Paul Michael Dubal settled in Ontario in 2008 from the United Kingdom with his wife and two children. His day job takes place in the corporate legal field in Toronto but he is even more creative outside the office. Paul’s first novel, Crimes Against Humanity is a critically acclaimed thriller about human trafficking in Canada. He has recently completed the explosive Dictator of Britain trilogy, a dystopian vision of a near future Britain. Paul's books can be found on Smashwords at goo.gl/wdeg6n and Amazon http://amzn.to/2B7YAv4 Follow Paul on Twitter: @pauldubal and Facebook: Paul Michael Dubal
Jack Bertram barely glanced at the pristine beauty of the Swiss Alps a thousand feet below. As the helicopter thundered through the rarefied air, he checked his notes again, anxious not to mess up. An exclusive interview with the world’s most renowned and certainly richest biotechnology and genetic engineering genius, André Matisse. If the scientific community had a rock star, it was him. This interview could elevate Jack’s career into the stratosphere, eclipsing even his work as a celebrated war correspondent in Syria and Iraq, where he was always two degrees of separation from being beheaded by Islamic State terrorists. Matisse was probably the most famous recluse on the planet. No one had seen him in two years, yet here was Jack, flying on the scientist's private transport to a meeting at his secret laboratory.
The pilot’s crackly voice burst through his headphones. “Sir, now is the time I have to ask you to put on the hood next to you. Mr. Matisse was very particular. No hood and I turn this thing around.”
“Okay, okay,” replied Jack wearily. They had already taken away his electronics in case he tried to access the GPS location. He was going to have to go old school for this interview. However, he was not going to mess up this opportunity just because Matisse was paranoid about people finding him. He put on the hood, and the raw, snowy beauty of the Alps was lost to the blackness. In any event, the light would be fading soon. Only fifteen minutes later he felt the thrum of the motors drop in intensity and within minutes the helicopter was down.
“You can take off your hood now, Sir.”
Jack complied and found they were on a helicopter landing pad set high up on a ledge at a vertiginous height. In fact he felt like he was eye level with some of the peaks that rolled away into the cloudy distance. The pad was a feat of technical engineering, but that was just the beginning. Facing him was a vaulted cathedral of glass at least four storeys high, carved into the mountainside yet at one with the natural shape of the rock. As he exited the helicopter, he grabbed his satchel and followed the pilot through the roar of the helicopter and the fierce whistling of the wind that whipped up drifts of snow and sent it billowing across the landing pad. They hurried into the sanctuary behind the glass, the doorway sliding open automatically.
Free from the noise, they could speak normally. The pilot, a slight, cerebral figure a foot shorter than Jack’s own powerful six-three, was softly spoken now that the glass completely cancelled any noise. “Mr Matisse will join you for dinner. In the meantime he asked me to make you comfortable.”
The atrium was huge and expansive, filled with flowing natural light from the snowy fields behind the glass. As the light faded, a huge array of white globe lights came on simultaneously, bathing the vast arena in a soft, gentle glow. The walls were hewn from the rock and it gave the place a natural feel. It was a wondrous cathedral like space. The pilot directed him though another doorway that slid aside as they approached it, and Jack found himself following the pilot through a long corridor tapering slightly downwards into the mountain. The corridor was carpeted, softly lit, and Jack could easily have visualized himself in any expensive hotel in one of the world’s great cities.
The pilot caught his astounded expression and smiled. “Mr Matisse likes to know we’re comfortable working here. Most of the employees are here for long periods. Happy employees means productive employees. We have a gym, swimming pool, night club, state of the art IMAX theatre, bowling alley and plenty more. It’s hard to get bored here, although Mr. Matisse ensures we work hard too. It’s such an important project.”
“So I gather. I just don’t know what that project is.”
The pilot gave an ironic laugh. “Not for me to say, Sir.” He opened the door to a sumptuous suite decked with ornate African wood carvings. “Here we are. Please freshen up and someone will collect you at 8.” With that the pilot disappeared and he was alone, not even his watch for company. The old analog timepiece on the mantelpiece ticked loudly as if seeking attention, and informed him that he had forty-five minutes. He dumped his satchel on the huge double bed and gathered his thoughts, running over the multitude of questions he wanted to ask. Get this right and a Pulitzer could be in his pocket. His first question to Matisse would be, Why the hell did you choose me for the big reveal? Because that was surely what it was?
Jack was gratified he was the chosen one, but he remained mystified. His Middle east work was highly respected, but he was still regarded as an up and coming star in the cut-throat world of journalism. There were far more established hacks then him, people admired the world over and who sold papers purely on their name. People that would still consider him a rookie.
Whatever the motivation, he was glad of it, and the tall, elegant strawberry blonde in a flowing gown who came to collect him amplified his sense of fortune. Flicking an alluring smile at him, her long thick lashes fluttering flirtatiously, she silently slipped her arm in his and escorted him through a maze of carpeted hotel-style corridors. She said nothing, and while he was keen to make conversation, if only to proclaim how her beauty lit up everything around, he felt it was somehow inappropriate to the occasion.
They eventually arrived in a circular dining room, pressed in by the rock, yet adorned with more carvings and paintings that lent the room a rustic, inviting feel. There was even a large, crackling log fire under a marble hearth.
At the end of the long, wooden centrepiece table, breaking out into a beaming, welcoming smile, sat one of the world's most familiar faces. The swarthy, handsome features from Time Magazine’s Person of the Year were striking in the flesh. He carried a presence and a charisma that emanated from him like an invisible force field. When he shook Jack’s hand, the grip was strong, unwavering. The man who had it all, the looks, the physique, the fearsome intellect and the billions - many billions. Even the flecks of grey hair around his temples added to his aura, offering a hint of maturity to complement his genius, born of creativity, resourcefulness and a visionary brain like no other. Jack felt awed in his presence, but his host quickly made him comfortable. They sat close together, Matisse at the head and Jack to one side of the table. The beautiful hostess seated herself opposite Jack, flashing that coquettish smile at him every now and then.
“I hope you don’t mind Imogen joining us,” said Matisse. It was more a statement than a request, not that Jack objected. “She is a trusted confidante.”
“Not at all,” said Jack politely.
They engaged in small talk as dinner was served. The menu was modest and Matisse made no apology. “We’re not living on some Tower of Babel gorging ourselves. We work hard and live modestly, although don’t you agree this lamb is to die for? Blacknose sheep bred in the Valais region. The best in Switzerland.”
Jack had to admit it was amazing. As they talked, Imogen remaining a silent but beautiful sentinel, their discussion inevitably turned to the primary purpose of the meeting.
“As you know Jack, I called on you especially for an exclusive interview. I value your objective reporting and, even though you are not a science correspondent, it doesn’t matter. You appear to have an open, inquiring mind. I value that in my employees and I will value it from you when I reveal my project to you.”
As he spoke, Matisse personally poured a glass of water from a crystal decanter into Jack’s glass. Jack realized how thirsty he was. The water was ice cold, fresh and invigorating, with a subtle hint of the mountains.
“How’s the water?” Matisse asked, his grin showing a perfect set of even, polished teeth. Imogen gave another inviting smile.
An odd question, thought Jack, but he had to be honest. It was surprisingly good and he said so. A tiny part of his brain perceived that neither Matisse nor Imogen drank the water, but he unconsciously dismissed it.
“It is isn’t it. Mountain streams further purified by our own filters in this complex. No better quality water on the planet. Now let me tell you about my project. I guess you are dying to know.”
Inexplicably, Imogen let out a girlish giggle, and Matisse shot an irritated glance at her. She quickly composed herself.
Time for business. Jack retrieved the notes from his satchel together with his pen. Matisse looked at him curiously as he did so. “Sorry about taking away your electronics Jack, a necessary precaution I’m afraid. My work here is not yet done, and I need absolute privacy. Nothing must distract us from our work. It’s too important.”
“And exactly what is your work?”
“Saving the human race,” he said casually, without a hint of humour.
“Does it need saving?”
Matisse let out a wolfish laugh that carried just the slightest hint of contempt. “Come on Jack. Remember I chose you for your open-minded curiosity and because you would listen.”
“Good, because I need you to carry this message. I need you to see the bigger picture around what I am about to tell you. Unfortunately governments and corporations, and those people in power are exceptionally poor at that. When people achieve status and power their only motivation is clinging onto it. Which is why the world is in such a mess. We don’t think as a species, we think as individuals, interested only in ourselves. Yes, we create systems in which people perform roles within it, but it is purely for the economic motive. No one is prepared to make sacrifices for the betterment of the species, for the long term benefit, and ultimately the long term survival. That does not enter the consciousness of human thinking. In order to survive as a species, we need to make fundamental changes both to our mentality and our physical situation.”
“How do you propose we do that?”
“That’s the difficult question, but the most important one. It’s a question that my team and I have grappled with for the past few years. If the human race is not prepared to make the sacrifice required to secure its long term tenure on this planet, then we need to make it for them.”
Jack scribbled on his notepad. “Highly intriguing. Are you saying that you have found a solution to mankind’s ultimate survival?”
“You could say that, but some would argue it’s a bitter medicine. What I am about to tell you might shock you. I wouldn’t be surprised if you told me I was insane. I will leave you to judge, but I can assure you that I have never been more lucid. You’re a lucid thinker too Jack. That’s why you’re ideal to carry my message.”
“And what is the message?”
“The message, Jack, is that ninety percent of us will have to die.”
Jack struggled to compose himself as he made a quick mental calculation. “That’s six-point-three billion people,” he gasped. “How does anyone eliminate over six billion people? A damned nuclear war?”
“Nothing as brutal as that. I’m talking about a pathogen that we have genetically programmed to infect the DNA of nine out of every ten people. We have built in inhibitors whereby the engineered pathogen will cease its activity when it encounters a certain genome sequence. Our research indicates that the specific genome sequence exists in about ten per cent of the population.”
“And the others are left to die?”
Matisse shrugged and chewed nonchalantly on his lamb.
Jack felt his anger rising. “Even if I believed that you could create such a selective pathogen, the moral arguments against using it are astounding. For a start, how could you possibly decide who lives and who dies?”
“I don’t. The existence of a certain genome sequence that would prevent the pathogen from acting is purely random. The only test of whether you have the correct sequence is if you survive. We have merely tested and experimented to arrive at the balance.”
Jack stood up, knocking his chair backwards. Imogen, startled, leaned back in her chair. Matisse remained impassive, observing Jack as if he were an exhibit behind glass. “You are insane!”
Matisse frowned impatiently. “Sit down Jack. You’re making a fool of yourself. I expected you to be a little more receptive.”
Jack continued standing. “You’ve just told me you’re about to wipe out nine-tenths of the human race and you accuse me of not being receptive?”
Matisse’s cool reserve showed betrayed a hint of cracking. “Yes I do Jack now once again, please sit down!”
Jack paused, taking a deep breath to calm his rattled nerves. He had to discover more about this diabolical plot. Get as much information as possible that might prevent this catastrophe. He had no doubt Matisse was deadly serious, and he was also convinced that Matisse was capable of carrying out his plan. The old cliché, a thin line between genius and insanity, sprung to mind. He was sure Matisse was capable of crossing that line at will. Listen, ask the right questions, and gather information. That was all he could do. Under his host’s intense glare, he finally complied.
“So, first question. Why are you doing this?”
“I thought I answered that question. To ensure the long term survival of the human race. To be honest Jack, I’m not sure the human race deserves a second chance. We are a destructive, aggressive species hurtling headlong to our own destruction. The tragedy is that if we continue on that path, we will also take every other species and the planet itself with us. I cannot allow that to happen.”
“So you’re playing God.”
“Not at all Jack. I’m merely a person who has the tools at my disposal to prevent the scenario I’ve described. It’s a powerful tool but it does not come without responsibility. We all have our destined roles in life. The choices at my disposal are not easy ones. I never expected they would be, but if you had the same opportunity to save the human race, wouldn’t you take it? Whatever the cost?”
“What’s to say that won’t happen anyway even after you have committed your genocide.”
“Think about it Jack. At heart I’m an optimist. I believe that given a second chance to start again, maybe we could be wiser. Not make the same mistakes that have led us to destroy a quarter of the world’s rainforests and fifty thousand of the world’s species a year. A smaller human race will give the world an opportunity to breathe again. It’s a form of rebirth, not just for the human race but for the delicate ecology that is key to our survival.”
“Man is incredibly resourceful,” protested Jack. “We have always solved the problems we were confronted with. I know we have climate change, poverty, wars, hunger, but these problems will get solved through man’s ingenuity.”
Matisse snorted derisively. “And I thought I was the optimist! Jack, I don’t deny that man is ingenious, but to what end? We create more problems than we solve by our ingenuity, because the one thing we don’t possess is proper governance, an ability to work for our stakeholders rather than our own selfish ends. When we pull down the forests for grazing land, or worse still for urban development, do we really care about the innocent inhabitants of those forests? The birds, the insects, the mammals? A rich diversity of life destroyed just so some greedy developer can build and sell a few overpriced condos bought up by rich Chinese or Russian investors and left vacant, while two blocks down the road homeless people are freezing to death in winter?” He paused, a little flushed at his own passion.
“Jack, man is destroying this planet. Whichever way you look at it, whatever political leanings you might have, it is not an opinion. It’s a fact. We have been on this planet for less than 0.1 per cent of the world’s history, and in that time we have done more damage to the environment than the dinosaurs did, who were around one hundred and eighty million years. I’m hoping that after this rebirth, Man will not only survive but develop in a more sustainable form. We will build cities that will exist in harmony with the environment, not fight against it. We will value our species and learn to live side by side instead of keeping them subjugated and slaughtered at our will. We will learn not to value materialism above all else and learn to share our wealth equally, so that no child has to go hungry.”
“Now I know you’re mad. That will never happen.”
“Jack, you may think I’m mad, and that’s your prerogative. I’m merely making a decision that no Head of State or political leader would be prepared to take, because they all suffer from tunnel vision. It is the only way. A bitter pill but the medicine will be worth it in the end. In two hundred years they will hail me as a hero.”
“So this is about you!”
“No Jack, I’m not interested in how history will judge me. I’m not a narcissist or empire builder. I have no such aspirations, I’m merely trying to save the world.”
“By wiping out most of the human race?”
“Precisely. I agree it sounds crazy when you phrase it like that but there really is no other solution.”
“What about other species? If you wipe out humans surely you will do the same with the vast majority of other species?”
Matisse sat back, smiling. “That’s a very perceptive question Jack. I see you are starting to come around to the idea. It was something that has taken up a huge amount of our time and research. How do we produce a pathogen that isolates the genes that only humans possess? It was one of our greatest challenges Jack, but one we have mastered. There is some collateral damage. The irony is that our experiments have shown that the DNA alterations we make are also devastating to mosquitoes. I don’t think any survivors will shed too many tears about their population being decimated.”
“So how do you propose to introduce this pathogen?”
Matisse sensed Jack’s skepticism. “Jack I know you think that what I’m suggesting is not possible for one man to achieve. You’re right it’s not. I have a whole team behind me and a network of supporters that spreads the globe. How’s the water?”
“It’s good. You already asked me that.”
Matisse smiled, anticipating the rousing climax to his concerto. “Yes it is. Swiss bottled water is one of the finest and purest in the world, untainted by man and sold all over the world.”
“You didn’t answer my question,” interrupted Jack testily.
“Oh but I did,” smiled Matisse, casting a furtive glance at their beautiful dinner companion, who brought the wine glass to her ruby lips to suppress a smile.
Realization suddenly dawned on Jack. He knocked the glass of water across the room as if it had suddenly been soiled by excrement. “How long have I got?”
Matisse raised his palms defensively. “Jack I want to make something clear. Whether I brought you here or not would have made no difference to your ultimate fate. But I need a messenger who has a vested interest in this story. You’re a respected journalist, but if you weren’t affected in the same way as everyone else, how could you write with any degree of authenticity? Our tests indicate an incubation period of around seventy-two hours, time to put one’s affairs in order. Remember though Jack, there is a ten per-cent chance of survival. Your DNA might carry the immunity. I can have you tested in our labs if you want. It’s the least I can do.”
Jack knew Matisse was deadly serious, and for the first time he fully believed that Matisse was not only capable but intent on carrying out his plan, in fact that the plan was significantly advanced. It was also a sobering recognition of his own mortality.
Matisse continued. “Go out with a bang Jack. Tell the story. It will be the most sensational you have ever written. People need to prepare, but they also need to know that not everyone will die. I want people to pass on knowing there will be hope for humanity. You can do a wonderful service for the whole human race Jack. Like me, you bear the weight of responsibility. I know you will do the right thing, because your passion is informing the public. That’s never been more important.”
“Will people suffer?”
A shadow passed across Matisse’s features. “The microbes in the water system will have the effect of shutting down the body’s vital systems. The first to go will be the nervous system. People can’t feel pain without a nervous system. They will lose their cognitive functions relatively quickly after that, followed by paralysis. Yes they will suffer to an extent but we have done everything we can to minimize that. Of course we have not tried it on a live human experiment, and testing on animals is pointless for the reasons I’ve described. People will suffer when they watch their loved ones die. I feel terrible about that and have to keep reminding myself that it is so their descendants will live.”
“And you? Have you tested your DNA against your killer disease? Will you survive?”
“Jack I’m duty bound to. Everyone in my team will be sealed off from the outside world. Our water supply is untainted. Whatever our DNA we will survive. Surely you didn’t think that I would be irresponsible enough to reduce the population to a tenth of its size and then leave the human race to its own devices? Part of my plan is to oversee the growth and rejuvenation of our species; to provide oversight and leadership toward a more enlightened path. The survivors will need a helping hand. There will be significant challenges in the years ahead.”
“So I have around seventy-two hours to live?”
“Not necessarily Jack. You have a ninety per-cent chance that you only have seventy-two hours to live. Please Jack, understand that I do this for the human race. You need to tell them as soon as possible.”
“Do you think the human race will go gently into the good night?”
“That was never the intention Jack.”
“If I tell them they will come here and seek revenge.”
“True Jack, but that’s why I brought you here, to advocate for me. To help them understand. You’re highly influential. However, that is a risk, so it’s important that my location remain a secret. There’s more work to be done. But in the end it won’t make any difference. The first phase of my plan is complete. The pathogen is already out there in most of the major water courses globally. A water borne disease was always going to be the most effective, like typhoid or cholera. We all need water to survive. Whether humanity comes knocking at my door with burning torches and pitchforks is irrelevant in the end. The wheels are set in motion. Even I can’t stop it now.” Matisse sat back, pensive, the rest of his succulent lamb left untouched, as if the talk of mass genocide had spoiled his appetite.
“So what now?”
“Is there anything else you need to know Jack?”
“I guess not. You have told me the why, when, where and how. There really isn’t much else to say.”
“No there isn’t, but it really has been a pleasure Jack. I knew you would understand, see the bigger picture.”
Matisse reached out his hand like two old business friends ready to shake on a deal. Jack responded and shook Matisse’s hand. He smiled warmly but his eyes were cold and they flitted around the circular drawing room. Matisse had been complacent. In a smooth, lightning fast pincer movement, Jack twisted Matisse’s arm and spun his torso round so that his own arm choked him. Jack, using all his strength, held it steady as he reached for his knife. One thing about being in Syria was that you learned to be resourceful if you wanted to live, and that meant hiding a switchblade up his arse until it was needed. Now was a good time. He reached in and flicked it so the blade hovered by Matisse’s throat.
Imogen gasped and backed away, hitting an alarm that sent sirens blaring into the confines of the room. Within seconds four heavily armed security officers burst into the room, guns instantly trained on Jack. With Matisse still choking, Jack spun him around to use him as a human shield. The guards fanned out, coiled like predatory tigers, looking for a better shot.
Jack had not thought this through. He might have seventy-two hours but it was more likely he had minutes. An act of desperation. Make it up as you go along, he thought with faint amusement. “Don’t try anything silly,” he shouted at the guards, tensed and ready. “I’m very handy with a switchblade and I know exactly where to slice his carotid artery.” The blade hovered over Matisse’s neck, ready to plunge in. “I’m fast too, so if you think you can get a shot before I cut him up, then think again. I’ve squared off against the Taliban and I’m still here.”
He eased the pressure on Matisse’s windpipe, and the scientist wheezed and gasped. “Tell them to back off or this ends now.” A breathless Matisse waved them away. The guards glanced at each other and moved away, guns still trained on Jack. “Take me to the helicopter and have a pilot ready. Don’t try anything.” Matisse nodded.
Gradually, they shuffled out through the corridor in a ridiculous tango, guards backing away, looking for the slightest opportunity to take Jack down, while the journalist kept Matisse’s body between them. Matisse had recovered his composure, though his voice was scratchy from a bruised windpipe. “Jack, whatever happens here makes no difference. It’s already started.”
“Shut up and keep moving. I’m not your emissary. You need to answer to the world for your actions. You don’t get to decimate most of the world’s population and sit in your ivory tower. There are consequences.” With slow deliberation, they eventually reached the vaulted atrium with the soaring glass walls. Outside a helicopter waited on the landing pad, its rotor blades already whirring. He forced Matisse into a trot at this point, as he knew the guards had a better chance of a shot in a wider space. The glass door slid open and the wind, mixed with flurries of snow, instantly whipped at them. He almost dragged Matisse through the biting cold across the landing pad and into the already open doors of the helicopter.
The next few critical seconds played out like slow motion. One of the guards, desperate not to let Matisse be taken, saw the chance of a clean shot. Jack had seen enough action in the Middle East to know when a gunman was about to follow though - the body language, the speed of activity, the angle of the gun. Letting go of Matisse for the first time, he dived into the open space behind the cockpit. There was a dull thud and a strangled cry, and Matisse slumped forward. Heaving with all his might Jack swung the door shut on it’s runners and he heard more bullets pinging against the metal outside.
“Get us up!” he yelled at the pilot, flashing his blade for persuasive effect. The pilot complied and the vehicle lifted into the night air, still under attack from the ground. Jack quickly glanced out the window and saw the guards receding, running across the suffuse lighting of the pad, still firing hopelessly in the direction of the helicopter.
Immediate danger passed, Jack became conscious of the heavy wheezing from the figure slumped on the helicopter floor. The laboured breath, like a death rattle, the amount of blood oozing from the chest wound; Jack knew it was terminal, and Matisse knew it too. “Jack,” he croaked, his voice barely a whisper, “stick to your mission. Tell them about my plan. They need a strong leader now. I did the right thing didn’t I?”
There was not even time for Jack to answer. With a final gasp, Matisse’s eyes rolled back and he was gone. Jack sat there staring at the corpse, unsure of his next move. Glancing out the window, he saw the shadowy mountains fall away behind a cloak of grey mist. It was already impossible to tell which one housed the compound. He was convinced more than ever that Matisse had been genuine in his intent, and that it was already too late. People were probably dying already, and the world needed to know why. Unless he was one of the “lucky” ten per cent, he probably had only those seventy-two preordained hours to deliver that message. As the helicopter sped across the mountains, Jack sighed with the heavy weight of responsibility.