The capital lobby hummed with the usual daily business and orderly activities of visitors with appointments. Government workers steadily appeared on the quarter-hour, dressed in the red uniforms of junior staff, and collected the waiting citizens, shuffling them back down the dark hallways from which they arrived. No visitors, however, were being usheredthrough the large metal doors emblazoned with the words HIGH CHAMBER.
Sitting in the lobby, hands knitted tightly together, Mercy Perching anxiously bounced her knee while she waited. Odd, but not unexpected was her conclusion on the urgent meeting from the Leaders of the Sanctuary. They must have read her report on the resistance gene offering immunity to the virus, she told herself. Their request was sooner than she had anticipated, but even the slightest possibility of a cure would explain their insistence.
Mercy twisted her fingers white. She would be succinct in her presentation, she told herself. She would not repeat the things they already knew, like one hundred years after the pandemic, they still did not have a vaccine. Or that synthetic antidotes had failed. No, today was about hope. Her research opened up a new door of possibilities, and Mercy had to convince them to let her continue her work.
A sudden loud mechanical clank quieted the soft conversations in the lobby. All eyes were on the large metal doors to the High Chamber as they slid smoothly sideways; one to the left and one to the right. Two officers flanking the entrance in perfectly cut sapphire blue uniforms decorated with the military insignia of a wheat shaft crossed over by a sword, stood to attention.
‘Doctor Mercy Perching!’ trumpeted one of the guards.
Mercy rose from the bench to stares and whispers from onlookers and gossip herders who were eager to guess at her importance.
‘Isn’t that the Director of the Department of Population Reclamation?’ one asked.
‘Yes. She’s working on a vaccine,’ answered someone from behind.
‘She’s so young,’ said another.
Fair of skin and hair, able bodied, and taller than most, Mercy already stood out. But her one hazel eye and the other muddy blue set her apart from all others.
‘Amazing!’ declared her Doctor on nearly every visit. His torch zigzagged from one pupil to the other. ‘Heterochromia. Completely different coloured eyes. So rare. You’re a genetic miracle.’
‘There are no miracles, Doctor. Only science,’ Mercy would reply, shaking her head at the old man’s lack of respect forgenetics.
If she had inherited this unique feature from her parents, she wouldn’t have known. A child of the Population Reclamation Program, her life had started in a lab: fertilised in a test tube, carried by an unknown surrogate, and raised by the government to fulfil the Sanctuary’s aggressive, but not impossible, population growth targets.
Mercy entered the High Chamber. A sudden stillness muted the busy employees and chattering citizens outside. Thescent of old stone and cedar wood permeated the large room. Rows of hanging pendants cast halos of soft light on the marbled floors, illuminating a path down the long hall. At the far end of the room, behind an elevated judges’ bench, fiveofficials of eminence, adorned in red scarlet robes with starched white neckings, sat talking among themselves. If theynoticed her entrance, they gave no sign.
Mercy approached the bench with a wordless reverence commanded by the Leaders’ seniority. The click, click, click of her shoes against the polished floor was the only sound she dared make until sanctioned to speak.
There were no seats for those given an audience in the High Chamber, standing implied a limited expectancy of allowed time. Mercy took her position in front of the waist-high metal piling that rose from the ground at the foot of the altar both a podium for presenting and a holographic display at once.
On the far right of the bench sat a thin-faced man known as the Fifth, the most senior of the Leaders. His pale skin hung loosely over his protruding skull bones like wet paper. His was the job of welcoming and commencing business.
‘Doctor Perching, thank you for coming in person today.’
Mercy offered a polite bow. ‘Thank you for granting me the audience. I know your time is valuable.’
‘We,’ he waved his hand to the right, fluidly pointing to the other four leaders flanking him; three women and one man, ‘read your recent report on the FossilFlu immunity project with interest. I understand you’ve made some progress?’
‘Yes, Leaders,’ Mercy said, privately pleased they had understood the importance of her research. She placed a hand over the round podium in front of her, triggering a shaft of light to jet upward until disappearing into the ether of the room. A translucent image of a DNA strand materialised and hung in the air waiting for an explanation.
‘I’ve spent the last two years studying the descendants of the host carcass which released FossilFlu during the polar melt. Based on the age of the fossil, I believe our evolutionary ancestors were exposed to the virus for many years, even thousands. In that time, they could have evolved a virus resistance gene, making them immune. If my theory is right, humans could also carry the gene.
‘As we are the only species which were infected by the virus outbreak, it could be that the gene is silenced. To prove my theory, we had first to confirm the existence of a viral resistance gene in mammals. And last week we had a breakthrough.’
The Leaders leaned into the bench, eyebrows raised. Mercy zoomed in on the holographic DNA strand and pulled out a microscopic section until large and easily visible. The isolated string of nodules glowed.
‘I’m very pleased to be able to share with the Council that the immunity gene does exist,’ Mercy declared proudly. ‘This is the virus-induced gene that is responsible for mammalian resistance to the FossilFlu.’
The Fifth’s eyes widened with interest, but he held back any outspoken en- thusiasm. Mercy was aware that manyscientists before her had tried and failed to find the cure for FossilFlu. The Council’s hesitation was expected.
The Third, her role being security and defence of the Sanctuary, a woman of more flesh but equal in years to the Fifth, leaned back into her chair and crossed her arms. ‘I would like to congratulate you, Doctor. Your discovery is ground-breaking work. But, I’m curious about your next steps. How exactly does this help humans if our immunity gene is silenced?’
Mercy drew a deep breath and squared her shoulders in anticipation of their response. She had rehearsed this moment in her mind many times, and many times they had applauded and thanked her, and many more they had looked down on her in shock and horror and cried for her head.
‘As we have yet to find a vaccine to FossilFlu, I propose it’s time we take a more aggressive approach. With the Leaders permission, I would like to try genetically modifying the human genome with animal DNA. Inserting the active resistance gene sequence to replace our own,’ answered Mercy, hiding her anxiety behind a confident face.
There was a heavy silence. Mercy’s heart leapt into her throat. She wanted to race on, explain more about the procedure or her hypothesis, to explain that her computer simulations showed it was possible. Yet, something held her back. They hadnot jumped out of their chairs in outrage. They had not labelled her a maverick or a mad scientist. No, she told herself, stay calm and let them make the next move.
The Leaders turned away, huddled at the centre of the bench, and spoke in a low private tone among themselves. Mercy strained but failed to make out words or intent.
The Fifth broke the silence. ‘Doctor Perching, what we are about to tell you may come as a surprise, even a shock. This information must remain in the strictest confidence.’
Mercy squinted her eyes, cautious. ‘Yes.’
‘We have reason to believe others may have already reached this conclusion in their research.’
‘Others?’ she asked in a quiet voice. ‘Yes. The Sanctuary of Americas.’
‘Who?’ She stared in wild-eyed bewilderment. Up until this moment, like all the citizens of the Sanctuary of Europe, Mercy believed they were the last humans on the planet.
The Fifth went on: ‘The Sanctuary of Europe was not the only Sanctuary to survive the global pandemic. There were twoothers: the Sanctuary of Americas and the Sanctuary of Asia. Of course, our ancestors didn’t know this at first.
‘After the pandemic, when the risk of infection was deemed low enough, the Sanctuary’s Leaders sent out scouts to see if any other humans were alive. They assumed the worse. But they were wrong. Others did survive, living isolated in Sanctuary cities like ours.
‘It should have been a time of hope. Unfortunately, the first contact between Sanctuaries resulted in tensions. Scarce resources led to accusations of stealing, spying, and fear of invasions. In the interest of avoiding a possible war, all contact between the Sanctuaries ended. For our protection, each Sanctuary has continued to remain isolated.’
The Fifth’s demeanour changed. His face softened, and his shoulders relaxed. ‘This burden, keeping the lie, issomething every Council of Leaders has had to carry over the last one hundred years. And now, Doctor Perching, I am sorry,but it’s a burden you will have to carry as well.’
Mercy stared into the blinding headlights of an alternative reality. She was getting more and more confused the longer she thought about it. If the citizens of the Sanctuary found out there were other survivors; it would change everything. Solidarity was the foundation of their society; to survive together, to repopulate the Earth together, to build a new planet together. Learning that others existed, would seed mistrust in the government and create chaos. No, she told herself, this could not be the truth – not the truth they could afford to share.
‘Doctor Perching, do you understand?’ asked the Fifth, seeking aresponse.
‘I do,’ she finally answered, even though understanding didn’t lessen the shock.
The Third Leader continued from the Fifth. 'Last week we received a message from the Sanctuary of Americas. The message was brief. They have encountered a mutation of the FossilFlu. A more deadly strain that infects both animals and humans alike.’
‘What? How?’ Mercy exclaimed. ‘Are they sure it’s the same virus? Is it spreading?’ Her questions were rapid, formulated; a doctor’s response.
‘The message didn’t clarify anything further on the virus other than to reassure us they have it contained, for now.’
The Fifth interrupted, ‘We’ve also received a second message, from an un- known source. It claims the Sanctuary of Americas has been running genetic experiments combining human and animal DNA seeking a cure to FossilFlu. Exactly as you requested here today. The unknown source suggests this is the host the virus needed to mutate.’
Mercy’s lifetime of research into FossilFlu flashed before her. The excitement of her discovery. The hope for a futurecure. All of it put in doubt, possibly gone forever. Her reaction must have been evident to the leaders.
The Fifth counselled, ‘I’m sure this news is disappointing. But for now, we need to focus on the greater problem – the impact this could have if the virus started spreading again. The ability of the mutation to kill both animals and humans would mean the extinction of all life. What little remains.’
‘You said they closed their borders to us years ago out of mistrust. Why contact us now?’ Mercy asked.
The Third continued, ‘We’ve known they monitor us…’
The First Leader, his role being information and communication, interrupted, ‘Spy on us, you mean.’
The Third glanced at him out of the corner of her eye and pinched her lips, scolding. ‘Yes, the video is rather overtregarding their intelligence and how up to date it is.’ She reluctantly agreed with him. ‘In short, they contacted us to get to you and your research.’
‘Me?’ Mercy felt her knees go weak. ‘I don’t understand. How can they know about my research?’
The Third answered humbly, ‘We don’t have answers to that yet. More importantly, having received the two messages from different sources tells us something more is going on. We can’t assume they are telling the entire truth about the outbreak.’
‘I’m sorry, but I still don’t understand what I can do?’ questioned Mercy. The Fifth spoke for the bench. ‘Their offer is anexchange. You travel to the Sanctuary of Americas, share your research, and work with their scientists, and, if collaboration is successful, we all share the cure.’
Before Mercy could ask any more questions, the mood in the room shifted. The Third leaned in, aggressive, asserting her authority. ‘Doctor Perching, is it true that you have no partner or plans to surrogate? So, nothing significant holding youback?’
‘Yes, that’s right,’ she conceded, a bit bruised. Population regeneration being the responsibility of all citizens.
‘Good. I hope you understand why we called you here today, and what we are asking of you?’
There could be no mistaking their request to accept the invitation.
‘When would I go?’ Mercy asked.
‘You’ll go into briefing today and leave for the Sanctuary of Americas to- morrow.’ Her answer blunt, not offering negotiations. ‘It’s better for all if you disappear quickly to avoid any possible leaks.’
‘We’ll take care of the communication.’
A man, unseen before, crept from the shadows of the chamber, startling Mercy. He wore the red felt bodysuit of the Council’s cabinet. His jet-black hair, braided and tied back, and his youthful, muscular form were a stark and pleasant contrast to the withered flesh behind the alter. The emblematic Phoenix clasping a wheat shaft and a rod pinned to his chest, the national symbol of the Sanctuary, indicated his status as a direct agent of the Leaders. He approached the bench and stopped, waiting for his introduction.
‘This is Agent Basil. He will be your person of contact going forward. He will brief you on the mission details over the next twenty-four hours if you accept,’ outlined the Third.
The Fifth made the final plea. ‘Doctor Perching, I won’t lie. Once you cross the border into their Sanctuary, there is little protection we can offer. I can only ask that you consider the survival of our Sanctuary, perhaps the survival of humanity. Will you help us?’
Mercy’s mind swirled with questions and doubts. The Five Leaders peered down at her expectantly, unflinching.
After an extended silence, tolerated more than granted, she nodded, offering the Leaders the only answer she knew they would accept. ‘Yes, I will do what I can.’