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Tomorrow. Some leaves still crinkled when stepped upon, but most had been blown and swept into small, damp piles. Ageing in their decay, the leaves clung to their autumn colors of yellow, russet, and brown despite the encroaching gray of the rain and new snow slush. The splashes of color that the leaves gave to the gray stone of the street were passing, and noticed by few.
Ian Finlay had ceased noticing the details of his city many months before. With the approval of a long-awaited research grant, he had given little thought to anything else. Today, his work would be complete. Closing the door to his apartment building, Ian paused. Pulling his overcoat collar more tightly to his neck as the crisp air pricked his skin; he picked up his briefcase and walked lightly down the four stone steps to the gray concrete pavement.
Although a couple of weeks away from the official beginning of winter, the snow had arrived early this year, but not anything too serious. There had been a couple of light flurries, with the snow melting to slush within the day, but it promised to bring a colder winter than the year before. As Ian walked down the pavement towards the subway station two blocks away, he could feel the iciness in the air as he breathed. Pleased with the completion of his work, he smiled to himself, his thin colorless lips pressed together like the grim smirk of a wooden totem. Delivery vans and cars rolled past him slowly, their exhausts pushing vaporous clouds into the air, the white puffs swirling as they were blown apart by the morning breeze. A few bundled children, some with their mothers, were coming out onto the street on their way to school.If only, Ian thought, they had any idea of what I have achieved. If only they knew of the power that he had to change their lives, to change the world.
Keeping a steady, relaxed pace, Ian soon arrived at the subway station. Before walking down the steps, he stopped at the newsagent's stand. The headline on display caught his attention--Asian Crop Failure; Scientists Claim Superbug. Taking his glove off, Ian counted out the change from his wallet, and took a paper. Folding it under his arm, he waited until he had fought his way through the commuter army that lined the lower platform. Walking his way down to the rear carriage, he stepped aboard and soon found a spare seat. Unlike many city people, he worked in an institute outside the city, so he was always sure of a seat both to and from work.
With a twenty minute ride before him, Ian had time enough to read the paper. As he had expected. Throughout much of Eastern Asia, there had been massive crop failures. This was the fourth successive failure, and the famine was set to get much, much worse, with estimates ranging from one through to five million people dying during the next several months. And if it hadn't been for the globalization of harvest surpluses from North America, Australia and the Ukraine, those death estimates could be tripled.
One of the traditional causes of crop failure, poor soil management, no longer had any part to play. Since the Great Peace some twenty years earlier, science and national resources became global currency. Politics no longer dominated the management of the land, but science. People must be fed, and the soil must be sustained. Productivity was encouraged, but to a limit. The real prize, which had made many farmers popular heroes, was sustained yield over many years. With the quality of agricultural soil so carefully tended, the natural balance shifted slightly. Not much, but enough to create a problem where there had not been one before.
Insects had been tamed, and many were used as natural controls of other pests. Molds and fungal diseases had been controlled as part of the soil husbandry regime; potato blight was not eliminated, but neither was it ever such a problem as it had once been. The new problem was a protein.
The biochemists who had first identified the family of proteins had, at first, kept quiet about their findings. Not at all certain about what they had found, they feared the professional ridicule that many scientists before them had experienced when new ideas had been made public. Only when there could have been no doubt about their discovery did they tell the world what was killing their crops.
A protein. Not even a living organism. A simple collection of amino acids that had the power to destroy the world. But a few weeks after the biochemists had told the world about their discovery, others were able to describe how the proteins worked. The molecular ends of each protein were split, and unstable. The surfaces of the protein ends would key into the molecular surface of the cells of cereal plants, and the split ends would then unravel and divide. Each half of the split protein would then key itself into the cell wall, and pull itself free, having used the cellulose molecules of the cell wall as building material for the new protein halves. The cell, now ruptured, would die. The protein, less efficient as a virus, was at least as devastating.
Extremely resilient, the protein was transferred by direct plant-to-plant contact, by any creature or object that came into contact with an infected plant, through the air on pollen, through irrigation water. Once in a field or catchment, the protein could not be eliminated. The range of infection would only spread and never shrink. It was but a matter of time before the Earth faced total famine.
Ian Finlay was a software engineer. When he had graduated, his specialty had been the design of global weather forecasting models. With an accuracy that had been previously unknown, his programs had soon become important tools in the development of sustainable agriculture programs. With weather patterns foreseeable for up to twelve months with eighty percent accuracy, crop rotation planning became global, not local. With foresight that astounded even himself, Ian had turned his attention to cellular systems. And then the first of the famines arrived.
With the nature of the protein and its operation known, different grants were offered to researchers who could develop possible solutions. Ian had fought for, and won the contract to develop a new control. A virus.
Ian's virus was unlike any other. His existed solely in the memory of the Linus Institute's mainframe computer. Designed by Ian down to the last molecule of its DNA, the virus would, if it existed, mimic the cellulose wall of the protein's target cells, and actively seek the molecular keys of the protein's split ends. Locking onto the protein, the virus would consume the protein and use itself as a host cell for new viruses. For the first time ever, an organism had been designed from nothing but an idea, instead of modifying existing organisms. And with the advances that had been made in nanotechnology, Ian was certain that a real virus could be constructed according to his plan. It would take only one virus, and a protein broth. And Ian Finlay would save the world.
The train slowed, and the familiar billboards flashed past Ian's window as the train eased itself into the station. For the last several minutes they had been traveling through open countryside, freed from the confines of the city's underground rail system. Ian folded his newspaper and tucked it under his arm as he stood up, swaying slightly as the train jolted to a stop. The doors up front hissed open, and Ian joined the four others who left the train.
The air was slightly warmer here than it had been in the city, warmed by the morning sun that no longer had to compete with the high apartment towers. Ian walked away from the platform and past the ticket area to the shuttle bus that waited outside. This was the only transfer in his daily commute, and took him the short distance to where the Institute was sited, in the lush green fields beyond the village of Colt. Ian was already on the step of the bus as it slowed, and stepped off as soon as the doors had opened. Walking briskly now, he passed the security guard at the door, who welcomed Ian with a smile, not bothering to ask for identification.
Across the polished slate floor of the foyer, Ian entered the elevator, which took him to his laboratory on the fourth floor. As Ian walked past the reception desk, the secretary greeted him.
"Morning, Doctor Finlay. Some messages for you already. I've put them on your desk."
"Thanks, Linda." No doubt more requests for interviews, he thought. The subject of his research was public knowledge because of the grant application and award system, and with the latest crop failures the media pressure was increasing. Well, this time he would have some results.
Ian walked into his office, closing the door behind him. There was a pile of letters, the morning mail, on his desk, as usual, together with a few hand-written notes from Linda. Still standing, Ian began to read through the messages. Most were forgettable, one stood out. Cryptic to all but himself and the person who dictated it to Linda, the note rearranged Ian's day. Glancing at his watch, he sat down and logged into the mainframe.
Working quickly and methodically, Ian ran the software that he had used to design his virus. Although he had performed this routine many times already, he again put his creation through an exhaustive series of tests, probing and examining his creature for any weaknesses, any part of its molecular design that would keep it forever in cyberspace and never in the real world. There were no flaws. Should it be real, his virus would live, thrive, perhaps, in the right environment. There could be no doubt at all. Ian Finlay had created the first artificial life form blueprint. He had come closer to being God than any other person before him.
Opening a secure link to the internet site of the Foundation that was funding his research, Ian uploaded the software files that defined his creation. The goods that the Foundation had purchased had now been delivered. As a receipt, the Foundation site mailed the Institute a bank draught for the balance of the grant, and a brief mail to confirm the closure of the contract. Ian smiled, knowing that he would soon be more famous that anyone alive at that time. Smug, he logged off.
And now for that other piece of business. Picking up the note and his briefcase, he left his office.
"Could you call for a driver? I have an appointment downtown," he said. "I should be back this afternoon."
"Any time?" Linda asked.
"Before three, I should say. It won't take long."
"Fine. I'll leave any messages on your desk."
Ian left the building, and waited for a couple of minutes until the Institute driver arrived from the basement garage. A late model Ford, the car was one of several that the Institute used for short trips. Ian recognized the driver. Eighteen, left school a few months before. This was his first job.
"Where to, Sir?"
"Station, thanks, uh, Steve."
Steve smiled, flattered that Doctor Finlay remembered his name. "Yes, Sir. In a hurry?"
"No, no. We have plenty of time." Ian sat back and tried to relax. He only ever received such a summons once every few months. Each time he had been given some piece of information, a computer model or technique, always the knowledge or tool that he just happened to need to overcome whatever problem he was having trouble with in his project at that time. It was if someone was always one step ahead of him, anticipating his progress. Never questioning too deeply the identity or motives of his benefactor, Ian had usually explained it to himself as being someone with the Foundation, someone who read his regular reports.
The kid was a careful driver, no doubt wanting to impress Ian with his responsible attitude. Ian smiled warmly at Steve, thanking him.
"Can you be back here for the two-forty-five? I should be back on that one."
"Sure thing, Sir. I'll be here early."
"Thanks, Steve." Ian closed the door and walked through the station to the platform. He glanced up at the flick-sign. Two expresses would be passing through the station before his ride, neither express would stop. He would have a few minutes to wait.
Standing on the platform, Ian began thinking, and slowly he became less aware of his surroundings. The station was quiet, with the commuter rush finished some hours earlier. The breeze blew gently, and the sun shone brightly onto Ian's face, warming him where he stood in the chill air. From down the line, he could hear the rumble of the approaching express for a few seconds before he could see it appear from around the gentle bend a hundred meters away. Thinking of what new benefit his rendezvous could bring, Ian didn't pay attention to the squeaking rattle of the overloaded luggage trolley that came trundling towards him, the porter struggling to keep control of it as it followed the uneven camber of the platform.
Too late, the trolley collided with Ian, shoving him forward. Stumbling as he lost his balance, the last that Ian heard was a horrified shout as he fell onto the tracks in front of the express. Slicing through his left leg and arm, the front wheels of the train slickened with blood even as the still-living body was twisted around and pushed under the front of the engine, the trailing wheels repeating the front's performance on Ian's chest and abdomen. Partly crushed, partly split open, Ian's body spilled its organs outwards and along the track as it was dragged along under the train, its speed barely touched by the soft impact. Free of its cage, Ian's heart continued to beat for a few seconds more, as it lay amongst the gore on the shingle between the tracks. Ian Finlay's brain, which had the day before promised to save the world, was fragmented mush, the flecked gray chunks mixed with teeth and intestines over a thirty meter stretch of sleepers and steel.
On the station platform, a woman vomited. The luggage trolley sat still, abandoned where Ian had been standing just a few seconds earlier. The porter was gone--in the days that followed, police investigations would show that there had been no porter on duty that day. And as the train slowed to a stop a kilometer from the station, a virus that was coded into a new e-mail awoke, and destroyed a part of the hard-drive memory of the mainframe system of the Linus Institute. The Institute Directors later told a press conference that, regrettably, the achievements of the late Doctor Finlay had been lost to the world.