The Unexpected Guests
by Tony Noland
"Dr. Ventor, what's the verdict? Give us the bottom line."
The conversation all through lunch had been of Washingon traffic vs. Boston traffic, the Redskins vs. the Patriots, the Senators (terrible, but cheap) vs. the Red Sox (no longer terrible and no longer cheap), and similar kabuki small talk.
Ventor glanced at General Sommerville's adjunct, an affable, intelligent and combat-decorated Marine who was, at the moment, in charge of pouring the coffee.
"Major Jackson is cleared for the entire packet of information on this, Doctor." The General waved a hand around the table, encompassing Dr. Simmons from CDC, Mr. Khovalin from the White House, Mr. Nakimura from NASA, Dr. Harrison from the Department of Agriculture and Mr. Jenkins, who had been introduced as being "associated with the project", and was therefore probably either NSA or CIA. "In fact," General Sommerville continued, "like the rest of us, Major Jackson has read the advance material you provided for us. Isn't that right, Jackson?"
"Yes sir," said Jackson. "However, I'll admit that much of it was rather technical, beyond my scope. I'm looking forward to your presentation this afternoon, Dr. Ventor."
"We all are," said Khovalin. "Still, it would aid our understanding if you give us the punchline first. Are they human?"
"For all intents and purposes? Yes. They're human."
"What does that mean? 'For all intents and purposes'... are they or aren't they?" Jenkins hadn't spoken much during lunch. His voice was reedy and sharp.
"It means, ladies and gentlemen, that from a genetic and biochemical standpoint, they are almost entirely identical to us."
Simmons ran her fingertips in small circles around her temples before tenting them in front of her. Harrison swore under his breath and dumped cream into his coffee, sloshing some onto the table. Everyone else at the table looked at the two scientists steadily before looking back at Ventor.
"However," Ventor said, "in addition to the genetic analysis we've done on them and on their clothing, we've had a team of evolutionary linguistic anthropologists working on them as well."
"Explain that, Doctor." General Sommerville's voice was flat and crisp, as though he were faced with a combat situation. "That was part of your advance material I didn't understand at all."
"As we all know, Harvard has very good molecular biologists. In addition to myself, two other Nobel laureates have set aside all other research to work on this. However, I thought it would be useful to have an alternative cladistic analysis made of the Arrivals, one that didn't rely on genetics."
"Cladistic?" Khovalin leaned forward. "What does that mean? Is that the genetic clock?"
"It's a way to measure how closely related different groups are. Genetics are the primary way, and, I think, the most reliable way to establish when species and geographic populations diverged." Ventor drew lines in the air in front of him. "From the sequence variations in certain key genes, we've got a very good cladistic tree, a map in time if you will, showing how the various subgroups of humans diverged as we spread across the globe. Clades, what we used to call race-groups."
Khovalin said, "And the Arrivals?"
"They don't match anything. The base sequences confirm that they are essentially human, that they evolved in the Afar Valley of east Africa, the same as we did. Best estimate is that we ran an identical evolutionary course up to about a hundred thousand years ago. Not 'similar'... 'identical'. After that, though, the DNA says that we split off, developmentally."
"Jesus Christ," said Nakimura, "there's living proof of the Many Worlds Theorem. If they -"
"Can we please focus?" Sommerville's voice cut off whatever Nakimura had been about to say. "Dr. Ventor, you said you had linguistic data of some kind?"
"Yes, I do, and it gives us some hope. For decades, linguists have been analyzing the thousands of languages across the globe, trying to figure out when and how they developed. They've worked up their own cladistic analysis of how people spread from place to place, within regions and across continents. It turns out that their maps more or less coincide with ours."
"So, Mr. Jenkins, we set a team of linguists to work on the recordings we've made of the Arrivals. They were completely unintelligible, speaking no known language. It turns out, however, that the base phenomes used in many of their words bear a relationship to a primitive dialect of Urdu."
"India?" said Khovalin. "They're from India?"
Ventor shook his head. "There's also a strong influence of proto-Germanic structures, most similar to Icelandic."
The table was silent. Finally, Major Jackson said, "Excuse me, Doctor Ventor, but what exactly does that mean?"
"It means, Major, that not only is our DNA sequence development much more random than I or any of my molecular biologist colleagues ever would have dreamed, it also means that the linguists were right all along. Look, you brought me in to tell you if these people pose a threat, right? A biological hazard? Here it is, in a nutshell." He ticked his fingers as he spoke.
"One: genetic analysis of their clothing shows it to be cotton, wool and flax. Their belts are made from cow leather, the buttons are either wood or ivory and bone from familiar animals. Not exactly the same as our cows, pigs, and goats, but close enough. That means they've had agriculture, animal domestication and close association for a long time, long enough for cross-speciation of diseases similar to bird flu, swine flu, smallpox, etc. Similar, but with significant strain variation.
"Two: they have the same genes as we do, so diseases that infect them could infect us.
"Three: their language derives from similar roots as some of our languages, but it's scrambled and homogenized to a much, much greater degree than our languages are. That means these people got around. They were very mobile, much more than we were twenty thousand years ago. That's probably why the genetics are so hard to read.
"Four: if they got around that much, they must have transfected each other with waves of diseases, in the same way that Europeans were decimated by the Black Plague in the 1300's, native Americans were decimated by smallpox in the 1500's and Africans are being decimated by HIV today.
"Five: their base DNA incorporates some seqences from viruses that are completely new to us. They not only had the opportunity for exposure to pandemic diseases, they experienced them. And they were bad. Very bad."
Khovalin turned to Simmons. "Well? What do you think? What's the CDC say?"
Simmons shrugged. "A full set of brand-new pandemic viruses? Not just one, but several, perhaps dozens? All at once?" Simmons shook his head. "If we were exposed to them individually over the course of centuries, we'd have time to rebuild populations. But all at once? There's just no way to know how many millions, perhaps billions of people will die. We don't have the mortality models for that kind of event."
Everyone at the table turned to look at Jenkins. He stirred his coffee before taking a sip. "This is not that different than some of the biowar scenarios. The ugly ones, where one side decides to preempt a conventional war and decides to roll the dice on a surprise first strike with biological weapons." He set his cup back into the saucer. "We have models for just this kind of thing, using human viruses -" he pointed at Simmons of the CDC "- or viruses that attack crops and livestock -" he shifted his bony finger to point at Harrison of the USDA "- or both at once. The fact is, after an infection event similar to what we're facing with the Arrivals, the human population drops below to extinction levels. I had the numbers run again yesterday, after I got Dr. Ventor's reports."
The silence returned.
"So... what do we do with them?" Khovalin asked. "Send them back through?"
"Not possible," Nakimura said, "at least not any time soon. The portal is still only one-way. We're working on it, but so far, we can't even shut it off."
"If we can't send them back, then we have to keep them isolated," Simmons said, "all five thousand of them. Keep them all in a BioSafety Level 4 containment facility, same as we'd use for ebola or smallpox. It's our only option."
General Sommerville cleared his throat.
"Well..." he said, "that's not our ONLY option."
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