Published by Mohylla at Shakespir
Copyright 2015 by Mohylla
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Table of Contents
“Mom, I’m done my homework. I’m going to play on the computer now,” Ryan told his mother.
Ryan’s mom, Eva, was busy in the kitchen preparing his supper—her evening lunch—during her brief, one hour respite from her job. She worked the swing shift as a nurse at the Bradford County Hospital, a job and shift that she’d chosen over others that paid better because the compensation she desired was proximity—the hospital was but a few miles from home. It allowed her to see her son awake every evening.
“What are you playing?” It was the voice of a Mother.
“Same thing as yesterday,” Ryan assured her with the oblique response of a teenager who yearned for privacy and independence.
“The building game?” Eva pushed him gently.
“Doesn’t it ever get old?”
“No. I’m on a new level now.”
Eva shrugged. Like all electronic games she’d ever played the succession of levels was endless. In her youth it was challenging and exciting; as an adult she found it tedious.
She shrugged again with acceptance. It was better that her son played at home on a computer than be involved in something worse—like loitering with the street thugs or getting stoned with other latchkey kids. It had been only a few months since he had withdrawn from a crowd that had her full disapproval.
“It’s not too violent?” She hoped.
Ryan did not look away from the screen to answer, “Not at all Mom. None of the levels are.”
The corners of Eva’s lips curled down. It was not surprising that Ryan’s attention wasn’t diverted from the screen but it was curious that he was absorbed by a game more intellectual than macho.
Ryan was intelligent, she knew, but since her divorce three years earlier his interest for either school work or vocational training had flagged. Privately, she worried that his lack of motivation was partly her fault, and the neglect he must have felt during long hours she worked outside the home. Darkly, she blamed the vacuum of disinterest entirely on his Father’s near-complete absence since she’d won custody.
Across the board Ryan’s school grades were poor. On his most recent report card two classes were in failing status and those that were passing were precariously positioned a decimal or two above the margin.
Not surprisingly, her expectations were reduced. Ryan was certain that he no longer wanted to attend college. She merely hoped he’d graduate on time.
“What is it then?” She massaged her voice into a non-confrontational tone as she casually approached the doorway to his bedroom. She wanted a direct observation. Too often her motherly questioning led to senseless arguments.
The scene was benign.
Ryan was hunched over a miniature computer desk punching the worn keyboard on his obsolete laptop. He had propped the display against a pile of textbooks to keep it open because the screen hinges were cracked. A rainbow-edged blotch disfigured the bottom of the display. He had to scroll his pages above the scar to properly read them. Fortunately for her, he didn’t seem to care.
Eva was not so cavalier.
She winced in sight of the decrepit electronics he had to use. Yet in their dilapidation there was comfort—the processor was far too deficient for him to conjure games she thought intensive or dangerous. Neither could he effectively peruse any one of the myriad websites of dubious morality.
“This one has a 3D puzzle to fit,” Ryan answered, cheerfully oblivious to the shortcomings of his platform. “See, I’m trying to find a way to make these five pieces fit together into the most stable arrangement.”
“The what?” Eva relaxed. It was certainly not a violent game.
“The pieces. They have energy fields and you just can’t fit them together the way you think they should. They wiggle and twist and crawl around and you have to spin and rotate and stretch them to make them behave better.”
Behave better? Eva wondered. It was an odd expression he’d never before used. She wanted to delve deeper on the origin of his strange terminology but instead she asked, “How do you know when you do it right?” preferring to know exactly why this game had piqued his interest.
“There’s a score.”
“That computer is not that powerful,” she challenged airily.
“No, not this old piece of junk,” he said with some disgust. “I connect through the cloud to the university. A computer there does all the intensive stuff. This one’s just a slave.”
“Oh.” Eva began to worry again.
“When I’m done they test my design,” Ryan offered. His tongue had loosened.
“They?” Eva uttered and immediately bit her own. She was prodding and he might clam up.
Ryan ignored her slip.
“The University. I submit my model and their computer sends me back my score.”
“That must take awhile,” Eva commiserated.
“No, not at all. It usually only takes a few minutes,” Ryan answered, “unless a lot of people are playing. Then it could be several hours.”
“Is that all?” The impersonal interaction of electronic communication was new to her and she felt oddly out of touch.
“No”—Ryan misunderstood her question—“the University sends me the test file. It shows the model being hit by all sorts of things.”
“Like laser beams and gamma rays and other stuff. It’s pretty cool.”
“Oh,” again Ryan’s interest surprised Eva, “that sounds serious. Doesn’t a”—she felt too ignorant to talk about gamma rays—“laser destroy things?”
“At first my designs were all demolished,” Ryan admitted, “but that doesn’t happen very much anymore. I’ve figured out some basic shapes that shield my assembly against radiation damage.”
It was too much information for Eva. “TMI.” She smiled in retreat. “Come on and eat with me. I’ve got to get back to work soon.”
“Okay Mom, just a minute.”
“Sure, but I’m going to have to start without you.” She sighed ever so slightly, knowing he probably wouldn’t make it out of his room before she was done eating. “Don’t stay up too late tonight playing.”
“In the past month Ryan has become a serious student of Chemistry.” Ryan’s 11th Grade Science teacher, Mr. Farrell, surprised Eva with the admission.
Her face showed her disbelief.
“He’s totally engaged.” Farrell beamed. “I can’t begin to tell you how refreshing it is to see. What is responsible for his sudden shift?”
“I didn’t know he was,” Eva replied brusquely. Although Farrell’s news was a breath of fresh air, she expected that the usual negative discourse would follow—a “professionally” controlled critique denouncing her son’s substandard performance and an admonition of ‘how he was capable of so much more.’
Mr. Farrell’s eyebrows arched in question. “His grades don’t reflect his recent progress.”
Eva unbent a fraction and smiled wistfully.
“Not yet, but in time they will,” Mr. Farrell assured. Then his face hardened slightly. “Frankly, Ryan’s behind in his Chemistry.”
Here it comes, thought Eva. She steeled herself to ignore the barrage of criticism that she feared would come next—criticisms about Ryan’s bad habits and attitude and its unsubtle indictment on her parenting.
Mr. Farrell had no such intention. Instead he stuck to the uncomfortable facts.
“Recently, Ryan has turned in several outstanding assignments. As they were all late he lost points”—he looked across the desk at Eva—“that he would otherwise have earned. If he continues this quality of work and hands it in on time, he will move up a letter grade by the end of the month.”
Eva wanted to ask for forbearance but stopped short.
“Still, it’s a vast improvement.” Farrell continued. “Earlier this year his work was both substandard and tardy. He dug himself a pretty deep hole.”
Eva fidgeted on her seat. Farrell’s criticism was going too far.
Mr. Farrell’s rhetoric softened again. “Don’t worry. Ryan has a knack for lab-work that even the A-level students lack.”
Could it be the game? Eva suddenly wondered though she was too annoyed to ask.
“The rest will come in due time.” Mr. Farrell finished.
With his smidgen of a compliment, Eva regained her composure. “What do you mean by—” she determined to keep the subject positive, “—a knack?”
Mr. Farrell hesitated and Eva braced herself again.
“Lab-work is as much an Art as it is a Science,” Mr. Farrell answered.
Eva relaxed. There would not be another rant.
“It’s not just following a recipe,” Mr. Farrell pontificated. “There’s sample prep, methodology, and execution. Choices have to be made, when and how to mix or rinse, how much heat to apply and how evenly, or when to quench a reaction. Ryan suddenly seems to just ‘get it.’ His results are excellent and his recent lab reports are superior. Frankly—“ Farrell’s eyes twinkled ”—I think the A students are a bit jealous.”
Eva beamed with pride.
“Can you shed some light on his recent change of attitude?” Mr. Farrell queried rhetorically. “I’d like to bottle it and sell it to other parents.” He grimaced at the irony.
“Perhaps he’s considering his future?” Eva tendered.
“Yes,” Mr. Farrell agreed, “but that awakening usually happens to students in their senior year. Ryan’s only halfway through junior—”he mumbled something unintelligibly “—but yes, perhaps he’s realized that he needs to prepare for his future.”
Eva bristled. She didn’t need the teacher to lecture her or judge her on her marital status. “He’s a smart young man.”
“I’ve always thought so.” Farrell’s face flushed red. “That’s why I’m so pleased to see him finally reaching out toward his potential. Those who start early usually have the most success.”
That was a first, thought Eva. Mr. Farrell wasn’t judging her. He really did want the best for her son. “Thanks.” She smiled widely. “He speaks highly of you.”
Mr. Farrell’s face showed nothing. It was a vacuous compliment that he’d heard countless times before. He ignored it as easily as he tolerated the unwarranted criticism from entitled parents who demanded special consideration for their children.
“Encourage him,” Farrell suggested, “at his age teens crave positive reinforcement.” Farrell chuckled. “Well, they need it at all ages but at this time in particular, as they have to think about braving the world on their own, they need to know that they’re succeeding and that they’re capable of succeeding.”
“Yes, I know.”
“But don’t make it obvious,” Farrell warned, “that might have the opposite effect.”
“How do I encourage him without being obvious?” Eva asked. “I’m his mother.”
“You know your son better than I do,” Mr. Farrell answered. “Why don’t you talk to the career counselor? She is a child psychologist.”
“Are you say—“ Eva’s hackles started rising; she didn’t want to hear that her son needed professional help, she needed answers.
“I’m saying I’m not,” Mr. Farrell said reasonably.
“—oh!” Eva withdrew, but then she waved her hand in frustration.
“I’ve tried several times to see her,” she complained, “but she’s always booked. I don’t have much free time, I work swing shift and I can’t afford to take time off after school. I need my job.”
“It’s all about who you know,” Mr. Farrell said with a smile. “Let me know exactly when you can make an appointment and I’ll make sure you get one. I don’t want to see Ryan lose his momentum.”
“Yes, I will. Thank you very much.”
“Not at all.”
The interview was over but Eva was slow to leave. She wanted Farrell’s opinion of the game Ryan was playing.
“Is there a question?” Mr. Farrell read her intent.
She hovered with indecision; neither did she want Farrell involved in their affairs.
“Uh…” she reasoned that this matter was somehow related to school. She needed to know more.
She committed, “Have you heard of the game he’s been playing?”
“Thanks for your time,” Eva thanked the School Counselor.
“Not at all, you’re welcome to come in at any time,” the Counselor replied with a smile.
“I will.” Eva rifled through her purse for her car keys. As usual, they had settled to the bottom of the bag. She struggled to retrieve them from beneath her personal effects without revealing the intimate details of her life. They were stubbornly hidden.
The Counselor stood and waited, still smiling.
Eva turned to leave. The keys would have to wait.
There was a knock at the door.
“Come in,” said the Counselor.
Eva’s anxiety surged. Mr. Farrell was at the door.
“Oh good, you’re still here,” Farrell said to Eva. “I’m glad I caught you before you left. I’ve followed up on your question about that on-line game Ryan plays.”
“You’re just in time,” the Counselor chimed in. Her face beamed in revelation. She had a sweet spot for Ryan’s Chemistry teacher.
Farrell gave Eva an all-knowing ‘told you it was who you know’ look. He might have winked but he didn’t wish to kindle his sweetheart’s jealousies.
“I talked to a Professor Jankowiak at the University,” Farrell began, “and it was most illuminating.”
“Yes?” Eva was immediately interested.
“First, let me say that I think you have nothing to worry about,” Mr. Farrell said soothingly but when he noticed Eva’s expression turn dubious, he followed quickly, “but, of course, that’s your decision to make.”
Eva nodded. It was her decision to make.
“It seems that Jankowiak is pursuing the study of Group Think,“ Farrell explained. “He has the notion that there is a remarkable intelligence in collective thought and behavior.”
Group Think, what’s that? Eva wanted to interrupt.
“He thinks it can be harnessed in a predictive way.”
Eva’s eyes started to glaze.
“Jankowiak constructs games that challenge the players to find solutions to problems”—Farrell looked at Eva with quizzical eyes—“in chemistry and biology.”
“What?” Eva was puzzled.
Mr. Farrell beamed. “Perhaps that explains Ryan’s sudden interest in Chemistry.”
“Ryan’s only in high school,” Eva blustered. “How can he contribute at a college level when he’s barely pas—?”
“I asked that of the professor,” Farrell cut her off. “He answered with a story.”
Eva started to argue again but stopped when Mr. Farrell put up his hand.
“Apparently, at the London Fair in the late 19th Century a radical experiment was performed. Fair-goers were asked to guess the weight of a ox.”
“An ox?” Eva had to say something.
“Yes, an ox. Anyone who wanted to participate, learned or not, was encouraged to submit an entry and, this is the radical part—everybody’s entry was tallied.”
“So?” Farrell eye’s begged her to let him speak. “Entries came from the educated class, as you may well suppose, but many were from farmers, housewives, sailors, and servants. As you would imagine, nearly all were wrong, and some were way off…” Farrell suddenly stopped to puzzle over a thought. “I don’t know if anyone got it exactly right. I should have asked him that.”
“Mr. Farrell,” the Counselor said sweetly. “Eva has to get ready for work sometime.”
Farrell smiled at being put back on course. “Anyway, at the end of the Fair the guesses were averaged. Most surprisingly, the collective crowd had got it right, and this is Jankowiak’s fundamental theorem, that no matter how off-base some of the guesses were the collective intelligence was spot-on.”
“I’m not following,” Eva admitted.
“It established an unique idea—that as a population we perceive correctly.”
“Is that important?”
“Yes. The experiment demonstrated that there is an intelligence in the masses. And that group think may be equivalent in accuracy to the conclusion of an expert individual or class.”
“What does it mean?”
“In this case,” Farrell replied, “it helped pave the way to granting the vote to a greater group of people.”
“That’s just politics,” Eva brushed off the implication. “Of course people have a vested interest in what affects them.” She wanted to know more about the game developer. “You say Jankowiak is a scientist?”
“Yes. He creates games that solve molecular conundrums. He presents them as animated puzzles or 3D flight simulations or conquests of territory with all the whiz-bang of a video game.” Farrell’s voice became dramatic. “Build. Destroy. Conquer!”
The Counselor rolled her eyes at Eva.
“It’s very appealing”—Farrell grinned and his voice returned to normal—“Jankowiak’s betting that the collective creativity of his players will lead to breakthroughs in complex problems too challenging for computational strategies or traditional lab work.” He smiled encouragingly at Eva, who was still having difficulty processing the idea.
“It’s like having a thousand, uniquely programmed supercomputers analyzing a problem,” Farrell rephrased, “combined with the randomness of a card game at a casino. At every stage there are unlimited starts and trajectories. If you can follow them all, somebody eventually gets it right.”
Eva’s puzzlement wasn’t shrinking.
“Maybe it’s even better,” Mr. Farrell summarized. “Jankowiak hopes so. He says that computers are decades away from being powerful enough to predict molecular properties based on structure alone.”
“And Ryan’s a part of it?” Eva held out for a shred of comprehension.
“Ryan is one of ten thousand players.”
“It’s legit and it’s working for Ryan.”
“Got it,” Eva answered, “I won’t mess it up.”
“I know you won’t,” Mr. Farrell assured her with a confidence that Eva did not dare to believe.
Ryan stared at the laptop screen, analyzing his design one last time. It had symmetry and cohesion and harmonically pulsed with a rhythm that he found mesmerizing. It was strangely beautiful—at least to his eyes.
On the floor beneath his desk were two open text books, one for introductory physics and another for introductory biochemistry, as well as a small binder that he’d printed at school. These loose-leaves came from an online encyclopedia and had information more advanced than his high school texts could offer. The math he needed to know was years beyond him but he’d also found a simplified series of equations on an MIT website that seemed to apply to what he had done. He substituted his numbers into the formulas and followed through with the algebra until he had a solution.
He checked that ledger of calculations, mostly scribbled onto the back of discarded homework handouts, for errors. A twinge of excitement grew within. Through the erasure marks and the crossed out numbers he cross-checked every line. He couldn’t find any mistakes. The result agreed with his intuition. He was making a contribution and he knew it.
The design was simple. Maybe too simple, he worried but he couldn’t conceive of a way to improve it.
Press Enter to submit your model, a dialogue box on the laptop display instructed.
It was 11 PM. His mom would be home soon and he didn’t want her to know that he’d stayed up this late. She wouldn’t approve of anything he obsessed over, no matter how educational it was, and she often disapproved of his constant game-playing.
Ryan sighed. His head was heavy with fatigue. He weighed the odds of going to bed against submitting his model. Eight AM classes were boring enough when he was well-rested… but if he didn’t follow through with his submission someone else might have the same idea and get the credit.
His credit. It wasn’t hard to decide to stay up longer in spite of the risk of being caught.
He heard a car approaching. It was probably his Mom.
He sped into action, pressing Enter and, as the model began uploading, hastily gathering his scraps of worksheets and dropping them into a disheveled stack alongside his bed. The floor was a mess but at least he had opened a path for his Mom to walk in.
The car passed by without slowing. Not Mom.
Ryan checked the laptop. It was lagging. Another car approached—the late shift was returning home—and Ryan fidgeted, hoping his submission hadn’t stalled completely. Go! Go! He urged.
The car stopped—Ryan listened acutely as a door opened—but the sounds were muffled and distant. Next door. He sighed, then he caught his breath: It was his Mom’s co-worker and sometimes she carpooled… Not today, he exhaled. Even so, his Mom wouldn’t be far behind.
Suddenly the laptop flickered and its screen flashed, Entry Accepted. Ryan’s felt a flush of excitement that made his arms tingle. He waited for the score but it seemed slow in forthcoming. He knew his Mom wasn’t far away.
He gritted his teeth and made a responsible decision. He could always slam the laptop shut now that the model was in the queue—provided there wasn’t an error… and retrieve the score in the morning. Several minutes passed by. The screen flashed repeatedly:
Please wait a moment.
A third car approached and suddenly he remembered that he was thirsty. Hurriedly, he dashed to get a glass of water, leaving the lights off in the trailer. Outside, the full moon shone brightly, bequeathing just enough light to make it to the kitchen without mishap. The car pulled into the driveway alongside their mobile home—his Mom was home—and the engine stopped. He poured a glass of water from the faucet and rushed back to bed, pulling his bedroom door shut behind him, nearly spilling his glass onto the hallway carpet.
The computer had not updated. The screen had stopped flashing. An analysis was not forthcoming.
A car door concussed shut and his Mom’s shoes scraped against the ice-encrusted walkway—he’d forgotten to salt it and shovel it clean. By this time of night it would be treacherously slick. A pang of guilt swept over him. Sorry about the sidewalk, Mom, he thought, then, fearing her wrath on a second front, he resigned, I won’t find out tonight. He snapped shut the laptop lid and slipped into bed, pulling the covers over himself to his shoulders. He shivered at the sudden cold.
As he wiggled to get warm he lifted his head off the pillow and listened. There was a new, disconcerting sound. The laptop fan had loudly spun up.
The trailer shook and rattled—Eva had opened the front door—and screeched as she forced it closed against its misshapen aluminum frame.
Most nights the inelegant sounds of living in a mobile home were embarrassing but tonight Ryan was grateful for its cover. The floor creaked cheaply beneath Eva’s movements, and he pictured her as she doffed her winter coat and then, a tin rattle from the window frames as she hung it onto a clothes-tree. The metallic complaints repeated as she removed her boots and placed them onto an entryway carpet. He hoped they were drowning out the mechanical telltale from the fan.
Then all was silent—except for the start up of a softer whirring from the hibernating laptop hard drive—and Ryan buried his head into his pillow, stifling the exasperated gasp that involuntarily hissed through his teeth. The closed bedroom door was paper thin and more of a sounding board than an acoustic barrier. He was about to get caught again.
Ryan clenched his teeth in frustration: There was no end to the noises, no results and no shoveled walkway. She would be furious. He imagined her standing in the hallway, listening with her sharp ears, taking a long, deep breath as it gradually dawned on her that her only son was probably still awake and had been irresponsible staying up playing a stupid computer game. He would probably lose the laptop for a month.
Then the laptop silenced. Everything was silent. Ryan cocked an ear, held his breath to hear better and steeled himself for a stern scolding. But Eva shuffled about the entryway, placed something heavy onto their kitchen table and sighed. She sounded lonely. “Another day,” she whispered. Her voice was weary. She hadn’t heard anything.
Ryan instantly forgot his own worries. She said that every night at the end of her shift. He pursed his lips and felt bad for her.
The hallway thumped heavily with approaching footsteps. He lay stock still, pretending to be asleep. A moment later she softly opened his door and gazed on his prostrate form. Ryan viewed her through eye slits. She was smiling. His heart warmed. She noticed the open books on the floor. Her face redressed and he nearly jumped, expecting to be roused from bed and interrogated. But the look on her face was something other than anger.
Eva was flabbergasted. Her son had not shown this kind of initiative in years. As she stood in the threshold, the befuddlement turned to relief and then to pride. Ryan’s future had turned an optimistic corner.
“Good-night, Son,” she said, “I wish I could have been here with you.”
With that benediction Eva returned to the kitchen to fix herself a snack before heading to bed. Long before the lights went out Ryan was fast asleep.
Ryan awoke very late the next morning, and only because Eva was shaking him and reminding him that he had to get to school by eight AM. He reluctantly arose and stumbled through his morning routine.
Eva knew better than to leave him be. Once Ryan was dressed she shepherded him—with his eyes half open—to the breakfast table, fed him and then launched him out the front door toward school with his backpack slung over his shoulder carrying all his school books but missing his lunch. He never had a chance to check the laptop.
Eva’s prodding was of no effect, Ryan was late for his eight AM class and spent half the period in the school’s office obtaining a late slip. The balance of the day improved little; he was groggy, he couldn’t pay attention, and he couldn’t stop thinking about his entry in the game. In every class he watched the clock and yearned for freedom and a chance to measure his score, all the while promising himself he would retire early tonight.
When at last he did get home, famished and exhausted, he passed by the kitchen and a sandwich his mom had prepared for him, immediately grabbed the laptop and pressed the power button. As quickly as the laptop re-awakened he checked his email for updates.
There was one. At 4 AM the university’s computer had sent his results.
What took so long? he wondered as he opened the email.
Design accepted, it read. Then Ryan’s eyes bugged out.
Rank and placement: 1 Score: TBD
Ryan felt a surge of pride. He’d submitted the best design to date. He had made a contribution.
As usual there was an executable file attached to the email. Ryan ran it. His molecule withstood every challenge the software threw at it. At the end of the simulated testing there was a new message.
Thank you for your participation. Dr. Jankowiak.
The message of gratitude hovered on the black background of the laptop flat screen, waiting for him to acknowledge its receipt.
Ryan hit Okay and the message disappeared. The professor had written him personally. Ryan wondered what it meant, if anything.
“Professor Jankowiak, congratulations on being named a Nobel laureate!” the reporter from the Science News Network gushed. She pressed a foam covered microphone toward his face.
“Thank you,” Jankowiak replied graciously—although his face clearly suggested that he wanted to be anywhere else.
“Can you please describe your feelings when you heard your name announced?”
Jankowiak barely heard her through the befuddlement of the celebration. “This is too soon,” he mumbled.
“Professor, what are your feelings at this moment?”
Jankowiak composed himself. “I am truly humbled,” he answered. “Words are not adequate to express”—he drew in a long breath and composed himself—“of course, it is not my victory alone. Without my colleagues, Drs. Thomas and Rowland, we would not have synthesized the alpha blocker that performed so well in the clinical trials.”
“And why is that, Professor?”
He looked at her as if she were a simpleton. “I am a computational scientist, not a chemist or biologist—as are my colleagues.”
“Yes but your game predicted the molecular structure for the wonder drug that is proven to stop AIDS.”
“The game was merely a light…”
“It was more than just a light.”
“Then I must also share my victory with the legions who played and contributed.”
“Surely you cannot mean…”
“Of course I do. It was precisely because of the gamers that we even knew what to look for. Ten thousand minds of collective intelligence pieced together what one researcher, or many research groups, have not derived in a hundred careers.”
“How do you propose to share your prize with ten thousand contributors?” The reporter’s incredulity seemed contrived.
“I will include their names in my official acceptance press release. Ten thousand mentions of honor.” Jankowiak smiled at the possibility—and the consternation it would cause.
“They’ve earned a share in this victory,” he said simply.
“And your colleagues?”
“It is really no concern of yours, is it?”
“Where do you go from here?” The reporter backpedaled. Science news reporters were not expected to be provocative.
Jankowiak misunderstood. “Since you insist, they agree with me.”
“My apologies, Professor. Let me clarify. What’s next on your research agenda?”
“Ah.” Jankowiak relaxed. “There are many more questions to answer, so many other diseases we might hunt. Or, we could go in a new direction. Identify and correct something degenerative in our DNA.”
“You have something in mind?”
“Can you share your idea?”
“Yes. One condition in particular has caught my attention. It is called Progeria—a genetic mutation of premature aging. It is very rare but very sad.”
“Why something rare?” This time the reporter’s criticism was real. “Why not something more common—like cancer or heart disease or even psoriasis?”
“There are many good minds already focused on those problems.”
“But isn’t the obscure a disservice to the technology?”
“It’s not obscure. It’s an issue of universal importance.”
“I thought you said it was rare, this Pro… Pro… premature aging.”
“It’s not the symptom we seek, it is the cause. And the cause is the essential question, ‘how long may one live?’ ”
“How long may one live?” The reporter repeated verbatim.
“Yes. Children with Progeria seldom survive into their twenties. Their entire aging process is fast-tracked. When they are adolescent their skin wrinkles, they develop atherosclerosis or arthritis or worse—all the conditions we associate with advanced age—and then, sadly, they die early bearing all the hallmarks of old age.”
The reporter’s face framed a question but Jankowiak was ready.
“It’s genetic, not environmental.” He had anticipated the question. “Something in their DNA is shifted in a way we instinctively despise. It is hard to look at a child whose appearance is that of an elder and not feel dismayed or be repulsed. We all want to live long, full lives. Children with Progeria are denied that. To understand what reverses Progeria is to unlock a secret of biological aging and perhaps move a step closer to longer life.”
Jankowiak smiled and the reporter took the cue.
“Is this a quest for immortality, Dr. Jankowiak?” she asked.
“Not at all. This is a quest to unlock one’s true potential. A human life is short and fragile. By the time one has mastered a craft he or she is ready to either retire or expire.” Jankowiak sighed. “What a waste!”
Jankowiak interrupted, “We don’t seek immortality, we seek to further the reaping of one’s rewards.” His face turned down with seriousness. “Immortality? For me, that would be arrogance. I leave that quest to others who are truly great.”
“We seek to prolong life”—Professor Jankowiak began his invited talk—“but we’re sufficiently humble to realize that Nature’s answers lie beyond the thinking of one person or one group, no matter how intelligent any of us deludes ourselves to be.”
Most in the audience nodded their heads in affirmation. A few who were too arrogant declined.
“And if imitation is the most sincere form of flattery”—Jankowiak paused for effect and to allow the late arrivals to settle in place—“what we’ve done is curry favor with a process far more mature than ourselves.”
The room quieted. A few harried rustles and bumps emanated from the back of the small auditorium where the latecomers scurried into the few remaining seats. It was the best attended seminar of the year.
“Not by copying a product of nature, such as the whale’s fin design for a windmill fan blade or replicating the gecko’s foot pads to make Velcro®… rather, we seek to emulate Nature’s process—for her processes are far more complex than any of our products.”
Jankowiak’s eyes scanned over an audience in interpretive thought.
“Under stimuli, many birds, fishes and insects flock, school and swarm—an en masse response—where individuals no longer respond only to the danger, which they may no longer see, but also to the behavior of their closest companions. Responses rapidly coordinate into collective behaviors—and they are quite compelling and intelligent.”
“Isn’t it just a survival mechanism?” an attendee asked.
“It is often a most effective survival mechanism.” Jankowiak smiled. “Fish swarm against immediate threats and bees swarm as a preventative measure but collective strategies”—he lifted a finger to emphasize his point—“are not limited to ensuring group survival alone. Sometimes they’re designed to assist the individual member. For example, birds flock to conserve energy during migration and to protect themselves during storms.”
“Aren’t these all higher species, Dr. Jankowiak?”
“Only the examples I’ve mentioned so far. Collective behavior is far more prevalent, and perhaps more necessary, among the lower creatures—especially those that lack what we might refer to as rational thinking processes.”
He looked at the audience, enjoying the tension of their disbelief.
“The pelagic Giant Siphonophore, Praya Dubya, grows to a hundred and fifty feet in length. It is one of the longest creatures on Earth. Surprisingly, it lacks a centralized brain and it is not a single organism. Instead, the Siphonophore is a colony of specialized individuals, each a separate living unit with one of several functions”—he scanned the crowd for comprehension—“to feed, to move, to reproduce or to control movement. That specialization is contributed to its adjacent members which in turn, is shared with the colony. The Siphonophore is a marvel of collective contribution.”
Confusion thawed as the intuitive comparison began to resolve.
“The analogy is here: Each segment communicates its bits to the others although it is incapable of seeing ‘the whole picture’ and ‘solving the problem alone.’ From individual contributions there integrates a collective behavior which further results as a remarkable successful organism. Praya Dubya is an elegant and beautiful expression of stochastic design.”
“Is there a model for political behavior?” The question came out of left field but it was not unanticipated.
“Sure,” Jankowiak answered and the audience murmured, “it’s in the exercise of voting, not the collectivism of Marxism. In the democratic process no single person has all the information, no single entity controls the group. Individual perspectives are contributed and the result of an election is a demonstration of human collective thinking.”
“But that often goes awry,” someone complained and apprehension rustled the room.
“That’s the political discussion,” Jankowiak deftly deferred.
The audience laughed and the tension was defused.
“In construct, multi-threaded computational hardware is analogous.” Jankowiak restarted. “Just as the siphonophore is a functionally specialized invertebrate, with repeating units connected by neural pathways, a supercomputer has thousands of CPUs, each with a single task, connected by information pathways.”
Jankowiak assessed the audience’s engagement. Some had leaned forward—a connection had forged.
“Even here, the siphonophore outclasses a supercomputer. Our supercomputer cannot truly multitask whereas the siphonophore can simultaneously receive and process information at each center.” He smiled deprecatingly. “The best we can do is make believe.”
“Parallel operations are brief. A central algorithm first parses input instructions into serial sets and then receives, also in serial, output calculations. For most of the time, the majority of the CPUs are wasted resources. Occasionally we are clever and we find ways to cross branch information between CPUs but most attempts at collective cognition send a routine into a tailspin of permutations from which the only recovery is Ctrl-Alt-Del.”
There was genuine laughter.
“In addition, central algorithm interpretation is a slow and clumsy serial process, and serves to answer two main questions: to either launch the next iteration or wait for a programmer’s input. There is so much pre-planning by the programmer that the notion of parallel computing seems all contrived.”
There was restlessness in the audience as questions were being formulated.
“Game progression by collective intelligence is an analogue to parallel processing CPUs—each player is functionally unique, is given a set of instructions to interpret and analyze, and then submits a solution. Game development is in the hands and minds of the programmers—the central algorithm, so to speak, who interpret which vector on which to launch the subsequent operation.”
It seemed too clinical. A few hands started to show but Jankowiak overlooked them.
“Proper programming develop leads to convergence and the more advanced the programming, the greater the frequency that game responses are tested in real time by the central algorithm. At maturity, the project moves together en masse with only periodic human steerage.”
“What’s the advantage of making it a game?” Someone asked.
“It’s fun and challenging. Each player brings his or her own specialization—a random assemblage unlimited by convention or training—which may be more diverse than the repeating biological components of the siphonophore. A group tackles a problem from well outside the proverbial box.”
“Aren’t most wrong?” Someone rudely blurted.
Jankowiak was nonplussed. “Small victories aren’t wrong. In evolution, the success of a random mutation is continued survival. In a game, it’s improvement of the central design.” He put up his hand to hold off further questions. “I’ll take further questions in just a few minutes,” he offered.
With reluctance, raised hands were withdrawn.
“I repeat, key contributions can be made, perhaps unwittingly, perhaps through luck, or perhaps by harnessing latent talent—by any member of the group. Some contributions are purely aesthetic—and we are astounded to find that contributions of symmetry and beauty sometimes further the project. We are reminded that Nature is not limited to solutions of brute force functionality. It’s led us to a startling observation, that without the scientifically untrained artist the progress of the game is slowed.”
The audience of scientists and engineers murmured in apprehension. Was Jankowiak’s research rendering their field as obsolete? Hands raised.
“Yes,” Jankowiak selected a question.
“Doesn’t that diminish the role of the scientist?”
“Hardly. It requires enhanced skills to guide a project. The researcher must cleave what is relevant from what is spurious to aim the vector of further discovery.”
“Have you ever had a project ‘get away’ on you?” a grad student asked the indulgent question that was on everyone’s mind.
“What do you mean, ‘get away’ from us?” Jankowiak refused to interpret a loaded question.
The student stammered, “I…I…I meant, has a game ever blown up…No, no…has a game ever refused t-…t-…to behave?”
Jankowiak threw the struggling student a bone. “It’s software, not behavior. Game parameters evolve as the limits are better understood. We do not comprehensively predict them at launch.”
“What would happen if you didn’t?” The question was rephrased by another grad student who did not convey the sinister undertone.
Dr. Jankowiak looked confused and dismayed. “I don’t follow.”
“Could it get away from you?”
Jankowiak turned to address the questioner. “A game is bounded by programming. It cannot explore a computational space except where its first been directed. It’s not artificially intelligent. As with any coded computation, if the bounds aren’t properly set, the computational power of the processor is exhausted, or the available memory is consumed and the software fails. It crashes.”
There was silence in the audience. A moment of sympathy for both the speaker and the doubters.
“Where do you go from here?” The host had returned on stage.
“Remember my opening statement?” Jankowiak’s eyes twinkled. “We seek to prolong life.”
“Could you tell me where to find Dr. Jankowiak’s office?” A man demanded to no one in particular. He was dressed in an expensive three-piece business suit and loudly made his query while a throng of students hurriedly traversed a nondescript corridor between classes.
With regret, Ryan broke from his hallway conversation with a flirtatious coed to address the stranger.
“Who are you?” He asked. More regrettably the coed slipped away.
“Bill Shapner.” He extended his arm. “From GenCorp Pharma.”
Ryan suppressed a frown. There was something about Shapner he found distasteful.
“Like the Star Trek actor?” He needled.
“Shapner—with a ‘p’.” The man corrected with disdain while he handed Ryan a card. Shapner’s name and rank, Senior R&D Executive, was embossed in gold letters on the vainly thick card stock. Alongside, with no less humility, was the company logo for GenCorp Pharmaceuticals and its motto.
A Passion for all Humanity.
“Do you have an appointment?” Ryan was in his third year of graduate study under Jankowiak’s tutelage and understood well his adviser’s idiosyncrasies—including Jankowiak’s tendency to meet with anyone at any time. Because that proclivity contrasted with his own more cautious nature, Ryan compelled himself to provide a buffer of protection.
“I’m to meet with him within the hour.” Shapner reached out and grasped Ryan by the elbow. “My flight was early and I wanted to touch base before the scheduled meeting.”
Trying to get a leg up on the competition. Ryan nearly laughed out loud.
Jankowiak had been entertaining Big Pharma representatives throughout the week. He had been unavailable, almost reclusive, shuttling with suits like the tedious Shapner from office to conference rooms to luncheons at the university’s private club. His students had been neglected.
By mid-week Jankowiak’s attire was disheveled and there were dark circles underneath his eyes. His last email to Ryan had been time-stamped past midnight, the second-to-last sent at six AM the previous day. The text was cursory and addressed his concern with blunt efficiency. Ryan’s request for face time had been ignored and a personnel issue within the research group would be deferred to an unscheduled group meeting.
As Shapner attempted to squeeze him into submission, Ryan wondered if Jankowiak had decided to retire from academia. Or perhaps his adviser sought to head a research division in industry. Ryan stopped speculating: it made more sense that Jankowiak was seeking collaboration projects than a new occupation.
Against his reservations, he offered to escort Shapner to Jankowiak’s office rather than send him to the department’s admin. He led Shapner through the corridors searching for a reason to stop the meeting. Nothing immediate came to mind.
Ryan knocked at the door.
“Come in,” came Jankowiak’s voice.
Having anticipated a blind invitation Shapner pushed past Ryan.
“Bill Shapner,” he announced with a fanfare of self-confidence.
“Ah, yes, from GenCorp.” Jankowiak was nonplussed. “Do come in.”
Ryan turned to leave.
“You too, Ryan,” Jankowiak invited. “You will want to hear what Mr. Shapner has to say.”
Hardly, thought Ryan but he did not argue. He remained at the door, straddling the threshold with one leg inside the room and the other firmly planted in the hallway.
“You have been introduced to Ryan?” Jankowiak looked at Shapner with surprise.
“I had the pleasure of meeting him on my way over,” Shapner answered. He turned to address Ryan directly. “Of course, GenCorp is familiar with your work,” he said with a smile devoid of warmth.
They’ve read my papers? It was Ryan’s turn to be astonished—if only for a moment. But not you. He fought the urge to rebel and simply said, “Thank you,” not quite sure how to respond without his disrespect showing through.
Showing appreciation was the wrong thing to do and for his humility Ryan was dismissed.
Shapner’s smile faded and he returned his attention to Jankowiak. “GenCorp would like to hear about the capabilities of your program.”
“Of course, that’s why you’re here.” Jankowiak smiled. “As I’m sure you’re aware, we’ve had tremendous success with predicting the chemistry that has proven to stop the AIDS virus.”
Shapner interrupted, “That was remarkable but it is licensed to the public domain. The generics are scrambling to take it to market.” With a wave of his hand he dismissed Jankowiak’s old news. “My company is interested in exclusivity. We don’t pursue the after-market. Our investors…”
“Yes, of course.” Jankowiak’s eyes narrowed. After a week of meetings he’d become too aware of the constraints of proprietary-driven business models and Shapner had proven to be the most forthright of the venture capitalists. Jankowiak hadn’t decided if this made GenCorp more trustworthy or more dangerous. Probably both, he concluded. He reassembled his next pitch with care.
Shapner waited for Jankowiak to speak.
While the researcher was a novice at negotiating he was not a fool. He had already ascertained that the GenCorp executive was chumming for ideas. If it was difficult to sell a project without being tangible, being transparent without having an NDA in blood was an invitation for intellectual piracy. Academics like him were not fortified by legions of lawyers.
Ryan shifted against the door frame. The distraction ended the standoff.
“What else is in the pipeline?” Shapner pressed immediately.
“We feel we can corner any number of viruses.”
“How about the ‘flu or the common cold?” Shapner tested the potential.
“Unlikely due to their multiplicity.”
“That’s too bad,” Shapner struck a belittling tone. “What about cancer?”
“Cancer is not a virus and it has no single determined cause.”
Shapner shrugged with measured impatience. Jankowiak felt himself being cornered.
“What makes your technology better?” Shapner was condescending.
“We have results—and we have a growing base of contributors…”
“Your success is limited.” Shapner challenged.
“It is unparalleled.” Jankowiak’s answer seemed weak.
“Dr. Jankowiak, GenCorp requires specifics before it can commit money. Our investors…”
Ryan’s frustration had crested. From his second-hand vantage it was obvious that Shapner was denigrating his adviser with the low-ball tactics of a used-car salesman.
“Perhaps you have something in mind,” Ryan blurted with his own measure of disdain.
Shapner turned to look at him. The outburst from Ryan did not fit his first impressions. He instantly re-calibrated. “I’m here to explore the synergy,” he replied, no less vague than before. Perhaps Ryan could be snowballed by jargon.
“You wouldn’t have come here without a plan in place,” Ryan scoffed. “Dr. Jankowiak’s program is not in competition with GenCorp. Why don’t you tell us what you want?”
“I prefer to discuss those ideas face-to-face,” Shapner backpedaled. “but not with the constraints that present time imposes.” He turned to Jankowiak and smiled. “Dr. Jankowiak, I’d like to invite you to GenCorp…”
“Why?” Ryan interjected.
Shapner frowned and Jankowiak warned Ryan with his eyes. “…to meet our research management and give a talk to our teams.”
“You need my help,” Jankowiak stated. He was familiar with Wall Street’s analysis of GenCorp’s.
For a split-second, Shapner’s face froze. He was not used to being called-out as beggarly. “Our R&D is experimental, not modeled,” the executive said snidely. “We use state-of-the-art, proven methodology—combinatorial screening and directed evolution—not theoretical approaches from the ether.”
Jankowiak smelled the desperation but he had no need to gloat. “You aren’t the first to ask questions of a new tool,” he reassured, “but as Ryan suggested, you wouldn’t be here if you didn’t think GenCorp could benefit from it.” He waited for a reply and thought through his dilemma.
In spite of Shapner’s apparent disregard for his past success, GenCorp obviously valued Jankowiak’s platform as a commodity to be wrested away. That put them miles ahead of the others he’d been in discussions with. Most had simply looked down their noses, disregarding his work as the master code from an electronic idiot savant. He could not partner with time for without respect there would be no resolve. On the other hand, with any agreement there would always be danger.
While Shapner stalled, Jankowiak sighed. He had resolved his dilemma. He would warily explore a partnership with GenCorp.
“We are in clinical trials…” Shapner began.
“Mr. Shapner, I still believe in a handshake. The details can be worked out with the contract professionals.”
Shapner’s face pulsed in victory. “Of course, we would welcome your further consideration.”
“I’ll be delighted.” Jankowiak agreed. “We’ll continue our discussion over lunch.”
“Welcome to GenCorp, may I help you?” A strikingly pretty brunette receptionist beamed at Jankowiak although, beneath her desk, her foot rested firmly on a panic switch.
“I’m here to see Bill Shapner.”
“Mr. Shapner,” her smile grew larger, “I’ll let him know you’re here.” She punched some keys on a phone pad while Jankowiak surveyed the room.
He had entered through doors to his left. To his immediate right, and just past the receptionist, a flat panel monitor displayed a schedule of the day’s activities. An image of himself flashed onto its screen. He would deliver his talk at 11:45 AM in the Crick and Watson Auditorium. To his extreme right was a security booth, currently manned by two armed men, which took root at the center of the lobby. The men were busy checking in the steady stream of GenCorp employees passing through.
Behind him was a large wall on which GenCorp’s corporate insignia and motto was mounted in front of a charcoal granite wall. The scripted silver letters were brightly lit from a skylight ceiling twenty feet overhead.
Jankowiak turned his attention to the security checkpoint. Briefcases, backpacks and purses were all subject to search and, in the moments he observed, the security officers browsed through several.
On the opposite side of the booth, a flustered women finished reorganizing the contents of her shoulder bag. Her face was red and her movements were clumsy and hurried. She snapped the top shut and scurried toward an elevator bank where she waited, rocking on her feet, unable to hide her irritation.
Nobody stood next to her. The elevator door opened and she darted into the interior, stabbing at the bank of buttons on its wall. Then she spun and stood, tapping her feet repeatedly, until the sliding doors closed and thwarted his view.
There were several entrances into the interior of GenCorp besides the bank of elevators. A winding staircase led to a second floor veranda overhead, and there were sets of doors at left, right, and center for ground floor access. Jankowiak wondered which one he would take.
A second stream of employees began to filter about the foyer. Jankowiak checked his watch. It was 9 o’clock. Though the men and women were dressed casually, their eyes were intense and their faces were grim. Nobody was smiling.
Two men walked past him toward the front doors. Style-matched in khakis and polo shirts, they were a contrast in mannerism. The tall, slim man’s arms hung naturally at his sides while the short, bald and heavy-set man’s arms were tightly crossed over his chest.
“You have to make them do it for you,” the confident man lectured.
“They tell me its not their top priority,” he replied, diverting his troubled eyes away from Jankowiak. He could not conceal his downcast face.
“You’re going to miss your milestones.”
The comment was delivered with an extra measure of volume. For an instant the foyer hushed and the tall man’s artless shot across the bow filled the void. The silence only amplified the warning.
As the two men left the building, the normal babble refreshed.
“Angela?” The receptionist spoke into a receiver, diverting Jankowiak’s attention back to her. “This is Janine at the front desk. Mr. Shapner’s guest is in the front lobby.” She paused. “Okay…okay…I’ll let him know.”
The receptionist disconnected.
“He’ll be right with you, Dr. Jankowiak. Would you like to wait in the conference room across the lobby?”
“Thank you,” said Jankowiak.
He turned and crossed the foyer, sidestepping the late stragglers from the hourly traffic surge. The conference room door was exactly centered beneath the omnipresent sign. As he breached its plane, he instinctively frowned.
In contrast with the omnipotent design of the foyer, the modestly sized rectangular conference room was furnished with elegant utilitarianism. Nobody who sat at the centerpiece boardroom table would suffer for lack of physical comfort nor connectivity.
Plush swivel chairs skirted the oval table, each served by a pop-up compartment that provided connection to AC power, Ethernet and a projection system. Staring down the table’s long-axis he saw a large, shared flat-panel monitor. At table center lay a hand-held remote with laser pointer alongside a three prong bird-of-prey style conference speaker-phone.
A perimeter of lesser chairs framed the room’s perimeter. These offered less comfort, no wired access, and did not swivel. One long row was placed beneath electronically activated blinds, which were raised to three-quarter height, in front of an exterior wall of metal-framed plate glass. The outdoor sunshine streamed in, illuminating the table top of stained mahogany, while dust rose gently from its polished surface.
Jankowiak selected the seat nearest the window, opened his briefcase and sorted his professional effects. As he waited for Shapner, he scanned the outline for his talk and then the legal documents that covered his visit.
Hurried footsteps approached and a thirty-something woman entered the conference room. She wore a matching three-piece business suit of gray wool with a white blouse beneath the vest.
“Dr. Jankowiak, I’m Angela Cohen, Administrative Assistant to Elliot Hampden, GenCorp Counsel,” she introduced herself.
Jankowiak surmised that Ms. Cohen was as efficient as she was matter-of-fact. She had intense eyes, a curt bob of strawberry blond hair and an expressionless face. Clearly she was as ambitious as her boss, a trait well suited to having achieved the status of an Executive Admin.
“Mr. Shapner will meet with you presently,” Cohen continued. “He asked me to complete some formalities with you.”
She presented a handful of bunched documents which Jankowiak accepted with a small measure of trepidation. The top sheet’s header read “Non-Disclosure Agreement.”
Jankowiak squinted. He’d faxed a signed copy of the NDA a week earlier, both the original and the returned signed copies were in his briefcase. He checked the footer, it was dated the previous day. He grunted in disapproval, the NDA had been revised, and started to read the new one. The tedious legalese was mostly incomprehensible but seemed identical to the one he’d sent over.
“I’m sure you’ll find it all in order, Dr. Jankowiak,” Ms. Cohen broke in.
“I have your badge,” she continued. “Your first meeting with Mr. Shapner is in five minutes.”
She held a rectangular badge with his university photograph laminated within and the word, “Visitor,” printed in bold black text beneath. In faded italics the day’s date was displayed beneath.
Jankowiak hesitated. Five minutes was too short to even thumb through a legal document.
“I came prepared,” Jankowiak proffered the admin his previously signed NDA.
“Legal requires a copy signed today, Dr. Jankowiak,” Ms. Cohen refused to accept them.
“Are there changes?”
“I wouldn’t know.”
“Why is the one I sent not acceptable?”
“This is standard protocol. Fresh copies are distributed weekly and there wasn’t time to forward you a copy.”
Jankowiak’s eyes narrowed. He had flown in early the day before, had called his office several times throughout the day, and had checked his computer multiple times to keep current on last minute developments before retiring. None of his staff had thought to mention a new NDA.
“Of course, I was traveling.” He provided an excuse.
Jankowiak rifled through the pages until he located the signature line. The contract was of similar length. He picked up his pen.
Jankowiak hesitated. Her eagerness had roused his suspicion. He flipped back to the first page and began reading in earnest.
Cohen stepped back, shifted and fidgeted.
Jankowiak felt his pulse quicken. It would take an intolerable amount of time to peruse the jargon.
“Is there anything I can help with?” Cohen offered.
“No, not at all.”
“Then I mustn’t be disturbed. I don’t wish to be late.” He aligned the documents—Rosetta style—and began comparing them.
Cohen’s face hardened. She decided.
“Of course, just a moment please.” She vacated the room.
It was on the third page that Jankowiak’s suspicion was realized. A paragraph that the university’s lawyer had struck out had been reinserted. His lawyer had advised that the words could be interpreted to grant GenCorp exclusive access to his gaming technique within the drug discovery sector should he simply engage in professional discussions with their scientists on their premises.
Ms. Cohen reappeared at the conference room threshold.
“My apologies. Mr. Shapner has been called into a meeting.”
Jankowiak hid his anger. GenCorp’s manners had diminished to rudeness. “There seems to be a misunderstanding,” he stated, pointing fingers at each copy. “This NDA contains an old revision which we agreed would not apply.”
Cohen was prepared.
“I don’t know what was said between your team and ours. The NDA was released only yesterday, Dr. Jankowiak. It’s recent.”
“Well, then I’ll strike it.” Perhaps it was a clerical oversight.
“I’m sorry, I can’t authorize that but I’m sure we can clear this up quickly. Would you like to talk to the Counselor?”
It was exactly what he didn’t want to do. Instead, he would call the university’s lawyer—without Ms. Cohen being present to seek advice—and, if necessary, break off the engagement. He just needed a moment to make a phone call.
“Yes,” Jankowiak agreed.
“I’ll be just a moment.”
Jankowiak watched as Cohen left the room, concerned that he was making a tactical mistake by not immediately following suit. He gathered his papers, dialed the office of the University’s lawyer, and determined to leave promptly.
The call was immediately answered by her Admin. The lawyer was unavailable. She would call him ASAP.
“Has there been any late correspondence with GenCorp?” Jankowiak asked.
The Admin paused long enough for Jankowiak to know that she would lie.
“Who is she in conference with?” Jankowiak surmised.
This answer was quick and truthful. His Counsel was being strong armed by the university board.
Wearily, Jankowiak gathered his materiel and stowed it in his briefcase, retaining in hand the bastardized copy as evidence of GenCorp’s deceit. He ignored the intuition that there was more going on. He turned to leave but stopped short.
Cohen had re-entered, trailing a man in an expensive tailored three-piece suit.
“Dr. Jankowiak, I understand that you wish to see me,” the man said. “I’m Elliot Hampden.”
“I previously faxed our agreement. The new contract is unacceptable.” Jankowiak stated without returning the introduction. There was little point in supporting the illusion that it was an oversight.
“I’m sorry you feel that way, Dr. Jankowiak, but we are in contact with your legal representative and we have obtained her agreement. We have to protect our interests.”
“As do I.”
The lawyer’s face twisted slightly.
“I don’t think you understand, Dr. Jankowiak. We learned yesterday that you are in possession of GenCorp trade-craft.”
Jankowiak broke into a cold sweat.
“I think the reverse is true, Elliot.” He said through clenched teeth.
The lawyer smiled.
“We have the burden of proof.”
“Touché.” Jankowiak’s smile was thin.
“I don’t think so,” Elliot said smugly. He snapped his fingers and an armed security agent strode through the door.
“Dr. Jankowiak, will you please open your briefcase?” The security officer demanded.
“I will not.” Jankowiak suddenly saw his folly. In his haste he had stowed the entire stack of documents, not just the altered NDA. He wasn’t sure what else was in the package.
“Dr. Jankowiak, may I remind you that you were invited here on good faith…”
“Is that what you call it?” Jankowiak struggled to contain his irritation. His cell phone vibrated in his hand but he ignored it. “We had an agreement—”
“Which you were already violating,” Hampden interjected.
Jankowiak’s phone stilled. “I’ve done nothing of the sort.” He said adamantly.
Hampden eyes gleamed.
Jankowiak had a sudden thought. “Perhaps you’ve been infringing”—his phone twitched again and this time he glanced at the display. It was a message from his Counsel. “Excuse me,” he demanded, turning toward the front window to shield himself. He sensed their eyes boring into his back.
Jankowiak wedged the phone against his neck to free his hands. He propped his briefcase onto a thin aluminum window crosspiece and awkwardly held it up against his waist. Reflected in the thick plate glass was an apparition of Cohen and Hampden. Their heads bobbed rapidly in a hushed conference while they kept watch at him over their shoulders. The security officer was not in sight.
Jankowiak opened the briefcase and rifled through the top stack. His phone chirped—it had bounced from the Admin’s desk into the electronic ether—so he quickly thumbed through the copies.
“Dr. Jankowiak?” A voice came through the phone. It was the University Counsel.
“Yes,” Jankowiak pared away the top two documents, the new and the old NDAs, and set them aside.
“I advise you to accept the agreement.”
“Why would you do that?” Jankowiak flipped through the next stapled packet. It was benign; his welcome letter to speak at GenCorp and his electronic response. He set it out of his way on top of the NDAs.
“It’s in your best interest.”
“Hardly.” The third document was something he hadn’t before seen, a print copy of an email from someone within GenCorp. It was addressed to his personal email address, not his University account. The sender’s name was as unfamiliar as was the subject line.
Re: A Project of Mutual Interest
The lawyer’s voice came over the receiver. “It’s in the School’s best interest. GenCorp is creating an endowment…”
“Are they?” Jankowiak saw red. It would be an ugly fight. His principle project had been traded for…for what?
“Have you cashed a check?”
“No, it’s conditional but…”
Jankowiak tuned out the apology. Instead he read the email. The sender answered questions he hadn’t asked and referred to a meeting that never took place. And with brazen disregard for GenCorp’s IP, the sender had disclosed what appeared to be an internal project.
Jankowiak was stunned. How did this get here? He wondered. How many more are there? He had to get out of GenCorp and check his accounts. His accounts… How did GenCorp…Who hacked my account?
He muttered, “So the NDA was bait.”
There was a pause.
“I see.” The Counselor ended the short silence.
“What are you going to do about it?” Jankowiak challenged.
“It’s your choice. Do the right thing.” She hung up.
Jankowiak turned to face GenCorp’s lawyer. He dropped the documents on the conference table and pushed them away. “This is a fabrication!” he charged. “I’ve had no contact with anyone here except Shapner. You know this.”
“You are a man of character,” Hampden purred. “I’m sure you will do the right thing.”
“Indeed I am.”
Jankowiak stepped past Hampden into the foyer, turned hard left and hurried out of GenCorp’s front lobby.
“You are under arrest!” An authoritative voice bellowed. “Stay where you are!”
It was a uniformed cop, not a security guard. Jankowiak’s legs faltered.
“Stay on your feet!”
In response, Jankowiak turned and staggered. The cop’s hand was on his gun. He pushed his feet into the ground to make them move but they wouldn’t comply. His temples throbbed and his vision instantly blurred. The horizon, opaque and vague, seemed to lift toward his face. He raised his hands to break his fall. In slow motion, the ground rose up to meet his face.
The sudden jolt had stunned him and Jankowiak couldn’t move, although his ears worked perfectly. A flurry of advancing footsteps abruptly stopped.
“Help me,” he whispered. “I’ve done nothing wrong.”
His plea was silenced by two blows of a baton against his back and head and his attacker’s loud voice. “Do not resist!”
“I’m not resisting,” Jankowiak croaked through the pain.
“You were warned!” The voice hissed in his ear as the third strike sent him to black.
Jankowiak regained consciousness. He was propped roughshod against a concrete barrier. His head throbbed and the nape of his neck felt split with a searing pain. He tried to reach back but found that he couldn’t move his arms. They were cuffed at the wrists and secured behind his back. Now that he noticed, his compressed hands burned in discomfort.
Jankowiak’s brief terror had passed and his eyes were working properly again. He took stock of his position.
He didn’t like what he saw.
With consternation he realized that he was in GenCorp’s front courtyard—on display at the company entrance. Curiously, he was unattended, although he was hardly alone.
In the courtyard there was a flurry of activity. The City’s Finest were rummaging through his personal effects, assisted by GenCorp’s security personnel. His briefcase had been emptied and the strewn contents of all its folders and pouches were under examination.
A few feet away another cop was hacking into his laptop.
Jankowiak shifted his buttocks against the concrete to find a more satisfactory position. Instead he pressed his bound wrist bones into the unyielding surface. He winced but no one noticed. His accused folly was garnering all the attention.
A dozen yards away, positioned in front of the Corporate logo, Elliot Hampden was talking to a very attractive woman.
Jankowiak snorted softly in derision. She was a reporter.
The reporter was dressed smartly in a navy blue suit jacket, matching skirt and a off-white blouse. Her blouse revealed considerably more cleavage than the GenCorp Admins’, part and parcel for her life in front of a camera.
Bustling about her and Hampden was a bevy of laborers at full task. She ignored the crew as it set lamps and dropped cables and tethered them to a nearby van. Hampden pretended to not notice but occasionally he wrung his hands in anticipation.
Jankowiak’s concerns grew larger. The van was emblazoned with a television station logo and it was outfitted with a satellite transmitter.
A cop walked by.
“I’m hurt,” Jankowiak’s voice cracked but the cop didn’t pay any attention. He repeated his call for help several times to no avail. Instead, the space between him and the busy throng seemed to enlarge.
Shapner joined Hampden and the reporter. She’d been expecting him and she looked relieved. Hampden bowed away.
A producer handed the reporter a microphone and she spoke several words that Jankowiak could not hear into the foam padding. The producer nodded and she began to interview Shapner.
“It’s been a most interesting hour…” her voice carried, strong and clear across the suddenly silent courtyard to Jankowiak’s ears.
Jankowiak lay back and closed his eyes. He knew he could no longer stop the nightmare from unfolding. His fear returned. Blood surged through his head and stopped his ears from hearing. He missed the next exchange.
I need to know what happens. A small voice said inside him and Jankowiak willed himself to pay attention.
Shapner was speaking.
“R&D is GenCorp’s lifeblood,” he stated. “We invest a billion dollars each year to develop new drugs.” He glanced in deprecation at Jankowiak.
The producer had scripted the cue and was already cutting the camera lens to the bound scientist. Having been staged for his part, Jankowiak was disheveled and cowered.
Guilty by appearance.
Shapner’s voice wearied. “That cost pales in comparison to what we stand to lose to intellectual property theft.” He carried on in a self-righteous tone, a dirge against the respected man that GenCorp had, with good will, invited to address their troops.
Jankowiak seethed. It would be hours or days before he would be able to speak publicly. By then the damage would be irreparable. He searched the surroundings for an adversary. On camera his wandering eyes appeared unrepentant and hardened.
As Shapner pontificated the men rifling through Jankowiak’s briefcase completed their search. It had been fruitless.
The Lead Sergeant approached Shapner, who was still on camera, and Jankowiak saw him flinch. Hampden sprung into action, intercepting the cop and pulling him aside. The reporter’s eyes grew wide and she nearly smiled at the sudden fracas.
Jankowiak tuned into Hampden’s discussion: The police were getting restless; the Lead Sergeant had announced his intention to leave.
Hampden stiffened and argued but seemed unable to dissuade the police from withdrawing.
With indifference the cop turned away from Hampden and, pointedly, walked through the camera’s line-of-sight. He spoke loudly and authoritatively and his troops began to withdraw.
The change in events clearly frustrated Hampden. He paced with agitation, retracing the path between Jankowiak and the conference room window, followed closely by the cur of the corporation’s security officer.
Suddenly, Hampden stopped and resolved his confusion. He spoke curtly to the security officer.
The rent-a-cop sprung away in double time. Within a minute he reappeared, bearing a handful of documents. Jankowiak recognized them as the foolscap he’d abandoned within the building.
As the reporter wrapped up her interview, Hampden shuffled and sorted the papers. He chased down the Lead Sergeant and handed them to him.
A frown tensed the policeman’s face.
“Surely you can’t expect me to treat this as evidence,” he snapped for all to hear.
The producer had already cut the live feed. He motioned to his crew to restart the recorders.
“Once you examine his electronic records I think you will find the substantiation you need.” Hampden said with confidence. “You’ve already seen our scientist’s communiques.”
Jankowiak heard the unfounded confidence.
What’s he talking about? Jankowiak wondered.
“I’ve cracked the encryption,” a geek in uniform announced.
The Lead Sergeant peered over his shoulder at the electronics expert.
“What have you found?” he said with impatience.
“Sir, the encryption was practically non-existent…”
“Spare me the details. What’s on that computer that I need to know about?”
“Do you mean his email?” the geek stepped back. He had not expected a challenge from his boss.
The Lead Sergeant stared.
“There are a number of communications with a GenCorp scientist. They were all in the Trash but stupidly, they hadn’t been deleted.”
“Have they been read?”
“It appears so.”
“Humph.” The Lead Sergeant guffawed. He sensed that GenCorp was not playing straight but his hands were cuffed. Big corporations had lawyers that could eat him alive if he failed to follow the playbook. Hampden probably knew the protocols better than he did. There wasn’t time to determine whether the evidence was real or manufactured. He had to book every shred.
“Read him his rights,” the Lead Sergeant ordered to the electronics expert.
“Sir, we haven’t talked to him yet,” the geek protested.
“Follow the protocols,” the Sergeant admonished. “We’re being held to a higher standard.”
“Yes, sir,” the geek replied and hastened to formalize the arrest.
“I may not be able to accept any new students this year,” Jankowiak stated.
From across his desk the Department Chair, Tom Bailey, pursed his lips and frowned. He then spun his chair a few degrees and gazed in thought.
The desk was strategically placed in front of a large window. With the blinds fully retracted, strong sunlight streamed into the room and, from Jankowiak’s vantage, Bailey appeared as a silhouette. The cheap trick disgusted Jankowiak.
In Jankowiak’s opinion, a common assessment among the department’s faculty, Bailey had had a mediocre success as a researcher who had earned tenure at a time when there had been a dearth of qualified candidates in the computational field. Some snidely proclaimed that he couldn’t meet present standards.
Bailey may not have been a stellar researcher but he wasn’t a dullard. Before he fossilized into the department dinosaur he accepted the role of administrator, something else nobody wanted at the time, and transformed his career.
As deficient as he was in academic novelty, he became overbearing in expectation. For the associate and junior professors, Bailey set rigorous policies for publishing. For the tenured, he preached the acquisition of grant money. He then used the department’s cut to woo new faculty from the bright, the ambitious or the unscrupulous.
Bailey fostered a competitive spirit, attacking the “country club” mentality that, ironically, had preserved him. He brought to review those that fell short, while lauding those who earned peer recognition. He purged the vulnerable and condemned the aged to Emeritus status. The University Regents applauded.
Under Bailey’s charge, and much to the Faculty’s dismay, the standing of the school was enhanced. Bailey applied the screws, raising the rents on their lab space. Too busy to fight against his success, the disgruntled were unable to plot a day of reckoning. They sought their grants and submitted their publications and hoped for a day of reckoning.
The Faculty knew that Bailey had driven away several promising junior faculty members after unfairly rejecting their tenure applications—a hypocrisy that he overlooked when he touted their achievements to the Regents, the donors and the professional societies—for the modern sin of possessing a backbone.
The Faculty understood that the future was being sacrificed for a breakneck pace of the present. And in that regard, Bailey could not be dethroned in spite of the conflict he generated.
“I’m sorry to hear that, Tyrone.” Bailey was less than sympathetic.
Jankowiak sensed that Bailey was smiling.
“I may have difficulty keeping the students I have,” Jankowiak admitted.
“I’ve wondered how you were holding out. I’ve dropped by a couple of times but I was told that you were ‘otherwise engaged’ by one of your students,” Bailey smiled grimly.
“Ryan.” Jankowiak hid his smile.
“Yes.” Bailey’s raised his nose.
“He’s remarkable,” Jankowiak refused to let Bailey’s condescension go unchallenged. “He’s won enough grant money to complete his studies.”
“Should a graduate student be so troubled?” Bailey pressed his agenda.
Jankowiak hid his disgust. “Students at the top university’s have been securing money for years,” he said with defiance. “It’s an essential skill that shouldn’t wait until they enter academia.”
“Is that where you see him?” Bailey sniffed.
Jankowiak stiffened—Bailey was such an ass—and then he fired. “There’s always a place for the talented.”
Bailey’s face flushed red. He gritted his teeth and spoke harshly, “What is it that you want?”
“I need to free up funding for legal expenses.”
“You need money?”
“For the near term, perhaps a year or two, until this matter with GenCorp is sorted out.”
“The Department does not provide funds for tenured professors,” Bailey refused.
“From my research grants alone there was sufficient seed money to fund three junior faculty,” Jankowiak said with belligerence.
“The Department funded them!” Bailey snapped.
“From money raised by me and the other professors,” Jankowiak refused to concede. The exorbitant fee structure that Bailey had established was a sore topic for the department’s faculty.
“In the past decade, the Department’s fees have tripled,” Jankowiak vented. “That’s far more than was needed to support the Administration.”
“Under my direction the Department has established an endowment,” Bailey waxed in his political voice. “The Board is well aware of this.”
At the expense of the present! Jankowiak yearned to retort but he didn’t want to escalate the conflict just yet. He stilled his tongue and contained his emotions. Suddenly, he realized that Bailey hadn’t addressed his insubordination. Despite Bailey’s resistance, his hands were tied. Bailey had to fund him. The longer the battle with GenCorp had drawn out, the more his colleagues throughout the academic communities understood that GenCorp lacked evidence for its accusations. There would be severe fallout from banishing a Nobel Laureate. At the very least, it would drive away the talented and ambitious. At the worst, it might cost Bailey his position and his legacy.
Serves him right. Jankowiak thought. The chief reason he and his fellow faculty hadn’t rebelled at the exploding fee structure was that it been sold as an ‘Emergency Fund.’
“Will you fund my students?”
“You should have been more careful,” Bailey fumed, framing the argument of Jankowiak’s detractors.
“Really?” Jankowiak scoffed. “You know full well that there’s less grant money available from the Feds than every before. Your fees required us all to turn to industry. Though we are novices, there was no money for legal assistance.”
Bailey started to speak but Jankowiak cut him off.
“No, Tom, you exposed us. GenCorp is what happens when sheep are sent to the wolves. It’s time you took some responsibility for your policies.”
“The Department will fund your current students for two years,” Bailey enunciated his offer with contempt. “After that you’re on your own.”
Bailey looked out the window in dismissal. “You cannot rest on your laurels indefinitely. I suggest you make alternative plans. The Board suggests you create an escrow account with sufficient funding to cover your first and second year for their remaining years.”
“You’re too kind, Tom.” Jankowiak rose from his chair and vacated Bailey’s office. That the unoriginal Bailey had a plan confirmed many suspicions.
“Jerome, do you have a minute?”
“Of course, Tyler.”
“Let’s meet in my office,” Tyler suggested. He had tried to be casual in his delivery but he failed.
Jankowiak pretended to not notice. Dr. Tyler MacPhee’s office and robotics lab were adjacent to his computation rooms. They’d been neighbors, colleagues and friendly rivals for a dozen years.
“Sure.” He agreed and pulled his office door shut behind him and tested the handle. It was locked.
“A little paranoid?” MacPhee needled.
“I have my reasons.” Jankowiak did not return the humor.
“That’s beyond my payscale.” MacPhee’s shrugged off the rebuff. He held his office door open.
“I used to think the same.” Jankowiak entered MacPhee’s office but remained standing.
MacPhee entered behind him and in the confined space between himself and Jankowiak he twisted and closed the door.
“What is it, Tyler?” Jankowiak queried.
MacPhee slipped past Jankowiak and sat on the edge of his desk. He started to speak—“We should”-- and then stopped. He looked at the door.
Jankowiak chuckled, “Now you’re being paranoid.”
“Perhaps so,” MacPhee mused but still he struggled to say anything more.
“Does this concern the department?” Jankowiak prodded.
“About my… circumstances,” Jankowiak stated.
“Uh huh,” MacPhee nodded again, “there was an informal faculty meeting last week”—
—“while you were in court. I thought you should know about it.”
“What is being said about me?” Jankowiak asked satirically.
“That I’m a distraction to the department?” Jankowiak’s pitch raised slightly. “That students are shying away from the University because of me?”
“In as many words, yes. And”—
“Who led the charge?” Jankowiak interrupted but before MacPhee could answer he retreated. “No, don’t bother. I can pretty much list their names. It’s no surprise. They’re lining up for the spoils.”
“Vultures,” Jankowiak guffawed.
“You have many defenders, Jerome.” MacPhee had heard enough.
“Yes, besides me. We won’t let it happen.”
“I hope you can prevail Tyler. I… I have my doubts.” Jankowiak was less belligerent.
“Why is that?”
“I hear whispers… that I am to blame for the loss of funding for a new facility.”
MacPhee was silent.
“I see,” said Jankowiak.
“That is preposterous, Tyrone,” MacPhee was adamant. “We all know the deal was unethical.”
“I don’t think that matters,” Jankowiak disagreed. “but I imagine the Board sees it that way. So,” he shrugged with resignation, “it’s official.”
“What are you going to do about it?”
“I have two years.”
“Two years?” MacPhee repeated. “For what?”
“To win my case.” Jankowiak deadpanned.
MacPhee was shocked.
“And then what will you do?”
“I’ve been in contact with the business incubator group.”
“Aren’t they managed by the Board?” MacPhee scoffed.
“To some extent. I might have to start over elsewhere, but I doubt it. Like the Board, they can only think in dollars. I just never imagined myself as a businessman.”
Jankowiak impatiently shuffled in his seat and organized his papers. According to the agenda, he was slated next in the long queue of “New Business.”
“The Board will now address the complaints of Student ‘X’ against Dr. Tyrone Jankowiak.“
Jankowiak stood and approached a podium with his documents well-ordered. It seemed hardly necessary that the matter of a student’s cheating should be addressed by the University Board.
“Dr. Jankowiak, why was the student issued a grade of “zero” following the re-submission of his test?” A woman asked in a deliberate voice.
She was severely manicured as an academic, her silver hair pulled into a bun at the back of her head. In complement, she wore a tailored navy business vest above a primly cut ivory blouse. She was reading the agenda which she clutched with thin hands of transparent skin.
“The student cheated,” Jankowiak answered.
“What makes you think so?” She looked up, her eyes flashing intently above horn-rimmed bifocals.
Jankowiak was slightly taken aback. For some reason he noticed that her spectacles were a tad fashionable. He suppressed a frown. “He changed his answers after grading. We took images of the students’ test following…”
“Is that standard policy?” she interrupted him.
“In a limited sense I’m afraid it’s become so.”
“That’s hardly an attitude of trust.”
“No, it’s one of experience.”
Several members of the Board raised their eyebrows and glanced at each other. Jankowiak could not fail to notice his unintentional faux pas.
“You take images of all the students’ tests?” Her voice carried an extra measure of grit.
“No, only those the TA has identified as behaving suspiciously.”
“That’s a rather broad sweep.” She challenged.” Explain.”
“A proctoring TA is responsible to prevent student cheating—such as checking their electronics or looking over at each other—and to inform when incidences occur.”
“You allow electronics in the exam room?” She ignored the latter part of his explanation.
“It’s expressly allowed in the Student Handbook.” Jankowiak wisely refused to test the sanity in that policy.
“As it should.” She said quickly “Why was this student under scrutiny?”
Jankowiak paused. He was confused. He’d been called to the Board to discuss a case of academic cheating but he felt accused. The speaking member of the Board appeared to be thoroughly ignorant of the purpose of his visit.
“Please continue, Dr. Jankowiak.” She prodded.
Jankowiak continued. “The TA suspected that this student had changed answers on a previous test…”
“It was a similar event. After receiving his graded test, the student later returned it for re-grading. Incorrect answers had been erased and were replaced with the correct ones. It was obvious. There were pencil marks and erasure scrubs over grading marks.”
“What did the TA do?”
“Upon my direction, he gave the student the benefit of the doubt and boosted his score.”
“Did you advise him to take an image of the next exam?”
“It was a reasonable ‘next course’ of action.”
“Was it?” Again her inflection accused Jankowiak.
Jankowiak was ready. “The Student Handbook expressly forbids cheating.”
A new Board member spoke. He looked anything but the prototypical academic. He wore a tan and brown checkered blazer over an open collar dress shirt with sleeves that were folded rather than cuffed. His hair was dyed jet black and pulled back over his head in thick waves. There were no glasses to encumber his face. He seemed friendly, for he had a face which permanently smiled, and his voice was even-toned and harmless.
“I have here a copy of that course’s Syllabus.” He held it up to his fellow members. “There is nothing in the re-grading policy that prohibits changing answers.”
“Excuse me?“ Jankowiak was dismayed. “This is a matter of commonly understood ethics.”
“Of course it is,” the man interrupted smoothly. “It is inconceivable that a professor would apply a penalty for something he had not first defined.”
Jankowiak was stunned. “A… A syllabus is a class outline, not a legal and ethics document,” he stammered.
“Are you questioning the Board?” The man’s said sharply. His question hung in the room.
In the stony silence Jankowiak weighed the Board. The balance of its members were either staring at him or had become contemplatively disengaged. He braced for the outcome. Though their decision was not in his favor, he would not surrender without one last statement for the record. He chose his words carefully, “We have documented evidence that this student re-submitted an altered paper for regrading…”
“… and the Board has established that you failed to provide the proper guidelines to define that as misconduct. Furthermore, this a matter that should easily have been addressed at the Department level. However, the Board is well aware of your ongoing interpersonal issues with the Department Chair. For that failure, and for your punitive methods in this matter, it is the Board’s decision to place your tenure in a probationary state, Dr. Jankowiak. We will review again in six months.”
After twenty-four months of subpoenas, stays, dates and deliberations, Jankowiak’s criminal trial ended in his favor.
If Jankowiak expected that exoneration would accompany acquittal it was a naive hope. Instead, the assault on his character continued: Elliot Hampden immediately protested that the “not-guilty” criminal verdict was really the failure of a liberally-biased court which refused to consider all the evidence and that disallowed truths would have changed the outcome. In voicing GenCorp’s displeasure, Hampden laid the groundwork to rework the case through civil court—where a damage verdict would be within GenCorp’s reach.
Jankowiak had been beaten down. He had defended himself against charges which proved far more damning in presentation than in verdict. Bridges with his fellow Faculty and colleagues had been irreparably torched. Under the onslaught of doubt, he’d lost the battle to preserve his professional integrity.
Though not allowed to speak openly, the jury saw circumstances differently than Hampden. There could be no criminal conviction because the Police’s computer forensics eventually yielded the possibility that Jankowiak’s computer had been hacked. Neither could Jankowiak obtain retribution against the arresting officers. His arrest had been an unfortunate but reasonable outcome during the pace of the investigation.
To a man the Jury agreed that that the so-called evidence had been planted, probably by GenCorp, onto Jankowiak’s computer. But that was the extent of what they could consider; the computer evidence was summarily disallowed when the details of Jankowiak’s detainment and the timing of his Miranda Rights reading came to light.
It was a victory with a legacy cost—Jankowiak’s legal team failed to prove that GenCorp was the provoking agent. The legal dismissal gave GenCorp ample time to destroy whatever evidence might have existed.
Jankowiak did earn the Twelve’s sympathy as it was brutally obvious that GenCorp had legally sought to mug him for control of his patents.
Following the trial, Shapner and Hampden dominated the interviews, effectively muzzling Jankowiak anew.
“Unfortunate technicalities stood in the way of justice.” Shapner had said. “The court could not convict when key evidence was dismissed.”
“Will you address your complaints against the Police Department?” A reporter had asked.
“We will evaluate our position and consider all options,” Hampden had answered. “Some things, however, are beyond our control. What’s done is done. Heinous procedural mistakes cannot be undone.”
Shapner showed more grace. “More importantly, the leak of GenCorp’s proprietary work was sealed.”
“Could you tell me where to find Dr. Jankowiak’s office?” A man respectably dressed in a modest three-piece business suit queried to no one in particular as the between-classes student traffic surged through a University corridor.
With regret, Ryan broke off his hallway conversation with a fawning coed to address the stranger.
This is too familiar. He sensed the surreal pang of deva vu as he approached the visitor.
The man had halted midstream in the corridor, unable or unwilling to challenge the wave of students that parted and flowed around him.
“Do you have an appointment?” Ryan was in his fifth and final year of graduate study under Jankowiak’s tutelage. His thesis defense was only weeks away.
“Of course but I was hoping to talk with you as well.” The man surprised him. “You are Ryan I presume?”
It was disconcerting to Ryan to be known by anyone outside of the limits of the academic community.
“Yes,” he said cautiously.
“Paul Pawluk,” the man introduced himself, extending a card with his hand.
Ryan took the card and gave it a quick glance. He immediately recognized the logo of Pawluk’s employer as a government lab.
Pawluk continued his invitation.
“I’d like to talk to you later regarding your future plans. We have an opportunity that may be of interest.”
“I’d like to hear it,” Ryan said politely, not letting on that Jankowiak was finalizing details with the University’s Business Incubator Division to take the gaming product into the commercial arena. After graduation, Ryan would be one of the principals.
For Ryan, and his student colleagues, the previous two years had passed with considerable concern. Though Jankowiak had labored long hours to obtain grant money during his legal defense, he simply could not keep pace. Money had run thin. Some of Ryan’s student colleagues had bolted to other groups and some to other schools.
For his part, Ryan had developed the art of securing grants from funding agencies like the NSF and DARPA—sufficient to cover his final two years—but not enough to underwrite the stipends and tuition for his fellow grad students.
With reluctance, the University had provided sufficient seed money to keep Jankowiak’s research program afloat. Ryan knew the support had come with a political cost, the unfair postulation that it was preventing a new faculty hire. He did not know about the loss of proposed funding for a new building that was also being blamed on Jankowiak.
It was obvious that relations with competing faculty had soured. Some blamed him for their own funding shortfalls, alleging that Jankowiak’s battle with GenCorp, and the University’s decision to retain him on the Faculty was, by association, inhibiting corporate collaboration.
There was some truth to their assertion: Half of the University’s VC contacts had shied away during the court case and were only now beginning to sniff again at its incubating projects. And, after a year of mending fences and finding them perpetually in ruin, Jankowiak had committed to a fresh start.
Ryan rued the day his adviser would leave academia. But he also wanted to further his knowledge for more than an education. In that regard, it made his decision to seek the private sector more palatable.
With his reservations in check, Ryan offered to escort Pawluk to his adviser’s office. A moment later he knocked at Jankowiak’s door.
“Come in.” Came Jankowiak’s voice.
Pawluk waited for Ryan to open the door. Jankowiak did not seem surprised by his visitor.
“Dr. Pawluk,” Jankowiak smiled. “What brings you into my neck of the woods?”
“Honestly, I was just passing through,” Pawluk replied. “Then last night my department head asked me to take a detour.”
“We’re not that far out of the way.”
“No, not at all.” Pawluk laughed.
Ryan began to leave.
“I was just talking to your protege,” Pawluk acknowledged him. “Perhaps he can be included in the discussion?”
“Certainly,” Jankowiak agreed. “Ryan, please come back in an hour.”
“Yes, Sir.” Ryan answered. Why did I say, ‘Sir?’ He wondered as he departed.
The hallway was vacant; the coed was gone. Now Ryan had an uninteresting hour to kill.
After the door closed Pawluk cleared his throat. “My research department has a proposal that may be of interest.”
“I thought so. Is it for me or for my ready-to-graduate student?”
“Well, the opportunity is of benefit to both of you—through Ryan’s efforts, of course.”
Jankowiak frowned. “Are you willing to sign an NDA?” He asked.
Pawluk showed a moment of surprise but then relaxed. The reason for the request was transparent. “Of course,” he agreed. “I suppose I’ll need to.” Although Pawluk was disappointed, an half hour later he restarted.
“We want to offer Ryan a post-doc but,” Pawluk smiled wistfully, “based on this…” He referred to the NDA, ”I’m sure he’s already made his choice. Perhaps it would be enough for him intern for six months and help us get a program started?”
“You’re not planning to take on the drug companies, are you?” Jankowiak teased.
“No, we develop defense related applications.”
Jankowiak ignored the interesting question to instead focus on the practical. “Who will be your game-players?”
“Every year we have thousands of recruits,” Pawluk answered. “Most of them are just kids, many are soft and naive. The transition from being a video-game junkie living at home to a military professional and its rigid discipline is challenging.”
“You’re offering them a diversion?” Jankowiak surmised.
“Yes, but it’s not without value. During initial training many have remarkable ideas. Being green they easily think outside the box but, conversely, most are reluctant to express their ideas. It’s not hard to understand why. They’re surrounded by seasoned and hardened professionals. They’re challenged daily and they fail often. They don’t want to invite ridicule, especially the self-earned variety. They quickly learn to keep their mouths shut.”
“Sounds cultural,” Jankowiak remarked.
“Absolutely,” Pawluk agreed. “We don’t want to change the culture but we do want to break through that barrier. We think they’d be inclined to express their ideas in a game.”
“What sort of ideas? Where would Ryan contribute?” Jankowiak was no longer critical.
“Several. Obviously tactical…”
“We haven’t attempted tactical gaming,” Jankowiak cut him off. “Our focus is entirely molecular-based.”
Pawluk’s face went blank.
Jankowiak grocked the gist. “Are you concerned with the proliferation of biological agents?”
“The parameters of the program aren’t fully defined.”
“I’m not sure where I can help you without knowing more.” Jankowiak remained forthright. “Proliferation or synthesis?”
“You’re not cleared for that answer,” Pawluk stated flatly.
“I’m not cleared for anything,” Jankowiak responded factually.
“No, I suppose not,” Pawluk exhaled. “What I can discuss is that we want to develop bio-sensors, rapid detection of carbon-based applications.”
“I thought that lay in the realm of materials science,” Jankowiak debated.
“So did solar and LEDs at one time.” Pawluk countered. “Things change.”
“I see.” Jankowiak leaned back to ponder.
“If Ryan is willing,” Pawluk pressed, “to develop the structure of your game method, it’ll get us started. We’d take it from there. And there will be royalties paid on all patents.”
“Will there be any?” Jankowiak challenged. “I imagine most of what he’d work on would be classified.”
“Perhaps,” Pawluk conceded, “but that has collateral with the NSF.”
“Really?” Jankowiak scoffed as gently as he could manage. “Then why offer to pay royalties at all?”
“Dividends, then,” Pawluk relented, “for us, Ryan and you—a partnership. As you know, your research has been funded by the government and all patents are inherently owned by the government. We’ve been reviewing your approach and we think it will meet our needs.”
“Why don’t you just launch a program independently?” Jankowiak was not impressed by the strong-arming.
“Non-compete. Although the government can develop at will, it cannot be in competition with the private sector. Nor can it be in it to undermine your profit.”
“At present, neither am I,” Jankowiak smiled, “but that may soon change.”
“I suspected so, Dr. Jankowiak.” Pawluk tapped the NDA again, “but I would like to talk to Ryan—with your permission, of course.”
“You don’t need my permission.”
“No, but I may need your… persuasion.”
“I think you may need more than that. To start up a program will take more than one person, no matter how gifted he is.”
Pawluk’s eyes narrowed. Was Jankowiak wheeling and dealing?
Jankowiak continued. “A contract in hand would go a long way to help acquire serious VC interest.”
“You’re asking a price…?”
“No, I”m injecting a dose of reality into your request. It’s easy to underestimate just how much work goes into developing this platform. As a single consultant, it will take Ryan six months just to design a concept on paper and another year to compile the first working module—no matter how many programmers you give him. I’d like him back sooner.”
“I see,” Pawluk said. “I’ll take this back to my program manager.” Yet Pawluk was smiling. “I see no reason he won’t accommodate your request.”
“A single car rollover today claimed the life of an embattled Nobel Laureate.” In a somber tone an anchorwoman read the unfortunate news from her teleprompter.
“Tyson Jankowiak, whose research in computerized gaming led to a breakthrough against the AIDS virus, was the driver and lone occupant of the vehicle…”
She went on to describe the manner of his death. It was a sensational necessity to keep the viewers engaged before they tuned out the mundane: Jankowiak had been speeding in his late model Tesla and had lost control while navigating the bend of a rain-slicked curve. Another reckless tragedy.
Then she read through the highlights of Jankowiak’s life, breezing over his accomplishments until she could regurgitate an unflattering reference to his legal battle with GenCorp.
Gossip was delicious; a reputation once possessed by slander would not ever be fully exorcised.
Then there was a statement from the University president, footage of CI’s modest frontage and the unsubstantiated notation that Jankowiak’s secretive work was in peril. She finished with a final pot-stirring of the GenCorp controversy, either ignorantly or conveniently neglecting that Jankowiak had dropped his lawsuits simply because retribution was of lesser value to him than progress. Her cynical eulogy implied hidden wrongdoing, not a lack of funds. Jankowiak’s bequeath was a tinted legacy.
That afternoon, the shocked personnel of CI gathered in the company lunchroom for an impromptu All Hands.
“In light of today’s tragedy,” Ryan addressed the meeting, “I will speak to the concerns we are all experiencing now…”
He paused, fighting his grief and unable to speak even while CI’s employees instinctively shuffled in their seats. To a person, they surmised that their jobs were at an end. For the fortunate, life savings would be tapped to survive the next few months. For those of lesser means, mortgages and rent payments would be missed; houses would be lost and credit would plummet toward ruin.
Chance had once smiled upon them but now she showed blatant disfavor.
“CI will survive,” Ryan promised. “I will not terminate a single employee unless the situation is dire.”
“It is already dire!” A technician protested. He had been married for two years and his wife was pregnant with twins. This had been his first stable job in a decade.
“It is urgent,” Ryan disagreed, welcoming the diversion because it allowed him to shore up his grief, “but I will be meeting with investors and partners over the next few weeks to secure their continued commitments.”
“Is there any advance word?” Another voice asked. It was from a flirtatious admin. She was cute and forward but a burden on her peers. Even in the start-up working world she could survive on a smile and a half-day’s effort.
“I’ve been on the phone all morning with our Principal Investor,” Ryan’s face was grim. “He’s agreed to continue funding for the near term.”
“Oh.” Her face was blank.
“For how long?” An older voice, perhaps a scientist’s, carried through from the back of the crowded room.
“Until he’s certain that we can continue Dr. Jankowiak’s work.” Ryan instantly regretted his mistake. The room nearly erupted.
“Why can’t we?” This came loudly from a salesman.
“I think we can,” Ryan assured. “Some of Dr. Jankowiak’s earlier work was licensed from the University directly through him to CI. I’ve had preliminary talks with the University’s legal office and it seems a formality to transfer those licenses entirely to the company.”
He paused and plunged, “But with his death there could be a bidding war…“
“We can’t fight Big Pharma. We can’t fight GenCorp.” Voices babbled throughout the room.
“If Dr. Jankowiak’s other beneficiaries agree we won’t have to.” Ryan remained calm. “I think we can make that happen. We’re all shareholders in CI.”
“We’re not all vested.”
“Of course,” Ryan agreed. “Effective immediately that is changed. We all have a vested share in CI. We’re all owners, and those who are capable of staying will share in the rewards. Those who need to leave will do so and still be fully vested up to the date of their departure.”
“What about ERISA?” Asked HR.
“Across the board equity sharing for present personnel.” Ryan set his jaw. “From top to bottom.”
“But what about new hires?”
Ryan glared. “CI takes care of its own.”
The HR representative wisely held her tongue.
“Do we have the legal right to continue to develop on all the patents?” That was from a principal engineer.
“I believe we do,” Ryan smiled. “The balance of CI’s patents are shared among us all. Some may be challenged in a court of law but our legal counsel assures us that precedent is in our favor. The real challenge that lies ahead ahead—is continued funding without our founder—that’s the risk that we who choose to remain must embark upon.”
“We have a new challenge,” CI’s Lead Counsel informed Ryan.
“Infringement?” Ryan asked.
“No, a territorial claim of joint ownership.”
He produced a docket of legal papers.
“This is from GenCorp.”
“What do they want this time?”
“In short, they propose a preexisting intent to enter into joint development with Jankowiak’s corporate identity.”
“He worked at the University at the time. He couldn’t make that agreement,” Ryan scoffed.
“They contend he already had incubated a clandestine project apart from the university and that when he negotiated with them he represented the start-up not his research group.”
“They’re saying he signed on behalf of CI before CI was formed? That’s ludicrous. ”
“Of course it is. Unfortunately, if they had access to all his personal data and records like he suspected, they would be able to construct a history that favors their assertion.”
“Did they?” Ryan frowned.
“It reads like Jankowiak.”
“But CI didn’t incorporate until much later. The dates prove that.”
“They argue a handshake deal existed for whatever Jankowiak was planning.”
“He wasn’t planning anything at that time. I know. I worked with him daily.”
“It’s not what you know, Ryan. It’s what can be proved and disproved.”
“Isn’t this straight out fraud?” Ryan asked.
“They don’t intend to go to court. They want us to bleed and capitulate.”
Ryan got it. “We lack the capital to defend ourselves indefinitely. What do you propose?”
“Not to cave in.” The lawyer counseled.
“Of course, but what are our legal options?”
“Several, but there may be—a more elegant—way. Do you still have your contacts at the Lab?’
“You mean Pawluk?”
“Yes, him. Scuttlebutt says that GenCorp has pinged the government’s espionage radar from their intellectual losses. Perhaps he should be warned?”
“You worked with Pawluk at the time Jankowiak fought GenCorp, right?”
“It was a bit later.”
“Even so, the IP you developed for Pawluk was an extension of Jankowiak’s work. By making these assertions, GenCorp may have overstepped their intent.”
“And Pawluk will care?”
“He might see it as a matter of national security.”
“I see. Anything else?”
“It would help establish that Jankowiak had no intention of working with GenCorp.” The lawyer cleared his throat in emphasis.
“Yes,” Ryan permitted.
“We could go through Jankowiak’s files again. To read with this kind of authenticity,” he referred to the documents, “it has to be ‘cut and paste.’ There must be source files. We’d learn the extent to which Jankowiak was hacked.”
“That would be valuable,” Ryan agreed.
The lawyer was encouraged. “Perhaps we should hire a PI. With the University’s assistance we might…”
“We need to tread lightly.” Ryan admonished. “There are landmines with some of the faculty in his old department. For now you concentrate on GenCorp.”
“Of course,” The lawyer knew all about the disgruntled faculty that were once Jankowiak’s colleagues. “I’ve prepared a letter countering GenCorp’s claims. I’ll go over it with a legal consultant this morning and then I’ll present it you this afternoon.”
“Agreed. Submit all the consultant’s charges promptly.”
“Will do. About a PI?”
“I’ll give it some consideration. In the meantime, I’ll talk to Pawluk.”
Ryan stood atop a cobblestone veranda, tersely barking into his cell phone at his Admin. Wisely, she was buffered by the distance between her agitated boss and her desk at CI.
As Ryan tuned out the thousand legal dramas in the foreground promenade that were unfolding in parallel with his own, the Admin could hear the downtown bustle of sirens and horns and was privy to the angry chatter of taxis that jockeyed for position and fares from the courthouse traffic.
“I didn’t hear you, Sir,” she said, still wincing after a passing driver wailed long on his horn.
“What do you mean, he left an hour ago?” Ryan questioned. “I’ve not seen him. Have you not heard from him since?”
“Is there a traffic problem?”
“None that I’m aware of. I’m looking at the traffic website right now.”
“Then continue to try to reach him.” Ryan ordered. “Call him. Text him. Page him. Copy me on each. If he doesn’t contact you in the next ten minutes, hone in on his cellular GPS and let me know where he is.”
“Thanks.” Ryan hung up.
CI’s legal showdown with GenCorp was scheduled to begin within the hour and his Legal Counsel was AWOL. Ryan paced the veranda again—this time as much in frustration as with impatience.
A steady stream of people mounted and dismounted the steps beneath him, leaving him in their wake. He caught snippets of their equally tense conversations, which on any other day might have been interesting—but not today. Nothing could breach the battlement of his concerns.
His phone vibrated in his hand. It was his Admin.
“Ryan.” He answered.
“I’ve got some news.” She said. “He’s at GenCorp.”
“What’s he doing there?” Ryan thought aloud.
“Just thought I’d let you know.” She sidestepped his question.
“Of course.” Ryan replied. “Thanks for the update. Keep on him.”
“Yes, Sir.” She hung up.
Ryan immediately texted his Senior Counsel.
Know U R at GenCorp. Update?
Ryan paced, the phone tightly grasped in his palm, awaiting the reply. He was losing his composure and he knew it but he couldn’t quell the obvious questions. What was his lawyer doing behind enemy lines? Had his Counselor been bought?
Ryan stewed; his thoughts were conflicted. The lawyer had been with CI at its inception and had successfully navigated many serious challenges to the company’s solvency: he’d managed the transfer of IP following Jankowiak’s untimely death; he’d secured VC funding; he’d litigated the suits of infringement; he owned a small fortune in shares.
More so, the battle with GenCorp was intensely personal to the lawyer. He’d several times expressed his concern that Jankowiak’s death was suspicious, even arguing with Ryan to fund a private investigation. He fought this suit with personal affront.
Ryan had not committed cash to a vendetta. Like his predecessor, though his reasons differed, he had shied from a clash with GenCorp. He now wondered if he had done the right thing.
Ryan felt the phone vibrate an instant before it chimed. He stopped pacing. It was from his lawyer.
The message irked Ryan. He needed answers, not a geocache challenge from a subordinate. Elliot Hampden was GenCorp’s VP of Legal Affairs.
Report. He demanded.
Elliot Hampden had played a pivotal role in the judicial assault on Jankowiak. Ryan detested Hampden.
The return text was prompt.
Find him, please.
Ryan fumed indulgently as he slowly acquiesced to seek out Hampden. It was considerably more proactive than petulant pacing and it was obvious that his attorney was muzzled by circumstance.
He strode across the cobblestone and stepped through dark-stained walnut doors onto a marble foyer.
His phone vibrated. It was his Admin. He answered it in stride.
“Ryan.” He said tersely.
“Elliot Hampden in the Judge’s Chambers.”
“What? What’s going on?” Ryan nearly shouted into the receiver.
“He’s requested a Stay. He would like to meet you at GenCorp’s headquarters.”
“Why aren’t we talking to the Judge?”
“We already have. Our Counsel has agreed to the Stay.”
“What else do you know?” Ryan demanded. Too much was happening behind his back.
“I know GenCorp’s address.”
Ryan stopped walking. He laughed harshly, a guttural sound that reflected his bitterness although his tension was released. His Admin had said the right thing.
“I want closure on this case.” He thought aloud again.
“We all do. I’m sorry.” The Admin hung up.
As Ryan returned to his car, his attempts to reach his lawyer remained futile. An half hour later he’d crossed town still without hearing any further word.
As he entered GenCorp’s front lobby, his Counsel and Elliot Hampden met him.
His lawyer was tense, his face was bland and he would not hold eye contact with Ryan. Next to Hampden, who was naturally tall, he seemed unimportant and small.
Hampden’s face beamed, his dark eyes glowed triumphantly and when he opened his mouth to speak Ryan felt his hackles rise.
“This way, Ryan,” Hampden directed, leading him into the room where Jankowiak had been framed. As the door closed behind them, Ryan prepared to fight.
“Please take a seat.” Hampden showed him to a chair. On the conference table in front of the chair was a stack of legal documents.
Ryan scanned the leading text. It was a contract. Alongside was a GenCorp memorandum detailing the destruction of an offshore R&D facility three years earlier.
Ryan shot a quizzical glance at his lawyer but the man had moved to the front of the room. Surprisingly, Hampden had sat down.
“Thank you for coming so quickly, Ryan.” His lawyer started. “I”m sure you already understand why I was unable to discuss anything with you.”
Ryan slowly nodded. He looked across the table at Hampden, struggling to conceal his disdain but Hampden had shriveled in stature. Behind the closed door his bravado was no longer needed.
“From today forward, GenCorp has elected to entirely withdraw from its claims,” CI’s Counsel announced.
“Thank you for coming,” Ryan addressed a banquet audience. It was a gathering of venture capitalists, Wall Street hedge fund executives and a smattering of reporters who had answered his press release call. Champagne was in abundance.
“Today’s modest initial public offering was an unequivocal success.”
There was muted applause.
“The shares marketed today will provide CI with the capital needed to strongly grow our output. Within five years no one will recognize us from today’s humble start-up. We’ll have new products in markets that were previously unattainable. And today we finally paid back, with interest, those who have shared this incredible journey with us.”
The venture capitalists frowned but Ryan soldiered on.
“For years we have provided stock options as prizes to our games’ players. In the early days nobody knew if they would ever be worth anything. But our legions played our games with fervor and zealousness in spite of the whisper of recompense. Their contributions led to breakthroughs and breakthroughs were fashioned into real products. CI grew and became profitable. We thank you.”
“With Collective contributions we have Intelligent products.”
It was cheesy but effective.
“…Moreover, the infusion of cash will allow us to complete the development of the projects in our pipeline and to start new ones that will further the ongoing goals of my mentor, Dr. Tyrone Jankowiak, for the betterment of all.”
The Wall Street executives frowned openly. If Ryan had not been so vocal about pursuing continued R&D, this IPO would have had ten times the success. He had, with a single-minded devotion to long-term thinking, minimized their haul. To some, he had a damnable insistence on being a strategic humanitarian. From their viewpoint, it was the critical flaw of his business acumen. They knew as proof that some very big investors had turned away, unwilling and unable to tender resources to a company that valued continued success over the next quarter’s profits. The ROI for long-termed strategies were anemic.
When the bankers had attempted to steer his message to a more business-friendly dialogue Ryan had reminded them that the IPO was turning them a handsome profit. They could defect and back any other horse they wished.
He had astutely called their bluff. There weren’t any other phenoms in the race. CI held the patents, had defended them in courts and was upheld as the winner. And CI had demonstrated results. No other start-up came close. CI was profitable.
Ryan surveyed his audience. He could sense the restlessness of unrequited greed. He savored the moment.
“I would like to announce an exciting development.”
The restless buzz in the room reluctantly faded.
“As you know, Project Methuselah was founded by the late Dr. Jankowiak to combat Progeria, a genetic condition that results in premature aging. To unlock the disease’s mechanisms was to peer over the horizon at human longevity.”
“But the human lifespan is too long enough to ascertain success or failure. We could not directly develop using human subjects. Instead we chose a prototype, a short-lived creature, the elegant Monarch butterfly.”
“Why? Each spring two successive generations of Monarchs migrate thousands of miles from Mexico to Canada. Besides foraging and traveling, each generation reproduces and dies. Its progeny hatches, grows and pupates and flies forward, never returning to its location of metamorphosis. But each autumn, the third generation is remarkably different. It returns to winter, over the grounds of its parents, to where its grandparents began. Not only do the progeny migrate the full distance, they outlast their predecessors by living three times longer.”
The background noise began to build. Ryan’s science lesson was less than thrilling.
“There is a genomic mechanism in the Monarch that regulates its bifurcated circadian clock. One expression is typical of insects, the other is more mammalian. Dr. Jankowiak and I felt that this species holds one of the keys to regulating human longevity. Under his guidance and sponsorship we crafted two games. First, one explored the Monarch’s genome, but the later game was based on human biology. Users have played either game or both but now the two vectors run in parallel with CI’s scientists and programmers feeding back progress between them. The synergy has been fruitful.”
He paused again. Several reporters were straining to hear his next words above the bubbling din.
“Today I am thrilled to announce that have partly achieved our original goal. We can regulate Monarch longevity. We can turn their aging cycle off and on at will. Our longest-lived population is well over a year in age.”
There was discontent within the audience. The financial audience cared little about the lifespan of an insect.
“More amazing,” Ryan continued, “preliminary work with lab-cultured human tissue is showing a similar response.”
“How are you doing, Mom?” Ryan asked.
“I’ve seen better days.” She whispered. She was in a hospital, like she had been for so many years, but this time she was in need of its care.
“I came as soon as I could.”
“I know you did, son.” Her speech was hesitant. The stroke had seized the left side of her face, rendering it reluctant to move.
“Do I look that bad?” She rasped.
Ryan’s eyes betrayed him.
“I’m sorry, Son.”
“Don’t be Mom. It’s not your fault.” His eyes turned downward. “I didn’t expect this.”
“No one lives forever.”
“Mom, we’re unlocking STEM cells now…”
“…directing specificity, turning on genes that can heal…”
“We’re in Stage II clinical trials. You can be included. We can undo the damage.”
“I said ‘No,’ Son.” Although fragile in voice her tone was firm.
Why not? Ryan’s eyes questioned. He would argue no further with his Mother.
“I don’t want to live longer.”
“Don’t,” she soothed, “I’ve had a good life. You’ve brought me tremendous fulfillment as a Mother. I’m so proud of you.”
“For what, Mom?”
“You rose above our station. You’ve exceeded your potential. Now you have your own company and you’re successful—and it’s not all for money.”
“What makes you think so?”
“You can’t fool me, Ryan.” She tried to laugh but pain stopped her. “I saw your press conference. I watched it from here in my bed. I heard your speech. You said as much.”
“That was just posturing.”
“Oh?” Now there was doubt and disappointment on her face.
“My risks are much greater than others.” Ryan smiled sardonically. “Don’t get me wrong, Mom, IPOs generate enormous amounts of money—but the windfall is for the VCs and the bankers—they underwrite only if they can cash out quickly. Six months later they have no further liability. If I have one bad project the company is through.”
“I suppose.” The worrisome expression had been erased from her face. “I see your point.”
“I’m simply managing the public’s expectations—keeping them low—to allow us to stumble and survive.”
“I don’t believe you, Son.”
“Well, Mom, you are the only one who knows differently.”
“That’s why I’m so proud.”
On the morning of the FDA's announcement CI's stock had plunged 40% to a new 52-week low. That nether eclipsed the discomfort from the gradual 30% slide during the previous two weeks. The Market, or rather, the market Shorts, were in command. They were en masse betting on a negative decision, driving the selling price down even against the enthusiasm of the general public.
As evidence, the short-sellers cited the substantial sale of stock by the CFO in the days leading up to the decision.
Oddly, it was the only insider trade for the quarter. The shorts did not know that Ryan had had all his employees sign a contract that prohibited sales for ninety days before any significant announcement—or that he had made an exception.
The CFO had needed cash for a down payment on a house. He knew he should have waited until after the FDA’s decision but his wife was pregnant, their penthouse studio was cramped and it simply wasn’t possible to reschedule the birth of his first. He disclosed the filing, as required by law, and raised his $150K capital for a modest Bay Area down payment.
The news of the sale took on a life of its own and CI shares had begun a fortnight’s decline, slow and steady at first, then momentum built as the Shorts smelled blood until there was an ignominious plunge that presaged the FDA’s announcement.
If the shorts really had inside information they might have based it on breadth of sales rather than those from a single officer. Perhaps they had. In hindsight, it was a slash and grab that lasted but a few dozen hours. Even so it returned handsomely to those who had initiated it.
At 10 AM Ryan addressed the media echoing the FDA’s announcement. The Methuselah project was approved for human clinical trials.
By midday the stock price had vaulted a decade above its opening value and Ryan was again in damage-control mode, albeit from the opposite side. Stage III trials required years of data gathering and statistical success before a pharmaceutical license was granted.
Although his address urged caution and emphasized the hurdles still to surmount, he was thrilled. The hold on insider trades was lifted.
Following the death of its founder, CI had survived its first major test.
“Is my son too short?” A concerned parent asked a pediatrician.
“Not at all. Although his height is in the bottom quartile, it’s not out of the ordinary from the statistics. Everybody’s genes kick in at a different time.”
“He’s barely five feet tall and he’s nearly fourteen.”
“At what age did you experience your adult growth spurt?”
“Uh… I see.” The parent responded. He chuckled. “I worried that I was growing too slowly. It bothered me so much that I didn’t attend my high school graduation.”
“Then you are well-prepared to help him. You can relate.”
“I suppose I am. I never thought of it that way. Thank you, Doctor.”
The pediatrician smiled. Like many doctors she found her motivation in helping people. But unlike her cheery response, she had concerns. She and her colleagues were whispering:that there had recently been an unusual number of patients breaching the lower edge of statistical norms. At the last Pediatric Medical Conference they had gossiped over wine—but no one had crunched any numbers—that something was in the water or the air or something conspiratorially like that. Conferences were always filled with creative hearsay.
She thought back to a twelve-year old girl she’d seen the previous day.
“My daughter sleeps all day.” The exasperated mom had expressed.
“Very normal.” She had assured. “Adolescents need more sleep.”
“But she’s up all night!”
“That’s not uncommon.”
“You walk around in the dark.” The Mom accused. “You read in poor light.”
“I can see fine, Mom.”
“Young people’s vision is much more acute than adults.” The Pediatrician interjected, ending the bickering.
She had turned to the teen.
“Is homework keeping you up late?”
“Sunlight hurts my eyes.” The teen said simply.
“Oh.” The pediatrician feigned a lack of concern. “Well, let’s have a look at you.”
The general examination that followed indicated a young girl in excellent health—except when she looked into the girl’s eyes. She had jumped as the penlight shone into her pupils.
“That hurts.” She complained. She pushed the penlight away, thwarting a second attempt.
The Pediatrician deferred.
“No redness, no irritation. Have you seen an optometrist lately?” The Pediatrician had asked with a nonchalance she did not feel.
“Just last week,” Mom replied. “Her eyesight is 20/20.”
“Because of the sensitivity, I could refer you to a specialist.” The Pediatrician offered. She checked a calendar on her computer. “Looks like I can make an appointment early next week.”
“Mom, I’m fine.” The teen had protested.
“Nonsense,” the Mom had disagreed with her daughter before addressing the doctor. “We’ll take it, thanks.”
She had immediately booked the appointment with an ophthalmologist. When she handed the referral to the Mom she asked.
“How’s she doing in school?”
“You must be a very good Mom. We should all be so fortunate.”
The Mom had left looking as anxious as she’d arrived.
The Pediatrician had shrugged her shoulders and prepared to see the next patient.
After the second singularity she wasn’t feeling so cavalier. She knew someone—a former roommate and colleague from her residency days—that had taken the academic route instead of choosing general practice. Perhaps there was an interesting study to pursue. She would call the colleague after work.
Her friend would probably laugh. A human requires more than a decade to approach physical maturity, most males need two. The population was large. These anecdotes were simply noise.
“I have a call for you on Line 4.” Ryan’s admin announced over the intercom.
“Who is it?”
“John Lambert. He says he’s a reporter from The Post.”
Ryan frowned. The FDA’s decision was scheduled for later that morning. Fielding eleventh hour speculative questions from a nosy reporter was not recommended.
“Tell him to refer to yesterday’s press release.”
“I’ve already done that.” She paused. “He mentioned… “
She gave the name of one of CI’s 3rd Stage Clinical participants.
“Put him through,” Ryan acquiesced.
The earpiece clicked.
“You’re connected,” Ryan’s admin indicated and then the earpiece clicked again as she disconnected.
“This is Ryan.”
“Ryan, I’m John Lambert, from The Post.”
First name greeting, Ryan grimaced. Not a social call.
“What did you need that wasn’t in the press release?” Ryan asked.
“I’m not a financial reporter.” Lambert replied. “I write about political events. I covered your company for awhile following the death of your CI’s founder.”
Ryan remembered. Lambert’s column had not been complimentary. He had emphasized Jankowiak’s refusal to legally challenge GenCorp’s as evidence of his guilt. It had taken years for the innuendo from pieces like his to cease haunting their start-up.
“You’ve already been referred to the press release,” Ryan repeated. “If there is nothing further?”
“Overnight, I’ve been in contact with the family of… “ He named the participant.
“Then you’ll know the young girl’s condition and her progress. She’s alive and thriving.”
“No, I don’t,” Lambert responded. “Her mother cited a confidentiality clause.”
Ryan waited. Confidentiality clauses were commonly applied with experimental drug trials as were blanket releases from harm. There was nothing untoward about CI’s agreements with its participants. Lambert needed to divulge.
“His wife had an amniocentesis and ultrasound yesterday.”
“I didn’t know she was pregnant.”
“The baby is severely deformed.”
“I”m terribly sorry.” Ryan said and he was.
“His development had been halted. It’s genetic.”
How can you make that assessment? Ryan wondered. You’re not a genetic specialist.
“The girl’s mother has not been administered the prototype,” Ryan stated flatly, preparing to terminate the conversation.
Lambert had anticipated the response.
“I’m sure you know this isn’t the first,” he pressed. “How many more are there?“
“You’ll hear the FDA’s announcement later today,” Ryan said calmly. “If this is all you have, I must caution you that we will vigorously defend against libel.”
“How many more are there?” Lambert repeated.
Ryan disconnected the call.
“Dr. Pawluk, please,” Ryan spoke into the receiver.
“Whom may I say is calling?”
“Ryan. From CI.”
The pause lingered.
“Just a moment, I’ll put you through,” The Admin promised. Following the click another silence of rude length materialized.
The phone clicked again. It was the Admin.
“Someone will be with you in just a moment.”
Ryan sensed the run-around that was in progress. He began to protest but with a click the Admin was gone. This time the silence was brief and a connection was forged.
“Ryan? This is Robb.”
“I would like to speak to Dr. Pawluk.”
“Dr. Pawluk is retired.”
“I manage his lab—or what’s left of it. Did you get my message from this morning?”
Ryan paused and collected his thoughts. Pawluk and Jankowiak had shared a mutual understanding for the competitive development of CI technology that Pawluk had continued with Ryan CI’s founder’s death. It prohibited intellectual piracy.
“No,” He responded at length. Robb was an unknown.
“I called about an hour ago.”
“Are you continuing Dr. Pawluk’s research?” Ryan ignored the assertion.
“No,” Robb replied. “We have moved onto different avenues. I’m simply cleaning up a few loose ends.”
That statement made a convenient sense to Ryan. The anomalies were recent in appearance. To support his suspicion he asked, “When did Dr. Pawluk retire?”
“Three months ago.”
The timing of Pawluk’s retirement overlapped with Lambert’s accusations.
“You have jurisdiction over Dr. Pawluk’s research?” Ryan continued his interrogation.
“Yes, I own the program,” Robb repeated.
“Then perhaps you’ll tell me what has changed in the program,” Ryan challenged.
“You know I helped set it up.”
Robb was silent.
Ryan waited but as the dead time awkwardly stretched over a minute in length he wondered if he’d been too belligerent.
When Robb spoke his voice was low and his tone was guarded. It wasn’t a stand-off.
“Would you like to meet in person?” Robb offered.
“The sooner the better,” Ryan pressed.
Lambert’s byline ran the following Saturday as a human interest piece. As he’d threatened, it was an interview with the mother of a CI clinical participant.
As human interest, the story caught the eye of the casual weekend reader. Within hours it had sparked numerous comments and by virtue of its increasing traffic it was picked up by business-copy editors. Later in the day, when Lambert posted a video transcript, it went viral.
Corrupted Intelligence – by John Lambert
“My daughter, Tori, has a genetic disorder that causes premature aging. She was first diagnosed when she was two—her hair had begun to thin and her skin was showing signs of wrinkles. For the past five years she has been taking CI’s RD-969. Now she is nearly ten years old.”
“Why did you agree to participate in CI’s clinical trials?”
“You let her a five year old choose?”
“Facing death had made her very mature.”
“But you really had the final say?”
“I suppose so. Of course.”
“Why did you agree?”
“There were many reasons. Her father and I wanted the best for our daughter. Her diagnosis had denied her a normal life. There is no treatment or cure—no alternative.”
“How did you get into the program?”
“We were recommended by Tori’s pediatrician. She was incredible—very supportive and sympathetic—fully up-to-date on the latest in medicine. Her colleague once worked with CI personnel at a government lab. We read up on the company and we were impressed. We respected Dr. Jankowiak’s credentials. So we applied to the program and we interviewed.“
“You met Dr. Jankowiak?”
“Yes. He convinced us that he wanted to help. He thought he might have a solution that could prolong her life. We were impressed by his honesty and humility. My husband, Tori and I agreed to participate. Like I said earlier, there was no other alternative.”
“Did you have any concerns at the time?”
“Of course. Being part of an ‘experiment’ is frightening. When it’s your child its terrifying. But Tori was monitored closely by doctors and scientists. There was never any side effects that we could see.”
“How long has Tori participated in the experiment?”
“For five years.”
“Can you describe her condition?”
“She is ten years old. She has continued to age but now it’s at a normal pace. Some things seem to have reversed.”
“What do you mean?”
“She now plays like any ten year old now except she looks very different.”
“How is that?”
“Her appearance is aged.”
“More than my own.”
“Very powerful treatment,” Lambert summarized. “How concerned are you?”
“I’m a mother. I’m heartbroken. You accept it but you never get used to it.”
“How has that affected you and your husband?”
“We have been afraid to have another child.”
“Why is that? Aren’t the odds of having a second child with an aging disorder astronomically small?”
“It wasn’t the odds, it was the risk. You can’t just disconnect from the reality that we are all part of the experiment. Tori used an inhaler and we both helped her with it when she was too young to administer it herself. Inhalers are better for children than daily injections and I was grateful for that. But the room always smelled funny after she took her dose.”
“Did you mention these concerns to anyone?”
“Of course. But the scientists from CI said it was normal. The… how did they put it… the carrier fluids needed to evaporate quickly to deliver the proper dose.”
“That’s all they said?”
“No. They paid for for my husband and me to have genetic assays.”
“Who chose the lab?”
“Did CI recommend any lab in particular?”
“Several, but we didn’t use any of those. We selected one independently.”
“Did the results tell you anything?”
“There was no issue with either of us.”
“And that was it?”
“Were you treated any differently afterward?”
“No. We were relieved. I spoke with the company CEO… the one that replaced Jankowiak… I think his name was Ryan… but…. wait a moment, I forgot. The inhaler was replaced a few weeks later. The new one fits over the nose and mouth when you use it. You couldn’t smell anything from this one.”
“So even though there’s no problem they still changed the design?”
“They said it was a change in the industry standard.”
“Did they say why?”
“It had a ‘better delivery system’ is what I remember. It was battery powered.”
“Did you worry about your past exposure?”
“Not excessively. Inhaler vapors aren’t teratogenic. They’re commonly used for drug and insulin delivery. I didn’t give it a second thought… until now.”
“Now you face a serious issue?”
“We recently decided to have another baby. We were so very reticent but our doctors assured us that we had little to fear.”
“So you became pregnant?”
“How did you feel?”
“Excited. Scared. Exhilarated. Everything combined. I couldn’t fully shake the feeling of impending tragedy, though.”
“Were there any issues?”
“The morning sickness was terrible, quite different from when I carried Tori. Other than that, no”
“How were your check-ups?”
“Routine. Except for the constant nausea, of course, the first trimester passed normally. Until sixteen weeks when I had my first ultrasound. That’s when the pregnancy changed.”
On the video she stopped talking and stared, unseeingly, into the distance. She seemed to be trying to compose herself in advance.
“Go on, please.”
“I remember the technician’s behavior. She was chattering about what we’d see and what vitals she’d record and then she put the image on the computer screen and she stopped talking. She just went silent. Even I could see that there was something… unusual… about the fetus. She shut the monitor off, excused herself and left to summon my gynecologist. I was stunned. I just lay there and worried, stuck to the chair. I couldn’t get up and I didn’t know what was wrong. I was dressed in a hospital gown and… anyways, a few minutes later, my gynecologist came in and recommended an amniocentesis.”
“Did your gynecologist go over the ultrasound with you?”
“Not at all. She’d looked at it from her office.”
“When did you have the amniocentesis?”
“How long ago was that?”
“A month ago.”
“The baby wasn’t fine?”
“No, there were… complications.”
“Did you know what?”
“Not at first. When the amnio results came in a week later I went back to see my gynecologist and had a follow-up ultrasound. It was devastating. The baby had died inside me.”
“I’m very sorry. Can you talk about it?”
“I’ll try. It was a boy. He was severely deformed.” She cried. “My husband and I had taken genetic tests. We were okay. Why not him?”
“What happened next?”
“A few days later I had a procedure to pass the fetus. It was grueling and yet so easy. It was surreal. Afterward, I saw it—I reviewed the microscope images with my gynecologist…”
Her voice broke again.
“You don’t have to continue.”
“No, I must. I want to say this. The vestigial tail was showing. That was abnormal.”
“We can move on if you like.”
“No, there’s more. It’s pharyngeal pouches were still prominent.”
“What are those?”
“They look like gill slits but they’re not gills. Except his…”
She stopped. She looked confused.
When she began again her voice was robotic.
“My gynecologist sent the images to a geneticist. We met a day later. He was puzzled. He explained that rather than being smoothed away the fetus’ pharyngeal pouches seemed to be opening up.”
“He wasn’t sure at the time. He asked if he could further test the fetus.”
“You agreed to have an aborted fetus tested?”
“Of course. Our involvement in Tori’s clinical trial has left us somewhat jaded to the sanctity of the human body.”
“Of course. What did you learn?”
“The results… were… the vestigial tail was real; it had too many vertebrae.”
“Is that even possible?”
“I really don’t know. Given the fetus’ size and condition following my procedure, the autopsy was messy. I couldn’t bear to look at the photos. I could only read the report. It made my heart break. I kept thinking there was something wrong with me.”
“What did your gynecologist say?”
“She tried to assure me that what had happened was far more common than I knew. I couldn’t take solace in what she said. But I did look at the ultrasonic images and I compared them to Tori’s. His images were enlarged and grainy but the tail was pretty clear. Besides that, I couldn’t tell one feature from another. At sixteen weeks, we all look alien. Some more so than others I suppose.”
She closed her eyes tightly and held her breath.
“Anything about the pouches?”
“That horrified me. The report said that the pharyngeal pouches were fully opened slits. The geneticist concluded that the fetus was severely and catastrophically deformed.”
“What about the DNA test?”
“Inconclusive. Neither of us are an exact genetic match.”
“What does that mean?”
“The test result was rejected. It was nonsensical that the DNA could differ from my husband’s and mine.”
“Did you retest?”
“No. By then we had cremated the remains. There was too little tissue to re-test. I didn’t want to re-test.”
“What did you do then?”
“We contacted CI.”
“Do you feel your daughter’s treatment affected you?”
“Of course I’ve wondered if I’ve been exposed by the inhaler but the genetic tests my husband and I took proved against that. How could I get Tori’s side effects?”
“Are these side effects?”
“That’s not what I meant. My doctors and CI’s assure me that there is no biological connection between what Tori has been taking and my recent pregnancy.”
“Why would you disclose this to CI?”
“I volunteered it. Without CI, my daughter would already be dead. They saved my first child. I kind-of hoped they could help with my son, too. And, CI has offered to help any way they can.”
“Of course they would. But do you have any reason to believe otherwise?”
“Did you talk to the FDA?”
“We tried. That was a dead end.”
“It was too late. The FDA’s decision to grant CI a pharmaceutical license was yesterday. It could not include recent changes in our case study. As it is, we probably couldn’t prove if my pregnancy was related anyway.”
“What will you do now?”
“I don’t know. What can you do? Grieve and then try again.”
“You can talk.”
“Tell our story? What would that matter?”
“Would you be interested if I told you that there is another family that shares your experience?”
The story and video finished with a brief but similar description of events from the family of another of CI’s RD-969 test participants. The last comment of note was eerie, a quote from a statistician:
The odds of a repeat case are vanishing small.
“Glad to meet you in person.” Robb was cordial.
“I’m sure under better circumstances I would say likewise,” Ryan held back his feelings, “but the circumstances are less than ideal.”
“Yes they are,” Robb agreed.
“Why did you want to meet?” Ryan wasted no time.
“I want to assure you that we are not responsible for these anomalies,” Robb played a card.
“Is that classified?” Ryan was sarcastic.
Robb stared with disappointment.
“Who else could it be?” Ryan continued.
“I found your markers,” Robb said quietly. “Well, the isotopic ones at least.”
Ryan was stunned.
“Yeah,” Robb continued, “CI’s markers were well placed but they weren’t impossible to isolate.” He didn’t gloat. “I was impressed.”
“We fingerprint all our technology.” Ryan did not brag.
“So do we.” Robb agreed. “Have you examined either of the anomalies?”
Ryan was taken aback.
“No, we have no access to that.”
“They’re outside our study scope.”
“But my company’s stock has nosedived.” Ryan pushed his agenda. “There are threats of lawsuits and…”
“And death threats against me and my family.”
“Have you contacted the FBI?”
“I’ve hired a personal security detail.” Ryan was persnickety. “I’m not exactly confident about my government’s non-involvement at this point.”
“You should be.” Robb assured. Before he could continue an older man approached. It was Pawluk.
“Dr. Pawluk.” Robb stood and addressed him with respect. “Please join us.”
“Thanks for including me,” Pawluk replied. He turned to face Ryan.
“Ryan, I assure you that Robb had nothing to do with this.”
“How can you be so sure?” Ryan challenged.
“One can never be absolute,” Pawluk responded with the voice of an academic, “but that was not the program I bequeathed to him.”
Robb shifted imperceptibly in his seat.
“Why did you retire so suddenly?” Ryan asked.
“It wasn’t sudden. I’d planned it for years.”
“You forgot to inform me.”
“Yes.” Pawluk sighed. He paused and refused to elucidate his reasons.
A waitress appeared and offered coffee. Pawluk accepted and Ryan waited with impatience as she poured three cups.
“Cream and sugar?” She asked.
“Of course,” Pawluk replied for all.
As she poured, Ryan studied his former boss. Pawluk had aged but he had not lost the dynamic personality that had marked his working career. Robb seemed to melt into the background.
“You were forced out.” Ryan surmised.
“I…” Pawluk averted his eyes. “I wasn’t willing to take the technology in this direction.” He confirmed Ryan’s suspicion.
“I made sure that everyone in my group was on board long ago.” Pawluk was defensive. He gestured toward Robb who seemed to start at the sudden attention.
“It’s a big program,” Ryan said. “Big enough to have redundancies.”
“It’s not the Lab.” Robb said bluntly, rejoining the conversation as the waitress reappeared with the trimmings for his coffee.
The intrusion allowed him to avoid Ryan’s questions again.
“Could I interest you in something to eat?” The waitress beamed.
Ryan grunted. There were too many interruptions. They should have gone golfing but Robb did not golf.
Pawluk selected a Reuben, sans sauerkraut.
“Why not order a corned beef sandwich already?” Robb needled.
“I don’t want a corned beef sandwich,” Pawluk told him with the tone of an umpteenth time repetition. “I like the dressing in the Reuben but not the fermented salad that goes with it.”
“Whatever.” Robb laughed and ordered a seared Ahi Tuna on Rye, dressing on the side and salad instead of fries. As he interacted with the waitress Ryan quietly observed.
Robb was sweating and fidgeting.
Ryan sensed that Robb was hiding something from both he and Pawluk. In a move of expediency he plagiarized Robb’s order. The gambit gave him a chance to continue sizing up Pawluk’s successor.
Robb tended to his coffee. First sugar then cream. He did not make eye contact with anyone at the table. Then he stirred his brew, staring out the cafe window at the passersby. When nobody was in view, he checked his phone.
What is he hiding? Ryan’s suspicions mounted.
The waitress repeated their orders getting them mostly right. It was Pawluk who balked. He repeated the Reuben sans sauerkraut concept to the waitress who apologetically wrote it down verbatim. As Pawluk worked his order with the waitress, Ryan spoke quietly to Robb.
“How can you be so sure, Robb?”
Pawluk was oblivious to the query. He seemed to be flirting more than explaining and the waitress was wearing a loud smile and working the tip.
Before Robb answered the waitress announced that she’d return in a few minutes with their orders.
She turned away. Pawluk’s smiled instantly disappeared, replaced with a seriousness that solidified his face.
“You were saying as I arrived that you had found the markers.”
He spoke to Robb, nullifying Ryan’s question. There was a hint of disappointment directed at his successor.
“I found them and I replaced them with our own.” Robb answered. He was nonchalant, somewhat flippant, in his admission.
“Why did you do that?” Ryan broke in. He felt his temper flare again.
“To keep things separate and clear.” Robb’s voice carried grit. He was not to be bullied. I cannot allow any contamination, nor conflict of interest or intent, in what I do. I cannot be in competition with your company.”
“No, but my company can be destroyed.” Ryan leveled.
“That crossed my mind.” Robb was nonplussed. “It would be foolish—collaborative suicide, in fact—to put our benefactors at risk.”
Ryan was somewhat taken aback. What Robb said had made sense. The pause allowed Robb to continue.
“As we hoped some recruits came up with clever solutions using the game as you had first developed it—bio-sensors and chemical detectors—but there were a few who steered it toward something else, something more… dangerous. We have continually acted to keep those trajectories under wraps.”
“How can you do that?” Ryan doubted.
“My lab controls the chemistry development from the games’ predictions.”
“Just you? Nobody else.” Ryan found it hard to believe.
“Nobody. I am fortunate to work with some brilliant organic synthesis chemists.”
Pawluk nodded in agreement. He had set the protocols. Since his departure there had been too little time to change them, no matter how ambitious his successor was, too little time to re-cast the department in a different image.
“I made sure sure that I kept track of what was yours and what was ours,” Robb verified one of his motivations.
“Where are the dangerous results kept?” Ryan asked. It was clear he wanted a closer look.
“I can’t really tell you,” Robb said carelessly, starting Ryan’s blood to simmer. “But I assure you, dangerous is not in my program.”
“Then I can be sure it’s in someone’s else,” Ryan stated through clenched teeth. He needed to calm down.
“It’s not coming from my lab.” Robb repeated carelessly.
For a moment Ryan saw red; the runaround Robb was giving him was tedious. Robb certainly knew more than he was letting on but instead of being forthright he was prancing behind the veil of government secrecy like a school girl with a secret.
“Robb, is this work classified?”
“Some applications are.”
“Is this one?” Ryan snarled.
“Nobody knows about the markers?” Pawluk interrupted. It was much a question as it was a statement and it saved Ryan from losing his composure. Ryan realized that Pawluk was also struggling to keep pace. Pawluk was an advocate.
“Only you and me,” Robb’s reply rung hollow.
“I thought you shared them with a management review board years ago.”
“An MRB wasn’t necessary,” Robb continued with the digression. “They were convinced we were developing in ‘open space’ and weren’t treading on Jankowiak’s patents.”
“What aren’t you saying Robb?” Ryan interjected while making a mental note to revisit this conversation when it was more relevant.
“The biology originated from your molecules,” Robb answered.
“No,” Ryan was adamant.
“Hear me out,” Robb requested, “I’m not guessing, I know. There was development that was independent of CI.”
“In all your work, even your present applications…” Robb started.
Ryan nearly leaped from his seat. How could Robb know?
“Your markers are periodically replicated…” Robb continued.
A spasm seized Ryan’s chest. How much did Robb know?
“… and the agents that are causing these mutations have a chemical backbone consistent with the CI signature—but the branches that actually force them are marker-free,” Robb finished.
“Why didn’t you say this sooner?” Ryan choked. His throat had constricted. It was difficult to breathe.
“You’re as much a suspect to me as I am to you.”
“I have… a lifetime’s… effort… to lose.” Ryan spat in staccato disagreement. “Families… that count on my employment. You… you have objectives to fulfill. Secrets to maintain.”
“Yes,” Robb agreed and Ryan’s anger displaced his anxiety. He felt the urge for violence.
Ryan’s voice rose, “If you’ve been spying on me how can I trust you?” He was ready to walk.
“We need to work together.”
“How?” Ryan snapped. “I’m not authorized to look at your work.”
“It’s not my work,” Robb reaffirmed. “It wasn’t even Pawluk’s and no, it’s not classified.”
“Careful, Robb,” Pawluk admonished.
“Not yet,” Robb backpedaled, “but I expect it might happen any day.”
Ryan doubted Robb’s capability for commitment. “Why take me into your confidence now?” he asked. “I don’t want to start something I can’t finish.”
“This may be the only time I can share information with you,” Robb admitted. His tone was subdued.
Ryan’s uncertainty waned.
“The lack of a signature may be traceable,” Robb added.
“Yes,” Ryan agreed instantly, “but how?”
“The isotopic analysis was done on aerosol samples…”
“This is airborne?” Ryan was incredulous.
Ryan’s mind reeled with the revelation—CI was sunk. Just like its founder the corporation was engulfed in a publicity firestorm that would permanently scorch it’s reputation—even if he could prove that it was not involved. It was all too easy to imagine why. CI’s technology had betrayed the most basic instinct of human survival.
“I need help for my son.” The Mom was clearly worried. As she sat on a small chair in the Pediatrician’s examining room her eyes repeatedly darted from the doctor to the closed door and back and forth again with unchecked restlessness. It was obvious that she wanted to leave quickly.
“Is he here today?” The Pediatrician asked.
“No.” She fidgeted in her seat.
“It would help to have him present.”
“At last minute he couldn’t make it,” she said hastily.
“Then perhaps you should reschedule.”
“No, it can’t wait. Please Doctor.”
The Pediatrician furrowed his brow. He had been the boy’s pediatrician for over a decade. As long as he could remember the boy had never been ill. The boy’s mom wasn’t trying to get out of the appointment. She seemed truly concerned—and scared.
He deferred. “Can you describe his symptoms?”
“He came home from school a few nights ago after volleyball practice. He ate supper…”
“What did he eat?” the Pediatrician interrupted. He readied his hands on a computer keyboard to take notes.
“Just about everything on the table,” the worried Mom replied. “Steak, rice, vegetables, you name it. He ate all the leftovers and then he had a bowl of ice cream for dessert.”
“Is this usual?” The Pediatrician typed at the keyboard.
“He’s always been a big eater, but lately his appetite has been enormous. I can barely make enough food for him, never mind the rest of the family.”
“Has he put on any weight?”
“He might have gained a few pounds, but he’s active and it doesn’t show. He still wears the same clothes but the kids tend to wear oversized clothes so I can’t be sure.”
“That night,” the Pediatrician refocused the conversation, “did he complain of indigestion or anything that would indicate he didn’t feel well?”
“No, not at all. He just asked if there was more to eat.”
“Did you have more?”
“No.” The Mom laughed nervously. “I told him he could make something himself. And he did. He got up from the dinner table and made a couple of batches of popcorn.”
“It could just be a growth spurt ahead,” the Pediatrician mused.
“I don’t think so.”
“No? Please continue.”
“Then he fell asleep on the couch.”
The Pediatrician grew impatient. “And…?”
“He was asleep for two whole days. My husband had to carry him to his bed and I couldn’t even get him up to go to school.”
The Pediatrician’s face was bland with disinterest. Even so, he leaned forward.
“Then what happened.”
“He awoke on the third day. That was this morning. He was grouchy and unkempt and he needed a shower but instead he walked into the kitchen and announced that he was hungry. While he was eating his third bowl of cereal, I called your office and booked an appointment. I had to, you see. Before I can take him to school I need your signature.”
“I need to see him for that,” the Pediatrician chided. “Where is he now?”
She looked at the door. “He’s asleep in the car.”
“You left him…”
“He’s fifteen years old. He fell asleep on the way over. I couldn’t wake him up.”
“Why didn’t you take him to Emergency?”
“That’s twenty miles away. It would take too long. I wanted someone to see him now.”
The Pediatrician was now fully engaged.
“Have there been any changes in his recent behavior?”
“You mentioned irritability. How about his school work?”
“Doctor. My son is not on drugs.” The Mom was adamant.
“Are you positive?”
“Absolutely.” She snapped but she looked away.
“Is there something more you wish to tell me?” he pressed.
“We can help,” the Pediatrician soothed.
“When I left, he was so still,” she murmured under her breath. “I was afraid—I checked his heartbeat…”
“His heart was beating so slowly.” Tears welled in her eyes. She blinked rapidly.
“Are you sure?”
“Yes, Doctor. And he was cold. I covered him with my jacket.”
“We’ll get him in here, now, and transport him to the hospital if necessary.”
At 6AM the following Saturday Ryan entered the ground level of yet another nondescript four story brick government building. This one was particularly outdated and in serious need of renovation. The air reeked of chemical and biological residue, a gradual release of decades of spills trapped in cracks and pores, lending a distinct and permanent perfume to the interior. The air soured his nostrils and threatened his mortality.
Yet, the hallway was familiar. At regular intervals along the polished tile floor, both sides of the long corridor held numerous small alcoves for fire-doors. None of the doors had windows but Ryan knew that behind each was a sophisticated, world-class research lab. It had been years since Ryan had been in these labs. Nothing seemed to be different.
He felt no nostalgia; only dread for his upcoming meeting with Robb’s associate.
In between the doorways were stark beige walls plastered over conference posters. The posters displayed a range of engineering and science projects of recent vintage: some useful, some relevant, some interesting, some obscure and some that clearly pertained to issues of national security.
Instinctively, Ryan withdrew from the poster display. He did not want to steward the government’s recent science.
Robb took notice. “This way. My labs are below ground.” He steered Ryan away from the corridor toward an alcove. “We’ll take the elevator.” He pressed a call button on the wall.
“Why below ground?” Ryan asked. The sliding doors opened wide and they stepped inside.
“Temperature control,” Robb answered simply. The elevator doors closed and it began to descend. “During the summer the outdoor temperature is frequently over a hundred degrees.”
“Of course,” Ryan realized. The computers he’d long ago worked to install needed to be kept cool. “What about the…?”
“Are you concerned about how bad it smells?” Robb chuckled. “Don’t worry, the last person to die that worked here first retired ten years earlier. He was nearly eighty.”
“What did he die from?” Ryan persisted.
“Sure.” Ryan rolled his eyes.
“He had an infection that defied modern science,” Robb deadpanned. “It was caused by radiation damage and might have been treatable but a fungus invaded his lungs…”
“I believe that one more,” Ryan interrupted with an obligatory laugh.
The elevator hovered, bounced and stopped. When the doors slid open Ryan looked out at an an impressive sight—a massive state-of-the-art computational facility occupied the entire basement floor.
On the left side of the lab, behind wire-latticed plate glass, lay the super-computing heart. Mounted on utilitarian DIN rails, Ryan knew that the matrix of processors would not lack function. The room within the larger room hummed in perpetual calculation, as evidenced by the beads of light twinkling randomly that shone through the see-through wall.
To his right, opposite the hardware bank was a row of offices, now empty for the weekend. In between were a dozen short-wall cubicle bullpens, each outfitted with desktop computers, where the programmers developed the code and shaped the games’ destinies.
Robb’s face was dressed in pride.
“Impressive,” said Ryan, “but where’s the chemistry done?”
“Another downstairs? Really?”
“Absolutely. I’ll show you. It’s on the way to the conference room.”
They crossed the lab and Robb led Ryan down a flight of stairs to where they landed in another large, open space lab. This one was no less utilitarian in design and function but, apart from the sheet metal-framed fume hoods, it was also modern in technical equipment. Ryan counted a dozen robot-controlled synthesis and analysis machines as well as two electron microscopy consoles and four scanning electron microscope consoles.
Out of necessity, large drapery curtains hung from the twenty foot ceiling which could be pulled around each apparatus as desired. The curtains lent the room a sense of detachment.
To Ryan it was familiar. “You just need an NMR.” He teased.
“It’s on the floor beneath us.” Robb informed him in a matter-of-fact voice. “The NMR needed more vibration dampening than this level could offer.”
“I was just kidding,” Ryan conceded.
“We don’t cut corners,” Robb bragged.
“What’s below the NMR?”
“Dirt,” Robb answered quickly.
A machine whirred disruptively behind Ryan. Startled, he turned to look. On the other side of see-through plastic pane a robotic arm was dispensing liquid into a 24×24 array of PTFE-coated vials.
“Combinatorial?” Ryan asked.
“Of course,” Robb replied.
“We use the same methods,” Ryan said under his breath.
“Of course you do,” Robb had heard him clearly. “You started our program and, of course, we kept up.” He could not fail to notice Ryan’s concern. “But we’ve moved on. We don’t work the same problems.”
“What are you working on now?” Ryan was as curious as he was challenging.
“I really can’t say.” Although Robb was apologetic his tone was firm. “I’d rather focus on what we’ve learned that’s of interest to you.”
“Who are we meeting with?”
“My deputy. Dr. Dioumaiev.”
“Do-my…?” Ryan’s tongue faltered with the pronunciation.
“She’s American. Her parents were immigrants,” Robb replied. “That makes her doubly valuable. Although she’s a synthetic chemist, she maintains a unique perspective on geopolitics.” He grinned wryly.
“Her family was from Vladivostok. Not a tourist destination. She calls it the armpit of Russia. But Vladivostok is a strategic base where the Russians keep tabs on their southern rivals. She was raised with that paranoia. Now it’s second nature for her to remain informed.”
“So you think that the Chinese are involved?”
“In some way,” Robb sounded deliberately unconvincing. “I’m hoping you can shed some light on it.”
“Take a look at her analysis.”
“What can I offer? You’re not solving the same problems as CI.”
“You can help more than you think. It was your code that was hacked.”
Ryan tensed. “This is the second time you’ve alleged that.” He pursed his lips and enunciated clearly. “I’ve checked several times. CI has not had a security breach…”
“I’ve alleged nothing.” Robb argued. “It would never be obvious but it’s your code nonetheless.” He hesitated. “What about Jankowiak?”
“What are you saying?” Ryan found the idea preposterous. “CI was his creation. He would never sell his own contribution…”
“I meant… what if Jankowiak’s computer was hacked by GenCorp?”
Ryan stepped back. “How do you know that? We… Dr. Jankowiak couldn’t prove anything.”
“It was obvious.” Robb looked Ryan hard in the eyes. “Just not provable.”
“What do you mean?” Ryan would not easily jump to a conclusion.
“GenCorp had struck out with the FDA three times in a row. Their pipeline was dry and shareholders knew it. The markets battered their stock. GenCorp’s management was desperate to appease its board.”
“I didn’t realize they were in that kind of trouble,” Ryan interrupted. “Every business has its rough patches.”
“Not in Corporate America.” Robb said with a trace of irony. “It’s double digit profits or die.” He snorted—Ryan stiffened to offer a rebuke—but Robb ceased ranting. “Besides angering its board GenCorp was losing its young talent as fast as it could attract them. Its future was dubious.”
“They were a hundred billion dollar corporation at the time. They weren’t going anywhere.”
“Yes,” Robb agreed. “but they were no longer a growth company. In hindsight, it was easy to understand why it took so long for the company’s revenue to begin rolling again. For five years its options were useless. Following the FDA announcements and initial share price plunge, prices continued to slowly trickle down. Without value to look forward to cashing in on, the option offered to new employees were useless. Talent didn’t stay. Many left before vesting. It was embarrassing.”
Ryan nodded with understanding.
“So management’s attention turned outside—start-ups and research professors—anyone with fresh ideas who wasn’t on the company payroll. That’s when they approached Jankowiak. His research was in a different dimension. They saw a potential to incubate novel ideas so they pursued him with a singular intent to own the platform outright. The rest you know—when they tried to cut a deal he rebuffed them.”
“They were greedy; they wanted exclusive access.”
“Exactly. Pawluk gave me an earful last night. Apparently Jankowiak had talked to him some years later.”
Ryan listened intently.
“They tendered a JDA under what some would consider false pretenses—I’m not a lawyer—then hacked his computer, sent and deleted several spurious email threads before he saw them. As backup, they planted documents that breached their own patents.”
“Hacked?” Ryan asked. “Jankowiak used the cutting edge of computer security. How did they hack him?”
“They phished. When he accepted GenCorp’s invitation to lecture, he willingly granted them enough personal information that they were able to decipher or obtain his passwords without too much difficulty.”
“Of course.” Ryan knew the game.
“After GenCorp pretended to uncover the IP theft, it secured police assistance by ‘revealing’ the electronic link between Jankowiak and one of their technology development managers.”
“Jankowiak was set up.” Ryan remarked grimly.
“Yes, and I don’t think that the set up manager was an unwilling accomplice. It was later learned that he was part of GenCorp’s efforts to start an R&D facility in China. Not unwilling at all—he was most likely operating on behalf of GenCorp’s top brass.”
Ryan raised his eyebrows in question.
Robb answered. “The manager was never charged nor dismissed. I wouldn’t be surprised to find that he was promoted.”
Ryan exhaled sharply in disgust.
Robb took notice and his tone softened in sympathy. “After Jankowiak dug in his heels, GenCorp went silent. They had pushed him too far. Obviously, Jankowiak knew he was innocent—even if the university’s suspicions were manufactured in lucre—and as a programmer, he understood the method that had been employed against him. Given enough time he would have exposed their methods and silenced the accusations. GenCorp didn’t want that.”
“What are you saying?”
“I can’t speculate, Ryan.”
“Why didn’t anyone step in from the DOJ?”
Robb shifted in his seat. “Nobody insisted. DOJ offered to investigate but Jankowiak refused. I can’t blame him. By that point he might have developed some paranoia. Or perhaps he fully understood the risk of keeping the incident alive—he certainly didn’t want to be tried again by a manipulated court of public opinion.”
“He cherished his privacy,” Ryan affirmed, “but what happened to the police?”
“They wanted to keep it quiet. They’d been duped into strong-arming a respected citizen, a Nobel laureate, and they didn’t want the scrutiny either. The DA buried it, he wouldn’t budge without Jankowiak’s insistence.”
Robb shrugged. “Even if the DA wanted to, GenCorp wasn’t passive. They were a major contributor in his subsequent reelection.”
Ryan exhaled, long and slow. “He nearly quit his research, you know.”
“Yes, I know. Pawluk told me that too.” Robb’s eyes affirmed his sincerity. “The work you did here for my old boss helped convince Jankowiak to stay in the field—and create a business out of it instead.” Robb chuckled. “Being a businessman was the last thing Jankowiak wanted to become. He was really glad you came along.”
Ryan was taken aback.
“You never realized it,” Robb remarked.
“That’s water under the bridge.” Robb dismissed the conversation. He seemed embarrassed. “There are more important issues to address today.”
They entered a dim conference room, reflectively lit by the square of a white board and an overhead projector. A woman sat at a table staring into a laptop. She punched a key and room’s glow changed.
Robb flipped a wall switch to turn on the room lights, startling the woman. She stood to greet them. She was professionally and fashionably dressed in a business suit, blazer and skirt.
“Robb,” she said brusquely, “I was beginning to wonder if you were coming at all.”
The woman was attractive in a disconcerting way. Her face was beautiful but her expression was severe. Her radiant blond hair was pulled tightly in a bun and her piercing steel blue eyes stared at Ryan.
Intelligent and ambitious. Thought Ryan.
“Just living the dream,” Robb smiled. “What else do I have to do on a Saturday?”
“I wouldn’t know,” the woman laughed sharply. “I’ll probably have to break up with my boyfriend soon. Bigamy is illegal in this country.”
Robb grunted in agreement, “Will he understand it’s only a job?”
“Hardly. His suspicion knows no bounds.”
She turned to address Ryan. “Ryan, I’m Natalia Dioumaieva.” She extended a hand.
Ryan shook it. She had a firm grip, unlike most scientists he met. “Pleasure to meet you, Dr. Dioumaieva.”
“Likewise, but just Natalia, please.” Her voice was friendly but professionally firm. “Or if you prefer, Dr. Dioumaiev—we’re not that formal in this lab.”
“Hey!” Robb threatened with mock seriousness. “Policies can change.”
“Not if you want to keep your best help.” Natalia smiled wickedly, her eyes briefly lighting. She addressed Ryan. “Please take a seat. I’m ready to start.”
“Thanks Natalia, what have you found?” Ryan steered the conversation to business. It was Saturday, he preferred to be elsewhere.
“It’s pretty complex. And it’s a bit different than Robb and I discussed this morning.”
Robb arched his brows. He did not like surprises. “Can you summarize?”
“I don’t think so—at least not right away.” Natalia denied.
“Why not?” Ryan put on his CEO hat.
“The conclusion is merely suggestive,” Natalia was resolute. “I’ve called in additional help.”
There was a knock at the door. Robb frowned in surprise. Natalia stood quickly and hurried to open the door for the newcomer. An older man stepped in. He was casually dressed in tan khaki pants and a royal blue polo-style shirt. He had a full head of curled gray hair and a matching beard that was neat and trim. A distinguished man. Ryan recognized him immediately. It was Pawluk.
“Thank you for coming on such short notice,” Natalia greeted him.
“Not at all, Natalia,” Pawluk deferred. “I trust you’re keeping Robb honest.”
“An impossible project.”
“Of course. Some things never change.”
“Why should they?” Robb rejoined. “It was good enough for me to take over your department.”
“Only because you knew where all the skeletons were buried,” Pawluk’s eyes twinkled. Clearly he missed the camaraderie from his former colleagues. Then he noticed Ryan.
“Oh, look what the wind blew in,” Pawluk spoke to Ryan. “It’s good to see you again.”
Ryan stood up and shook Pawluk’s hand. “Likewise.” He beamed. “How are you keeping? How is retirement?”
“One can golf only so much,” Pawluk lamented.
Ryan smiled politely. “Of course. I’m very curious to hear what you and Dr. Dioumaiev have cooked up.”
Pawluk looked confused. “I’m not sure I can be of that much help in that department.” He sounded apologetic.
“But I thought?”
“You do want to hear what he has to say,” Natalia assured him.
Ryan sat down. It was his turn to look confused.
“Sorry, I’m late,” Pawluk began, “but I had to first make sure I ran this by the department Derivative Classifier first—“
Ryan shot Pawluk a questioning glance.
“—You have no idea how hard it was to locate a DC on short notice, especially on the weekend.”
“Wasn’t one on call?” Robb grunted.
“Maybe,” Pawluk replied. “I really don’t know the current protocol—but it took an hour to hunt this one down and then he was slow to respond.”
“Malicious compliance.” Robb made a mental note.
“Something like that.” Pawluk agreed.
“How does this affect CI?” Ryan interjected with a small measure of impatience.
“The DC has allowed me to relay only the briefest of details,” Pawluk said carefully. “It concerns an interaction we had with GenCorp from some ten to twelve years ago.”
“That was about the time they threatened to sue us,” Ryan recalled.
“Wasn’t it an odd maneuver?” Pawluk asked.
Ryan understood. I’ve got to figure as much of this out on my own as I can. “I thought so at the time,” he replied. “Our Legal Counsel took it pretty seriously. He kept saying that ‘it was about what could be proved, not what was true.’”
“What wasn’t true?”
“GenCorp claimed that Jankowiak had agreed to a JDA with them,” Ryan replied. “As proof, they sent us a copy of an agreement as well as a number of so-called communications between Jankowiak and one of their Technology Directors.”
“That was after his death?” Natalia asked.
“Nearly two years.”
“Were the documents real?”
“Not at all,” Ryan huffed. “But they had been fabricated well.”
Natalia’s face turned inquisitive but she refrained from speaking.
“Dr. Jankowiak always felt that GenCorp had invaded his life,” Ryan addressed Natalia’s question, “and kept doing so during the first trial. Though he repeatedly changed his passwords, he never stopped being paranoid.”
“Why would GenCorp wait so long?”
“CI was making progress but had not yet become profitable. We were financially vulnerable. The easiest way to make progress is to steal it.”
“Do you recall how it ended?” Pawluk kept Ryan talking, confirming a well-used tactic: the more he steered the conversation the less he would need to divulge.
“Our Counsel wrote a letter and disputed their claims,” Ryan laughed harshly. “As I understand it, he legally suggested they had forged the documents.”
“Did they?” Natalia asked. Pawluk shot her a glance to remain quiet.
“We believed so,” Ryan answered. “We realized that if GenCorp had had access to Jankowiak’s computers, then creating documents that appeared authentic would be possible—and difficult to defend against.”
“You didn’t just write a letter to GenCorp,” Pawluk prompted.
“What do you mean?” Ryan shifted in his seat.
“What else did you do?”
“We hired a PI…” The admission made Ryan flinch again.
“No, not that,” Pawluk rolled his eyes in warning. “You contacted me.”
“You didn’t return my calls,” Ryan’s relief was apparent.
“No,” Pawluk said flatly.
“Why not?” Ryan queried.
“Was there anything else unusual in GenCorp’s letter?” Pawluk sidestepped Ryan’s question.
“I’m not following you.”
“What else did GenCorp claim?” Pawluk made it clear he wouldn’t yet entertain Ryan’s complaint.
Ryan sat back and thought it through.
“Something that went beyond a simple JDA?” Pawluk prodded his memory.
“Yes, there were forward-seeking claims.”
“Forward-seeking?” Robb asked, receiving a similar ‘keep quiet’ glance from their former boss.
“Since GenCorp was broadly claiming intellectual rights to CI before its inception, they demanded a share in everything in the pipeline—both present and future.” Ryan explained.
“Yes.” Pawluk agreed.
“How did you know this?” Ryan asked.
“We helped Jankowiak to extricate himself from his hackers.” Pawluk replied.
“Why… When did you do this?”
“In the process of hiring you.”
“Of course,” Ryan understood. “Why didn’t you tell me?”
Pawluk was silent and looked away.
“You can’t say,” Ryan stated. “Is that what you obtained permission to tell me today?”
“One more thing,” Pawluk’s voice was serious but in no way illuminating. “No questions and I will say this only once. Understood?”
Ryan grimaced in reluctance but he agreed. Pawluk would never divulge any more. “Yes.”
“As you’ve surmised, at their fullest extent, GenCorp’s claims included work you did here. We learned of it from an inside source—that’s all you need to know—and it was simply unacceptable.
“But…” Ryan began, a barrage of questions overwhelming his astonishment.
“You’re welcome.” Pawluk smiled but his face was hard and his eyes were unyielding. He stood up and offered his hand. “Have a nice day. It was good to see you again. I leave you in capable hands.”
Knowing further discussion was futile, Ryan stood, shook Pawluk’s hand and watched him leave. As the retired scientist pushed through the door Ryan noticed that he no longer exuded a distinguished air. His shoulders were sagged with fatigue and his former boss and mentor suddenly appeared to be very old.
“Let’s get restarted.” Natalia took charge as soon as the door slipped shut behind Pawluk. “I’ve got some errands I need to attend to later.”
Ryan hesitated. He remained standing, his mind whirling with questions.
“Ryan?” Robb took note. “Do you need a few moments?”
“Not at all.” Ryan returned to the present. No matter the untold dramas within Pawluk’s confession, the magnitude of CI’s present dilemma demanded his focus. He took a seat.
Natalia restarted. “As I was saying—“
“Why do you suppose he told me that?” Ryan blurted.
“Told you what…? Who…? I don’t understand.” Natalia was derailed.
“Why now? Why today?” Ryan continued thinking aloud. “It makes no sense in light of what you said earlier.” His eyes bored into Robb’s deputy’s.
“I don’t follow you at all.” She was annoyed.
“You invited him to tell me something different, but he didn’t say it.” Ryan surmised. “Why? What more don’t I know?”
“I’m not sure I follow.”
Ryan looked at her sharply. She was posturing. “Just before Pawluk arrived you said ‘something was complex’ and that you had asked ‘someone’ for help.”
“I had information for him to review. It wasn’t what I expected,” Natalia waffled. “I thought he was”—
“Did you discuss your slides with him?” Ryan interrupted.
“Of course!” Natalia snapped.
“Ryan!” Robb interjected sharply.
Ryan ignored him. “He validated what you were going to tell me. He already knew.”
“I told him it was only a theory,” Natalia waffled, confirming Ryan’s suspicion.
“Of course,” Ryan soothed. “At this level, the science is never exact. Please continue.”
“I’m sorry I can’t be more precise,” Natalia said sincerely.
“We draw our conclusions on the best evidence we have,” Ryan reconciled unnecessarily.
“Yes, we do.” Robb was authoritative. He beckoned to Natalia to continue.
She hesitated, wanting to say more, but Robb’s glare encouraged her to pick up the previous thread. “For the past two decades we have monitored the content of the eastward air currents that cross the Pacific Ocean. It tells us a lot of what is going on behind the industrialized countries’ borders—both industrially and militarily.”
“You have data from air currents?” Ryan wanted confirmation.
“From the aerosols,” Dr. Dioumaiev lectured.
“How do you know their origin?”
“Good question.” Natalia smiled as if to an uncomprehending child. “The scientific analysis of marine aerosols can be used to establish fingerprints, if you will, on what is happening at the origins of airborne chemistry. It’s taken over a decade to establish a database but now that we have a clearer picture, we can begin to draw, with certainty, some conclusions. The samples I will present had unique identifiers—an industrial chemical effluent—that we can now trace to specific locales in China.”
“What kind of fingerprints?”
“Chemical derivatives and their radio-isotope analysis. We now think the origin is the Zhangjiang Pharmaceutical Valley in Pudong, Shanghai.”
“How can you be so specific?”
“The chemical signature matches the output of several companies that were starting up operations at the time of collection.”
“How does that concern CI?”
“GenCorp might have had a presence.”
“GenCorp.” Ryan had ceased to be shocked.
“Do they now?”
There was an insincere pause.
“All the major companies do,” Robb stated unnecessarily.
“Including GenCorp?” Ryan persisted with equal redundancy.
“They’re a major pharmaceutical,” Robb repeated the obvious.
To Ryan the words were forced. He flash-assembled a chronology in his mind. “Did this project begin about the time I called Pawluk?”
“I know nothing of that,” Robb answered with grit.
Is that also why GenCorp’s legal challenges suddenly folded? Ryan wondered. What had Pawluk done? A light must have gone on his eyes for Robb smiled at him encouragingly. “The world’s industrial base is in China, so…” Ryan muttered beneath his breath, perturbed at the veil of secrecy. He turned to Dr. Dioumaiev. “Why are you studying the aerosols?”
“There’s a strong link between weather patterns and military preparedness,” Natalia replied in a matter-of-fact way.
“I don’t believe you asked me here to discuss military preparedness,” Ryan remarked.
“No,” Dr. Dioumaiev said severely.
“Be patient, Ryan,” Robb admonished.
“What we have found is this”—Natalia projected a slide onto the white wall backdrop and Ryan perused the view graph—“This first chart is a GCMS analysis of a sample we collected before ACE-Asia.”
“Before… what?” Ryan interrupted.
“ACE-Asia. It was an international collaboration of climate and atmospheric scientists. You never heard of it?”
“No,” Ryan lied. The first ACE-Asia study pegged the date to exactly when GenCorp ceased their legal challenges. He glanced at Robb, arched his eyebrows and nodded.
Robb was monitoring him for recognition and seemed to relax as Ryan jigged the puzzle.
Natalia took no notice. “Following the shift of industrialization from the Western Hemisphere to the Eastern”—she fixated on setting the context of the academic project—“manufacturing was conducted under far fewer emission restrictions than they had in the US and Europe. In the late nineties, scientists gathered in the Pacific to study the atmospheric impact. The project was…”
Ryan raised his eyebrows in a question toward Natalia as she paused to make eye-contact.
“…politically controversial. Just a few years earlier the atmospheric science community had learned that the previous centuries’ pollution from North America had had an impact on the African continent. This time, it was postulated that the shift in industrialization might create a new trend on the Americas.”
Ryan nodded his head. What followed was obvious.
“It took a half-dozen years to decipher and publish the first findings but the project confirmed that a lot of the unexplained nasties that were being found in local field studies had indeed traveled thousands of miles along the jetstream from their factory of origin. It was an eye-opening study.”
“And this is when the government took notice?”
“More or less. It confirmed what the government has suspected. The jetstream vector was a fifth column.”
Robb cleared his throat and Natalia immediately advanced a slide.
“Enough about that,” she segued. “This is a blow-up of the Mass Spec trace. Notice anything unusual?”
“Some nitrogen and sulfur. A lot of carbon and hydrogen. This sample was from amino acids or proteins,” Ryan determined.
“Exactly what we thought.”
“What’s different about them?”
“That’s what I’m asking you.”
“You want me to speculate blindly?” Ryan was incredulous.
“We asked you for your help.”
“Then you think it’s related to Jankowiak’s research?”
“Yes.” Natalia shrugged at the obvious.
“How did you make that connection?” Ryan demanded.
“Take another look, Ryan.” She sidestepped his question again.
Ryan studied the spectrometry trace.
“C’mon Ryan, you know your own program.” Robb urged.
It was obvious but Ryan still didn’t want to admit it.
“You tagged your amines with Nitrogen-15 and Deuterium.”
“Yes we did.” Ryan caved. “Nobody could have copied that exactly.” He was suddenly defensive. “We had no break-ins, no data thefts”—
“Did you have yield issues, Ryan?”
Ryan caught his breath. “At first, yes, but that’s not uncommon. You have to figure out the chemistry before you can improve the synthesis process.” Then his eyes narrowed and he instinctively scratched the back of his head. “But with Methuselah the yield problem was remarkable.” Again he sat back to contemplate what had seemed to be trivial business details from a dozen years or so earlier.
Natalia prepared to speak but Robb shot her a look.
“It was one of the first personnel issues we had at CI,” Ryan recalled. “A synthetic bio-chemist had been hired to develop formulations predicted from the game. He was an enigma. He came highly recommended but his initial yield’s were abysmal and they didn’t get better over a couple of months. We began to monitor him—quietly. When there was no progress, I co-assigned the synthesis work to another team. Within weeks they were extracting usable quantities of material.”
“What did you do?” Robb asked.
“We released the Principal.”
“How did you release the chemist?” Robb was suspicious.
“We just let him go—he was on probation so it wasn’t an actual firing.” Ryan paused and stared at the ceiling. “I recall that it wasn’t solely for his poor project showing, of course, but a combination of documented causes. The most notable I remember is that his lab notebook was indecipherable. My TD—my Technology Director—informed me that the notations were inconsistent with his assignment.”
“What did you make of it?” Robb was interested.
“He was in over his head. That was strange of itself. Like I said earlier, he came in with a strong resume, solid references and stellar interviewing skills. But that doesn’t guarantee success. You never know whether someone’s past success has been a result of luck or mentoring or was personally achieved. You really don’t know about a candidate until he or she actually delivers.”
“Did he know he was working with tagged amines?”
“I doubt he was with us long enough to learn about that.”
“What happened to the chemist after he left CI?”
“I couldn’t tell you. We got an HR to HR call some time later. You know the routine. ‘No, he had not been released for cause. No, he wasn’t eligible for rehire.’ I really didn’t pay any more attention.”
“Is it possible that the yield was low—“
“—because he was extracting the product to take it out of the building with him?” Ryan’s faced turned red. “It’s entirely possible. We had no protocol to search our employees as they left the site. As far as I was concerned, the TD let him go because of incompetence.”
Ryan continued to read the spectrometer’s trace and his face hardened. “That doesn’t prove it was ours,” he said under his breath. But even so his face was clouded with doubt and he seemed anxious to move on. Yet, he didn’t; he could not avert his eyes from the evidence. Suddenly, he blurted, “What’s the ratio?”
“It’s one to one-point-three-five.”
“That’s our tag,” Ryan admitted. No longer in doubt his defiance took over. “But it’s not our product. We couldn’t have made that. The chances are astronomically small…”
“I have reason to believe what you’re saying, Ryan.” Robb remarked but if Ryan heard, he couldn’t accept the consolation.
“If this was made public,” Ryan mumbled, “I can’t imagine the consequences. No one would believe us.”
Neither Natalia nor Robb replied; a hard silence amplified by the projector’s whirring fan. Ryan’s face continued to redden, his shoulders tensed and his fingers slowly clenched into tight balls. When he looked ready to explode, he seemed to finally have heard Robb. The color cleared. He turned to face Robb and Natalia. “How did you make this connection?”
But if Ryan was expecting relief, the scientists were not forthcoming.
“How did you make this connection?” Ryan reiterated, his jaw set firmly.
Their silence was uncomfortable.
“You won’t tell me?”
“No,” Robb answered, “but we are certain.” Then Robb went on the offensive. “Were you developing other proteins twenty years ago?”
“You’re not helping me much.” Ryan snapped.
“We’re helping as best we can.” Robb was no less firm.
Ryan leaned back, tilting his chair to a grotesque angle, and stared upward, scanning the shadowy recesses of the drop ceiling. Here and there, between the psychedelic scattering of reflecting pinpricks were regularly spaced charcoal hemispheres. He sighed heavily—he hadn’t noticed them earlier—the room was wired.
“We’re not being monitored,” Robb assured him.
“Would it matter if we were?” Ryan asked rhetorically.
“They’re nonfunctional. This room is no longer approved for classified discussions,” Natalia explained.
Ryan raised his eyebrows and Robb shot Natalia a quick, silencing, glance which Ryan could not fail to observe. Not that it mattered to Ryan. Robb and Pawluk had been at least one step ahead throughout this charade. Though he did not share Natalia’s confidence, he needed their help, and CI during his tenure had done no wrong. Of that he was confident.
Ryan addressed Robb’s previous question. “Yes, we did.” He conceded. “Several proteins were indicated early in the Methuselah game.”
“Early?” Natalia asked.
“None panned out.” Ryan explained simply.
“Why not?” Robb was quick to keep Ryan talking.
“I’m not fully sure, we don’t chase every loose end,” Ryan explained. “We couldn’t figure out what to make of them. For starters, they had no effect on mammals.”
“What kind of mammals?”
“Rats and pigs. It was challenging to get them to ingest it.”
“Why was that?”
“Based on our observations, they had a horrible taste.”
Robb guffawed. Natalia looked embarrassed.
“What did you do then?” She asked. “Bad taste is an effect—”
“We tried other means,” Ryan interrupted. “Injections, topicals and inhalers—but, surprisingly, those also had no recorded effect. So we re-started the game. It was the first and only time we did so.”
“How did you do that?” Natalia was curious.
“We eliminated what we thought were divergent vectors—“
Natalia furrowed her eyebrows.
“—We narrowed the initial conditions to compounds that were biologically-friendly.”
“Isn’t that tampering?” Robb interjected somewhat rudely.
“It was pragmatic.” Ryan was dogmatic. “Our projects were in their infancy. Too many resources were being consumed on legal defenses. We were limited in what we could explore and how much we could test our products. We had to tailor the game to outcomes we could manage—and that meant we had to compromise.”
“Would you have done it differently with more funding?” Robb questioned.
“I doubt it.” Ryan answered honestly. “I always work within the framework of profit and loss. I manage every project.”
“Of course,” Robb agreed.
“Robb!” Natalia said sharply.
“Don’t misunderstand, Natalia,” Robb was matter-of-fact.
“Freedom is the luxury of academia.” Ryan made peace with one but not the other.
“How did you push the next generation of games?” Robb interjected when she didn’t speak.
“We promoted a genetic angle,” Ryan continued. “Specifically, the life-cycle of the Monarch butterfly.”
“Age defying genetics?”
“Yes, hence ‘Methuselah.’”
“I don’t understand.” Natalia sounded annoyed.
“Biblical legend suggests he lived nine hundred and sixty-nine years.”
“Jankowiak wasn’t religious, Ryan.”
“Neither are butterflies,” Ryan retorted.
Natalia regained her composure. “Would Jankowiak have kept a record of the protein’s molecular structure on his laptop?”
“Possibly,” Ryan considered. “It might have been part of the presentation he had planned to deliver to GenCorp.”
“Why would he take the risk?” Natalia questioned.
“He wasn’t threatened by the loss of a single idea,” Ryan mused. “He didn’t fear intellectual theft because—“ He stopped, his stomach knotted at the realization.
“Because?” Natalia interrupted.
“—he had more ideas to pursue than life to live,” Ryan muttered. Then, with a stronger voice, “He told me this a hundred times. I had no idea he was being prophetic.”
“The genetic angle,” Robb said sharply, severing Ryan’s reminiscence.
“It was sufficiently successful to take to market.”
“Not the chemistry, Ryan,” Robb clarified. “Did you use the same markers on your subsequent development project?”
“More or less,” Ryan replied. “We might have altered the ratios of isotopes or the placement onto functional groups, but the strategy was the same.”
“Do you vary the composition and placement by project or by team?” Robb cross-examined.
“Yes.” Ryan was evasive.
It was Ryan’s turn to classify his information. “As much as can be controlled without being obvious. We have a strict policy that prevents the cross-fertilization of reagents between teams—that’s a standard contamination prevention policy—yet, I’m sure it’s happened more than a few times.”
“So you could tell us when this was made?”
“Most likely. I doubt that it differs from your assessment.”
“You targeted the animal kingdom only?”
“You found no genetic impact?”
“Did you test it on plants?”
“Not at all.”
“Got it.” Robb nodded his head. “Natalia, please continue.”
She flipped through several slides—additional evidence that CI’s proprietary material had been pilfered—but the slides lacked uniqueness until she stopped on a PCR of DNA.
“What’s this?” Ryan asked.
“This is a DNA assay extracted from cells found in the sample matrix. It’s corn.” Natalia answered.
“What about it?” Ryan was suspicious.
“It’s been genetically altered,” Robb stated.
“I don’t see a connection.” Ryan stonewalled. The ACE-Asia samples might have been contaminated… Robb and Natalia analyzed bulk samples from environmental sources—which had a multiplicity of origin—not the test tube aliquots from a sterile lab: They couldn’t be expected to ascertain the exact origin of every happenstance component.
As he stirred with relief, he chided himself: He should have suspected immediately but his pristine “company-laboratory” frame of reference was too narrow. If it proved true he would gladly accept his folly.
“We don’t think they’re contaminated.” Robb read through Ryan’s justification.
“How can you be so sure?” Ryan challenged. “CI has never done anything with grains.”
“The amino acids we saw earlier were extracted from mitochondria… from the same grain cells.”
“Oh.” Ryan’s was confused. “That makes no sense. How did it get there?”
“Simple metabolic uptake.”
“How did it get into the plant?” Ryan said with an edge.
“We believe it had been dispersed—“
“Would that matter?” Robb deflected. Natalia took the cue and advanced a slide.
“It could help determine the extent.” Ryan’s voice was drowned by the overheating projector fan surging into overdrive. Before he could repeat himself he glanced up—and stared in disbelief. “It has the same chemical structure,” he breathed. “Mass Spec?”
“It self-replicated…” The weight of the added evidence left Ryan reeling. “I can’t believe this stuff was airborne,” he muttered. “If word gets out…”
“It’s not anymore.” Natalia surprised him.
“It’s not what?”
“It’s not airborne anymore.”
“I’m not following you.” Ryan was confused.
“We only recently characterized these signatures. These samples were collected fifteen years ago.” Dr. Dioumaiev reminded him. “They’re not in today’s aerosol soup.”
“How can you be sure?”
“We know. We continuously conduct air sampling projects now.”
“You do?” Ryan didn’t mean to scoff.
“Yes.” Natalia humored his skepticism. “We monitor for early warnings—countries that are developing nuclear, chemical or biological technologies.”
“That will do.” Robb interjected.
“Yes, Robb.” Natalia ceased to elucidate.
“How did you find CI’s?” Ryan was suspicious.
“We re-analyzed samples from our database.”
“How would you even know where to look?”
Natalia hesitated and looked at Robb.
He shook his head back and forth.
“The assurance of your lack of involvement is on the line.” Ryan said testily.
“We had a tip.” Robb said vaguely.
Ryan leaned back in his chair and donned his best poker face. He would wait as long as it took to win this stare down. But he was mistaken. Natalia broke the silence almost immediately.
“It has infected our domestic grains: wheat, barley, oats and corn.”
“Excuse me,” Ryan asked. “What’s in our food supply?”
“The same genetic markers that were found in the aerosols. The ones that were similar to what Dr. Jankowiak called ‘The Methuselah Project.’”
“No!” Ryan denied the connection but his protest was weak. “How could that be?”
“It’s like I told you earlier,” Robb broke in. “Jankowiak was hacked by GenCorp. GenCorp was courting a manufacturing base in China.”
“And you did nothing to stop it?”
“It’s profits, Ryan.”
“Why did it stop?”
“Good question.” Natalia broke in. “We don’t know.”
“How can that be a good question?” Ryan asked sharply but she misinterpreted his question.
“The original chemical signature simply stopped appearing. We checked the archives from the next several years but it never appeared again. What we find now is a modified version. No isotopic tags, slightly different in structure, but it’s in every commercial grain crop.”
“Success or mistake?” Ryan looked at Robb. He found it hard to accept the happenstance.
“At this point, I can’t be sure.” Robb answered. “I’m leaning toward an ‘act of ignorance,’ though.”
“Not orchestrated?” Ryan raised his eyebrows.
“No,” Robb assured. “Just chemistry and maybe some evolution.”
Ryan face lit up. “The signature disappeared—“
“—About the same time CI extricated itself from GenCorp legal entanglements,” Robb affirmed. “Pawluk filled in the details.”
Ryan nodded. That shed light on one mystery—whether Pawluk had had a hand in it. That long-sought answer suddenly seemed meaningless in the face of the more urgent question.
“How long has our food supply been affected?” That was the next real question, one that CI might be able to sidestep, but not without carnage. He shook his head from side to side, slowly, not wanting to hear the answer.
“For the past fifteen years.”
The first time Tammy fell asleep in the snow she was five years old—some ten years earlier—but she had always kept it a secret. Even at that tender age she sensed it was too strange to ever mention.
It had been a cold December afternoon, after kindergarten, when she visited a friend for an hour or two until her Mom finished work and picked her up. It was the usual routine. The day at school had been tough. She’d been called out for accidentally kicking a boy and been forced to apologize. She never really understood why.
After school, she just wanted to escape. She played with her friend in the backyard. A weekend blizzard had fashioned a fence-high snowbank just begging for their attention. They burrowed through its sculpted face and hollowed a chamber from its depths. Then, within the pristine while walls, protected from the wind and insulated from the biting cold, they played with their dolls: two Ice Queens with miniature dressed up Princesses, gossiping of romance, danger and magic until the diffuse winter daylight faded.
Tammy had laid on her back on the fort’s floor while she played, impervious to its chill, growing ever so warm and drowsy as the make-believe flowed and digressed. She had resisted the steady gathering of fatigue, but when her friend excused herself to go to the house—to “powder her nose” as she put it—Tammy found it difficult to keep her eyes open any longer. As she recalled, she succumbed almost instantly to a drugged sleep that she’d never before experienced.
When her friend returned a few minutes later, dutifully bearing the news that it was time go indoors, Tammy barely heard the call. She struggled to reopen her eyes.
Too slow in response, her friend had poked her head into the fort and found her still lying on the floor. Her friend had admonished. “You can’t fall asleep in the snow. You’ll die!” Words that made no sense… the fort was far too comfortable… all Tammy desired was to continuing napping.
But her friend was persistent, shaking her repeatedly until Tammy roused and reluctantly abandoned the cozy underworld retreat for the blast furnace warmth of the house. Once inside, she lingered at the door, scheming of a way to return to the comfort of the snow palace.
Her friend was glad to be inside. She hung her coat on a clothes-tree and bolted hungrily toward the kitchen. Tammy didn’t want a snack. She wanted peace and solitude and rest. She remembered mouthing, “My Mom’s here!” but before she could wander out the door her Mom knocked on the door.
It was so happenstance that nothing was ever said. And so Tammy kept it hidden.
But the second time it was not so easily overlooked.
She was now fifteen years old, anxious, self-conscious and trembling with excitement to go to a party because there would be music and people and boys… she couldn’t have imagined running into trouble so quickly.
He hadn’t even been all that cute. He was all of seventeen, a face full of zits, a bit too scrawny, a bit too over-the-top demanding but even so, he had been someone to talk to. When she bored of his company she excused herself to “powder her nose” but when she exited an upstairs bathroom she found him standing at the door, jealously waiting for her to return.
It had given her the creeps.
He suggested that she join him outside on a veranda but she knew that was where the couples went to be romantic. She deferred and he suddenly grabbed her by the shoulders and kissed her.
She gasped in anger, raised her knee into his groin but missed as he twisted away. He seemed to have anticipated her response. Before she could pull away he slugged her hard on the chin. She felt her jaw separate below her ears and there was a sudden and intense sensation of ringing that accompanied the pain. Dazed, she stumbled down the stairs to a loud and obnoxious throng of teenagers and overbearing hip-hop music. Suddenly she had nothing in common with anyone. She had to get away.
Outdoors it was freezing. She looked for her coat. It was in a coat closet at the entrance foyer but before she got there the boy cut her off. Tammy panicked and ran headlong out a patio door. She heard a collective murmur as the winter’s chill swept inside and bit into those closest to the door.
“Hey!” Voices shouted angrily but Tammy paid them no heed. She darted out onto an icy patio, nearly slipping and falling headlong into a concrete fence post. The cold bit through her clothes and seized her back. Her chest constricted and it was difficult to breathe.
“Close the door, bitch!” Someone yelled and that was all she needed to turn and run again. She ran out of the yard and onto the sidewalk beneath the dimly lit streetlights. She thought she heard voices behind her and she ran for a full ten minutes, tears falling from her eyes and freezing into miniature ice balls on her cheeks. She ran towards the edge of town. She ran until she’d left the lights behind and her feet were numb and her breathing came in wracking gasps and the searing in her face and cheeks and lungs finally forced her legs to quit.
She stopped at the edge of an open field, the city lights a short distance behind, a dim glow that reflected awkwardly off the meadow of snow, and she shivered. Her tears no longer fell. Nobody had followed her. She relaxed.
In front of her, a deep snow bank lined the edge of a ditch. She instantly perceived what she had so long ago forgotten. The snow beckoned and Tammy sought shelter beneath it’s overhang.
She dug into the bank’s face, at first quickly, then more slowly as she understood what she was doing. A wave of drowsiness swept over her. Her shivering stopped. Her movements became laborious with the onset of fatigue. She didn’t notice that—instead, she found herself feeling increasingly comfortable and tired.
When the fatigue took control she simply curled herself into the depression she’d gouged away, lay down on her side and let the strange heat send her to darkness.
She was at peace.
Two days later, a farmer and his wife found her. As the woman called for emergency services, the man covered her with a blanket, lifted her stiff body, and placed it in the backseat of their crew cab truck. He was only being kind; he was sure she was dead. There was no breathing and her skin was too cold and too thick to feel for a pulse. All the signs suggested that she couldn’t have survived.
There were tracks, which were nearly invisible, half-filled by the blowing snow of the previous night’s furious wind. When the farmer picked her up he saw that the snow beneath her body had crystallized, proving that the girl’s warmth had long ago left her body. He astutely ascertained that she had been there a minimum of twenty-four hours and probably a day more. It was a tragedy and he and his wife hoped that it was neither borne of foolishness nor foul play.
In the warmth of the crew cab, Tammy regained comprehension, though her body remained stiff and pale. She heard a woman—who didn’t sound like her mother—sobbing softly, and it surprised Tammy that anyone who didn’t know her could be that sympathetic.
Tammy tried to open her eyes and speak but every muscle was a slab. She didn’t panic, she sensed that it would be several hours before she would function normally again. It was more bothersome to hear the woman’s crying than be unable to communicate.
The paramedics were slow to arrive, held up by a police department that demanded to first investigate the scence. After all, there was a frozen body that no one thought was alive. During the delay Tammy’s eyes began to register an opaque glow through her eyelids.
The farmer’s wife was fussing over her, smoothing the hair from her eyes, melting the beaded ice from her eyelashes, and tidying up her blouse to make her look proper, when she thought she saw Tammy’s face flush. Tentatively, she touched the girl’s face, quickly gasping and withdrawing her fingers in horror at the unnatural sensation so devoid of warmth or pliability. But when the small white spot that her fingertip had created slowly filled in with color, the farmer’s wife was unsure that her eyes weren’t playing tricks. She touched the girl’s face again, resisting her instinct on contact, and was soon convinced the girl was alive.
“She can’t be alive, Ma,” her husband chided. “You’re just hoping.” Disbelieving, he felt for a pulse while his wife listened for a heartbeat, pressing her head against the girl’s thin party blouse, straining to hear a pitch her aged ears were no longer capable of processing.
She called the emergency number again, proclaiming, “The girl is alive!” over and over to the doubting operator. The police were notified, the farmer’s wife was warned and the paramedics were unable to change that authorization to stand down and wait.
By the time the police arrived an hour later, the paramedics at their heels, Tammy was feeling pretty good, though she was no less capable of any type of movement.
The police refused the paramedics’ request to examine the girl, while the farmer’s wife pleaded and sobbed, and chastised the couple for moving the body. They could be arrested for evidence tampering and so on.
Fortunately, this delay was very short, and a medical coroner, having heard the radio trafffic, was singularly quick to arrive. Tammy felt the stethoscope applied to her chest—and the coroner’s startled response, “There is a heartbeat!”
There was a sudden commotion as the paramedics demanded that they immediately render aid. The confused police team stepped back and a wooden gurney appeared.
Tammy felt herself rolled like cord wood onto the gurney and strapped into place. Though she couldn’t feel the straps it was suddenly hard to breathe.
She felt a twinge of fear. She knew she was going to be okay, but not if she was suffocated before she could speak. Help! She screamed inside. I can’t breathe! Vainly she worked to get someone’s attention—to move her lips or bat an eyelash—but it was still impossible to move. Her chest was locked and, without oxygen, she felt the world slipping away.
Then, for no reason other than procedure, the second paramedic re-checked her straps. When he couldn’t easily insert a finger beneath them, he thoughtfully loosened them a notch.
It was all she needed. Imperceptibly, her chest tilted upward, fresh oxygen was inhaled and returned to her blood and, this time, there was the vague sensation of pins and needles below the skin where the straps no longer pressed so tightly. Tammy smiled inside. Her body was returning to normal.
The medics lifted her into the ambulance, securing the wooden gurney onto a metal-frame wheeled counterpart. Tammy was instantly nauseous, not from the movement but because the cabin was a sauna. Her head spun wickedly and she would have vomited but, fortunately, too few of her muscles could function with sufficient strength to clench. Then a blast of cold air burst through the open doors, a refreshing burst that quenched the nausea but left an unrequited ache in her throat to purge her guts.
In the quiet before the doors slammed shut, the farmer’s wife cried again, with relief and pity, and Tammy desperately wished to console her.
The ambulance jolted into movement. The farmer and his wife were gone and she was en route to a nearby hospital. Her body bounced uncomfortably against the increasingly hard gurney. Tammy wanted to complain again, not because of the rough ride, but because she knew that she was being administered the scripted aid for hypothermia—and she didn’t like the disparity of heating between her chest and her extremities—which she somehow grasped was more hindering than beneficial to a speedy recovery. It made her feel cold—and she never felt cold—and she preferred to be either fully covered or not covered at all.
The emergency doctor routinely got it all wrong, too, ignoring the temperature probes on her arms and legs that suggested that her heart was trying to rewarm her body’s locomotive function before it was necessary to metabolize again. It wasn’t physiologically possible, he groused, the medical equipment must be malfunctioning. The doctor stubbornly continued warming her core only, but he couldn’t be faulted, either. A veterinarian might have read the signs differently, but not a human physiologist.
At least the heat lamp felt like sunshine, Tammy thought, in spite of the discomfort. She lay on the hospital bed, tortured by the chill of her own cold blood seeping from her legs toward her heart, shocking her organs with its conflicting demand to return to stasis.
Tammy grew ever more frustrated by her inability to speak—that the ignorant rewarming process that wasn’t right for her—and she mentally wiggled her limbs until she finally was able to wriggle her arms beneath the warming blanket. Instantly, she felt better. She smiled inside. Soon her legs would follow and the discomfort would go away.
A nurse saw her with her arms covered and assertively moved to undo her effort. Tammy mentally rolled her eyes and tried to stop her but she didn’t have the strength to thwart the nurse—or to return her hands beneath the insulation. She would have to wait.
A doctor entered the room. “What’s her core temp?”
“Thirty-four degrees Celsius,” the nurse replied.
She consulted a chart. “The last was fifty. It’s been steadily increasing.”
“What were the lows again?”
“Eight beats per minute when they brought her in.” The nurse read off the chart. “But her core was fifteen Celsius.”
“Extraordinary. Just about the coldest on record.” The Doctor was quick with his facts. “No, I imagine she was.” He surmised.
“Why do you say that?”
“She began warming in the farmer’s truck. I don’t know how much.” He reasoned. “I guess we’ll never know.”
At precisely three AM, there was a sharp knock at the front door of Ryan’s home. In deep slumber in their second floor bedroom above the street, Ryan and his wife bolted upright in bed.
“Who could that be?” His wife gasped, as startled as she was irritated.
“I don’t know.” Ryan was similarly disturbed. He rolled out of bed, fumbling in the dark for his previous day’s clothes. His wife switched on a lamp and he, after recovering from the momentary blindness, found them and dressed hurriedly.
The knocking repeated with insistence.
“They’ll wake the kids!” his wife groaned.
Ryan grabbed his cell phone from his nightstand and dashed out the bedroom door. “Go shut their doors,” he called over his shoulder. He double-timed down the staircase, checking his phone. There were ten missed calls—all from Robb—and one message. He frowned, there had been no missed calls before he turned in the previous day, how could he have missed his phone ringing ten times? He dialed his voicemail.
The door rattled loudly, shaking the frame—it was being tested. Ryan was suddenly alarmed. Someone who needed help wouldn’t be doing this…
“Who is it?” He asked through the door.
“Homeland Security. Open the door!” A man’s voice ordered, as obnoxious as it was authoritative.
What the hell are they doing here? Ryan wondered. “Just a minute.” He peered through an eye-hole, seeing at least three men in the vague street light, while he listened to Robb’s message.
“Ryan, it’s urgent. I’ve been trying to get a hold of you all day”—Ryan was confused, he always checked his phone before going to bed—“please contact me as soon as you can.”
“Open the door, Ryan!” The command was emphasized with a violent shaking of the door knob. The wood frame shuddered—the men outside were set to tear the door from its hinges—and it instantly reminded Ryan of the flimsy aluminum trailer door from his youth.
Ryan stalled, pressing the phone to call Robb. “Stop! Or I’ll call the police,” he spoke through the door.
“I wouldn’t do that,” the voice warned.
“It’s the middle of the night. How can I be sure of who you say you are?” Ryan needed to buy time.
“We have ID.”
“Sure, that’s convenient.”
The tinned voice of a sleepy man crackled from his phone. “Ryan, it’s three AM, what the hell?” It was Robb.
Ryan couldn’t answer. Just then his wife came down the stairs. She was scared and angry. “What’s going on?” She demanded.
“Call the police,” Ryan whispered.
“Why?” Her face paled.
“Ryan are you there?” said the phone.
“I don’t know,” Ryan answered his wife.
“Who’s there? Is there something you’re not telling me?” She looked ready to vomit.
“Then what?” Her voice conveyed her doubt.
“I don’t know.” The look of confusion on Ryan’s face softened her suspicion.
“Who are they?” She asked loudly, gesturing toward the door.
“Homeland Security, Ma’am,” the voice answered. Then it became threatening, “Ryan, we have authority to break down this door.”
His wife ran from the room.
“I doubt that!” Ryan retorted.
“Ryan,” said the phone, “what’s happening? Who’s there?”
“I’m not opening the door!” Ryan fortified. Then his eldest, a boy of ten, appeared at the top of the stairs.
“Dad, what’s going on?” the boy said sleepily, shakily descending.
“Go back to bed, son.” Ryan tried to soothe him but his words were harsh. His son’s eyes opened wide.
“Ryan, speak to me! Can I help?” Came Robb’s voice.
“No!” Ryan heard his wife shout in anger. She burst into the room. “The house phone isn’t working!”
Ryan immediately put the cell phone to his ear. “Robb, listen to me. There are at least three men outside of my door. They claim to be from Homeland Security. My landline is dead. I don’t…”
“I’ll look into it immediately.” Robb was instantly awake and fully serious.
“What do you know?” Ryan’s heart fell.
“Can’t tell you now.” Robb hung up. “This was supposed to have been taken care of”—
“We’re coming in!” The outside voice insisted. “Stand back!”
With a terrific thud, a crowbar was wedged into the door frame and the entire door shifted sideways. The wood groaned and the jamb cracked sharply and split open. Immediately, a heavy boot was applied to the weakened frame. The deadbolt exploded into pieces and the door gave way, swinging into the side wall where it stuck fast, the door knob embedded in the plaster.
His wife screamed. His son ran to his arms.
“Dad!” He sobbed. “What’s going on?” He clung to his father.
Three men stepped onto his foyer. Ryan wasn’t sure but it looked like two more remained outside. The three held pistols sideways across their chest, over navy blue uniforms emblazoned with the insignia of the DHS. Each had the requisite badges.
“Ryan, you’re coming with us,” the first man announced. Ryan recognized him as the voice that had called through the door.
Across the street, lights flooded his neighbors’ windows.
“There must be a mistake.” His wife stepped toward Ryan. She didn’t wail. She wouldn’t wail. Ryan was proud.
“Ma’am, stay back.” The second man re-aimed his pistol at her chest. “I asked you politely, ma’am.”
“The hell you did!” she snarled, still advancing.
“You have no right!” Ryan was livid. He turned his son to his side, shielding him with his body. His hands shook uncontrollably.
“We are permitted by the Patriot Act,” the first man said decisively, holding a DHS badge to Ryan’s face that identified him as John Dobson. Dobson was clearly in charge.
His wife grabbed the badge from the man’s hand. He raised his arm as if to strike her.
Ryan’s blood ran cold. He thrust forward, his hands reaching for the man’s throat, tearing away from the grip of his son.
“Dad! Don’t leave me!”
Ryan stopped cold as a shot rang out, the bullet tearing through the ceiling. The second man had pulled the trigger while the third now leveled his weapon at Ryan. A fourth man appeared at the broken door frame, his gun pointed at ready. Plaster dust rained down and there was a smell of burnt gunpowder and seared wood.
Ryan’s son had fallen to the floor and hit his chin. It was bleeding.
“My daughter is upstairs!” Ryan’s wife hid her terror but her voice was high-pitched and strained. “My son is hurt!”
“I suggest you don’t resist.”
At the top of the stairs, a little girl sobbed. Ryan glanced up sharply and shook with relief. His knees buckled and he stepped back, feeling the terrified embrace of his son around his back. Ryan reached down and pulled his son close whereupon the boy buried his face into his dad’s side. Blood seeped onto Ryan’s untucked shirt tail.
“Thank God!” his wife’s voice broke. She turned…
“STAY WHERE YOU ARE, MA’AM!” The second man shouted and she stopped cold.
“That’s my daughter!” She minced her words with a feisty rage.
“Let her come down herself.” The shooter was visibly shaken but he would not forfeit control.
“Mommy, I’m scared,” the little girl said plaintively. “There was a loud noise and it woke me up.” She clutched a tattered blanket in one hand and the banister rail with the other.
“Let me go to her!” Ryan’s wife demanded, again turning toward the stairs. The agent thrust out and grabbed her shoulder, twisting her back around, nearly pulling her off her feet. Ryan started again but the pistol was shoved into his stomach and he stopped. His son’s bleeding chin bounced against his side and Ryan heard him whimper.
“Mommy!” both of his children shrieked. Ryan felt his son’s grip on him freeze.
“STAND DOWN!” Dobson ordered—to everyone. He turned toward his agent. “Let her go.”
“Get your hands off me!” Ryan’s wife snapped. She twisted away, striding furiously toward the crying little girl.
Dobson pressed something else at Ryan. It was a badge. “Check the badge, Ryan,” he insisted.
While Ryan looked, he dropped a hand onto his trembling son’s shoulder and held him to his side. The badge was authentic, as best as he could tell. With his free hand, he pushed it away. “Get that out of my face! Why are you here?” His son stiffened again. I’m frightening him, Ryan realized.
“We just want to talk to you.”
“Really.” Ryan sneered. “In the middle of the night? Like this?” He stayed still as he spoke.
“Just following my orders, Sir.”
“Your orders are to shoot first?” Ryan was incredulous.
“You could’ve…hit…my sister.” His son spoke in staccato sobs. “You…could’ve…killed…her!”
“Are you continuing to resist?” Dobson ignored the young boy’s accusation.
“I have broken no laws.” Ryan was resolute. “There will be hell to pay,” he promised.
“Yes there will,” the second man sneered. “You have violated the Official Secrets Act.”
Finally Ryan had a clue. “What I was discussed was not classified,” Ryan leveled. His anger surged.
“Yes, it was.” The man disagreed. “It had been classified that morning.”
Ryan stopped arguing. Pawluk would not have steered him wrong. He was caught in a territorial dispute and these agents were too low in the totem to make decisions.
His wife descended the stairs slowly, still under watch of the second man. She held her daughter to her chest. The little girl’s arms were tightly wrapped around her mom’s neck. “Careful, honey,” she said softly but firmly. “I can’t breathe.”
Ryan turned slowly, picked up his son and embraced him. “I’ll be home soon,” he promised. Then he reached out with his free arm and pulled in his wife and daughter.
“Contact our lawyer first and then my old boss, Pawluk,” he said.
She understood and held him closely, refusing to let go. “You have blood on your shirt.”
“Time to go,” Dobson announced.
Reluctantly, his wife let him go but his daughter spun and fell into his arms.
“Daddy!” She cried out.
“I need to go, love,” Ryan said softly. He hugged her for a full minute, letting his son slide down his side to the floor where the boy held still, bear-hugging his waist, his head still buried into his side. The boy’s chin was no longer bleeding but his cheeks were smeared in red—as was Ryan’s shirt.
“Now, Ryan,” Dobson insisted.
Ryan handed his daughter to his wife. She nearly had to tear the girl’s arms away from his neck. He reached down and pressed himself into his son.
“Soon,” he said. His wife pulled his son to her.
They cuffed him and led him outside. Behind him, he heard his son sniffling and his daughter hiccup her tears. “Will we ever see Dad again?” his son asked in a small voice.
“Of course.” His wife stood at their side, resolute, holding them closely. Only her eyes betrayed her fear.
At every house along his block at least one light burned. None of his neighbors stood at their windows but Ryan knew they were behind the darkened glass of adjacent rooms. He wondered how many had video cameras.
The agents walked him toward a massive, late model American SUV. The rear passenger door swung open.
“Watch your step,” Dobson said carelessly, pushing Ryan toward the open door. Off balance, Ryan gingerly stepped onto the threshold and faltered. Strong hands from within the cabin grabbed his forearm and hoisted him inside. He ducked to avoid hitting his head, barely missing the door frame, and then turned to his house. Unable to wave, he smiled as confidently as he could before sitting down. The cuffs dug into his back and he winced. As the door closed in his face, he saw his wife shudder.
Dobson climbed into the front passenger’s seat and the SUV instantly surged forward. Ryan watched out the window, craning his neck for a last look, until the metal and glass frame cruelly severed his family from sight.
The driver powered over the deserted streets, turning corners at speed and ignoring most traffic regulations. Ryan was tossed about the seat like a rag doll.
“Why am I not buckled in?” He asked. The agent beside him answered by reaching across his torso and belting him in place.
“Thanks,” Ryan said but the agent was silent. Ryan leaned forward until the shoulder strap locked. “Where are you taking me?” He asked Dobson. They appeared to be heading downtown but he wasn’t sure.
Dobson did not reply.
Ryan leaned into the strap until it dug against his collarbone and, with additional volume, repeated his question.
“He’s on the line.” The agent beside him said roughly, forearming him back into the seat.
Through the headrest Ryan saw that Dobson was talking into a headset. “Where are you taking me?” he asked the man beside him but his grim-faced companion returned to being mute.
Unable to exchange pleasantries, Ryan listened, but could not hear, the front seat conversation. He surmised that Dobson was unhappy, for his neck muscles were bulged and strained, and his jaw jerked when he spoke.
Maybe he’s getting his ass chewed, Ryan hoped.
“I think you’re making a mistake, Sir,” Dobson said loudly. Then his voice trailed off again.
Ryan strained his ears.
“Rubbish!” Ryan belched. “Your agent fired a gun in my house!”
Beside Ryan, his companion’s face blanched, his eyes squinted into narrow slits. The agent reached inside his jacket…
Ryan’s stomach clenched tightly and he braced himself.
“Not now!” Dobson barked and the man’s hand withdrew.
“Another time…” the man threatened.
“You’re stable,” Ryan mocked, raising his eyebrows. The man’s eyes instantly shot open wide. Thick veins bulged from his forehead and neck and his hands clenched into tight fists. Ryan took satisfaction in the man’s shackled rage.
“Yes, Sir,” Dobson snapped into his phone. He ended the call and turned to the driver, tersely speaking beneath earshot. The driver repeated the new orders and the lead agent confirmed them before he leaned back and fumed.
Without warning, the driver braked hard, recklessly swerving across the center stripes and executing a U-turn. He throttled the SUV to highway speed and they tore through town, periodically braking to make hard-banked turns, before accelerating to speed again. The craft floated effortlessly through the corners and over the uneven intersections. It had been outfitted for cruising.
At the fringe of town they entered an industrial zone, a hodgepodge of cottage factories and half occupied R&D complexes, seemingly all fronted by rows of automotive repair shops with cinder block walls anointed in gang graffiti. Moments later they left behind the cold immersion of street lights for the murky predawn countryside.
“Where are we going?” Ryan was confused. He’d half expected to be taken to a nondescript, abandoned warehouse.
“Here,” Dobson announced and the driver braked sharply. Ryan was thrown against his shoulder belt and then flung back into his seat as the SUV jerked to a stop. The cuffs dug into his skin and his wrists bent awkwardly. Pain shot through his forearms.
“You’re getting out.” Dobson opened his door and dismounted. Seconds later, Ryan’s door swung open and he was pulled by the forearms onto the road’s shoulder and spun face-forward against the vehicle. He turned his face to protect himself. Keys jangled and suddenly his hands were free. Blood surged coldly into his fingers.
“What’s going on?” Ryan demanded. He flexed his wrists; they were strained and sore but they moved on command.
“Not my call.” Dobson said abruptly, already climbing aboard the SUV and preventing Ryan from questioning him further. Before the door slammed shut the vehicle rose up and roared into motion, slinging a jet of stones from its oversize tires. Ryan turned to protect his face.
Bewildered, Ryan reached in his pocket for his phone. Behind him, twin beams lit up the asphalt—startling him—throwing a long shadow onto the hardtop. It was close and Ryan scrambled into the ditch. As soon as he stepped off the hardtop, Ryan turned to look, not sure if he should flag a driver down this close to the rough part of town.
It wasn’t his decision. The oncoming vehicle was moving slowly—it had been parked a hundred yards away—and now approached him deliberately. The driver’s side window was opening as it crept nearer.
“Ryan?” He heard a woman’s voice. It sounded like Natalia Dioumaiev.
“What’s going on?” Ryan was suspicious.
“Getting things ready—probably still on the phone.” It was Natalia.
Natalia laughed nervously. “He sent me to collect you.”
“I want to call my wife, first.” Ryan began dialing his phone.
“Of course.” Natalia glanced nervously over her shoulder. “We don’t have much time. Decisions can be changed.”
“Where is Robb?” Ryan was still uncertain.
“He will meet you outside the front gates.”
“ID please, Sir,” a Marine on foot beside the driver’s side window requested Robb. The armed guard was stationed between their late model Ford sedan and a dark, one-man shack. In the strong overhead illumination Ryan, from his passenger’s seat, could clearly see that the armament he bore completely mismatched his politeness, consisting of an automatic rifle, an ammunition belt over his torso and a large-caliber pistol belted to his hip side.
The Marine was dressed with more than materiel. Beneath his cap a twisted wire dangled, curled behind his neck and connected the lone guardsman’s headset to unseen sentries in the surrounding darkness. The others might be only a few feet away, readied to move from the shadows should the slightest of threats arise, or they might be on patrols on the grounds ahead.
Ryan shrugged mentally, not willing to test either theory.
If Ryan was disconcerted Robb was merely complacent. He’d crossed gates like these for years and he took the protocol for granted. His hands rested benignly on the steering wheel of the government vehicle that he had borrowed for this foray into the back half of the campus. Ryan wisely followed suit, folding his hands over his lap in clear sight.
For his part, the Marine was efficient, multitasking radio traffic while he manned the gate. He understood that the nature of his job was not to be friendly, familiar nor forthcoming. He was doing his job well.
Robb handed the Marine his badge. The Marine checked the photo against Robb’s face, touched the smart-chip embedded in the plastic and withdrew his hand. He nodded his acceptance.
“I’ll vouch for my passenger,” Robb stated.
“Not tonight, Sir.”
Robb’s eyebrows lifted but he would not question the armed guard.
“I have my ID here.” Ryan leaned forward and handed a temporary badge to the Marine. It had his photograph and an authorization stamp—good only for that day—but his badge did not possess a chip.
“Thank you.” The guard took Ryan’s card and withdrew into the guard-shack. He did not immediately reappear.
Ten minutes passed in silence. Robb tapped his hands on the wheel only once while Ryan’s impatience grew steadily. Neither spoke. They stared at the dark acutely but there was little of comfort in view. At the periphery of the entrance, signs informed that their every sound and action was under scrutiny. Their vehicle and their belongings could be searched. It was illegal to trespass without authorization. These were the terms of entry.
Ryan did not doubt their meaning. The Marine would be altogether too glad to deny them entrance if they balked.
As the cabin air became stifling Ryan rolled down his window and let in the night air. Crickets chirped a temperate cadence and tree frogs croaked with their nightly lust. In another place it might have been a relaxing symphony but after this night it simply added to his restlessness.
Ryan wondered if he and Robb could, without repercussion, simply turn around and leave.
Probably not. He decided. You couldn’t behave erratically around men with machine guns.
The frogs and crickets fell silent. The Marine had emerged. He approached the open window while a half dozen flies swarmed above his head.
“Authorization is in progress,” he said curtly. He spun on his heel and returned to the guard-shack. He kept Ryan’s ID.
It seemed ludicrous to remain silent any longer.
“How did you learn about this place?” Ryan asked.
“I was briefed a few days ago.”
“Before or after our meeting?”
Robb was not forthcoming either.
“A few days…” Ryan noticed that the gate entrance was not of recent construction. “How long has this place existed?”
“Nearly twenty years,” Robb admitted.
“No one saw it being built?”
“I didn’t work here twenty years ago.”
“Robb, that’s not an answer.”
Robb sighed. “The original buildings were slated to house biological projects—genomics and STEM cell research, I believe—while the outdoor facilities were constructed for tactical development”—
“How bio-aerosols move through communities, how and where one could survive an airborne attack, stuff like that. For the first few years I’m sure that’s exactly what it was used for. Later, perhaps out of necessity, it converted to this. I doubt the funding ran out.”
Twenty years. Ryan was grave. That dated the compound to the period immediately following his post-doc. The government had apparently conducted a clandestine program in parallel with Pawluk’s and Jankowiak’s. What was it for?
Robb read his mind. “There’s a more relevant question we should be asking.”
“Why should we be asking anything?” Ryan postured.
“Think of the present.”
“Why am I…? Why are we being allowed here?”
Robb nodded. “I don’t know,” he exhaled slowly, “but I’m sure it’s to suit their purpose, not ours.”
Ryan grunted in return. “They need our help.”
The Marine reappeared. He handed Ryan’s ID to Robb and stepped back. “You may proceed. Have a good morning.”
They walked across a concrete landing, over the threshold of a double-pane glass door and into a narrow hallway that widely opened left and right but revealed little of what was inside the building.
They didn’t turn to either direction nor stop there.
Immediately in front of them was a second set of glass doors. It looked like there was courtyard on the opposite side.
“This way, Ryan.” Robb was less than certain but to him it made sense to push deeper into the compound rather than explore its perimeter. He pushed open the doors and they stepped onto an open-air dirt pathway.
The pathway lighting was dim. Trees grew tall on either side though it was too dark to see beyond the breadth of their trunks. The overhead sky was a blend of pitch that offered no further help yet Ryan was sure there were eyes in their depths. As they moved forward he looked around and up, seeing nobody. Someone suppressed a cough but nobody stepped forward, neither to ask them where they were going nor to help them.
The worn dirt path turned and the trees on one side gave way to a large pool in which several vague forms moved beneath the surface. The figures swam with the long, lazy strokes of dolphins at leisure and were as graceful in glide as they were ambiguous.
Ryan lingered to watch but Robb hurried through. “We’ll come back here later,” he promised. He was unnerved.
They moved past the pool, through more trees until the path terminated at another set of glass doors. A weak red glow from emergency lights shone from the building’s interior but their eyes could hardly peer through their reflections on the glass.
Robb tested a door—it was unlocked—he opened it and they stepped across the threshold. It was hot inside.
Ryan looked around what was apparently another poorly lit, oversized room. “Where now?” he asked.
“Not sure,” Robb answered. “Let’s follow the lights.”
“Sure,” Ryan agreed.
After a couple of steps, the floor softened and their feet scrunched—the floor was covered with a coarse sand. Their eyes adjusted and large boulders, spaced at regular intervals, appeared ahead. Above each rock a heat lamp hung from an invisible ceiling overhead. Some lamps were aglow, confirming the red tint they had seen from the courtyard. It took Ryan a moment to notice that there were large reptiles basking on the rocks.
“Should we…?” Ryan began. “Is it safe?”
Robb was slow to reply and when he did his voice was filled with caution.
“Yes, I think so.”
There was something odd about these reptiles. Where there should have been a head of skin and scales there was hair. Thick hair, dark and well-groomed. Human hair.
Ryan exhaled sharply and shook his head in disbelief. The sudden noise rent the room.
From the nearest rock a mass of hair slowly turned their way. The locks fell away and revealed a round face covered in scales. From narrow eye slits black eyes burned smartly, focusing tightly onto them.
Ryan felt the hair rising on his neck. He felt the hard grip of Robb’s fingers clench his elbow, halting him from acting on his urge to flee.
“Welcome, Doctors. I’ve been expecting you.” The creature said warmly. “My name is John.”
His voice was unaccented and clear. It was an American voice.
Through a rectangular one-way glass Ryan and Robb observed a hospital attendant lean over a gurney. The attendant was covered from head-to-toe in white biological PPE, only his eyes were visible through a see-through splatter shield on its hood, the balance of his face was covered by a half-face respirator beneath the shield.
Two corrugated hoses trailed up the attendant’s back and plunged through white tape strips into the suit’s fabric at the shoulder, feeding filtered air from a powered air pack strapped onto his back. There was no exposed skin. In a brazen contrast of color, the attendant’s hands were encased in purple Nitrile gloves which had been secured to his sleeves with wide strips of fluorescent yellow tape. Additional bands of yellow similarly isolated his feet in their oversize cleanroom boots.
Ryan and Robb stared in silence, restlessly wondering why their host had brought them here. Neither voiced his concerns. They pondered the oddity: after John had been called out of the room to attend to a phone call, he’d not asked them to leave the viewing room.
The attendant carefully prepared a syringe above the gurney. Beneath a thin, white blanket, the prostrate outline of a man showed. The attendant pulled the sheet back, exposing the man’s face. He lay motionless, his eyes wide open and his face gripped in a grimace of pain.
Ryan could see that the sick man was black, had a round face, tight skin and large eyes—features he associated as being more African than American and reminiscent of populations he’d seen on television of nomadic peoples or of members of tribal villages. No matter the man’s origin his eye sockets were red and wherever his skin was briefly exposed it was grotesquely textured with open sores.
His hands gloved in Nitrile, the attendant slowly injected the syringe’s contents into the sick man’s triceps. He seemed to brace for a response from the patient. There was none.
From the far side of the bed a door opened, illuminating a corridor that was overexposed in bright light.
Robb and Ryan watched in shock. It was their host, John, and he was dressed in standard hospital garb; scrubs, hairnet, surgical mask and latex gloves.
The attendant looked up and must have spoken sharply for John stiffened and paused. Neither Robb nor Ryan heard what was said.
“He shouldn’t be there,” Ryan whispered.
“What’s wrong with him?” Robb replied. “Unless…” His voice trailed away.
With a defiant gait John approached the patient. As John neared the gurney he looked toward the window where he’d left Robb and Ryan. But instead of belligerence, he smiled. Instinctively, Ryan shook his head with disbelief but Robb’s nodded with comprehension.
Once John had acknowledged their presence, he turned and spoke to the attendant. They could not hear his words through the looking glass.
With a measure of agitation, the attendant nodded and turned aside. He peeled off his outer gloves, stepped on a lever, and dropped them in a Class IV Bio-Hazard waste bin.
The attendant donned two clean gloves from a dispenser and then strode to a computer desk which was tucked into the room’s corner. He typed a few commands on a plastic coated keyboard and suddenly they heard a light buzzing, then the background noise of the attendant’s PPE rustling against itself as the attendant returned to his bedside station—the hospital room’s acoustics were being piped into their viewing room.
John reached his hand toward the patient’s face. The scales of his hand showed through his glove as roughly textured shadows yet his fingers were graceful and gentle. He deftly pushed back the eyelids and, in succession, shone a light into each pupil.
“What is he doing?” Ryan mumbled with alarm.
Robb did not reply.
“No response,” John muttered over the speakers. “Not good. What did you give him?”
“Fifty milliliters, Doctor,” The attendant answered. Ryan rolled his eyes in surprise. Robb was not affected.
“It’s lost its efficacy,” John said wearily. “Mark it in the log.”
John looked kindly at the attendant. “Go on. I’ll take care of him now.”
“Thanks, Doctor Smith.”
The attendant turned again toward the computer. Suddenly the patient shrieked—his body convulsed and his hands flung outward—and struck the attendant broadside across the arm.
“No!” The attendant protested.
“What is it?” Dr. Smith asked.
“My suit is torn,” he said with aggravation, his free hand fumbling to remarry the edges of his torn PPE together.
“Is your skin breached?”
“I don’t know!” The attendant shrieked.
“Get to Decon now!” Smith ordered.
The attendant shakily pinched the torn garment closed and dashed toward the door. As he passed by Robb’s and Ryan’s vantage they saw his eyes through his shield.
They were wide with panic.
“How many…?“ Ryan phrased the words with difficulty.
“How many what?” Robb said with a level voice.
“How many… archetypes… are there?”
“Archetypes…” Robb pondered. “That’s clever. A much better moniker than deviants or mutations, I suppose.” He leaned back on his chair and chuckled softly.
“I don’t find this funny,” Ryan spat.
“You should reconsider your sense of humor,” Robb retorted with an advisory tone, frustrating Ryan.
“I don’t think so,” Ryan replied with more calmness than he felt. Besides his frustration at Robb’s cavalier replies, he felt a growing unease: Since their night at the compound, Robb sounded more and more like a lunatic, and less like a trusted colleague. From the corners of his eyes Ryan sought the café exits.
“At least eight,” Robb answered.
“Eight?” Ryan’s throat constricted. For an instant he couldn’t breathe.
“Eight,” Robb reiterated. “By morphology, they’re all significantly smaller, of course, but there are herbivores, cold-bloods, hibernators, nocturnals, subterranean dwellers, arborealists, water-dwellers….”
“Don’t some of these types already exist by choice?” Ryan cut him off.
“Yes, but not as morphological specialists.”
“They’re bodies have changed.”
“Yes, I get that.”
“Maybe it’s been in the making for some time.”
“I don’t follow you, Robb.”
“Form follows function. An individual’s needs expressed in lineage traits. Lamarck, you may recall.”
“No,” Ryan disagreed.
“You’re missing the point.”
“What point? My company’s technology has…”
“… begun the process of ending human competition.”
“It’s corrupted the human genome, Robb. Don’t make light of it. Don’t deny it!”
“I’m denying nothing,” Robb argued, “No, I think its quite the opposite.”
“It’s hastened the natural process.” Then Robb murmured an odd rhetoric, “Hell, that’s an accusation that I can’t even be sure of. Perhaps your technology is the process.
“The commencement of our evolutionary development.”
“How can you say that, Robb? CI is technology!”
Robb ignored him. “What did Jankowiak call this venture?”
“The Methuselah Project.” Ryan was bitter.
“Yes. Doesn’t that mean something to you?”
“Are you telling me these creatures—”
“They’re human, Ryan,” Robb interrupted.
“—these h-h-hu…mans…” Ryan could hardly phrase the word, “are long-lived?”
“Then it’s not what Jankowiak set out to find.”
“Of course it is.”
“What do you mean?” Ryan exhaled violently, venting his exasperation.
“It’s a broader interpretation, an intellectual license of the term, I suppose.” Robb meandered. “I’m sure Jankowiak only considered the individual when he conceived of the Methuselah game.”
“Don’t waffle, Robb. Please”—
Robb squared his eyes at Ryan. “This is a species expression, Ryan. So far, Smith and the others are not falling prey to degenerative diseases. No heart disease, no carcinoma and, most importantly, they have an enhanced immunological response against viruses.”
“Yes, the scientists first documented this behavior against the ‘flu and cold strains. Now its clear, it extends to many viruses, maybe even AIDs or Ebola. Right now Dr. Smith doesn’t know the full extent. But what he does know is clear and I agree with him.” Robb stared at the ceiling for a moment and then lowered his eyes to Ryan’s. They were fiercely intense. “This is a significant evolutionary armament against threats that all humans have battled for millions of years.”
“But they don’t live longer.” Ryan focused on his personal failure.
“No, in fact they appear to age more quickly. As they should.”
“Huh? How does this make sense?”
“Viruses constantly mutate. Consider beyond the immediate hype of an SARS or H1N1 or AIDs virus. Every season a dominant ‘flu emerges—and it’s only one of many mutations. With transcontinental traffic the lucky variant migrates and quickly infects the globe. Millions get sick. A small percentage die. The virus thrives, waxes and wanes. In the process it is exposed to adaptive influences and it evolves again. It’s a successful strategy. Until now.”
Robb smiled triumphantly. “These archetypes are radically different, Ryan. Their immunity against viruses ensures their survival with respect to ours—at a reduced tax on the environment.”
“I-I-I…” Ryan stuttered. “I can’t accept that.”
“Then you’re in denial.”
“I deny that I’m to blame.”
“To blame?” Robb was incredulous. “You’re to thank!”
Ryan stared as if Robb were mad. “You’re crazy,” he said softly.
“Am I?” Robb laughed. He did sound crazy. “We’re primates, Ryan. A shared ancestry with the other Great Apes yet ours has uniquely taken over the globe. How can that be? The three other species co-exist on the same continent, sometimes in the same locales, without undue conflict. What makes us so different?”
Ryan shook his head, more puzzled by Robb posing the question than the obvious answer.
“Because chimps, orangutans and gorillas inhabit unique ecological niches,” Robb answered.
Ryan’s eyes narrowed further.
“They no longer compete,” Robb spelled it out.
“I thought competition was our lifeblood,” Ryan argued.
“Competition for consumption long ago replaced competition for survival,” Robb replied.
“That’s just semantics,” Ryan said with belligerence.
“Nothing is limitless, Ryan. We live longer and there are more of us. Though we’ve neutralized old enemies with vaccinations, herbicides and insecticides—even pharmaceuticals—as fast as we conquer another threat appears.”
“Human populations exploded because of technology,” Robb continued, “but only after we learned to manipulate the natural world to do what we wanted. The deserts blossomed with water from hundreds of miles away. Hybridized seeds enhanced food production by fifty-fold. We scorned pestilence with genetic modifications. We inevitably waxed in numbers and in cockiness. And then, when that wasn’t enough and the land no longer met our needs, we harvested the seas—with ruthless efficiency. We own the entire globe… But there’s been collateral damage, Ryan. We’ve lynched a plethora of indigenous species to their extinction.”
Ryan winced. It wasn’t that Robb’s indictment was scathing, it was worse; Robb sounded like an alarmist.
“It can’t go on forever, Ryan. Whether we know it or not, we’ve backed ourselves into a tight corner. Our resources are on the decline. Biodiversity is crashing. We’ve made the Earth small: She is our Floriana.”
“We’ll innovate,” Ryan postured halfheartedly.
“What if we don’t? What if we can’t?” Robb argued. “What’s left to exploit? I don’t mean the inevitable conflict we’ll have over water, land and food. No, my concern is fundamental: Past extinctions tell us that there is a terrible price to pay. Nature does not favor uniformity.”
“Uniformity?” Ryan was confused. Robb had waxed academic again.
“Too much of any one thing,” Robb re-stated but when he saw that Ryan didn’t get it he expounded again. “The Mayans and the Incas grew in numbers, homogenized their ecosystems and consumed their resources. They became vulnerable to natural disasters and their cultures were extinguished.”
“They didn’t have modern tech…” Ryan began but Robb cut him off.
“They had the best technology of their day, Ryan, just like we do. In that regard, nothing’s changed. Technology can only thwart the inevitable.”
“Why? We’re far more advanced…”
“Ha!” Robb retorted, “just a point in time.”
“What’s so different this time?” Ryan did not spare his condescension.
“Wet have the capacity for self-annihilation.”
“So shouldn’t that slate us for destruction?” Ryan spat with thick sarcasm. Robb’s argument was flawed.
“I don’t see how you could think that,” Robb mused. He seemed to be genuinely confused by Ryan’s question. “What an odd thing to say!”
“Hardly,” Ryan pressed. “Flaws in one’s character determine one’s fate. Maybe we should throw in the towel now.”
“That’s ludicrous, Ryan.”
“Is it? Now you’re arguing against yourself, Robb. What about the Incas and the Mayans?”
“Don’t misunderstand me, Ryan.”
“Misunderstand what? That you’re talking in circles?”
“Circles? Hardly!” Robb refused to be backed into a corner. “The loss of a single culture didn’t pose the greater threat—because each was an isolated failure—no, the impact from loss of diversity is considerably greater. It’s global, Ryan.”
“Then why not wipe the slate clean?”
“Never!” Robb snapped—Ryan furrowed his brow to frame a retort but before he could speak Robb continued—“Why would Nature abandon her pinnacle expression? She’s too invested.”
“Invested,” Robb reiterated. “Her crowning achievement reigns supreme. Now it’s time to remold and disperse.”
“It’s just not what I expected.” Ryan lamented.
“It never is, Ryan.”
“Will you ever tell him, Robb?” Natalia asked. She held open up a current events magazine, the feature article, “Collective Arrogance,” dedicated to the exposure of the government’s evolutionary development housing project.
“Tell him exactly what, Natalia?”
“How you knew so much?”
“I don’t think I can.”
“It hasn’t been classified. I spoke with a DC this morning. It probably won’t be classified.”
“And it shouldn’t.” Robb was emphatic.
“Then why can’t you tell him?”
“It’s not just a matter of ‘why,” it’s a matter of when and what. I didn’t know anything until just recently. But I could never convince Ryan of that truth. And besides—” he pointed at the article “—that’s all been written to protect him and CI.” He smiled, a tight-lipped, wistful smile. “They do good work. The country… the world needs people like him… companies like his.” He sighed.
“What do you mean, ‘protect him,’ Robb? CI was not involved.”
“Not quite true, Natalia. There is a link—not Ryan nor Jankowiak for that matter—but it’s in Ryan’s best interest to not know at this time.”
“You mean the dismissed scientist from CI?” Natalia assessed.
Robb’s silence was confirming but his words were spoken with less discretion. “It’s ironic. There was a child in the program here—and I only learned this yesterday—who is the scientist’s daughter.”
Natalia shrugged; hindsight and all that.
“She has the ability to breathe underwater, something that saved the girl at six months when she nearly drowned after crawling into a pool.”
“She breathes air from water through her lungs?” Natalia immediately exposed the disconnect.
“So I understand.”
“She wasn’t born with an obvious physical anomaly?”
“No, not at first sight. And the girl’s first experience was overlooked. You know, young children have a built in response to prevent drowning. They stop breathing, their throats constrict and their brain redirects blood flow…”
“Robb.” Natalia interrupted.
“Sorry. A second near-drowning when the girl was six, an age when the physiological response has usually disappeared, was hardly more telling. At an outdoor wedding she disappeared for an hour and was found floating underneath a lakeside dock. She was unconscious, her lungs filled with water. The story goes that when a wedding guest began performing CPR, the girl purged her lungs entirely, stood up and tried to walk away.”
“Too incredible. The girl was taken to hospital but she had revived, no issues, no brain damage. I saw the medical file. She had been practicing holding her breath underwater. The ER doctor concluded that she must have been unconscious for only a few minutes, even though she was missing for much longer.“
“But her recovery?”
“There were no medical personnel to back up the story. It was a wedding. People were eating and drinking, not paying attention… At the time, it seemed a lucky second—no, third chance—but the scientist became suspicious. Being a biochemist working with mutagens and teratogens he feared that his own reproductive system had been compromised.”
“Where did he work?” Natalia started to work the puzzle.
“GenCorp employed him? Wouldn’t that be a breach of a non-compete?”
“Perhaps, but only if prosecuted. The man was fired from CI during his probationary period and went to work for a pharmaceutical start-up. The work was unrelated. GenCorp became an IP investor in that start-up and some time later bought the company to bring the scientist into their fold.”
“Why would they do that?”
“As Ryan recently suspected, the biochemist had pilfered product samples.”
“How did GenCorp learn that unless—”
“He peddled the product to Shapner? He did. I wonder if you investigated deeply enough you’d find that GenCorp was behind the man at every step…”
“So what happened? Change of heart once he find’s his daughter…”
“A plea bargain. Something that kept GenCorp from establishing itself in China. Protection for our program. Too little evidence to prosecute.”
“No need to self-implicate.”
“Robb, this is dirty.”
“The times are corrupt, Natalia.”
“That doesn’t make it right!” She snapped. “Wait, what about Pawluk? Did he leave because of his involvement?”
“No, he retired.” Robb shrugged. “He wanted a criminal investigation. But GenCorp was too connected, too influential—too necessary to our economy. Pawluk resigned in protest because he disagreed.”
“He’s married, you know.” Robb smiled as Natalia shifted uncomfortably. “CI has a future, if not as a business, then at least in its progeny.”
Thank you for reading my book. If you enjoyed it, won’t you please take a moment to leave me a review at your favorite retailer? If you did not, and you wish to leave a well-deserved comment, please email me at “[email protected]”
Insects swarm. Fish swarm. Birds swarm. Swarms exhibit a complex intelligence wherein collective thought protects the species. Professor Jankowiak believed that he could access that intelligence, using the compelling excitement of computer gaming, to have humans solve problems that threaten mankind. From his university appointment, Jankowiak devises gaming platforms and invites the world to tackle a pharmaceutical problem. His success is early and profound--earning the highest accolades--but it also attracts unwelcome pressure from his peers, rivals, and the government. After Jankowiak takes his idea to industry, he and his successor-protege, Ryan, find themselves under continuous attack, and the more they try to manage the course of the games, the more likely that their control and destiny will be wrestled from their hands.