Erika liked to think of herself as a gene artist. That was how she kept the despair at bay in the claustrophobic bunker deep under the ground. She had never stood on the earth’s surface; neither had her mother, grandmother, or many generations before them.
Instead, she worked to keep the gene pool viable in the small population here. She carefully designed each new baby and recorded their genome in the computer for future geneticists to reference. In her lifetime she had added two generations to the records. Current estimates were that short trips to the surface may finally be possible in three years. She might live that long—just.
She’d discovered the code in the notebooks of her predecessor when she first started working. She had relished the challenge of sequencing a genetically viable child that also contained a message for future generations. Once she knew what to look for it was time-consuming, but not complicated, to find the line in each person’s DNA that contained the message. The texts were all short—only a single sentence per person. It had taken her a year to realise that she could follow the messages down generations of a family to create a longer work. A poem. Art.
Some families’ genes contained descriptions of the world, told through the words of changing gene artists who had all felt the same despair:
The sky is just a story now.
Walls close in around us.
Hope is for the future.
We exist always in today.
Sometimes the messages were more personal and stood alone. There wasn’t space for everyone who wanted a child to have one:
I am the treasured culmination of a generation of longing.
Erika had thought about telling her replacement the secret of the code, but she hadn’t wanted to deny him the excitement of the discovery in their unchanging world. Now she spent her twilight years looking back through the records, assembling and reassembling their poems. She looked right back to the first postapocalyptic generations.
Toxicity levels on the surface were one year from dropping to safe levels when she came across the records of an early family line that had not continued. The notes said they had sacrificed their own procreation rights so another couple could have a child. Their poetry had been lost to future gene artists. There were only two generations recorded:
We are not alone in the world, I will find the others.
Latitude -41.28664, Longitude 174.77557
Erika stared at the screen and started to cry. She had never dared to believe that another outpost of humanity might exist. Every child of the bunker was raised with stories of the people who had tried to leave and died from exposure to the harsh and toxic surface world. It didn’t stop a handful trying every generation and breaking the hearts of those left behind. She could understand why someone would hide this information.
She looked up the geneticist who had left the coordinates all those generations ago and then she looked up the code of their only child. It contained the shortest message she’d ever found. So short she almost overlooked it—GAC ATG ATT ACA: Hope.
Copyright © 2019 Melanie Harding-Shaw.
Melanie Harding-Shaw is a speculative fiction writer, policy geek, and mother-of-three from Wellington, New Zealand. Her work has appeared in publications like Daily Science Fiction and The Arcanist, and she was a finalist for Best Short Story in the 2019 Sir Julius Vogel Awards. You can find her at www.melaniehardingshaw.com.