Tuesday, 23 October 2018

Chapter 12: Transit

Doctors feared many in vitro fertilised (IVF) babies would inherit the genetic mutations that caused their mother or father's infertility.  We know now this fear was well-founded, and sadly, an underestimation.

In historical IVF treatment, more and more men were assisted with no or very low sperm counts.  Many of these men had small pieces of the Y chromosome missing.  This loss of genetic material (called a deletion) usually led to poor sperm production.  As expected, boys conceived of fathers who had the Y deletion inherited the Y deletion themselves, and most were infertile when they reached maturity themselves.  Of those who chose to have children, almost all required reproductive assistance.  The cycle repeated itself, again and again, for more than a century, until all children, upon reaching maturity, required reproductive assistance.

Worst still, IVF and ICSI (Intra-cytoplasmic sperm injection) – a treatment for infertile men in which an individual sperm is selected and injected directly into an egg – were confirmed not only to pass on deletions, but imprints as well, which equated to a higher risk of various rare disorders, chief amongst the shared signs and symptoms being early miscarriage.  Essentially, ICSI used sperm that would normally be too unfit to fertilise an egg, increasing the risks of genetic defects in the child; completely defeating natural selection. 

Most parents who underwent historical treatment said they accepted the risk that their children could have fertility problems, trusting that future doctors would be better able to treat them.  We are now consistently facing test results for both male and female patients for whom reproduction seems statistically impossible.  We can not treat them. 

Recent widespread disease has further complicated the fertility crisis.  Countries who offered viable candidates for reproduction (those whose genetic material was uncompromised by in vitro procedures) were most adversely affected by the outbreaks, due to the rapid onset of the epidemic and delayed receipt of immunisations.

In vitro fertilisation is costly and ineffective.  In vitro fertilisation is also crippling.  It must cease, immediately, if we are to regain any hope of conception in the future.

-  Official Statement from the University of Reproductive Medicine, NaturalConceptionOnly.Intra

Quinn Zhang finished configuring the private shuttle for their journey. She ducked as she exited the control area, joining Neith on a long bench seat in the rear.  She said nothing.  Neith decided to focus on water droplets beading then streaking on the windows’ exterior while the City’s fringe slurred past yet again.  She noticed the driver’s large window had wipers going – to what purpose, she couldn’t guess, since Ms Zhang seemed to prefer sitting in awkward quiet, allowing automation to do the work.  Having the wipers set to frantic did nothing but add percussion to the tension. 
Neith tried to recall her last time in a private shuttle.  A Cluster Meet, that was it.

Bead, streak.  Bead, streak.   

Ms Zhang let out a strident sigh. 

Oh dear.

“Minister Prescott wishes me to relay to you he is thrilled you have made no effort to disclose anything you learned about…the training programme.”  They were monitoring her earpiece, chip and phone.  Neith snorted at Q.Z.’s code language.  Subtle.  She continued to stare at the water patterns, defiantly, until a throat clear forced her to shift her gaze towards Quinn Zhang.  How very parent-like.

“Part of that agreement is surrendering your earpiece.” Quinn held her hand outstretched.  Ah.  Like old times.

But Neith began to feel a hint of cheer.  MinSci surveillance wouldn’t be listening anymore; old station and El-train screens wouldn’t be sending her sound.

Neith carefully removed her earpiece and placed it into Ms Zhang’s fair and soft-looking palm. She noted Q.Z..’s ambiguous semantics.  Her sentences worked in reference to Neith’s alibi and actual destination equally well; Ms Zhang could be prepping her to protect codestrings from And-jailbreakers.  Orrr to enter an anti-outsiders-and-their-devices, Nydia.  Neith had decided the name of this place sounded like a land abounding with flowing honey and unicorns.  Which, upon further thought, she decided was not as shocking as the truth.


“You are clear on your cover?” 

“Which one?”

Q.Z.  pressed her lips together in response.

“Yes,” Neith confirmed, growing weary of her own cynicism as well.  They both understood she was shelving her Family and Friends Story – the one where she was attending advanced training, and now mentally brushing up on her Nydia Story.  Now, she was an entry level scientist visiting Nydia in the interests of peace – not interference.  She was a researcher on a kind of work experience gig.  She’d stay in Nydia, show Nydians that City-folk weren’t all bad, and come back to present what the City could learn from their neo-Luddite ways.

Although a night’s sleep and more thought had gifted her some eagerness for the chance to travel and learn, she couldn’t shake the fear she would again be an outsider, rejected in a community who didn’t understand her.  And this time, she’d be without Grace.  But she couldn’t blame Nydia for that.  Prescott was responsible for sending her away in secret to face who knows what – while he drank hot chocolates and rode his private lift.  The robotics sector continued to profit from a city’s ignorance while his medical arm laid groundwork.  She resented him for limiting her choices with his polite reasoning; for limiting Nydia’s.  For his not-so-subtle blackmail.  Whatever came after her assignment, however things fell if they hit the fan, Neith wanted the Minister to be covered in the faeces.  Not the kids.


The shuttle’s screen ran an advertisement for a time capsule service.  Neith knew this was essentially a Service And being tasked.  It came and recorded an individual’s responses to interview questions, then uploaded them alongside the candidate’s most viewed images on their private Intra account.  It was all they’d really come up with to replace passing anything real on to posterity.  Neith didn’t see the point.  Some hoped guests from the edge of the universe would come upon our world and save us from this mess, but failing that, salvage the Easter eggs we left behind.  Some in the City were still opting to freeze all or parts of themselves based on the hope those visitors would someday come to the rescue.  

Quinn Zhang perched rigid beside her.  Neith suspected Q.Z.’s parents knew their daughter’s name was a homophone for a role-playing doll.  She also had a hunch the name-bearer didn’t mind being synonymous with something doll-like. 

Scarlet Vu reported the usual on the screen; stocks are high, the recovering economy is holding up in its small concentration, despite the burden of an aging population.  The southern farms are producing and transporting their goods well, to us – up here in our beacon City with all of our comforts and pleasures (Neith translation: “distractions”).  There is no need to fear for the future.  Everyone should hold to the hope for birth and rebirth, but prepare and preserve and live each day as though it could be their last.  Gag. 

Neith had been tired of the mantras before she knew it was all a lie, but now the chipper delivery was nerve-grating on what was already raw.

She could see the shuttle had long left the Clean City behind.  Although the interior cabin was warm and dry the rain outside had turned to sleet.  She had read the southern regions of Xinland were slightly colder this time of year.  She imagined the farms that filled the south weathering this.  They still managed to produce enough to support the country’s only remaining City.  It couldn’t be too bad.

The shuttle began to ease, before halting smoothly at a dock where she could see a figure waiting outside wearing a breaker, whipped in the wind.

“Your pilot.” 

Neith leaned forward and squinted through the side window before sitting down again.

“Oh!  He’s not coming aboard!  You’re getting out here.”

Neith tried to hide her confusion.  Was there any benefit in trying to clarify the situation, at this point?  It wouldn’t change her destination.  Quinn waved over the door’s release sensor and Neith shrugged into her assignment-issued anorak, slung her backpack over her shoulder, and stepped out into the coldest weather she had ever felt.  – which she supposed was probably not that cold.

She turned to say good-bye to Quinn.  The doll was on her phone.  “Yes, good-bye, good luck and all that.”  The woman did not look up.  “Oh, and he doesn’t speak any English.”  Q.Z. nodded towards the figure. 


Neith leaned in the wind.  She made her way towards the pilot, and, she could now see, his helicopter.  It was 100 metres or so away on a raised platform behind him. 

Neith gulped.


Neith’s stomach stopped lurching once the chopper levelled out, but she was sweating in her coat inside the cramped cockpit.  She’d seen a helicopter on the Intra, but she thought they’d all been decommissioned.  She added this to her mental list of concealments.

Neith had attempted to gauge how much English “no English” was with a few questions.  Turns out it really was zero.  It was unnerving.  Shouldn’t there be two pilots?  There were in Old World movies.

She could see behind the rain-soaked jacket collar and headset, her pilot was from the south – a theory which supported cause for the language barrier.  The agri-Ands were maintained by a small number of pure-blood refugees.  She wondered what need the farms had for a chopper. 

Their flight took them over land only briefly before they flew over sounds.  Irregular stripes of sea-drowned valleys and dotted tall islands gave the impression that the Northern Island faded out to sea and then the Southern faded in.  Neith had never left Feichangbei.  A small thrill broke through the nausea. 

The weather had mercifully settled a little, although it was still grey.   Before Neith could become comfortable, they began an abrupt descent.  She attempted to focus on her lap instead of the angle the rotors were now on.  Not on.  On again. 

The sun was coming up.  Neith could see no signs of habitation or infrastructure in any direction. 

They landed – with finally level rotors – in a clearing.  The pilot motioned for Neith to get out.  She had climbed into the helicopter with the blades at rest, this was quite a different matter.  Also: she couldn’t see anyone close by – would the pilot really just leave her here by herself? 

The pilot’s gestures became more insistent. 

Neith disembarked and cringed against the force of the downdraft while she crouch-ran away.  The chopper was back in the air before she could even look back and wave, had she wanted to. 

Then she saw a lone figure approaching her.  Broad, tall, and dressed in layers of rich texture – a woollen coat, scarf, and hat.  A thick brown beard served as another layer. 

Was she meant to go to him? 

She decided yes – who else could this burly chap be here to meet?  Surely helicopters didn’t drop girls off at remote rendezvous locations every day. 

As she came closer, she saw warmth in the man’s eyes, despite the hard line of his mouth. 

“Morning,” he said, as they drew close enough to exchange words. 

“You speak English!” 

The man barked a short laugh.   “Yes.”  Still chuckling he added, “Jamin.  You must be Neith.  We have a long walk ahead.  Stay close and on the track.”  He had offered his hand in greeting.  Neith took it, feeling warmth and certainty in his grasp.  She hadn’t shaken hands with anyone before.  The epidemics had done that to City people. 

They set out in the morning light.  Neith let out a surge of breath recalling the first impression she’d made; You speak English!  She was pretty sure she’d have been briefed if this community hadn’t spoken the same tongue.  The helicopter ride had unsettled her and seemed to cast everything up for question, including her breakfast’s staying power. 

She hoped she could improve upon that start.  She had a “long walk” to do it.  Challenge accepted.