Stacks Image 5
This science-fiction short story, entitled 'Tags', draws upon the ideas and evidence I've described in my articles about a Laser Transmission from Sirius and Evolution and Alien Viruses. I entered it for a competition, yonks ago, who's name I can't even remember but I didn't get selected. Rather than it being lost at the back of a proverbial shelf, here it is for general consumption.

Tags

At 5:14am on the night of the 14th March, 2020, Professor Steven Pinker woke up in his house in Pewsey, Wiltshire. Someone was knocking loudly on his door. He sat up in bed, confused. He heard a knock again, hard and insistent. He grabbed a dressing gown and half-stumbled down his stairs, his bare feet cooled by the breeze coming through a half-open hallway window. He smelled hay and silage. He looked out, at the fields beyond the cluster of houses, lit by the pale, pre-dawn light. Another knock, loud and insistent. He reached his front door lobby. Through its patterned glass, he could see two figures standing on the doorstep. Their broken silhouettes were strange, their outlines smooth, with no neck. He hesitated before the door. Beyond the glass, one of the figures’ arms moved. Another loud knock.

“Professor Pinker?” said one of the figures. “Please open the door or we will enter by force.”

Pinker hesitated, then gripped the door’s cold handle. He turned it and pulled the door open.

Two men faced him. Both were wearing biological suits. They looked at him through the plastic, rectangular panels of their visors. “Professor Steven Pinker?” Said the taller of the two.

“Yes,” said Pinker.

The man glanced down at a plastic-wrapped photo in his hand. He looked up at Pinker. “Please put this on now, professor.” He thrust forward a clear plastic bag, containing a bundled-up biological suit. Pinker took the bag. The two figures edged him aside and walked into the house. They closed the door behind them. They stood in the hallway and watched Pinker don the biological suit. He did it easily, with practised skill. The two men waited for him to finish, then they set to work on his suit with gaffer tape, sealing all the connections between boots and legs, gloves and wrists, head and neck. They stepped back, checked their handiwork, then the taller man spoke. “We must now escort you to your lab, Professor Pinker. Please come with us. You cannot notify anyone of this event. You cannot leave our company at any point.”

Pinker nodded, sealed inside his suit. He looked at them through its thick plastic visor, his breathing loud in his ears. His heart hammered in his chest. He felt cold and clammy. “Yes,” he said, his voice muffled, “yes, I understand.”

They opened the front door. The taller one walked out. The shorter one waited for Pinker to step outside, then followed behind him, closing the door of the house as he went. The door’s latch clicked. Pinker and the two men walked down his garden path to the gate. Beyond it, standing in the quiet, country lane, was an armoured car, a Saracen, its engine running.

As Pinker approached the gate, something above the horizon caught his attention. He stopped and looked up, at the Orion Constellation, high the sky above the distant poplar trees. It had cleared them for the first time that year, its helical rising heralding Spring. Down and to the constellation’s right lay the star Sirius, the brightest star in the Northern sky.

Sirius was blazing red.

The suited man behind Pinker edged him forward. Pinker complied. They stepped through the gate and climbed into the Saracen. Pinker settled himself into the Saracen’s cramped, utilitarian, passenger compartment. The other two men climbed in beside him, then pulled the door closed with a ‘clang’. The taller one rapped on the compartment’s ceiling. The Saracen drove off.

Twenty minutes later, Pinker reached Porton Down. Still under escort, he descended through its levels and entered his laboratory. He removed his suit in the decontamination room, then stepped through and stood amongst its long benches, all covered with jars and boxes of reagents, centrifuges and pipettes. Further down, several robotic DNA sample machines stood idle against a wall, their mechanical arms hanging down. He was still in his pyjamas and dressing gown. He breathed in the lab’s stale, processed air and listened to the faint, endless hum of its air purifiers.

Mark and Clara, his lab assistants, walked in the room. Mark was dressed in a Spiderman suit and Clara was in a one-piece sleeper-suit covered with bunnies.

Pinker smiled. “Nice jim-jams.”

“Thanks,” said Clara.

Pinker looked at Mark’s outfit. He raised his eyebrows.

“Fancy-dress party,” said Mark.

The door swung open and clunked against the wall. A general walked in the laboratory, his booted feet smacking down on its linoleum floor. He was six-foot-two, clean-shaven and smelled of shoe-polish and cheap laundry liquid. He was wearing army fatigues and carrying a laptop. “Good morning,” he said, brusquely.

Mark and Clara nodded.

“Hello,” said Pinker.

The general put the laptop down on an empty section of the lab bench. “Two hours ago, the star Sirius went red. The west coast of the U.S. saw it during their evening hours. It’s change became their breaking, morning-news. Pundits were wheeled out and they declared it to be a coronal flare on the surface of Sirius A; the main, huge, blue-white giant star of that system.” He played several videos on the laptop. The three scientists watched them calmly. “Others on the shows,” explained the general, “said it was a electromagnetic burst from a comet spiralling down to the neutronium surface of Sirius B, the tiny, companion white-dwarf star of Sirius B.” He tapped and clicked on several videos. “Wackier claims were put forward on the fringe channels. The ideas were batted around and then everyone went to work and the soaps started.”

“But it’s not any of those,” said Mark.

“No,” said the General. He leant against the bench. “The red light from Sirius, that we can now see, bathing the whole of Earth, is in a very narrow frequency band. Its wavelength is 694.3 nanometers. The photon-waves have a high coherence and phase alignment.”

“It’s a laser,” said Pinker.

“Yes,” said the General.

“But why are we here?” asked Clara. “In our nighties?”

“Because that light coming from Sirius is sending us a virus.” The General's words shut everyone up. He looked at the three scientists, appraising their reactions. Pinker couldn’t think of anything to say. The noises in the room seemed suddenly loud, the fans’ whirring an irritating, grating sound. “We have more information in the conference room.”

They followed the General to the other room, down windowless corridors, studded with alarms, first aid alcoves and security doors. They entered the dark, sloping room.

The General strode down to the front, plugged in his laptop to the lectern and entered several passwords. The large screen behind him lit up, showing a mass of images. “The first outbreaks of the disease occurred in multiple locations on Earth,” explained the general, smoothly and without hesitation. “The first one reportedly occurred within an hour of the star beginning its red flaring.” He turned on a laser-pen and pointed at places on the earth-map on the screen. “First symptoms were dizziness, light-headedness and confusion. Our people at GCHQ, using their ongoing epidemiological social-media analyser, flagged up a warning of a growing epidemic. The link was undeniable, so we immediately began analysing the incoming laser signal, looking for the presence of virus particles in its beam. We performed spectrographic analysis on it and picked up readings showing that virus structures with a metal component were present. It seems that the virus packets had been coated with a reflective-metal coating so that they could be propelled by the laser. We isolated several virus packets and captured them using the metal-surface as a hook.”

“You have a sample of the virus,” said Pinker.

“Yes,” said the General. He leant his large hands on the lectern. “Your job is now to analyse that virus. You cannot leave this base until it has been eradicated or we have found a successful vaccine. You can have contact with the outside from this point on. The virus sample has been moved to your Biohazard level 4 room. We need a full report from you as to the virus’s make-up, its behaviour in human hosts and we need a vaccine. Please report to me every four hours on your progress. Is that all clear?”

The scientists nodded.

“Good. I’ll let you return to your lab.” The general snapped his laptop shut, disconnected it and left the room.

Pinker, Mark and Clara returned to their lab and got to work. Within two hours, they’d established that the Sirius-virus was a relative of a lyssa-virus, the family of viruses responsible for rabies. They began sequencing its RNA material, the more basic version of DNA that viruses possess. After four hours, they compiled and handed a one-page progress report to a stone-faced officer that appeared at their. He took their report, handed them a collection of news items, then left.

They read the news items together, sipping tea. The reports painted a grim picture. The numbers of victims of the Sirius-virus had exploded, worldwide. The first wave of victims had entered a second phase of infection; they were becoming hysterical, hyperactive and aggressive. Panic had spread. Military curfews had been established and states of emergency. Amid the chaos, health teams were trying to treat the victims with general effect anti-viral drugs, with little success. Supplies were already running out. The infection rate of the virus was close to 90%. It was decimating the medical staff that attended the victims. Many people had died, not from the disease itself, but from the panic at the exploding epidemic. They’d been crushed in crowd stampedes, or killed in fights to get out of cities, or shot by vigilante mobs wanting to kill the infected.

Pinker and his team put the news aside, finished their drinks and worked on, all through that day and into the following evening. They injected the virus samples into mice and macaques and waited to see its effects upon the animals. Two more report times came and went. At the third report time, they were told that victims of the virus had entered a third stage of infection. They were lapsing into coma, their life-signs low but their R.E.M. and brainwave activity high. Any efforts to treat them at this stage only killed them, and so most were simply left to die.

Pinker was becoming dizzy with tiredness. He walked into the lab’s computer modelling room, where the RNA sequences were being processed, and collapsed into a chair. He lay back in it, his face pale.

Mark walked into the room. He sat down at a desk close to Pinker and tapped some instructions on a computer keyboard. The computer’s screen lit up. He typed some more instructions. Several images appeared, including a DNA sequence chart and a 3D model of the virus. The image made the virus look like a robot mosquito carrying a box. He tapped some more keys. Another window opened, showing a long series of letters; A’s,C’s,G’s and T’s, all colour-coded, a section of DNA-RNA code, the letters referring to the amino-acids that made up the RNA.

“Okay,” said Pinker, sitting up in his chair. He rubbed his eyes and looked at the computer screen. “I guess you’ve found something.”

Mark took a deep breath. “I found something; a special sequence amongst the virus’s genetic code. It matches an active human gene.”

“That isn’t surprising.”

“No, not normally,” said Mark, scratching his stubbled jaw, “but this active gene is a new one. It only appeared in our genetic record between 1000 BC and 500 AD. Before then, it wasn’t present in any human DNA samples. It’s codes for a neurotransmitter expression in our brains. It’s also present in dog DNA and that seem new too.”

Pinker stared at Mark. “Dogs too?”

“Yes,” said Mark. “Did you know that Sirius is the Dog Star?”

“No.”

“We got some historical info during the last update. The General reported that there is written evidence that the star Sirius blazed red, two-thousand years ago.”

“What? This isn’t the first time?”

“No,” said Mark. He clicked the computer mouse. Articles popped up on the computer screen, showing ancient greek text and images of panicked people, fleeing a blazing star. “The reports from that time of blazing Sirius and epidemics came from all over the civilised world. They spoke of Sirius, originally ’Seirios’, which literally means ‘searing or burning’, affecting people and dogs. The epidemics always came when the star blazed red. The dates match the genetic record. The first millennium BC was the time that the new gene appeared in our genetic record.” He typed rapidly on the keyboard. “So I wondered, if this virus is artificial, coming from a laser-signal, then it might have an anomalous pattern, a sequence you just don’t see in natural viruses. So I ran a scan on the virus’s genetic sequence, with this in mind. That’s when I found the weird section of RNA letters. They don’t encode for a gene. In fact, they don’t do anything but they are preserved. What’s more, they’re also in the new genetic code that appeared two thousand years ago.”

“Why would junk DNA be preserved?”

“Good question,” said Mark. His hand went up, palms out. “I know it sounds mad, but I think it’s a tag, like an identity tag or a business card.”

“A business card?”

“Look, let me show it to you.” Mark tapped on the keyboard and clicked with the mouse. An image appeared on the computer screen. It was a grid; sixty-four letters arranged in a sixteen-by-sixteen square.

AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA
AGCCCCCCCCCCCCGA
ACCCCCCAACCCCCCA
AGCCCCAAAACCCCGA
ACCCCCACCACCCCCA
AGCCCCCAACCCCCGA
ACCCAAAAAAAACCCA
ACCCCCCAACCCCCCA
AGCCCCAAAACCCCGA
ACCCCCAAAACCCCCA
AGCCCCAAAACCCCGA
ACCCCCCCCCCCCCCA
AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA
AAGCTGCTGAGGCATA
AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA

Pinker looked at it. “So?”
“If you substitute the ‘C’ letters for spaces,” explained Mark, ‘you get this.” He pressed a key.
Stacks Image 20
“My god,” said Pinker, leaning forward, “it’s an ankh.”

“Yes,” said Mark. “It’s nuts, isn’t it? But it’s there! It’s there in the Sirius-virus raining down on our planet and it’s also in our DNA right next to those active genes we picked up two-thousand years ago. It gets weirder, Sir.” He paused. “That image, that tag, is in the DNA of other animals on our planet. I performed more searches, running it through our DNA data banks, looking for its presence. Loads of matches came up.”

“But it can’t be in lots of animal DNA,” said Pinker pushing his chair back. “All that DNA was formed millions of years ago. You just told me that the older Sirius-virus arrived during Ancient Greece. That’s only two-and-a-bit-thousand years ago!”

“But don’t you see,” said Mark, “we don’t know how long the star’s being firing like that, how far back!” He tapped rapidly on the keyboard. “It’s in lots of the sequences I tried. It’s in lots of animals. Do you remember that research, a few years ago, the one where it was shown that virus material was in most cellular DNA, that viruses could even be responsible for the development of multicellular life?”

“Yes, yes,” said Pinker, “it was a fascinating idea, but not conclusive.”

“Well, it’s a hell of a lot more conclusive now.” Mark pointed at the screen, at the grid of letters. “Look at that image and you’ll see a fourteen-digit string under the ankh symbol. Each time I’ve found an instance of that image in animal DNA, that string is different.” He took his hands from the keyboard. “I think it’s a time-stamp.”

Pinker’s mouth hung open. He wanted to laugh at Mark, or get angry, or dismiss it all as ridiculous, but he couldn’t. He looked at the images on the screen. “A time stamp?”

Clara came into the room. She saw their expressions. “What’s going on?”

Mark explained his theory. Clara took it calmly. She came back with questions. That made the two men think and it broke Pinker’s spell of confusion, of paralysis. Suddenly, it was a real and important challenge. The three of them discussed what to do. After an hour of talking, they set to work.

One day later, they told the General they needed to meet him, in the conference room.

He walked in on them as they finished setting up their computer. He stood in its doorway. “You have a vaccine?” He asked.

“No,” said Pinker.

The general slapped his hand against the door-frame. “So what have you got?”

“An evolution blueprint,” said Pinker.

“A what?”

Pinker tapped on the computer keyboard. The room’s main screen flickered into life. It showed a ‘tree-of-life’ diagram, marked with all the main branches of evolutionary development, from the Cambrian Explosion of 500 million years before, up to the most recent development of homo-sapiens and other mammals.

The general tapped his foot. “What’s the point of this. Why do I need a biology lesson?”

Mark pressed a button on the keyboard. Blue dots and base-4 numbers, numbers made from digits from zero to three, appeared by many species on the top part of the tree-of-life. Some areas were thicker than other and the stages leading to human development were the thickest. Their upper parts were covered in blue dots and numbers.

Pinker stood by the screen. He pointed at parts of the tree. “We know now that the Sirius-virus is an artificial, clearly-designed, genetic modifier. It has been created by an intelligent, advanced society that knows exactly how our genetic code works. The Sirius-virus hitting our Earth at the moment is only the latest of many viruses that have been sent to our planet over the last two million years. Each virus does a specific job and each is marked with a unique, base-pair identifier tag consisting of an image and a base-4 number. The virus inserts that tag, along with at least one new gene, in the animal’s DNA that the virus is targeting. The new gene creates a change in the target animal species, positively evolving it.”

“Shit,” said the General. His confident demeanour was gone. “They’re playing God!”

“Yes,” said Pinker. “The viruses perform a guided evolution plan, a process that natural evolution would take a thousand times longer to carry out. The viruses are a super-high-speed, hothouse way to evolve species in a planned direction.” He pointed lower down the ‘tree of life’ image. “The further back we go down the evolutionary tree-of-life, the smaller the time-stamp-number of the preserved tags. Two million years back, the image disappears completely from the genetic record. We’ve concluded that that’s how long our planet has been getting those tailored viruses.”

The general sat down heavily in a chair. “What are you saying?” He looked at the scientists in turn. “Are you saying that little-green-men from Sirius have been playing God with everything on this planet for two million years?”

“They’re not playing God,” said Pinker, shaking his head. “They are God.” He tapped the screen. “Or at least when it comes to our DNA. There’s no vaccine, general. The virus is designed to infect; its makers know our genome as well as I know my bicycle. The virus isn’t meant to be curable. They know far more than us and they don’t want the virus stopped by our twenty-first century medicine.”

“So what do we do?”

“We wait,” said Pinker. “The virus isn’t mean to kill, only to change. I’m guessing that in a few days, or a few weeks, our infected people will wake from their comas with a new addition to their genetic code, an addition that has changed our species, homo-sapiens, again.”

“Into what?”

“Hopefully, something better,” said Pinker.

The General stood up. His face was crimson with rage. He was trembling with fury. He took a step towards Pinker, glanced at Mark and Clara, then turned on his heels. He stormed out of the room, slamming the door behind him.

Pinker leant against the lectern, feeling suddenly tired.

Mark closed the laptop’s lid and turned off the screen.

The three of them left the room. They switched off the equipment in the lab, took the lift up to ground level, gave up their passes and left the base.

Pinker took a hire-car and drove back to his house along empty roads. He turned the radio on. A religious station was broadcasting a sermon, over and over. In bursts, a priest was asking everyone to pray for deliverance. Pinker smiled. He turned the radio off. He looked out the car window, up at the star Sirius, red and flickering in the sky. He steered the car onwards, between green fields. He reached his house and parked the car. He walked inside, sat down in his favourite chair, closed his eyes and waited for the fever to come.