Monday, 24 September 2018

Chapter 8: The Revelation

The summons to Minister Prescott’s office was highly unusual.  Wilson joined her for their few-and-far-between briefings, the briefings that were conducted remotely.  In person, alone, and with no idea of the subject matter?  This was new.  Even when Neith had an idea of what was to take place, in-person formal meetings had never been her thing.  The mechanics, quiet problem-solving and actual work was her thing – not talking about doing it.

Neith decided this was probably some sort of performance review.  She further resolved no amount of speculative reasoning outside the head honcho’s office was going to prepare her for what happened inside.  If anything, it was going to ensure she got her trembles on.  Distraction was in order.  

She squinted across the waiting area, studying the small sign at the well-groomed female’s desk.   It read: Executive Assistant, Quinn Zhang.  Holy points bonanza, Batman, if proper names were allowed in Intra-Scrabble!  If someone played “quin” you could tack that name right on the end in a perpendicular direction.  Oh, if only it had one more letter, you’d play out all your tiles for the bonus.  Neith could set a record in the Gifted and Talented game forum with a move like that.

Someone was talking. 

“Miss Cole?”

Neith raised her eyes from the name strip to the face of name bearer.  “Great name.”

“I’m sorry?”  The assistant cocked her head. Her hair was cropped very short. 

“Your name.  It’s fantastic.”  Neith rose from the smooth-lined sofa she’d warmed for only a minute.

“Thank you?  Leave your earpiece and phone here.”  Quinn Zhang slid a small tray across her desk.  She skimmed her eyes over Neith’s Coat of Many Pockets.  “And your jacket,” QZ added.  She wore an androgynous suit herself.  Despite the minimalism in her dress and hairstyle, her flawless complexion and facial features were doll-like.

“Okay.”  Neith shrugged out of her comfort item, concealing how it pained her.

“The Minister is expecting you in his main office. It’s through the largest door there.” She motioned down a short hall.

Prescott’s office doors detected her approach and slid open with a sound only Neith would probably note.  She made her way in.  Two large, uncomfortable-looking chairs were placed just so, opposite a very large desk screen.  The striking man Neith knew from remote briefings of the past sat there, in person.  He was smaller than she expected in person.  He was surrounded by screens.  They curved around his person in a way that reminded Neith of an illustration she’d seen.  It was of an old world dog wearing some kind of large plastic cone for a collar.  She did her best not to smile at this, as she wasn’t sure yet what air filled the room.  Prescott had his own private elevator behind his desk.  She wasn’t surprised.  She eyed the semi-chairs.  She decided to take a seat on one.

“Please, Miss Cole, have a seat.”  Despite the correction suggested by his words, Minister Prescott’s voice was kind.  He smiled as he gestured towards the uncomfortable chair she already occupied.  Formalities – another reason why face-to-face business felt archaic and odd.  The severe side-part in Prescott’s hair matched his formal and precise manner.  He ran his hand across a sensor and the vert-screens retracted within the desk frame.  He turned to face her.

“Thank you, sir.  Did I miss a notification somewhere?  I haven’t quite been myself with…  She was cut off.

“You needn’t explain to me!  I’m sure you’ve been very busy this past week with 2K celebrations.” He was still smiling, his gestures gentle.  He brought his hands together in a loose clasp.  The cuffs of his shirt peeked out beneath his blazer to reveal cufflinks.  “In this case you haven’t missed a thing – there was no notification.  This is a surprise meeting.” 

“Oh.”  Neith said quietly.

“So how were they?”  Prescott released his hands to form inquisitive visual parentheses.  Neith searched for his meaning.  How were the Ands developments coming?  How were surprise meetings – of which she’d had none…  “The 2K celebrations, Miss Cole.  How were they?”

“Oh,”  Neith said again.  “Well…”  She was again interrupted.

“Or would you prefer I called them Omega celebrations?” 

Neith repositioned herself on the chair. 

“You’re very quiet, Miss Cole.  I know just what we need!”  Prescott held his fingers to another point on his desk.  “Ms Zhang, please bring in two cups of hot chocolate, would you?”

Neith stiffened.  “I’ve had mine for June, sir.” 

Prescott seemed not to hear.

“Yes, sir,” Ms Zhang’s voice came back in through the desk speaker.  The doll-like assistant appeared soon after with two cups of hot chocolate.  She sat them on Prescott’s desk.  They were a long way from Neith.

“I suppose you wonder why you are here?”

“Yes, sir.” 

“That’s understandable.  Allow me to explain.”  Neith tried to keep her eyes on his, steady.  To ignore the cut of his suit that proclaimed tailoring over salvage.  This man had never had to dig through the remnants of The Before.  He reached for his cup of hot chocolate and took a long sip.  He licked his lips and turned them inwards before putting the cup back down.  “Where to begin?  Let’s start with what you already know.  We live in unfortunate times, wouldn’t you agree?” 

“Yes.”  She dropped the sir.  Prescott didn’t seem to mind.  Steam rose from the mugs of hot chocolate.

“Very unfortunate.  But what we have here in the City – it’s something.  We even enjoy some luxuries.  We are survivors.  That in and of itself is quite special.”  He paused and gently moved his cup in a circle in the air, looking into it.  “The problem is: the wrong people survived.” 

Neith’s brow wrinkled.  Survivor was usually a celebrated word.  But she got it.  She knew she was…broken.

“Oh, I know, it’s never easy to hear it put like that.”  Prescott said, seeing her expression.  “But it’s the truth.  Our scientists and others – they could barely keep ahead of each new strain of plague that mutated and presented itself.  But finally, things seemed to slow down.  They managed to get the vaccines out without another outbreak sending them running back to the labs.”  Neith couldn’t imagine Prescott ever ran anywhere – his first-owner clothing might earn a crease. “So in that way, they were quite exceptional, those first gen survivors.”  He drew again from his cup.  “The problem was, they got the vaccines out – as they so often do – to the privileged first; the first-worlders.  That was who received the help they needed.  The first-worlders were the ones they made sure were okay.  But the plagues?  They were no respecter of persons.  They were carried by bird and rodent everywhere, to every crop and every person.”  Neith knew this.  Her tutors had told her.  But they’d never called her the wrong person to survive.  Prescott continued; “Those without access to pharmaceutical healthcare?  They all…perished.”  His face was grim as he looked down for a moment.  Did he regret his parents not dying with the people in overseas slums?  He couldn’t be older than 55.  He wouldn’t be here if his parents hadn’t received the vaccines he was talking about.  Was he sorry his parents didn’t live in the rabbit warrens of Asia and South America?  Was Prescott mourning the remote tribes lost in Africa?  Neith didn’t ask.  She stayed quiet.  She wanted to know why she was here.  “You see, the survivors – they had modern medicine.  Plenty of it.  Too much, in fact.  Before the epidemics, they’d overindulged in scientific intervention.  In all their comfort and wealth, the first-worlders had begun delaying having children for their careers; to travel, to explore themselves.”  He made air quotes on the last two words.  “Then they had trouble having children.  They’d waited too long.  So what did they do?  They intervened.  They used science to help in the actual process of making children.”  He interlaced his fingers in a bowl as though cradling something small.  “But by doing that they created a new problem.  You see, they gifted those babies infertility.”  Most 2K’s assumed the epidemics had contributed to fertility.  That somehow first gen survivors’ exposure / immunity / immunisation had effected their virility, that they had passed that onto the second generation, and the second had passed it to the third; the 2K’s.  “I’m sure you remember your study of Natural Selection, Ms Cole?”

Neith nodded. 

“Well, with these intervening fertility treatments, Natural Selection was interrupted.  Scientists began making babies who naturally would never have come into being.  Genetic material normally incapable of replicating was replicated, over and over.  Infertile parents were having children!  It was a miracle!  But then, those children – when it came time for them to have children – well, you know the rest.”


“Your parents and mine had no option but to undergo the same treatments their parents had to achieve the same result.  Children became something we always helped along.”  Neith knew she had been conceived via IVF – in vitro fertilisation.  She knew the practise was discontinued – she’d thought it was because their cause was that hopeless, not that it had caused the hopelessness.  “They kept on this way, hoping that future scientists – like us, Miss Cole – that we would have the answer to this problem they had created.  But you see, we had our hands full, didn’t we?”  He meant with the plagues.  “We didn’t solve the fertility crisis.  In fact, we saw that all of our science was what had caused the crisis to begin with.  And now, here we were – survivors – but we are the wrong ones.  We are the first-worlders who have been tampering with our DNA for generations.  And now when we tamper, even then, we can no longer achieve a pregnancy that reaches full term.”  IVF didn’t work anymore – maybe because of the plagues, maybe because they’d been privileged…and messed up their own DNA first.  Whatever the cause, IVF was no longer offered to the public.  Neith knew her mother was one of the last 100 mothers whose IVF treatment had resulted in a child.  “So what now?”  Prescott continued.  “What can we do?  What can the Ministry of Science do with this legacy we’ve inherited?”

Neith realised he meant her to answer.  “I don’t know.  Herd people into the towers?”  Was that where he was going with this?  Was her boss about to comment on her living situation?  Her moral choices?

He smiled and laughed with one breath.  “That is one avenue.  But you haven’t chosen it, have you, Miss Cole?”

He was going to do it; he was going to meddle in her private life.  “No, I haven’t sir.”  She braced herself for rebuke.

“And that is why we have chosen you.  We have need of a very specific type of intern. You’re it.  You are different.  You understand an experiment like the Match Complex can only go on so long before it becomes clear that the Matched pairs aren’t working.”  She revealed little surprise.  According to the Intra and newscasts, all the Match Complexes had produced so far was four miscarriages and lots and lots of debauchery.  “There is another way.  A better way.”

“I’m listening.”  He was finally getting to what he needed from her.

“Are you ready for this, Miss Cole?  I have more to tell you.”  As if she had a choice.  “Please, you haven’t touched your hot chocolate.”  He motioned towards her cup.  It wasn’t steaming anymore.  She self-consciously covered the space from the chair to where the cup sat and returned with it to her uncomfortable seat.  She sipped.  It was scarcely warm.  She held it awkwardly in her lap.

“There, that’s better.  In Feichangbei we have tried with intervention and we have tried without it, but we can only work with the genetic material available to us here.  This brings me to the alternative: new DNA.  We have been waiting and guarding…another option.”  Neith wanted to hear it.  The fertility crisis was a problem she’d never dared to brainstorm solutions for. 

“You are to be reassigned off-site to explore this option.  It involves…” Prescott looked to his desk before looking up again, “children.”

“I’m sorry, sir, I thought I heard you say ‘children.’”  Neith considered the term highly unlikely for cadavers – the only humans under 16 she knew existed.  “I have very limited biological experience, sir.  My strengths are in the coding, my hands, the finer details...  If MinSci is reopening the suspended subject studies, I think there are other candidates far better suited to the job.”  She could feel her stomach acids churning at the thought of tweezing and pulling juvenile body tissue.

“We are not asking you to work with cadavers, Miss Cole.  You will be working with living children.”

“Sir?”  Neith was alarmed.  “Do you have…children…here somewhere?  Neith’s broken question expressed her doubt at the absurdity of such a thing.

“No.  I understand this must be a lot for you to process.  As I said, you will be off-site.  There is one group of outliers left, untouched by disease and infertility.  They live in a place called Nydia. A group of fanatics made camp there before isolation began, before the epidemics started. They hoped to start their own little utopia away from all of the hustle and bustle.”  Prescott lifted his shoulders a little at the rhyming expression.  “People laughed at them then.  But in Nydia now, they still have and are having children – without difficulty.  We need you to go there.  Strengthen our relationship with Nydia, so we have a chance of introducing good genetic material back into our gene pool; a chance at a future.”

Neith was reeling from the revelation and confused by Prescott’s approach.  “Where are these children, exactly?”  Saying the CH-word this often without referencing history documents made it take on a new and foreign sound.  It was difficult to even enunciate.  She felt a confusion of excitement and denial thinking about living children anywhere.  She could travel to see them?  It still wasn’t making sense.  She shelved her anger at having been fed lies her entire life. 

“In a small cove in the sounds between the North and South Island – a cove hidden in the bush at very tip of Nandao.”  In the bush.

“Sir, although I cannot fully grasp this situation, I think I understand enough to ask, why me?  I’m in robotics.”

“This opportunity – it is a two-way agreement.  The people there need us to be peaceable and need us to keep their secret.  We’ve suggested a return to a more natural process – an opportunity for a small selection of people from our Match Complexes to mix with people of their own.  They fear us.  They are sure we will seize the first chance we get to artificially inseminate one of their young women with a 2K sample.  We need to prove otherwise.  Before we can send 2K’s, we need to send an ambassador for our youth who can show them we can live together in peace.  We need to take one small step at a time.  The thing is, now Nydia knows we need them, they have their own terms.  Nydia doesn’t want their way of life disrupted.   They have asked for our initial representative to be someone who will cope without casts, feeds, and a phone.  Better yet if she didn’t cast at all.  Very few people would even notice such a person was gone at all.”  Prescott dipped his head so that his ruler-straight part was entirely visible.  “They also want someone young enough to be ‘useful;’ around age 20 – old enough be out of school, young enough to contribute.  There’ll be no Ands there to do the work for you.”  Neith had never taken an And home for assistance.  She refused to accept it was time for that yet.  
“We’ve reviewed the 2K files of all interns in our employ, and you are the best candidate.  Your place in the internship programme even supplies us with a suitable alibi.”  Neith took a moment to process that.  Alibi.  Wait, she would need a cover story? 

“You see, Miss Cole, your shock at learning of living children just now – if we were to release this information to the public – that would take place on a wide scale.  Can you imagine the panic?  How people’s worlds would unravel!  We are barely holding this City together as it is, but this news – it would destroy the economy we’ve carefully rebuilt. Not to mention the toll it would take on Nydia.”

Neith knew about living children when most of the City did not.  She knew this secret.  And she – all tower-resisting, let’s-just-all-do-our-jobs-and-die-out-quietly – was rocked by this revelation.  How would the general population who longed for such hope take such news?  Forget them, how would the quin dealers, the Madams who trafficked Ands with escort mods and other money-mongering hordes counter the news?  It would hurl a damning wrench in their production lines of alternatives.  Neith’s mind went to the specialty doll she’d seen cradled in arms this afternoon.  There are living children?! She could imagine the press releases now.  And the rage. 

There would be pandemonium.

“You understand then, Miss Cole.  This has to remain confidential.  You will not be able to tell anyone about your true assignment.  And this course must be pursued.  It’s our only lifeboat left without a hole in it, and we cannot spare it any longer.”  He smiled feebly.  Neith thought this over.  

She wouldn’t be able to tell her parents?  Or Grace?  Prescott slid his empty cup away.  “You don’t want to be responsible for anyone coming to any harm, do you, Miss Cole?”

Neith swallowed.  “No.  No I don’t.” 

“Your parents...Grace – they would most surely be victims to the panic and collapse, should it take place.”  For the first time in today’s meeting, Neith detected a serpentine air beneath the kindness of Prescott’s outer layer.  He was suggesting not only potential fall-out from exposing this truth, he was implying certain danger for those she loved.  Of course he knew their names.  Neith wasn’t being given a choice.  “So long as you explain you are restricted to a private MinSci training programme and that you will only be permitted email contact – none of which reveals the truth of your assignment – then everyone should be just fine.  You’ll find it isn’t hard to keep a secret when it is a matter of a nation’s security…even its future.” 

Neith nodded, looking at the cold beverage in her lap.  She already felt guilt’s onset.  She was going to keep something from people she’d never before lied to.  She was afraid.  She didn’t know anything about living in the bush or what kind of contribution they would expect of her there.  She did know the word Prescott wasn’t saying.  The word used to describe the acts of people who threatened a nation’s security.  It was used liberally to describe any offence against the Republic. Treason.  Treason was punishable by execution.  Her face was grim.  First, Prescott threatened her family, now he was threatening her.  Neith’s internship was taking a turn whether she liked it or not. 

“I see you fully understand.  That is excellent news, Miss Cole.”

“So that is the entire assignment? Then I’m done?  Gain their trust so they allow some 2K’s in, then I’m…back to robotics?”

“That is the entire assignment.  Their trust is what the Executive Cabinet needs.  Show them we have no intention of doing the people of Nydia any harm.  You’re harmless.  After that, Miss Cole, I hope we will all be occupied with science greater than robotics.”