Become a fan of h2g2
The journey by icebreaker was pretty hair-raising, but the last 100 miles over the icy tundra took the last nerve I had. By the time we pulled up in front of Frøhvelv I, all I could think of was hot chocolate.
I suppose that was why I wasn't in the mood to register the barbaric beauty of the gigantic metal wedge protruding from the mountain, its forbidding grey contrasting starkly with the snow-covered granite – if I had, I would have made that note in my blog earlier, the one about how it looked like an ancient hard drive out of the Archaeological Museum. As I climbed slowly out of the heated jeppi, expecting my reluctant breath to turn to icicles the moment it left the safety of my nostrils, I just had time to notice the orange klieg lights that provided the only colour in this black-and-white twilight snowscape, when Jósef Jakobsson himself came bounding out the entrance, mittened hand outstretched in greeting, perfect white teeth recklessly exposed to the elements in that world-famous grin.
"Bródir Caoinan," he greeted me – getting my name right first try, a surprise. Most people don't realise how much that means to a minority. "You made good time from the ship. I am so glad to be able to show you around our little facility."
To my relief, he hustled me inside, remarking that the evening was "a bit crisp", and while we stripped off our thermal onesies in the first airlock, and I presented my credentials to the more suspicious-looking security guard (I supposed it was his job, after all), the globally-respected Chairman of NarthGen proceeded to hold forth on his pet project, just as if I were a Really Important Person, and not merely the stringer who drew that short straw when the boss of Twittweet – the planet Narthex's cheapest newstream agency – wanted filler. I didn't care. I might have been too ethnic for the podcasts (and, yes, I admit I've got the stereotypic speech defect), but hey, I had admired Jakobsson for years, ever since he'd turned down the vice presidency of world power Synthion to accept a post with the Federated Nations. That was before he won the Humanity Prize, of course. The fact that most of the planet thought he was a nutty genius with a bee in his bonnet didn't alter the fact that I – biologist manqué – was in awe of him. Meeting him was a dream come true.
"You see, Bródir Caoinan," the genial giant was saying while the security guard gave me a subdermal hand stamp, "We take our security precautions very seriously. What is down in our mountain is precious cargo, indeed." I murmured agreement, covertly studying the man. Even out of his onesie, Jakobsson was huge – six-foot-four at least, with nothing of the reclusive scientist about him. Heavily muscled and tanned (tanned? Oh, well, these alpha Synthians probably had a tanning bed tucked in behind the sauna), wild strawberry hair, the picture of rude health. I felt even more insignificant than usual as I trotted beside him to the next airlock, trying to keep up with the conversation, physically and metaphorically.
I cleared my throat and tried to make journalist noises. "The collection is how far inside the mountain, exactly?"
"Half a mile inside the mountain itself," he replied, glancing around professionally at the titanium walls as we headed for the next airlock. Noticing that I was out of breath, he shortened his stride. "Here in the permafrost, we are free from contamination. And we can withstand a 100 megaton nuclear blast." The guards at the next set of doors stepped aside, and Jakobsson grinned as he pushed the doors open with a flourish.
I should not have been surprised at the subway car, but I was. As we rode the rest of the way to the central Frøhvelv, I tried to get the preliminary yadda-yadda of the interview out of the way.
"This impressive facility is the FN's response to the climate-change problem?" I ventured. Jakobsson waved a broad hand dismissively.
"Climate change, yes, but we can deal with that. I am more interested in the problem of GenCorp." My ears pricked up at that – there might be a scoop here, after all.
I cleared my throat. "You don't agree with Chairman Olafsson's assessment that the new maize strains are pure and pose no threat to world crops?" At this, Jakobsson looked as if he were about to expostulate about "blue food" – I remembered his speech on the subject – but the subway ride came to an abrupt end, and he took me by the arm, merely remarking that we would "get to that" soon enough. In the meantime, he had something to show me.
It was something, all right. You've all seen it now – at least on your podscreens – but it was the first time for me, and I was impressed.
We stood on a catwalk, high in a cavernous space. Below us, walkways stretched like spokes in a wheel, lined with glass-covered cells whose side panels glowed with digital information. I caught my breath. "It's a panopticon," I blurted, then blushed.
Jakobsson chuckled. "A panopticon, yes. One in which our "prisoners" are quite safe." He gestured below. "Even if the refrigeration were to go out, it would take three days before the temperature in the units rose to -3°. That would be enough time, I think. Here inside the mountain, we are safe from water – even should the polar ice caps melt – from war, and from idiots who make genetic mistakes." A worker in a crisp white jumpsuit wheeled a trolley past us on the way to the lift. Jakobsson stopped her and took something from the trolley. "Would you like to see?" he asked. I nodded.
He held out the packet almost reverently. I hesitated, but took it. There, in clear plastic, vacuum-sealed, was a piece of the future of Narthex: perhaps a quarter pound of seeds. I read the label. "Malus domesticus, Sample #RD4201." I smiled. "So the apples are safe."
Jakobsson grinned as he replaced the seed packet. "Not only the apples, Bródir Caoinan. There are 1.5 million varieties down there. All safe." He took me by the elbow. "Come, let us go to my office. I can answer your questions about the blue corn there. And I will tell you why I wanted you to come."
I don't know what troubled me more at that moment – the fact that Jakobsson was hinting that he, and not my editor, had originated this interview (me? I'm nobody, a shanty kid from Equatorial Arran), or that the lift we were heading for went up for a very long way into the mountain. I thanked my miner ancestors that I was not prone to claustrophobia, and kept my questions to myself until we had landed safely in Jakobsson's suitably plush office.
While Jakobsson, the attentive host, made us drinks, I looked around at the array of vidscreens on the wall – the usual newsfeeds from around the globe, what looked to be closed-circuit images from inside Frøhvelv I itself, a variety of other facilities including safari parks, and the auditorium of the FN Assembly (surprise). Even more surprising, I noticed a screen devoted to Twittweet. Alongside the current podcast – an interview with Bjørk Tinnjedóttir, the latest rad singer – there was a sidebar containing, of all things, my blog.
My blog. The one I had written feverishly for the last year, all through the Synthian winter and spring, collating newsbit after newsbit from the tech-poor northern hemisphere, desperately trying to get twitters and tweeters to listen, trying from my poky little office in Rasmussen City to reach out to the pod audience and tell them what I suspected was behind the alarming agricultural news trickling down across the equator. The stupid blog that got relegated to the bottom corner of the front page as "not sexy, a downer", while the editors concentrated on fashionistas who sent a few creds northward for famine relief, or adopted stray Arrani babies. I shrugged. Maybe the great man had too much free time.
Jakobsson handed me a tall glass with some expensive nectar in it (I had forgotten about hot chocolate by now), and folded his tall frame into a leather swivel chair, motioning me to do the same. "I asked for you," he said simply.
I must have gawked – I distinctly remember gawking – as he went on: "I could tell you were trying to get the word out about the disaster last spring." He scowled. "The harvest figures were even worse than the ones the local governments released. The famine is widespread. But I could not act. Not yet."
The drink was better than anything I'd ever tasted, but I almost choked on it. I tried for an even tone. "You were waiting for what, sir?"
As if he had not heard the reproach in my voice, Jakobsson pointed his remote at a screen and went into brisk lecture mode. The screen showed a green plant, rather common. "A. Syriaca," he intoned. "When in contact with Bacillus thuringiensis, causes significant death among Danaus plexippus L., or the monarch butterfly. Ever hear of the butterfly effect, Bródir Caoinan?" He did not wait for an answer. "That is not all the pollen can do. It kills insects, yes, that is bad enough. But..." he turned in his chair to glare at me, "It has mutated on this planet."
I flinched, almost expecting a personal attack, but his anger was not directed at me. "GenCorp," he hissed between those perfect teeth, "GenCorp has been covering up the catastrophe, shipping all the food it can buy to the northern hemisphere for six months, buying out the media chains, waiting for the southern harvest. They swore they had contained the evil. They swore they had fixed the problem. But I can read weather patterns, Bródir Caoinan, and so can they." He clicked the remote again, and the image changed.
I saw the Narthex map, with prevailing wind patterns. I saw the animation that indicated how climate change had shifted them. I saw how the winds had shifted south, carrying the pollen, carrying it toward the breadbaskets of Synthion and Arkady. I gulped alcohol and fruit juice.
Jakobsson pointed to another screen. "Today is the first day of autumn. It is traditionally the day when the harvest figures are announced by the major food-producing nations. It is time," he glanced at his watch, "to see what GenCorp has wrought." We turned to ZBF, the most reliable news source in Rasmussen City.
The figures were grim. I wasn't surprised, after what Jakobsson had told me. What most of the audience would not have appreciated was what I already knew – the planet was two months from starvation, even without the added burden of the humanitarian relief that had already been sent northward. Winter coming on, and soon we would be eating – what? Emergency rations from the FN? Each other? I looked at Jakobsson in dumb horror.
To my surprise, Jakobsson seemed almost cheerful. "That is why I sent for you, Bródir Caoinan. We have work to do, and I will need someone to help me tell the story. You see those screens? Those are the nature preserves of the FN. We have stockpiled food, enough for the animals, enough – within reason – to get us through the next harvest. We have a plan for combating the mutated, and inedible, vegetation. We have the seed bank for the future." He rubbed his hands together, as if eager to get to work. "But there will need to be...changes. I think you understand."
I nodded, slowly. In the last few minutes, my mental world had been turned upside down. But I understood. My mouth was dry. I sipped my drink, and then said, "Nothing will be the same." Privately, I hoped that GenCorp's executive would be tried for crimes against humanity, that maybe Equatorial Arran would get independence, that maybe my fourteen cousins would get jobs for the first time in their lives... But there were more pressing issues. "I will draft the statement immediately," I said.
Jakobsson's eyes twinkled. "What will you tell them?" he asked.
I thought about that old book on my dresser at home – the one my granny had pressed into my hand the day I got on the plane for Rasmussen City, saying, "Never forget where you come from". I thought about everything she'd read to me from that book.
"I think Genesis 47:20 will do for a start," I said.
And Jósef Jakobsson smiled. To someone like me, it was a reassuring smile.