Interphase: Exodus – Chapter 1

The automated black limousine navigated the busy, pedestrian-clogged streets of New York with ease, leaving its passenger to mull over his research and ignore the outside world completely.

Don eyed his notes and scribbled on a pad of paper. Target the secondary receptor strand… could yield better results… He tilted his wrist to check his watch and reached for the paper cup of cooling coffee, hoping that this meeting would not take long and he could catch a flight and be back in his lab before the day’s end.

The invitation to attend a meeting of the Global Security Council had been vague, but despite the complaints about interrupting his important medical research it had also proven inexorable. While the Foundation’s bureaucrats were often spineless, soul-sucking functionaries, they paled in comparison to the sheer single-mindedness of their government counterparts.

The limo made a sharp turn and left the worst of the traffic behind as it accelerated out of the city. New York City’s buildings and clutter thinned but never fully disappeared as a new collection of modern structures, scarcely a decade old, came into view. Rows of stately trees displayed their autumn finery, and the limo barely slowed as it breezed through the security checkpoints. The automated vehicle was registered and GSC issued, and the credentials of its passenger were pre-loaded and wirelessly broadcast. Don gathered his notes together and stuffed them into his briefcase.

The vehicle stopped beside a low curb and the rear door opened automatically. A chilly breeze swept through the car before Don had fully exited, and he shivered deeper into his overcoat. Why couldn’t the Global Security Council have established their headquarters somewhere tropical? Or at least temperate? He detested the cold.

As Don mounted the steps of the GSC conference building, a man in a gray, three-piece suit emerged from inside. “Dr. Don Harris?” he asked in a lyric baritone. His accent might have been Austrian.

“That’s me,” Don replied.

The suited man extended his hand and pumped Don’s in a vigorous handshake. “Welcome. The council has asked me to convey their appreciation for coming on such short notice.”

“They didn’t leave me much room to refuse.” He strode toward the front door purposefully, but in a burst of surprising quickness, the suited man reached it first and held it open for him. The warmth of the heated foyer enveloped him and drove back the chill that had seeped into his bones.

“Please, follow me, Doctor,” his guide said and immediately stepped into the broad, mahogany-paneled corridor. The marble floor of the foyer gave way to rich, burgundy carpeting. Only a few functionaries, all dressed in business attire, passed them in the halls as Don was led on a small trek that left him slightly winded before a set of polished double-doors. “May I take your coat, sir?” the gray suited man asked.

Don gratefully shrugged out of the overcoat, and with deft movements the man clipped a miniature lapel microphone to Don’s tie before offering him a wireless earpiece and turning to push the doors open. The revealed assembly room was smaller than Don had anticipated, with a horseshoe-shaped table dominating the center. Rows of chairs made concentric arcs around it. Every chair was occupied save for one that faced the assembly, and all eyes turned on him as he made his way down a slight incline to the front of the room and took his seat.

Don surveyed the room and found it not unlike being called before one of the Foundation’s board meetings, just a little more ethnically diverse. He set his briefcase down beside his chair, slipped on the earpiece, and waited calmly for someone to speak.

It was the U.S. representative, an older woman with white-blond hair pulled back and pinned in a tight bun, who leaned forward first. Her face was taut, but lined, and she exuded a sense of steely focus. The nameplate in front of her read Olivia Woods, Director. For some reason, the name struck him as familiar. “Thank you for agreeing to meet with this council, Dr. Harris,” she said into her microphone in a clipped and forceful speech pattern.

“I was a bit surprised to receive such an invitation, director,” he replied, unable to keep the slight edge of irritation from his tone.

“As you can see, the Global Security Council is made up of representatives from over twenty countries, but we have another member to introduce.” A projector lowered from the ceiling of the room, and Director Woods inclined her head slightly. “May I present the Global Advisor, Eden?”

The projector activated, displaying a holographic sphere that pulsed and shifted. “Thank you, Director Woods,” said a male voice from the room’s interior speakers, causing Don to jump slightly. He had heard of the Eden A.I. before, an intelligence program that had been created to act as a neutral guide to governments the world over in a bid to bring some much-needed stability after the devastation of the Middle East and the Korean peninsula. “Good morning, Dr. Harris. It is a pleasure to make your acquaintance.”

“Likewise, Eden,” Don answered, though he found addressing the disembodied voice of a computer program somewhat unnerving. Instead, he looked back at the real people seated before him. “I must admit that I’m curious why I’m here at all, especially considering the nature of my work. What questions does the GSC have for a virologist that couldn’t be put in an email or discussed over the phone?”

Several of the council members shared glances between themselves, but their expressions were carefully crafted masks of neutrality that Don couldn’t penetrate.

“Your credentials are very impressive, Dr. Harris,” the earpiece translated as the representative of Italy began to speak, neatly sidestepping Don’s question. Angelo Moretti, by his nameplate. His neatly trimmed beard and slicked back hair matched quite well with his smooth, practiced voice. He made a certain show of studying a small stack of papers in front of him before continuing. “Graduated with top honors from Harvard Medical School. Devoted yourself to research and experimental treatments. And because of your recent breakthroughs, we now possess a cure for cystic fibrosis.” A faint smile played across the man’s mouth as he looked up from his notes. “I have a nephew, doctor, that owes his life to your perseverance.”

“I’m grateful to hear that, sir,” Don said, “but it still doesn’t explain what I’m doing here.”

“The world has need of your brilliance.” Representative Moretti turned and gave a nod to an aide, who sprang up from his seat and scurried across the room to hand Don a manila folder. He opened it and gave it a cursory glance, immediately recognizing the collection of notes as preliminary findings on a new disease.

“While there have been no confirmed fatalities yet,” a new speaker began, and Don tuned out the translator as the unmistakable sound of French filled the room, “this virus has been identified in several different locations across the world. In short order, it has circled the globe.” Don looked up and caught the concerned gaze of France’s representative, Gabriel Dumont. The typical detachment that Don had sensed from many of the French researchers he’d worked with wasn’t present, and the anxiety in the Representative’s eyes seemed quite serious.

“Twenty-five separate countries, to be exact, Representative Dumont,” Eden interjected in flawless French.

“Thank you, Eden.” He faced Don fully. “With all of the upheaval that our world that has suffered in the last two decades, we are concerned about the global community’s capacity to contend with a potential outbreak.”

Don frowned, flipping through the notes again. “There’s very little information here to go on. When was this virus first discovered?”

“Approximately three weeks ago,” Director Woods answered. “While more research is still being gathered, the council feels that it is imperative that we get ahead of this before it has a chance to become something worse.”

“Just what are you are asking of me?” Don asked, his eyes narrowing in suspicion as he gazed about the members of the council.

“We need your expertise, Dr. Harris,” Representative Moretti stressed. “Your experience. If this virus is more than it appears—”

“And if it isn’t?” Don challenged. “Forgive me, but I don’t think you’ve fully considered the ramifications of what you’re suggesting. The kind of research you’re talking about can take years. My team and I are on the verge of finding a cure for HIV, a threat that has destroyed millions of lives already. Not potentially, in the future, but here, now, in the present. I appreciate that you have come to me with your concerns, but to ask that I drop my existing work to start fresh on an unknown illness that may not even be debilitating, let alone fatal, is not something that I can agree to.” He got to his feet and picked up his briefcase. “I have several colleagues who I can recommend to you to head up your research team, but I’m afraid I must respectfully decline.”

“This council does not want one of your colleagues, Dr. Harris. It requires you.”

There was a steely note in Director Woods’s tone that made Don’s spine stiffen. She met his frown with a blank face more befitting a poker player than a government diplomat.

The Russian representative, Johanna Orlova, raised her hand in a gesture of mollification. “Please understand, Dr. Harris, we would not be asking this of you if we did not perceive a very real threat. In the last two decades, wars and acts of nuclear terror have irrevocably changed the face of our planet. Entire regions have been wiped from existence. To have a new and virulent threat suddenly appear…” She spread her hands out before her and let her words trail off with veiled and unsettling implications hanging in the air. “You would not leave the world to face it aided only by lesser minds?” Don waited for the translation to finish before he looked the Representative in the eyes and shrugged.

“Perhaps it is you who has not fully considered the ramifications of your actions, Dr. Harris,” Director Woods added sharply. “Your current research can wait. This cannot. Once we are assured that this threat has past, you will be allowed to return to your work.”

Don’s knuckles grew white as he gripped the handle of his briefcase. “I am a private citizen, Director. You cannot compel me—”

“I can,” she interrupted, “if it is my foundation that is currently supplying the funding for your existing research.”

He blanched as the familiarity of her name clicked into place. Several representatives cast exasperated or disapproving glances at the director, but it was a cold comfort. He drew a tight breath and glared back at her. “Then you’re leaving me with no choice?”

“No, the gravity of this threat demands your compliance,” Director Woods stated.

“Rest assured, Dr. Harris,” the passive, soothing voice of Eden sounded over the speakers. “You will be given access to a top-level laboratory with a highly skilled research team at your disposal. The world governments and the GSC are all focused on seeing that this potential threat is dealt with quickly.”

Don let his gaze rove over the representatives in turn. Many of them had retreated behind their neutral, diplomatic expressions, while a few returned his glare with apologetic looks. Director Woods was unrepentant and narrowed her eyes at him slightly, returning his challenge with one of her own.

“In that case,” he said in a clipped voice, “someone had best show me the way to my new lab. Let’s get this over with as quickly as possible.”