Fortunately this will be the easy one, once I’ve silenced the idiots. The real thing, the career clincher, comes later today. Now I’m about to face the media, not my peers – they will be a lot more searching and thorough, merciless in their scrutiny. Right now it’s keep it simple, dumb it down and deal with any irrational fears lurking behind their questions.
The stakes are high and partly out of my control now. I’ve taken control of the facility, staffed it and set in place all the teams. If I get today right I will probably be offered the chance to run it. Dream job, worldwide audience.
I’m not egotistical and won’t present myself as smug or supercilious; they don’t work well with funders. Brian Cox, Patrick Moore and David Attenborough have defined the acceptable public face of popular science for the last three generations.
I’m good, bloody good, not smug… Mister clever – amazingly clever – but charming.
After my introductions I walk onto the stage. The concatenation of camera flashes is my idea of a night in the Blitz, Dresden, that sort of thing. I will have to get used to this.
Clutching the lectern behind which I can partially hide I nod to a bearded journalist. I’ve never seen him before. I suspect they’ll all become familiar faces with their own secret lives I’ll never need to bother about.
He asks, “Doctor Urquhart, what can you tell us about the demons you have uncovered?”
Oh dear, must I deal with the morons from the very beginning? “Not demons, not fairies, not angels. That was an enduring hobby, if you like, of the facility at Volochanka. The actual work there was science, hard science. This is what we need to be talking about.”
“But before the science?”
I hold up a hand and produce only the merest arrogantly dismissive wave. “The facility was originally a means to explore the theories of Wallace and Darwin. There wasn’t a before: that is fiction.” I look away and select another raised hand.
A middle-aged woman asks, “But the … facility … as you call it, is in a cave system not fully explored?”
“The caves, as you call them, are man-made tunnels and rooms extending only as far as needed to meet spatial requirements. Please can we avoid the weighted words and superstitions? I am a scientist and this is one of the longest continuous pieces of research in history. It is still happening and will continue to happen. This is what is so exciting.”
Before I can point to another raised hand, the woman asks, “Why the historical secrecy then?”
“That’s a question for historians, they are there and loving it, along with archaeologists. I’m led to believe the secrecy in the past was due to the country being strictly Christian at that time. Evolution was highly controversial but you’ll need to speak to the historians for a more complete answer.”
This time I point to a hand before I finish speaking. The journalist shouts over the hubbub. “Is it true these genetic experiments have been conducted for over a hundred years?”
I don’t grit my teeth, sigh or scream. “The word genetic here is so easily misunderstood. By isolating some plants, fungi, bacteria, archaea and animals in order to study how they evolve the – let’s call them skilled amateurs – stumbled on something by accident. What is really gripping us is that, given the speed with which bacteria, for instance, can evolve due to their rapid replication. That they have no predators in the Volochanka facility and the evolutionary stressors they have encountered, or not, in their unique environments there, means we are able to see quite unique adaptations and developments. We…”
“Are they dangerous?”
“No.” I hold up my hands for silence. “Let’s get that clear from the outset.”
“Could these people have speeded up or meddled with evolution? Can they be trusted?”
“One question at a time, please, but I will do my best. Natural selection, can happen very quickly in some ways, as Darwin noted with finches, but you’ve asked a very complicated question. I think the issue here is are we safe? Yes, absolutely. We are not dealing with any dangerous animals or man-eating plants. Can these people be trusted? They, the previous incumbents, were extremely accommodating and welcoming. They knew what they possessed was unique and it was they who decided to reveal to the world what they had been doing for generations. They told us, they invited us, they offered their precious facility to the world. They were only too happy to hand it over – after making sure we knew their practices and procedures and were reassured we wouldn’t damage over a century of unique work. This experiment may have been run by amateurs who were employed to assist the founding researchers, but believe me, they did a spectacular job sustaining the original vision. That’s another story and, again, I’m not the person to best tell it but I have huge respect and admiration for what they have achieved.”
Someone calls, “But they didn’t reveal anything until accidentally discovered. That’s suspicious.”
Despite not having selected a journalist for the question, I think this one needs dealing with, so I answer, “Not suspicious at all. The so-called accidental discovery merely alerted the people there to the possibility of a local tradition actually being of interest elsewhere – and they were right.”
Another person calls out, “But if this was just science, why all the models of demons and so on?”
“Probably out of some need to develop a rigorous system enabling them to learn better the actual parameters of the evolutionary process, what can and cannot happen, and how to tell the difference between real and fake specimens. Further study will provide the full answer, but there’s no room for any concern. The scientific experimentation at Volochanka is very basic; anyone could do it. The only thing that makes it so important is the length of time it has been going on. It is quite impossible to create living monsters at this time let alone a hundred years ago.”
The journalist asks, “If these plants and animals are not dangerous, why have we heard about intense security and secrecy?”
I nod, fair question. “Security and secrecy went hand in hand. Secrecy because these life forms are irreplaceable and vulnerable – they could not cope with the sudden changes and environmental variables unwonted invasion, such as tourism, could introduce. The fact is that it’s almost impossible for these life forms to compete, to live in the world as it is. They are no longer adapted to cope. An analogy would be to ask couch potatoes to race against professional athletes, a child or elderly person to fight champion heavyweight boxers.”
There are so many hands raised it’s really hard to choose one over another. I nod to one man but it’s the person next to him who takes the cue. “So after the originators departed this facility was run by people who had no training and guidance?”
“They knew precisely what they were doing. This was not extreme science. They simply moved existing flora and fauna and watched what happened to them in a unique environment over a century or more. In the last weeks the workers there have all been replaced with trained scientists and technical personnel. Now that things are settled and the facility allows access only to qualified people, that secrecy is no longer needed. However, the unique and extensive collection of manufactured chimeras is truly fascinating to behold and will be open to the public within the next few weeks. Some of it is breathtaking in it’s craftsmanship and artistry. The constructs have been acquired from numerous collections and other sources and include samples going back through the European middle ages to classical Mediterranean, early Chinese and other cultures.” I point to a hand that shoots up.
“Are you certain that these creatures are not real?”
I laugh. I was expecting this question. Let’s hope I get it once and no more. “Totally certain. Bones have been fashioned from wood or sourced from other creatures, for instance a small monkey skeleton mixed with the wings of a large bat, snake teeth and a forked tail made of wood bleached with, I’m informed, oxalic acid. That sort of thing. We have taken samples for analysis but to confirm probable sources, not things that go bump in the night.”
Another hand goes up. I point but glance at another journalist, young, female, staring at the floor, frowning and chewing the inside of her mouth. What’s up with her?
The journalist to whom I point next asks, “How can you be sure the plants and animals, let alone the bacteria are safe? You haven’t had more than a few weeks.”
Someone briefed me – I need to state this two or three times minimum for it to get into sufficient journals, here goes. “Yes, good question, but I must reiterate, these specimens are not capable of living outside the Volochanka facility until such time as the exact conditions are replicated elsewhere – including the means to transport them. The bacteria are not even derived from pathogens. Nevertheless, we are practising the same safety procedures you would expect when dealing with, say, Ebola or smallpox. This is standard practice anywhere.”
The next journalist asks, “A hundred years of experimentation surely could have led to a great deal of expertise and the ability to do things you don’t know about.”
“No. This is basic science which could be developed in … and is accidentally replicated on a daily basis in any kitchen anywhere. Tell me if you manage to grow anything interesting.” I get a laugh at last.
I don’t even get to point when a question, from somewhere, comes, “And what of the poor people you displaced? What happens to them?”
I smile. I’m on safe ground now, the science has been stated, within the limits of most people’s desire to understand, the lack of danger made clear and the demons dispelled. Time for a deep breath and a final few answers. “The people, as I said, were only too happy to put everything in trained hands. They have returned to the village, now town, of Volochanka knowing they have been a part of something great.”
“Are you sure they didn’t carry any bacteria out with them?”
“Certain. They readily submitted to standard disinfection and replacement clothes when they finally left. They took nothing away with them. Look, even that was unnecessary. Think, they were healthy and alive. Over generations they were constantly coming and going to their homes in Volochanka only fifty-odd kilometres away which, like every other town, has connections ultimately with the rest of the world. I’m fairly certain we are all still alive. Feel free to tell me otherwise.” I laugh to show I’m not attempting to offend.
Someone calls, “There’s something you’re not telling us. I’ve just come from Volochanka and spoken to the locals.”
I identify the speaker at the back. A rather fierce looking woman. I answer, “I can assure you that no one has anything to hide. What is it you are concerned about? From the beginning I’ve wanted to dispel this almost desperate need to attribute some conspiracy theory or mystical nature to the facility.”
After some jostling at the back, the woman speaks again, “I have spoken to the people of Volochanka and learned worrying things!”
Oh, this is getting boring now. “You spoke to the people who handed the facility over?”
“No, but I heard about corridors and rooms where experiments took place a long time ago and are shrouded in mystery!”
Oh for fuck’s sake … stay calm. “Look into any laboratory at any time and you are likely to see the remainders of previous work, if only in rubbish bins and incinerators. Of course that is the case with Volochanka too. Few of the original experiments were destined to survive. Things mutated to the point they could no longer be kept alive or failed to reproduce. That is inevitable. For every species of plant or animal alive in the world today there are hundreds of thousands that died out. There is no mystery here, no hobgoblins.”
The woman says, “Big experiments! Not germs, real animals.”
“Of course. I don’t see the problem. They will have chosen any number of species to study. We have recent records of small birds, sadly extinct now, which being deprived of flight developed the ability to walk and run rather than hop – strength of legs being the adaptation to a large low-ceilinged cage. We don’t yet know all the species originally selected because record keeping was not then what it is today. There are original records but they are in the hands of experts trying to preserve and translate them. More and more will be revealed as they do. If you had spoken to the original staff they would have told you this.”
I hold up my hands to silence everyone and don’t say a thing until the whole room is quiet. “Everything is checked. There are no secret tunnels, no infinite caves, no monsters or lethal bacteria … no one has recreated tyrannosaurus or made dragons out of daisies.”
The preoccupied girl, now white as a phantom and wide-eyed, jabs up a hand but jumps up and turns, facing the back. “Who spoke to the people of Volochanka?”
“Me,” the woman shouts from the back.
“Why didn’t you speak to the previous staff?”
The woman shrugs, raising her hands. “Who? The people of Volochanka think the caves closed seventy years ago. Which is my next…”
The girl whirls back to me, screeching, “Who handed it over to you then? Are you sure they just didn’t need it any more? Do you know where they’ve gone? Do you know what they are? The locals thought it was closed so who leaked the information about it? You were lured there! What have they infected you with?”
©Gary Bonn, 2017