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Inferno


Chapter 102


Chapter 102
The clock in the Swiss Consulate's lobby had long since chimed 1 A.M.
The notepad on Sinskey's desk was now a patchwork of handwritten text, questions, and diagrams. The director of the World Health Organization had neither moved nor spoken in more than five minutes. She stood at the window, staring out into the night.
Behind her, Langdon and Sienna waited, seated in silence, cradling the last of their Turkish coffee, the heavy aroma of its pulverized grounds and pistachio grains filling the room.
The only sound was the buzz of the fluorescent lights overhead.
Sienna could feel her own heart pounding, and she wondered what Sinskey was thinking, having now heard the truth in brutal detail. Bertrand's virus is a sterility plague. One third of the human population will be infertile.
Throughout the explanation, Sienna had watched Sinskey's range of emotions, which, while restrained, had been palpable. First, there was a stunned acceptance of the fact that Zobrist had actually created an airborne vector virus. Next she had displayed fleeting hope when she learned that the virus was not designed to kill people. Then ... slowly, there had been the spiraling horror as the truth set in, and she realized that vast portions of the earth's population would be rendered sterile. It was clear that the revelation that the virus attacked human fertility affected Sinskey on a deeply personal level.
In Sienna's case, the overwhelming emotion was relief. She had shared the complete contents of Bertrand's letter with the WHO director. I have no more secrets.
"Elizabeth?" Langdon ventured.
Sinskey emerged slowly from her thoughts. When she returned her gaze to them, her face was drawn. "Sienna," she began, speaking in a flat tone, "the information you have provided will be very helpful in preparing a strategy to deal with this crisis. I appreciate your candor. As you know, pandemic vector viruses have been discussed theoretically as a possible way to immunize large populations, but everyone believed that the technology was still many years away."
Sinskey returned to her desk, where she sat down.
"Forgive me," she said, shaking her head. "This all feels like science fiction to me at the moment."
Not surprising, Sienna thought. Every quantum leap in medicine had always felt this way-penicillin, anesthesia, X-rays, the first time humans looked through a microscope and saw a cell divide.
Dr. Sinskey gazed down at her notepad. "In a few hours, I will arrive in Geneva to a firestorm of questions. I have no doubt that the first question will be whether there is any way to counteract this virus."
Sienna suspected she was right.
"And," Sinskey continued, "I imagine the first proposed solution will be to analyze Bertrand's virus, understand it as best as we can, and then attempt to engineer a second strain of it-a strain that we reprogram in order to change our DNA back to its original form.

" Sinskey did not look optimistic as she turned her gaze to Sienna. "Whether a countervirus is even possible remains to be seen, but hypothetically speaking, I'd like to hear your thoughts on that approach."
My thoughts? Sienna felt herself glance reflexively at Langdon. The professor gave her a nod, sending a very clear message: You've come this far. Speak your mind. Tell the truth as you see it.
Sienna cleared her throat, turned to Sinskey, and spoke in a clear, strong voice. "Ma'am, the world of genetic engineering is one I've inhabited with Bertrand for many years. As you know, the human genome is an extremely delicate structure ... a house of cards. The more adjustments we make, the greater the chances we mistakenly alter the wrong card and bring the entire thing crashing down. My personal belief is that there is enormous danger in attempting to undo what has already been done. Bertrand was a genetic engineer of exceptional skill and vision. He was years ahead of his peers. At this point in time, I'm not sure I would trust anyone else to go poking around in the human genome, hoping to get it right. Even if you designed something you thought might work, trying it would involve reinfecting the entire population with something new."
"Very true," Sinskey said, seeming unsurprised by what she had just heard. "But of course, there is the bigger issue. We might not even want to counteract it."
Her words caught Sienna off guard. "I'm sorry?"



"Ms. Brooks, I may disagree with Bertrand's methods, but his assessment of the state of the world is accurate. This planet is facing a serious overpopulation issue. If we manage to neutralize Bertrand's virus without a viable alternate plan ... we are simply back at square one."
Sienna's shock must have been apparent, because Sinskey gave her a tired chuckle and added, "Not a viewpoint you expected to hear from me?"
Sienna shook her head. "I guess I'm not sure what to expect anymore."
"Then perhaps I can surprise you again," Sinskey went on. "As I mentioned earlier, leaders from top health agencies around the world will be gathering in Geneva in a matter of hours to discuss this crisis and prepare an action plan. I can't recall a gathering of greater significance in all my years at the WHO." She leveled her gaze at the young doctor. "Sienna, I would like you to have a seat at that table."
"Me?" Sienna recoiled. "I'm not a genetic engineer.
I've told you everything I know." She pointed to Sinskey's notepad. "Everything I have to offer is right there in your notes."
"Not by a long shot," Langdon interjected. "Sienna, any meaningful debate about this virus will require context. Dr. Sinskey and her team will need to develop a moral framework to assess their response to this crisis. She obviously believes you are in a unique position to add to that dialogue."
"My moral framework, I suspect, will not please the WHO."
"Probably not," Langdon replied, "which is all the more reason for you to be there. You are a member of a new breed of thinkers. You provide counterpoint. You can help them understand the mind-set of visionaries like Bertrand-brilliant individuals whose convictions are so strong that they take matters into their own hands."
"Bertrand was hardly the first."
"No," Sinskey interjected, "and he won't be the last. Every month, the WHO uncovers labs where scientists are dabbling in the gray areas of science-everything from manipulating human stem cells to breeding chimeras ... blended species that don't exist in nature. It's disturbing. Science is progressing so fast that nobody knows where the lines are drawn anymore."
Sienna had to agree. Just recently, two very respected virologists-Fouchier and Kawaoka-had created a highly pathogenic mutant H5N1 virus. Despite the researchers' purely academic intent, their new creation possessed certain capabilities that had alarmed biosecurity specialists and had created a firestorm of controversy online.
"I'm afraid it's only going to get murkier," Sinskey said. "We're on the verge of new technologies that we can't yet even imagine."
"And new philosophies as well," Sienna added. "The Transhumanist movement is about to explode from the shadows into the mainstream.
One of its fundamental tenets is that we as humans have a moral obligation to participate in our evolutionary process ... to use our technologies to advance the species, to create better humans-healthier, stronger, with higher-functioning brains. Everything will soon be possible."
"And you don't think that such beliefs are in conflict with the evolutionary process?"
"No," Sienna responded without hesitation. "Humans have evolved incrementally over millennia, inventing new technologies along the way-rubbing sticks together for warmth, developing agriculture to feed ourselves, inventing vaccines to fight disease, and now, creating genetic tools to help engineer our own bodies so we can survive in a changing world." She paused. "I believe genetic engineering is just another step in a long line of human advances."
Sinskey was silent, deep in thought. "So you believe we should embrace these tools with open arms."
"If we don't embrace them," Sienna replied, "then we are as undeserving of life as the caveman who freezes to death because he's afraid to start a fire."
Her words seemed to hang in the room for a long time before anyone spoke.
It was Langdon who broke the silence. "Not to sound old-fashioned," he began, "but I was raised on the theories of Darwin, and I can't help but question the wisdom of attempting to accelerate the natural process of evolution."
"Robert," Sienna said emphatically, "genetic engineering is not an acceleration of the evolutionary process. It is the natural course of events! What you forget is that it was evolution that created Bertrand Zobrist. His superior intellect was the product of the very process Darwin described ... an evolution over time. Bertrand's rare insight into genetics did not come as a flash of divine inspiration ... it was the product of years of human intellectual progress."
Langdon fell silent, apparently considering the notion.
"And as a Darwinist," she continued, "you know that nature has always found a way to keep the human population in check-plagues, famines, floods. But let me ask you this-isn't it possible that nature found a different way this time? Instead of sending us horrific disasters and misery ... maybe nature, through the process of evolution, created a scientist who invented a different method of decreasing our numbers over time. No plagues. No death. Just a species more in tune with its environment-"
"Sienna," Sinskey interrupted. "It's late. We need to go. But before we do, I need to clarify one more thing. You have told me repeatedly tonight that Bertrand was not an evil man ... that he loved humankind, and that he simply longed so deeply to save our species that he was able to rationalize taking such drastic measures."



Sienna nodded. "The ends justify the means," she said, quoting the notorious Florentine political theorist Machiavelli.
"So tell me," Sinskey said, "do you believe that the ends justify the means? Do you believe that Bertrand's goal to save the world was so noble that it warranted his releasing this virus?"
A tense silence settled in the room.
Sienna leaned in, close to the desk, her expression forceful. "Dr. Sinskey, as I told you, I believe Bertrand's actions were reckless and extremely dangerous. If I could have stopped him, I would have done so in a heartbeat. I need you to believe me."
Elizabeth Sinskey reached across the desk and gently grasped both of Sienna's hands in her own. "I do believe you, Sienna. I believe every word you've told me."







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