The Second Step
On the plane to Moscow I got into a conversation with an old man. This always happened to me; something about my face made people open up. It was probably a big part of what made me a good journalist, and while it could be irritating when I wanted to be left alone, in this case the distraction was welcome. I was supposed to be reading my notes, of course, but I knew that all I'd end up doing would be obsessively refreshing my newsfeed. Was the mist spreading? What were the Americans doing? What about the Chinese? Had something new happened in India? Every day I expected some idiot to blow up the world. It was why I'd asked for this assignment. One more week of trying to keep a straight face while pretending that the latest mindblowingly stupid development could be treated as serious geopolitics and I'd put a gun in my mouth and redecorate the ceiling.
"So, what brings you to Moscow?" the old man asked, his English accented but otherwise excellent.
"An interview. I'm a journalist."
"Who are you interviewing? A politician?"
"No, thank God. A group of scientists."
"Ah, about the mist?"
"Yeah, more or less. Well... I hope I can make the article about more than that."
"Good, good. I don't read the news much anymore. It's all nonsense. No offense."
"None taken. It is mostly nonsense. We just recycle press releases and try to look like we know what we're talking about."
"Then tell me, why do you keep doing it?"
There was something oddly sharp and penetrating about the old man's gaze. I hesitated.
"I don't know. I guess I keep thinking the next assignment will make a difference. Maybe if I can get a tiny bit of truth out there..."
"Do you think that's the problem? A lack of truth?"
"What, you think truth doesn't matter?"
The question came out sounding more aggressive than I'd intended.
"Ah, I must apologize for interrogating you," the old man said. "I used to be a teacher. Sometimes we slip back into old modes of speaking. I am simply curious. Do you believe that if more of the truth was known, things would change?"
"I guess that seems obvious to me."
"But think of how much is already known."
"What do you mean?"
"So many scandals. Corruption. Stupidity. Waste of resources. Policies that never worked but get continued anyway. People already know all this."
"So you think that people will just never do anything, no matter what's going on? Telling them the truth doesn't matter because they don't care? That seems awfully cynical, and that's coming from a journalist."
"No, no, you misunderstand. It is important that people know. That is the first step. But you keep repeating the first step, telling them more and more. What is the second step?"
I couldn't answer that.
I'd been to Moscow once before, years earlier, to report on the centenary of the Russian Revolution. Armed with a copy of John Reed's magnificent Ten Days that Shook the World, I'd wandered the streets in a haze, composing what I imagined would be the non-fiction piece of the year, an epic account of the past, present, and future of Moscow and how it reflected the fatal contradictions of the Soviet Union, utterly gone and yet utterly present. I poured everything I had into that essay, overwhelmed by a young man's melancholy and passion.
My editor cut it down to 500 words, most of them not mine. I published the full version on my blog, where it got fewer hits than a photo of my cat puking. That was the first of many lessons.
I left my bags at the hotel; the first meeting was scheduled for later that day. In the reception area, everyone was clustered around a television set. Apparently another ship had been lost to the mist.
"It was an American research vessel," the receptionist told me. "But it wasn't the mist. I mean, they had the new environment suits, they say they're safe. It was something in the mist. The people on the ship said they saw something moving towards them. Then they were gone. No radio contact."
I wasted a few minutes watching the news. None of the talking heads could agree as to what was going on. You could see that none of them had the slightest clue, but they were being paid to keep talking, so they just speculated. One of them suggested the Chinese had actually sabotaged the ship. Another was certain the ship was destroyed by a Russian long-range torpedo, a suggestion which drew boos from the hotel audience. An "expert" suggested it was actually the people of the Hollow Earth, who had decided the humans of the Upper World were too weak because they didn't breastfeed enough. This was treated as a serious suggestion.
There was also an actual scientist, an older Japanese man whose name I didn't catch.
"It is not useful to try to impose our own ideologies on this phenomenon," he said. "We have to approach this carefully and analytically."
"This is exactly the problem I'm talking about!" the Hollow Earth theorist shouted. "Science has failed to explain the mist! Just like it has failed to truly explain most things in the universe, except on a very superficial level. But there is a deeper truth! A kind of truth science can't understand. This is what my contact with the Theosophical Masters has revealed."
"Ridiculous," the scientist muttered.
"Now, let's not be arrogant here," the host interjected. "We should always keep an open mind."
During my first stay, I'd met a scientist in the vast, towering Main Building of Moscow State University to talk about the Soviet Union's scientific achievements and Stalinism's scientific blunders, particularly the bizarre history of Lysenkoism. Now I was back in Moscow, talking about Lysenkoism to another scientist, but our surroundings were decidedly less impressive: a lab constructed inside an old industrial facility, its equipment top-notch but its aesthetics appalling.
"Oh man, Lysenkoism. It's hard to believe something so stupid can happen. A whole branch of science taken over by a total fake just because he has political backing. Pseudoscience made law, dissent punished. It's crazy. But there's a lot of stupid stuff in the history of genetics. It just freaks people out, you know? They're willing to believe anything, so long as it fits their ideology. And when you've got leaders who are hated, whose power isn't rooted in the people, pseudoscience often benefits. Real science is always a challenge to ideology, because real science is objective. That was the basis of Marxism. But Stalinism was the opposite of that, so it needed a kind of magic, a kind of religion..."
"Nikolai, shut up, you're rambling."
I was supposed to be interviewing Nikolai, but he and Stanislav - Stas for short - seemed to function like a single organism. Their banter flowed in a constant stream, occasionally switching between two or three different languages. One moment they were making jokes based on obscure scientific principles; the next they were referencing the latest meme (a photo of a lumberjack on a boat in the mist, with the caption IN CANADA, WE CALL THIS SUNSHINE).
These two men were the founders of a radical, controversial project to study the effects of the mist and ways of averting its influence.
"You could say we both came out of the same political milieu, although that's not really that accurate," Stas explained. "Nikolai's an old-school Marxist. I'm an anarchist. When he was writing political pamphlets analyzing the class structure of modern Russia, I was fighting cops in the street."
"Yeah, in Saints Row."
"Shut up, Nikolai."
Nikolai burst out laughing.
"He did, he did fight the cops. He fought the law and the law won. The law tends to win unless you have the people on your side."
"See, we still argue about this stuff. But my point was, we actually had very different ideas, in many ways. We argued day and night, even before we were dating."
I asked them how they met. I was interested in their project, but the article I'd pitched wasn't just about their work, it was about everything that surrounded the project as well.
"Oh, it was on a dating site for queer radical Russian geneticists," Nikolai said with a grin. "It was just me and him. We were the only users."
"But it's true!"
"It's not true. We actually met at a protest against cuts to science funding. Nikolai was handing out pamphlets."
"Stas was playing Saints Row on mobile."
"Shut up, Nikolai."
"Do you think your identities played a part in your politics? In starting this project?" I asked them, knowing this stuff was always popular with our readers and feeling dirty for thinking that.
"Eh, not really, not for me," Nikolai said. "I come from a family of labour organizers. Like Stas said, we're pretty old-school Marxists. Our guys legalized homosexuality in 1917. That's the tradition I come from."
"My family was pretty conservative, though," Stas said. "They were not so happy when I came out. But they take their Christianity pretty seriously, so they still loved me, even though they thought I was a sinner. That's not the origin of my politics, though, and I want that to be clear. I'm an anarchist because I question the idea of the state. You can write about me as a scientist or an anarchist or both, but please don't write about me as the gay dude who happens to do science."
I apologized for becoming too personal.
"No, that's not it. I can talk to you about queerness in Russia for several days, if you want to. Tell you all my personal experiences. But what the hell does it matter? We're doing what we're doing because it's the right thing, and because humanity is facing a serious threat, not because I'm pissed off about some reactionaries not liking who I sleep with."
"I get that, I do," I said. "Not trying to reduce you to your sexuality. Just trying to get the bigger picture. So let's get away from the personal stuff and talk about how you started this project. I think, Nikolai, you were the first to suggest it?"
"Well, I was at a conference in Rome, in the very early days of the mist. I was talking to a group of fellow scientists who wanted to study the mist, but the whole thing was being treated as a national security issue. Nobody was sharing information, everything was being done in secret. Which is the very worst way to do science, especially when you're talking about a global phenomenon. There's just so much data, so many different types of scenarios playing out simultaneously... you know the story about the blind men and the elephant? Everyone is touching a different part of the elephant, and each of them thinks what they're touching is the whole. That's our governments right now."
"The pandoravirus carries a huge genetic payload," Stas added. "It's unlike anything we've ever seen. To assume it's only capable of one behaviour is a serious mistake. This is a very, very complicated little bastard. You see that even figuring out how to filter the mist has been a huge challenge."
"So, anyway, I was at this conference. And we started getting the first reports of the mist rolling over islands and people just vanishing, walking into the sea. The official line was that it was all rumours and exaggerations, but there were videos all over the internet. That's when I suggested that maybe we needed to organize, because this was all much worse than we'd been told, and our entire system was only optimized for profit. It could deal with what was coming even less than it could deal with its own internal crises."
I asked him what he'd proposed.
"Oh, it was all much more ambitious than this," Nikolai laughed regretfully. "Claiming the scientific resources of the capitalist states and all that. But the threat of this mist was vague, and whenever someone says National Security, middle-class people get nervous."
"What happened then?"
"First I got really depressed. Every day I saw more reports that freaked me out like nothing's ever freaked me out before. Some research was leaked and it raised a thousand terrifying questions. It all seemed really hopeless. Then Stas suggested this completely crazy plan."
The crazy plan was to crowdfund an independent lab that would publish all of its results on the internet. The lab would have no national affiliation, no objective except getting to the truth.
"If the state fails to do its job, alternative structures have to be created," Stas said. "Nikolai doesn't actually agree with this, in theoretical terms, but it was better than nothing. It was a start."
The crowdfunding campaign had been successful, raising money from all over the world, allowing Stas and Nikolai to purchase the extremely expensive equipment their work would require. They decided to set up the lab inside an old industrial facility - partly because it had certain useful features, partly because it was cheap. Then they had to assemble a team.
"Most of them share our political convictions," Nikolai told me. "Except Fred, who's a libertarian. I have no idea what he's doing here, but we try not to hold his primitive ideology against him."
"Shut up, Nikolai!" an American-accented voice shouted from somewhere in the lab.
"Fred, is that aggression?" Nikolai shouted back, grinning.
Once the lab was finished, the team was ready to get to work. They only lacked one thing: a name. I asked them how they came up with the Firebird Initiative.
"Oh, it was a joke," Stas told me. "We were trying to come up with a good name, but all we could come up with was silly jokes. At one point, Nikolai was seriously trying to pitch calling ourselves the Phoenix Project, after that UN division that got shut down. Just to spite people, basically. Nikolai is a troll at heart, I'm afraid."
"It's true," Nikolai sighed.
"So we were just joking around, coming up with variations that would sound close enough to the Phoenix Project to piss certain people off, but were still somehow distinct. The firebird is a creature from Slavic mythology, and I think Nikolai picked Initiative because it reminded him of some old TV show he likes. At first we just used it internally, on our server and so on, but eventually we got so used to it that we decided to just go with it. And then we got Vlad to do this awesome logo, and here we are."
With the basics covered, it was now time to ask them about the major controversy surrounding the Initiative. Although the atmosphere was pleasant and I was enjoying the interview, I wanted to be careful in broaching this subject.
"So... about your sources. I don't want to sound judgemental. I'm just curious as to what you can tell me."
Nikolai and Stas exchanged a telling look.
"We have a variety of sources in the scientific community," Stas said neutrally. "If someone wishes to share information with us, they do so. We don't contact anyone, we don't go looking for info. We're just open to input."
"Can you comment on the accusation that you're working with classified materials that were leaked by insiders?"
"We can't. We wouldn't know. Like Stas said, we're just open to input. I'm sure it's all perfectly legal," Nikolai said. I could see the shadow of a grin in the corners of his mouth.
"After all," Stas added, "it's not technically illegal to research the mist, or the pandoravirus. All the information is anyway out there, floating around in the mist. We could be obtaining our data in any number of ways."
"Even data that could only come from the middle of the ocean?"
"Some of my best friends are sailors," Nikolai quipped.
Despite their jokes, the truth was that the Firebird Initiative had attracted a great deal of anger and controversy. They were accused of recklessness, of spying, of encouraging leaks, of publishing information that could be useful to terrorists. Even their groundbreaking study of the impact of the pandoravirus on phytoplankton was overshadowed by the fact that they'd used a proprietary algorithm owned by an Australian military-affiliated research firm. A prominent Australian politician had denounced them as "degenerate Russian traitors." Nikolai had changed his social media username to DegenerateRussianTraitor002 and was using a photo of said politician as an avatar.
"Doesn't this worry you?" I asked them. "Whistleblowers and dissenters haven't exactly fared well, historically speaking."
"The ruling class doesn't scare me," Stas said seriously. "They're a threat, but I understand them. They are a very obvious function of the system. Even Fred can agree with that."
Something about his face made me think there was more to this. He wasn't afraid of the ruling class, but he was afraid of something.
Stas hesitated. He looked at Nikolai for confirmation. Nikolai nodded.
"We've been getting threats. A lot of them. Have a look at this."
He took his tablet, opened the email app, and handed it to me. There was a folder called Death Threats. It contained almost a thousand emails. Most of them were in all caps, with titles such as TRAITORS TO NATURE WILL DIE and STOP PLAYING GOD.
"Go ahead, read some."
"You are the ENEMIES OF NATURE," the first one began. "Tampering with the secrets that humans are NOT SUPPOSED to know. Why do you think the genomes are so well HIDDEN? WE WERE NOT MEANT TO DO THIS. What makes you think you can change what NATURE created? She is your MOTHER and you should OBEY your mother or it will not end well for you."
That was one of the harmless ones. The next one contained graphic descriptions of how those who wanted to poison the world with genetics and chemicals should be tortured and put to death. The one after that just stated plainly and openly that every member of the Firebird Initiative should be killed for interfering with God's plan.
"It started with the emails, and at first we didn't take it seriously," Stas said. "Most people who work in genetics have encountered this kind of reaction. People find it incredibly upsetting to be forced to face the material reality of their bodies. Even the thought that they have DNA and that DNA could be affected is deeply frightening to them."
"The shit really hit the fan when we published our results from exposing human stem cells to the virus," Nikolai added, his grin now gone. "Suddenly we were public enemy number one."
That particular bit of research was still being studied by the international community, but the insights it offered were potentially revolutionary. The way the virus had hijacked cellular processes, its ability to reorder and recombine DNA in a similar way to acutely transforming retroviruses - these and other facts, which were beyond my limited understanding of genetics, were a real step forward in understanding the strange ecological disaster that was playing out in our oceans.
"I nearly fell out of my chair when I saw those results," Nikolai told me, looking genuinely nervous. "What is this thing? Where did it come from? To be honest, it looks designed, but I'm not sure any country on this planet has the tech to create something like this. I hear all these people saying it's a bioweapon, and yeah, it looks like one, but I don't think we made it."
The idea that we were dealing with an extraterrestrial phenomenon of some kind had been raised more than once, but it was still considered a fringe idea.
"Well, you know, it doesn't help that the news are filled with these crazy people claiming it's all the Martians or the Hollow Earth goblins or something," Stas said, unable to keep the frustration out of his voice. "I mean, they're everywhere. All these frauds promising people easy answers, and they're treated like they have something worth saying, but we're borderline terrorists. Or enemies of nature, whatever that is supposed to mean."
The death threats were becoming entirely too real. Only last week, someone had torched Nikolai's car. They couldn't be sure it was related to the emails, of course, but it seemed likely. Two days before I arrived, several windows in the lab had been smashed with rocks, and someone had tried to pry open the door.
"What I can't understand is the hate," Stas told me tiredly. "The politicians oppose us because they think everything is a power play and we're disrupting their schemes. I get that. But these people, they hate us viscerally. They treat us like a threat to the purity of existence. Even coming out to my family scared me less."
"You know, at least a third of these emails say that even if the mist wipes out humanity, that would be a good thing. I mean, we've heard some weird stuff. We had an offer to sell our research to Vanadium, you know, the arms dealers. We had a crazy religious group that wanted to know how to control the virus to achieve transcendence. Hell, we even got a donation, a pretty massive donation in cryptocurrency that I swear to God came from some part of the Phoenix Project. I'm sure of it, although Stas doesn't believe me. Anyway, my point is, the world is strange and we're doing strange things, but nothing freaks me out like someone who has lost touch with their humanity so much that they would actually embrace the end of civilization. You know, me and a capitalist, we have something in common: we want to keep building, keep expanding. We disagree about the system, we disagree about inequality, but we want humanity to keep growing. These people... how can you hate humanity so much? How can you glorify Nature but not see the most wonderful thing Nature has ever produced? Oh, hold on. It's sandwich time!"
A door opened behind me and another member of the team came in, carrying sandwiches for everyone. The interview was over. We had another session scheduled for the next day, but somehow I knew that we couldn't regain the intensity and openness we'd had. There's something special about the first time you talk to someone, when you really get into it.
Soon we were distracted, arguing about favourite movies and whether post-Waters Pink Floyd albums were any good. The sandwiches were excellent.
I was sitting in the hotel room, working on my first draft of the story, when I saw the news about the explosion. A homemade bomb had gone off just outside the lab as the team was leaving the building at the end of the day. An ecoterrorist group claimed responsibility, announcing they had saved the planet from another human-manufactured threat. True salvation, however, would only come when humans renounced the sickness of technology and embraced a more natural existence. The text went on, but I didn't read the rest.
I visited Stas and Nikolai in the hospital. Not as a journalist, just as a person. Stas had extensive second-degree burns, but would be more or less OK in time. Nikolai had been permanently blinded, his right eyeball completely destroyed by shrapnel. He was lucky to be alive. I was there when he woke up and they told him what had happened.
"It was a bomb?" he whispered.
"Somebody tell those idiots," he coughed, "that a bomb is also technology."
It was funny, but I found myself crying.
Days later, I still hadn't gone back. On the news, they were talking about the mist moving inland, coastal cities being evacuated, thousands of people being seen walking off into the sea. I only half-listened. I hadn't finished writing my article. I didn't know what the point was anymore. I kept thinking of what the old man on the plane had asked me. What is the second step?
Stas and Nikolai were still in the hospital. Two others, Vlad and Natalia, had died of their injuries. The Firebird Initiative was on hold, maybe forever. But others were still out there, still trying to find solutions, still willing to fight for humanity, even those parts of humanity that hated them.
What is the second step?
On the TV, the talking heads kept arguing about which country was the best and which was the worst. Increasingly, they sounded like children. Lost children, mean children, confused children - anything but the adults they pretended to be. A photo of the mist swelling around the Statue of Liberty caught my eye. It was like something out of a kitschy old disaster movie, but at the same time it was poignant, it was real, because that statue had once represented something much bigger than any one nation. It had represented the hope of revolutionaries all across the world: that human beings could seize control of their destiny, could wrest the reins away from the cruelty of Mother Nature and build a society that valued growth and freedom and hope. From America to France to Russia, people had fought and died for that idea. In every part of the world, people had given their lives for the idea that humanity should keep going - whether the engine of progress was capitalism or communism, the point was that they had believed in our capacity to grow.
The statue vanished in the mist. Would the mist reach Moscow, too? I wasn't from here, but I was human, and this city was mine as much as anyone's. I remembered the walks I'd taken the first time I was here. The monuments, the places where people had fought. The awful things that had happened in this city. The wonderful things people had reached for.
What is the second step?
I walked out into the streets of Moscow to find out.