryway at the front of the
building, she could see late afternoon sunlight slanting across the marble
steps. A single protester stood on the sidewalk, mutely holding a sign aloft
-- no doubt what McCarthy would call a Papist sympathizer, traitorously
opposing a duly appointed congressional committee.
The protester's sign read, "Why do you concern yourself with the
sleeping creature before you, when you are blind to the serpents in your own
Julia turned away, hoping the building had a back door.
James Alan Gardner. Three Hearings on the Existence of Snakes in the Human Bloodstream
Last-modified: Mon, 12 Jul 1999 22:10:53 GMT