Edited by Isabel Spinelli and Poppy Tallon
Copyright 2016 by Luca Luchesini
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual people, living or dead, business establishments, events and locations is entirely coincidental.
Tarek kept looking at the video wall in the living room of Valerio’s flat in Dubai. The screen was tuned to the security camera feeds, which had replayed the arrival of a big limo. Two figures were dropped off, and went through the metal detectors at the guarded entrance. They were then allowed in the building by the bellman. A few minutes later, Valerio opened the door of his flat, warmly greeting Helena and Louis, who had just landed from Brazil. They entered the vast living room, and gazed through the windows at the illuminated islands of the Jebel Ali Palm that were glowing on the Gulf waters. Tarek nonchalantly waved to them from the couch, without bothering to stand up or to put down the glass of vodka he was sipping.
“Wow I was expecting a warmer greeting considering we have not met in person for years,” Louis thought, “I hope that Helena does not resent it too much, for sure she has noticed.”
“I thought you were living in a villa on the Palm Island,” Louis said to Valerio, trying to chill out.
“I am,” responded Valerio, “I use this penthouse when I have to impress customers and make sure the conversation is confidential. Tarek’s team regularly checks that the place does not get bugged. As we are on the top floor of the tallest building in the area, there is no chance of being videotaped.”
“Alright, gentlemen,” Tarek groaned, slowly standing up from the couch, “you can have a tour of the house later on, can we please just sit down and talk? I need to be back in Abu Dhabi tonight, and I do not like late night trips at all. The highway is full of idiots that use it as a racetrack to test their new Ferraris and Porsches.”
“I am so sorry, Tarek,” Helena commented sarcastically, “you might have a one-hour drive back home, but we just got off a plane after a twenty-hour flight, and won’t be back home before spending another day in this huge sandbox.”
Valerio frowned at Tarek, who suddenly understood and apologized.
“Um, Helena, I am sorry, it’s just that I am a bit nervous. I was thinking about the last time we met here in the Emirates, in the middle of the desert, more than ten years ago. We felt things were taking a dangerous turn, and tried to put up a new strategy. Now the strategy has largely failed, and George has paid with his life.”
“How are you so sure that George was killed? The coroner eventually claimed it was a stroke,” Louis said. “We know this for sure, because Valerio saw the results in person, thanks to his colleague in the local press.”
“I have no conclusive evidence, just pieces that together make a plausible picture,” Tarek rebuffed. “First, we know that George was in trouble with his new colleagues at Ambrosiax, and also his old friend, Skip Ross, who in the meantime has become director of the CIA. At least, that’s what he told Valerio.” Tarek paused, and looked for some sign of confirmation from Valerio, who instead kept silent, with his eyes fixed on his glass of whiskey.
“Second,” Tarek continued, “I have just received evidence from the Iranians that the Israelis have developed a new weapon, a biological drone, which is being used for selective murdering. It is basically a fly wired to a microchip that releases a toxin when it hits its target. The Mossad has been using it for a while in Gaza and Lebanon, but the Iranians have eventually figured it out. The effects are very similar to what we saw in the case of George. We all know that the Mossad and the CIA used to cooperate. So we just need to find out who actually carried out George’s murder and why.”
“It is not enough,” Helena objected, “as much as I want my revenge, I need solid evidence. Are we sure he was killed by this toxin? We will never know, the body has been cremated. As for the cooperation between the Mossad and the CIA, we have experienced all too well the opposite.”
“Ok, I admit the evidence is not rock solid. But at least it is a lead. Let me also add the last piece; I know some people in the Russian secret service hated George. They thought he was responsible for Rasim’s death, and they might have decided to retaliate.”
“Is this what they thought on their own, or what you told them, Tarek?” Louis basked bluntly, “Sorry for being direct, but after forty years of living together I am becoming a bit like Dora. I hate bullshitting, especially among us. We should have learned something from our mistakes.”
Tarek lowered his eyes to the vodka glass again, waited a few moments to collect the right words, then whispered, “they came to me asking if I knew something more about the exact circumstances of Rasim’s ambush. As I needed their help, I gave them all the information I had. You have to know that the local head of the Russian secret service, at the time, was a woman. She might have had a relation with Rasim, this I do not know for sure, as Rasim was very reserved. But if it were true, it might add yet another reason. You know what I mean, Helena.”
Tarek concluded, moving his eyes from the empty glass to Helena. She did not react to the remark, and plainly added, “alright, Tarek, you started by blaming the Mossad, and you end up with three possible options, of which none is credible enough. Anyway, even if one was more plausible than the others, what could we do? Declare war on the Mossad? Attack the Lubjanka building in Moscow? Or just kidnap Skip Ross and waterboard him until he confesses all he knows? We are just so weak…” Helena’s voice subsided, as she stretched out on the couch.
Louis was pleasantly surprised that she was starting to give up on her revenge goals. He was also surprised to find himself admiring her slim and fit figure, and he wondered why he had not yet noticed that in the past several years. He was still lost in his thoughts when the voice of Valerio brought him back to the meeting.
“I think Helena got the point, we are weak,” Valerio summarized, “and it might well be that we are the next in line after George. That’s why we have to know exactly what is behind the death of George, be it murder or not. The problem is who to ask, and why should they help us, as we have nothing to offer in return. Knowledge about Telomerax is no longer our monopoly.”
“Yes, Telomerax is no longer ours, or at least not only ours,” Tarek continued, “however, we might still have some leverage with the Israeli friends of Louis.”
As he finished the sentence, the Egyptian placed a tiny box on the table. Louis understood immediately.
“It is one of the modified flies, isn’t it?” he asked Tarek.
“That’s why I insisted to have you here in person,” Tarek promptly answered. “I promised my counterpart in Teheran some help, and we can use this with the Mossad. I am sure that your contacts in Tel Aviv do not want the Iranians to understand exactly how their new weapon works. We can help them drive the investigation in the wrong direction, at least for a while, if they help us with the case of George.”
“Hang on, you are driving me crazy now,” Helena scoffed.
“First, you start blaming George’s death on the Mossad. Now, you end by proposing to ask them for help? Or am I just misunderstanding due to jet lag?”
Tarek bowed slightly towards Helena, and he responded with the sweetest tone he could manage,
“No, that’s my fault, I wasn’t clear. It’s quite complicated to understand, even with our superintelligence…” he paused to smile then continued, “actually, I believe the Mossad is involved in George’s death, but most likely they are not the culprit. Even if they were, it must have been something between them and George alone, this I am quite sure about. Think about it, Helena. They have been guaranteeing your security in Brazil for more than five years, if something had changed in their mind we would have found out the hard way. Yet it seems the deal is still holding, as far as Louis, Dora and you are concerned. However, I have a feeling that the weapon is theirs, so they know something.”
“So how can we persuade them to tell us? By letting them know we have stolen the secret of their fly?” quipped Louis, “I do not think they like being blackmailed.”
“No, we won’t tell them this,” Tarek answered, “we will just let them know that the Iranians have approached us asking for help in studying the new bug, and we propose to help them in derailing the Iranian research if they help us find out more about George. We won’t tell them we have a full sample in our hands. We will only show them documents received from the Iranian secret service. In the meantime, we will carry out our own analysis. I am sure we will find plenty of interesting things. Louis, you are the only one that can do this in our team.”
“I suppose you do not want the rest of the fly to leave the country, right?” Louis concluded. “Looks like I will start logging airline miles again. Aside from the risks associated to air travel, I do not understand why you think I am essential to the research. It looks more like a robotics subject than a biochemistry one.”
Tarek turned his eyes to Valerio, who responded at his place. “What I think Tarek means, is that there is not only the need to explain how the microchip and its functions work. The biggest secrets might actually lie in any bioengineering done on the fly. That’s why we need the most capable biochemical engineer on Earth to lead the team.”
“They really behave like brothers,” Louis thought. He surrendered.
“Alright, I volunteer for the new mission, without even asking for the permission from Dora. I am sure she will agree.”
He glanced quickly at the audience, Valerio winked, Tarek raised his glass of vodka in approval, and Helena gave him a pat on his back.
Skip Ross looked at the holographic clock projected on the middle of his desk. The State of the Union address was about to start and Charles had not yet arrived, though he had hurried through the Langley headquarters’ gates exactly seven minutes before. The delay was due to the security checkpoints that had disrupted Washington traffic, turning the US capital into something that at times reminded Skip of the Baghdad of the first decade of the century.
It was time. Skip waved with the hands over the desk, and the hologram tuned into the House of Congress’ live feed. President Paul Moreno had just taken place on the speaker’s stand to address the nation in his first speech after the November 2024 election. Right then, Charles walked past the office door, tried to greet Skip, but was abruptly silenced by the CIA director. The speech began, and Skip did not want to miss a single word, even though he had read the text in advance. It was all about the way the message was conveyed.
“Thank you very much. Mr. Speaker, Mr. Vice President, Members of Congress, my fellow Americans: as we gather tonight, our nation is faced with unprecedented dilemmas, and the civilized world once again is looking at America to lead the way forward. The state of our Union has never been stronger.” The voice of Paul Moreno resounded in Skip’s office.
“Well, I don’t think saying hello to me would disturb our President in delivering his message,” Charles resentfully remarked. Skip ignored him. Paul Moreno was expected to extend the consensus around the policy of Telomerax prohibition that had taken him to the White House after a wildly controversial campaign. Skip himself had provided the new President a few ideas, during the interview where he was reconfirmed as head of the CIA.
“…due to the reckless management team of Ambrosiax, the launch of anti-aging drugs based on Telomerax made tens of thousands of Americans lose their lives, leaving many more of their loved ones in grief and duress. Among them, Dr. Michael O’Brien, who is with us tonight. Last month, Michael was with his two children at the funeral of Shawn Kyles, his wife he loved, who died of cancer at age 32 with the baby she was carrying. A death that could have been avoided, had more judgment been exercised at the right time, and less greed allowed to drive the decisions of Corporate America. This should never have happened in our country, a country that for the first time in history, has made its primary goal the pursuit of happiness of its citizens.”
“How much did you lose with Ambrosiax, Charles?” Skip asked, his eyes fixed on the President, and his hands rhythmically adjusting the hologram angle.
Charles was becoming increasingly irritated.
“About fifteen billion dollars in market cap, several nights of sleep due to protesters camped outside of my Long Island mansion, roughly ten million dollars in cash to pay my lawyers, and a bit of my reputation. The silver lining is, it can all be earned back.”
“I think the right conditions are about to materialize, Charles, just keep listening.” Skip smiled, briefly glancing away from the hologram.
“Let me add today,” the President continued, “our government is more committed than ever to the American ideal, and we make our number one priority to ensure the right of all the American citizens to the safest possible pursuit of happiness. As I vowed in my campaign, America will never witness another Ambrosiax case again, and the drug and all its derivatives will be banned from public distribution until researchers come up with a version that is safe beyond doubt.”
“Which according to what we know might never exist…” Charles commented. “It is a kind of open-ended declaration of war, against an elusive enemy.”
“That’s why the President needs allies,” Skip continued, “and he has just found a very influential one.”
“We know it is a controversial choice that has sparked a furious debate during the election campaign last year. Yet, we are not alone in this judgment. Just one week ago, we greeted the election of Cardinal Tim Dolan of New York to the Holy See, the first American pontiff in the history of the Roman Catholic Church. I am not a Catholic, and like many Americans I beg to differ from Cardinal Dolan’s view on a number of key ethical matters, from abortion policy, to assisted death, to same-sex marriage. That has not changed, even now that he has become Pope Benedict XVII. However, we both agree that prudence in managing drugs like Telomerax is worth a temporary, little restraint on the vast freedom that this country enjoys.”
“The temporary, little restraints call for some credible enforcement means,” Skip commented, “Paul’s position about Telomerax made him win conservatives, and appealing to the Pope position, the first American Pope, allows him to enlarge his consensus among Catholic Democrats, which he badly needs since he lost libertarians and the Tea Party forever. The last thing he needs now, if he does not want to lose control of the Republican Party, is for Telomerax to keep spreading despite the ban, making his policy ineffective.”
“And here is where I can help you again,” Charles added, “developing Telomerax allowed us to design also Telomerax detectors, to check if people are using or have used Telomerax. Let’s not forget that many people still use it simply to get rid of cocaine side effects.”
“That’s exactly what government agencies like us need from our leading corporations!” Skip said in a tone that was neither cheerful nor ironic. “Just tell me. I hope no one can easily track you behind this new company, as you said before, your reputation is still somehow tarnished.”
“We control the new company, – it is named BioGuard by the way, – via multiple venture capital funds whose investor lists are private. I have no executive role, and no one really bothers interviewing all the members in the board of directors to find out who the investors really are.”
“Very good, I think we will need a lot of BioGuard detectors as we move forward. You will rebuild your empire sooner than you imagined, if the budget that the President has in mind is approved by Congress. But let’s listen to President Moreno, he is about to finish.”
“….in a single instant we realized that this will be a decisive decade in the history of liberty, that we’ve been called to a unique role in human events, to an act of balance between huge rewards and potentially even larger risks. Steadfast in our purpose, we must now press on. We have made a decision for safe freedom. And with this choice, my fellow Americans, our country will lead the world to a better future. Thank you all. May God bless you and your loved ones.”
The majority of the House of Congress burst into applause, as the sound of the live feed faded and a bunch of political commentators appeared on the screen. Skip switched off the hologram and turned to Charles.
“Why did you ask to meet me in person? You could have updated me on the detectors via secure holoconference.”
“It’s about George. There are people around asking questions about his death. I was told by people with connections in the journalist community of the Silicon Valley.”
“So what?” Skip replied nonchalantly. “Do you happen to have something to do with it? If you have something to hide, telling the boss of the CIA is not exactly the smartest thing to do.”
“Oh no, not at all. It was a stroke, according to the coroner report. I also saw George’s body in the morgue, and could not see any kind of wounds, so I guess the coroner was right, but…people asking questions after more than a year…it just sounded strange, and I wanted to tell you.”
“On second thought, it is strange..” Skip repeated, “who exactly is asking these questions? Journalists? Private investigators? Maybe foreigners?”
“No, no foreigners. I was given a few names. They are all Americans, Jewish Americans to be more precise. I know, because my girlfriend Sally is a Jew, and I have come to recognize their last names.”
Skip managed to conceal his surprise. “Time to put in service the new version of FriendWatch,” he thought, then he replied to Charles in the most dismissive tone he could manage.
“Alright, thanks for the heads up. Frankly, I do not see this as a top priority. You could have saved yourself a trip on the bullet train.”
“Well, you forget that I had to give you your quarterly quota anyway,” Charles snapped back, placing a small tube of pills on the desk. Skip looked at the pills and the hologram projector next to them, then raised his eyebrows,
“Charles, looks like you were not listening to our President. This stuff is no longer legal.”
“Do not worry. This version escapes BioGuard detectors. See you next time, Skip.” Charles smiled, imitated a military salute to Skip, and left the office.
Eyal entered the office of the Prime Minister at exactly nine o’clock in the morning. He had just succeeded Tamir Pardo at the helm of the Mossad, and although it was not the first time he took part to the weekly briefing, it was the first time he was leading it.
The Prime Minister was aware of this, and as he liked Eyal, he tried to put him at ease before the briefing began.
“So, Eyal, how was the bar mitzvah of your first son? His name is Rami, correct?”
“Correct, we had a nice ceremony and a good time at the reception, thanks. We eventually set for a Reform Jewish ritual. We felt uneasy with Orthodox, and Ruth and I thought Humanist was a bit too secular and not Jewish enough..”
“I understand. I do not want to say that I approve, as it would get me into trouble with my ultra-orthodox government allies if they knew….anyway, what do you have for me today?”
Social time was over. Eyal connected his smartwatch to the slide projector and started his one-hour presentation.
“We have three main topics this week, where we need your government’s guidance. Let’s start from the general political situation. As you know, the decision made by the newly elected President six months ago to ban Telomerax in the US has increased social tensions in the country. Mass demonstrations are taking place regularly in each major city. Illegal traffic of the drug is exploding, in a way that reminds very much of the Prohibition of the Twenties of the last century except that..”
The Prime Minister jumped in to complete the sentence.
“…except that Telomerax is being smuggled mainly from India, where one of its versions is legal, and not from Canada like it was for whisky one-hundred years ago. What’s in it for us?”
Eyal paused. The Prime Minister had reminded him that the Mossad was there to give the unknown bits, not to repeat what people could read on the Internet.
“There is more to that. As per the analysis that our experts are carrying out of the social media data, there is an increasing amount of rumors that claim that American Jews are actually controlling the drug cartels and reaping in huge profits. This is all the more appalling, since the drug smuggling trade is run mostly by African-Americans and Hispanic gangs, but somehow it went along with the flow of Zionist conspiracy theories. This did not happen in the times of Al Capone, and is starting to ignite attacks on the Jewish community.”
Eyal swiped his watch, and the holographic projector showed a map of the United States that was tracking anti-Jewish posts on main social media and the frequency of attacks on American Jews. The correlation was evident.
The Prime Minister looked at the graphics for several seconds, then he asked, “Ok, what do you want me to make a decision about?”
“We have two options on how to react,” Eyal said, “the first one, is to alert American Jews in the most dangerous areas and help them relocate to safer places within the US. In the long term, if the situation does not improve, the number of American Jews deciding to go aliyah, that is, to come back to Israel, might grow exponentially. Israel cannot accommodate them all, so we have found a second scenario that includes selective eliminations of the most dangerous anti-Jew activists. These eliminations will be carried out only in retaliation of attacks, to deter an escalation.”
“Let me get this straight. You are asking me for a green light to export to the US the same techniques we have been using against Hamas for the past decades?” the Prime Minister snapped.
“In short, yes. If authorized, we would do that in the least invasive way possible, that is by using our bio-drones, which are the second point in the agenda, by the way.”
“Go on, I will answer at the end,” the Prime Minister assured.
“As far as the bio-drone program is concerned, we have a mixed bag. After many years, the Iranians have figured out exactly the kind of weapon we are using. We know this from the defense tactics they are using, that is, they consistently spray insecticide around potential targets, and are asking the secret services of their allies for help to investigate our drone. We believe they have some samples, fortunately we have also found a way to influence their investigations. The question here is, do we want to suspend the program, given that it has somehow been discovered, or do we want to double down, improve the weapon and try to lead the Iranians on a false track?”
This was a much easier answer for the Prime Minister. “Eyal, we double down, no question. The drones proved essential in blocking or at least slowing down our enemies’ plans. So we have to improve them, and put as many obstacles as possible in the way of the Iranian investigation.”
“Alright, I anticipated the answer, but I needed to ask to get the budget approved. We already have plans in place to make the flies easier to breed, and with a much longer lifespan autonomy, so that we do not have to use classic drones to get them close to the target. The version due next year will also be able to operate coordinated swarm attacks in different locations and..”
The Prime Minister suddenly cut in,
“Eyal, sorry for interrupting your marketing pitch of the new versions, but we still need to cover the last point and have only ten minutes left.”
“My apologies, I could not control my enthusiasm for the work of our scientists. Actually, the third item is linked to the first one, with the possibility of a massive increase in the aliyah. Since the Telomerax story broke out, we have been accelerating the activities around ‘Plan Lot’. Your predecessor authorized us to quietly start massive land and property purchases under the cover of overseas financial institutions in order to have a base for legal and political matters should the occasion arise. Shall we continue? The next step involves the Foreign Ministry, as there are a number of important topics to be discussed very discreetly with some of our key neighbors in the East Mediterranean…and this will increase the risk of leaks.”
“I think this is also a go,” the Prime Minister replied, “although for the time being the Foreign Ministry does not have to involve any of our neighbors, and instead just do some scenario planning until the next Cabinet decision. Where are the overseas institutions located, that are being used to acquire property?”
“They are mostly in Russia and Europe. There is still question number one to answer, Sir…” Eyal’s tone lowered as he recalled the Prime Minister to his duty.
“I have not forgotten. Look, Eyal, as much as I must do everything that I can to protect Jewish lives in Israel and in the Diaspora, I think the risks of a campaign of targeted killings in the US far outweigh the rewards. Imagine the crisis if the US government found out that we are treating Americans like Hezbollah militants. The US are still our best friends, and are going through a very difficult moment. We cannot fail them. Not now.”
“Alright, Sir. That’s all I needed to know. As far as selective killings are concerned, Mossad will continue to play the good guy in the United States as we have done so far.”
Helena walked outside of the room, on the balcony of the Paris Ritz Hotel overlooking Place Vendome. The late spring evening was lovely mild. She wore her smartglasses and moved her eyes to the menu on the right lens.
First, she checked Aurora’s location. She was enjoying a night ride of Paris, the blinking dot showed she was on one of the many boats on the Seine, escorted by her bodyguards. She then activated the zoom on the balcony opposite hers, on the other side of the square. The people there belonged to the French secret service surveillance, and they were pretending to have a cocktail but almost all of them were wearing similar smartglasses. She waved a polite hello.
Before going back into the room, she read the tourist information feed. The column which was located in the center had been built with the melted guns conquered by Napoleon in his victory at Austerlitz in 1805, where he had defeated the Austrians and the Russians. How ironic, she thought. She was now waiting for the Russian emissary to negotiate the new drug distribution agreement in Latin America.
She heard Guillermo open the door of the suite, so she hurried in, closing the balcony doors behind her. The bodyguards in the room made sure to close the curtains and to activate all the electronic screens.
The Russian delegation was made of a red-haired woman and an extremely fit, almost seven feet tall, grey haired man. As agreed with Guillermo, Helena started the conversation, addressing the woman in Arabic.
“Merhaba, if our information is correct and our request to have an experienced counterpart has been granted, you should be Irina.”
“I am,” Irina responded calmly and smiled, still speaking in Arabic “Congratulations on your pronunciation. It took me several years of practice in the Gulf to reach your level of proficiency.”
“I am a fast learner.” Helena smiled back, while she was making sure Guillermo and the other Russian were wearing their headphones and starting the instant translation app of their smartphones.
“I beg your pardon, Helena, but I have to warn you not to use your husband’s smartphone. Ours are secure, but I cannot say the same about yours. In my previous role, I used them to steal information from my customers.”
“How did Irina know that Guillermo was her husband?” Helena thought. She had made sure the information did not go beyond a restricted circle. Or was Irina just bluffing? She switched back to English.
“Alright, let’s get to the point. We have recently intercepted a load of Telomerax pills in Caracas, which were bound for Miami. This is nothing strange. What’s strange is that they were a mix of the Indian and Russian strains. So the question is, who of you guys is trying to invade our market? Is Eurasia not big enough for you?”
“Even if there were Russian pills, it was not from us,” this time the answer came from the man, who spoke a raucous English, “you can call me Vanja, I am coordinating the distribution of the pills. Given the nasty side effects of our version, about one year ago we decided to switch to the Indian version. That’s what we have been shipping to Europe and Africa. The Indians are competing with us in Africa, along with the Chinese in South East Asia. We never thought about entering North or South America, and…”
The speech was interrupted by a series of remote explosions and the sound of police sirens. It was coming from the nearby Place de la Concorde.
“I think it is the anti-prohibition protest that is going sour,” Guillermo commented, “it is not easy to manage an enraged crowd of tens of thousands of people.”
“That’s why in Moscow we just don’t allow protests to take place.” Vanja noted, slightly amused. Irina whiffed and then added. “And we turn our heads on Telomerax diffusion.”
The sirens were getting closer, to the point that they felt compelled to switch on the television. They connected to one of the many live newsfeeds. The police had attacked the crowd, who had dispersed in the nearby streets. Some groups were starting to set cars ablaze here and there, and some of them were rushing down Rue St. Honoré. Protesters might have reached Place Vendome in a matter of minutes.
They left the suite and went to the balconies. Four police vans crossed the square, blocking the south access. The first group of rioters tried to enter, but was stopped by a salvo of tear gas. The group of policemen herded the crowd back to Place de la Concorde. The police was trying to draw them to the east, toward place de la Bastille, to keep it away from the Presidential palace. Guillermo watched the scene next to Vanja. In the distance, they could even hear some gunshots.
“We are going to see more and more of this, as prohibition tightens in Europe, following the US example,” Guillermo commented. “It is not easy to tell people they have to give up the possibility of becoming immortal, no matter how much of a risk it brings. But it is good business for you guys in the security community.”
Vanja did not reply. On the other balcony, Helena and Irina stayed silent, until Irina turned her glance away from the police and addressed Helena.
“Tarek told me a bit of the story of your team, of how he opposed the decision to go public, fearing uncontrollable destabilization, and how he was always part of the minority. I guess you were in the majority, together with your late husband, George. Could you have ever imagined things would go this way?”
Helena waited for the sirens and the shots to subside. As Guillermo and Vanja were re-entering the room, she hinted to her husband that she needed a few minutes more, alone with Irina. As the French counterintelligence in front of them was recording the conversation, she wanted to make sure everybody knew her answer and also made a point to double check with Tarek all he had told Irina about their team.
“The way I grew up, I learned that regret does not lead you anywhere. If things go wrong by your mistake, it’s much better to learn the lesson for the next time. If you can blame someone else, it is more productive to think about retaliation and revenge. So yes, in retrospect there are a few things I would have done differently, and I think George would agree with me. But someone killed George, and whoever is guilty made a big mistake, so I hope you are not involved with that. I am starting to appreciate your way of working.”
Irina contemplated her options. Remaining silent would have been an half-admission to responsibility, so she had better say something. But what? She felt Helena had, like herself, a sense for spotting well-crafted lies, and whatever she said would be known also by the French secret service. She eventually made up her mind and stared straight into Helena’s eyes. She couldn’t help notice that, at almost six-feet-tall, she was looking down to Helena from a good four inches.
“Helena, you know, I am not the boss of any of the Russian secret agencies. So I cannot rule out that somebody in Moscow might have made that decision. Nor is it my duty to find out, for that matter. One thing I can tell you though is I grew up without a father, and I did not like it at all. I knew you and George had a daughter. I would not allow the attack, if it was up to me.”
“Alright Irina,” Helena whispered, “you just made my search more difficult. We better go back in, we have a few more subjects to go through.”
The mail left no room for interpretation, Dinesh had to show up in Delhi early the next morning. As he was not a morning person, he called his assistant to prepare his private jet in order to leave Pune that same evening so that he could enjoy a full night of sleep, and told her to reorganize his schedule for the next two days, since he would be busy in the meetings with the Indian government.
The morning after, an Indian Air Force limousine picked Dinesh up at the Centaur Airport Hotel, then dropped him off next to an unmarked helicopter. Dinesh was welcomed by Vikas Kumar, a high ranking officer in the Indian Secret Service, who was his main connection to the Indian government. Vikas helped Dinesh inside, and immediately closed the doors. As Dinesh started to buckle up for the flight, the officer started talking.
“Thanks for your quick response, Dinesh, we owe you. We need you to see what’s going on firsthand, just do not answer any questions from the people we are going to meet until I give you a nod. I will take care of the rest.”
“Well, Vikas, when it comes to paying me back, I do have some debt with my homeland. Who are we going to meet?”
Vikas did not answer, and rather turned the liquid crystal windows to blind mode. Dinesh was about to ask for an explanation but the noise of the turbines started to flood the cabin. The helicopter took off and headed West.
As soon as the helicopter reached flying speed and the engines’ roar subsided, Dinesh aired his frustration again.
“Vikas, would you mind explaining this godfather scene you’re creating? You have never used such B-movie tricks, no matter what we had to discuss whether you come to my office in Navi Mumbai or I come to yours in Delhi. Do I have to expect mafia bodyguards in black suits on arrival? It’s getting on my nerves, I tell you.”
“Alright, it’s time for an explanation,” Vikas took off his glasses and switched off the intercom, separating them from the cockpit, “we are heading West. We will land in a secret place you do not need to know, not far away from Lahore. Does that tell you something?”
“It looks like the perfect place to have some meeting with the Pakistanis, our arch-enemies. I do not think you want to hand me over to them, though.”
“Absolutely not,” Vikas smiled. “You are one of India’s core assets, as valuable as our nuclear warheads and far more valuable than the Taj Mahal, I dare to say.”
Vikas paused for a second. Dinesh did not find the joke funny.
“Dinesh, your drug and the fact that it is legal in India has changed the balance of the world’s drug trade. Consumers are moving away from heroin and switching to cocaine because they can later remove the side effects with Telomerax.”
“This I know very well. Our government made the decision that the revenues, both legal and illegal, were worth the diplomatic frictions. Up to now, it has paid off. Our airports are crowded with Superjumbos that bring Europeans, Asians and Americans by the thousands just to buy Telomerax, and stay long enough to make sure that on their way back they are not detected by Homeland Security. But hang on, you said that the heroin market is collapsing, and that used to be the main source of income for Afghanistan…”
“…as well as of the Pakistani secret service, the ISI. We are making them desperate, which is something we do not like too much.”
“I see,” Dinesh continued, “is this what is behind the terror attacks of the last months against the Chennai malls and the Bangalore technology district? And the tightening of the security around me and my company? Why do you guys working in the undergrounds of power always need to attach a few hundred innocent lives to a meeting request?”
Vikas sighed. He did not like the naive side of Dinesh.
“I cannot comment, Dinesh. However, there might be a solution. Our Prime Minister decided to share Telomerax with the Pakistanis. After some balking, they accepted the offer. Obviously, we need your help to get them started.”
Dinesh was shocked.
“Hang on. What are the terms of the deal? What if I do not agree? Do I have an exit? Or is it too late to jump ship?”
“You will decide for yourself after hearing the details. Or, better, what we can tell you about the details. Obviously, the Pakistanis have been eagerly studying Telomerax derivatives just like everyone else, and they called upon their best minds in biochemistry, from the Gulf to the United States. Their focus was to reproduce the drug-effacing behavior, much like the Russians did. Somehow, they figured out their own version, but need help in the final design and to setup their own manufacturing facility. That’s where we volunteered you to help them, to put it in that way. So they will also enter the Telomerax market and have their fair share. Obviously, they won’t legalize it, much like all other Muslim countries.”
“Understood. But what does India gain, then? In a few months they will have their own factory.”
“Well, first of all they committed to rein in all the militant groups in Kashmir. Then, but this is more my own view, I think this will help our two countries realize we have far more interests in common than we want to think of. If they do not stick to their commitment, we have a formidable weapon in our hands, we just have to let the whole deal go public, for example by posting the video of today’s meeting on YouTube. It would mean the immediate end of every Pakistani government and the loss of the drug revenue. Now, all of this depends a lot, but not exclusively, on you. That’s why now it’s time you meet your counterparts. What do you want to do? We will be arriving in about ten minutes.”
Vikas concluded by looking at his watch.
“Not exclusively on me..” Dinesh thought, “obviously, the government does not need me to run the factory in Mumbai, my team can manage that. True, research on the drug would be seriously delayed, for a while. But the time when Telomerax was the work of a single genius is long gone. By the way, I wonder what happened to Louis Picard. All I know is what George told me over the years.”
The helicopter started descending.
“Alright, Vikas, I got the point. Somebody once said that freedom is nothing but the possibility to choose one’s own master to serve. I prefer to help you by choice, rather than be in a situation where I have no control.”
“Good decision. We can open the windows again now,” Vikas said, switching off the LED curtains. The helicopter was landing in a wheat field, not far away from another unmarked helicopter. A few hundred yards further stood the main building of a Punjab farm, where the Pakistanis were most likely waiting for them.
Vikas got out first, and then helped Dinesh down. Before heading to the farm, the Indian officer looked at Dinesh and whispered “Once again remember, let me lead the meeting and answer only after my nod.”
Then, they both started walking slowly towards the building.
Yaakov left the arrival area of Chicago Airport Terminal 5 in the early afternoon. Just outside of the gates, among the crowd, he spotted his contact, a tall, muscular Afro-American weighing almost three hundred pounds. He was holding a tablet with the “Park Inn Motel” sign flashing on the screen. Yaakov stopped in front of him and asked, “Who are you waiting for, svartser goy?”
The reply was immediate “Yiddish is no longer popular here in Illinois, Sir, but I can take you to a place in South Chicago where you can still speak it. My name is Traynor and I do not like rap.” Yaakov followed him silently to the parking lot, where another Afro-American was waiting next to a green hotel van. The man exchanged glances with Traynor but he did not bother introducing himself.
“Before we go,” Traynor told Yaakov, “just leave anything suspicious you might have with you here with my buddy, from weapons to pills. Flights from India land at this time of the day and it is very easy to be stopped and searched also outside the terminal perimeter, especially if you have an exotic look and travel with Latinos or Afro-Americans.”
“I am perfectly clean, we can go,” Yaakov replied, only slightly upset at the prospect of another in-depth search after the one he had just gone through at the US Customs. The check promptly happened at the security roadblock placed at the entrance of Interstate 90. Yaakov had to re-open all his bags in front of a police officer, while two other servicemen were keeping Traynor and him at gunpoint. They were eventually let go.
After a few hundred yards on the highway, Traynor broke the silence. “Is the security in Israel like this? I was told it is pretty professional too.”
“I would say it is a bit more lax, at least they let you out of the airport quickly…” Yaakov replied thoughtfully, “have there been many accidents recently?”
Yaakov knew the answer, but he wanted to give his biased opinion.
“Plenty. At least two or three big shoot-outs per week in Chicago alone. Dealers and ordinary people alike go out of their minds to smuggle Telomerax into America. So when the police catch them, more often than not they overreact with whatever they have on hand. It’s more or less like this at all US entry points, it’s an outright war, with tens of casualties every month. To try to fix that, those motherfuckers of Bioguard, that own the Telomerax detector market, have come up with the underskin chip, that automatically records if you have been taking Telomerax in the last eight weeks. Many people decide to implant it to fast track the security checks. The rich as well, they go to India or, recently, Brazil and Venezuela, to have their Telomerax beauty farm holiday and come back when they have no more traces in the body. So if you do not have your skin chip, it’s either because you are a dropout or because you are possibly involved in the trade. And you know what? Ninety-percent of my black brothers, myself included, do not carry the chip. It’s the new slavery. We are automatically on the suspect list of the government, no matter if we wear Calvin Klein suits like me!” he laughed.
As Traynor continued his monologue, Yaakov was watching the endless sequence of single family homes that were lining the Interstate 90 from Chicago O’Hare Airport to downtown. At the end of November, the leaves had long fallen and only a relatively small ridge was protecting them from the highway noise, elevating them a few feet from the valley where the traffic was flowing. Out of habit, he kept checking in the rearview mirror of the van if someone was following them, but so far everything was fine. They went past the city center, and left Interstate 90 at the Oakwood Cemetery exit, heading into the South Chicago streets. At one traffic light, Yaakov noticed a motorbike that was waiting at the intersection on his right, just next to an ambulance. Wasn’t it too cold to drive a bike in late November? As they went past the traffic light, Yaakov checked his side mirror and saw that the motorbike remained at the red light. He glanced at the road ahead, then again in the mirror. The bike had disappeared, but he could now see the ambulance turning in their direction, as the light had become green. Where was the bike then? He did not see it pass ahead, nor turn toward their direction.
“Traynor,” he demanded, “Look at your mirror, there’ s something wrong here..”
He could not finish the sentence before a shower of heavy gunfire blew the right window away, spraying the brains of Traynor on to the front window. Yaakov tried to duck under the windshield, out of the line of fire, while the van banked to the right, and crashed into a parked car. Yaakov’s door was blocked. He had just fractions of seconds before being an open target for the attacker. He tried to scramble for his bag to use it as a shield, when he realized that the motorbike sped away without bothering to finish the job.
He was still wondering why the killer had given up, when he heard a siren go off and saw the ambulance stop just in front of their crashed van. A team of four paramedics dashed out of the vehicle. Two of them extracted the body of Traynor, while another one was talking on a walkie-talkie and keeping passers-by at a distance. Was it luck or what? The answer came right away, as the fourth man reached out to him with a spray bottle in his hands, released its content on his face and spoke to him with a strong Latino accent:
“Mr. Mayer, I believe you understand our precautions..”
Halfway into the sentence, Yaakov had already fallen asleep.
When he woke up, he was in a windowless room, lit by a fluorescent light. As he expected, his kidnappers had taken his watch to deprive him of any time reference. The anesthetic was a good one, he did not feel any headache or hangover, it was just like waking up after a good night’s sleep. The bed was also relatively comfortable. The more he looked around, the more Yaakov thought this was the most luxurious jailroom he had ever seen with a full-size bathroom and dining table. Then the door lock switched open, and before he could stand up, three armed men wearing balaclavas entered the room, keeping him at gunpoint with their brand new Uzi machine guns. Their gesture was clear, he could continue to relax sitting on his bed. Yaakov studied their complexions, they were most likely all Latinos. They were very different sizes, so Yaakov decided to dub them the Tall, the Thin and the Small. Right after them, Helena entered the room and the door locked behind her. The sound of the door closing made it clear to Yaakov that it was heavily armored. He tried to break the ice.
“Apparently, we always have to talk in dark, closed rooms. At least, here it is not as hot as in Rio.”
“He’s a really clever bastard,” Helena thought, “he made sure to remind me of the deal we have in place, meaning that it would break apart if he does not get out of here alive.”
“Mr. Mayer, you can’t believe how much trouble I went through to persuade my friends here in Chicago to keep you alive.” Helena addressed him in Hebrew, “they are now expecting something in exchange for not sending you to hell right away with your driver.”
Yaakov appreciated the language choice. The conversation was being recorded and would be quickly translated by the automatic translating ear pieces the three Latinos were wearing, but like this Helena was preventing her partners from jumping in the negotiation.
“I thank you very much for your courtesy, but I cannot guarantee I can satisfy your wishes. I have been a simple Israeli citizen for a long while, you know. A simple, expendable Israeli citizen, to be more precise.”
“We have three requests. Let’s start from the one of our guests. It took us a while find out that Mossad was behind the Telomerax shipping from Venezuela to Florida, but we did it. You know, my business partners do not like those that enter their market without asking permission and, worse still, without explaining why.”
“The reason is simple,” Yaakov replied, “Mossad needs money, just like any other secret service. A lot of money. To do what? I do not know nor I would tell you if I did know. I do agree we should have found an agreement beforehand, but if we are having this conversation I think there is still room to work something out. We have an excellent network that can support you and your friends when needed. Next?”
Helena looked satisfied, and after some delay due to the earpiece translation, also the Tall, the Thin and the Small grinned in agreement.
“This next one is more about us,” Helena continued, “and the help we are giving you and your country with your…experiments. Louis needs some live examples of your fly. He said he has to verify some hypothesis but cannot do that with the dead samples he is getting from time to time. He needs the real thing.”
“Helena, this is not feasible at all. You better shoot me now…” Yaakov blankly stated.
“Hang on, let me finish and don’t get unnecessarily emotional.” Helena rebuffed, “We do not need the fully equipped version, with the toxin and the electronics. Just the basic shell of it.”
“I still see this very difficult, and why? It is just an ordinary fly..” Yaakov felt genuinely puzzled
“You hired Louis as a consultant on Telomerax. Now your consultant has some doubts on the way you are using the drug with the flies and would like to carry out some additional tests. It’s in your interest, really.” Helena ended charmingly.
“This bitch can be really persuasive,” Yaakov thought, and then he questioned back.
“understood, it sounds reasonable and I will bring it forward. But what if it is not accepted?”
“Then our deal is broken, and consequences will be nasty for all of us,” Helena commented icily.
“Yes, for all of us,” Yaakov echoed. “How about your last request?”
“To your knowledge, has the fly ever been tested or used here in the States? There have been a few deaths in the past we could not quite explain. Had it been a single episode, we could have ignored it, however a handful of cases deserves a bit more attention..”
Yaakov’s body stiffened, Helena could see he was looking for the best answer. He finally said,
“When I was in charge of covert operations abroad, one thing that was absolutely forbidden was selective target neutralization in the United States, no matter how you did it. I do not think that has changed over the last few years.”
“Do not take a round about, Yaakov. Answer the damn question. I did not ask if it was you. I asked you if you know anything about its usage here.” Helena raised her tone, and the three men tightened their grips on their guns.
“You can figure it out by yourself, among secret services. Nowadays everybody knows we have this new…how can we call it…this tool…and everybody is trying to copy or get access to it. It is the same situation when your best and strongest friends become your biggest problems, because it is way more difficult to resist the pressure to share the discovery.”
“You are telling me the CIA has access to it? Full access? What exactly are they doing with it?” Helena was growing impatient.
“I see you have a definite interest in this,” Yaakov replied calmly. “Let’s put it this way, I think I can persuade people back in Tel Aviv to give me more information about the…diffusion patterns of the flies. But only if you persuade your friends here, to allow us to keep a small share of the North American Telomerax market.”
Helena waited for the translations to process, and then looked at her partners. They exchanged glances, then the Small nodded in agreement.
Tarek entered Alireza’s office half an hour before the evening prayer, when most of the employees had left the building and his visit would be less noticeable.
“Merhaba, Tarek, you look great to be 80-years old…don’t you think you are exaggerating with the pills?”
“Merhaba, Alireza, it’s my little vice…I will give up one day or another, but I have some important jobs that I need to finish first. You do not want me to leave my mission uncompleted.”
“Well, you would have still several decades in front of you..and you do not have to be so arrogant to assume you are irreplaceable, the Almighty can certainly take care of things if you leave your job undone. By the way, congratulations on your Farsi. You told me you started learning when we met last time, six months ago, and your progress is really…impressive, to say the least.”
“I always had a talent for languages,” Tarek replied, deliberately ignoring the harsh scolding. “I have asked to meet you because I wanted to give you the news personally. We have evidence that the Pakistanis do indeed cooperate with the Indians in spreading Telomerax.”
In the mind of Alireza, several pieces of the puzzle came together. The Pakistanis’ move had led to the collapse of the heroin market and of the Afghan economy. Left without the heroin income, the Afghans had no choice but to become the Telomerax and cocaine providers for Central Asia and the Middle East. Actually, this was especially true for the Pashtuns close to the Pakistani border, who had become fully subordinated to Islamabad. The other ethnic groups had been left to economic desperation, which sent a massive wave of immigrants towards Iran. Alireza knew from his colleagues at the Ministry of Interior that already more than three million Western Afghans lived in refugee camps and makeshift slums in Eastern Iran, a situation that was starting to strain the communities living in the region.
“Is it really this bad, Tarek? Or do you think it could get worse?” Alireza asked.
“I believe the cooperation is extending in other fields. Our sources confirm that there is a constant increase of Indo-Pakistani meetings taking place in the Arab Emirates,” Tarek replied calmly, showing some slides from his laptop. “It’s easier for them to arrange working level meetings in our country. Especially if it’s military or security personnel.”
“Are you sure? How have you found out?” Alireza was growing impatient.
“In a number of ways, from classic microphones to putting together pictures taken by security cameras, to information found on the Internet. I will leave you the data for you to analyze, but as for my team and myself the picture is quite clear: the relationship between India and Pakistan is more like the one between two close allies than two rivals.”
“Do you think there is some American initiative involved? Or Chinese?”
“Americans?! They have not yet figured out what is going on here, and no wonder, after they cut their secret service staff in our region by half in the last couple of years. Now that Paul Moreno has been re-elected as President on a renewed pledge on domestic security and Telomerax control, they will care even less. I think this is bad news for our two countries.”
“I agree with you,” Alireza replied, “I also hoped the Democrat candidate, Mark Callaghan, the governor of Massachusetts, could make it to the White House. But the idiot was unable to come up with a clear idea about Telomerax regulation. He balked at liberalization, he balked at security, and eventually people chose the devil they knew, just like Bush vs. Kerry back in 2004. If the United States disengages from our region, countries like ours have one less superpower to team up with.”
“That’s why I think it is imperative we reinforce our system,” Tarek continued, as he got Alireza exactly where he wanted. “You know we have had some unconventional weapons in store for a few years now. It’s chemical stuff, so in principle you should be able to manufacture it, if we provide you with some samples. Do not forget our neighbors in the East are both nuclear powers and you gave up the opportunity to become one of them, more than ten years ago. We need a little favor in exchange, of course.”
Alireza waved his hand, showing Tarek he could proceed.
“We need access to your supercomputing facility to run a series of genetic simulations. We have our own national data center in Abu Dhabi, but it is not enough. We need some extra power, so we thought about connecting to your center in Shiraz, the one you built with Chinese technology. I know this means delaying your hidden nuclar simulation program, but we need more computing power and yours is the only center we can trust.”
“What is this research about? As much as we need your help, I do not want to help committing the resources of the Islamic Republic to some evil project. Was it initiated by the Emirati rulers or your own?”
“Alireza, please, you know you have to cater to multiple loyalties, especially in our countries. I do not see anything wrong with that, as long as the loyalties do not conflict and you do not betray trust. All I can tell you is that the team that originally designed Telomerax needs this research to contain its catastrophic side effects and possibly make a step forward towards its retirement. They are looking to scientifically prove some detrimental long-term effects on those that are addicted to it. You know Westerners; they won’t stop in front of anything that hinders their will of power, except if we bring some conclusive scientific argument. Science is the only religion they still believe in.”
Alireza’s thoughts went back to the morning news update. He waved his hands on the virtual keyboard embedded on his desk, and sent it to the holographic projector. The news service from RAI, the Italian State broadcaster, started playing, while the system translated it in real time. The anchorwoman was announcing that the Italian Government, in agreement with the Vatican, had authorized a massive protest against the ongoing Telomerax ban in most European countries. The coordinators had chosen Rome, given the Pope’s strict disapproval of the drug. More than one million people were expected to show up in two weeks time, on Saturday April 7th 2029, just after Easter Sunday.
As the news service ended, Alireza downheartedly commented,
“All of this all because about four centuries ago the Roman Catholic Church felt satisfied with Galileo’s retractation. They should have been consequential and have burned him. But now it’s too late.”
“Alireza, I do not think that burning Galileo would have changed much,” Tarek replied, trying to be as humble as possible. “It was already snowballing. Maybe it would have delayed the process a bit, but nothing more. Now it is up to us to try to stop this, or at least contain it, inshallah. Or perhaps this is just how God the Almighty has chosen to start the end of the world and Judgment Day is approaching. Would you help me get access to your data centers?”
Alireza waited in silence. He then looked at the clock and stood up.
“I do not know yet, Tarek. It’s prayer time now, would you mind joining me? I am going to ask the Almighty to clear my mind.”
“Of course, Alireza, of course,” Tarek said, as he hurried towards one of the office chairs where some carpet prayers laid, for guests to grab.
As the face of Valerio came into focus on the tea table of the living room, Louis took a seat in one of the chairs next to it. The mini-drones of his holographic system took position around him to beam his image back to Valerio. Louis was starting to dislike them, they reminded him of the killer flies. Valerio was calling from his home, and every now and then he would turn towards his housemaid to give her instructions.
“So you have not given up on your plan to go to Rome on one of the worst possible occasions, right in the middle of Drug Pride Day. But I won’t spend any time trying to change your mind, you are as hopeless as Tarek.”
“It’s my journalist instinct that is pushing me, I think something major is brewing,” Valerio answered. “So when Monsignor Salvemini, one of the Pope’s top aides contacted me, I made sure I could follow the protest from within the Pope’s inner circle.”
“Why do you think they have contacted you now, right before the rally?”
Louis went straight to the point.
Valerio thought that he was behaving a bit like Helena.
“Well, they have had my phone number for a while and I guess our file is one of the first that each Pope analyzes in detail as soon as he takes office. Monsignor Salvemini did not mention anything specifically, he just said he wanted to discuss the latest developments we are seeing to improve the Vatican policy, which he underlined, is not going to change in the near term.”
“Well, if they are ever thinking of a line change,” Louis chimed in, “he would certainly not tell you over the phone. Also, you know better than I that near term for the Church can mean two hundred years. Anyway, you want to give them your view.”
“Right,” Valerio continued, “I think they are making a big mistake by siding with the position of President Moreno, yet they never tried to screw us over, so why shouldn’t we tell them all we know?”
“Indeed,” Louis pondered, “actually, there is another major piece of news. I have completed the analysis of the new Indian strain that appeared last year. It’s just perfect. Slightly different than mine, but still completely free of any nasty side effects. I would like to meet this guy, he did an outstanding job. Obviously, if you simply scan the Internet, you will find all kinds of criticism about this. But for what it is worth you must tell the Pope he has no scientific ground to fight the drug. He is risking another Galileo case.”
“I think he is fully aware of the danger. So far, for the wider audience of non-Catholics and non-believers, he has been supporting the fair argument, that this drug would lead to a very unjust world, with mankind divided between immortals who need vast amounts of resources to fuel their eternal lives and mortals, condemned to misery.”
“It’s not as easy, Valerio. Actually, what I see here in Rio seems to point quite to the opposite. Thanks to the protection of the narcos and to the complacency of the Brazilian government, which has banned the drug to appease the US, it is not seriously hurting its distribution. Dora and I have been able to run one of the largest social experiments ever, by putting tens of thousands of poor favela habitants on Telomerax for more than ten years, and the results are amazing. First, people are no longer slaves of crack and other brain-killing drugs, even though cocaine consumption has gone up. Second, thanks to superintelligence, several favelados are now successfully applying for higher education. This is steadily improving their standing. In fact, it actually looks like Telomerax is increasing social fairness.”
“Yet the argument of the pessimists has some logic, Louis. If people stop dying, the population would keep increasing and sooner or later the planet would crumble under the needs of mankind. Or at least you should deeply review the retirement laws, which in Southern European countries like Italy or France is tantamount to calling for social revolution,” Valerio chuckled.
Louis laughed in response, “I think you touched the really hot issue. Yet I remain optimistic, I cannot believe that people equipped with growing levels of intelligence can’t find a way to address the issue. Believe me, the only argument that Benedict XVII can legitimately use is that Telomerax is an ultimate rebellion against the laws of God, who designed people to be mortal. Honestly, I find this a very difficult message to pitch to modern crowds. If I listen to the latest news, they are expecting more than three million people at the rally next Saturday.”
“I just talked to my contact in the Italian police. They are afraid there will be even more than that. They are expecting an event of the same scale as the funeral of the late John Paul II, which attracted more than five million people to Rome back in 2005. Except that this is not a mourning crowd like last time, it will be jam-packed with activists and no one really knows what it could morph into.”
“Why didn’t the Italian government prohibit the manifestation?” Louis asked.
“It is too late now. When the request was initially filed, it was just one of the many protests being held all over Europe in the last few years. But the re-election of Paul Moreno, with the blessing he received from Benedict XVII, made this snowball into the biggest protest ever planned in Europe. Celebrities and every kind of political activists from around the globe are joining by the day. After a lot of negotiation, all the authorities could manage was to shift the event to the weekend after Easter and have it held at the Circo Massimo, on the other side of the Tiber River, as far away from the Vatican as possible.”
Louis could sense the anxiety growing in Valerio’s words. Rome was his home city after all, and Louis understood his friend’s fear.
“I see, so you always want to be where the action is. You have not really changed since we met the first time in Passoy, back in the Nineties.”
“You have a point, Louis. Just the other day I realized how I have never actually stopped my media job, even though I could have switched lives several times. Maybe that’s my karma, no matter how long I live,” Valerio replied, as if struck by a sudden revelation, “and this time my guts tell me this is not going to end well. The decision of Paul Moreno to send the USS Abraham Lincoln aircraft carrier off the coast of Rome doesn’t sound good at all.”
“Yeah, I agree with the Italians on this one.” Louis shook his head. “They made this move as sheer interference, as if they could not take care of their home by themselves. It also shows that in Washington they consider the Pope their puppet, someone that you have to protect and in case be ready to evacuate with the Marines’ helicopters, just like the Latin American dictator of the past century.”
“Louis, I can tell you from my sources at the Vatican that Benedict XVII is furious, way beyond what you can understand from the press releases,” Valerio continued, based on the reasoning that Louis had started. “I have talked to a few high-ranking prelates, and all conveyed that the Pope is starting to reconsider the support he has been giving to Moreno in the last few years. Yet it might be too late, and, even worse, the Pope cannot change a standpoint he firmly believes in just because his most powerful supporter is a moron. That’s why there is a realization that, no matter what happens, things won’t be the same after Saturday. That’s why I have to be there, Louis.”
“I know, Valerio. Just watch out,” Louis’ tone got suddenly anxious, “I do not want to lose another team member.”
Philippa Bolton woke up in the ‘Gli Ulivi’ bed-and-breakfast, not far from Lucca in Northern Tuscany.
It was the early morning of Friday April 6th. She looked at the clock and once she realized it was around seven in the morning, she kicked her boyfriend out of the bed.
“Come on, Jason, get up or we will never reach Rome by tonight, and I do not want to miss a minute of the big show.”
Jason took a good ten seconds to reply, then said, with a sleepy tone, “Jeez, Philippa, tonight we’re in Rome and most likely tomorrow we will have to sleep in the car. Can’t we just enjoy another hour in comfort? Maybe with a little extra fun?”
“Not now,” Philippa replied briskly as she started getting herself dressed, “it’s not my fault if there is no accommodation available within one hundred miles of Rome for the past three months. This is also thanks to those motherfuckers of hotel managers linked to the Church that refuse to accommodate protesters. If you had at least had a skin chip implanted like me, we could have pretended we were some sort of pilgrims or tourists, and it could have made the trip that much easier by public transportation.”
Jason got out of the bed. He had been dating Philippa for less than six months but he had quickly learned when she was in her non-negotiable mode, and this was clearly one of those times.
“Fine Philippa, we do as you wish but just don’t get me started again on the skin chip. I hate that crap. I do not want to be put on a leash, not even if I can fly through all the security checks in this world. It’s like surrendering to the government, the system, the men in black, you name it.”
“Well, I appreciate your concerns, yet it is very convenient. You can forget keeping in mind all your passwords, for instance, and there are new discoveries popping up every day. Even ‘Voice of the People’, the news and media benchmarking service, says the claim that the skin chip does only what governments advertise is 84% more likely to be true than the one that advocates it has hidden uses.”
“You are an amazing girl, Philippa,” Jason laughed as they walked to the kitchen to have breakfast, “you push me to Rome to protest against the prohibition of Telomerax by the Church and governments from around the world, and you are ready to believe whatever crap pops up on the Internet. For what we know, the CIA might well have developed the ‘Voice of the People’! They use to finance the ‘Voice of America’, after all.”
“Well, that may very well be. Fact is, the chip is free and gives you a lot of benefits. Or maybe you are just not using the skin chip because you have access to Telomerax and you still do not want to tell me. Would you do that to me, Jason?”
“If the conversation continued like that,” Jason thought as they left the hotel and got on the road, “there are high chances this relationship won’t last before getting to Rome.” He needed to brush it off.
“Look, darling, you know things are not like that. Any Telomerax pusher would give you the pills and tell you at least half a dozen proven and safe ways to fool the chip. I mean, without running the risks of trying one of the thousands of tricks you find by googling ‘skin chip cheat’. The bloody problem is that the pusher will ask you for fifty-thousand pounds per year, and neither you nor I can afford it. With our jobs, accountant and shop manager, all we can do in London nowadays is barely survive, let alone dream of immortality. That’s still for the rich, even though there are quite a lot of them.”
“Just like my asshole of a boss,” Philippa continued, “he uses it for sure. I took a picture of him a few days ago, pretending I was taking a selfie of the team, and I fed it to “MatchIt”, the new image-matching app. Guess what, after a few days of processing the search I got a string of pictures of him taken from a number of websites. Some were dating as far back as 2007 and what’s crazy is the son of a bitch looked older, so he is using Telomerax for sure. It’s not just the celebs, Jason, if it is your boss, it can be your colleague, your friend… we are being left behind, shit!”
Jason grinned and snapped back, as he sped along the highway.
“That’s why the app developer immediately got suited, and most likely this application will be declared illegal in a matter of weeks, if not days. So before this happens, please try it on me. I am sure you would not find any nasty surprises.”
No answer came from Philippa, and Jason realized she had already run the test with his picture. She was believing more in the search results than in his words. “Was this enough reason to break up?” Jason thought, “it would be best to wait until after the trip.”
These thoughts diverted his attention, so when the car in front of them suddenly braked, it was the scream of Philippa that brought him back to reality. Jason managed to avoid bumping into it by a fraction of a second. “Well, at least I won’t regret saving the extra pounds for the automatic collision avoidance system,” Jason whispered to his girlfriend. A traffic jam was now building up, and Jason saw some flashing lights in the distance, about a couple of miles down the highway. A checkpoint, possibly. He looked up in the air, to see there were already a few drones hovering over the line of cars. Philippa was already typing on the car display screen, looking for live video feeds.
Then she commented for Jason,
“Pretty decent drone owners, most of them set their broadcast to clear so that everybody can see. It is a security checkpoint, there are a couple of vehicles of the Carabinieri, the military police. It looks like they are stopping and searching all cars with foreign license plates.”
“Jeez, we are still more than one hundred miles away from Rome and security starts tightening…I wonder what it is going to look like in the city center.”
“C’mon Jason, it’s just one day,” Philippa objected, “then it’s back to normal again. Unfortunately for us.”
“Well, who knows, Phil,” Jason added. “You never know what’s going to come out, when a few million people gather together.”
Charles was relaxing on a beach bed, taking full advantage of the warm spring sun. From time to time, he would admire the slim figure of Sally, who had fallen asleep next to him after a swim. The past week was full of tough negotiations. All he had to look forward to was this evening’s dinner and a night spent with Sally. He was still contemplating, when Sally broke the silence and reached out to pat him on his shoulder.
“You see I was right to pretend you take a long weekend for the two of us on the Red Sea, after your meetings in Tel Aviv.”
“Absolutely, my love,” Charles whispered in response “and at the end I got all I was aiming for. I could not be happier about how things are panning out this year.”
“I suppose I cannot ask you about what you discussed,” Sally stated nonchalantly.
“Well, would it make any sense? Your friends for sure took part in the meetings. Maybe I better tell you my impressions about them, for you to report.” Charles ended his statement with what he wanted to be a ironic laugh, but Sally did not appreciate it at all and frowned.
“Charles, I am starting to get fed up with your continuous remarks about me being a spy just because I am a Jew. At least I am a spy that loves you, and you should be more interested in that last fact.”
“True,” Charles noted, quickly regaining full control of his emotions, “as much as it is true that I am the informant that loves you and I might have already saved you from unwanted attentions from the CIA.”
“What do you mean, Charles?”
“I mean that you have been under surveillance for years, which means that I struggle every day not to tell you things you are not supposed to know, because I do not trust the affirmations I was given that you do not run any danger of being accused of espionage. You should point this out to your team, but as we are very likely being recorded right now, I will stress it again for the audience.”
Sally kept silent for a while, turned on to her back, away from Charles, and then asked aloud,
“Is this really that bad? They record each and every thing we say? At any time?”
“Well, I guess so,” Charles replied, “to some extent, we deserve it. Don’t forget that our companies make billions every year by selling to governments the skin chips and all related applications. You can’t sell guns and pretend nobody will ever have you at gunpoint. Have a look at this. Click on the CrowdWatcher icon,” Charles said, handing over his tablet to Sally.
Sally took the tablet. A map of Rome was displayed on the screen, and suddenly different shades of green and yellow started appearing along the streets. She zoomed in to see, the clouds were made of single, individual dots. She clicked on one of them, and a name with a string of data appeared.
“Those are the skin chip bearers, right? You track them down, but what does the color code stand for?” Sally asked.
“Indeed, that’s the big news. We have been able to track individuals with mobile phones since the beginning of the century, but having a chip under their skin gives you access to their emotions. You just have to measure the chemicals associated with rage, fear, happiness, and send them back to figure out what is going on. For example, whether a peaceful gathering is turning into an angry mob.”
“And of course this application is secret. It is buried into our bodies for the good of the government.”
“It is secret, but it is legal. The contract that people sign to get the chip clearly says that the government reserves the right to modify the software and to inform the bearer of any material risk to their health. Information is not material. Tomorrow we will also have the inside view of the protest, besides the usual CNN coverage.”
“Is this what the Israelis wanted? They want this technology to control the Palestinian crowds and to prevent the occasional riots in the West Bank?” Sally enquired, knowing she would get no answer.
“No, it was quite the opposite. We actually want something that they have, a kind of weapon I cannot tell you about. They let us use it from time to time, but now we would like to build it ourselves. I was just here to negotiate the terms of the technology transfer. Apparently they have found an agreement at the top level in Washington and got something in exchange, which I will ignore for the rest of my life, or at least until the secret is let out fifty years from now…” Charles’ voice subsumed, as one of the guests from the resort was walking to their spot on the beach. She was a tall, slim woman, her face showing clear Asian features yet with a fair complexion that gave her a somehow ghostly appearance. Sally greeted her first, she returned the greeting and then greeted Charles with a smile. All of a sudden, she started talking to Sally in Yiddish. Charles was so puzzled that Sally felt compelled to switch back to English for a short explanation.
“Charles, let me introduce Svetlana to you. She is from Russia, from the Far Eastern Jewish District close to Vladivostok. She can only speak Yiddish and Russian, and is now learning English and Hebrew as she has just migrated to Israel with her boyfriend. I heard her speaking Yiddish yesterday at the breakfast buffet, and she reminded of my grandparents in Brooklyn, so we started talking right away.”
Svetlana smiled as she followed the conversation. The women continued for a while in Yiddish and then Svetlana left.
“I hope you were not making arrangements for the eve of Shabbat?” Charles asked, “I am not exactly excited at the idea of spending the evening with a couple of newly-arrived immigrants who can barely speak English.”
“Well, you should at least feel a bit sympathetic,” Sally reproached, “She was just telling me how bad the situation is getting in the Russian Far East. They had to flee due to the increasing ethnic tensions. The rate of the illegal Chinese immigrants is rising by the day, Russian authorities are not able to control the border, and all minorities are being pushed out by the confrontation between the Russians and the Chinese. They moved first to Moscow, and then here, as soon as they get the chance to expatriate.”
“Um, I heard something about that in Washington last week. Apparently, Russians are seeking help from US companies that supply technology to control the Mexican border. The problem they have is the border with China is three times longer than ours with Mexico, and there are ten times more illegal Chinese migrants trying to sneak in. I think your friend made the right decision to come here.”
“You know what?” Sally continued, “She told me she was not happy at all with where she lives, in the outskirts of Jaffa. Too many Arabs, she said. They are considering moving out of Israel. It seems they have an opportunity.”
“Moving out of Israel? A couple that just immigrated? And where would they go? To New York City?” Charles looked at Sally in disbelief.
“Maybe,” he thought, “the conversation at the Shabbat meal would not be so boring after all.”
“They still do not know. They might even stay in Israel but it looks like her boyfriend got a good job offer to work for a Russian real estate company in Cyprus.”
“Cyprus….now that you mention it.” Charles suddenly connected the dots in his mind, “I remember reading some articles in the Economist, about the economy there booming after the development of the natural gas fields. Still a bit politically unstable though. If I remember well, the island is split in two parts, the Greeks on one side and on the other side…hmmm, it should be the Turks or the Arabs, I do not remember. Anyway, I will google it after taking my shower.”
Charles stood up, took his towel and started walking towards the cabanas. Sally waited a few seconds, and then followed him.
The Rear Admiral William Murdoch, Jr. looked around the holosurface, to make sure all was ready before the final briefing with the Pentagon. He was standing with the US Marines battalion commander, the chiefs of air and naval operations, and the head of the fleet cyber security. They were buried three decks below the hangars, in the communications room of the USS Abraham Lincoln, which was cruising in the Mediterranean Sea, twenty miles off the Italian coast.
At exactly 5 o’clock in the morning of Saturday, April 7^th,^ the holograms from Washington materialized on the far end of the table, while its surface got covered with icons of all the meeting files. William Murdoch immediately recognized the Secretary of Defense, the National Security Advisor and Skip Ross, the chief of national intelligence and former CIA director.
“Strange enough,” William thought, “there is no representative from the Department of State. Yet we might have to deal with two states at once, Italy and the Vatican. It does not look good.”
The Secretary of Defense opened the discussion.
“Alright, Bill, we went through your plan in the worst case scenario, and the Pope’s life is endangered. You are asking us tough questions.”
“I am, Sir, but my Navy servicemen and the Marines we have on board need crystal clear rules. I am sure you understand.”
“We do,” the Secretary of Defense replied. “Basically, you are authorized to move the Marines as soon as you see the development of a clear and direct danger to the Pope’s life. Like, for example, terrorists seizing the opportunity to attack the Vatican while Italian security forces are busy controlling the protest. We have warned the Italian authorities. You can fly in up to three assault helicopters with associated troops, so in other words a full company. We think no air coverage is needed, as the Italian Air Force is patrolling the skies and Rome is a no-fly-zone for now.”
“This is clear,” Bill replied, “Are we authorized to open fire, if need be?”
“Not without prior authorization from us,” this time it was the National Security Advisor who spoke, “and certainly not on Italian security forces.”
“Under no circumstances? Not even if our Marines’ lives are at risk? Are you sure about this?”
Bill Murdoch felt obligated to challenge the authorities in the name of his people, before accepting any deals. The National Security Advisor balked. “Well, in general, yes. Then we will see how things develop. That’s why we need to stay in constant contact.”
“What if communications fail?” Bill thought. He had barely contemplated the option when Skip Ross chimed in, as if he had read his mind.
“You should not worry about that; we are using the war satellite links. On the ground, all the service providers opened their data center to our probes, so we control each and every bit of Internet traffic that flows in and out of Rome. You can also see in real time our latest crowd monitoring application.”
The image of Skip turned toward the US Navy cybersecurity officer, who nodded in agreement. Bill Murdoch looked at his other aides, waiting for further comments, but nobody spoke up.
“I think we are done here,” the rear admiral concluded, “hopefully it will only be a very long day.”
About two hours later, at 7.30 in the morning, Valerio approached the St. Anne Gate of the Vatican. An Italian police armored vehicle stood in front of the entrance, the policemen tried to stop him for a check but the voice of a Vatican guards officer interrupted them.
“You can let him pass, we are waiting for him,” the officer said. He then invited Valerio to follow, grabbing his right arm and rushing past the gate into the Vatican. They did not stop at the entrance booth to record his visit but went all the way up along the Tower and turned right toward the pharmacy. Just in front of it, they entered a fascist-style building and walked downstairs. Valerio could barely read on a plate next to the door that it was the Telecom office building.
The man kept walking him corridor after corridor, then he suddenly realized he had not introduced himself. “I beg your pardon, my name is Rudolph Schempp, I am the deputy commander of the Swiss Guards. I have received instructions from Monsignor Salvemini to take you to the control room. He will join you there shortly.”
“The control room?” Valerio repeated in disbelief, “You mean, like the NASA ones?”
“Oh, much better than that,” his host replied, as he checked the retina scanner.
Valerio and his guest entered a room full of screens. On one wall on the left, there was the usual set of security camera feeds. The central wall was the most interesting. Valerio looked at some of the screens, then he turned towards his guard.
“Can I talk to the operators?”
“Sure,” Rudolph laughed back, “we have no secrets here!”
Valerio approached one of the ten operators that were running the system using their goggles and touchpads, all dressed in spotless white shirts with black ties. He wondered if they belonged to some religious order, but refrained from asking and got to the point.
“Hi, good morning, my name is Valerio. This is the social media probes, correct? What data set are you using? How much lag do you have?”
“Hi, unfortunately I cannot give you my real name but you can call me Renato,” the operator answered. “We call the system ‘Guardian Angel’, to help prevent threats. Basically, all internet providers are feeding us a copy of their traffic. We have more than six million devices under our control, as you can see from the diagram people are now chatting in small groups. That’s basically how they came up to Rome. Average group size is fifteen, roughly four hundred thousand communities. We have about three thousand big sources with more than one thousand subscribers, counting all the main media sites, like Facebook. This we monitor to make sure uncontrolled news does not spread panic or rage.”
“Any suspicious groups?” Valerio was looking at the blinking red column on the far side.
“Just about one hundred. We are ready to cut them off as soon as we notice any threat.”
“Pretty damn professional,” Valerio complimented, looking toward Monsignor Salvemini, who in return smiled cheerfully.
“You see? We are trying to help Providence with a little prevention. In case something goes wrong, we can alert security forces and at least gain some time.”
“Well, I hope Providence does not feel like she’s losing her job,” Valerio replied sarcastically. “She might resent it. Are we going to meet the Pope here?”
“No, we will go to the Apartments,” Monsignor Salvemini replied. “We are scheduled in His Holiness’ agenda between one and two o’clock. After we make sure the situation is under control. And by the way we are not replacing Providence at all, just providing Her with some new tools.”
It was an unusually clear and warm spring day, even for the mild Roman climate. By eleven o’clock, Philippa was already sweating in the enormous valley of the Circo Massimo, about three hundred yards away from the central stage. The early bands had already started the jam sessions to entertain the crowd, and Philippa was immersed in the experience, her eyes switching from the mega screens surrounding the old Roman racetrack to the menus of her active glasses. The event schedule interlaced rock groups with political activists addresses, all lasting no more than ten minutes. They were all waiting for the speech that Kees Ortega, the Dutch anti-prohibition pundit who had become the European protest leader, was due to deliver around one o’clock. Music was playing in the background. Philippa kept shooting pictures by blinking her eyes, whispered a caption and then posted them on one of the many sites she belonged to. Jason and the other million and a half people sitting there were doing the same. From time to time, Philippa turned to Jason asking for some water, some ecstasy or simply a hug. They did not really need to tell each other anything, since they could see what they were posting through the social networks. As the hours passed, they let their neighbors join in so that Philippa was browsing and contributing to the stream of consciousness of fifteen people, all acting in sync with the music and the speeches.
At half past noon, Kees Ortega started addressing the crowd, which had grown all around the Circo Massimo, occupying all the nearby streets and squares. He spoke in unison with the beat of the music.
“We are three million gathering here, asking for the freedom and the right to become immortals!”
The crowd cheered back, jumping with the music.
“Here in Rome, we ask once again for Telomerax to become available to all, and not just the privileged few who can afford Indian beauty farms!”
The crowd chanted back, with “Free Telomerax for all.”
Then it happened. Philippa saw the newsfeed highlighted on the ‘Spread It’ page of Jason. The headline read ‘Cardinal Van Dinh arrested today in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, on illegal possession of Telomerax.’ She had barely finished reading the headline before forwarding the news to all her contacts.
It took less than two seconds for ‘Guardian Angel’ to identify the electronic contagion and flag it on the control room main screen in the Vatican Telecom room. Valerio and Monsignor Salvemini rushed to the console, then the prelate called the office of the Secretary of State to verify if the news was confirmed by the Vatican ambassador.
“Who sent out the news?” Valerio hastily asked.
“It comes from a Vietnamese news agency, and looks authentic. That’s probably why it passed through the primary firewall chain,” Renato answered.
“Fuck,” Valerio muttered, “Vietnam; at the other end of the world. No one in Europe would have ever broken this piece of news. Can we at least stop it from getting around?”
“We have activated the filters for all the social media sites, but all we are able to do is just slow it down. People are activating bluetooth on their devices to bypass the Internet.”
“Then remove the filters on social media. There is a risk that it might worsen things,” Valerio ordered. But Renato did not move. He was waiting for the confirmation of Monsignor Salvemini, who was still on the phone.
Valerio went back watching the news, just to hear an enthusiastic Kees Ortega calling the crowd to action.
“You see? Cardinals are using it, and conspiring with governments worldwide to exclude us. And they want to prevent us from knowing because they know we will start talking, and take action. But now we know, and we are going to tell their boss, the Pope, that we are fed up! Benedict, we are coming! Mr. Moreno, we are going to pay a visit to your puppet!”
The newsfeed about the arrest of the Cardinal suddenly subsumed. Now Google Maps instructions were being sent from device to device on how to reach the Vatican from the Circo Massimo. In less than three minutes, the enormous crowd started to move out of the Circo Massimo toward the bridges on the Tiberina Island. Police tried to stop the wave with tear gas, but quickly got overwhelmed. Loudspeakers were playing rave music and repeating the last sentences of Kees Ortega to go along with it.
On the deck of USS Abraham Lincoln, the cybersecurity officer had already alerted Bill Murdoch and was now showing to the Rear Admiral the data collected by the skin chip detectors.
“Sir, the levels of adrenaline are increasing, together with other chemicals associated with rage, and it is happening all at once. It looks like..” Bill Murdoch did not let his officer finish the sentence and addressed the US Marines commander.
“Chip, get your company airborne now. Destination: the Vatican Gardens. Turn all the transponders on. We have to let the Italians know we are preparing to evacuate the Pope.” He then activated the communication line with the Pentagon and after ten seconds, which seemed like an eternity, the faces of the Secretary of Defense and of the National Security Advisor materialized on the holosurface.
“Gentlemen,” William Murdoch managed to use his most neutral tone, “I have just launched the evacuation operation. In about thirty minutes the helicopters will be landing in the Vatican Gardens, meaning we have an advantage of about fifteen minutes over the crowd. I trust your contacts in the Vatican can rush the Pope and his aides quickly into the Gardens and onto the helicopter. Should the Marines have to face the crowd, the only option they have is to use force. Can you please acknowledge that the plan is understood and its implementation authorized?”
A moment of silence followed, then the National Security Adviser replied.
“Understood, William. Actually, Skip is responsible for keeping the connection with the Vatican, he will contact them right away and check back with you. Now please excuse us, the President just requested a briefing. We will call you back in ten minutes.”
“Shit,” Bill thought, “I have a company of Marines flying into an unclear mission and they will check back in ten minutes because they want to show the big boss they are in control.” He reflected for one minute, then called the chief of air operations on the main deck.
“Hi Brad, Bill speaking. Please have the two F-35s on scramble alert take off now, and prepare the rest of the wing. The mission is to provide full air superiority coverage to the three choppers in case anything goes wrong.” Five seconds of silence followed.
“Brad, did you get the order right? I want the scramble fighters airborne now and the rest of the carrier wing ready in the next thirty minutes.”
“Sir, does this mean we have to be prepared to fight with the Italian Air Force?”
“Correct, I confirm the order.” Bill replied calmly.
Philippa and Jason were running along the Lungotevere, the broad avenue along the Tiber River, with the music in their ears mixed with the slogans they were shouting in unison. From time to time, they saw flashes and bangs in front of them, the traffic of people would slow down for a while and then regain speed. They were passing police vehicles and cars set ablaze, and every hundred yards or so they saw a body on the ground. It usually belonged to a protester but some were policemen or soldiers who had not been quick enough to handle the stampede. Above them, police helicopters and drones were watching the flow of people converge at the beginning of Via della Conciliazione, the avenue leading straight to St.Peter’s Square. Some drones were dropping Molotov bottles along the river of people, creating an argin of fire that kept the huge snake on track. It was like marching to hell.
Valerio was rushing with Monsignor Salvemini through the corridors of the Vatican, after a turn he recognized the path he had travelled more than fifteen years before, with Father Bontardini. They were heading to the Pope’s apartment. During the journey, Monsignor Salvemini had verified that the news about the Vietnamese Cardinal was authentic. The Curia was aware that the Vietnamese prelate was using Telomerax but since the drug was widespread in South East Asia, they had decided to manage the case the soft way. After all, Cardinal Van Dinh’s behavior was not much of a scandal for the local Catholic community.
“Yeah, sure,” Valerio commented, “except that now he is the subject for the biggest scandal that is fueling these enraged three-million-something people.”
When they entered the Pope apartments, Valerio could spot from the windows the approaching crowd like a black wave. At the rate they were moving, Valerio calculated that they had about twenty minutes before they would reach St.Peter. That gave them enough time to flee. Then they could only hope it eventually dispersed, if there still was a police able to regain control. He was moving through a number of live media channels when the studio door opened and the Pope entered, together with Cardinal Suarez, the Secretary of State. Benedict XVII was uncomfortably calm, in stark contrast to the tension and fear that the Cardinal and Monsignor Salvemini showed. In the background, Valerio noticed a group of Swiss guards, their weapons ready.
“Signor Orsini,” the Pope opened the discussion, addressing him in decent Italian, “I wanted to have a long conversation with you, but apparently circumstances do not allow us to do so. So be it, we cannot do anything but speak with our deeds and do what is required from us…”
The Pope paused, and turned to the Secretary of State. Valerio noticed that Cardinal Suarez was wearing a tiny, flashing headset. The Cardinal approached Benedict XVII and whispered something into his ear.
The Pope smiled, then looked the Cardinal straight in the eyes and said aloud, “No way.” This time he spoke in English. He then waved his arm to the Swiss guards platoon, and walked resolutely toward the balcony and the stairs which led to the ground floor.
“Signor Orsini, please come along. We are taking a walk into St.Peter’s Square, I have to try to stop this. One way or another.”
Valerio turned toward Monsignor Salvemini, who had gone pale and was exchanging glances with Cardinal Suarez, who was in turn petrified. The Swiss guards passed quickly by, following the Pope. The Secretary of State was hastily shouting into a microphone hidden under his vest “His Holiness is not going to the Gardens, he is going into the Square!” There was no time to question Monsignor Salvemini. Valerio rushed behind the Swiss guards. The Pope was leading them with a fast pace, one that Valerio had some trouble keeping up with. The Pope kept silent, his breath steady, then on the final flight of stairs that were leading down into the square he turned toward Valerio.
“You see, signor Orsini, I don’t need any pills to stay fit, not even your Telomerax would have prevented me from making some mistakes over the last few years.”
Valerio was confused. He could now spot the head of the crowd at the end of Via della Conciliazione.
“Your Holiness,” Valerio asked, “Why do you want to confront the crowd? It won’t work, I think you should follow the advice of your aides and get in a safe place.”
“The only safe place we have, is in the hands of our Lord. You do not have to follow me, the guards will escort you back to the helicopters.”
The crowd was now just five hundred yards away and Benedict XVII accelerated in its direction. As Valerio hesitated on what he had to do, he suddenly heard the helicopters’ blades. He looked up to see three large attack machines hovering less than one hundred feet above his head and moving towards the Pope. Valerio could see the Marines on board, the machine guns pointing toward the ground. He then turned again toward the Pope, just to realize that Benedict XVII was now more than two hundred yards away from him. The crowd stopped. Valerio stood still in terror and awe.
From Bravo 1, the lead helicopter, US Marines Captain Lionel Kaminski was beaming the scene back to the USS Lincoln control centre, listening to his boss’ orders on the left headphone and preparing to shout orders to his crew.
Philippa and Jason had reached the head of the pack, and they could distinctly see the Pope in front of them. They were hypnotized by the white figure and the helicopters dancing above him.
Benedict XVII stopped and raised his hand, then a bang came from the crowd and he froze for one second, before falling onto his back.
Captain Kaminski activated the interphone before seeing the red stain on his vestment. “Pope down, Bravo 2 and 3 open cover fire, land to rescue.”
Exactly below Bravo 1, Valerio saw the tongues of fire appearing from the side of the helicopters and instinctively threw himself on the ground.
Philippa and Jason did not immediately realize what was going on. They saw objects popping up from the throng around them, as if people had started throwing objects up in the air. They thought about what they could throw to join the other protesters, but then Philippa realized that they were body parts, being torn apart by the machine gun bullets. She tried to duck to the ground, but it was too late, one round blew off Jason’s left shoulder and another disintegrated her womb. She died a few seconds later on the stones of St.Peter’s Square.
In the control center of USS Lincoln Bill Murdoch had not lost a moment of the carnage. Bravo 1 had barely lifted off from the square before his voice broke into the headphones of Lieutenant Kamiski.
“Kaminski, Bill Murdoch here. How is the Pope?”
“I am afraid he is close to death, Sir. Two shots in the chest at the right lung. The doctor here is trying to keep him alive.”
“Alright, return home now. Quickly! The surgeons are ready in the operating room.”
“I have the Italian Air Force on the NATO emergency channel, Sir. They want us to land immediately.”
“Disregard the order, and fly back here. We will take care of the Pope, if he is still alive.”
Bill Murdoch immediately called the Pentagon. This time, Skip Ross had joined the team.
“Gentlemen, the Pope is on the verge of death and Italian authorities are asking us to land the helicopters. There is a high chance that in this case the Marines would all be detained and charged with the massacre of protesters. You saw the footage, there are hundreds of casualties. On the other hand, refusing to obey the request might lead to worse political consequences that I am not in a position to assess. I need your guidance here.”
The Secretary of Defense and the National Security Advisor kept silent.
“Was the President aware?” Bill thought “Damn, for sure he was aware. The attack had been broadcasted all over the world. Why was Paul Moreno not in this bloody meeting?”
“It turns out that the only entity we might have to listen to is the Vatican,” Skip interrupted the silence. “All these unfortunate events took place on Vatican territory, the Pope is the Vatican head of State, yet we did not receive any request from some high ranking Vatican officer to return the body or anything.”
“To return the body?” Bill thought, “Skip speaks as if the Pope was dead. Yet his advice was clear. Better, it was the only advice.” Bill waited a few seconds after Skip finished his statement, as no one of the others was commenting he drew the conclusion.
“Understood,” he snapped back, “We won’t change course until we receive a specific request from the Vatican.”
He switched the hologram projector off without waiting for the acknowledgement from the Pentagon and called back Bravo 1.
“Kaminski, any updates? By the way, stay on your route to home.”
“I was about to call you, Sir. The Pope just died.”
Colonel Fabrizio Nardini and his wingman, Captain Paolo Caponecchi, received the order to take off with their two Eurofighter jets from the Italian Air Force base of Grosseto at exactly the same time that the three Marines’ helicopters entered Italy’s territorial waters. The scramble flight was code-named Tango Zulu.
Launched at full speed, it took the interceptors less than ten minutes to cover the one-hundred miles to Rome. From one thousand feet of altitude, the two pilots could see firsthand what was going on in the Square. They reached for the radio, asking the Ministry of Defense for instructions as they circled above the city. Below them, the crowd that had been decimated by the Marines’ guns, was starting to disperse into multiple groups fleeing and letting out their rage. Fires kept popping up, setting Rome ablaze.
The voice of the Italian Air Force Chief of Staff eventually reached Fabrizio.
“Tango Zulu, the order is to intercept the helicopters and signal them to land immediately. Do not fire, repeat, do not fire. Copy, Tango Zulu.”
“Roger, Sir. Calculating the intercept route now. We do not fire, copied.”
Fabrizio then addressed his wingman, who he knew was a fervent Catholic.
“Paolo, we close in from both sides, I fly in from the right of the Marines’ formation, you go in from the left, copy.”
A short second of silence passed, then he heard the voice of the wingman.
“Copy, Colonel, I follow you.”
“Paolo, are you all right?” Fabrizio asked bluntly, “We have no time for emotions, we just have to follow orders.” Fabrizio hoped this would be enough to have Paolo back in full control. In any case, Fabrizio could not ask for a replacement wingman.
“Yes, Sir. I follow you.”
“Good. Let’s go.” Fabrizio pushed the throttle forwards and ordered his fighter to follow the intercept course. The computer showed it would take less than one minute to reach the Marines. The display also showed that the two US Navy F-35s were patrolling just outside of Italian waters, about thirty miles away. With some luck, they could make the helicopters land before engaging with the Navy fighters.
On the USS Lincoln, Bill Murdoch was watching the two Italian fighters approach the helicopters. He would think about the dead Pope on board later, now he had to take his team home. He called the Chief of Air Operations, who, without waiting for the order, put the Rear Admiral in contact with the Navy planes.
“Commander Jamie Foster, Bill Murdoch speaking. You see the two Italian fighters on your radar? They will intercept the group of Bravo 1 just off the Italian coast, but still in territorial waters. I do not think they will fire on our boys. At least not immediately, but they will try to put pressure on them. Here is what I want you to do: you follow from a distance and as soon as Bravo 1 is in international waters you sandwich the Italians between you and the helicopters until they give up. Copy that, please.”
“Copied, Sir, we put pressure on the Italians as soon as they are in international waters. Are we allowed to open fire?”
The answer came immediately.
“Do not fire until fired upon. Good luck, Commander.”
The two Eurofighters reached the three helicopters when there were still two miles to reach the coast. Fabrizio made sure Paolo was on the other side of the formation, then he called on the NATO emergency channel.
“US Marines flight, this is Colonel Nardini of the Italian Air Force. Please land immediately.”
The helicopters continued, Fabrizio repeated the order. No answer. The group overflew the coast, there were still twelve miles of sea before the international waters.
“US Marines flight, I repeat, please return back to land now.”
Since the Marines’ pilot was ignoring his order, Fabrizio rapidly thought of a way to increase the pressure in the last six miles he had left before they reached international waters. He moved closer with his plane, overtaking the helicopters. The wake of the jet sent the helicopters in heavy turbulence, so that they had to open the formation to avoid colliding into each other. On board Bravo 2, to the left of the formation, one of the Marines reached for the machine guns to stay firm on board.
Paolo Caponecchi saw the sudden move of the soldier, and briskly decelerated to get out of the line of fire. No fire came out from the gun, but by the time he realized it, he had already armed the weapons systems of his plane.
From Bravo 1, Kaminski was shouting to his crew in the intercom.
“Do not open fire, repeat, do not open fire! In one minute we are in safe waters.”
The arming of the Eurofighter missiles was detected by the sensors of the Navy F-35, that sent alarms through the head display of Commander Foster. The images projected on his retina by the battle control computer gave him three seconds to decide whether to arm the attack system in response, or do nothing and risk being shot down.
He armed the system and told the computer to lock the nearest target, which was the plane of Colonel Nardini.
Fabrizio checked the battle map, showing there were six miles left to scare the Marines back to the coast. He armed the systems, and saw that his wingman was now trailing the three helicopters, about one thousand yards behind him. He called Paolo on the encrypted channel.
“Paolo, fire a short salvo to the left as I slow down to keep them in our waters. It’s our last chance.”
Paolo had been eagerly waiting for that command, and immediately let a one-second round go.
Aboard Bravo 1, Kaminski saw the bullet lines in the sky and bursted out loud on the NATO emergency channel,
“Fucking bastards, stop firing, stop firing!”
He had not even finished his sentence when Commander Foster released the fire button on his missiles, aiming them at the two Italian fighters.
The flashes of the missiles leaving the US Navy F-35 were the last thing that Fabrizio and Paolo saw in their life. Less than one second later, their planes exploded above the Tyrrhenian Sea.
In the Operations Control Center of the USS Lincoln, officers and servicemen alike could not help gasping both in fear and relief. Bill Murdoch waited a couple of minutes for the emotions in the room to subsume. Once he was sure all eyes were on him, he spoke softly.
“As soon as the Marines are back on board, we will head back to Norfolk, Virginia, by means of the Sardinia Channel, in order to stay as far away as possible from Italian waters. I want everybody in battle order, and air patrols on duty around the clock, until we reach the Atlantic Ocean. We will also go in emission control, which means radio silence.”
He then turned to his second in command.
“Mark, I need a break. You take charge. I will be back in one hour.”
“What if the Pentagon calls, Bill?”
“Tell those idiots to watch all the recordings and wait for me to be back. Just do not change the ship’s course for any reason.”
“What if the Italians try to intercept us?”
“I do not think they still want to challenge us. The problem is no longer with us, now it is in Washington. In any case, we stick to the golden rule; do not fire until fired upon.”
Dora entered the room where Louis was trying to communicate with Helena. She was holding a tablet, as she had been doing for the past six weeks.
“Dora, isn’t it time to stop watching that?” Louis said, without even looking at her, “We are all trying to move forward. If only I could get this damn conference started…”
Dora did not answer, she sat next to Louis and swiped her finger across the screen. A video of Valerio appeared. It was shot from his smartwatch. Valerio spoke with a soft voice, and in the blurred background behind him one could hardly recognize the columns of St.Peter’s Square.
“Louis, Tarek….and Dora, Helena….I have been hit. I do not know by whom…” Valerio tried to smile, but his face could only express pain. “I do not have much time left…I just wanted to let you know that my desire has been fulfilled…..to see history unfolding…and to see….”
The camera turned up to the sky. Valerio’s voice was drowned out by the noise of the helicopters, the shots, and the screams.
“Dora, you have been watching that video repeatedly. What’s the use of it? It won’t bring Valerio back.” Louis sighed. He had not yet come to terms with the loss. He had watched the video several times too, but he had now made a point to move forward. Dora instead kept watching it, as if she was in search of something.
“He was trying to tell us something,” Dora rebuffed, “you have not caught it and now you refuse to listen. I just keep my ears open.”
“I thought a long time about it….he is referring to the conversations we had back in the Nineties, at “Le Jardin” in Passoy…he had always hoped to find the hidden track that shapes history. He got right in the middle of it, and it was not a healthy idea at all.”
“We all know this. It’s the missing piece after that we have to guess, Louis!”
“The missing piece…the missing piece….he was dying, perhaps he wanted to repeat the first piece of the sentence, and…hang on! We got the communication with London up!”
Helena appeared on the screen. The international lines were congested for weeks, so the system had scaled down from the holographic display to an old-style high-definition videoconference.
“Hi Louis, I wish I were with you all down there in Brazil, but I have to be here. Markets have been going crazy for a while now, and Guillermo’s friends are getting more and more nervous. They have more than two hundred billion dollars in legal assets that they do not know how to protect from the financial storm triggered by Rome.”
“Unlike Dora, Helena has overcome the loss of Valerio,” Louis thought, “it was just two months ago, but it seemed like eternity.” He briefly recapped the events in his mind.
The Netherlands had fully legalized Telomerax, pushed by the emotion of the death of Kees Ortega, the anti-prohibition leader, in the Rome massacre. Many other European nations followed, opening a vast rift in the prohibition front led by the US.
In the aftermath of the disaster, the center-right Italian government had resigned, and a new national unity coalition led by a revived Matteo Renzi had stepped in. Under strong pressure from both the far right and the far left, Mr. Renzi had suspended Italy’s participation to all NATO activities until the US handed over all the military to the Italian justice, from the fleet commander to the crews of the Marines helicopters. The US had obviously refused, and the stalemate that followed put a big question mark on the stability of the Alliance.
President Paul Moreno had then decided to put pressure on Italy from the financial side, using the Federal Reserve to persuade all major US funds and banks to stop buying Italian treasury bonds and securities.
In a matter of days, the interest rates on Italian debt had skyrocketed and the risk of an Italian default had cast a shadow on all the Euro-denominated bond markets, putting Europe in the middle of a financial storm.
“Helena, what’s the mood up there in London? Do you think the Italians will give up eventually?”
“I don’t think so. Tomorrow the Italian government will try to raise at least ten billion dollars by selling bonds, if they fail they won’t be able to service their debt nor pay salaries to public employees. This will mean death to the euro, with trillions flying away from European markets. The problem is, no one really knows where they will end up.”
“What do you mean?” Louis asked, “money cannot just disappear.”
“Actually, yes it can,” Helena interrupted, “if you ditch Italian bonds, you are getting euros back, and a lot less than you paid for by the way. Then, you want to buy something else. But what? Dollars might be just as risky as euros, given the great performance of the US leadership. All other currencies and assets are one way or another linked to the dollar and the euro. It’s just like in 2008. Everybody believed in the value of real estate, until all of the sudden people realized the trust was misplaced.”
“It’s a bit worse than 2008, Helena,” Dora burst, “this time it is not about the trust in the banks or in the real estate market. It’s about the trust in just about anything.”
Helena paused then sighed.
“You are right. If rumors from the trading floors here in the City are correct, there is going to be a big rush to buy assets linked to all kind of commodities, from oil to soybeans. This will automatically translate into huge inflation and further social and political commotion. We all better go live on a desert island for the next few years because it’s going to be horrible beyond imagination.”
“It’s not easy to tell your teenager boy that he has to leave the life of Rio to relocate to some cast away spot,” Louis commented, “I think you have the same problem with Aurora, Helena, don’t you?”
“Well, yes, but I thought about it and found a good solution. We are going to follow the example of Francis II, the new Pope, and move to Sardinia.”
“Sardinia?” repeated Dora, glancing at Louis in disbelief.
“Think about it,” Louis explained, “after the massacre of Rome, the Italian government could no longer guarantee the security of the Vatican. Soon, it will be the case of every major city on this planet. So the Church chose Sardinia as a temporary seat for the newly elected Pope – an island in the middle of the Mediterranean. It is big enough to be self-sufficient, yet small enough to control access to it, and within easy reach of all major European cities. I think it is worth looking into this idea of Helena.”
“Indeed,” Helena was now smiling into the camera, “Believe me, the Italian government will be more than happy to host the owners of major agricultural and energy assets of Brazil. The move will also reduce our dependency on Yaakov and his Mossad friends.”
After hearing this, Louis’ face turned pale.
“Helena,” he said briskly, “Thanks for reminding me of the other reason for my call, beyond the financial situation update. We need to talk quite urgently to those guys, but in a safe place. I have the biogenetic simulations results to share with them. It’s quite serious.” Louis noticed that Helena’s attention had been caught by something on a screen close to her. He cleared his throat, and then asked “Helena, what are you looking at?”
Helena glanced back from the lower left corner of the screen, and pointed at Dora and Louis again.
“A safe place, you said? I do not know how many we are going to find.” Helena replied, “I am just reading the last piece of news from Reuters. Russia has pledged to fully underwrite Italy’s bond offer tomorrow, in exchange for access to some of Italy’s military bases in Sicily. You know what that means? NATO, game over.”
“This makes me wonder if Italy is a good choice. Maybe we should hold on and think about leaving Brazil more carefully,” Dora said, trying to enter the conversation but she was met by the indifference of Helena and the embarrassment of Louis.
“Well, we certainly don’t have to leave tomorrow,” Louis finally responded. He proceeded to try and make up a compromise. “I think we can wait for the kids to end their year in school…but the situation is changing rapidly, and we have to be ready..”
In London, Helena cut the conversation short, her face got closer to the camera and she lowered her voice,
“Louis, Dora, I have to leave for a meeting now. I think it is a matter of when, not if. I will send you a detailed proposal by mail. Cheers,”
The screen went black. Dora set her tablet aside on the desk and kept staring at the blank screen, then she whispered,
“I know Helena and you have already made the decision to leave.”
“Guillermo and Helena have been seriously thinking about it for a while, you know. They need to be in Europe. Liberalization is opening up enormous possibilities and it is still a relatively safe place to be. Now they are asking us to join.” Louis tried to contain his irritation.
“Louis, I am fed up with this. Thirty years ago, we were planning to change the world for good. Then we had to flee and the world has started to change us instead. Now that I am achieving something here, in the favela, I have to flee again. I did not sign up for this.”
“Look at the bright side, Dora.” Louis tried to be as calm and mild as possible, “Telomerax is becoming more and more accepted. True, very difficult times lie ahead for all of us, but we can weather the storm. The work you did for the hundreds of young favelados won’t be in vain. And we will be back here when it’s over.”
“Will it ever be over, Louis? Will we see that day?”
“I do not know, but we must hope so.”
The black Mercedes sped through Tverskaya Avenue in Moscow, heading towards the Kremlin. Inside, Irina and her new boss, who managed the GRU, the Russian military intelligence service, were finishing the final preparations for the meeting. They had been working at the technology transfer deal for the whole winter of 2031 and the spring had seen some meaningful progress, so that the Israelis had sent a high-ranking delegation for the conclusion.
“Your move from the SVR, the foreign intelligence, to the GRU has been a very welcome one, Irina,” Pavel, her new boss, commented. “Your skills in this negotiation with the Israelis are just invaluable.”
“Thank you, Mr. General,” Irina politely answered, keeping a respectful distance. “I got used to the Middle Eastern style of negotiation a long time ago. Despite their conflict, Arabs and Israelis are more akin than they want to admit.”
“I cannot judge about that, but it looks like we are close to a deal. A deal that our rodina badly needs.”
Irina did not need to be reminded. Chinese-armed guerrillas had been constantly stepping up in the Far Eastern districts for three years. The Chinese were arming and infiltrating tens of thousands of soldiers, pretending they were local insurgents asking for more autonomy from Moscow.
After all, they were repeating the same tactics that Russia had used against Ukraine nearly twenty years ago, just on a much bigger scale.
The car slowed down as it moved through the Spasskaya Tower, so that the X-rays security check could scan it. The guests were recognized by the system and let go without even opening the windows, which for Irina was a pity as she could have let some fresh May air inside. The Mercedes eventually took an underground ramp and disappeared into the basement of the Presidential Palace.
Irina and Pavel got out and walked for about fifteen minutes along a maze of corridors. Despite her long career, Irina had never been there and all she could do was follow Pavel.
They eventually entered a windowless white room. The only embellishment was 19th century stucco laid around the walls, representing some kind of floral pattern.
There was only one table inside, the Israeli delegation, with three people, who had been waiting for roughly two hours and sat on the side opposite the door.
As soon as Irina and Pavel entered the room, Eyal stood up and warmly welcomed them, ignoring the long delay.
“Nice to see you again, Pavel. Despite my repeated invitations to come to Tel Aviv, we keep meeting here in Moscow. The two gentlemen who are with me today are Rami and Shlomo, who as you have certainly found out by now, are the deputy Chief of Staff of the Israeli Defense Forces and the deputy assistant to the Prime Minister.”
Pavel smiled at Eyal as he shook hands with his guests.
“Spasibo, Eyal. Let me introduce Irina to you, she joined us from our foreign intelligence service a few months ago. I think we can start the meeting now, we have a pretty dense agenda in front of us.”
After two hours of discussions and document reviews, two things were clear. The Israelis wanted to have access to the new combat exoskeleton technology the Russians were developing to equip their special forces, the Spetsnaz, to counter the Chinese insurgency in the Far East, yet they did not want to transfer knowledge of the biodrones in exchange.
“In all frankness,” Eyal said, “I think it’s premature. We do not even know if the new combat armor works outside the test range conditions you showed us. There are too many new systems to be tested in real battle, from the carbon nanotube structure, to the electric actuators. Not to mention the mini gas turbine that is powering it all. Our government will never allow us to give you a tested jewel like our biodrones in exchange for a prototype, no matter how promising it may be.”
“We can easily address your concerns,” Pavel smiled back, “It is already in mass production. We have tested the first one hundred pieces and it works just fine. As for the technology, we went as far as giving Sakhalin Island back to Japan two years ago so as to get their latest robotics research.”
“You mean, this was part of the Russian-Japanese friendship treaty concerning also the long term commitment from Russia to supply natural gas?” Shlomo intervened, frowning at Eyal. “The Mossad should have known.”
“Well, you are not the only ones able to keep treaty annexes a secret,” Irina jumped in to increase the tension in the Israeli delegation. “We do have a long tradition on secrecy as well. Anyway, we can invite some of your special forces to have a look in the battlefield and then reconvene in a few weeks, if you need some further assurance on the quality of the product.”
“What if our special forces get captured in action?” This time the objection came from Rami, the Israeli Defense Forces representative.
“Well, it is a risk,” Pavel replied calmly. “However, we can manage to set the test in a relatively quiet and controlled sector. After all, we are talking about a one-thousand five-hundred mile front, and the area around Lake Baikal is still relatively quiet, so far.”
“I am aware that this does not reduce the risk to zero, though,” Eyal commented.
“The rest depends on your team, Eyal,” Pavel continued, “I am sure you have plenty of Russian-speaking members in your special forces, considering we are the second ethnic group in Israel, and I know that many Israeli citizens of Russian descent still refuse to learn Hebrew. Just tell them what is awaiting them in case they become prisoners.”
“They know they are expendables,” Rami cut in, “Yet even assuming the exoskeleton works, I don’t think this will be a good enough reason to hand over the biodrone’s technology.”
“Mr. Rami,” Pavel continued calmly, “now you are making me feel jealous. You handed the full biodrones package over to the Americans three years ago, in exchange of something valuable to you, which I will not even bother asking about. Don’t you agree our offer is a good one? May I remind you that you have far less leverage and common interests with China than with us? Or do you want us to lose this undeclared war?”
“We are cooperating with you in many ways,” Shlomo came in to support Rami. “The fact is, the electronic fly has the highest security rating in our arsenal. Higher than nuclear weapons, for the level of risk it brings. That’s why we would share the know-how about it with a foreign power only in exceptional cases.”
“Like, for example, preventing information leaks about your Cyprus operations?” Irina abruptly asked.
It took all of Eyal’s power to hide his surprise. Rami and Shlomo gave each other a helpless glance and then looked at Eyal.
“It looks like the three of you have something to discuss on your return flight,” Pavel laughed heartedly. “Let me reassure you, we do not have the full picture yet, however we do have several interesting clues. No one in Russia knows about the file, except our President of course and the two of us here. From what we learned, I am sure you do not want us to start telling other services what we have found so far…or, God forbids, an anonymous hacker starts posting documents on the Internet or emailing newspapers.”
Eyal waited a few seconds after Pavel finished.
“This development might indeed change the stance of our government, but as you said at the beginning, there are a few more steps to take before we can come to an agreement. One of them certainly is that we must precisely assess how the leaks came out and how to prevent them from happening again.”
“He wants us to hand over the mole,” Irina thought to herself, “but we have time to make a decision about it. It’s time to end the meeting now.”
“Eyal, we understand your concerns,” she addressed her guests, “and we will take them into account when closing the deal. You cannot mess around with Russian cover companies, have one-quarter of your population coming from Russia, and pretend there isn’t any leak due to double-loyalty,” Irina said. “After all, we also have a strong sense of belonging to our rodina. In fact it is just like last time with the Nazis, we are fighting a common, mortal enemy.”
The Israelis looked at each other, then Eyal decided to conclude the meeting. He stood up and shook hands with Pavel and Irina.
“I think we are done for today,” he said slowly and coldly. “The terms of your proposal are pretty clear but we need to discuss them as soon as we get back to Tel Aviv. We will follow up two weeks from now.”
When the Mossad delegation left, Pavel moved to the opposite room, switched the lights on, closed the door and told Irina,
“Congratulations on the maskirovka you used to hide the real source, but do you really think they now believe we have a mole in Israel?”
“I do not know, they are professionals like us and won’t believe everything we say without double and triple checks,” Irina answered. “Actually, we started investigating seriously when we realized that much of the revenue that Mossad makes by selling Telomerax in North America – which we got from our latinos informants – is consistently being reinvested in Cyprus by cover up companies. This is the half-truth that got them on the hook. Given their reaction today, it must be something big, worth some further analysis.”
“Unfortunately not, Irina,” Pavel interrupted her, “we have to focus on our issues in the Far East, remember?”
“Of course, Mr.General,” Irina promptly replied. They left the room and headed back to the underground parking lot together.
As Charles entered the studio of his Long Island mansion, his videowall automatically tuned in to the early morning CNBC news report. The anchorwoman was commenting on the latest polls, that forecasted a landslide victory for the Democrats in the Presidential election happening in two weeks.
Holographic projectors appeared on his desk, showing all the incoming emails. He was halfway in his morning routine, when an unknown call came in. He usually rejected these types of calls, except this time an email from an anonymous sender simultaneously popped up on the screen. The subject read, “Pick it up.”
Charles answered and he immediately recognized the voice of Skip, who was excited beyond imagination.
“Heeelloooo, Charles, I suggest you ditch the ordinary news and listen up. The most important bit won’t be there. I will keep running all the intelligence agencies, directly reporting to the President.”
Charles was astonished. As much as he needed Skip to keep his place to safeguard his company’s government business, he could not believe that Stuart Strickland, the Democrat candidate, could afford to keep a person like Skip in such a role.
“Skip, are you sure? Apart from beating J.Edgar Hoover’s record in office, how do you think that Strickland can justify this with his voters? He has made a pledge to change all the Moreno policies of the past eight years, starting from the federal ban on Telomerax, and he would keep you where you are? Are you blackmailing him with some juicy scandal?”
“Not at all,” Skip replied cheerfully, “Fact is, I am just a simple civil servant after all, I only have to make sure that the policies decided by our Presidents and Congressmen are implemented in the most effective way. It was not me who addressed Congress nine years ago to ban Telomerax. Neither was it my idea to bury Benedict XVII in Washington National Cathedral, just to make the point that the late Pope was more American than Catholic, and all the other bullshit that wreaked havoc with our NATO allies and sent our financial system and economy into mayhem again.”
“In other words,” Charles said, “you persuaded Strickland and his staff that the situation is so bad that they cannot afford any discontinuity in such a crucial place like yours?”
“Exactly,” Skip chirped, “and by the way, it’s nothing new. The same thing happened when Obama took office back in 2008. He left the Bush-era Secretary of Defense and CIA director in place for a while. Let’s face it, our country is practically on the edge of a second civil war. How else would you describe it? Just look at what happened this summer past in San Diego, or what the governor of Oregon is saying.”
Charles, like any other American, remembered all too well. In July, drug gangs had seized control of the Mexican border and large parts of the San Diego metropolitan area to smuggle to California the biggest Telomerax shipping ever, a convoy of sixteen trucks worth thirty-five billion dollars on the market. It took the National Guard and the US Army seven days of fighting and more than one thousand casualties to get the city back under control. In most Southern cities and in many neighborhoods of the inner cities the night curfew was now the rule. In this climate, Edward Wu, the governor of Oregon, and a Democrat like Strickland, had called for a state referendum to secede from the Union, with many other states ready to follow suit.
“Strickland will let states do what they want with Telomerax, just like we did with weed twenty years ago. Then the new President can just hope that the move reduces the level of violence and gets the economy back on track after the shocks of the last years.” Skip continued his monologue, “once money and security are restored for most Americans, all the mambo-jambo about secession will stop. Obviously he has to keep America out of any dangerous foreign matters, like meddling with Russia and China. He understands this very clearly. Throughout the entire campaign, he repeated several times that he will definitely pull out of the Middle East, given our energy independency, and forget all about the Saudis and the deal that Roosevelt made with them about one-hundred years ago. This is history now.”
“Alright, Skip, I have heard that several times,” Charles interrupted him, “I am now busy creating a business plan for next year, considering that government demand for Telomerax detectors and skin chips will drop, and I have investors to please. True, we are building parts for the combat exoskeletons, and we see demand for that growing, but I am still missing several billions of sales over the next few years.”
“Charles, we have known each other for many years and you still think I am so selfish as to not think about my long term friends? That’s upsetting. You still have some things to learn about me,” Skip rebuked and continued, “Our security spending won’t go down. It’s all about restoring confidence and security, I told you.”
“Yeah, restoring confidence and security while keeping your agency power untouched,” Charles thought, and then he replied.
“That’s why we are increasing the plan for the exoskeleton production for the Army and the various police corps, but this won’t be enough to compensate for..”
“Forget the exoskeletons, what about the flies?” Skip’s voice suddenly turned harsh, “We need lots of them. Hundreds of thousands. Maybe even millions.”
Charles paused in disbelief. BioGuard engineers had just completed the first production line, yet they were nowhere near that capacity. However, Charles thought, such sales would easily allow BioGuard to meet its revenue growth targets up until 2040.
“Skip, are you kidding me?” Charles tone was at the same time submissive and inquisitive, “It would take us three to five years to produce that amount. Up till now you have been buying a few hundred per year. And what for?”
“You have to fix that,” Skip was now definitely upset, “if you cannot do it alone, just ask the Israelis again. The reason is always the same, we have to defend our country from all threats, both external and, even more, internal. I will call you back in three weeks and I need to see a solid plan.” Skip hung up.
Charles looked at the clock, which showed 6:45 AM. His director of West Coast manufacturing was still asleep. Since he had no time to waste, he looked through his contact list and dialed the third, nameless, Tel Aviv mobile phone number.
The Boeing 777 of the Abu Dhabi Air Force taxied and eventually stopped in front of the Royal Terminal of King Salman Air Base in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. The attendees from the Emirates disembarked and quickly boarded the vans that took them to the Royal Saudi Air Force building where the meeting was to take place. As Tarek entered the room, he noticed all the other delegations from the Gulf Cooperation Council had already arrived and where seated around the huge table. He was with the United Arab Emirates Army Chief of Staff and the Ministry of Defense. The three of them were using the chairs reserved for each delegation. The rest of the team, around ten officers per country, was sitting behind the fronting trio.
Tarek exchanged greetings with the other delegates, whom he had known for several years and could therefore address on a first-name basis.
The room was buzzing with chatter, when the Saudi Crown Prince and Minister of Defense, Mohammed bin Salman, entered the room. A wave of silence swept over the room and everybody took their seats. Tarek could not help but notice that, despite being now almost fifty, he looked still very much like a man in his late thirties. He did not seem to have exaggerated too much with Telomerax.
The Crown Prince glanced at the thick, intricately decorated green curtains that blocked the windows, then nodded to his Chief of Staff, General Khalid Al-Azzam, to start his presentation.
There was a single point on the agenda, which was how to contain the Iranian threat when the US Navy would leave its base in Manama, Bahrain, in six months, at the end of June 2033.
The presentation lasted half an hour, and was followed by one from Qatar and Kuwait. Tarek noted that, among the various proposals, all speakers never forgot to blame the isolationist foreign policy of the new President. The unanimous judgment was that Strickland was downsizing all presence abroad too much to focus on the domestic issues. However, this left allies in the cold.
It was then the United Arab Emirates’ turn. To the surprise of the audience, it was Tarek and not the military who stood up and turned on his microphone.
“Dear Gentlemen,” he spoke softly, glancing towards the Crown Prince, “I do appreciate all the good analysis heard so far, nonetheless we have a somewhat different assessment of the threat. We believe the danger is coming from Pakistan and India, and I will show you why.”
He then showed a graph of social media patterns from the last several months on Indian and Pakistani websites. Anti-Arabic themes were constantly on the rise, sparked by immigrant labor exploitation episodes that were still too common. The problem was, many of the episodes were made up and most of them came from servers based in South Asia.
“You see, the hate machine has always been running for the last five years, but it became more aggravated after the Rome events. Then, we have a huge increase in spying activity,” he said, waving through the slide holograms with his hands. “The scheme is rather simple, and based on several low-skilled informants, like janitors or truck drivers. These people are equipped with inexpensive smartphones and cameras and simply take pictures of whatever they find around them. Last year, we uncovered a plot that was basically feeding the content of the rooms of the Abu Dhabi power utility company back to India. Because of this, similar activities were uncovered in Oman and Bahrain.” Tarek paused, sipped some water and continued, “Finally, we have the military intelligence. It also shows a change of pattern, with the Pakistanis slowly but consistently relocating troops from the Indian border to the Iranian one, in order to gain better control of the troublesome tribal areas of Waziristan. India, which is public domain keep in mind, has tripled her fleet over the last twelve years and can land two divisions on the Strait of Hormuz, with little opposition. This is all thanks to the fact that now the US Navy is reducing its Indian Ocean force to a couple of destroyers and repositioning them to Diego Garcia, in the southern part of the Indian Ocean.”
Tarek could hear the increasing volume of chatter, until the Crown Prince switched on his microphone, showing he wanted to speak. Everyone fell silent immediately. He then motioned to Nayef bin Bandar, the head of the Saudi secret service sitting next to him, who took the word,
“It is an interesting picture you are drawing, Mr. Tantawy,” Nayef said, “I wonder how much of it is true, and how much is a favor you are doing for your good friend Alireza, in Teheran.”
Tarek was expecting criticism, but this was very close to accusing him of being an outright Iran ally. He kept calm, let some time pass after the end of the sentence, and replied.
“You know that the information is accurate, it has been shared and validated by your teams at the working group level. We are ready to restart the process anyway, if this helps. As for our connection with Iran, we made no secret of it to hide from you. We are cooperating to help them against the Israeli biodrones program, that is, against a common, hostile enemy. If the information we are showing to you today is correct, it just means we will soon have a bigger, more dangerous, mutual enemy in the region.”
The Crown Prince turned his eyes toward his Chief of Staff, who promptly turned his microphone on.
“Assuming we buy this story, what exactly would you need us to do?”
This time it was up to the Arab Emirates Chief of Staff to answer. Tarek sat back.
“We need you to redeploy half of the Eastern Province forces from the Dammam area, where they are based right now, to the Qatar border. We are talking about seventy-five thousands troops, including the Saudi National Guard. This way, in case of invasion from the Arabic Sea, the force could be readily used to quickly fight any landing bridgehead. If we let Indians establish a solid presence on the Arabian Peninsula, we will be taken over.”
“This would, however, drastically undermine Saudi control over the Eastern region,” the Kuwaiti military delegate spoke without waiting for his colleague to finish his reasoning. “Not to mention to support their allies in the area.”
“That is,” Tarek thought, “you and the Bahrainis.” He looked to the Bahraini delegation, who were all nodding in agreement with the Kuwaitis. Tarek looked at his colleague, then took the word again.
“Dear colleagues, this is the bet we are making. We have to leave enough forces on the Eastern Province just to ensure protection of the oil wells infrastructure; momentarily withdrawing surveillance on some cities, to then be ready prevent a much worse risk.
“The fact is,” the Bahraini delegate intervened, “the risk already materialized on our side, way back in 1990 when Saddam invaded Kuwait, while this Indian invasion is included only in your slides.”
Tarek was getting impatient.
“Saddam is no longer there. This time, there will be no American cavalry coming to the rescue, like in 1990. That’s why we have to take a well thought out risk based on our strengths. Iraq no longer has the military capability to challenge us, and Iran will be busy with Pakistan.”
The delegations started to discuss between each other, so Tarek stood up and moved his eyes back to the Crown Prince Mohammed. He was the one to make the final decision. Mohammed gave Tarek a long look, then switched on his microphone. The chatter subsided, but Mohammed did not speak and turned to Nayef again.
“You seem to really believe in this scenario, Mr. Tantawy. Allow me to ask just one last question; is this the reason why you also send some of your weapons of mass destruction to the Iranians? Something your country always refused to do with us and any other one present at this table?”
The chatter erupted again, filling the vast room with noise. He was scrambling for an answer when the Crown Prince finally spoke, bringing the room back under control.
“The mission of the Saudi Defense Forces is to protect all Saudi people and support all their allies of the Gulf Cooperation Council. I believe that the current setup still fulfills this mandate in the best possible way, however, we will revise as needed. So far, I have not seen enough reasons to change anything.”
He then stood up, made a slight bow toward the audience, and walked away.
As he disappeared out of the doorway, Tarek thought to himself, “The only certain thing is that I won’t be attending the next meeting.”
Yaakov was driving north along the coast, to one of the secured houses used by the Mossad for highly reserved meetings.
He was surprised by the choice. Every time Eyal and he had to talk, they usually met in quiet coffee shops in downtown Tel Aviv.
To ease the tension, he turned the radio on and found a talk show hosting half a dozen politicians from the main parties. Just like in many other countries, they were arguing about the overhaul of the welfare system. As Telomerax usage was spreading among Israelis, the center-right Likud was calling for the State to reduce its commitment to pay pensions if people stayed young and fit longer. The left-side was arguing massively against the contribution system and calling just for a higher retirement age value, possibly around 120 years, while yet another politician from the religious right asserted that the real solution was banning Telomerax altogether, and let people die the old way.
Yaakov realized he had never asked Eyal if he had been taking the drug, even though this was no guarantee to stay forever the boss of the Mossad. He quickly got bored by the discussion topics, so he turned the radio off and started looking for a parking space.
When he entered the small studio in a beach condo, Eyal was sitting on the table, with his back turned toward the sea.
“How are you doing, my friend?” Yaakov started the conversation while shaking his hand, “I was a bit surprised by your request. Usually I am the one who asks for meetings, but it’s okay. I do have some interesting news.”
Eyal sat back and told Yaakov calmly,
“Well, then maybe we can start with your new bits of information. My stuff is not so urgent.”
“It’s from Dr. Picard, you know he recently moved to Sardinia, under the pretext he was no longer feeling safe in Brazil and needed to move away from big cities,” Yaakov said, slightly hurrying to get to the point.
“Are you sure he didn’t move to get out of our reach?” Eyal abruptly interrupted him, “We have less control there than we had back in Brazil. We had a deal, after all.”
Yaakov was surprised. They had already been discussing this for few months.
“Um, no, I told you already. He keeps talking to us and helping from time to time. Indeed, he’s just sent me the final findings about our biodrone and he wants to make sure we know, in case we have not yet realized it..”
“Ah, thanks for reminding me,” Eyal interrupted him again. “Incidentally the guy also has access to our electronic fly technology. Are you sure he is not giving his research away to other countries? Maybe hostile countries?”
Yaakov was becoming more and more puzzled.
“Well, since the time we started using the fly, more than fifteen years ago, you do not need Dr.Picard if you want to get your hands on them,” Yaakov spoke up, as if he started pleading his defense.
“You just need to be on good terms either with the Lebanese or Iran. You also told me we decided to share our know-how with the CIA, right before the Rome attacks.”
“You do not need to remind me, Yaakov. There were reasons behind the agreement with the CIA. We anticipated that the world was falling apart even before the death of the Pope, and so we struck a deal with them. By the way, we still do not know who really killed the Pope or why, since all the countless videos taken at the time have been altered. Anyway, what does Dr. Picard want us to know?”
“It’s very simple. He has studied how we use Telomerax to increase the fly’s natural lifespan, and he has told me our researchers have been doing a very good job. The flies are immortal. Have our team in the secret labs of Dimona realized this, Eyal? I never heard about this when I was involved in the program, but several years have gone by since then.”
Eyal did not answer and looked at Yaakov. He was clearly aging, albeit at a slower pace than one would have expected.
“I couldn’t tell you, even if I knew, so why are you asking? Anyway, thanks for the information”, Eyal said, swiftly grabbing the memory pill that Yaakov had put on the table. “You seem genuinely worried.”
“Louis was very convincing, I assure you,” Yaakov continued, “the problem is that the flies can transmit immortality to their offspring, if they mate. You can imagine the scenario. Infinite swarms of immortal flies.”
“Has Dr. Picard also calculated the chances that this happens? We have been using them in fairly limited numbers, I think they all die before being able to replicate meaningfully.”
“He did not give me precise data,” Yaakov replied, “a lot obviously depends on environmental conditions. He thinks however that we are talking about a critical mass of about a million biodrones. When I heard that, I felt relieved. We were nowhere close to those figures with our program.”
Eyal kept silent for a second too long, moving his eyes away from Yaakov and on to the memory pill.
“Eyal, are you planning to produce the biodrones on such a scale? Or is it just a move to create a deterrent beside nuclear weapons, given the turmoil that is happening in the Middle East again, with the new Iran-Pakistan crisis?”
Eyal could see that the fear of Yaakov was genuine, so he decided to get back to the reason of the meeting.
“Yaakov, I am the one asking questions here. It’s about Plan Lot. Have you ever talked or hinted about it to anyone outside of our circle? For some reason, the Russians know something about it. We have done all the checks, there has been no mole inside the Mossad nor in the Prime Minister office. You are one of the very few we could not fully verify. The only one, I would say.”
Yaakov looked surprised. Eyal wondered if his old friend was now simulating. No, he could not believe that Yaakov, one of the few to have full knowledge about the Plan, revealed it to the Russians or any other foreign power. But a leak, a momentary lapse, could not be ruled out.
“I never told anything to outside powers, not even when I was kidnapped by the drug cartels. I know how sensitive this information is.” Yaakov was now feeling resented.
“Are you absolutely sure? Maybe you just did not realize, while you were under drugs. Those gangsters have nothing to envy us, when it comes to making people talk..”
“Shit, Eyal, you know I went through all the drug checks when I was back in Israel. I was simply anesthetized. I told you all about it.” Yaakov suddenly remembered the remarks of Helena about the mysterious deaths in the US.
“Eyal, back to my topic, is anyone thinking about a large scale deployment of the biodrones? Maybe our friends in Langley?”
Eyal did not answer, looked at his smartwatch, and whispered “live news now” towards it.
The smartwatch found the first available newsfeed, it was the BBC World Service first afternoon edition, and then passed the information on to the TV set of the room. The skyline of Chicago appeared on the screen.
From behind the anchorwoman, it was possible to see fires rising from the area around McCormick Place, on the Southern lakeside.
Yaakov realized what was about to happen and asked Eyal, desperately hoping he denied it.
“Please tell me that the Americans are not going to use the flies to stop the revolution.”
“Unfortunately I cannot tell you anything, Yaakov. As we have no evidence, we won’t take any action against you. Yet we can no longer cooperate. I am very sorry.”
Eyal stood up and walked towards the door. Before opening it, he turned back to Yaakov.
“You can keep watching the news, if you want. Just close the door behind when you go. I must leave now.”
Captain Carl Levine of the Illinois National Guard was exhausted. He had been fighting with his company in South Chicago for more than three weeks, claiming block after block of the heavily armed Afro-American and Latino gangs who had started the revolution and wreaked havoc on half of the Chicago metropolitan area.
Being an African-American himself, he had led his men in the battle across the streets, seeing five of them die by machine guns or booby traps.
He was now resting on the half-burnt kitchen floor of the McDonald’s located in South Ashland Avenue, where his company had set up camp. The rebels were just seven hundred yards away. He turned towards Lieutenant Wade Dunn, his second in command, a young white man from Naperville, Illinois.
“Wade, is the brigade command going to send exoskeletons again? We cannot get past this street with losses, too many snipers.”
“I frankly hope they don’t, Carl,” Wade answered, “otherwise we have to go after them to cover their ass again.”
Carl nodded his head in agreement. The first attempts at using the weapons in the urban battlefield had been a disaster. The command had hoped that the armored exoskeletons, armed with heavy machine guns and grenade launchers, would get rid of the lightly armed rebels without too much collateral damage.
“Yeah, those assholes at headquarters did not realize they had so many infrared antitank grenades,” Carl recalled. “It was enough for the rebels to let them get past their first lines, and then shoot at the gas turbine exhaust to torch them all. The only option the poor guys in the exoskeleton had, was to fire on everything that moved, causing more damage than a Bradley tank.”
“How the hell did those guys have so much ammunition?” Wade wondered.
“Come on, man, don’t forget that starting two years ago, back in 2032, all the gangs were swimming in cash from the Telomerax illegal trade, and could afford to build small arsenals for their own turf wars. Then President Strickland did away with federal prohibition, and you know what happened. No more business, no more cash. Don’t you agree that we must find a way to use the weaponry to make ends meet?”
“Yeah,” Wade continued, “end of prohibition basically meant transfer of revenue and profits from gangsters to big pharma companies. The funny thing is, the cost to get Telomerax did not go down too much, even though it looks like it is quite cheap to manufacture.”
“Is it?” Carl asked, “Then how come the drug companies charge you nearly ten thousand dollars per year for the treatment? If I wanted to get it for my family, I would have to choose between this, sending my two daughters to college, or having better medical insurance, just in case anything happens.”
“No, I assure you that it’s affordable. Look at this,” Wade handed over to his tablet. It was playing a video shot from the campus of an Indian company. “The guy you see there is called Dinesh Kheradpir, he is the tycoon who made billions by manufacturing the drug in India.”
Carl watched the video. It was a plea to the governments and the pharmaceutical industry to make Telomerax affordable for all, and remove the market barriers that prevented prices to adjust on a global basis. It ended with a set of hyperlinks where it was possible to download all the pill manufacturing process.
“Wow, that looks awesome. Can you really set up your own lab?” Carl asked, “I must admit I got some pills for me and my wife when the drug was still illegal. It was enough to stop aging for about one year, that’s what my dealer told me. But if more people manufacture the pills, prices will drop.”
“Hold on,” Wade countered, “it’s not as simple as that. Legalized does not mean free, it means regulated. All those who can setup a Telomerax lab have done it, and then bumped into a number of bureaucratic obstacles that make production expensive. You have to feed the FDA, the lobbyists, scores of government agencies, and pay taxes on it. If you want to make it affordable for all, you have sell an illegal version. Some decided to do so and…”
“…and the illegal trade reappeared, this time mixed with other nasty drugs that give dependency…so that those who could afford the higher prices went to the legal market…and the illegal one lost its richest customers.”
“Exactly, I see you understand economics even if you are an engineer,” Wade grinned. “The result, well, it’s where we are right now; inner cities becoming poorer, riots and unbelievable levels of violence that we have to fix the hard way.”
Carl handed the tablet over to Wade, and took off his helmet. It was time for the daily video call home to Brenda, his wife.
“Ah, about this Dinesh guy…is he the one who invented the drug?” he asked Wade before calling.
“No, he is not. If you watch the whole video series, there is one episode where Dinesh credits a Frenchman with the invention. If I recall his name correctly, it is Louis Packard, or something like that. He is a very discreet guy, you do not find anything reliable about him on the Internet. It looks like he lives somewhere in Europe.”
Carl laughed, “I think the French guy is right to keep a low profile. If it were for me, I would prefer he had never invented this. I could have continued my engineering job at the truck factory, retire, and pass away when it was time.”
“Come on, Carl, I do not agree with you there,” Wade slowly shook his head, “you do realize we are getting immortality, don’t you?. It’s just that we have to learn how to use it, like we learned using planes and nuclear energy.”
“I hope you are right, Wade, I hope you are right,” Carl repeated. “For the time being we have to clean up the area with the least possible damage.”
Carl had barely finished speaking when he received a call from the regiment headquarters, five blocks away. He had to report for a special assignment, directly from Lieutenant Colonel Taylor Kaser, the unit commander. Carl confirmed and hung up. He did not like to withstand the dark humor of Taylor Kaser, a white veteran who never missed the opportunity of saying how much nastier and dangerous the Chicago blacks were than the fucking Arabs. Carl had recorded many of his officer’s racist speeches, hoping to send him to Court Martial once the revolt was over. He calculated that the Army and the National Guard needed another two weeks to eventually clear the the last hold out of the gangs, a square mile located between West Garfield Boulevard, Marquette Road and I-90.
He stood up, handed command over to Wade, then hesitated.
“Wade, one last thing,” Carl said slowly.
“In case anything bad happens to me, just make sure my family gets my last words. I keep a diary on a memory micro-pill recorder, it’s disguised here in the necklace I wear. Just make sure they receive it.”
Lieutenant Wade hesitated, then saluted his commander.
“Sure, Carl. I am sure you will be back safely, though.”
At the regiment headquarters, located in an abandoned car dealer at the intersection between South Ashland Avenue and West 72nd street, Carl was welcomed by a cheering Kaser. He was with two other officers Carl had never seen.
“Carl,” Taylor shouted at him, “you are now in charge of the E Company. You have to setup three mortar positions by tomorrow, right at edge of Marquette Road, and prepare for the bombing.”
“Yes, Sir,” Carl responded, hesitating a bit. Taylor noticed it and immediately shouted.
“Any problem, Captain? Was I not clear enough?”
“No, Sir, I just thought the last orders called for no shell usage to minimize civilian casualties?”
“You don’t have to think, you just have to obey. There’s been a change in plans, we are going to shell those black assholes with some kind of surprise.”
He then looked at the two officers on his right, and then back to Carl.
“These two gentlemen will come with you, they are in charge of the ammunitions and will supervise the whole operation. Just make sure the mortars are in place by 6 AM. You will do whatever they tell you and protect the whole operation. We plan to shell the area for about two hours.”
Taylor did not bother to introduce to Carl the two servicemen, because their uniform bore their two names and grade. It was just missing the unit badge. Carl reluctantly shook hands with them, then said.
“Captain Smith, Captain Johnson, welcome to the Illinois 33rd Infantry Brigade. I suggest we spend the night here, there are still some snipers outside. Where is the ammunition?”
The two officers hinted to three Bradleys parked on the other side of the road.
“Good,” Carl said with some relief, “at least we won’t have to move the shells by hand. And we can give the troops a good six-hour sleep before we move into position.” The two officers saluted and went back to the vehicles.
At five o’clock in the morning, Carl started moving the company into position. It was late April, so the sun would not appear till 5.43 AM. At five-thirty, the mortars were in place and the vehicles arrived. A small group of six privates started unloading the shell cases, under the supervision of Captains Johnson and Smith.
Carl noticed that the servicemen also had no shoulder sleeve insignia and asked if they belonged to some special corps of the Second Infantry Division, which was leading the operations with the National Guard but all he got was a brisk order from Captain Johnson not to disturb operations and secure the perimeter. Carl was about to protest, but then he thought about Taylor Kaser’s reaction and just replied, “Yes, Sir”.
At precisely 6 AM, in the early morning light, the team started shelling the area held by the rebels. The shells just looked like conventional high explosive ammunition, except for the color…and also how he did not hear any loud explosions.
“Is this stuff working, Sir?” he asked Captain Smith, again without getting an answer, “We already fired more than fifty rounds and I haven’t heard any explosions.” Captain Smith kept ignoring him, so Carl slowly approached one of the shell boxes to take a closer look. That’s when he saw, stamped in white color on each warhead, the biohazard warning sign.
He rushed back to Captain Smith,
“What the fuck are you firing? There is also my brother trapped in that neighborhood!”
Captain Smith lost patience, extracted his gun and pointed it at Carl.
“Listen, you bloody negro. We have to regain control of this city, one way or another. This is going to do the job, without much collateral damage. Now you make your choice, either you shut up and follow orders, or I send you to jail, where all the bastards like you belong. Had it depended on me, I would have used napalm right away, but the big brass down in Washington have way too much compassion for you black shit. Is that clear?”
Carl controlled his rage and spoke calmly.
“Crystal clear, negro?”
“Crystal clear, Sir.”
Captain Smith put his gun back into the holster.
“Alright, let’s fire the last shells and call the air cavalry for the finishing touch.”
As soon as the firing stopped, the unmarked team boarded the Bradleys and left. Carl was still reorganizing his company when he heard the helicopters arriving. They flew over the neighborhood, spraying some gas. Carl and his team scrambled to wear the masks, then he realized that the gas smelled just like common pesticide. What the hell was going on? Then, on his tactical goggles, he saw an incoming call from Taylor and answered.
“Carl, has the special artillery company left?”
“Yes, Sir, about fifteen minutes ago.”
“Alright, then proceed into the enemy area as soon as the spray has settled. We should no longer have problems from the bad guys, and we need to help the survivors.”
“The survivors, Sir?”
“It should be mostly children. Hurry up, they will be scared.”
Carl looked at the insecticide cloud, it would take at least another five minutes to disperse. His company was prepared to move in. There was enough time to upload the recording of the conversation with Captain Smith on his personal webserver.
Carl eventually ordered his company to go north along South Ashland Road towards Garfield Boulevard. It was usually under sniper fire, so his men proceeded carefully, ducking behind cars. Nobody started shooting at them like before, though. They were still in no man’s land when they spotted the first bodies laying on the street walk. No apparent wounds could be seen. Just before the crossing with West 57th Street, one of his men remarked the eerie silence that was surrounding them.
“It’s as if they all disappeared, Captain.”
All of a sudden, one door broke open, just behind them. The two men at the back of the patrol turned instantly, pointing their attack rifles. There were two boys, no more than ten years old, who froze at the sight of the weapons. Luckily, the soldiers did not fire automatically, and one of them approached the kids.
“What are you doing here? Stay home, it’s dangerous outside, you know.”
“They are all dead inside,” the smaller boy replied, trying to hold tears, “mom and her man, they are all dead.”
Carl thought about what to do, and asked the boys.
“All dead? Are you sure, boy? We are not following you into a trap. What is your name? I am Carl.”
The boy broke into tears.
“I am Dee Dee Robinson. The boyfriend of mom was at the window with the rifle. Then something happened, they all fell. Also mom fell. Please help us!”
Carl exchanged glances with his second in command. He left him on guard with two other men on the doorstep, and followed the boys into the house. Nobody was on the stairs. The boys took them to the upper floor, cutting through the dirt that had accumulated during the siege. They eventually entered the apartment, where the two bodies laid exactly as the boy had described, again without any wounds. Carl examined the scene, then asked the boy.
“Dee Dee, were there other people in the house? Or they all left before the siege began?”
“There were other people on the ground floor, some armed. I can take you there, Carl.”
There was no need. From the ground floor, the patrol was beaming to Carl the video showing six dead bodies laying on the ground. Carl was still figuring out what type of weapon could have caused this mess, when he saw the call from Corporal Ibanez, who had stayed on guard at the entrance.
“Captain, please come down. There is something you should see.”
Carl rushed down the stairs and outside. Groups of children were slowly starting to come out of the buildings and fill the street. The older siblings held their younger siblings’ hand, while some others struggled to move toddlers along with them. Some were crying, all of them just looked displaced. For some reason, they kept a distance from Carl’s company.
Then, on the corner of West 56th street, barking dogs caught the Captain’s attention. Carl immediately braced his rifle and aimed in that direction. There were two pitbulls, probably the dogs of a pusher, who were cornering a group of four children. He shot the dogs.
Silence followed, then the kids started crowding around Carl. He turned the emergency channel on and called Taylor at the regiment headquarters.
“This is E Company here, Sir. Please send all the relief vehicles, there are no apparent threats any more. It just looks like we have one huge orphanage on our hands.”
“All right, Carl,” Taylor replied on the other end, “it looks the area is now secure. We are sending relief troops right away.”
Taylor had just hung up, when an unmarked helicopter flew in. Carl thought it was part of the relief column, but it kept hovering above them and let a few plastic spheres drop over them, which bursted open in midair, releasing a small cloud of flies.
The children still their noses up towards the helicopter, when they realized all the men of the E company start to fall to the ground, just like had happened to their parents and elder brothers before. They instinctively pressed against each other, fearing dogs would pop up again, when they saw a line of Humvees rush towards them along South Ashland Avenue. The first vehicle screeched to a halt before the body of Captain Carl Levine, of the 33rd Infantry Brigade, Illinois National Guard. A man got out and went to try to revive him, in vain. Then, the driver from inside the Humvee shouted at him.
“Lieutenant Dunn, it’s the regiment command. We do not have to touch the bodies. They are sending Medevac right away to clean the area.”
“Yes, Sergeant,” Wade Dunn replied, controlling his tears, “they should have told us before. I just wanted to say goodbye to my old commander and friend.”
The evening sea breeze was blowing over the Mediterranean bush, carrying the intense scent of mirth and thyme over to the terrace of the ‘Chia Laguna’ resort, on the south coast of Sardinia, where Louis was hosting the reception for his 100th birthday, on July 27th, 2034.
Despite the relatively low number of invitees, he had been forced to reserve all the 125 hotel rooms to make sure he could accommodate all the bodyguards. Dora and he had managed to organize everything, and he was now enjoying a glass of Vermentino, the local dry white wine, while the terrace was being prepared for the arrival of the birthday cake.
He could not help notice the charming smile of Aurora, who was catalyzing the attention of all young men. Or at least, those who still pretended to be young men, as he knew that many of them were well past their forties but still possessed their boyish looks thanks to Telomerax. Louis stared again at Aurora, she looked very much like Helena. He asked himself if there was something about her that reminded him of George, but he could not find anything. Maybe that was because the memories of George had started fading in his mind. For some reason, the pill did not help here. He took another sip of wine, as he stared at the sea against the blue sky and then turned towards the balcony gardens. He exchanged glances with Tarek, who was talking to Dorian, with cocktails in their hands. As soon as Tarek realized Louis was alone, he approached him.
“Louis, why didn’t you tell me that Dorian had just finished his bachelor’s degree in Physics at Cambridge? He is not even eighteen!”
“Well, I kind of took it for granted. After so many years you get used to the fact that your kid is a fast learner,” Louis could not conceal his pride. “Even with his, um, genomic boost, I was really surprised by his performance. He’s a real ‘enfant prodige’, much more than I was.”
Dorian in the meantime had joined the group that was orbiting around Aurora, but he always kept an eye on Tarek and Louis.
“Does he plan to continue studying at Cambridge?” Tarek asked.
“You should ask him,” Louis replied, “I guess so. He was thinking about going to MIT, but the recent developments make it too dangerous. For a start, Massachusetts and nearby states self-proclaimed the Northeastern Federation and declared secession from the United States, enacting the results of the referendums. I would not like to have him in the middle of another Chicago. You know we do not have that many friends in the US, or what is left of them.”
“How about sending him to Alexandria, Egypt? I might have a job for him.” Tarek enquired nonchalantly.
Louis was quick to grasp. “Do you need some help with the new supercomputing facility that the Egyptian government is building? I wonder what part you had in all of this.”
“The one I have always had, Louis,” Tarek answered with a broad smile, “I am just helping to broker deals. After I left my former employer in the Gulf, and I would like to underline it was a peaceful separation, my old home country found she might use my services and connections. I can tell you, the beaches nearby Alexandria have nothing to envy compared to the place here. And the confusion and chaos of Cairo is hundreds of kilometers away.”
“Well, Tarek, I am quite happy with your move,” Louis replied, “I think it is the first time you are not in the middle of some arms trade, isn’t it?”
“Well, not directly. I was hired to foster the cooperation with Iran, quite a lot of engineers and scientists in Alexandria are coming from there, along with many Europeans. On paper, the supercomputing center is meant to work on advanced oil research, agricultural bioengineering and the impact of the new solar program on the climate. In reality, there will be other shadow programs running in the background, mostly military ones. The recent tensions with Pakistan have eventually persuaded the Iranians to offshore part of their program to make sure it survives in case things worsen. But I can assure you, Dorian won’t be involved with this.”
“I see how you nicely fit into the picture, now,” Louis said, “I still need access to these resources. I am still developing the research we obtained with the secretive help of the Iranians. I am afraid that the effects of Telomerax are going beyond this already scary story of the immortal fly. It looks like….it is contagious.”
“Contagious?” Tarek mumbled, then his eyes flashed, “You mean that if any living thing is exposed to it in the long term it might develop immortality?”
“In short, yes,” Louis replied, “Obviously conditions vary significantly, and exposure has to be long enough, sometimes so long that it does not have much of an effect. But in principle, it looks like any DNA has some way to incorporate the fix and achieve immortality….so far all the research I did is about animals exposed directly to the drug. I still have plenty of things to verify about microorganisms and indirect exposure, like the food chain for example and..” Louis’ voice subsumed, as he noticed Dorian leaving the group around Aurora and moving towards them.
“Dad,” he said, visibly upset and ignoring Tarek, “Can you tell me why on Earth you allowed mom to invite Cardinal Colonna? I know she has been in a religious crisis recently, but she could have avoided it! And the guy seems to enjoy the party, he does not want to go away!”
“I made the decision to invite him, Dorian, because I like the guy, the way he is trying to manage the challenge that we gave the Church and all other religions…what’s wrong with you? He’s not preaching to us. On the contrary, it looks like he’s having very good conversations with mom and Helena. By the way, the day the pictures of him at my birthday party will leak out to the media, and rest assured he will face trouble with his right-wing Catholics.”
“Well, they are right because he simply does not fit here,” Dorian insisted, raising his tone and attracting the attention of Dora and Helena, “you simply defeated death forever, the key propaganda argument of religion, and you should be wary of him and all others like him. They are just looking for your, actually our, weak spot to attack.” Dora joined the group, looking at Dorian with a mix of rage and compassion.
“Dorian, do you really think so? You think I lost my mind and I am looking for easy answers? Never mind, my boy, we will talk again in eighty years, hopefully your mind will have changed.”
“Hopefully?” Dorian looked at Tarek, who tried to hide behind his two cocktails, “Gosh, you heard her Tarek? She is filthy rich, looks glamorously thirty at age eighty-one, and wastes her time giving me moral lessons, probably taken from a sneaky Cardinal. I am fed up! I can’t wait to join you in Alexandria, Tarek, and leave this place full of hypocrites.”
Dorian pounded his fist on the glass on the table and headed straight to the patio exit on the beach side. Dora silently started to cry, trying to keep a straight face. Tarek tried to stammer something about how Telomerax had not quite changed much in the way boys were coming of age, and slowly moved away from Dora and Louis, towards the cake that had just been moved in by the waiters. He stopped at the edge of the swimming pool, where he was joined by Helena and Guillermo. Tan and fit, the couple looked awesome, just like the friends of their daughter.
“It was an animated exchange, was it?” Helena asked Tarek. Then she continued without waiting for an answer, “I will tell Dora not to worry too much. We’ve been through that with Aurora as well and now it’s much better. It’s just the process of growing up.”
“I don’t think it’s so simple,” Tarek said, “Dorian has just realized that for good or worse, his parents will always be there to judge him, and Louis and Dora have yet another never ending challenge in front of them, called Dorian.”
“Um, I hope we made the right decision then, Helena,” Guillermo said, looking at his wife’s womb.
“Hold on, guys, you mean that..” Tarek started.
“Yes, Tarek,” Helena concluded,”Guillermo and I thought it was time to give Aurora a brother. Not an easy decision with what is going on in the world today, but Guillermo deserved his first son after being a fantastic stepfather for Aurora. Just don’t tell Dora and Louis yet, I do not want to overload them with emotions tonight.”
The cake was ready, the small crowd of guests gathered around Louis. Dora stood next to him, her eyes still glistening with tears. Tarek, Helena and Guillermo joined them. Louis took the bottle of champagne in his hands. He was supposed to make a small speech, but all he said before opening the bottle was. “I thank you all for coming and hope to see you here again! Thank you!” He then quickly uncorked the champagne, so quickly that the small group that was playing in the background went out of sync and began playing “Happy Birthday” after a few seconds of delay.
Tarek pondered the news of the new pregnancy of Helena once again and looked at his beloved wife. He wondered if it made sense to have a new child, at the age of eighty-six, perhaps he had better discuss it with some Imam he trusted, just like Dora does with her friend the Cardinal. As he handed over his glass to get some more champagne and toast Louis, he realized that Valerio had not made it. Tarek let the sorrow and melancholy spread through his soul for a second, then pointed his eyes and glass to the sky and murmured,
“Happy birthday to you too, Valerio, wherever you may be now.”
Manish Naipaul had three hours left to complete his flight controller shift at the Dubai World Central Airport, when he got the call from the Air India flight from Mumbai. The superjumbo asked for clearance to begin the final approach, which Manish promptly granted. It was followed by three other Indian flights, so Manish ordered them to land in parallel, on the runways of the airport’s west side.
He was watching the flight routes on the screen, and preparing to manage the incoming wave of Emirates flights from Europe, when his supervisor, an Australian named Ian McDermott, dropped by the control room.
“Hi Manish, how come we have all the Indian flights landing at once today? And why did you put them all on the west side runways?”
“It’s the usual late departures, Sir, you know how my country works, or doesn’t work, actually,” Manish shyly replied, “usually they end up mixing with the Emirates flights from Europe, but today for some reason they arrived more or less at the same time. That’s why I decided to pack them all on the terminal’s west side, to minimize the interference with the European flow.”
The supervisor thought the approach chosen by Manish made sense.
“Alright, then land them quickly. I do not want to interfere with Indian delays the operations of Emirates.”
Ian then turned to the TV screen, which was showing the Al Jazeera, English edition. It was a talk show where one of the guests, a leading Shia priest from Iran, was triumphantly mentioning the news of the US secession referendum results.
“This is the manifest power of God, that finally managed to break the Great Satan from within,” Ian heard him saying while he was checking the planes taxying on the runways, “this impious nation, that inflicted suffering and grief on millions of Muslims, eventually succumbed to the will of the Almighty, and..”
Ian was considering to tweet his irritation to the Al Jazeera account, when he saw a flash coming from the starboard side of the Indian superjumbo, which had just docked to the West terminal concourse. An explosion immediately followed on the airplane parked next to it, a Lufthansa 747. He rushed for the surveillance camera control center, and saw that scores of armed personnel were unloading from the cargo bays of the Indian jumbos.
“What the hell..Manish, quick, call security…”
He was about to hit the emergency icon on the touchscreen, when somebody from behind grabbed his right arm, pulled it back until it cracked and left him in excruciating pain on the floor.
“We will not do anything of the sort, Sir,” Manish quietly answered from behind, “We have to secure the landing of the rest of the brigade.”
Ian was still figuring out what was going on when he saw the four other South Asian flight controllers attack the rest of the landing crew, and mercilessly kill them all with their bare hands. He looked again at Manish, who preceded his question.
“I have spared your life for two reasons. First, if anyone calls the flight control center, you have to confirm everything is all right. Second, I’ve really appreciated the way you have treated me in the past five years, unlike many others who treat me like dirt.”
“Five years,” Ian said, “Manish, you mean you have been planning this for…”
“For a long time. You can call me with my real name now, that is Narendra Patel. I am an officer of the Indian special forces, and like the rest of the team here we have been under cover for several years. Do not worry too much about your arm, it is barely broken. We will treat you as soon as we complete the occupation of the airport. If you cooperate, of course. In the meantime, you have to make do with this.”
The Indian officer recomposed the fracture, sending another wave of pain through Ian’s body.
“Manish, um, Narendra,” Ian said when he recovered, “How can you think you will get away with this? The Emirati Armed Forces will wipe you out. “
“I beg to disagree, Ian. Look at what’s going on.”
Narendra turned to the television screen. The Iranian priest was pointing his finger to the sky, taking a deep breath before beginning his next sentence, when the talk show was interrupted by the ‘Breaking News’ headline.
Pakistan was reported to have launched a ground offensive on Iran, pointing to the city of Bandar Abbas, on the Strait of Hormuz. Violent fighting was reported in the Fujairah harbor area, on the Arabic Sea, where Indian cargoes used to moor. In other key places, like Dubai and Abu Dhabi airports, the situation still seemed calm, with flights taking place regularly.
Narendra chuckled, “Seemingly, our cyberattack team has managed to stop all the video uploads from here,”
Ian looked at the charts and maps that were proliferating on the screens.
“You are choking the world’s oil supply….”
“Well, yes and no,” Narendra said. “To be more precise, we are redirecting it to make sure South Asia gets a fair share to secure our future. We are indeed choking some other things, in the meantime.”
Narendra handed over to Ian his smartphone, that was tuned into a Saudi radio news feed. The translation software managed to convey all the anxiety of the speaker, who was urging the population of Dammam and Riyadh not to panic. The authorities had identified the problems that had knocked down the water and electric grid, and the supply of fresh water would be quickly re-established in a matter of hours.
Narendra smiled at Ian: “I do not know how you guys think Down Under, but in India we would not believe this kind of press.”
Ian could not help showing his disgust, “You are cutting off the power supply of Riyadh and Dammam? We’re right in the middle of August, you are leaving millions under scorching heat…it will create panic,”
“Yes, that’s exactly what we want to do. The government will have to make a priority call between trying to re-establish order and taking care of their thirsty population or rather, focusing on countering the military threat. In any case, people are already choking the roads to try to escape the trap..”
Narendra swiped on one of the screens, tuning to the Riyadh traffic webcam system. Highways were already packed with vehicles, all trying to flee the city towards Jeddah and the Red Sea. Fires could be seen throughout the horizon. Narendra continued to comment on the images, without waiting for Ian’s questions.
“Those fires are either the result of panic, or targeted sabotage actions that our attack teams are now carrying out to increase havoc and prevent security forces to gain back control. We have infiltrated about a thousand highly specialized commandos in the last five years. They entered the country mostly as legal immigrants. Some of them have been detected and, um, terminated by the Saudi services. But many more have survived and are now carrying out their mission. In some cases the mission is as simple as setting gas stations on fire. In other cases, they are ordered to attack the police to get weapons and set up armed urban guerilla forces. I also heard that a few teams have been able to build their own weapons via 3D printing.”
Not hearing any response from Ian, Narendra turned in his direction. His prisoner was lying asleep on the ground, overwhelmed by the pain and the tension. Narendra moved him gently aside the computer desk, so that his team members in the control tower might not stumble over him, and then he focused on directing flight operations.
When Ian woke up, the daylight was flooding into the tower. He looked at his watch. It was 3 PM, meaning he had slept for more than ten hours. His right arm was still hurting, but he noticed that he had been given a cast and tied to one of the chairs. He looked around and saw there were many more people in the room now, all of whom wore uniforms. All the bodies of the rest of the staff had been moved away.
It took him a few minutes to recognize Narendra, who was now wearing a combat uniform and looked visibly worried. As soon as the Indian officer realized that Ian was awake, he moved towards him.
“Hi Ian, hope you are doing well. This is the best we could do for you for now,” Narendra said, nodding to Ian’s arm, “however, in the next few days we will put you on a flight to India. From there you will be able to get back to Australia, hopefully.”
“Yeah, hopefully. I guess there will hundreds of thousands of expats who want to get back home, away from the war zone,” Ian whispered, wondering if he would even have a chance to get back to his apartments to pack his stuff. It wasn’t bad enough already, he imagined what it would be like if he had a family to care for. “How is your war going?”
“Worse than expected, as all wars go,” Narendra said, calmly, handing over a tablet to Ian, who grabbed it with his left arm, and looked at the device. The browser was open on the site of Al Arabiya, which was reporting on the massive wave of refugees fleeing from Riyadh and Dammam. There was a picture of tens of thousands of cars jammed along the highways. Ian then moved his eyes to the “Most Viewed” sidebar in the upper right corner, and froze. The preview icons that appeared all showed the unmistakable shape of nuclear explosions. He moved to the page, and started reading the news, it had happened both in Iran and Al Ain, not far from Dubai. He had barely read through the first paragraph lines when Narendra spoke.
“This was not our intention from the beginning; we were forced into it,” he said, almost apologetically, “our plan called for the use of nuclear weapons only in case the enemy had resorted to the usage of chemical weapons, which we thought they would not do. We were wrong.”
“Fuck, what did you expect, Manish, um, sorry, Narendra?” Ian said slowly, appalled, “You expected they would hand their country over to you without putting up a fight?”
“We do not want their country, just control over oil assets. After all, it’s what it was like with the United States for the past one-hundred years. We were aware of the dangers of escalation, it just happened much faster than expected, so now we have to bring in more troops, as the first wave has suffered heavy losses.”
Ian kept reading through the news reports. Both BBC and Deutsche Welle were estimating at least several hundred thousand casualties on both fronts, with numbers going to rise due to the nuclear fallout. The only good news was, that no major city had been targeted yet, the weapons of mass destruction had been used just on the battlefront.
“Narendra, do you plan to use the bomb also on main cities? Won’t it escalate further?”
“I do not know, Ian,” Narendra replied, “one thing is sure, we cannot give up.”
A soldier joined them, he saluted Narendra and then stood at attention, a few feet away from Ian. The officer looked at the private and nodded. It was time to go, so he spoke to Ian for the last time.
“We will now send you to a camp about twenty miles from here. It is in Sharjah, where we are concentrating all expats. In due time you will be moved to India, then from there, to your home country. It will take a while, as you can imagine. Thanks for all the years we worked together, you have been a good boss.” Narendra extended his arm to shake Ian’s left hand. The Australian slowly shook his hand, and whispered,
“Thanks to you for sparing my life, Narendra. Good luck, we both need a lot of it.”
He then looked at the soldier, who handcuffed him and walked him through the exit.
Pierre Nivelle looked at the heaps of wheat he had harvested since the early morning.
The new shell of the semi-automatic lawnmower was simply fantastic. It cut the physical labor by a factor of ten. A team of five people could match the yield of a traditional thresher, using just ten percent of the fuel. The clock on the reality-augmentation glasses of the exoskeleton showed it was six o’clock of July 13th, 2039. It was time to rush home to prepare for the celebration of the 250 years of the French Revolution. But he had to wait for the cart to come to collect the harvest.
He looked around and zoomed on the country road that led to the village of Malves in Minervois, located in Southern France. He spotted a cart, pulled by two oxen, which was slowly approaching. With a blink of his eyes, he zoomed further. It was driven by Robert Galliot, the guy who had just arrived from Paris with his partner and two kids the week before. The lawnmower’s shell had a tracking system that estimated Robert would reach him in fifteen minutes. Pierre made a quick calculation. It would take him another hour to load the cart and then he would be back home in Malves at about half past seven. He sent a text to his wife and lighted a cigarette.
When the cart arrived, Pierre greeted the newcomer by waving the carbon fiber mower blade and saying a loud “Bonsoir, Robert!”. The newcomer stopped the cart, a bit surprised, and Pierre realized that his new village neighbor still had to get used to his new farm life.
“Ah, pardonnez-moi, I forgot that it looks weird to new settlers, but you will get used to it, just like I did.” Pierre said, starting to shovel the wheat on the cart. He didn’t need to shout, as Robert was wearing a helmet with remote audio connection.
“How long have you been living here? Or rather, how long did it take you to adapt to your new life?” Robert asked, “I am a bit shocked by the new rhythm, if I have to tell you.”
“It all depends on your previous life,” Pierre replied, “What was your old job?”
“I used to manage a small fitness club in Vélizy, in the outskirts of Paris,” Robert replied, “after the war broke out, back in 2034, I lost all customers in less than two years. They all used to work in the nearby offices, and most of them lost their jobs in just a few months. I then joined a private security company. You know, life in Paris became more and more dangerous with all the revolts due to unemployment and racial riots, but I lost this job too, since people started to flee the cities and went back to the countryside, where instead labor was in high demand to replace machines that farmers could no longer operate due to the high cost of fuel.
I tried to keep up with temporary jobs, but when I could no longer afford the price of food and heating, I decided to move. I found an opening here, and joined the farm of M. de Maindreville, who seems to be the big owner around here. At least we get food and some medical care.”
Pierre let Robert finish his story, he did not find the resentment he had felt when he had left Lyon three years before. “I think you’re on the right path. I can tell you, for clerks, especially high level white-collars like myself, it’s much harder. At least you were already used to an outdoor, physical job. You just have to get used to the bio-gas plant smell,” he chuckled.
“What was your job, if I may ask?” Robert replied promptly, keeping an eye on the right ox, who seemed to be growing more impatient as it was under the attack of a swarm of horseflies.
“I was the retail marketing director at a company specialized in children food. I lost my job in the second wave of mass cuts, back in 2036. It was not easy to adapt to the new life, no more fuel-intensive lifestyle with business trips and working in air-conditioned offices all year round. I kind of enjoy it now, but many couldn’t handle it and eventually went back to the cities, where they typically drag themselves around, just barely surviving off of government subsidies and borderline jobs, till they either become criminals or enroll in the military. I think you will do better to stay put.”
“How is the winter here?” Robert started to like his new neighbor, “I heard that that is the toughest part, but here in the South it should be easier to stand.”
“The problem with the cold is its side effects. You tend to fall ill often, especially the elder and kids. True, you get free antibiotics anytime you need them, but I have the feeling this is not really helping. If you spend a few minutes browsing on the site of the Ministry of Health, you see that deaths keep rising. Last year, around three-hundred thousand people died in France alone of some kind of flu, and more than one million in the rest of Europe. We are just making the bacteria stronger every time.”
“Putain, c’est vrai,” Robert replied, “that’s why the better off from North Europe are flocking to the South.”
“Ah, sure,” Pierre continued, “In Tresbes, the village next to ours, there is a small Dutch colony that settled there in 2037. They bought out at high price a few abandoned houses and restructured them. They are all in the mid-forties, I think they are actually older, it’s just Telomerax that’s keeping them alive. They are good guys, unlike the Russian rich who camp out at Carcassonne, and drink vodka all day. I went there last week and…” Pierre voice lowered, he realized that Robert was no longer listening to him and was busy looking at Pierre’s shell. His eyes seemed to be admiring it so Pierre decided to point it out.
“If you are wondering if this is mine, it isn’t. It belongs to Mr. de Maindreville, just like anything around Malves en Minervois. It would take three full years of my salary to buy one. But since I have never created problems here at the farm, I was promoted to field team leader and got the opportunity to use one of the five the boss has bought. They build them in Toulouse, eighty miles away from here, in the old Airbus aerospace industries. The demand for jetliners suddenly disappeared, so they reconverted their carbon-fiber structure production lines for agricultural machinery….and armored variants for the front, of course.”
“I know,” Robert replied, “Those bastards are making even more money now than when they sold planes. I learned that all their managers can still afford cars. I tried to get hired in the security, but nope….”
“Don’t take it too badly. After all, you can enjoy the Southern summer sunshine just like they do and..”
Pierre was about to finish his sentence, when the right ox whipped his tail around, attempting to get rid of the horseflies. It missed the target, and hit Robert in the face, after he had inadvertently come too close to the animal. He almost fell from the cart, but Pierre was quick enough to catch him from falling.
“Putain, fucking cow! I hate this!” Robert was screaming, trying to hit back at the ox. Pierre tried to calm him down.
“Ok, no worries, you have no serious injury. It could’ve costed you an eye, now sit back. The cart is full, go take it back to your farm. In a few weeks you feel at home, believe me.”
Robert let a few minutes pass, then he rolled his head to relax himself, “I am not sure I will ever get used to this, there must be another alternative….”
Pierre had seen this before. It was the refusal to have one’s lifestyle moved back two hundred years, what the scholars – those who had managed to cling to the very few sociology professions left – called the ‘connected feudalism’.
“Look, Robert, let me be very clear with you,” Pierre said, removing the shell from the lawnmower and sitting on the cart next to Robert. “You have only three options. Either you adapt here, or you move back to the urban shit you have just left. Or you could always go to the Volunteer Enrollment Center in Carcassonne. You know what the odds are there.”
“I heard that the survival rate at the front is somehow better than the seventy-percent they advertise,” Robert continued immediately, “It might be as high as eighty-percent. That means you have four chances out of five of making it back home after one year on the front. And then, you have the right to the equivalent of five years of fuel consumption. It means you can have your house heated and drive your car whenever you want for five years. Plus free Telomerax, and guaranteed government jobs; for you and your family. Even if you die, your family gets half of the benefits.”
Pierre realized Robert had made his decision, even though he did not want to confess it to himself yet. There was no use to tell him to go watch all the war videos available.
“Ok, Robert, listen, just do me one favor. Please enroll after the harvest, in September. If you do so, I will write a good report for you, so your chances of ending up in a better sector of the front may increase. Now let’s take the cart back to the granary. I am already late for dinner and tomorrow we have to celebrate Revolution Day at the Castle square.”
Robert burst into laughter.
“You mean, we will celebrate July 14th in front of the house of M. de Maindreville?”
“Well, yes, the Castle used to belong to the municipality, but about one year ago M. de Maindreville made an offer the mayor could not refuse, if he wants to fix the public finances. The Castle now belongs to M. de Maindreville, however he is very conscious of his community duties. He has pledged to keep the local public Internet room working on half of the ground floor, and keep it heated in winter at his own expenses.”
“I see,” Robert grinned. “We are going to celebrate the Revolution in the courtyard of our new local lord.”
Charles entered his holoconference room a few minutes before the beginning of the virtual press conference of President Ken La Hood, a Republican from Texas with Chinese ancestors. He walked around the audience avatars until he found Skip, who was talking to another person. The holoconference software labelled everyone and it showed that he was the Chief Executive of Boeing, but he did not pay any attention to Charles. Skip politely closed the conversation and turned to Charles,
“Don’t be surprised, it’s not rudeness, he just cannot see you. The code I gave you allows you to see and hear everybody but I am the only one who can see and talk to you.”
“Are you afraid I might ask our new President tough questions?” Charles asked, amused.
“Well, journalists are enough for that,” Skip smiled back, “They do not see me either, I am here to brief the President in real time, in case things get too sour. So I decided to use the same trick and invite some good friends.”
“Is this taking place in the White House, Skip?” Charles asked.
“Are you nuts? With all the guerilla taking place in D.C. and Virginia? That’s the front line. No, the President can be anywhere, in the Cheyenne Mountain National Command or flying over Kansas on Air Force One, for that matter. Luckily, Internet infrastructure is withstanding the damage of the war. Ok, take your virtual seat now, it’s starting.”
The 3D image of Ken La Hood took the podium. The first question came from Ashton Webb, of the Los Angeles Herald.
“Mr. President, will you take a more assertive position against Mexico? There is ample evidence that the Mexican government is actively supporting all the warlords that have set up micro-states, from Southern California to the Houston area.”
“I can tell you, Mr. Webb, that I have ordered the Pentagon to regain full control of the southern border, by all means possible. Should Mexico continue in its ambiguous policy, they will be facing all the consequences.”
“Will this iron fist policy also be applied to other secessionist states? Do you plan to send exoskeleton brigades and fly storms also to the Pacific Northwest and in the Southeast? Do you think Congress will approve of that?” The question came from the Washington Post representative.
“My goal is to ensure that, at the end of my mandate in 2044, the United States is again a single country, able to lead the world out of the hole where we’ve dug ourselves up in the last few years. It’s clear we have to adapt our means to each and every circumstance, and you cannot deal with the Northwest Confederation like you can with Florida or Tennessee.”
A hand waved from the bottom of the room, the presidential press agent hinted he could speak.
“Good morning, I am Lenny Johnson, of ‘The Atlanta Spectator’. Mr. President, do you still trust the advice of the Center for Disease Control, even if it now belongs to a secessionist state?” The question took the President by surprise, and he looked at Skip, who nodded to him.
“Mr. Johnson, my understanding is that the CDC is one of the few institutions that still deserve respect from all the people, not only in America but in the whole world. So, yes, I trust them.”
“So you will follow their advice to stop biodrone usage and indiscriminate distribution of antibiotics?” Lenny continued. The President knew where this was going and was quickly to roll back on his opening.
“Trust does not mean enact each and every one of their suggestions. Let me start from the antibiotics. If we did not massively finance drug distribution, the number of victims from cold-related sicknesses, would strongly outnumber the one from the new strains of influenza and other bacteria, that I know is increasing. But we have no concluding evidence that this is a long term danger. As per their research on biodrone proliferation, I think this is one of the few aspects of their work where they are clearly under the influence of the rebel government, that has no serious idea about this key technology.” The journalist did not buy the answer and insisted,
“Then how about the swarm of flies that last August destroyed Raleigh, North Carolina?”
The President turned towards Skip, who, invisible to the rest of the audience, projected three slides from his tablet.
“It was a very peculiar combination of the large amount of drones we used in the operation and the exceptionally hot and humid conditions at the time of the battle. We eventually dealt with the swarm by using chemicals. Maybe the rebel government of Georgia and Florida is still resenting the loss of its army, I, for sure, still resent the loss of more than three hundred thousand American lives, no matter what part of the barricade they stood on.”
It was the turn of the foreign press. The journalist was unmistakably Asian. He introduced himself as Ma Jie, of the China Daily.
“Mr. President, how will you stick to your commitment to the security of Jewish Americans, now that the number of attacks on them is increasing by the day?”
President La Hood took a deep breath. American journalists had tacitly avoided recalling the story, but he could not control the Chinese.
“Mr. Jie, you know that the campaign of violence and hatred started on the leaks that the CIA was neutralizing anti-Jewish activists on behalf of the Mossad. Those allegations have never been proved,” the President continued, exchanging glances with the head of the FBI and Skip Ross, who both nodded in agreement, “but nonetheless the situation has worsened for many of our fellow Jewish Americans, to the extent that they have had to flee many states, especially those under the control of the rebels.”
The President took a pause, then continued.
“During the campaign, I clearly said I would address this intolerable situation. Today, I can give you some additional elements. We are planning to create gated communities, where the security will be guaranteed until the rebellion comes to an end and they can go back to their neighborhoods, if they wish to.”
Charles could not believe what he was hearing and turned towards Skip.
“Skip, what the hell is he saying, are we reinventing ghettos?”
Skip dismissed Charles’ reaction by slowly waving his hand.
“Ghetto, what a big word,” he replied, “just keep listening.”
“Let me be very clear,” the President continued. “These are by no means ghettos in the grim way we used to know them. First, Jewish Americans are by no means forced to relocate there. They will move to the gated communities on an exclusively voluntary basis. Second, many of these communities are actually established in and around existing Jewish neighborhoods, like Crown Heights in Brooklyn, New York. And last, it is only a temporary measure, a trade off we have to endure through these hard times where most of the security forces are busy re-uniting our nation and cannot commit enough resources to defend minorities from racial hatred.”
“You see?” Skip said with a condescending tone to Charles, “you won’t have to relocate with Sally, and in any case, Brooklyn is not that far away from your Long Island home. It’s just we do not have enough police.”
Charles could not understand if Skip was kidding or deliberately provoking him.
“You created this, didn’t you?” Charles hissed at Skip, “when you sent me to Israel to get the biodrone design, that’s what you were offering in exchange. Now that you no longer need the Israeli support, you let them go.”
“I do not know what you are talking about, Charles,” Skip replied indifferently, “It is all about winning the second civil war that this country is facing. Everyone has to endure some sort of sacrifice. I trust you and your girlfriend can contribute a little, given the benefits you got so far. Or am I asking too much from you?”
Charles sat back and thought. He then stood up and headed for the exit, but Skip went on,
“Charles, I know it’s difficult. I think this page will be remembered in history books as the “Andersonville” of our war, we will always regret it when things are over, yet we cannot avoid it.”
Charles stopped and turned back to Skip. In the background, the press conference was continuing, unaware of their exchange.
“It’s not only that, Skip,” he said disconsolated, “It’s that I find it increasingly difficult to see you in the place of Ulysses Grant, and even less in that of Abe Lincoln.”
Marek Kowalski was cautiously making his way through the forest, keeping an eye on the exoskeleton to his right. It was piloted by Pedro Anunciada, a new recruit from Portugal, who seemed to have adapted to the armor very well. Behind them, he could hear the thumps made by the feet of the mechanic spider as it crawled along the leaves. It was late April 2043, in the woods around Lesosibirsk, Siberia. The snow was quickly melting away and the forest floor was turning into a soft, immense muddy swamp. The spider, about the size of a large van, stopped and Marek heard the voice of Dimitri, the Russian patrol commander, on the intercom.
“Tovarish, please proceed to secure the body collection area. The sensors do not signal any enemy drone activity, but there are always traps. Copy, tovarish.”
Marek listlessly copied, he did not like his superior and the way he had configured the translation software to keep some Russian Red Army slang. He looked again at Pedro, who suddenly stopped and put the exoskeleton in defensive mode, just before seven flying drones appeared between the trees and aimed their missiles at them.
Activated by Marek’s eye movement and the adrenaline flow data sent by its skin chip, the exoskeleton immediately fired the anti-drone flares a second before the drones had a chance to fire. A series of explosions followed, smoke quickly spread out over the forest floor, and Marek switched the infrared visual system on.
He could see that Pedro was standing up again, and checking the area where the drone wrecks had fallen. On the intercom, the Russian was screaming.
“Are you all right, tovarish? Come in, come in! Is everything ok?”
“It’s all right, Mitja,” Pedro’s voice answered calmly, “it was just a trap, but the new software was good enough to react on time. A few months ago it would have probably costed our lives. We can start the body collection. According to the sensors, we have at least fifty-three corpses to recover.”
Mitja stopped the spider and a team of four soldiers got out, wearing lightly armored biohazard containment suits. They started collecting the bodies and threw them on to the spider container. They mostly belonged to Chinese soldiers.
Marek moved back to his look out position to the left of the spider, as a chilly breeze – a remnant of the winter – swept the smoke away. Pedro had reached his position too, as he felt safe enough, he set the exoskeleton system in auto defense mode and started to chat.
“Pretty good harvest today, Marek. If we have the same density on the rest of the attack fronts, we might get well beyond ten thousand bodies, which, given the average gas plant yield, means….um…more or less thirty megawatts of electric power…which means, we could feed the batteries of sixty exoskeletons for one week.”
“Exactly,” Marek confirmed, “or have enough gas to heat the battalion headquarters for the next winter. Did you use your battle computer to calculate that?”
“No,” Pedro replied, “I did it mentally. I have been using Telomerax for seven years now, and I can see the benefits.”
“I hope we can continue enjoying them if and when we get out of here,” Marek continued. “How many weeks do you have left?”
“Another twenty weeks,” Pedro answered. “I should be leaving before next winter comes. I have been fighting here for seven months. At the beginning I was in the body collection unit like the…”
Suddenly, an explosion came from near the spider. The exoskeletons immediately took defense position, but their sensors could detect no visible threat. Then the voice of Mitja broke into the intercom.
“Marek, Pedro, quick, rainfall, rainfall! Worms, repeat, we got worms!”
The exoskeletons fired a small series of grenades toward the spider, which broke open in midair and released a dense spray all across the area. Marek and Pedro waited a few seconds then approached the transport vehicle.
“Mitja, any casualties?” Marek asked.
Dmitri stood up from the spider pilot seat and circled around the machine. Two body collectors were lying dead on the ground, next to one of the Chinese corpses who had seemingly exploded. Pedro came closer to the body to examine some small metal debris around it.
“Is this the worm case? I have never seen one,” he asked Marek.
“Yes, it is. It looks like a new type, actually,” his comrade answered, “now I will explain… before going into battle, the Chinese sergeants choose some troops to swallow a worm egg, which is just like a small chocolate candy. It activates itself as soon it detects the death of the host body. Once somebody moves the corpse, like a collector patrol, the egg detonates and releases around a cloud of nerve gas, which you have to be quick to neutralize. The first versions were metallic, and we learned to find them by doing the x-ray scan of the bodies beforehand, but this one…” Marek interrupted himself while checking the samples Pedro was holding in his hand, “..this one looks as if it’s coated in some organic material that probably prevented us from detecting it.”
“What do we do now?” Pedro asked, looking at Dimitri. The lieutenant did not say anything and just hinted to the two remaining soldiers to throw also the bodies of their comrades onto the spider.
Around half an hour later, the patrol was walking back into Lesosibirsk.
“You know, Marek, it’s kind of strange,” Pedro said abruptly.
“What?” Marek asked, “The war? Or this battle? I wouldn’t call it strange.”
“No, I mean, the whole situation. A few days ago, before the attack began, I was surfing the web and came across an old movie, about the battle of Troy, released at the beginning of the century. Then I went on reading the original text, just to break the tension before the battle. Greeks and Trojans, do you remember?”
“Kind of, but what’s strange about it?” Marek answered without showing much interest.
“It’s that they fought to bring back into their camps the bodies of the dead, just like we do. A lot of technology has appeared over time, but nothing has radically changed, don’t you think?”
“Well, no. They wanted the bodies for superstitious reasons and loot. We want them because they have a value, an objective value. We turn them into fuel to continue and eventually win this war. Look, we can see the anti-aircraft batteries. We are reaching the gas plant.”
The field gas plant, one of the hundreds scattered around the thousand-mile front, was the nerve center of each sector, the prize for which people fought on both sides. Fueled by the biological collateral of the war, as it was called in official reports, they produced the energy and resources to continue fighting.
The spider stopped next to the area where prisoners of war were unloading the bodies, and throwing what was left of them over the conveyor belt that took the biological mass over to the first processing station, to be eventually turned into gas and electric energy. Beyond combatant bodies, the plant was processing any kind of biological carcass. Marek and Pedro were observing the scene, when the voice of Dimitri resounded over the intercom. “Escort patrol, you can go back to the battalion quarters, mission is accomplished successfully. And be ready for tomorrow inspection.”
Marek and Pedro did not need any reminding. They knew very well that the following day General Irina Kanchelskaya, the South Sector Commander, would be visiting the first line. They had enough time to clean up their exoskeletons and put together the battle recordings, so they put their work down and headed to the bar next to the gas plant for a drink. As they walked down the muddy road, Pedro noticed a Filipino prisoner hurrying over to the belt, with a crown of flowers in his hands. He turned his head, following the rush of the prisoner, and then back to Marek, who smiled and commented.
“That guy was caught prisoner about two years ago, his name is Cosme. He was the only survivor of one of the many Filipino mercenary companies fighting for the Chinese in this area. His unit was annihilated by a thermobaric grenade bombing, I think his brain was permanently injured, as he can no longer speak and keeps doing the same crazy things from when he was at the camp.”
“What crazy things does he do?” Pedro asked.
“Well, he keeps making bouquets of flowers, to put them on all the childrens’ bodies he happens to find, before they are put on the belt.”
Pedro nodded and asked back. “Alright. But how does he do in winter?”
“He builds a stock during spring and summertime. As he is harmless, the military police allowed him to keep his small obsession. It might help him to overcome the hardship, after all.”
Pedro did not answer, and thought about the months he had ahead of him, then he turned back to Marek.
“Thanks for telling me, mate, I might be kind to him, in case. But now let’s hurry up, I need my vodka.”
It was a few minutes past five in the morning. The first rays of light shone around the tops of the Judean mountain range. In a few minutes they would turn red and soon a new day would begin.
The view from the window of Avi Eitan’s bedroom in Mazkeret Katya was worth all the shekels he had paid for the house. About twenty miles to the East, Jerusalem was about to wake up, but today he did not have to report there for duty. He had managed to get a half-day off to take his family to the airport.
Next to him, his wife Morav was starting to wake up, after having felt her husband move. Avi admired once more her ebony Ethiopian body, and thanked God once again for their two daughters. It was definitely worth all the criticism he had faced from his parents to marry Morav.
“Avi, isn’t it a bit too early? The flight is at ten o’clock, this time it’s not so bad to live close to the airport.”
She stood up. Avi looked at her without answering for a while, then moved his eyes back to the window and whispered.
“It’s not a trip like all others, Morav, you know,” he said calmly. “You might never come back to Israel, and I might not be able to join you up there in Cyprus.”
Morav inched closer to Avi, and took his head in her hands.
“Do we have another chance, Avi? The pressure of all the refugees at the borders is becoming unsustainable, and food reserves are depleting, after many years of fly swarm attacks. Good for us that the government worked out this deal with Turkey….a planned exodus from the Promised Land.”
She let Avi go and moved to the table next to the bed. The travel documents papers were there, written in four languages: Hebrew, English, Greek and Turkish.
“According to this, we will relocate to a small town just outside of Magusa, on the old Turkish side. The inhabitants have been moved to Anatolia two weeks ago, along with most of the Turkish-speaking population. I wonder what the government gave Turkey to get North Cyprus in exchange.”
“You can imagine, Morav,” Avi replied, “lots of military aid for Turkey to continue the war against Pakistan and India and secure control of Northern Iraq and Syria.”
“I wonder if they also gave them the technology to build the killer flies. It looks like we control it, or better, we have a major part in creating this monster, although many sources claim they were invented by the Americans and copied by the Russians.”
Avi kept silent, then asked Morav.
“Is that a statement you are making based off of your Google research or are you looking for some sort of confirmation from me? You know there are some things I cannot tell you.”
“You do not need to tell me. Back to the topic of our trip, I would have preferred to be moved to one of the properties bought on the Greek side of Cyprus, but it looks like those positions all went to the well-networked elite. This shitty world really never changes.”
Morav looked at the clock. She had enough time to take a shower before waking up her children. She turned back to Avi.
“What’s the plan for those of you who stay behind? I mean, do you think you will eventually flee or resist till the end?”
Avi answered immediately, as if he was expecting the question.
“There is no clear escape plan. We have to make sure that Israel can be rebuilt once the crisis is over, which basically means defending certain areas at every cost and to be ready to surrender some others if the situation gets ugly. After the experience from last year along the Jordan valley, I can tell you, it is not easy to fire at a crowd of desperate people seeking nothing more than to flee famine and war, even if you know that terrorists are hiding among them. You actually would like the terrorist to open fire at you, not to be the one who pulls the trigger first. So yes, we are prepared to give up some land to gain time, if needed.”
Morav kept silent. The Jericho and Jordan valley massacres of 2044 had left a wound on Avi’s spirit that had not quite healed yet. She checked her packed bags once again, among them there was a small sketch from Chagall that Avi had given her upon their engagement.
“You must bring this one with you. We cannot risk to lose it in some looting.” Avi said briskly, as Morav was still checking the small package.
“Do you expect a lot of it?”
“From anyone that stays behind. Well, many looters might turn out to be Israeli Arabs simply because they are not part of Plan Lot, but they won’t be alone. This one I can tell you, looting is one of the things we will have to turn a blind eye on most of the time. Not to mention that…anyway, it’s getting late now, let’s wake up the girls.”
Morav went into the girls room, and Avi started getting in his uniform.
One hour later, they were driving through the security gates of Ben Gurion International Airport. Avi could spot a long row of Superjumbos on the runways. They never stopped shuttling between Tel Aviv and Cyprus. The girls did not talk during the trip, but as they passed the security check, Yael, the younger one, broke the silence.
“Is it true that in Cyprus we’ll have a house by the seaside? And we can play at the beach the whole year?”
Morav turned towards her from the front seat and smiled, as she swiped her watch and projected a set of pictures on the car screen system.
“Well, it’s not exactly on the beach, but not far away at all, you see?” she zoomed in and out of the 3D view, “You can get to the sea with this small ramp of stairs, after walking a few yards down this alley.”
Yael’s mouth opened in astonishment and anticipation.
“Mom, and is it true that the flies can’t get there? That you do not have to rush to the shelter while they are spraying the pesticide around and things smell bad for days afterwards?”
“Yes, darling, it is true. Cyprus is in the middle of the sea, so fly storms cannot reach it. They fall dead over the sea.”
“Ooooh, wow, that’s just great!” Yael could not contain her enthusiasm, then she looked around and felt the rest of the family was not sharing it. She stopped for a while and then she came up with the explanation.
“If only dad could come with us now. When will you join us in Cyprus, daddy?”
Avi tried to dodge the question, pretending he was paying attention to how well the car was self-parking next to the departure hall, but Yael didn’t give up.
“The car parks alone, you don’t have to watch it. When will you come to Cyprus with us? Ytzhak, the dad of our neighbors, is coming with the rest of his family.”
“I still have some work to do here, Yael. But I will join you soon, it’s a promise.” He got out of the car, opened the door and gave Yael the biggest hug.
The tiltrotor plane flew along the Moroccan coast just south of Agadir, then veered towards East. It flew for another twenty minutes, before the giant solar power plant started appearing on the horizon. Despite the fact that Louis had read all the documentation during the flight, he could not help being in awe once he saw the construction worksite.
It was like a huge tent camp, spreading over more than ten thousand square miles. The tents were pinned by carbon fiber poles, each more than one hundred yards tall. From time to time, some clearings populated by buildings and plants opened in the immense camp.
The plane flew to a point in the center of the area, where the clearing was bigger than usual. Then it tilted the engines upward and landed on the helicopter pad next to the heavily guarded control building. Or, Louis thought, he’d better call it the control village, as more than one thousand people were living in the compound.
He got off the plane and headed to the visitor welcome area. Dorian and Tarek were there, waiting for him. They shook hands as if he were one of the many dignitaries who were regularly touring the site.
“Tarek told me you were achieving something great,” Louis commented as he followed Tarek, who was making way for them, “but he understated it big time, Dorian. It’s simply huge.”
“Please, spare me the father’s pride comedy. I cannot stand it,” Dorian replied, “and do not forget you are here on business. You will have time for hugs at home tonight, with Camilla and the kids.”
“Are they all right? I would not like to find out that she is expecting another baby when it is born, as with the first two. Mom could not handle it. Do it for her, please.”
“No surprises this time. Now hold on…here is the meeting room. Let’s continue our discussion later.”
Louis entered the room, where around fifteen attendees, coming from all corners of Eurasia, were waiting for him. Louis immediately recognized Dinesh Kheradpir and went straight to him, almost ignoring the rest of the team. They shook hands vigorously, while patting each other on the back.
“It has been a long time that I have been waiting to meet you in person, Dr. Kheradpir,” Louis said warmly. “If there is a case where the pupil has gone further than the master, this is the one. Unfortunately, this war has made traveling anything but easy.”
“You are the living legend, here, Dr. Picard. We will have time for smalltalk afterwards, now let’s start the meeting. We have to persuade some politicians.”
The attendees went to their places, put on their virtual reality goggles and connected to the biosensors hanging in front of them. Then content started to flow.
At the end of the session, the picture was clear, and was summarized by Matthias Morganti, the representative of the European Union.
“Basically, the energy side of the equation is solved, at least in principle: new solar cell technology is giving us access to nearly unlimited amount of energy. Thanks to this, we can turn any desert into a garden, like we have been doing here. In addition to that, the outstanding need for fossil fuels – in order to move planes and ships – can be fulfilled by extracting hydrocarbons from outer solar system planets and asteroids, thanks to the orbital elevator and advanced rover technology.”
“Yes, it is like this,” Tarek replied, speaking as the representative of the Arab League, “Access to these technologies would basically remove the main source of conflicts on the Eurasian continent.” He paused, and then turned his head to Dinesh.
“Dr. Kheradpir, on the other hand, has just perfected a Telomerax version that decays. That is, unlike the previous ones, it does not make anti-aging effects permanent. Dr. Picard has confirmed the finding, so we can also address over time the problem of the pest swarms.”
“But unfortunately it is still a bit early to uncork champagne, isn’t it?” The objection came from Artyom Gordeev, the personal secretary of the Russian President. “We are still not able to get the pandemic really under control, as the excessive usage of antibiotics in the early years of the crisis has made germs stronger than ever, and on top of that, to build the orbital elevator on time, we need access to American technology and space launch sites that neither the rebels nor the government seem willing to grant us, at least until the civil war stops. Their representatives did not even bother to attend this meeting.”
“In other words,” Dorian jumped in looking at both the Russian and Chinese delegate, “we could have had the tools on hand, if the two of you had not destroyed each other’s space infrastructure over the last ten years, and now, even if we know exactly what to do, it might be too late. Unless things in the States go in the right direction, then we have no control.”
The Russian visibly resented the remark, while Yuan Zhang, the Chinese, who was the vice-minister of Economic Affairs, politely smiled at Dorian and then looked at Dinesh.
“It’s not just us, Mr. Picard Junior, you also need to factor in the depletion of fossil fuel reserves carried out by India and Pakistan while pursuing their war in the Middle East. That’s why we had to put coal plants back into service to produce electricity to survive. This obviously did not help the environment, but between immediate death and slow agony you always pick the last one.”
Dinesh noticed the growing irritation in Dorian, and raised his hand to speak.
“Gentlemen, we are all guilty here, period. I could add the massive deforestation in Africa and Latin America, triggered by the lack of easy access to oil, and all that followed. And yes, I might have pushed my government too heavily to use antibiotics. We are already paying for that. But we might have a way out, if we act quickly. We have evaluated a number of scenarios and discovered we have between two to three years to get all this technology before it is too late.”
“Otherwise?” the question came from Louis.
Dorian swiped to the last video.
“This is the most likely outcome. By 2065, there won’t be more than 150 million survivors on the planet, spread mostly along the tropics where climate conditions will remain more favorable.”
Artyom Gordeev pushed his chair back.
“Do the Americans know this? Do they care?”
“Yes, they know, and no, they don’t care. Neither the government nor the rebels. They say they do, but they’re really only thinking about how to win their war.”
Tarek summarized the situation in the silence that followed, without bothering to hide his amusement.
“Even if we decided to stop war in Eurasia tomorrow and invade America to get what we need, it would take too much time. We can only try to push and influence as much as we can, but basically we need a miracle, given the current political outlook in the States.”
He stopped and thought that this would be one of the situations that Valerio would have liked to witness. The amusement gave way to sadness, he looked once more around the table, then he pointed at the gardens below and said,
“We managed to rebuild the garden of Eden just to risk losing it again but this time forever.”
Charles entered the replica of the Oval Office at eleven in the morning. He found Skip sitting at the President’s desk.
“You look pretty comfortable in the seat of the big boss, Skip. Is this part of the Vice President’s perks? To use his chair when he is not in? Hope it doesn’t cause you a bad impression….”
“On the contrary, Charles. Ken wants me to sit here when we meet Congress members like you. He prefers sharing the couch with the guests. He says that makes him easier to empathize with the delegation. He has some delay today, the morning briefing with the Pentagon and the Department of the Environment and Health is taking longer than usual.”
“I see,” Charles replied, “How is he finding life in Kansas? Does he miss Washington, D.C?”
“Kansas somehow reminds him of his native Texas, but he did not want to leave the Capital to avoid being hit by last year’s pest swarms. Let me brief you before he arrives, so we can make the most of his time. We would like to pass through a constitutional amendment to allow him a third mandate in 2049, but we need Congress to support us. You have been the head of the Republican majority for two years, do you think we can bring the Democrats onboard?”
“That’s difficult to say,” Charles replied immediately. “LaHood is winning America’s Second Civil War, so if he shows up again, the Democrats would probably miss out. On the other hand, they risk losing out also against any Republican front-runner, who might be….well, you or I, for example. So it might make sense for them to play the national unity card, share into the victory of LaHood, and hope that he does bad in his third mandate. The only thing is….the sense of national urgency is decreasing, now that we are regaining military control and that the environmental risks are outweighing the political ones. The rebels are losing ground, and secessionist states are joining the Union one way or another, but pests and flu epidemics keep getting more and more serious. You cannot blame the rebels for that. Then there is all this apocalyptic propaganda that is pouring in from Europe and Asia, as if we were responsible for their mess. It is dead clear that no one in this country wants to rent out our space bases to the Russians or the Chinese. That would be the perfect recipe for losing the election.”
The door opened and Ken LaHood entered the room.
“Hello Charles, I beg your pardon, but you do not need to recap. I went through your conversation through the double-speed replay as I walked down the corridor. I understood Charles could bring the Senate minority on our side to pass the amendment, is it?”
“I do not think so, Mr. President,” Charles replied immediately, “as I said, the sense of urgency of the war is kind of fading away and the environmental and health emergency has no immediate culprit, so..”
“It has had no culprit so far, Charles,” Skip chimed in, “at least, according to the information that the CIA and the FBI are collecting points in a different direction.”
“What do you mean?” Charles replied wryly. He had learned to recognize when Skip was about to unveil his plots.
“Just look at this,” Skip handed over a paper document over to Charles, “The file started spreading from rebel-controlled dark websites, but our people in Langley confirmed it is true. It is a bombshell, that’s why we use only the good old printed copies to share it, but sooner or later it will leak out.”
Charles read through the document and stopped at the end.
“Skip, do you really believe this trash? It’s basically blaming the Mossad and the American Jews for deliberately spreading the pandemic, just like the Nazi propaganda of the last century.”
“I would just call it crappy rebel propaganda, but I have more trouble not believing the intelligence reports that to some extent confirm the rebel sources. Let’s face it, Israel has some good reasons to resent our special protection policy for the American Jewish minority, and they were the ones who invented those shitty flies after all. Then they made the deal with Turkey over Cyprus, so that they might feel completely independent from us now, on their fortress island.”
“It’s plainly nonsense, Skip,” Charles erupted, “They are also suffering from the pandemic. They had to evacuate Israel and move most of the population to Cyprus. Here in America, they live like prisoners in their protected neighborhoods. Why would they bother plotting against us? I mean, what would you call for? Open up concentration camps, here in America? Just one last thing, do not even dare think I am telling you this because of Sally.”
“Hang on, Charles,” Ken LaHood waited for him to stop blustering, “let’s go back to square one. The point is all about rebuilding some sense of national urgency to pass the amendment in Congress. This looks good enough, and we will be careful not to target Jews as a whole and even less American Jews, but instead we’ll focus on specific institutions like the Mossad or the Israeli government. We just need a few months of indignation to unite Congress, secure my third mandate, win the war and start rebuilding the country, at last.”
Charles mumbled, then snapped back at Skip, deliberately ignoring the President.
“Then why not just blame any other foreign power like Russia or China?”
“China has never stopped financing us over the last twenty years, throughout our civil war and despite of their own proxy war with Russia,” Ken La Hood replied, trying to grab Charles attention again, “we owe them far more than a pound of flesh.”
“Russia has two problems,” Skip completed, “first, they still have huge nuclear stockpiles so we could blame them up to a certain point. Second, even more importantly, the average American does not really feel they threaten us. We need an enemy from within to reunite the community; credible enough to be a threat, yet weak enough that you can target him without risking too much. Believe me, we will make sure direct damage is kept to a minimum. Rest assured nothing will happen to…”
“This time I am not in, Skip,” Charles replied, without letting Skip finish his sentence, and stood up from the couch, “Mr. President, you will have my resignation as Senate majority speaker tomorrow.”
“Holy shit, Charles, don’t be emotional and sit down!” Skip erupted, “You want to know one last thing? Israel is with us. You think we would embark on such a game without first checking with their new prime minister?”
Charles stopped and sat back, stunned.
“Are you talking about Eyal Podhoretz, the former head of Mossad?”
“Exactly, Eyal,” Ken La Hood confirmed. “He would actually welcome some more immigration from the United States. They need people to consolidate their new homeland in Cyprus, and continue presiding the strongholds in Israel. Over time, the dust will settle down. Just ask Sally, if you do not believe us.”
“Sally has not been passing on information to Mossad for years, you should know that very well, Skip.” Charles hissed.
“Oh, sure we know,” Skip chirped, “but such connections are forever, they may fade a bit, but you can easily rekindle them. Unlike true love….”
Charles stood silent, his eyes moving from Skip to La Hood, who kept his eyes fixed on him.
“I need to think about it,” he finally said, “I’ll let you know in two days.”
He walked away, without bothering to say goodbye.
Ken La Hood waited a few seconds, then asked Skip,
“What do you think he will do?”
Skip looked at his watch and tapped a few commands on the screen.
“He is talking to Sally right now. He is on board. Reluctantly, but on board.”
Dorian rushed through the hospital entrance, upset for the delay caused by traffic jams along the tangenziale of Milan, Italy. Traffic was still the same despite the intelligence of the self-driving cars. The security system recognized his biometric data and sent him the directions to the intensive care ward through his electronic contact lenses.
He ran through the corridors and eventually stopped in front of the ward’s door. His father was sitting next to the entrance, waiting for him, and staring into the room.
Dorian sat next to him, took a deep breath and eventually asked, softly.
“How bad is she?”
“Bad.” Louis repeated bleakly. Dorian noticed that his father was wearing his data helmet, so he activated his own and connected to it. The medical data files of Dora appeared in his thought, after a few tries he decided to stay with the default 3D view of the immune system activity.
Dorian skimmed through the data for several minutes, then he asked Louis.
“Why didn’t you try the new beta-hexalamine antigenes? They have been proven effective to fight many variants of the pandemic.”
“You still have some homework to do before you can earn your Ph.D. in Pharmacology, Dorian,” Louis replied softly and slightly annoyed, “They would interfere with the synthetic blood she is taking to stabilize the circulation. Hexalamine would start an antigenic reaction that would fry her in her own blood.”
“You mean that…she has to fight the fever alone?” Dorian commented in disbelief.
“Yes, just like the average person on the planet. She caught a very severe form. You and I have been very lucky to get a mild one. But Helena and Tarek also suffered badly.”
Dorian looked at his watch and said, to no one in particular,
“Let me go drop my stuff off at the hotel. I’ll be right back.” He started moving towards the exit.
“I hope you followed my advice and booked at the ‘Adler’ on the East side of Greater Milan, in the German sector.”
“Yes, I did. It’s amazing how Milan has changed in the last twenty years. It used to be a medium-sized European city and now it turned into a megalopolis of more than twenty million people.”
“Just like Marseille, Rome and Barcelona,” Louis commented to himself, “climate, war and environmental disasters pushed Africans and Northern Europeans alike to the shores of the Mediterranean, and..”
The intensive ward door opened and a doctor dressed like an astronaut stepped into the waiting room. Louis stopped talking and Dorian turned back. Louis did not wait for the doctor to remove his white coat and addressed him immediately.
“How is she doing, Lorenzo?”
“Not very well at all, but she is conscious and should be able to make it past the night. We keep her hydrated and target infections with specific antibiotics. She had a pneumonia outbreak in the right lung yesterday, but we have been able to block it.”
Lorenzo ended the sentence by looking at Dorian, whom he had never seen.
“You must be Dorian,” the doctor said, removing the right glove and extending his arm the shake his hand. “Your mother asked to see you. Tomorrow we will see if we can bring her temperature back under control. If we manage you might be able visit her. That would help her for sure.”
“What are the chances of survival, Doctor?” Dorian snapped back bluntly.
“Slightly above fifty percent,” Lorenzo replied immediately, “She just cannot afford another major infection. She must avoid it in the next couple of days. I have seen several cases like hers, among them my parents, whom I lost in the last two years to the various pandemic waves. The aging population of Europe has just been ravaged, you know.”
A small green icon blinked on the doctor’s smartwatch, Lorenzo looked at it and moved toward the window, as he picked the call up excusing himself from Louis and Dorian.
“Hi Emanuele, is it urgent? I am with two people right now…very important ones..”
Louis and Dorian did not hear the rest of the conversation, that lasted a few seconds.
Lorenzo turned immediately back to Dorian and Louis,
“I beg your pardon, it was my younger brother Emanuele,” he said apologetically, “He is in Cairo, Egypt. He works there for BayerHoechst Chemicals.”
“He is there to help contain the mice swarm crisis, isn’t he?” Dorian was quick to connect the dots, “I also travel there frequently to supervise the construction of the Red Sea solar cities, it would be a pity to leave them to be overtaken by the pests. I hope he is not in danger. When the swarms move they are nearly unstoppable.”
“He just called me to see if I knew that the US has a new President,” Lorenzo answered.
Dorian tuned his lenses to the newsfeed. Just five months into his third mandate, Ken LaHood had died, seemingly from a stroke. The Vice President, Skip Ross, had already been sworn into office and he would be addressing Congress shortly.
“Shit,” Dorian muttered as he switched the channel off. “they will continue building the third, useless orbital elevator instead of diverting effort for the space refinery, and we are running out of time..”
Dorian looked at Louis, and he realized that his father was staring at the ward room door, unaffected by the news.
“So in the next few days you will tell us if Dora can make it, right, doctor? I think I will spend the night here in the guest room, if that’s ok with you, Lorenzo.”
“Of course, Mr. Picard,” the doctor confirmed, and then sent an enquiring look at Dorian, who promptly said,
“Thanks, I was about to go to my hotel. I have quite a lot of work to do and I do not want to bother your personnel or the other patients. I will be back tomorrow morning.”
It didn’t go as planned. Dorian was woken up at 3 AM by his father. He had to rush back to the hospital, new infections had developed and no one really knew how much time was left for Dora.
Dorian hung up and rushed down to the hotel lobby, asking for the quickest way to get back to the Niguarda Hospital. The concierge looked at him slightly puzzled. The fastest way required crossing the Northeastern side of Milan, where there were neighborhoods of Nigerians and Ukrainians. Was Dorian willing to pay for armed escort drivers?
Dorian handed over his platinum card from the United Swiss and Russian Bank, and commented sarcastically,
“You can tell the escort agency I can pay in the new energy-linked Euroruble currency, if it gets things done faster.”
Half an hour later, he was entering the intensive care ward, for the second time in less than twelve hours. He looked at his father face, and realized that now there was no need for a medical data review. Louis was already wearing the sterile suit and pointed to the one laying on the waiting room’s table, for Dorian to wear.
When they reached Dora’s bed, Lorenzo, who was monitoring the vital parameters on the machines humming next to her, stood up, patted Louis on his shoulders and moved out of the way.
Dora immediately recognized Dorian, and tried to open her eyes, that had been just tiny slits for the last few days. She only partially managed to do it, but she did manage to smile at her son. Louis took off the sterile suit helmet and took her right hand into his. Dorian inched to her left side, waiting for Dora to grab his right arm with the little strength she had left.
“Come on Dora, you have to resist,” Louis implored her, “Lorenzo has just injected the drug. Your liver should be back under control in a few hours, then the fever should go down and..”
Dora looked at him with a faint smile, then looked at Dorian and back at Louis.
“You know it’s not true, Louis,” she whispered back, “and I know it’s not true.”
She paused, then continued.
“Do you remember what I told you a long time ago? No lies. It’s time for me to go, but I want you to know two things before I am gone.”
Dorian started to look at the instruments, desperately looking for a sign that her mother was wrong.
“The first one is that I am grateful for the life you gave me, Louis. Don’t let regret overcome you when I am gone. And the second one…”
Louis drew closer, as Dora’s voice faded. Dorian couldn’t help but let tears fall. He stepped aside to let Louis spend the last minutes with her alone, and Louis gripped her left hand tight, to let her know he was there.
Dora body contracted one last time and then passed away. Louis quietly cried, with his face on her hands and stayed in that position for what seemed like ten minutes before standing up.
Three hours later, Louis and Dorian were busy returning calls and organizing the funeral. Being public celebrities, Louis and Dorian also had newsbriefs to set up, which just added to the confusion. Dorian was right in the middle of a call with his media agent when he muted the phone and asked his father,
“Dad, what was the second thing mom wanted you to know? Did you get it?”
Louis looked at Dorian, then his eyes slowly went down to the floor, and told him plainly,
“She told me she was actually curious to die.”
Dorian looked at him, stunned.
“Yes, that’s what she said,” Louis confirmed softly. “For some reason, it helps me bear the grief. But it’s time to move on, we have not yet decided where to bury her.”
Charles stared at the empty bottle. The House Speaker was not supposed to drown his grief in vodka, but that’s all that was left to him the week after the burial of Sally, and he could only thank his bioengineers for the drug he was using to quickly get rid of the hangover. Skip was also moving away from empathy and back to business as usual. When he saw the incoming call from India, he took it as a welcome change in his bleak routine. His surprise grew when his assistant informed him that the caller was Dinesh Kheradpir.
“Hello, Dinesh, it must have been about ten years since we have talked to each other. Are you speaking as the Chief Executive of the biggest Indian biotechnology corporation or as the top scientific advisor to the Indian Prime Minister?”
“Hi Charles, I’m not calling as either one. I wanted to present my condolences for the loss of Sally. Her death was so unfortunate.”
“It was not unfortunate. She was deliberately killed in the middle of an attack to her congregation, in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. Along with thirty other people, for the record,” Charles replied coldly.
Dinesh paused, wondering if Charles was reviving his resentment for the way he had left their startup, thirty years before so he tried to change the topic.
“Has your intelligence found out who armed the gang?”
“Not yet. Nor does it help that the police killed all the members of the attack team. It looks like one of the many Afro-American gangs who routinely raid Jewish neighborhoods and in general all non-black areas in New York, despite all the post-civil war pacification effort. We are kind of stuck, just like you guys in the Middle East.”
“I see,” Dinesh thought it was the right time to switch subjects again, “Is your orbital elevator a key part of the reconstruction plan?”
“Um, yes and no, Skip wants it because he does not want it to be left behind the two Eurasian superpowers. The Russians and the Europeans will have it up and running in a couple of years, while your project with the Chinese will follow shortly after. I said publicly it’s a bit of a me-too approach, but the President has a magnetic grip on Congress.”
“Charles, it will be wasted effort. You know the world does not need three space elevators. What we need is somebody to develop and deploy the space oil extraction and refinery station, and it cannot be but you to do this. We will give you access to the orbital elevators to assemble the station in orbit.”
“Dinesh, it’s you guys in Eurasia that have made a major disaster, depleting fossil fuel reserves in the last fifteen years with your continental wars. I do not see why we should come to the rescue. We are recovering from a civil war, I may remind you. Our country cannot last without a key piece of technology like the orbital elevator. We can help you develop the space oil station, though, plus, countries are building solar plants like crazy, so there will be plenty of energy anyway.”
“It’s not enough, Charles, and you know it. Five billion people already perished in the last twenty years, we need to clean up the mess quickly. To do that, we need vast amounts of fossil fuels, which we no longer have on this planet. That’s also why we need NASA to develop a large scale version of the space oil driller, to send it over to the external planets of the solar system and bring back huge chunks of frozen methane. It’s paradoxical, but only more hydrocarbons will allow us to get rid of the excess carbon.”
“Dinesh, even assuming we start building it tomorrow, and we commit all our effort, it will take ten years before we have a significant production. Nothing will happen until 2060, and we have to be prepared for that.”
“Charles, we have way too much carbon dioxide in the atmosphere now, and not to mention all the war-related pollutants. Take the effect of the pest swarms into account, and we are where we are now, with mankind squeezed in an area no bigger than the United States, mostly along coastlines in tempered climates. If we just rely on current resources, the area will not be able to support us all. And we have to continue to fight the pests. There is no way Earth can be given up that easily. We need to start tapping resources from outer space. You guys have a key piece of the technology, just focus your effort on that and..”
“Enough said, Dinesh. I know all the data, it has been debated in public several times. The basic problem is lack of trust. Skip does not want to depend on Eurasia for the elevator, it’s as simple as that.” Charles moved closer to the screen. On the other side, Dinesh instinctively backed away.
“Is the problem just with Skip, Charles? I mean, does Congress have the exact same mindset?”
“Thirty years ago I trusted you, Dinesh,” Charles abruptly said, “and it was not a good idea.” Dinesh was expecting this and tried to reply, but Charles raised his hand to stop him.
“However, things have changed now. I still don’t trust you, but I have learned to trust facts instead. Yes, you are probably right. Yet this is not enough to move the will of the people, that is, Congress.”
“What do we need to do more, Charles? We are already doing a lot of lobbying with the Congress and the White House, our Prime Minister and the Russians have proposed very favorable treaties for you to join our space elevator ventures, Europeans are constantly begging you to join the effort. What else do you need?”
“I do not know, Dinesh. We are learning to trust each other again here at home, maybe we just need some more time. You know, many Congressmen realize this, yet they are not able to share their view, and go against the President. Skip is the winner of the Civil War, and he is guaranteeing the newly found, fragile unity of the nation. The future of mankind can wait for the next election, which he is likely win, by the way.”
“So is Skip the real issue?” Dinesh quietly asked, “Will things change once he is gone?”
“For sure, they won’t change until he is in place. At the end of the day, you do not have that many options to force him out. I have known him for more than thirty years, no matter how far you dig, you won’t find any juicy scandal in his life. This leaves only the violent ways, but they are difficult to carry out, given the security around him. What’s more, assassination can make someone’s position even stronger. Believe me, the only realistic option is to hope in a stroke or some other kind of heavenly sign, if you believe in that.”
Charles statements were followed by the silence of Dinesh, who eventually commented.
“I hope I have not compromised your position with this open talk, I guess our conversation might be listened to, sooner or later.”
“Of course, I am used to that. Actually, I did not tell you anything that I haven’t already discussed with Skip over the past several months. On the other hand, you would not be a welcome guest here, as you are openly contemplating scenarios against the President’s security. You know what? You’ve just decreased the already slim chances that Skip changes position on the space program.”
It was dusk when the helicopter, flying in from the Tel Aviv secure zone, approached the landing pad of the citadel of Maale Adumim. Before touching ground, Avi Eitan noticed the gas fires being lit up all around the old settlement. It had transformed since the evacuation to Cyprus in a fortress that was overlooking the Judean desert and controlling access to Jerusalem from the East. Beyond the stone desert, there was the white, salty spot that once used to be the Dead Sea. The last pools of water had evaporated less than one year ago, in the summer of 2052, and since then Avi always avoided to stare at it again. He preferred to look West, where the roofs and buildings of Jerusalem were casting black shadows over the purple horizon.
He got off the helicopter and headed to the control center, where he was met by Raphi Kaplan, the officer in command.
“Good morning, Colonel Kaplan. Is the team ready? We need to pay a visit to an old friend. Hopefully he did not move in the meantime.”
“He is still in the Old City,” Raphi replied immediately, “He lives in a flat on 23rd David Street, close to the Western Wall, but inhabitants relocate frequently, to try and get away from the mice infestations. They cannot afford the automatic perimeter defense systems we have here, so they have to be ready to move if the occasional pest swarm comes all the way up from the valley, in search for food.”
Avi activated his infrared goggles, and then boarded the second Humvee in the six-vehicle motorcade that drove down from the Mount of Olives and up the hill of Jerusalem, until they reached the Western Wall esplanade. They got off and walked into the Old City, their rifles ready to shoot.
“Who do we have to fear more, the rats or the snipers?”, he asked Raphi over the radio.
“At this time of the day, definitely the rats,” Raphi replied, half amused, “Snipers do not have much night vision gear, while rats can sense us a mile away.”
They turned the corner and moved up David Street. The navigation system showed they were less than two hundred yards away from their destination when the motion detector started buzzing in their ears. The threat was coming from behind.
The eight-people squad immediately took positions at the center of the tight road, except two members that pushed to the sides to cover the roofs and windows. They pointed their rifles toward the end of the street. After a few seconds, the first rats appeared, smelling the air around them, and turning in the direction of the Israeli team.
“Hold on, wait for the swarm to finish,” Raphi said, “Let’s try to get it done at one time. They are too close to use grenades so we have to make do with guns.”
Fifty yards away, the rats kept trickling around the street corner, in increasing numbers. The leaders of the swarm were slowly moving toward the Israeli squad, and then suddenly, as if they had felt they had built up a large enough team, they accelerated towards the soldiers.
The voice of Colonel Kaplan interrupted Avi’s thoughts.
“Ok guys, hold on another three seconds. One. Two. Fire!”
The six Israeli lightweight machine guns cut through the swarm, killing the first lines. But from around the corner, the supply did not seem to stop.
After four seconds of shooting, Avi had to reload his rifle, immediately followed by Raphi. The two soldiers who stood next to wall took over. The tide could slow down, but not stop. The swarm was now just twenty yards away.
“Fuck, how many are they?!” Avi thought out aloud, looking at Raphi for an instant.
“They’re bigger than usual, too” Raphi replied, “It’s definitely more than the occasional nuisance, Sir. We better move back to gain some time.”
The squad started moving, as they retreated they passed an abandoned ice cream shop. One window on the first floor flung open and they heard a man shouting at them in Hebrew.
“Don’t shoot on us, we are going to help you.” He then switched to Arabic, “Imad, whenever you are ready, fire.”
A second window on the opposite side of the street opened, and Avi saw the unmistakable shape of grenade launchers emerging from the upstairs window.
The two grenades shot opened in midair above the rat swarm, releasing a thick rainfall of small fireballs, that started moving as soon as they touched the ground, chasing the rats one by one. The swarm was destroyed, the few surviving rats dispersed along the alleys.
Raphi could not hide his surprise, as he took off the helmet and said to Avi,
“I wonder how they got their hands on the new microspider grenades….they have just been adopted by the Indians and we have not yet managed to replicate them..”
“You have to be ingenious, if you want to survive here in the Old City,” the voice they had heard from the window now echoed from the doorway below it, and before Avi could say anything, Yaakov emerged from the darkness.
“I guess you are looking for me,” Yaakov said, without letting Avi speak, “We better sit down in Imad’s house, he is very hospitable, even with you Israeli Army guys. And his house is in much better shape than mine.”
Avi and Yaakov entered the apartment, followed by Imad. Avi told Yaakov in Russian that the conversation had to remain confidential.
“Yes,” Yaakov replied, “provided we continue in Russian. Imad has no translation devices implanted.”
“Alright, Yaakov. We need you. We have to deliver a message to somebody in the United States and it cannot be delivered by us. By us I mean the Mossad or any other entity linked to Israel.”
“You kicked me out of service a few years ago, and now you are interested in my connections with the Latinos gangs again? I am surprised Eyal does not have a contact there.”
“We do, but we need the message to be delivered by someone trusted, yet completely outside of the power game,” Avi continued. “Someone without a vested interest…”
“..who can seem genuine and authentic. Why didn’t Eyal come personally then, and he send you instead? I might refuse it just out of pride. And don’t bring up the story that Israel or mankind needs it. I have to survive rats, cockroaches, cold and illnesses, like many others here. We will pull it off, one way or another.”
“You know why, Yaakov,” Avi broke in, calmly, “Because Eyal is sick. Big time. He can barely lead cabinet meetings in his Cyprus bunker. The parties in the Knesset are already seeking to appoint a successor, and he asked me to hand this over to you.”
Yaakov took the sealed envelope from his hands. It had been packaged according to the security standards he and Eyal had learned in the first security trainings, which had been more than seventy-five years ago. He checked the seals. No one had attempted to open it. He broke it open, extracted the single sheet of paper it contained and read it, making sure Avi could not see it. Yaakov then hinted to Imad and handed him the letter.
Imad had a long look at it, then nodded to Yaakov and handed him back the letter. Yaakov stood up, took a match and burned the message over the tap. He then sat back at the table with Avi.
“What am I supposed to deliver and when?” he asked. Avi took a bio-memory stick out of his pocket, which Yaakov grabbed and brought to his right temple. After a few minutes, the transfer was complete and he had all the information he needed. Yaakov could not hide his amazement.
“Is this the first time you use it?” Avi asked, knowing the answer.
“Yes, I heard about it last year, from one of my old contacts at Dimona, but I could not believe it. How long will the data stay?”
“Two, three weeks maximum. That’s why you have to leave now. We are taking you to Cyprus right away. I will tell you on the flight how to download the stuff back from your head.” Avi stood up and headed for the door, but he stopped upon realizing that Yaakov was not following.
“So?” Avi asked, “I thought you had made your decision.”
“We are not done yet, Sir,” Yaakov replied, hinting to Imad. “I cannot leave my house unattended during my absence.”
Avi balked, he was not supposed to bring anyone else than Yaakov out of the Old City. Before he could say anything, Yaakov continued.
“I need your team to leave three assault rifles and all the ammunition you have here. You just experienced how aggressive Jerusalem pests can be.”
Avi was relieved. He walked out of the door, and called Raphi.
“Colonel Kaplan, please bring the team inside. We have to leave some gifts before accompanying our guest.”
The smell of jasmine was strong all around the courtyards and patios of the Getty Villa in Malibu, California. Badly damaged during the Civil War, it had all been restored to its former glory the previous year, with the exception of the ancient Roman statues, as part of the collection had been lost forever.
Charles was walking around the main pool, waiting for Skip to finish the press conference after the signature of the peace treaty with Mexico. The villa was buzzing with high-ranking politicians, high-profile businessmen and their security staffs. Charles thought that there was probably no ordinary people present within one mile from the villa.
Ordinary citizens were all dwelling in the ruins of Los Angeles, three-quarters of which had been destroyed or abandoned over the last twenty years. Charles had witnessed the destruction from the plane that, three days before, had flown him together with the Presidential delegation from Washington.
Across the pool, Charles noticed a slim, fit, tanned woman, who dressed in white and was waving at him. Charles looked at his watch. He was scheduled to meet Skip in half an hour, so there was still enough time for some conversation. He waved back and started walking towards her.
Helena greeted him with a glorious smile and kissed him on both cheeks.
“It’s time to celebrate today, Charles. All our efforts have paid off and our two countries are friends again. You have been great in persuading Congress to grant an amnesty, and US citizenship, to Mexican immigrants that took part in the Rebellion but eventually repented.”
“Don’t underestimate your quality as a negotiator, Helena,” Charles softly replied, “or should I say one of the key influencers of the Mexican government? I am surprised you have not yet been appointed Minister, or offered another important role.”
“Come on, Charles. You know I do not like the limelight. I only felt a duty to help fix things that somehow I got started in the first place. Actually, I might say, we got started. Don’t you feel the same drive, Charles?”
“I do not feel much regret, if that’s what you mean. For that matter, I do not feel much of anything after I lost Sally.” Charles replied plainly.
“Anything, except revenge?” Helena hissed. “If you are not interested in revenge, you’re pretty much done with life, Charles.”
“Revenge…” Charles echoed, “Did you ever quite manage to avenge George, Helena? I never managed to come up with an explanation about his death. I do not believe it was natural, but I was never able to find a clue, much less a culprit.”
“No, I didn’t. Lots of hints, but no clear evidence. Which, if what we have learned is correct, does not seem to be the case for Sally. You are lucky, Charles.”
Charles ignored the statement, and looked toward the main wing of the villa, at the end of the pool. The growing animation was a sign that the press conference was over and that Skip and his court were moving toward the patio and the pool.
“I really liked George. He might well have been the victim of the same plot that killed Sally.”
“Possibly, Charles, possibly,” Helena replied dismissively, “But you told me, you have never been able to get any evidence around George’s death, and neither did I. In any case, I would have managed it myself, anyway. I never let others retaliate on my behalf, if that’s what you are afraid of.”
“No, I am not afraid. Sally is reason enough to make a decision. Now, if you just excuse me, I need to talk to our President and I cannot miss the slot.”
Charles hastily shook hands, and left, without giving Helena the time to greet him properly. She considered whether she had to raise her tone to wave him goodbye, then she looked around at the patio, which was filling up with Secret Service agents, and gave up. She could see Charles walking straight to the President, at the other end of the pool.
Charles waited for his turn to speak, then took Skip under his arm and started walking alongside the pool.
“Glad to see that you seem to be enjoying the Conference, Charles,” Skip was beaming as he spoke, “I hope it’s a sign you are overcoming grief. There are so many things to do now, I have great proposals to offer you, Charles.”
“Perhaps, you might start by telling me the truth, for once,” Charles replied politely.
“The truth about the rumors that you read in the news? That I am thinking about you as new Secretary of Treasury to help fix our economy?”, Skip’s enthusiasm was uncontrollable.
“The truth about Sally.” Charles replied bluntly. “You should know quite a bit but you never told me.”
Skip suddenly stopped and put himself instinctively at arm’s length from Charles. Before he could speak, Charles continued.
“Why did you gave the order to kill her, Skip?”
“She was killed in a sectarian attack, you know that. You just haven’t come to terms with it yet.”
“It was not a sectarian attack. I got evidence that the gang was armed and instructed by government officials to make sure the congregation would be destroyed” Charles paused, “And Sally along with them.”
“What evidence do you have, Charles? Videos? Mails? A secret blog? It’s all bullshit, you know that everything can be manipulated and changed nowadays.”
“That may have been the case. Then I went back to the old way. Word of mouth and trust.”
“You are telling me that you are trusting Sally’s friends’ in Israel more than me? They are just trying to divide us. And maybe they are the real culprits.”
“I did not get the information from them. What really matters is, if you gave that order, Skip? You have to tell me.”
Skip did the utmost to control his rage, after a few seconds he stared straight into Charles’ eyes and hissed,
“I am responsible for the security and the rebuilding of this country, and God only knows how many threats I have had to fend off in the past decades to try to preserve it, despite all the damage that the delusions and greed of people like you were doing. I do not have anything to justify to you, and much less to apologize.”
There was a moments of silence, Charles kept staring at Skip and continued,
“Did you give that order, Skip? I need to know.”
Skip spoke louder this time, attracting the attention of the Secret Service agent who was following them.
“It was a foreign spy you have been sleeping with for decades, and you knew it,” Skip paused for a moment and turned his eyes away from Charles, he was now staring at the pool, and continued,
“You know what? I think I tolerated it way too long. I actually regret not giving the order myself, and let a gang of negroes do a shabby work instead.”
Charles kept silent. He looked at the pool beyond Skip’s shoulders, then inched a step back. Skip sighed, as if in repentance.
“Ok, I was too blunt. Sorry, but I had to tell you, Charles.”
“Sure, Skip. Understood,” Charles replied, calmly, staring back at Skip. “I also had to ask you. It’s time to call it off.”
Charles then lowered his eyes, and extracted a small box from his pocket. Skip failed to recognize the micro spider grenade a second too late to react and ask for help.
The Secret Service agent behind them noticed the small flare coming from Charles hands, followed by the cascade of grey balls that landed on the ground, surrounding them. Immediately, they started looking for targets. He tried to rush back to safety, but he was a bare ten yards away from the President. He was bitten and died exactly three seconds after Skip Ross and Charles Daniels.
â€œThe last enemy to be destroyed shall be deathâ€, wrote St. Paul in his letters. But what if someone has already managed to defeat it? Thirty-four years have gone by since an ingenious biochemist, named Louis Picard, invented the ultimate anti-aging drug in 1981, that is known as Telomerax. Louis was obliged to form a selected group of technology entrepreneurs, finance mavens, and secret service professionals to help strategically spread knowledge of the drug. The discovery of Telomerax carried obvious dangers with it, eventually leading to the collapse of society and the near-extinction of mankind, in the ruthless war that broke out. Survivors set out to design a new society, specially designed for the half-gods that individuals were becoming. An action-packed and thrilling apocalyptic novel, â€œThe Last Enemyâ€, brings to light many issues that we face today, from the clash between the power of the state and the right of citizens, to respecting our limits and controlling the human drive to push ourselves beyond those very limits.