The Human Genre Project

A cult of identity

Joan straightens up, grimacing at the twinge in her back. Rubbing the sore muscles through sweat-damp cloth, she surveys the dig. The sun, near zenith, is a copper blister in the platinum sky – they’ll have to retreat to the tents soon. The air shimmers over baked sand, playing tricks with the team: the nearest graduate student wavers into two forms, then coalesces back into a sullen crouch: the reality of archaeology, Joan suspects, is not conforming to this one’s expectations. At least Smithy has not managed to poach him, unlike her previous two. The older post-grads present more serene postures as they move instruments carefully over each square centimetre of earth: no chatter, just the bleeping of the handheld Stratig units keeping meticulous measure of the provenance of every shard, scrap, splinter – every irrelevant grain of sand.

Charles looks up, catching her watching him and smiles. She throws him a look – anything yet? He shakes his head and makes a face before bowing back to the narrow shaft he’s uncovering.

There is nothing about this particular dig that seems more promising than any of the others, truth be told. Joan has been chasing the Eques all over the London desert for years now, pouring over the remnants of what she’s sure was a once-mighty religious sect, so prominent that it had even challenged the more established religion epitomized by the ruins of nearby Sayntpall. Smithy and the others smirk at her at all the symposia and call her theories wishful fantasy to her face, and worse behind her back at the conference bars, she’s certain. Dismissing her beloved Eques as a petty craft guild of some sort, Smithy has nevertheless been unable to work out what they might have produced – which doesn’t seem to stop him from being able to publish his own speculations in the best journals.

No – it all fits. She’s convinced. The Eques had possessed the key to the self, gifted by the god Eque and entrusted solely to the temple priests. A supplicant would come to the temple and leave gifts, and in return the priests would consult Eque and inscribe the person’s secret essence. Once codified, the supplicant’s ‘soul’ would be safe throughout eternity. But if the indulgences were not paid, one’s identity would remain unknown, lost forever on death.

The secret selves were written in a cipher that no modern linguist has yet cracked. There just aren’t enough fragments to even make a start. One of the post-grads unearthed a few lines yesterday, too badly damaged to be useful, but she’s desperately hoping that better examples will follow.

Joan is plagued by a recurring dream: in it, she is discovering the Rosetta Stone, that mythical key described by the Old Ones in their fables. Her dream self brushes dust away from a newly unearthed tablet with trembling hands and the ciphers are aligned with some known language – preferably one of the pre-Crash dialects that scholars have a good handle on.

Where’s the challenge in that, Charles had teased her, but if she’s going to dream, she might as well dream big.

Other nights, usually restless ones when the cold desert winds rattle at the polytrene tent and sand whispers in drifts over its skin, she herself is a supplicant to Eque, lost in a lonely universe where her soul could be snuffed out forever with no warning, no memorial. Robed and barefoot, long-shadowed in the blue moonlight, she mounts the stairs to the temple, past steel and glass – magically restored to newness – and the grey slab-like surfaces of the shrines. The somber priest takes her hammered metal coins and hands her the tablet, glowing with knowledge; she tips it eagerly towards her – but she always wakes at this point, tangled in sweaty coverlet with the sunrise.

A whoop from behind, jolting her back to the baking present: Joan turns to see Rafe’s face lit with wonder.

“A shrine unit!” he cries out. “Looks to be in pretty good condition, too.”

Everyone downs tools and struggles though the sand to crowd around. Joan’s blood surges, all thirst and aches and thwarted scholarship forgotten in that rare moment of possible triumph. So what if ninety-nine times out of a hundred it’s a dead end? This is the part she lives for.

Rafe poises the chirruping Stratig in his left hand and slowly brushes off sand with the electric BrushMate in his right, exposing that beautiful fine plastic moulding that you only ever find in the pre-Crash period.

“It looks brand-new,” Charles says as its ceremonial decorations materialize: square, jewel-like raised impressions, silver metal sockets, fretted grills of chrome, all dazzling Joan’s eyes in the sunlight. And then a row of numerals –

“Pre-Crash numbers!” she breathes. “Perfectly legible. Keep brushing, Rafe.” Half wanting him to stop, to prolong the pleasure indefinitely.

The BrushMate whirrs downwards, revealing familiar letters:


And then still more, on the left and right, letters that are familiar but forming prefixes, suffixes and companion words that Joan does not know. Well, she’ll get on to the linguists later. No one has ever found more context than that initial name. She can already see the look on Smithy’s face when she drops this bomb at the autumn symposium.

Rafe switches off the Stratig and the BrushMate, the awed silence hanging unbroken for a full minute as everyone soaks in the sacred text:

Gene-tex Base-MAX® DNA Sequencer 2.4TM.

“It’s beautiful,” the new grad student murmurs, all disillusionment vanished forever.

The author is a cell biologist, Nature blogger, and the editor of, a site where scientists write fiction.

Jennifer Rohn