The future depends on what you do today.
I happen to believe that this kind of genetic modification takes mankind into realms that belong to God, and to God alone.
—His Royal Highness, the Prince of Wales
We are increasingly encouraged that the advantages of genetic engineering of plants and animals are greater than the risks. The risks should be carefully followed through openness, analysis, and controls, but without a sense of alarm.
—Bishop Elio Sgreccia, Pontifical Academy for Life, Vatican City
—‹ 1 ›—
Douglas MacDougall, known for his wry sense of humor, was unusually serious this morning as he addressed the packed audience in the old lecture hall at the University of Barcelona. Seriousness did not suit him however, for he was a short, odd fellow who uncannily resembled a garden gnome, though with far redder cheeks.
“My discovery at the Krowlett Research Institute back in Scotland five years ago was a farce. The high counts of lectins were making the rats sick—that we knew for certain. Now, being of good Scottish descent and an honest sort of fellow, at least according to the few friends I have left, I felt it my God-given responsibility to share my misgivings with the public. Admittedly, I didn’t expect quite such a disgrace, nor did I consider the possibility that my scientific research might come to a crushing standstill. And indeed my career in general.”
He sipped from the glass of water resting on the edge of the lectern, emitting a low sigh of dissatisfaction at the end.
“National television in the UK can be, um…cynical, to say the least. Perhaps my judgment, or lack thereof, to share all my thoughts was a tad wee innocent. Spontaneous, even.
“But enough of my failings for one day. Let us move on to more engrossing topics. And that is why I am here, at your esteemed university, to regale you with a short lecture on the inadequacies of the safety measures used to test these new crop lines. Hardly democratic, is it, you ask. And I would agree. For reasons of clarity and understanding, I’ll try to stick with English so you can understand, not the eld lingo of Glesca.” He waited for the good humor and murmurings to die down. When the audience had settled, he continued.
“The problem is these large drug companies have been given the go-ahead to test their new seed lines with very little oversight. Aye, you heard right—it’s like crack addicts self-medicating. Too much money at stake, if you ask me. Not enough oversight—not by the government, anyway. Bloody eejits,” he muttered.
“I would also like to say where there’s negative sentiment by the public, or disagreement based on hard scientific facts, the gen-engineering companies like to crush all perfectly logical reasoning and calls for more stringent testing as soon as possible so that any impugnment doesn’t spread. Because my views are one hundred and eighty degrees polar opposite, I am a target.” He hesitated.
A knot in his stomach had just made its uncomfortable presence known. There was only one cure for this sensation, a cure-all, though he was well aware it was too early to get bladdered. He began speaking again to distract them, unbuttoning his tweed jacket and slipping the quivering fingers of one hand under the breast. The cold metal of the silver hip flask touching his fingers seemed to give him strength, as if the brown liquid—Scotland’s finest—was already coursing through his veins. He was dying for a wee dram.
With one brisk gesture, the hip flask was released from his pocket and held low beneath the lectern, next to the glass of water so no one could see. With a quick, practiced movement, he sloshed a good amount of whiskey into the glass, and almost as fast, the stopper was replaced and the hip flask returned to his pocket, the audience none the wiser. The first sip of the day was cause for celebration, and he let out a long, throaty warble.
Unbeknownst to the audience, upon that silver hip flask, stamped into the metal in Latin, was his family’s motto “to conquer or die.” He would do neither. All he had to do was stay alive and continue to stoke the groundswell of displeasure. It was the only way to defeat these global corporations.
—‹ 2 ›—
A GLEAMING DASSAULT Falcon 900EX jet with Chinese registration numbers taxied slowly towards Gate F—the high-security check-in normally reserved for flights to Israel—at Munich’s Franz Josef Strauss International Airport in Germany.
As the police and security personnel waited patiently on the apron, the departure of a Lufthansa Boeing 747-400 transoceanic jet buffeted the air, partially drowning out the rat-a-tat-tat of a jackhammer coming from nearby Terminal 2, currently under construction and due for completion in a few months, sometime in April.
A number of the security force personnel on the payroll this day wheeled about, keeping a close eye on the layered concrete structure above them, hunting for the telltale glint of a telescopic sight from a sniper rifle. However, the building was secure; they had men up there, too, keeping an eye on things.
As the Falcon 900 rolled to a rest in front of them—landing lights still blazing and the flashing tail beacon armed—the front exterior door just behind the cockpit popped open and slowly began to pivot down. The stairs, molded into the inside of the door, dropped to within six inches of the damp tarmac and stopped.
A figure appeared at the top of the stairs, taking a deep breath to gather himself. The pilots in the cockpit of the wide-body corporate jet pressed buttons on the overhead panel, but the engines remained at a low idle, a dull whine at the rear of the plane.
One of the security personnel standing on the apron, whose name was Renaud, wore a microphone in his ear with a black coil of wire running down the back of his neck into his bulletproof vest. He paid close attention to the scene unfolding before him.
Through his dark-tinted sunglasses, he took in the features of the dignified Asian guest appearing at the top of the stairs. The guest was dressed in a dark suit, with black horn-rimmed sunglasses and coal-black hair gelled back with a neat partition down the middle. The olive skin on his face was consistent with the provenance of the plane. Nothing seemed to be amiss.
Then, for some reason, the man ducked back inside the plane and the microphone in Renaud’s right ear came to life. He listened, the grip on his SIG 550 5.56×45 mm NATO assault rifle firming up. The man returned to the doorway and Renaud relaxed his grip. For some reason, the man standing at the top of the stairs reminded him of Pope John Paul II, who had visited this exact spot back in 1987, just one month before visiting Poland, at that time the center of the world’s spiritual resistance to communism.
He remembered the foiled assassination attempt on the pontiff during that trip, which many years later an Italian parliamentary commission concluded had been set up by the Soviet Union’s Foreign Military Intelligence Directorate.
That theory was upheld by the CIA. A Bulgarian assassin had been dispatched, but at the last minute he was betrayed by his Catholic wife. East Germany’s Stasi had been called in after the fact to help cover up the traces of the foiled attempt. The assassin was found in possession of a detailed travel itinerary outlining the pope’s visit.
Renaud blinked behind his dark sunglasses.
He did not turn around, but he could hear the heavy electric security gates beginning to roll across the tarmac behind him. The flashing red lights glinted off the shiny white fuselage of the aircraft. About a minute later, a dark Mercedes-Benz with tinted windows eased around the security force in a wide arc until it stopped in front of Renaud, just a few feet from the bottom of the stairs.
Unbeknownst to him, just moments before, the Mercedes-Benz had been clocked at one hundred and ninety kilometers per hour on the A92 motorway just behind the airport. Waiting for such displays of contempt for German highway laws, a member of the Autobahnpolizei, sitting in a green-striped BMW high-speed interceptor on the side of the road, had gotten a good reading, and he had several high-speed color photographs as proof on his laptop computer mounted just below the dashboard to his right.
Known for their superb driving skills and held in high regard, the Autobahnpolizei operated more along the lines of the old Police Grand-Ducale, which considered itself the strong arm of the law. The officer rested his hand on the submachine gun mounted on a rack to the right of the steering wheel; he was about to start the engine and chase down the Mercedes when he noticed something.
The smirk on his face withered to a frustrated glare as he stared at the computer screen, taking in some of the letters on the license plate. Namely the letters C and D.
The offending vehicle had diplomatic immunity.
He further studied the high-speed photos of the speeding car, noticing BE printed in small letters on the side of the license plate, indicating the car was from Bern, Switzerland. The number two after BE meant that the car was the official vehicle of the attaché, a high-ranking staff member who reported to the Head of Mission. Or number one.
The country code was that of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. “Untouchables,” he whispered in German with distaste.
Not wishing to get into trouble with his superiors, he let the car go.
Back on the tarmac, Renaud stared at the black Mercedes-Benz, now about forty feet away. He had seen bulletproof windows before; they were flat-looking, with less curvature, and he could tell that the window frames on this particular vehicle had been reshaped to accept them. They made the car bulkier, square-looking. It was also very likely that the underside of the vehicle had been reinforced with hardened steel, and no doubt the doors, roof, and vehicle panels themselves had been reinforced.
The driver, wearing a dark suit and a professional driver’s cap, got out and opened the back door.
A fit-looking man, possibly of Spanish blood, wearing a black suit, rose athletically out of the car and stretched his arms above his head. This action raised the hem of his pants, revealing tan cowboy boots stamped with some kind of pattern.
The boots were old and worn, in stark contrast to the immaculately tailored suit. He wore gold aviator-style sunglasses and nothing on his short-cropped hair, which suggested he was about thirty years of age. Renaud could see no gray hairs.
The Spaniard, though he was still not entirely sure of this, continued his stretch as he turned to face Renaud, who could see that the man appeared to have a thin moustache. It appeared almost fake, like the ones sold in joke stores. With the aviator sunglasses, it was hard to discern the true shape of his face, which appeared to be narrow like a model’s, though his skin was slightly too swarthy to be Spanish as he first thought. Perhaps Arab? Or a mix of both, with a slightly dominant Spanish influence? The rest of his face was covered in light black stubble.
Renaud thought he detected the faint glimmer of a knife handle in an ankle holster strapped to the outside of the man’s right boot, the type used by the Special Forces.
At the top of the stairs, the Chinese man waved. He was motioning for the visitor, who had stepped out of the Mercedes, to begin climbing the stairs. Which he did.
And as he moved it was clear that he was in good shape; his muscles rippled beneath his suit, and his large, bulky shoulder blades bulged like a slinking cheetah’s, with deltoids flexing, broadening his frame. He was a fine specimen, nice and flexible.
Renaud shuddered. He would be a strong adversary to fight hand-to-hand.
The visitor walked effortlessly up the stairs carrying a medium-sized gym bag in his right gloved hand. The gloves were black. They appeared to be made of synthetic material that closely resembled leather.
The two men shook hands at the top of the stairs and, before stepping inside, the Chinese man introduced himself in a loud, guttural voice as Li Xiang.
Renaud watched the combined stairs/door begin to pivot up, and when the door was safely locked, the taxi lights lit up and the aircraft slowly moved forward. There was a garbled message in his right ear and he stepped back, beginning to relax. Eight minutes later, the large three-engined jet left the runway and rose steeply into the air.
Once on board, the Spaniard was politely escorted by a pretty Asian stewardess to one of the large leather chairs in the middle of the plane. There were nine chairs in total, club seating; he knew because he had counted each one of them and memorized the layout as he walked down the aisle.
He was a very careful man, the Spaniard, and he took all measures to protect himself. If he had to get off the aircraft quickly, knowing the layout would help.
One of his uncles had been a shepherd, a Basque separatist who sided and sympathized with members of the IRA and the Canadian Québécois. The uncle was good with weapons, knew important people; people who could keep their mouths shut and knew the land like the backs of their hands. That’s why the Spaniard lived near him in the Pyrenees for several months of the year, in a little old farmhouse with multiple escape routes through the valleys.
As for him, he was of mixed lineage: he had more Spanish blood than Italian, and a sprinkling of Arab and British. He spoke multiple languages, could slip easily into any country in Europe or North Africa—any country in the world.
He knew when to fit in, to be quiet, to play the clamorous, obnoxious tourist, or speak perfectly in many languages, using the correct dialects and local colloquialisms.
When he wasn’t living in Spain he could be found in Moscow, with full diplomatic protection from the KGB, or in Stara Zagora in central Bulgaria, a city that could easily be reached by crossing the Black Sea north of Turkey by boat at night. He also spent time in Ukraine, where he had acquaintances.
He’d spent time in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, living on an old helicopter base still used by the Soviets. On occasion he joined some friends in Bern, Switzerland, a country in which he felt moderately comfortable. He could be found on occasion resting for short periods in Pakistan on the Arabian Sea, though not easily.
His primary form of transportation, a forty-six-foot sailboat, was unregistered. Many had commented that the small wooden nameplate on the transom was not clearly discernable: “Ele.n.r.” or something.
One hapless Greek sailor, who had run aground off the coast of the Seychelles to the north of Madagascar, had suggested to some friends over a quiet beer in a seaside pub that perhaps the letters referred to Eleonora, a distant girlfriend of an unusual Spanish man he’d met over a few drinks a week before his mishap. Something about a small village in the Sahara Desert to the west of the Nile River. The man had been drunk, or at least had acted that way.
The Spaniard had a loose group of friends, for lack of a better word. They hung out mostly in cafés in Paris and called him Prometheus. This was a nickname of sorts, and he preferred it. No one had bothered to ask him twice what his real name was. The nickname suited him and it was left at that. On the one occasion that a friend of a friend had asked him what his real name was, Prometheus clammed up.
The flight attendant disappeared behind the curtain at the back of the plane and Prometheus and the Asian man were left alone. Prometheus was curious: who was his target? He was, after all, a paid assassin. A very good one. He hoped it wasn’t Ronaldo the footballer or some other person he admired. He had a mental list of subjects that he simply would not fulfill a contract on.
His host stumbled as he talked. “What is name?” he asked in stilted English, unpleasantly sharp and full of affectation.
“That is not important. Just Prometheus—”
“After Greek god?”
He did not reply. Successive questions were met with a courteous nod of his head and a blank look. After several more cloying questions the Chinese man gave up, raising his hands in the air. Prometheus had a few questions of his own to ask. Now was the time.
“So tell me…who is the target?”
The Chinese man could play the game also; he stared blankly back at Prometheus for several seconds, then a wry grin creased his lips into a thin line.
“It is not important at the moment. You find out in due course.”
Prometheus considered this. Was there anyone else in the world he would refuse to kill? He was a contract killer, and it shouldn’t matter who the target was. However, he had morals that he stuck to. He would never kill a child, for one. Nor the pope; otherwise, anyone was fair game—except family, of course. Though there wasn’t much of that. He hadn’t seen his mother in years, and his father had died when he was just six. But they were off-limits.
There were no brothers or sisters; he was an only child. He began to ponder this question further—whom would he refuse to kill?
“Sit back and relax,” said the Chinese man, so he did.
Two hours later, after careful deliberation, he decided he would not kill Fidel Castro. Castro had fought for the common communist, the proletariat—whom Prometheus sided with—and community ownership of production and the distribution of goods that would otherwise be controlled by the bourgeois capitalists, or worse still, the aristocracy. Communists reminded him of the Basque separatists or the Québécois of Canada, fighting for something they believed in.
He would also never kill someone like Bob Geldof or Tom Cruise. Geldof because of his contributions to global poverty and hunger; Tom Cruise because he could act. What was that movie he was in? What was it called? The one with Jamie Foxx—that’s right, playing the poor, hapless cab driver, with Cruise in the backseat ordering him about Los Angeles while stopping to make hits.
It was the only movie of Cruise’s that he liked, and it was brilliant. If Cruise hadn’t made that movie, he probably would shoot him under contract because the rest of his movies were shit—
“We fly Hong Kong. Then return you late next day Munich,” the Chinese man chirped in his curt, guttural English.
“What?” Prometheus broke from his daydreaming. It took him a couple of seconds to gather his thoughts, which were not pleasant. “But we agreed on Saudi Arabia.” He slowly eased his right hand beneath his suit until he touched a hard object beneath his left armpit. He had worked for the Saudis before and counted several of them among his close, personal confidants. He was familiar with Saudi customs. They were quite brutal people. They respected him. And he them.
However, Hong Kong—he did not have any close friends there. He’d been there, of course, on numerous occasions, but the man sitting before him did not need to know this. Each time Prometheus had entered the self-governing region of China, he had done so on a false passport. He had a dark secret to hide there, and the thought of it sent a chill of pleasure up his spine.
“My handlers want to see skills, abilities. They not fork out good money unless they get value.”
“This is unacceptable. You lied to me.” Prometheus’s hand unclipped the SOC 17 handgun from its polymer holster.
The handgun was custom-made. It was based on the subcompact Glock 26 made in Austria and designed for concealed carry, except this derivation was manufactured in North Korea by a company called Insight Unlimited and was completely undetectable to X-ray equipment. The reinforced ceramic barrel was made of machined zirconium oxide. It could easily fall under U.S. patent laws, except none had been taken out—the North Korean company did not want the CIA to know that they had stolen the technology from them.
The Black Rhino cartridges were non-standard NATO 9×19 mm rounds made by a small, nondescript cartridge company in Bangalore, India. The first round, the one stored in the chamber, was a blank. Prometheus would fire it only to create confusion. The next three cartridges contained rubber bullets, which could incapacitate at close range without the risk of penetrating the hull of the aircraft. If needed, with a good shot to, say, the side of the head around the temple, the rubber bullets could prove fatal. The final three rounds were jacketed hollow-point ceramic projectiles designed to fragment upon entering the body. Quite fatal.
“Hong Kong. You meet several people. Demonstrate skills. No choice. One or two shots, prove your skill and usefulness. Then we talk money.”
Prometheus seemed to ponder this, and after a second or two, slowly began to nod.
The Chinese man smiled and studied the slight bulge under the Spaniard’s left armpit. “Trust me, everything all fine.”
Prometheus raised his brow nonchalantly and slowly pulled his hand out from under his suit. He nodded.
“All right. I’m not left with much choice, am I, since we’re already in the air. But if you lie to me again, there will be consequences.” The Chinese man seemed to accept this, smiling profusely, folding his hands across his lap and looking out the window. Prometheus slipped into his own thoughts.
Whoever was pulling the strings, he knew they were smart and they had money. And they had found him. This in itself meant they were well connected. Very few people knew how to contact Prometheus or knew that he ran the ad in the back of a Basque separatist newspaper called Egunkaria. This was the only way to contact him, and he was surprised to learn it wasn’t one of his regular customers, such as the separatists themselves, Executive President Robert Mugabe, or the IRA. He wished he knew more at this stage, but that was beyond his control.
He studied the man sitting across from him. He was the son of the president of Huang Power International, who just happened to be the ex-premier of China.
Prometheus scratched his head.
Sometimes the chain of command could stretch for miles, prove immensely complex, and span several different countries and as many organizations, but one thing was for sure: there was always one superior. Was it Li Xiang’s father, the ex-premier?
This novella continues as…
THE OMEGA SEQUENCE
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