VARDAM STARED out the window at the devastation below. Once neat roads were now cracked and covered with weeds, nature reasserting itself in the face of human destruction. Rubble and broken glass were all that was left of Pharmacure’s head office and the staff homes surrounding it.
Beyond, the hillside was barren. The vanguards of tall beech trees had long since been harvested for firewood, electricity being a distant memory. Blackened shells of what were once comfortable homes stood out like broken teeth against the horizon, and a thick pall of black smoke hung over the formerly busy town of High Wycombe, down in the valley. The fire had been burning for weeks, fueled by winter winds and the bodies of townspeople struck by the Sickness.
And even farther, just beyond the horizon, lay the giant hole created by Vardam’s uncontrolled arrival. Their egg-shaped pod, smaller than a human car, had caused a fair amount of destruction, flattening everything within a three-mile radius of the impact zone. It had hardly been a controlled landing, and at first, Vardam thought the damage had spread much wider, until they started to explore. It was then they began to realize the planet they had landed on had been damaged already by the human occupants.
Vardam felt rather than heard the low thrum of the generators far below the ground, keeping the occupants of the Bunker safe and warm for the moment, but they were gradually slowing down, like a diseased heart in a wrecked body. It was a reminder that the mission could only glean two results: all the tragedy, loss, and devastation would never happen, or failure would result in Bella dying of starvation along with the other occupants of the Bunker.
Vardam’s sensitive nostrils picked up the faint scent of decay coming through the cracks in the glass. Two men lay in the road, bandits by the way they were dressed, probably risking exposure to look for food. They had fallen victim to the disease that had wiped out most of life on Earth, adding to the miasma of decomposing flesh.
If Vardam had discovered Earth sooner, before the Sickness had taken hold, they would have had a chance, but it was too late. Possibly. The plan was a last-ditch effort to save humans from extinction. If this failed, there would be no one left. All their skills, technological advancements, medical knowledge, engineering knowhow, the beauty of their music and artistry would be nothing but dust. What an absolute waste.
Now they were standing in a mostly empty room with Bella, one of the last humans left on this forsaken planet. A thick layer of dust covered every surface. It had been variably used as a storeroom for old furniture and office equipment, but since the bandits broke the windows, it was not a safe place to be. The wind softly wailed through the many holes and cracks, letting in cold winter air.
Bella shivered. “We should hurry.” The protective mask muffled her voice. She signed the words at the same time.
Vardam had no need for such precautions, being immune to the bug that had irrevocably soiled the atmosphere.
“It is time.” Sibilant words from their mouth, their top lip cleft like that of a cat. English was still a new language. There was a lot to learn in the next few weeks, if the plan succeeded.
“And you’re sure you want to do this? You know the risks.”
Vardam smiled down at her. Their friend was tough, but they could feel the sadness emanating from her.
In the six months since the Var had arrived on Earth, they had learned much about the strange and beautiful race that called themselves “human beings,” and it was their vast range of emotions that puzzled Vardam the most.
“I know it isn’t possible, but I wish I could come with you,” Bella continued.
“Technology for Var, not humans. Bella die.”
“I know. Take care, my friend.” Bella’s voice cracked. “Please remember, humans are wary. Some are stupid. They’re all complicated. Lomax or anyone else might want to exploit your skills. Don’t give them too much information until you know you can trust them. Okay?”
Vardam had heard her say it before, many times. Her blue eyes were liquid with unshed tears.
“Bella trust Vardam,” the Var said gently. “Three Earth months, yes?”
“Until the end of December. That’s how much time you have,” Bella reminded them.
They hugged, hard and tight, for a brief moment.
“Good luck,” Bella whispered.
Vardam pressed a red button on their utility belt. The date on the small screen was 21-10-2025. It had taken a great deal of programming for the device to understand Earth time. Previously, they had made practice jumps back through time under carefully controlled conditions. Five minutes, half an hour, a day. Never a whole century.
For a tense moment, nothing happened. Then a rectangular opening appeared in front of them. The darkness within was vast and too dense for light to break through. Vardam took one last look at Bella, nodded, and stepped into it. Immediately, they were engulfed and lost from sight.
The clock was ticking.
PROFESSOR KURT Lomax was a fraud, a charlatan in a good suit and a cloak of respectability. The people hanging on his every word could not see the trembling in his knees, feel the clamminess of his palms, sense the sweat breaking out under his arms. His reflection was calm, a deceptive mask of corporate competence, confident in his abilities as a scientist yet painfully aware that his reputation was on trial, thanks to the smirking presence of Pharmacure’s new CEO, James Dyer, lounging at the head of the table.
Five other people sat around the boardroom table, ostensibly discussing the latest developments in the testing of a new MRSA vaccine, Lithicin. The drug was the culmination of over twenty years of work, beginning when Kurt was doing his PhD in Oxford, and was soon to be trialed for the first time on human subjects in a remote region of Kwa-Zulu Natal, South Africa. Research teams in Johannesburg, Osaka, and Philadelphia were on standby, ready to join the conversation when called upon, but first, Dyer was being brought up to speed on the drug’s progress and how it had been developed in the first place.
Sir Ian Knapp, Head of M17, the UK Government’s Medical Review body, sat opposite Dyer. Alongside the Sales and Marketing director, the head of security, Philip Worley, was an unwelcome addition. Kurt wondered what he was doing there. The company’s new security staff had way too much power for his liking.
“Correct me if I’m wrong, but the drug works by radically altering human DNA?” Dyer looked skeptical.
“I wouldn’t say ‘radically.’ The genes in Lithicin work with alleles in the human DNA so that the offspring of people taking the vaccine would be immune to MRSA.”
“But the people taking the vaccine would not be?”
“It’s a genetic process, passed down from mother and father to child. There’s no magic cure for MRSA.” Kurt paused for a moment. “Even I’m not that good.”
Brief laughter, but Dyer was not amused.
“I think it’s important we all understand the science behind this. Please clarify, Professor Lomax.”
Kurt took a deep breath. He didn’t like having to explain things more than once, and Dyer was testing his nerves. “As you know, I’ve been part of an international research project since the early 2000s working on the genetic similarities between human and bonobo ape DNA. Purebred bonobos from the Congo, to be exact. It was important to make that distinction.”
“It only takes one strand of DNA from an orangutan to compromise the results. We know we are closely related to orangutans, but as a result of the research, we also discovered we share 98.7 percent of bonobo DNA. The other 1.3 percent is the reason we’re flying space rockets and they’re still swinging from trees. It’s a very fine line.” Kurt glanced at his nemesis, sitting at the head at the table. “For some it’s finer than others,” he murmured.
The drawing of James Dyer’s dark brows confirmed the dig had been understood.
“That was common knowledge years ago. What about now?” Sir Ian barked at him.
“As I explained earlier, there are several strains of Methicillin-Resistant Staphylococcus Aureus, or MRSA. We’ve discovered that the bonobos are immune to the strain in humans. However, more research is needed to discover whether or not they are immune to the strains found in horses, chickens, et cetera. And these are the strains which can make the leap into the human domain. Make no mistake. This isn’t a ‘one size fits all’ vaccine, but the first in a whole series of vaccines tailor-made for each species. Then, and only then, will we be able to eradicate MRSA.”
“Until the next superbug comes along,” Sir Ian said sourly.
“Indeed, Sir Ian, which is why continued funding into scientific research in the UK is vitally important. Since Brexit, our European counterparts have become very tight-lipped about sharing information.”
“Yes, we know that already,” Dyer said. “How much will it cost?”
Kurt sighed inwardly. It was the problem when explaining science to politicians and businessmen. In the end, all they were interested in was the bottom line.
“Surely that is your department, not mine.”
Sir Ian cleared his throat. “Please go through how it works again. Just so we’re clear.”
Kurt took his Magic Marker and approached the light board again. On the screen was a diagram of human DNA, a very pretty double helix structure.
“What we’ve done is introduce pure bonobo chromosomes into the DNA structure. What we wanted to do is create a dominant allele that would be passed from parent to—”
“And what’s an allele?” Dyer asked, writing on his notepad.
Kurt tried his best not to look pained. Why the directors had chosen a CEO without a scientific background was beyond him. “An allele is a gene.”
“Right. Could you say that, then? I don’t have the benefit of your breadth of knowledge.”
“Obviously,” Kurt muttered under his breath. He was thrown off track, as Dyer had intended. “We wanted to create a hereditary gene that would always be passed down from parent to offspring, and that gene would be immune to the major strain of MRSA. The subject taking the vaccine would not be protected, but their progeny would be. Have I made that a bit clearer?” He couldn’t keep the acid out of his voice.
“I do believe you have,” Sir Ian said gravely. “However, I can see various reasons why people may not be keen on the idea.”
“Of course, but fortunately, that is not my area. It is my job to prove what is possible, and James’s job to provide appropriate education so that the public are given an informed choice. At a fair price,” he added, with a sidelong look at his CEO. Dyer’s face darkened. It was a festering argument between them. Since Dyer took the job, prices for Pharmacure’s products had risen substantially. The company’s profits had soared, but the public perception of Pharmacure and its employees had reached an all-time low.
“I have a question.” The head of security spoke for the first time. “What happens if that gene mutates? The one that is immune to MRSA?”
“I’m not sure I see where you’re coming from,” Kurt responded stiffly.
“Maybe I’ve watched too many movies, but if that gene is immune to MRSA, what’s to stop it mutating to be immune to all medicine? And possibly turning into something that could wipe us out? Maybe not now but in a few generations?”
“For God’s sake,” Sir Ian muttered, not quite under his breath.
“It’s a valid question,” Kurt said politely, “but the injected gene would be 98.7 percent human. The risk of such a gene turning against its host is so small as to be infinitesimal.”
“But it’s a risk.”
“We can’t predict what will happen in the future. MRSA may mutate and be immune to this vaccine. We could all be wiped out by a deadly virus before this even goes into the public domain. We could be hit by an asteroid or blow ourselves up in nuclear conflict. We do what we can to fight the fight we know we can win. MRSA is deadly and we have a way of eradicating it. No one is denying there is a tiny risk, hence the forthcoming trials. In the grand scheme of things, it is only one weapon in the fight against mortality, but I believe it’s an effective one.”
Sir Ian cleared his throat. “Indeed, but we need to see some results from the field trials. When can we expect to see some data?”
“It’s a long-term trial. Possibly January 2028,” Dyer said promptly. “We have a team in Limpopo as we speak, finalizing the arrangements. And we have no shortage of volunteers.”
“Offer a starving African enough money and I’m hardly surprised,” Philip countered.
“The trials are being conducted ethically and above the radar. The last thing we need is more bad publicity. Especially after the last unfortunate incident.” Dyer looked pointedly at Kurt, who winced at the jibe.
A decade earlier, one of his most controversial research papers had dealt with the possibility of choosing the sexuality of unborn babies. He believed that by manipulating the genetic makeup of female eggs, it was possible to ensure a baby would be heterosexual. The idea had come from his scientific brain thinking “what if?” rather than any latent hatred of sexual minorities, but of course, the idea had been the focus of much angry debate in the media. Kurt had become a whipping boy for some of the more fevered human rights activists, losing Pharmacure a half of its share price overnight after a particularly virulent article in The Guardian.
Fortunately, the former CEO valued Kurt’s brilliance as a scientist far more than soothing the ruffled feathers of shareholders. He knew the stock price would rally, which it duly did, and when the whole row had died down, he had put Kurt in charge of Pharmacure’s research facility at the Naphill Bunker.
Now the whole row had blown up again, with the added suggestion that Kurt was testing on actual embryos, which he wasn’t and never had been.
“Ah yes, did you ever discover the source of that latest leak?” Sir Ian asked.
Kurt’s hands spasmed into fists. “Yes, and it’s been dealt with.”
There were surprised looks around the table. Dyer was smirking at Kurt’s discomfort.
“Have they been charged?” Sir Ian asked.
Kurt glared at him. “It’s been dealt with,” he repeated.
“How did it even get out?” Philip Worley asked, not unreasonably. “Everyone in this facility has the highest security clearance. If anyone tried to hack into the system—”
“They didn’t,” Kurt said, knowing he had been backed into a corner. “The information was taken from my home office.”
“Jesus.” Sir Ian looked horrified. “Do you know who it was?”
“These hackers are ghosts. There’s no way…,” Worley began.
“It was my daughter.” The words felt like barbed wire in his throat.
“Alicia? She’s only fifteen, isn’t she?”
“I’m quite aware of that,” Kurt said frostily. “She’s also exceptionally good at causing trouble. Something I should have appreciated earlier,” he added, before someone pointed out that he should have been more careful. “I keep my work under lock and key, but obviously she managed to get in.”
“You must be so proud,” Dyer murmured, gazing at the ceiling.
“How do you know it was her? Do you think she had been told to do it by someone else?” Sir Ian glanced at Dyer as he said it.
“That did cross my mind. However, the press article is based almost word for word from my original report, published in The Lancet ten years ago. It’s old news.”
“Which is still capable of affecting the share price,” Dyer said.
“I’m sure your spin doctors are managing admirably,” Kurt countered.
“That’s not the point and you know it.”
“Agreed,” Sir Ian said calmly. “I have to say there’s no point in having rigorous security measures if you’re just going to take classified information home and leave it lying around.”
“That particular research is in the public domain,” Kurt protested.
“Fair point, but it is sensitive, and given the responsibility we have towards the public, having all that controversy dragged up again right now is downright unhelpful, to put it bluntly.”
“It’s a clusterfuck. That’s putting it bluntly,” Dyer added, with a gleam of malice.
“I understand. It won’t happen again,” Kurt said, directly to Sir Ian. There was no way he was going to apologize to that smug two-faced prick sitting opposite him.
“It better not, because we may have to reconsider your position if it does,” Dyer said. It was obvious he was enjoying every minute of Kurt’s humiliation.
It seemed like a good time to bring in the waiting teams so they could update on their progress. For the next hour Kurt was able to relax, now he was no longer the center of attention. Lithicin seemed to be good to go, finally. It was a shame his former CEO hadn’t lived to see the culmination of Kurt’s work.
Eventually Sir Ian rounded up the meeting. “Good luck, gentlemen. The Prime Minister wants the UK to be at the forefront of this important development eradicating MRSA, before the US snatches it from us. A great deal of money has been spent developing this product. Failure, as the saying goes, is not an option.” He spread his hands, a gesture presumably to convey that he was in the same boat as the rest of them.
Which he wasn’t. He could go back to his mansion in Oxfordshire and live off a fat pension when he retired. Kurt was in danger of losing everything if the Lithicin project lost funding.
The head of M17 stood up. “I look forward to hearing the results as soon as possible. Keep me informed.” He shouldered his laptop bag and walked out of the room.
Kurt packed his notes, aware that Dyer was lingering at the doorway.
“How are your little lab rats?”
Kurt knew Dyer was referring to the six volunteers in the Bunker, acting as human guinea pigs for a new drug to combat heroin withdrawal.
“You’ll receive my report at the board meeting,” he replied grudgingly.
“What about Isobel? Is she well?”
Kurt didn’t want to talk about his marriage either. It had never been much of a resounding success. Dyer and Isobel had been engaged when Kurt pointed out to her that Dyer was only interested in her inheritance. A few glasses of wine and a one-night stand resulted in Isobel becoming pregnant, and Kurt had done the decent thing and married her.
To say that Dyer had taken it badly was an understatement, though Kurt suspected it was more because of the money than the woman he had lost.
As for Kurt, he didn’t really care about money—something that infuriated Dyer beyond measure.
“I wonder if she ever regrets her life choices?” Dyer mused out loud. “By the way, you haven’t congratulated me on my position yet. I’ve been in charge of this place for six months now. I think you’re being rather churlish.”
Kurt snapped his leather briefcase shut. “Pullman was a good man. He was honorable and believed in giving people a break. That’s why he gave me the job of running your research facility, which I am doing to the best of my ability.” He looked fully into Dyer’s eyes for the first time. “I doubt he regretted his choice for one moment.”
Dyer delivered his killer blow. “Just remember how much Pharmacure have invested in you. If I’m in doubt of your competence in any way, I reserve the right to shut you down. I know you have an overinflated opinion of your talents, but you can easily be replaced. Understood?”
“Loud and clear.” Kurt clenched his fists, almost overcome by the urge to punch Pharmacure’s CEO in his sly, handsome face. Seeing the stern looks of the other people in the room, he felt like a small boy, cowed and waiting for the sting of the cane. Useless, stupid. Greedy little runt. His grandmother’s voice hissed in his ear, making him tremble inside.
He was aware of Dyer’s eyes boring into his back as he walked away.