I ran into my good friend Dr Alastair Cameron-Strange the other day in Edinburgh’s New Club and we stopped for a right good blether. He told me about this strange dream he’d had. It was a dream about his last day at work as an emergency physician, putatively thirty-five years hence. “Actually, Jimmy, it was more of a nightmare” – and he described it at some length. I’ve tried to reconstruct the narrative as best as my memory will allow.
Midsummer’s Night saw the close of the last day in harness for Emeritus Professor Lord Cameron-Strange, of Trotternish and Te Paki, OM, CH. As increasingly had become his custom, he had taken a stroll from his highland fastness to a remote copse – the magnificent carpet of bluebells had wilted by now – and the remains of an ancient broch of the Iron Age. Here within the dilapidated rubble of the double stone walls he would sit; here he would forget for a time the cares of the world, count his blessings, and mutter a prayer of thankfulness for that which he had. Ich habe genug. Sometimes, if he forgot to switch off his mobile, he would get a call.
“Alastair where are you?”
“I am at broch.”
And his colleagues would know, save in dire emergency, not to disturb him. Well, it was twenty minutes to midnight. Surely they wouldn’t call him now. He leaned back against the antiquated, mossy dyke, and glanced up at the green canopy over his head. It was warm and close. There was a sultry heaviness in the air. From a distance, he imagined he heard a low rumble of thunder. Soon there would be a deluge. He glanced now at his phone – a new one, very smart – and he reflected on the events of this his last day, a day which had turned out be so unusual.
He had hoped to spend the morning in the emergency department at Little France, clearing his desk, prior to a convivial luncheon, courtesy of Boeringer Ingelheim, during which friends and colleagues, and perhaps a few enemies, would slap his back, say a few kind words, and wish him, hopefully, a long and happy retirement. But it was not to be. He got the call from Whitehall, and after all, up until midnight he was still N-MASS, the National Medical Advisor to the Security Services. He said, with frank irritation, “Can’t the next guy deal with it, whatever it is? Can’t it wait?”
Apparently, it couldn’t wait.
Abject apologies to his colleagues, a wistful glance at the white table cloth, bedecked with finger-foods, sandwiches and sausage rolls, then another hair-raising ride on HS3, gazing morosely out at the green blur of Lincolnshire. What did they want of him? Probably nothing at all. It would just be another manifestation of the profoundly British obsession with form and process. The Ship of State was becalmed in the doldrums, and happy to be so. It was only when the Ship of State felt herself to be under threat, that she could be seen to mobilise with frightening rapidity.
Three hours later he was in the committee room of the anonymous building off Storey’s Gate, staring resentfully at the other twelve members of the Witanagemot. It occurred to him that none of the original members of this committee, as it was constituted when he had first been seconded, still sat. He had seen them all out. And he had never been a committee man. Fancy that!
Syrinx, in the chair, called the meeting to order. “Professor! Thank you for your prompt attendance. Another chance for us to wish you well, now that you are hanging up the stethoscope. We have had a long and fruitful association, have we not?”
“Roller coaster ride for us both I think.”
“How will you spend your time?”
“Lots of aviation, for as long as the eyesight and hearing hold out.”
“Where will you base yourself?”
“Ah! Of course. Your southern bolthole. Well I’m sure we all envy you that.”
“Syrinx. You haven’t summoned me here just to give me another golden handshake.”
“Of course you are right. We would like you to undertake one final task on behalf of HMG. It is not an onerous task, and it certainly won’t be time-consuming. Actually it’s largely ceremonial. It will only take a second. Literally. A leap second. You are aware that the masters of the universe are adding an extra second on at midnight? Something to do with the music of the spheres. Don’t ask me. I did Greats at Oxford. But I gather we need to keep the majestic clockwork in kilter.”
“I think I saw something in the papers.”
“Splendid! Anyway, that is when we would like you to carry out the ceremony.”
“First we must set the scene. Serendip?”
The Permanent Undersecretary, a slim young man with aquiline features and rimless spectacles, cleared his throat and clasped his hands on the table. He spoke fluently, without notes.
“So. The world is facing a combination of challenges that increasingly look to be insurmountable. We are all aware of them. For at least forty years the international community has been cognisant of half a dozen disparate threats, and has done its best to combat them. What we have perhaps been slow to recognise is the synergistic effects of these threats one upon another. The entire threat to humanity is greater – logarithmically greater – than the sum of the parts. All the indications are that we have reached a tipping point, un point d’appui if you will, beyond which further attempts to ameliorate a deteriorating situation are, frankly, futile. This inescapable fact has been brought into sharp relief this morning by the news that the Secretary General of the United Nations, Ms Thunberg, has resigned.”
“I’m very sorry to hear that.”
“It need hardly surprise you that the critical factor for her, inter alia, has been the sustained rise in average global temperatures by four degrees Celsius. The opening up of Antarctica to mining and other industrial activity, combined with the exploitation of the North-West passage by shipping, has made it a mathematical certainty that the entire ice pack of Antarctica and Greenland will calve, migrate, and then melt, resulting in a global rise in sea level of approximately 100 metres. The map of the world will be redrawn, and it will be unrecognisable.
“This will of necessity lead to our next challenge – the mass migrations of peoples. A generation ago we were concerned about attempts by, perhaps, one hundred people daily, to cross from North Africa and the Middle East to Europe. We now face the prospect of hundreds of millions of people on the move in search of higher ground. It is hardly surprising that there has been a hardening in attitude, even, or perhaps especially, in the liberal democracies of the west toward both economic migrants and seekers of asylum. Barriers are going up. Walls are being built.
“With the emphasis on defence and security, the attempt to rid the world of nuclear weapons has long been abandoned. The nuclear club, which for a considerable period of time was an exclusive club of nine, now has fifty six members. The nuclear stockpile has quadrupled, and the hardware has become more sophisticated, and deadlier.
“Now that the Amazonian rain forest has ceased to exist, the systematic extermination by Homo sapiens of every other species on the planet has caused crucial disruptions in the food chain which means that food security for even the wealthiest nations can no longer be guaranteed. The oceans are acidic, and fish stocks are rapidly dwindling.
“The deficit loss in the phenomenon of photosynthesis has now become measurable. The partial pressure of oxygen in the atmosphere at sea level has fallen below 150 mmHg, and the content of carbon dioxide has risen to 0.05%, which may sound low, but has resulted in a measurable increase in the respiratory rate for all of us.
“The regular appearance of new viruses with which our immune systems cannot cope, and their equally regular and sometimes rampant evolution to combat our attempts to find effective vaccines, is an ever increasing threat. In addition, bacteria have rediscovered the virulence they enjoyed during the middle ages, and there is no longer any antibiotic molecule on the market which does not encounter fierce resistance.
“So… Syrinx, have I left anything out?”
“Serendip, you have left out the elephant in the room, the mastodon in the auditorium.”
“Overpopulation. We have topped the twelve billion mark. Gentlemen, we just cannot go on like this. You see where this is going. Professor?”
“Spell it out for me.”
“You must know that there is going to be a cull.”
“Professor. You know, don’t you, that there is going to be a cull.”
“The critical point to apprehend is that all of the crises enumerated, all of them, are man-made. Therefore if we are to find a solution to the predicament in which we find ourselves, we must look to ourselves. In short, gentlemen, we are the problem. That is why we have taken the executive decision to diminish the human population of the world through an humane and beneficent agency, rather than passively sit back and await the inevitable carnage that must result from inertia and inactivity. When the deed is done, the Prime Minister will address the nation from the podium outside No 10, and she will explain that difficult decisions have had to be taken.”
Alastair Cameron-Strange asked, “This cull, how is it to be brought about?”
“Hmm. Covid45 afforded us a great opportunity. Here was a resurgence of the Black Death. Who would not wish to be protected? When a viable vaccine became available, who would not wish to avail himself of it? The mass vaccination programme organised by the WHO and financed by some of the world’s great philanthropists brought about an uptake that far exceeded the projections of our scientific advisors. It gave us the opportunity to implant CHERF into specified subclasses of the human organism.”
“Compound haptoglobin euthanasia receptor factor. A switch, as it were, which, when activated, will bring about a peaceful and painless demise.”
“Specified subclasses? You have preordained the cull population. I wonder, what were your criteria?”
“We used an Australian points system. Points for, points against. We used SPLURGE. It’s a very sophisticated algorithm. What does the world need? Esprit de corps. Zealotry of the highest mould. What must the world delete? Feeblemindedness, lack of moral fibre.”
“How is CHERF activated?”
“There is an App.”
“Normally, I find invocation of the spectre of the Führer seldom to be helpful in contemporary public and political discourse, but I must say, Herr Hitler would have been proud of you.”
“Now look here, Professor, there’s no point in being sentimental about this. If we don’t act now, we have to face the possibility that the planet will become such a toxic and inhospitable environment, that our species might not even survive this century. We risk extinction.”
“How many people do you propose to cull?”
“10% of the population.”
“In the first tranche.”
“You envisage further tranches.”
“Computer models have indicated an optimal world population.”
“What is this optimum?”
“Again, 1.2 billion. “
“You intend to exterminate 90% of us.”
“I think exterminate is rather an emotive word.”
“It certainly is. Why are you telling me this?”
“Because, Lord Cameron-Strange, you are to be afforded a rare and signal honour. We wish you to activate the App.”
“I see. Why me?”
“Because it is very important that politicians, and the military, be seen to be removed from the process. The Cull is not an act of aggression. On the contrary, the Cull is a public health initiative. Its implementation must be seen to be firmly in the hands of the medics. You, Lord Cameron-Strange, if I may make so bold, are now recognised – at least by those with access to the corridors of power – as the greatest medico on the planet. Oh no – no false modesty, please. It is simply a fact. People will accept the necessity to carry this out, if it comes from you.”
“Have you run this by the legislatures of the world’s 209 states?”
“That has not been deemed necessary. Of course the Security Council of the UN is fully apprised. But the logistics of this undertaking have been largely taken on by Big Pharma and the Great Tech Giants. They greatly value your input.”
“I am like the athlete who carries the Olympic flag.”
“Or perhaps, who lights the eternal Olympic flame.”
“Even more apposite.”
“And how do I carry out this task?”
“Very simply. Here is a mobile phone.”
It slithered across the mahogany board room table.
“And here is a telephone number.” Written on something resembling a credit card. “You send a text to the number. ‘Activate CHERF’. And press ‘send’ precisely at midnight, which will be the inauguration of the leap second. Simple!”
At this point, the thought processes of Alastair Cameron-Strange were moving rapidly. Look squeamish, declare any scruples now, and I will never leave this building alive. Buy time.
“I have a return train ticket this evening to Bella Caledonia. May I perform this duty from home?”
“Actually we would prefer it. Go up to Scotland by all means. We would prefer this initiative not to emanate from London. Too much colonial baggage.”
“I see. Well, gentlemen, that seems clear enough. Thank you for such a frank briefing.”
“That’s the spirit. We knew we could count on you. A long and happy retirement!”
And now, here he was, at broch. It was 11.45, yet, despite the growing heaviness of the atmosphere, not yet completely dark. There was another grumble of thunder, nearer this time. The torrential downpour could only be minutes away, and the leafy canopy overhanging the ancient Iron Age dwelling afforded scant shelter. Still, he was glad to be here, at the end of the world.
He took out his newly acquired phone. Well, it was a phone, like any other phone. Why not make a call? He tapped in the number.
“Caitlin. Where are you?”
“Yes Ally, that KL.”
“What are you doing there?”
“Lying on a beach. But not for long. Back to the airport this afternoon. And back in London tomorrow. The LSO beckons. Where are you?”
“I am at broch.”
“You’re always at broch.”
“Caitlin listen to me. Will you do something for me without asking me why? Don’t fly to London. Are you carrying your NZ passport?”
“Get on the first plane to Auckland. When you get there, hire a car and drive up to Ninety Mile Beach. Don’t stop on the way. Stay in the bach. If you need to quarantine, the Whanau will keep you in supplies. Got it?”
“Something’s come up, then?”
“Are you coming too?”
“As soon as I can.”
“When will that be?”
“You’re not coming, are you?”
“Caitlin, I can’t explain. But promise me you will do this thing.”
“I promise.” That was the great thing about Caitlin. She was every bit as crazy as ACS.
“Love you.” He quit the call.
Five minutes to midnight. Alastair Cameron Strange carefully removed the SIM card from the mobile. He dug a hole in the soft loam and buried it deep. Then he sat back against the stones of the broch’s inner wall and watched as the digital display of the phone crept towards midnight. There was a loud crack of thunder directly overhead. And the first few heavy drops of rain. Impassively, he watched the clock.
Five four three two one
Precisely at midnight the pulse of lightning was as brief as the flash of a camera. In that split second he saw them. The bronzed, woded, men, women and children, half naked, in tattered scraps of animal skin, sat with him in a circle round the confines of the broch, watching, waiting.