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The Last Enemy - Parts 1,2 & 3 - 1934-2054

The Last Enemy

 

 

Parts 1, 2 & 3

 

1934-2054

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Luca Luchesini

 

 

Edited by Isabel Spinelli & Poppy Tallon

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Copyright 2015 by Luca Luchesini

 

 

Disclaimer

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.

 

 

London – July 27, 2084

 

This eBook celebrates the 150th birthday of Louis Picard, the man who freed mankind from mortality with the anti-aging drug that he invented in 1981, called Telomerax. While we, the average individuals, remain subject to illnesses, accidents and, more than ever, our own violence, we have painfully discovered along the way that revealed Telomerax as the hidden secret of the happy few in this world.

As Louis Picard and Telomerax are inevitably associated to each other, we have decided to celebrate his birthday with a feature story that is at the same time both a biographical interview and a brief history of the world during the last half a century. We, the chief editors of the New Times, ask in advance for the forgiveness of our readers if at times the biography turns into a historical novel. We also would like to thank Louis for the time he spent with us in holoconference from his private mansion on the Aeolian island of Salina. We have structured the story of his life among four sections:

Part 1: Discovery – Beginning from the birth of Louis in 1934 and ending in 2010, when the drug was developed in secret and a circle of guardians established to protect the secret. That is, until its members were detected by security agencies, at the end of 2010.

Part 2: Detection and Awareness – 2011 to 2023, when knowledge and use of the drug started to circulate.

Part 3: Prohibition and War – 2024 to 2054, when most governments banned the drug and how this led to the breakup of worldly order and the elimination of three fourths of mankind.

Part 4: The New Order – 2054 to present day, when mankind was rearranged along completely new geographic and political lines, with new states, ways of life and the emergence of the new international order.

Thirty years after the end of the war, the controversial question of whether the discovery of Telomerax has been more beneficial or not to mankind, still sparks a heated debate. Therefore as chief editors of the New Times, we want to take the occasion of Louis’ birthday to try and build a new, fairer view while the suffering and hatred of the wars is subsiding and slowly becoming a part of history. We hope that you enjoy this journey, and we encourage you to contribute to the discussion and share any relevant opinions or thoughts on our website http://lastenemythebook.blogspot.com.

 

Part One – Discovery

Chapter 1

Louis Picard was born on July 27, 1934 in the city of Lille, located in northern France. Being the son of a pharmacist and a mathematics teacher at the local high school, Louis enjoyed a comfortable and happy childhood in a respectable family of the French bourgeoisie. Since his infancy, he showed a brilliant mind which his mother nourished with private lessons.

At the age of five, Louis could already read and write fluently. His parents were thinking about sending him to Paris in a special college for gifted students, when the Nazi’s invasion of France brought those plans to an end.

We begin the interview by asking him to recall that period.

“Mr. Picard, what was your experience of World War II like?”

The hologram of Louis appears. He is a handsome man in his early forties with dark hair and a bronzed complexion, dressed in a casual white shirt. He responds calmly and sincerely,

“I have to say, my parents did the utmost to shield me from the duress that war brings. Luckily Lille was never the site of a major battle, neither during the Nazi invasion nor during the liberation by the Allied forces in 1944. But you could however experience the poverty, the cold winters and the general sense of uneasiness while living in a place where Gestapo, the powerful and secretive Nazi police force, always had the last word.

Due to its proximity to the British Channel, Lille was under authority of the German military and a few wrong words could have you arrested and detained by the secret police. As a result, my parents tried to keep me at home as much as possible. They, themselves, only went out to work or run errands.

We lived in Rue de Valmy, in a three story building, that housed the pharmacy shop of my father on the ground floor and our apartment on the floors above.”

“Do you recall any specific event that helped to shape your life?”

“Well, you have to know that between 1940 and 1941, many houses had been confiscated by the Nazis to accommodate soldiers and officers. Living in our town, one of those officers had fallen to the temptations of the beautiful French women and had contracted Syphilis. He visited my father’s shop regularly, for this, as he was the only German-speaking pharmacist in town. Apparently the treatment was successful enough for the high-ranking officer, that my father was able to keep the house.

At the time, I did not understand anything about sexual diseases, however I had the very clear perception that we were better off than the others because my father was good with chemistry, and eventually that would contribute to my own destiny. During those years, the bond with my mother became stronger than ever before, as she spent almost all afternoon with me, reviewing my lessons. At the time when the Allied forces freed us from the grasp of Nazi Germany, I remember the joy, but also the suffering that rang out through the city. Suffering that was caused by the prosecutions which began erupting against the French collaborationists.

Among many shameful events, the women who had any relations with German soldiers or officers, were exposed in public squares and had their hair shaved off. I still remember the face of my mother; the disgust she held in her eyes. And I immediately was moved to disgust along with her. So somehow the victory came with mixed feelings.”

“Was your family also affected by the collaborationist prosecutions? And how did that help to shape your mind?”

“We were not affected directly, however my father got some threats for his alleged service to German occupation troops. Those rumors all came from some envious neighbors that could not cope with the fact that he had kept house and shop, while they had been forced to relocate.

He was spared the worst. In the end he always made sure to take care of his fellow compatriots without any preferences over the occupying troops. The public humiliation of those women served as a scapegoat to discharge all community tensions, and we did benefit from it in that way. But my father no longer felt safe in Lille and in the spring of 1945, he decided to move to Paris.

So for me the end of the war was a mixed experience, joyful for the end of the occupation, combined with the feeling that people had not learned alot from it.”

The Picards moved to Paris and took residence in a comfortable apartment in Boulevard Raspail, on the Rive Gauche. Louis went to high school and later enrolled in Medicine at Sorbonne University. He was still an undergraduate student, when in 1954, he stumbled on the legendary article of Watson and Crick that described the structure of DNA.

For Louis it was the equivalent of a religious revelation, and although he could not comprehend all of the details, he understood that this discovery was about to change his future and the future of the entire world. He started taking courses in biology and managed to get acquainted with the head group leading researches in biochemistry.

“How would you describe those years? When did you decide to major in biochemistry?”

“It was absolutely insane. I was trying to get two degrees at once, spending more than sixteen hours every day between books, laboratories and in libraries. To better understand the research documents, I also had to teach myself English. Things improved a bit when I eventually graduated in Medicine in 1957, but this led to a clash in my family. I made it very clear that I did not want to continue in the medical field and instead focus on the new frontier of biology and genetics.

But this was purely an intellectual drive. I was still lacking the compelling event that would push me to devote my life to the quest of immortality – if you allow me this hefty expression.”

“And the compelling event came with the illness and death of your mother.”

“Yes, she was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1956 and after a struggle that lasted two years, she passed away in 1958. During that time my father and I used all the connections we had to try to save her, but it was clear from the very beginning that it was a lost battle. And even as a young undergraduate, I could see that doctors – a kin to which I am now a part of – were not able to properly define the problem. There were too many missing pieces and a certain reluctance to apply the latest findings of biology and genetics to experiments.

I felt like we were in the times where medicine was being tested to fight off infections, before Pasteur discovered bacteria.

As for me, in the words of Elias Canetti, I felt like death was physically our only worst enemy. I decided I wanted to figure out a way to conquer it. With a good amount of the arrogance any young man has, I came to the conclusion that Medicine was just a pure waste of my time. So I switched my focus onto biochemistry and the study of genetics because I knew that it was the most promising, and probably only way, to defeat death in my lifespan.”

“I see that neither religion nor spirituality were of any comfort to you. Were you already an atheist before you started your research?”

Louis pauses for a few seconds to ponder an answer, and then his blue eyes flash as he continues.

“I would not describe myself as an atheist, neither in those times nor the present. It is true that I was raised in an environment that was quite indifferent to religion and against some of its most dogmatic forms, as my father declared himself a liberal follower of Voltaire, and my mother came from a socialist radical family that backed the French Third Republic.

However, it would be unfair to say that they were completely hostile to religion. They realized that atheism could become a faith in itself, and a very damaging one at that. They were indeed interested in the genesis of religious beliefs and at some time my father also engaged in a letter exchange with Emile Durkheim, the sociologist that studied the phenomena linked to the collective psychology of religion and its influence on society.

The fact is, religion for me always remained one of the many, often contradictory, expressions of my mind that somehow got demoted to a lower priority when other very cogent experiences like love, sorrow, professional achievement, and death came into play. And over the last several years we have all witnessed where having a certain interpretation of religion can lead us.

So you might be better off calling me an agnostic with genuine envy towards those that have true and peaceful faith, and at the same time fear to engage with them. I cannot exactly explain why. Fear of losing control, maybe.

Anyway, back to 1958. Immediately after we had the burial ceremony for my mother in the Montparnasse cemetery, I left France and applied to study Biology at the University of Cambridge, that at the time was home to one of the team of researchers from the so-called “Phage group”, and where James Watson and Francis Crick had perfected their research of the DNA structure at the beginning of the 1950s. The environment was fantastic, and by the time I finished my PhD thesis in 1962, I had come to meet all the major researchers active in the field. Among other events, I also met my first wife there, Alicia Paulson. She was working as a research associate in quantum physics at the Cavendish Lab, where a number of Nobel Prize winners had worked. We got married in 1961. We shared the same deep passion for science but for reasons I never quite understood, I never talked openly to her about my actual goals.”

“Was this because you did not feel she would approve of your intentions?”

“Well, maybe. Or maybe it was my fault. I was not able to assert and defend my intentions yet, even with the person whom I loved. For sure it did not help the relationship in the long run and eventually we divorced in 1967, as my focus on research started to absorb all my time and energy. Fortunately, both Alicia and I realized we were simply not on the same page. She wanted a child, while I was working on a project in which children would be a big problem – although at that time I did not know it.”

Louis stops in the middle of the sentence, and turns his head towards the large glass window in the polished living room of his villa. He seems to hesitate for a moment, looking beyond the blossoming Hibiscus flowers in his Mediterranean garden, and focusing on a point somewhere in the middle of the sea.

“Yet there was still something wrong. What was it?”

“How can I explain…after a few semesters at Cambridge I was already regarded as a sort of “young prodige” of genetics and biochemistry. Before I completed my dissertation, I had multiple offers to join the best universities to continue my research. However there were a few factors which I was not expecting, that threatened to jeopardize my mission.

First of all, I did not have the freedom to lead my research in the direction that I wanted. There seemed to be a certain academic mainstream to follow, and this came with guardrails on the resources you could have at your disposal, and a boss to whom you were required to report your findings. No matter if you were the brightest scholar in centuries.

Second, while my fellow researchers were certainly driven by the desire of knowledge, they had more mundane objectives; such as their academic career, longing for public recognition, and even rivalry against other research groups. Very few, if any at all, shared my total commitment. From this point of view, I was more of a priest or a missionary, than a scientist.

Lastly, my colleagues quickly sensed this division and over the following years I found myself more and more disengaged. So it was clear that, once again, I had to drastically change my approach if I wanted to continue my quest. But unlike my previous change of switching colleges, it was more about how to do it rather than what to do.”

The opportunity presented itself on the train that was taking me and Alicia back to Paris during the summer of 1962.”

 

Chapter 2

“On the train you found a copy of Paris Match, the most popular magazine at the time, where L’Oreal had posted research and development jobs available for their soon-to-be-launched skin products division.”

“Yes. At first glance, however, I ignored it. I was far too advanced for the positions they were offering and the only thing my research and the job had in common was that there were cells involved. But by the time the train entered the Gare du Nord in Paris, I had come to the conclusion that it was the perfect opportunity and I sent my resume directly from the post office that was inside the station.

A few days later I received a telegram at my father’s house that invited me for an interview at their headquarters in Clichy, located in the outskirts of Paris. It was there where I met Xavier Langlois, the director of the hair products department, at that time.

He was a very tall man, dressed in an impeccable suit. He showed me into his spacious office, furnished with antique chairs and a huge round table that served as his desk. He greeted me by asking why a brilliant scientist like myself would ever consider joining a cosmetics company and added that he would not hire me in any case, as I must have some kind of mental problem.

Tough start. One hundred and twenty-two years have passed and I still vividly remember every moment of that interview. He had been brutally honest. After having said that, he leaned back into his chair and stared at me, waiting for my explanation. It was time to make my move.

“Monsieur,” I replied, “I read in the job posting that you are looking for a qualified biochemist to run an ambitious project in cosmetic research. After reading my resume, you cannot question my expertise. On the contrary, you have not yet demonstrated to me that your project is ambitious enough for me to consider it.”

Xavier’s face transformed. He cleared his throat, as an attempt to compensate for his rude introduction and spoke simply.

“Indeed, this project is too intricate to describe in an ad. As you well know, we produce top-selling products, and we want to set up a lab to better investigate the function of cells and apply this knowledge to create rennovated products.

Your education as a physician and your recent experience in cell research obviously qualifies you for the job, but I doubt that you would appreciate our environment. I hope to bring new ground-breaking products to the market.”

”Monsieur, then I think we share the same ideas. One of the main problems I am having now at the university, is that we are not focused enough on improving the common good of society.

We have studied the code that rules cell replication, but do not want to seriously commit our efforts to how, for example, this could be applied to aging. Therefore I think that I would be able to contribute more at L’Oreal than at Cavendish Lab in Cambridge.

That is why I am here.”

Xavier expression, attentive up until now, opened into a broad smile.

“Are you telling me that you plan to use L’Oreal labs and resources to turn them into a sorcerer’s cave to try to produce the eternal life potion?”

“Well, that would definitely be the main goal. Unfortunately, I have to be realistic and admit that most likely I will only end up designing lots of tremendously successful skin cosmetics that will provide L’Oreal with stacks of money and a decent career for myself.”

Xavier burst into laughter and ringed the bell on his desk to call in his assistant. A few seconds later, a young woman opened the door and before she could even step in the office, Mr. Langlois told her to prepare the paperwork. I was expected to start working the next day.

“Louis, in retrospect, do you think Mr. Langlois believed your true goals?”

“Not for the first few years. He kept up with my work and he clearly saw that I was also doing a lot of studies and experiments not directly correlated to product research. On the other side, he was also seeing that this side research sometimes contributed to the main product development, almost always with excellent results. So I believe he just figured that that was just my way of working.

He would give me the objectives and ask me how much I needed to achieve them, without further questioning. By 1965, I had already developed a drug able to improve the replication efficiency of a set of skin and hair cells, and this was channeled into extremely popular products. My career took off and by 1968, Xavier was seriously thinking about handing me the responsibility of the whole product development of L’Oreal. I balked at the idea. I needed to focus on research, not to be a company executive.

He was puzzled at my response, so in the early weeks of the summer of 1968, he called me into his office and asked me why I was refusing a promotion. Was I under the influence of all those communists that were rocking the streets of Paris and of half of Europe?

I stuck to the truth and updated him on everything I was finding in my free time, among which, the discovery of telomeres in skin cells.

Telomeres are the structures that allow DNA to replicate and form an exact copy of the original cell, except over time they get shorter, until the cell is no longer able to replicate correctly and eventually dies. I had sent some previous results to my old classmates at Cambridge for some additional review and I could simply not leave the job half done.

Xavier stood up from his desk, and stared at me with a frown. Turns out that I had indeed created my own sorcerer’s cave in search of the eternal life potion. Just like in my first interview, I used the interest of the company to defend my point.

I was just a few months away from a major breakthrough in the study of the cell aging process and he would risk spoiling this over a promotion? He eventually gave in, and I could keep running my lab under one condition; I update him regularly on my side research.”

“How did this second phase of your research at L’Oreal go?”

“Well, there were three major breakthroughs. First, I was able to produce telomerase, the enzyme that preserves telomeres, therefore guaranteeing perfect cell duplication. This happened in the fall of 1970. Second, I was able to design a drug that transferred telomerase into human skin cells to make them effectively immortal. This was the first prototype of Telomerax.

And third, we started experimenting on human patients. Xavier knew a Swiss doctor named Hans Klettendorf, who was the owner of a fancy beauty clinic called “Le Jardin de Venus” in the Perroy village, off the coast of the lake of Geneva.

There was an agreement that allowed L’Oreal to use the rich and famous customers of this beauty farm to test its new products. Obviously with their consent, and under the full control of an experienced staff. To my surprise, I saw that these special kind of guinea pigs were very eager to undergo risky experiments in exchange for the privilege of accessing the latest rennovations in aesthetic care.

No one except Xavier and I knew that the skin cream was also the first Telomerax prototype and since the clinic customers knew they were using experimental cosmetics, they did not mind if from time to time an expert would come for a few checkups.

The results were absolutely amazing. The skin of the patients treated with the prototype clearly showed a sudden stop in the aging process, to the extent that they were considering reducing the frequency of their other cosmetic treatments. Of course, all the rest of their body was still subject to aging but the results were simply shocking. So I pushed myself to work harder, and Xavier became more and more intrusive on my research, making me feel as if I was suffocating under pressure.

Then I discovered the reason behind his intrusion. L’Oreal was planning to buy Synthelabo, a French pharmaceutical company that was renowned for its research in dermatology. That was why Xavier needed to know all the points he could bank on before heading into the acquisition. In addition, my research would have had to be combined into the one of Synthelabo. The message was very clear, freedom to complete my research in private was diminishing.”

“How did you manage to defend your independence?”

“L’Oreal acquired Synthelabo in 1973, and then all of the usual company integration problems surfaced; redundant research projects, competition among different teams and the like. On my end, more and more time wasted on company turf wars. And then came the death of my father, which reopened my eyes to focus on my actual goal. If you believe in fate, that was a sign. So I made up my mind, and I decided it was high time to switch up my career again.

I went to Xavier’s office and asked to leave the company. It was time for me to setup my own shop and, with the respectable amount of money I had earned so far, I would ask Hans Klettendorf to become his partner at “Le Jardin de Venus.”

The explanation I gave Hans for the abrupt change, was that it was time for me to fulfill my entrepreneurial dream. I emphasized the fact that I was bringing a good amount of capital, knowledge, and experience to increase the clinic business and set up its own exclusive cosmetic lab.

The key advantage of teaming up with me, for Hans, was that he would secure a solid future for his business, at seventy-two years old. This implied that his two sons – neither showing interest to follow in their father’s footsteps – could continue to benefit from the profits, while devoting themselves to their favorite hobbies. Only Xavier knew the real reason for my leave, and kept this as the focus during our last meeting.

“Louis,” he said, “I admire your commitment but have you ever considered all the consequences? I mean, it could go wrong.”

“You mean, what if I do not end up with solid results? Well, you know, people will move on from where I left…”

“No, Louis, what if you succeed and you find your potion of eternal life? You are either ignoring the implications, or simply pretending there are none.

Do you think you can sort it out by publishing an article in Nature magazine, like your heroes Francis and Crick did, and then wait for the Nobel Prize and that’s it?”

“Of course not, Xavier. It will be incomparably larger than Penicillin; a revolution.”

“Far more than a revolution. Think about it. Everything is based on this very simple and undeniable truth, that we are mortals. Life is just a brief journey, then you go to Hell, or Heaven, or nowhere, but you make room for somebody else. Everything is programmed around this. And if you succeed, the whole system collapses. There is maybe far more to lose than to gain, from a human standpoint, of course.”

“Well, I agree it won’t be easy to adapt to, but this is the ultimate goal for me and I believe for all of us. Plus, we are almost there. I feel it. The criminal act, or rather the inhumane one, would be to give up for fear, Xavier. And honestly, I am quite surprised that this objection comes from an enlightened and rational person like yourself.”

“I know I can’t stop you, Louis. This is your passion. But please think. And watch out. It could become very dangerous for you, and those around you. And do not hesitate to come back if you need help.”

We never got in touch again. The next time I would see Xavier, would be at his funeral in 1985. He died in a car crash, and by that time I had already been testing the first versions of Telomerax on myself for a few years.

I find it quite ironic how I arrived at the ceremony as the first immortal being on Earth, being proven against by the unpreventable death of my friend. Yet Xavier had made a good point. From that moment on, I was no longer under the protection of a company. I was at high seas, with a powerful treasure that had to be defended from a multitude of threats, by any means necessary. The first mission was to keep it a secret.

Chapter 3

“The Swiss period, if we can call it that, started in 1973 with your arrival at the Klettendorf clinic and lasted more than forty years until you were forced to leave the country in 2017. How would you describe it, looking back?”

“We can roughly divide it into three main parts. In the first fifteen years, I was mainly focused on completing the development of Telomerax and consolidating the clinic research activity.

Then, from the late eighties to around 2010, most of my attention went into creating the network that was necessary to protect the Telomerax secret. The last years were all about fighting off the effects of information leakage that made me, my family, and my friends, subjective to of all kinds of attention from big governments, big corporations, and big crime from all over the world. This eventually endangered our security and survival.

It was a period of increasing anxiety and fear. Without a doubt, the first ten years were the best ones. The clinic had a very competent staff, and performing my duties as lab director was a satisfying job that left me plenty of time to experiment.

I had brought along with me a lot of machinery from L’Oreal and I purposely organized the research activity in a way that doctors and technicians working with me, could not get the full picture. At times, I was sending some of the experiment results to Rodney Gilmore, a research associate who I had met in Cambridge back in the sixties and who had become a professor of biochemistry.

By 1977, I had modified the Telomerax prototype so that it was now possible to employ telomerase not only in skin cells but in a number of other tissues like muscles, kidneys, the nervous system, and liver. But at the same time this information was becoming more and more public. In 1978, Elizabeth Blackburn and her Yale colleagues published the analysis about telomeres that would win them the Nobel Prize in 2009.

After reading the article I immediately called Rodney and asked him if my correspondence with him had any part of this. He thought I was angry because my work was not mentioned at all in the bibliography and that I was looking to get part of the credit, so he immediately became defensive.

“Well, Louis, you know, I did not quite understand what you were saying in your correspondence and this Australian girl we have here, at Darwin College, is really bright. I just thought she might have a look at it. She could get some insight for her own research, too. You know, I am a professor. You have your clinic, I did not think it would be a big issue if your name did not appear in the bibliography. And anyway, it was private correspondence…”

“I am not looking for any damn glory, Rodney! If I had been, I would not have left Cavendish lab back in 1962. The fact is, I am working for Dr. Klettendorf and I have sworn to secrecy since this is part of our cosmetic research. This article could end my career. Just please do me a favor and keep my name out of the references and please trash all of our correspondence. I cannot afford to put my job at risk. Is that clear, Rodney?”

“I am sorry, I did not mean to put you in trouble. Elizabeth has been working here at Cambridge since 1975. I have never seen someone as gifted as her in biochemistry so when I went through your last letter I asked her to go over your key points, especially in those paragraphs where you describe the way to synthesize the new enzyme. I simply had no idea how to build the verification experiment, so I just asked for a little advice.”

“Did you give her a copy of my paper, Rodney? This could cost me my position and more. I do not want to restart at age forty-four.”

“What the hell, Louis, of course not. I understand the difference between private letters and open research.”

“All right, then. Let’s close it here. But please tell me before sharing anything next time. I need to know what’s going on.”

Apparently I was convincing enough, because no reference to my name or research ever appeared in any official scientific journal. But just as a precaution, I stopped all scientific exchanges with Rodney and other scholars and over time, even the personal ones, slowly but surely severing all ties with my past.

In 1980, I reached the final breakthrough. The drug could now cover all human tissue and my cooperative guinea pigs would take it by applying the occasional skin cream treatment commonly used at every beauty clinic. Once Telomerax was absorbed into the skin, it slowly diffused into the rest of the body, effectively stopping the aging process.

The next step was to run extensive clinical experiments to test if there were side effects after applying the cream. This took place between 1980 and 1984. I would start taking Telomerax myself, toward the end of 1983. Only after the first round of experiments showed no major drawbacks.”

“Yet in your research journal you describe some nasty collateral effects, like the results that confirmed existing tumors develop much faster after treatment with Telomerax.”

“Indeed. Tumors are to some extent the precursors of immortality. They are made up of cells that keep replicating uncontrollably fast, without aging, making them unstoppable. In addition, they have much higher levels of telomerase. Eleven of my patients, which is roughly two percent of everyone involved in the clinical trials, already had some form of cancer which they were unaware of before being exposed to the treatment.

After leaving the clinic, their tumors developed much faster than expected, establishing a strong connection between Telomerax and cancer progress. As a result, I modified the drug so that you were required to take it regularly in small doses and then eventually I transformed it into a pill. This made it so much easier to use, without the extensive process of bathing in a tub full of cream.

Finally, allow me to comment on the expenses. My initial Telomerax prototypes costed me about $1500 per treatment, for every one of my patients. This was equivalent to what we charged for a day at the clinic, including accommodation. By 1990, I had been able to slash that cost by fifty percent. Immortality was getting cheap.”

“Don’t you feel guilty for those eleven people whose lives were actually shortened by the Telomerax experimentation?”

“Not really, honestly. There are many other things I feel more guilty about, looking at how the story unfolded. Remember, these people were all aware we were testing experimental cosmetics on them. It is true they did not know my true intentions, but it may as well have been a simple skin care treatment that could have increased their likelihood to get cancer.

On top of that, the precautions I took in developing Telomerax were much more serious than those I used for ordinary products. Of course, I do regret not having understood the connection between Telomerax and cancer before, so that I could have saved some of them….but I did not give up on my main goal, to give my patients an extended lifetime in exchange for some unpredictable and unavoidable experimental risks.”

“Then with new discoveries, came the need for further discretion.”

“Secrecy meant many things. First, I had to protect the work from my partner, Mr. Klettendorf, which was easy. He could not understand the work behind my research, and because of my responsibility, it was relatively easy to bury the costs of the Telomerax development into the overall cosmetics lab costs. Things became a bit more complicated during the clinic test phase, when Telomerax production required almost three million dollars over four years and accounted for nearly ten percent of the overall clinic costs.

Fortunately Hans was well into his eighties and his sons did not get involved with the clinic, so with just minor tweaks, I was able to keep it under the surface. Then Hans passed away in 1988 and I took over all executive and financial responsibility of the business. This basically secured me from any inside risk, because it would be impossible for anyone to spot what was really going on by just looking at the records.

The real issue was protecting the secret of the formula. On the day of the burial of Xavier, I thought about how he was right to have feared my success.

Luckily, I was living in a country that has made protecting secrets and their bearers, a national mission. My private banker came up with a strategic plan. I stored all of my key research documents and synthesis process in an armored safe with a coded lock. I then let my bank pick a notary, whose name they did not disclose to me, to keep the safe in custody. I then brought the code and a sealed envelope, enclosing the name of the notary to a different bank. That bank chose another notary, also unknown to me, to guard the code.

If I did not check back with the banks, by phone, on a monthly basis and in person at least twice a year, they would tell their respective notaries to recover the safe and have the codes sent in to open it. Together with the scientific documentation, there were clear instructions to send copies to all the major European newspapers and research institutions. Repeat that process ten times, and by 1987 I had ten copies of my research under the custody of ten notaries, that had the content but no easy way to access it and another ten who had the codes but no easy access to the content.

If anything bad happened to me, the result was that Telomerax would become public domain. As I did not know who the notaries were, there was no danger of anyone threatening or torturing me to reveal my secret.”

“And how about the manufacturing facility at the clinic? Could anyone interested in the secret just break into the lab, steal the pills, and find the drug formula?”

“After more than twenty years of work I knew the production process by heart and I did not need anything unordinary to run it. All that the occasional men in black might have found, would be just basic components common at any pharmaceutical lab.

Obviously, I would not have done any of this without an agreement. I was basically banking on the assumption that any organization interested in Telomerax would also have had a clear interest in keeping it a secret. So no matter how evil their intention may have seemed, we would have had this crucial goal in common. Removing me from the equation against my will meant immediate public availability to the formula.

At the time, I could only come up with a few ways how the drug could have gone public. The first, being my sudden death in a totally unexpected catastrophe like an accident, or natural disaster. Otherwise, through a failed negotiation with an unreasonable party. Or, perhaps, the chance of someone actually wanting to take it public.

In the first case scenario, I told myself it would have been fate’s desire to let all mankind share my legacy. As for the other two, I figured that this would show the presence of such extreme corruption and ignorance that mankind would desperately need this gift.

However, I did not consider the fact that showed up later on, that I would become the prime target of hatred for years after my discovery went public. Then, there was also the time factor. This secret had to be kept over a long period of time, for as long as I would live. Hanging around your neighborhood at age ninety, running a clinic looking barely forty, could get suspicious. Even if people know you are a genius in the business of cosmetics.

Because of this, I knew I had to figure out a way that allowed me to completely change identity and start a new life somewhere else, every thirty or forty years. I immediately realized that the tricky part was not so much transferring the assets and the money, but rather creating a believable story around it, to give the new Louis a real past. I would need assistance from people knowledgeable in the functions of secret services, security agencies, and organized crime. Basically, I could not do this alone. I needed to build a small and extremely trustworthy network of…let’s say, ‘immortal guardians’, whose one mission was to keep Telomerax hidden.

But, unlike biochemistry, this area was unfamiliar to me and maybe it is no surprise that despite the caution I took, and the initial success, this is the part that did not go as smoothly as I had hoped.”

Chapter 4

“Was your second wife, Dora, aware of the nature and extent of your work?”

“She was not aware of all the details until 1995, which means thirteen years after our marriage, eleven years after Telomerax was stable, and ten years since I started giving it to her without her knowing. It is worth explaining how I organized this phenomenon, because it marked the beginning of the immortal generation.

I met her in the summer of 1980. She came to the clinic as the rich, young, and somehow bored wife of Johann Feldstein, a respected lawyer and professor at the University of Basel.

She was the daughter of Jacob Bershidsky, a German-speaking Sudeten Jew, who was freed by Allied troops in Dachau. He came back to his Sudeten homeland just to, then, be driven out by the Czechs. He eventually moved to Freiburg, where he worked as a shoemaker. He opted for his German side, decided to forget his past, by declaring no religious affiliation, and eventually became a West German citizen and married Elke Freising. She was a widow who had lost her husband on the Eastern front and now had to settle for a second marriage with a renegade Jew, because she badly needed help to raise her small child, Helmut.

Dora was born in 1953 and lived an uneventful childhood in the German province of the “Wirtschaftswunder”, the post-war economic miracle. Her parents decided to keep their former lives hidden and Dora sensed a clear preference her mother had for her elder brother, Helmut. She went to college, where she met her first husband, who was a brilliant professor in commercial law and was ten years older than her. Shortly after they married in 1976, her father called her aside and told her the truth about himself and her mother. He could no longer bear keeping the facts hidden, as his wife was slowly being killed by the Alzheimer’s disease and he was afraid Dora would find out the wrong way, if he was not the one to tell her.

She was shocked by the news and almost broke off her relationship with her father. Even worse, she was not able to tell her husband. She felt he was continuously absorbed by his career and their relationship was quietly cooling down after the first months full of passion.

When she entered the clinic, her soul was a complete existential wreck but she was still a very attractive woman; tall, voluptuous and elegant. Her head was crowned by a forest of long, curly brown hair that reminded me of a Greek goddess, but her face was veiled in sadness that emanated from her icy eyes. Even though I was more committed than ever to my research, I could not resist the temptation to invite her to the ‘terrace dinner’.

This was a huge celebration held by the clinic that had been started by Dr. Klettendorf and consisted of a lavish meal, taking place every Wednesday evening.

The event was held for the clinic’s most valuable customers, on the beautiful terrace on the top floor, overlooking the Lake of Geneva.

We had on average fifty to sixty guests who would spend one or two weeks at Le Jardin, and we would personally choose who would attend the dinner. There were two main purposes.

First, we wanted to create a deeper sense of exclusivity among the already exclusive clients that chose to stay at the beauty farm. Second, we carefully selected the guests to create a network of connections which we could count on, in the future.

Of course there were some golden rules in the selection process. First, newcomers would typically not be allowed to the dinner. You needed to be a regular customer. Next, invitees had to bring something interesting to the table. We were not interested in the “simply rich”. They needed to have stories, or skills, or personalities that made them unique. Lastly, all the previous rules notwithstanding, everyone at the dinner had to be liked by myself and Dr. Klettendorf.

Hans started to spend less and less time at the clinic, leaving me in charge of the terrace dinner. So I broke the rule and invited Dora to the terrace after her first visit. Let me cut it short and keep a bit of privacy here. What matters for the rest of the story is that the next year she divorced her first husband, and we married in 1983.

Beyond physical attraction, we shared a deep dissatisfaction on the way life was organized, and also a resolve to change it.

While I was engaged in my personal struggle against the deaths among my loved ones, Dora held a grudge against the lies humans constantly tell each other which, in turn, make our lives miserable. Knowing this about her, I had to tell her something about my work, yet I could not risk a full disclosure.

On the eve of our marriage, I took her to the lab and explained that I was doing more than simple cosmetics and I was actually involved in a secret research about aging. I could not tell her more, but I would in due time. She had either to trust me, or leave me. After hearing these words she froze, and for a long minute I thought she was gone. The Dr. Picard she loved had a secret he was not yet prepared to tell the world, not even his future wife.

Then she asked me, “Ok, tell me just two things. Can you promise me that you are not hurting anyone and that when the day comes I will be the first to know?”

I responded happily, “Yes! No lies.”

“And I have a further request. I would appreciate you to finance my degree in psychology and my psychoanalysis, so that I can set up my psychoanalyst practice in a private studio here at the clinic. I have a simpler goal than you, just to help people get out of their own lies.”

“That is a done deal. Frankly, your mission looks more impossible than mine.”

She kissed me, and we happily married the following day.

 

Chapter 5

“Yet this was just the revelation that you had work in progress. How did you manage the full disclosure?”

“She would ask me every few months how my research was going. I would give vague answers about some progress.

In 1985, once I was sure there would be no negative outcomes, I asked her if she would like to join the experiment. She accepted, so I took a close-up picture of her sitting on the terrace, flooded with the spring sun, and we continued our lives. From time to time I would ask her to take a beauty cream bath and then the pills. During the occasional request for an update, she would add a comment that she was not feeling any different.

Then on April 25, 1995, I took another close-up picture of her and put it next to the one taken ten years before. She stared in silence. After a while she whispered, “Wow, Louis, well you are certainly on to something. What’s next?”

“I guess we need to keep quiet and wait for a while. A very long while, in all likeliness. Do you think people are ready for this to go public?”

She immediately responded, “Not if I recall our conversations with the terrace guests, nor if I look at my patients. But we risk waiting forever.”

“True. We might have a difficult quest in front of us. Even if during the last few years, things in the world have improved a lot. We might still need to wait several years before we bring this to light. And the two of us cannot do it alone. We need to build a bigger team.”

“Build a team…with some of our friends? How would you pick them?”

“Let’s profile them first. We need to like and trust them. And they have to contribute the skills and connections we do not have, in case we have to disappear and reappear under new identities. But by this alone, the list would contain many names.

Next, they have to be absolutely committed to keeping the secret. We do not need the idealists or believers in the progression of mankind, nor those who could try to use the discovery just for their own benefit. You know that among our guests, the opportunistic crooks far outnumber the naive philanthropists.”

I continued, having this checklist memorized by heart,

“We must search for disenchanted people, yet with a very strong sense of their value so that given the right challenge they will fully commit themselves.”

“Yes, I agree. You are asking these people to form the first generation of a new mankind – if we can still even call it that. They must stay quiet until the time is right. This is the biggest secret, with the biggest reward, and the biggest risks.”

“At the end of the day, the deal is very simple. I give them immortality in exchange for their service to the organization and they are free to do whatever they want with their Telomerax, without telling anyone about the discovery.”

“But they will still depend on you to get the drug. How do you know this won’t provoke rivalry or resentment?”

“That’s why you will not find any scientist among them. I want to avoid any risk of professional competition. The team needs talents we do not have. Too much similarity brings rivalry; differences are much more manageable.

As for the drug, I will give them as much Telomerax as they want. I will never stand between them and immortality, as long as they help protect us. After all, you do not grow jealous of the doctor that heals you.”

“Ok, Louis, but how about emotional ties?

You cannot ask people to become immortal and just pretend they will be willing to leave their loved ones behind, or that they will not fall in love over the course of centuries, even if they are the most materialistic people on earth. You can handpick them with no relatives now, but what if they change ideas, get lonely and want out of the project, or fall in love and want their new significant other onboard?

Maybe somebody with the wrong characteristics?

I mean, you trust me now but can you trust me forever? You know you can’t. Even I cannot commit to that. Fifteen years together have made me sure enough to commit the rest of my life to you. Now we are talking about eternity, and honestly I do not know if I can do that. No lies, Louis.”

“I agree with you that from this standpoint, we must reduce risks. Let’s put some facts together.

The drug is not a one-time deal. If you stop taking it, aging restarts after a few weeks and you are back in the mortal ranks. So people can opt out if they want, or even opt back in. I do not want to threaten anyone with things like ‘if you are out, we will kill you.’

Violence is not my thing. I just want to make sure the secret is kept. The drug is made in such a way that you cannot deformulate it. I spent the last ten years tweaking it so that any attempt to analyze it or break down its molecular structure, would destroy it.

And it is even harder to track how it works once it is absorbed into the body. The real issue is how to discourage them from telling governments or organized crime groups about Telomerax whereabouts.

They will know that there are ten very well hidden copies of the drug formula and its manufacturing process, waiting to be released to the world if anything bad happens to me or you. They used to be stored in clunky safes, now they are kept in sleek cases with ten floppy disks inside. That way, if any one of our future team members sends me additional and unwelcomed guests, I have enough leeway to negotiate with the new entrants. And those who betrayed our trust, might soon be on the black list of the newcomers they tried to put against us.”

“I see sleeping with an analyst has taught you something, Louis,” she joked. “How about children? I was planning not to have them, but this is opening up new opportunities.”

“Children can be given immortality only when they become adults. This is due to the fact that I have not run any experimentation on them and I am afraid Telomerax could have very nasty side effects on a developing body. I do not think this is a problem. You do not want to freeze your kids at age two. Then parents have about twenty to twenty-five years to work out a way to tell them about the secret and enroll them in the program, or otherwise, let them go.”

“Back to our interview, Louis, we all know that at the end of the process only four clients of the list made it into the so-called “Olympic Circle”, with two of them being allowed to add their significant others. That makes six people in total. Do you have anything to share about the Olympic Circle that maybe the media didn’t cover?”

“Where do I start?…Well, let’s go in chronological order. One of the least known parts, is the way Dora and I recruited them. What happened after we were discovered in 2010, has been covered in several books and movies. But, just for the record, I did not invent the name “Olympic Circle”. That was made up much later by some tabloids. True secrecy requires no name.”

 

Chapter 6

Tarek made his first appearance at the clinic, in the spring of 1979. He was with a group of Arabian women, and his passport said he was an Egyptian Air Force officer. It turned out that he was taking care of all their needs, behaving like the perfect tourist guide. He would have gone unnoticed if he had not reappeared in 1981 and then again in 1983; each time with a different group of Middle Eastern women and mysteriously keeping a respectful distance away from them. He had earned an invitation, and when I requested his presence on the terrace, he did not object to attend the dinner alone.

During the first dinner, he introduced himself as a retired air force officer, who had served in the war of 1973 piloting Russian-made MiG jets against Israeli Mirage fighters. Then when he retired, he was allowed to keep his status of Colonel on the passport, even though he was no longer active duty. He pretended to work as a middleman in the Middle East, with a special focus on Syria and Lebanon, where the civil war was restarting in the aftermath of the Israeli occupation of 1982.

From then on, he kept returning alone and I kept inviting him. It was not until 1987, over a glass of Grand Marnier at the end of the dinner, that he talked more about his real life.

His family belonged to the inner circle of Gamal Nasser and even after the fall of the president, caused by the catastrophic defeat in the 1967 war, he and his father had managed to keep superior positions in the regime.

Being an essential part of the Air Force chief of staff, he helped design the air attacks that in 1973, put Egypt very close to winning the war. Despite the military success, the war of 1973 turned out to be an even worse experience than the one of 1967. He lost his younger brother in the Sinai desert, where he was serving as a brigade commander, then shortly afterwards his mother died from the anguish.

Aside from these personal tragedies, Tarek believed Egypt should make peace with Israel and as soon as the Camp David Accords ended the war, he left the Air Force.

Due to his vast network, he was able to help a number of Middle Eastern regimes improve their military capabilities.

Over time, his hard work earned him the trust of his most important clients, to the extent that they would request him to escort their daughters and sisters on their trips to Europe.

“You know, back in the seventies it was much easier. It was enough just to go to Beirut to breathe some Western freedom, then the civil war destroyed everything and Europe was the only place left for the rich Arabs to catch a break.”

On October 6, 1981, Tarek suffered another blow when his father was killed by a Kalashnikov round, fired during the attack by the Muslim Brothers that left Egyptian President Anwar Sadat dead, along with eleven other elite officers.

“I was alone with my wife and two kids and felt Egypt was no longer the place for me to stay. A dark cloud was starting to loom over the whole region so I packed all my belongings and moved to the Gulf. In 1982 we moved to Bahrein, where business opportunities skyrocketed for people like me, thanks to the ongoing Iraq-Iran war.”

“Do you remember the Iran-Contra case where the CIA, with the help of Israel, sold weapons to Iran to finance their secret war against Marxist regimes in Central America? Well, it was just one of the many unorthodox trades in town. My main area of expertise was in the organization of the air defense for Iraq, where I worked a lot with French and Soviet advisers. I also dealt with negotiations between Iran and the United Arab Emirates.

At the time, one particularly flourishing business was the market of forged identities for wealthy exiles and spies in and out of the region. It was nearly impossible for the US and Great Britain to infiltrate native agents in Iran, so they had only two ways to get around it. First, was to rely on the networks of allies, like France or Italy or Germany, with the risk of getting second-handed or false information.

Their second option was to train agents that looked and talked like native Europeans or Middle Easterners, and build them a perfect cover story in a different nation. To do this properly you needed the help of the host country to make sure the details of the picture fitted together; from the social security number to the name of his parents. Printing a fake passport was the last thing to worry about.

The same problem appeared on the opposite side. From Iran, there were spies, traitors and outlaws who needed to rebuild a life without the attention of the Iranian secret police. As long as they could speak Arabic fluently, I could quickly put together a background story with the help of the Egyptian secret service.

For those with an Azerbaijan background, Turkey was given the responsibility to naturalize them as Turks due to the cultural proximity. Armenians were typically taken care of by the French. In any case, there was a mutual exchange between secret services which gave them access to each other’s “fake identity warehouses”.

“Why would they come to you? Couldn’t they just talk to each other?”

“Of course, and in many cases they would. The CIA does not need me to ask a favor to the British MI6 or the Mossad. But Iranians had a bit more trouble in directly approaching their counterparts.

They had a station in Bahrain that they used as outpost to talk to other Arab countries of the Gulf, mainly Saudi Arabia. After the war with Iraq broke out, Bahrain and Kuwait became the equivalent of Istanbul and Lisbon during World War II in Europe. They knew I was working for Iraq but I had purposely built my reputation as a professional and not as a partisan, so they would feel comfortable to approach me.

I gave them access to the Egyptians and the French and, in return, my importance in the eyes of the British and the Americans grew enormously. To put it short, Louis, if you happen to pass by the Middle East and run into trouble, just drop me a call. Chances are, I can help you out no matter what.”

This was exactly what I was looking for, so I decided to put Tarek on Telomerax immediately. But a test was required, before the full disclosure. The key test, which Tarek was completely unaware of, took place in October of 1993, just after the Oslo agreement between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization of Yasser Arafat. He was back at the clinic with his wife, and during the dinner I deliberately started playing good cop.

“Tarek, it looks like you will soon be out of business. Saddam Hussein is under control, confined in his own country. The Berlin wall has fallen and no one can dispute the supremacy of the US. The Soviet Union is transitioning with difficulty, but in peace, to a more democratic and liberal regime. I am afraid I won’t see you again, as you will move back to Beirut beauty shops.”

“Louis, you do not have to worry at all. I am sure all of this is going to end in my favor. You are disregarding the underlying factors. They entail more tension and conflict.”

“You mean, the terrorists might backfire?”

“I am giving you a synopsis, not talking about specifics, but nothing in the groundwork is set in the right direction.”

“Nothing? I mean, Tarek, communism is dead, economic growth is more robust than ever, and people are rushing to re-establish freedom everywhere..”

“People rush to re-establish what they were already used to and what they liked. In Yugoslavia, people are more interested in settling old nationalist scores, rather than in restoring democracy and rule of law. Just look at the massacre in Sarajevo. The Middle East is no exception.

Over the last forty years, governments have tried to modernize society in vain. They are now steadily losing territory, power, and influence to those that want to restore traditional order.

Saudi Arabia is full of resentment against America after having been saved by Saddam.

But I am wasting my time and yours. Here in the West, you just cannot understand.”

“I understand very well that the Saudi regime is certainly not a liberal one, but given some time…”

“You see? You use the word regime, and you immediately imply alot of other things.

For example, that people do not like the system but cannot change it due to lack of power. Also, that if given the right conditions they would transform it into something like Switzerland, except with a lot of sand instead of snow. You refuse to see the reality. The simple fact is that the vast majority of Saudis, Iranians, and Syrians do not call it a regime. They call it a government and you know why?

Because they are all in all satisfied with the life they are living, and no matter how imperfect these governments may seem, they see them as the best guarantee to preserve their traditions and values against a number of external threats. These threats include things like the multinational oil companies and pornography. However, I am not saying they are right. I am saying this is how they see, feel, and therefore are. And you cannot change it….at least for now. It would take generations to change a culture, so we would certainly not witness it in our lifetimes.”

“All right, but at least between the Israelis and the Palestinians things are going better and this will eventually reduce tensions.”

“Ah yes, our cousins! I am not optimistic about them, either. I know you won’t believe me, but I will tell you anyway. This peace agreement is a much bigger danger for them than for the Palestinians. They risk losing the single, biggest reason of their unity, the enemy from outside. I swear, the Israeli leaders, Shimon Peres and Ytzhak Rabin, have much more to fear from their fellow citizens than from their old enemy, Yasser Arafat.”

“Tarek, I cannot agree. You are speaking out of past resentment, and although I understand it, I cannot justify it.”

“You will see, Louis. Nobody is ready for peace because they all live with war. And people always choose what they know, and what keeps them alive. Even if this requires some sacrifice from time to time. Simply put, people never grow up.”

On November 4, 1995, Ygal Amir, a right-winged Orthodox Jew assassinated Yitzhak Rabin at a pro-peace demonstration in Tel Aviv. The morning after, I called Tarek at his new office in Dubai. After a few rings he picked up the phone.

“Hi, Louis. Too bad I did not bet anything with you last time we discussed about future events…”

“I will give you a reward anyway. One free week stay at ‘Le Jardin’ for you and your family, for the Christmas season. I have to talk to you about a few things over dinner.”

Chapter 7

Our second recruit, Valerio Orsini, was born in Rome in 1952, as the heir of a declining yet very respectable family of the Roman aristocracy. In the tense social climate of the seventies, his beliefs started sliding to the far right and he began attending the rallies of neofascist organizations.

His mother realized the danger he was exposed to, and shortly after he got a degree in Political Science, she managed to find him a job at the Vatican press office. Then in 1977 he met Anna, who became his long-term girlfriend. His brilliant intelligence and manners quickly earned him many connections both inside and outside the Vatican, to the extent that in 1980 he was approached by the Italian Secret Service. They were looking for insider knowledge on where the newly elected, Pope John Paul II, intended to lead the Church in the struggle against Communism.

He politely declined and he was thinking about reporting the story to the Secretary of State, when he received a call by a man who called himself Alberto, asking to see him in person. They met at the Pincio gardens, in the center of Rome, and on the balcony overlooking Piazza del Popolo, Alberto showed him a set of photos that revealed to him that Anna was not only his girlfriend but also the mistress of the all powerful Cardinal D.

“I know how you feel,” Alberto said in a whisper. “Your world is falling apart. We do not want to blackmail you. It is not your fault at all. And we won’t tell Anna either. These pictures will build up the file on Cardinal D. in case we ever need some help from him in the future. But we want to give you a chance.

Either you continue with your fiction, pretending things are the way they were or you embrace reality and start playing the predator instead of the prey. You have to decide for yourself.”

Over the following years, the network of Valerio kept growing and he never asked for money in exchange for the information he was giving. He only asked for more connections and introductions. In 1983 he broke up with Anna and by 1986 he also left the Vatican, setting up his own public relation and consultancy agency, which quickly grew in the booming Italian economy of the eighties.

He arrived at the clinic for the first time in 1986 and took part in his first dinner in the spring of 1988.

He grabbed my attention by predicting that the Berlin Wall would fall in one year.

“You mean, it is not going to last another ten years?”

“I mean what I said, Louis. One year from now, give or take three months. This is the consensus in my community, and they rarely guess wrong.”

“Your community…would that consist of journalists and those involved in the media?”

“They are also part of the community, but are not the most significant ones. At my agency you listen to all kind of stories; many of them fake, many of them true. Some are secrets that cannot get around, others get out precisely to make them known in the most appropriate way. The US and the Soviet Union have signed the peace treaty. Obviously, the US has won, so the Berlin Wall will fall.”

“But nothing hints to that happening any time soon! The Soviet Union has an army stationed in East Germany. Will they just sit and watch?”

“The Soviets have been bankrupt since 1985, after the Saudis eagerly complied with the US request to set the price of the barrel of oil at ten dollars. Of course, it was not an act of charity! They got huge market share in exchange. And this also pleased China that has to fuel its massive industrialization, even if people here won’t realize this for the next ten years.

You do not need to be a genius or a spy to know that, yet people get convinced by the muscular, cowboy side of the story. That’s why Reagan had to rearm and launch the Star Wars bullshit that will fill some deep pockets in the military industry.

Anyway, the Wall comes down next year, believe me. And it will be peaceful.”

“Peaceful? I told you, there is the Red Army in East Berlin!”

“It has to be. Otherwise Soviets would not be allowed to disengage quickly and they cannot afford to be pulled in any type of confrontation just to save the ass of some local red dictator. These guys will be given few choices; either surrender to the new era in their countries, or get a one-way ticket to Moscow if they feel they are not safe in the New World. Any other option they might think of, would be too risk.”

“So all what we read in the news in a deliberate lie? You are telling me that conspiracy theorists are right, the men in black are secretly running the world?”

“Not at all. Most of my colleagues write and report in absolute good faith. The point is, it matters what side of reality you show and what information you let out. And as far as conspiracies are concerned, there are lots of them, everywhere; creating all sorts of dissimulations. The only thing that is missing is the great mastermind behind it all. And there is no one. In my position, I would know.

All I see is a giant game of conspiracy and counter conspiracy, with varying degrees of success, but where no one ultimately controls the outcomes and where you have to be quick to take action if the opportunity arises.”

“But somehow we do not want to face this and then we invent things like the Great Architect….when in reality no one is in control.”

“Exactly. We have our eyes fixed on Gorbatchev, Bush, and Kohl but who knows, maybe the one who will make history in the next twenty years is hiding in a cave in Afghanistan, and the founder of the next big religion that will replace Christianity and Islam has just passed away in a remote Indian village. Then our descendants will realize this in two hundred years, assuming we do not commit suicide before then.”

“Valerio,” Dora jumped in, “I sense a type of regret, or more like disenchantment in your words.”

“Well, you know, I learn lots of things every day that would give the average person a feeling of unlimited access to the mysteries of history. In fact, even hundreds of years after the occurrence of events, historians keep coming back in search of answers.

So over the years my desire has become less passionate. I would be happy just to bump into one story that could become the story of the next few hundred years or even the next few decades. You know, in the Northeast of Italy, some rivers flow underground and randomly surface a few kilometers before they reach the sea.

I am looking for a story that is like an underground river that becomes the new sea where everybody wants to sail. I am afraid, though, that this is just wishful thinking.”

“And if you found it, what would you do? Just dig and make it headline news?”

“If the river is deep underground, chances are that the public would not believe it. And exposing it to light too early could even harm it. It would be a once in a lifetime opportunity, where mankind can marvel in how history unfolds. You should look at this story with an open eye, and not biased views.”

In the spring of 1996, I called Valerio in his Rome office. He was in the middle of the buzz of commentaries on the Italian general election that had been won by the center left party, which gave power to the former Communist party for the first time.

“Hi Valerio, I think I have found a story that beats your underground river.”

I had barely finished my sentence when I could already hear Valerio shout to his secretary to find him a place on the first flight to Geneva.

 

Chapter 8

George McKilroy was the name of our third recruit. He was born in Chicago, in 1955, as the first born of a single mother who managed to send him to college by working long hours. George was very good at math and after getting his bachelors at Northwestern University, he won a scholarship at Caltech in Los Angeles, California.

He fell in love with the Silicon Valley lifestyle and after his master in game theory in 1977, he started looking for the most promising startups. He joined Apple as their twenty-first employee, and left three years later in 1980, after the new Apple shares had made him rich.

With this initial capital, he joined Sausalito Ventures, a small firm which he helped develop into a two-hundred million dollar one, which was later sold to Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, one of the Valley titans.

By the age of thirty-five, George was already known in Silicon Valley, with his enemies putting him down as a very lucky lone rider and his friends praising him as the business god.

He arrived at the clinic for the first time in the winter of 1985, driving a BMW that caught the attention of everybody. Not so much for its size, but for the obnoxious phone that was installed on his dashboard.

George eagerly showed off the phone, and soon all the guests were curious. Some people said he was one of the many diplomats working in the surroundings of Geneva, while others associated him with finance, very few guessed technology.

For me, moving around with a phone in the car was not enough to guarantee admittance to the terrace, but when he popped up again the year after with the same BMW but a different, smaller, and more futuristic phone, I gave in to my own curiosity and invited him to the next dinner.

To my great surprise, I discovered that he had come back with the very specific goal of getting invited to my special event.

“Dr. Picard,” he said, “last year I did my research and learned about your terrace admission rules. I thought, wow, this guy must be a great man of networking, worth getting to know better. So I came back and if you would not have invited me this time, I would not have returned next year.”

“You can call me Louis,” I smiled. “It is a privilege I give only to people who demonstrate self-confidence, and you definitely belong there.”

“You need to be like that, when your job is all about selling innovations.”

“Like being able to place and receive calls from anywhere? I noticed the phone is much smaller than it used to be last year. Maybe in a few years time, you can put it in your pocket.”

“As a matter of fact, one of the companies I am investing in right now with my venture capital fund, is developing some vital parts of the software and hardware needed to make mobile phones work. You will never see us in the shops with our brand, but I can assure you that all phone companies are depending on us big time. Are you also active in the technology startup sector? You grasped the concept with remarkable speed. Something I do not see often, not even in California.”

“Well, you know. We are also active in technology, but it is more along the lines of biotechnology. We hand make products for our own use, and we do not plan to sell or license any of our findings. At least, not in the near future.”

“I see. And who are your competitors, if I may ask?”

“I do not believe we have real competitors, honestly. Our cosmetic research is very much tailored to each of our customers’ requirements. Of course, we compete with many other beauty farms here in the area, but we do not try to copy each other’s products. We try to offer our own unique atmosphere. Imitation can be dangerous.”

“That’s interesting, because in the technology market, and especially during startup, there are some golden rules. The first one is obvious, you need a creative idea and a good team able to carry it out. The second one is less obvious, you have to make sure someone else is following in your tracks or at least trying to create something similar.”

“That would be a major problem for me,” Louis answered, his thoughts drifting away for a second.

“Louis, you will never create a market otherwise! There is no market without competitors. Of course you want to be the best, but if you are alone no one will ever understand your product and you will not go anywhere. Imagine if tomorrow you discover the best cosmetic product ever, the recipe for eternal life.

If you do not tell the market, it simply does not exist. As soon as you say you have this new killer product, rest assured a flock of competitors will pop up, pretending they also have it.

Some of them will be only wannabes, looking to get their hands on money, but some others will end up with similar products. The point is, you have the market! And market defines value, the amount you can sell your product for, and your reputation, too.”

“I like your example. Do you really think you can sell it on the market? I mean, the potion of eternal life?”

“Ok, I agree. Maybe I went too far, but you can certainly find something that makes you look forty when you are seventy, or perhaps gives you an extra twenty years added to your life, or extends your sexual potency….you are the expert here.”

“George, I worked for years at L’Oreal before setting up shop here. I can guide you, if you want to enter the biotech field and you would be surprised to learn how reasonable my fees would be.

Nevertheless, why would you balk at the idea of launching the potion of eternal life into the market? You plan to put a phone in the pocket of each of us, after all. Maybe, with time, your techno wizards will also manage to fit a small computer inside. And so why not the potion of eternal life?”

George was amused at the idea and started staring at his glass of Brunello, while pondering an answer. Dora suddenly jumped in to prevent him from thinking too long.

“Immortality is not appealing enough for you?”

“The problem is,” George conceded, “I am not really sure we would have something called a market after it. Forget about all the problems that would arise – although there would be many, I believe I am rich enough not to care too much.

My problem is, I simply find it appalling to work for the next several thousand years with the same guys of KPCB. They would be corrupted by power, and even worse, I would be dragged down with them.

On the other hand, I take your point. After mobile communication, I promise you my next venture will be in biology. Consider yourself enrolled as a consultant. Money is no issue.”

George kept his promise, and from 1988 he would regularly ask my advice about requests for fundings he was receiving from biotech scientists and he would take me on regular tours of the most promising biotech labs in America.

Unknowingly, he was giving me far more than money. He was allowing me to check how far away other researchers were from Telomerax and where genetics were heading.

Then, towards the end of 1996, he told me about an experiment that had been done in Scotland, where a sheep named Dolly had been cloned out of the cells of her mother. The experiment would be publicized the following year because a number of parties, from governments to big pharmaceutical companies, were evaluating the results and the possible applications. George had been called in, because by now he was one of the most successful and respected investors in the biotech sector.

He was not as upbeat as usual. He told me he felt uneasy, like we were crossing some kind of invisible line.

“The problem is, Louis, we cannot help crossing it. Yet, I feel increasingly fearful. I wonder what will happen if we continue in this direction.”

“George, I get your point. But before you continue, there is something you have to know…”

He was not particularly shocked by the disclosure. He pretended he had guessed it in our conversation eight years before. I think he also had gotten used to worse things, from the DNA projects he had seen in his activity of venture capitalist.

“George, we have to keep this discovery under wraps for a while. And I need you to keep watching what’s going on in the sector. We cannot afford a competitor here.”

“But what if somebody else publicly discovers it? Or what if they discover us? ”

“Do not worry, George. You and I are good guys, we do not have the guts to push the limits. However, I do know of someone, and she has what we are missing.”

Chapter 9

“Helena Rodrigo Fatima would become a key part of our team. She was a customer of ‘Le Jardin’ since 1989, and she had heard about us from one of her colleagues from the London branch of Lehman Brothers.

She decided to give it a try for a weekend break. I was struck by this very energetic, yet very severe woman whose business card carried the title of “Corporate Investment Vice President”, and who was not even thirty.”

“She was proud of her humble origins and gave some hints of her troubled history, but it was not until 1996 that she started to open up to Dora. During one of the dinners, she told my wife of the traumas in her family. She was born in the ghetto of Mexico City, sometime in 1961, and she managed to attend a tiny Catholic school until age eleven, when her family was slaughtered in a drug war.

Her brother was a low key pusher who tried to cheat his boss. As soon as the boss found out, he sent the death gang to her home to give an example to the rest of the dealers. Luckily for Helena, that afternoon she was at school, preparing for the summer examinations.”

“When I came back home,” she recalled, “I found a small crowd of neighbors screaming. I immediately froze in expectation of what I was about to see.

I went past the people who recognized me and they fell completely silent. All three of my family members laid on the floor, soaked in blood. They had shot my father on the doorstep, straight in the heart. My brother was trapped inside. They made him kneel and shot him in the face, right in front of my mother. They had run out of rounds, so they cut her throat. And they would have done the same to me. Before leaving, they told neighbors that this was the law of Conchito Aguirre, the local boss. They knew the police would do nothing, even if someone dared to tell.”

“The missionary fathers managed to send me away to a boarding school in Guadalajara, where I completed high school with the highest marks. I wanted to get out of this environment with all my might, and studying and learning were all I could bet on, but I had no money to continue to university, so in 1978 I was back in Mexico City. It was like returning to hell.”

“Why didn’t the priests finance your college? You were good at school, after all,” asked Dora.

“They had no money. If they had sent me to college, they would have had to refuse admission to primary school to ten children and leave them on the streets. I do not blame them at all. You know why? They told me the truth. It was a triage.

I was an adult and I had better chances than when I entered school. I also knew they were honest. For two years I helped them out with their records and I was aware of how low their finances were. The only thing I disappointed them in, even with all the prayers and good intentions, was my crave for revenge. The more they preached about forgiving, the more I hated those who exterminated my family. How could I take pardon on them?”

“Back in the capital, I quickly decided my survival strategy. I was already very attractive at the time, petite but very well proportioned and athletic, and I realized the effect that my flashy Hispanic eyes had on men. So I started to go to some high-end clubs where I eventually selected my prey. I became the mistress of Emiliano Rojas, the son of a big heroin and cocaine dealer. To get to the point, I was a bitch, and a very clever one at that.”

Dora was shocked by the abruptness.

“Helena, it takes me months to get my patients to admit they married their partner just to please their father or mother, but you…”

“If you start lying to yourself, you lose sight on your target, and you cannot lie to others when you do not have a fixed story. My target was to get my revenge and get out of that place forever. I managed the first one, but not the second.”

“Unlike other girls at the night club, I would not spend my money on dresses and jewels but rather on the fees and books to study Economics. My boyfriend noticed I was not only very enjoyable in bed but I also had a good brain attached to my body, so he started asking me some advice about money laundering and where to invest the clean cash. By the time I graduated in 1983, I was not only running the accounts of the clan, but I was sent to the United States to specialize in corporate finance and international tax law.”

“In 1986, I graduated and landed a job at the Mexican branch of Chase Manhattan Bank. My responsibility was overseeing the clan investments and bringing in new customers, many of whom belonged to narcos gangs. It was in the posh office of Chase that one day Paco Aguirre showed up, the first and only son of Conchito. I felt my revenge was within reach, at last. And it was much easier than I expected.”

“While my boyfriend had a deep commitment to the family dynasty and his duty to continue expanding the business, Paco was the typical ignorant second generation narco living under a flow of money and cocaine. I quickly became his object of desire and Emiliano immediately noticed. On a Saturday night at the club I drank a few more tequilas; not too many to lose control, not too few to make people realize I was playing. I could feel the eyes of both Emiliano and Paco on me, their desires exploding.

Then I let Paco approach me in the club’s private rooms just to start shouting as soon as his hands started grabbing my dress. Emiliano quickly stepped in and slapped me in the face, but I was not to be blamed too much, after all I had demonstrated to whom I belonged. The body of Paco was left mutilated the morning after, in front of the main gate of the villa of Conchito Aguirre, who could not claim any revenge because his son had done the wrong thing and the Rojas were higher than he was in the narco hierarchy.

I see you are not scandalized by this, Dora. Then I will tell you another thing. Getting my revenge made me feel good. I felt a sense of satisfaction and accomplishment. Yet poor Paco was not guilty for the death of my family, at the very most he was guilty of being an idiot.”

“No, Helena, I am not scandalized. Reality is, you can overcome resentment with replacement victims. Although it is horrible, it works. Especially if you have good reasons to believe that the victim is somehow guilty. It’s the wrath of the righteous.”

“In my case, I was indeed in the right. Having achieved revenge, I had to plot a way out of the narcos, but I could not spontaneously break up with Emiliano. So I let finance and money occupy more and more space in our conversations until his passion faded away and he was looking at me just as a very reliable assistant. Then came the offer from Lehman to go to London to work at the emerging market finance desk.

The deal with the Rojas was straightforward: I could leave Mexico and no longer be involved in illegal activities. On the other hand, I would become their trusted investment guardian. Not only for them, but also for affiliate gangs in other countries and if needed I could ask for more special services, if you know what I mean.”

“Well, not really. I am not sure I want to understand that.”

“Dora, when you grow up in the midst of violence and eventually get out of it through violence, you learn that there is a certain logic you have to abide by. Gratuity is the first thing you have to avoid. Anyway, in the first months in London I was stalked by a guy that would follow me in the metro from downtown to my house in Tottenham Court Road. I waited for the monthly business meeting with one of the head cartel representatives. At the time, they were buying Italian treasuries by the millions and after we settled all the deals, I told them about my little problem. They asked just a few questions and made no comments.

The next three days, the guy was still following me. On the fourth day, he got blocked by a pack of hooligans who stumbled out from a pub, drunk. It lasted a few minutes. It looked like one of the occasional street brawls, but I noticed that all the members of the mob were hitting him except one, who kept whispering something in his ears. My stalker was left unconscious on the street, and I did not see him ever again.”

“Helena, I think there is more to you than the cynical narco-turned-banker character. Why would you then finance all these organizations, that try to get children out of the streets?”

“Several reasons. Easy answer; it worked for me. It saved me and made me who I am today. I really want to return the favor and make sure others get a chance. And let me underline it once again: I have no guilt whatsoever, for what I did in the past. I wanted it, it made me happy, and I deserve happiness.

At the same time, I feel reality is so wrong. Not so much for the evil, but for human ignorance. Think about it, if twenty five years ago the death gang of Conchito Aguirre had limited themselves to kill only my brother, all would have stopped there. There would be no backfire. He had done the wrong thing and he had paid the price set by the laws of the slums. But they went too far. And that triggered my search for revenge. So it looks like the world, our society – I do not know how to call it exactly – even the simple way we interact with each other has deep flaws, and it probably can’t be fixed, but I need to give it a try. I would feel ashamed if I didn’t, now that I earn one million dollars a month.

But I realize it’s like building a cathedral in the Middle Ages. If I am lucky I will maybe see some walls being erected during my lifetime, but for sure not the finished product.”

“Well, Helena, I am happy you are here. You will be surprised by how good we are at taking care of our customers. I need you to talk with my husband, before leaving. He has a generous offer waiting for you.”

Chapter 10

“Louis, the team was ready by the late nineties of the last century. What were your plans? What was your primary goal at the time?”

“I held the first meeting with Tarek, Valerio, Helena, and George in the summer of 1999. Some of the members already knew each other, like Helena and George, but no one was aware they all had access to Telomerax. The agenda was always focused around two main points; if and how to take Telomerax public, and if anyone had spotted any threats to our group, how to address it.

During the first meetings, we determined that in order to go public we first needed a better understanding of all the possible consequences, and a detailed plan to address them in the most effective way. After this was settled, I asked for each member to vote unanimously on certain subjects.

I had no special voting rights. My vote would be counted like the others. Our first poll’s results stated there would be no fixed dates for the meetings. We would meet at least once a year, possibly in different locations, or anytime one of us had something relevant to share with the group. Another point of agreement was that the best time to go public had to be one when economic and political tensions were low, as everybody was conscious that dropping a bomb like Telomerax in a geopolitically-tense environment could have horrible consequences. It was clear that this opportunity window would be very short, a few years at most, and it would pop up once every few decades. This led the team to split between the pessimists and the optimists, and it was a good thing.”

“Who were the pessimists?”

“You should have guessed by now! Tarek and Valerio made it clear they had no hope in the world. They believed that the right time would never come. They thought that the affairs of mankind were in such a dire state that we would have to wait centuries for a revelation, unless we wanted to create a catastrophe.

On the other side, Helena and George, driven maybe by their New World optimism, saw the possibility coming in the near future. They presumed in less than twenty years. This left Dora and me on the needles to make a final decision.”

“How did the poll on taking Telomerax public, go?”

“We held it in 2000, as both the economic and political situations seemed to be going steady, with a wave of optimism that reminded me of the beginning of the nineties. The big pusher was Helena, but she realized she needed to do some research on it so she asked George to work with her. Remember that, at the time, George was getting started in the biotech sector so he went through Helena to get introduced at Lehman and leverage their macroeconomic and political intelligence.

He pretended to have a lead on a product that would increase the average lifespan by thirty years. However, he wanted to have a detailed report of all the consequences, such as: extension of retirement age, ethical debate, and so on, before seeking further capital funding.

That’s why he knocked at Lehman’s doors. Of course, if interested, Lehman could take part in the venture.”

“What was the outcome? Did Lehman end up investing in your idea?”

“Believe it or not, the vice president told Helena that they had more interesting projects on their hands and could not invest in yet another startup, so they would reconsider it in a few months. A few months later, as soon as Helena and George were considering to reapproach Lehman, September 11th occurred.”

“And this made everything more difficult…”

“Indeed. In the meeting we held in May 2002, we all thought we had missed the opportunity presented at the start of the new millennium. We held the meeting in New York, and when Tarek told us about all the new security measures that were being enforced just to get his visa approved, we understood we had to wait for a major political change before reconsidering the decision.

This meant going dormant until a new President was chosen in the US. We also felt we had to be more cautious and be prepared to change our identities within the next decade. George and Helena were known at Lehman, so they would be the first to make the move.

Helena left Lehman in 2004 and joined a hedge fund stationed in Singapore, which specialized in emerging markets. She did not join as Helena Rodrigo Fatima, though, but as a newly graduated twenty-six-year-old named Rosa Montero Gutierrez, with a PhD in Economics. Let me continue calling her Helena, otherwise the rest of the interview will get very confusing.”

“Were you the one that provided her with the new identity?”

“No, this was an advantage from Helena’s powerful connections in the drug cartels. Rosa Gutierrez really had existed. She had died of overdose in the aftermath of a rave party in Acapulco, in 2002. The narcos had stolen her identity just in case it would be needed. And as Helena was still supervising the cartel’s investments, they did her the favor. Our own organization of identity change came fully into play for the first time, when we organized the simultaneous death and divorce of George.”

“Was George’s wife aware of Telomerax?”

“George had given her Telomerax without telling her all the details. He knew he could not completely trust her, so as the relationship soured over time, he set up the perfect death. By 2003, he declared to have a rare form of cancer, and he started losing weight. From time to time he would visit ‘Le Jardin’ where he underwent a light, controlled chemotherapy. I was dead afraid that it might interfere with Telomerax, so for one year I suspended the treatment.

In 2005, he started attending less and less public events, with photos of him looking frailer and frailer appearing in magazines. In the meantime, Tarek procured a brand new identity from the CIA thanks to the French secret service. George McKilroy would become Sean Ewals, a twenty-five year old graduate from Boston University, who had inherited a small fortune from his deceased parents.”

“How come the identity was obtained from the CIA via the French secret service?”

“Tarek had done a favor for both agencies. In 2004, the Americans were involved with Iraq and the CIA needed air support for their secret operations. Due to secrecy, they refused to ask the US Air Force for help because this meant that their archrivals, the NSA, would know. So they looked for external support. At the same time, although France was publicly portrayed as being against the Iraq war, their air force could not bear the fact that their UK and US cousins had plenty of room to test their latest weapons. To close the triangle, Jordan had just made a deal with France to supply a dozen brand new Mirage 2000 fighter jets for their armed services. Do you see how it is coming together now?”

“You mean that the French were hired by the CIA to bomb targets in Iraq? This must be where Tarek enters the picture.”

“You got it. Tarek was the mediator. He was going back and forth from Jordan, since that was where major effects of the war were taking place; with refugees, spies, and soldiers on leave, contractors searching for new assignments, and all the rest you can imagine. One day, at a restaurant, he spotted a French Air Force officer and began a conversation. The officer stayed silent and pointed to an article on a training mission having to do with the recent Mirage contract, that was already public news.

Tarek then called his contacts at the Jordan secret service and found out that the French were not happy, as Jordanians would never let them fly into Iraq by their own initiative. US approval was needed for that. Jordanians would not ask for it directly, as it would sound like an attack on their troubled neighbor, nor would the French ask the US and risk exposing themselves to diplomatic blackmail.

The US had to make the first move, but how would they do it? After all, they were already set with what they had. Tarek knew very well, though, that there could be something they were missing. Once he was back in Dubai, he immediately contacted the CIA station manager, who he had known since the beginning of the Iran-Iraq war. Would the CIA be interested in getting free air support from Jordan, on jets flown by French pilots under cover?

The French pilots would get all the real life training they wanted. In case anything bad happened, the occasional French instructor would be blamed for accidentally trespassing into the Iraq airspace.

Organizing this deal brought him huge credit, and all he asked for in exchange was free access to the pool of secret identities. Initially he asked for unlimited access, but eventually he settled for two identities a year, for ten years. This was the news of the year at the 2005 meeting, that was otherwise quite gloomy and uneventful.”

“When did the final act take place?

“In September 2005, we invited Sheila, George’s wife, to ‘Le Jardin’. I behaved as if I knew George was about to die and tested her feelings. She was obviously sad, but she also made it clear the marriage had not been working for some time, even before the illness. She basically had not left him, out of kindness.

That was all we needed to know. I called Helena, who in turn called her friends on the West Coast to organize his “death”.

A white van arrived at George’s villa in Sunnyvale, California, and after entering the garage, it unloaded the body of a man about the same age and with the same complexion, who had died from overdose the night before in Los Angeles. George boarded the van and sped away to the private terminal of San José International Airport, where he received his new set of papers. He then boarded a Gulfstream jet that took off and headed to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

Once in Rio, George/Sean spent a couple of weeks relaxing and washing away the effects of the chemotherapy, then he visited a beauty clinic specialized in plastic surgery. It was not a dramatic change, but as George wanted to continue to work in the Silicon Valley startup business, he had to undergo some minor face-lifting. We had nothing to worry about, though, considering more than six months had passed since he had met anyone face-to-face and his last images did not resemble him at all.

Back in California, the doctor who was also on the narcos payroll, notified the public authorities of the death and contacted George’s recently appointed lawyer, Scott Drummond, for the execution of the will.

He had been given the will by George himself a few weeks before, with the explicit order to open it as soon as he heard about his death and act according to the instructions.

What Scott read was strange, but not unexpected, as he was used to eccentric millionaires. Basically, George left his villa and assets with a value of over five million dollars to Sheila, and asked to be buried immediately with only the coroner and the lawyer in attendance. Then, he asked to be cremated and his ashes left with Sheila. Only after the cremation, could the death be publicly announced and in the will there were also the coordinates to a half a million dollar account to fund any public ceremony Sheila and his friends might have deemed appropriate. All that was left over had to be distributed to charities.

Scott thought a man like George should have had a much bigger fortune, but there was no trace of it in the will, and maybe – who knows – much of it had gone away to pay for the treatments.”

“Did you attend the commemoration ceremony to make the death seem realistic?”

“There was no ceremony organized. I just paid a public obituary in the “Mercury”, the local newspaper, and gave all the remaining money to a charity that helps children with leukemia. Dora and I flew to California with Sheila. She did not expect George to pass away so soon and she felt somewhat guilty during the flight. As soon as she learned the contents of the will, however, the guilt turned into resentment as George had decided to part ways from her before his last journey.

She handed the box of ashes over to me, together with the will and the funeral party budget. If I wanted to set up a ceremony, it was up to me. As for the ashes, she thought George would be happier to be buried at the clinic, since he loved the place.

A few days later, I called him in his new house in Connecticut and he told me that he did not like the Geneva lakeshore as his final resting place. Then he asked about the half a million dollars and when I told him it was gone to charity, he was a bit upset.

I burst into laughter. “Boy,” I said, “dead men do not usually complain that their will has been followed through with, exactly as was written!”

“When did Tarek and Valerio switch identities?”

“Valerio jumped into his new life in 2008, soon after the death of his mother. He first sold his public relations business, took a plane to Brazil – like many retired Italians of his age did, even if he looked much younger – and reappeared a few months later after a short visit to the same clinic that had served George, back in 2005.

He re-entered Italy under the name of Antonio Colonna, an Argentinean son of native Italians, who was repatriating like some soccer players with Italian ancestors do. The customs officer told him he looked just slightly older than the twenty-two years written on the passport, and Antonio was quick to blame the dire economic situation of Argentina for making him become a migrant.

He immediately set up his new public relations and media company in London, and started shuttling across Europe to rebuild his network. He got in touch, this time, with the young public relation professionals who were replacing the old generation of Valerio’s former colleagues.

As for Tarek, he did not really change his identity. Over time, he was able to set all of his family members’ birth dates back by fifteen years, pretending there was a mistake in the records. He relied on the fact that he had actually started a second life before, when he left Egypt in the eighties.

As for his family, he put his sons on Telomerax between 2002 and 2008, as soon as they hit twenty five years of age. He just told them it was an age-delaying drug, and they would get about twenty to thirty years of life added on. He told me, the description he gave his sons bought him about thirty years to prepare a better explanation.”

“And how about you, Louis? Who did you transform yourself into?”

“Dora and I liked our professions and wanted to change as little as possible, but we could not continue to live in the closed neighborhood surrounding the Swiss clinic. So we pretended to retire, sold the whole clinic, morphed into a young couple – a biologist and a psychiatrist – and relocated to Lugano, in the Italian speaking canton of Switzerland.

For a while I considered going to a fancier place, like Monte Carlo or Cannes, but we realized there were too many of the old customers from ‘Le Jardin’ there. As a young biologist, I founded a startup which allowed me to stay at the forefront of biological research – both contributing to new developments and watching out for the invention of drugs similar to Telomerax.”

Chapter 11

“And then we arrive at January of 2009, when Barack Obama took office at the White House. According to your strategy, at the time, the economy was still not ready, as the world was in the midst of the financial crisis. Is this when you decided to change your strategy to reveal Telomerax?”

“Yes. The turning point was the meeting we held in the fall of 2009, in a resort on the Greek island of Patmos. It was no coincidence, as this is the island where the apostle John is said to have received the final book of the Bible, Revelations.

Once again, the group was split between George and Helena versus Valerio and Tarek. George and Helena, who were now dating, were pushing to make the announcement of Telomerax within the next ten to fifteen years, while Valerio and Tarek did not see this as a realistic timeframe. Dora and I were arbitrating in the middle. We argued for three days, and eventually we came to the conclusion that it was time to start “preparing for the preparation” or to set “a date for the date”, if you may.

It is better to go directly to the motif of the meeting, which was opened by Helena, who gave a bleak outlook on the economic perspectives.”

“Gentlemen,” she said, “as we traveled here we saw how dire the situation of Greece is. I can tell you, that this crisis will spread to the rest of Europe and there will be governments falling from Ireland to Italy. Our data at the firm shows that China will manage to dodge the crisis, and the US will bounce back in three to four years, but Europe and other areas will stay stagnant for several years.”

“All right,” Tarek jumped in, “so we can adjourn the meeting to 2015. Even though politics are somehow improving after George Bush and his cowboys, we do not know how the crisis is going to evolve. Europe could divide itself, creating an uproar around the world.”

Helena fell silent, staring coldly at Tarek for a long second and then turned her eyes to George without changing expression.

“Tarek, please..”, George said, “..if we keep following this line of reasoning we will never be ready. We saw over the past sixty years that the window of opportunity opens for a period of two or three years maximum, and by the time you realize it’s there, it’s already gone. If we continue like this, we will wait for centuries.”

Valerio slowly raised his hand, with his impeccable manners, and waited a few seconds before starting.

“George, if there is one thing we have on our side, it is time. We have tested the identity change process and it worked perfectly, buying us enough time until at least 2035. I have looked over the research that Helena and you started back in 2000 and got in contact with my connections at the World Bank, and you know what I found out? That despite all the uneasiness, things are improving overall. Slowly, but surely.

If you look at these slides, the statistics show that international income, deaths caused by violence, and births per woman are all going in the right direction. So there is evidently no reason to rush. We can sit back and relax.”

“Valerio, for once I do not agree with you,” Tarek burst out. “Your statistics would have shown you the same thing for Europe on the eve of World War I, and we all know how that ended up. On the other hand I do agree we can talk about this over a glass of wine for the next thirty years and do nothing in the meantime. In other words, just do usual business.”

“That would mean we sit around twiddling our thumbs while someone else is discovering us or, worse, discovering Telomerax. You know that very well, Tarek,” Helena hissed. “You did not wait for Israeli pilots to plan their attacks and then make up a strategy to counteract them back in 1973. Apparently all these luxuries and petty conspiracies have washed away the fighter that was in you.”

Tarek was about to reply, his eyes seething with rage, but George was faster and harsh enough to defuse the fire Helena was starting.

“Helena, please cut the bullshit now. It is getting personal and we cannot afford it. The fact is, we have a huge opportunity here to become the most famous people in the history of mankind, surpassing Jesus Christ, Mohammed and the likes, and we are letting it slip through our fingers. We just cannot let that happen.

May I also remind you, that research in biotechnology is expanding big time, from fertilizers to – guess what – techniques that fight aging. I know it because I am investing in a number of ventures. But I cannot control everything forever. How long do you think it will take before someone else finds it and we become the biggest morons of all time? Louis, do you really want your discovery to go to waste?”

This hit home. “I agree,” I said, “We can no longer rely on my strategy we have followed for the last ten years. I was also approached by a number of biotech firms and these guys are starting to get ideas of how to get to Telomerax. They are still far away, as there are a number of obstacles they have not yet figured out, but nothing that could not be solved over the next thirty years or so.”

“So in my opinion we must at least start preparing the disclosure, so that when the next window of opportunity appears in the next ten to twenty years, we are ready to go public. I think we should forget about all the talk on politics, and economics, and focus on a very simple question: how do you prepare mankind, of the Internet age, to the idea of becoming immortal?”

As Tarek was still getting over the attack from Helena, Valerio took over the challenge to answer on behalf of the team.

“We certainly cannot set up courses of philosophy and biochemistry for billions of people, nor ask the Pope to announce it from the balcony of Saint Peter, after briefing him that our invention is not so much at odds with the Catholic doctrine.

We first have to get a communal idea of immortality. One that fits Telomerax, yet stays generic so as to upset as few people as possible. Our goal is, when the announcement comes, it is not totally unexpected and everyone can cope with it. Just think of aliens. We see and read so many movies and books with enough evidence, that if a spacecraft appeared in the sky, quite a few people would say it was high time they showed up.

Anyway, a number of trends are already working in our favor. For example, people know that there is a lot of research and money being spent on biotechnology, so something extraordinary can pop up at anytime. A bit like when people were talking of computers eventually being in every office, during the sixties. It sounded like science fiction but it naturally became part of the world.

Second, there is also a trend to delay aging and stay fit as long as you can. This obviously gives us a lot of leverage. Third, at least in developed countries, people are coming to terms with the fact that as long as you are fit, you have to work to keep society sustainable. This means major macroeconomic and political adjustments might be accepted, for example you don’t retire until you are dead.

Fourth, there is undoubtedly an ethical and, in many cases, religious aspect. Who has access to immortality? At what cost? Is this lifestyle acceptable? I can imagine all sorts of reactions. But let’s face it, even today discrimination in healthcare access is a reality and the same applies to ethical values.

Think of access to cancer therapy and abortion in the United States, just to focus on the most developed nation on the planet. The question here is if adding immortality to the equation would cause people to run away, or embrace it. I do not have an answer.

When it comes to the environment, global warming, and all the way down to the preservation of whales, I believe immortality will be nothing but yet another variable in the puzzle.”

“Good summary Valerio,” Dora intervened, “but how do you translate that into a program? What do we have to do? We are just six, and unlike Saint John, we have got no revelation.”

“Do not underestimate the power of media and word of mouth. I mean, you do not need an army of people to build an efficient communication system. We have to immediately spread scientific propaganda. I think we have to use a two-pronged strategy.

The first one should be led by George and Helena. They have all what it takes to go out in the open and fund biotech startups with the goal of increasing longevity by let’s say, a two-hundred year lifespan. Of course this will be initially dismissed as marketing hype but…”

“…It will reach people in the right circles,” George took over. “They are the ones who fund studies, give us other ideas, make investments….in a nutshell, it will alert the wealthy that a major change is on the come up. Some will like it, others will not, it does not really matter. Everyone will find a way to adjust to it.”

“Exactly. Part of it will also leak into the mainstream media, where it will become part of pop culture,” Dora finished.

“And this is where you come in, Valerio,” said Louis. “How do you plan to spread the word?”

“I do not have a clear plan yet. Let me take advantage of the extra time we have,” he chuckled.

“If it’s any help, I do not see anything drastically different from what you do now in advertising. Promoting a few good movies is an easy task, same goes for books – which, by the way, now you can publish them online yourself. We must use the occasional scientific discovery or celebrity misdeed to spread some uncontrolled rumors on new drugs that can extend youth.

The good thing is that with the Internet nowadays, we can determine the effect all those campaigns will have. At my new company, we have developed software that monitors how news trends and even personal reputations are spreading around the Internet and how new events affect them. The point is, we can create a kind of “immortality readiness barometer”, or “Immortalometer” to make it short, and monitor how it evolves.”

So the decision to initiate the preparation was made, with everybody in favor of it, except Tarek.

Since it was not a vote to announce Telomerax, we did not need unanimity to move forward. However, I was a bit worried, and asked Tarek why he was opposing.

“I have no reason, at least not a rational one,” he said. “if I was rational, I would buy all the arguments that have been discussed. All I have is a gut feeling, telling me this is not a wise decision.”

“In retrospect, he was right. The next ten years proceeded in a much different way than we could have ever imagined.”

Part Two

 

Detection and Awareness

 

Chapter 1

 

Avi Eitan sat down in the computer room of Tel Aviv Ben Gurion Airport at precisely eight o’clock on October 23rd, 2010, as he had been doing for the past six months. Barely eighteen years old, he was serving his first year in the Israeli Defense Forces and, given his computer study background, he had been assigned to the team that ran the IT systems of the Israel border control.

As he logged into the system, he thought about how dull his job was but decided it was much better than checking endless lines of passengers into the terminal building or standing with an M-16 rifle in his hands at one of the many checkpoints between Israel and the West Bank. Or even worse, at Gaza.

The chances of having to deal with the occasional suicide bomber these days were high enough to make Ben Gurion acceptable.

On top of that, today there were two pleasant surprises to mix up the routine.

The first one was the arrival of new airport security members made up of some Falasha girls – Jews of Ethiopian origin. Their beauty was so stunning that even the unkept border guards could not help giving them attention.

The second surprise was more on the professional side. Avi was asked to start testing a new image match software called “ChronoPic” that had just been installed by the specialists of the Shin Bet, which is the agency with counterespionage and jurisdiction inside Israeli borders.

The origin of the software was hidden. There were rumors circulating that it was joint developed by the CIA and some experts of the web giants, but there were other claims that stated the NSA was responsible, instead.

Avi did not really care. He clicked the new icon on his screen and started running the test. The software would collect all the pictures taken by the security cameras of the airport and search for matches to any particular subject in the photo.

Avi ran the first test on a passenger who had left the day before, choosing one picture taken at the baggage check-in area in the main entrance. After a few seconds, the system returned a set of pictures of the man as he had gone through the security checks. He had spent some time at the coffee shop in the departure hall, loitered a bit in front of a giant chandelier at one of the gift shops, eventually bought a lousy t-shirt and hastily boarded the flight to Paris. The first test had passed.

Avi then went through the menus and launched an extended search over the past ten days, still focused on the airport entrance. This time it took a bit longer, maybe one minute – Avi thought that from now on he should take note of the amount of time it took to search – then eventually the full set of appearances of the person popped up on the screen. And this person’s name was Pierre Malinsky, a French citizen born in 1965 who entered Israel for the first time in 1987 and whose picture records Avi now had in front of him. The software told him that Pierre regularly visited Israel, three to four times a year, and in many of them he was with a woman who was most likely his wife.

For a second, Avi thought about whether to start an investigation on the woman or continue with Pierre. He chose to finish what he had already started, and expanded the search from the airport to the whole Shin Bet database, which basically contained footage from all the surveillance cameras of Israel.

After exactly fourteen minutes and fifty-seven seconds, in which Avi let his thoughts drift again to the Falasha girls, the system returned the full set of images and pictures. There were thousands of them, but it was possible to sort them by time or place, to make it more manageable.

About twenty of them (roughly one percent) were flagged with a yellow tab indicating that either the system was not sure the subject was the same or there were some discrepancies worth checking. And here was where the real work began.

Avi started browsing through what he called the “suspect set”, starting from the pictures taken at sensitive locations like border checkpoints, Palestinian authority buildings, military locations, and so on.

The conclusion was that in all cases the system had raised a false alarm. The picture quality was so poor that the software could not gather enough points to call a match and stated it as a false result. This was a function built into the software design, because the consequences of missing a real danger were far worse than stating a false one. Especially in a country like Israel.

Before setting the system in automatic search mode, Avi went to the “Morph Search” menu. The software could match the picture of any given subject against an arbitrary set of creations that a malicious agent trying to enter the land of honey and milk could have adopted, such as changing the color and style of their hair, or undergoing plastic surgery, or simply playing with age.

He ran another test on Pierre, programming the system to look for similar morphs only in the airport area. This time, the search needed ten minutes and seventeen seconds, but Avi noticed that at least at the airport the search did not report any results. He reviewed his options.

The longer the test lasted, the less chances there were that he would be moved to another task, like for example, God forbids, at the Patriarch Tombs in Hebron to protect his ultraorthodox fellow citizens from Palestinian hate. And by that time he might have gotten to know a Falasha girl. So he selected the full morphing mode on more than one thousand members of the Shin Bet’s most wanted list and put “moderate morphing” to all the rest, with images going back as far as ten years.

The system started its search, downloading the results into a special file. Avi decided to make a separate file for each image scanned. It was already twelve now, time for the lunch break. He got back to work in the late afternoon.

ChronoPic had already created more than twenty-three files, some of which were large enough to contain hundreds of pictures. He checked if any of the files contained images of members from the most-wanted list. Seeing no results, Avi decided to go home and continue the next day.

The following morning the number of files had grown to fifty-one. He had to start his analysis work, otherwise the backlog would become unmanageable and he did not want to lose this job.

Many logs were inconsistencies due to poor image quality, like the case of Pierre the day before, but there were seven possible crossings with members of the most-wanted list, all under some form of morphing. He checked the dates and the identities. The most recent one had taken place two years ago, and in no case did the declared name matched the one of the suspect.

This deserved more investigation, so he dutifully followed the Shin Bet instructions and he created a report file for each of the cases and sent it to a secure email address. On the receiving side, an officer would take care of the next level of investigation. It was quite a burdensome process, and in the meantime thirty-four new logs had been produced by ChronoPic. Avi nicknamed it ‘Crony’, considering he was going to spend a lot of time with it.

On the evening of the second day, he was grateful that his Crony friend allowed him to spend the rest of his shift in the comfortable airport security room.

And even better, during the afternoon coffee break he had managed to break the ice with Rachel Terwago, one of the most beautiful girls of the Falasha group.

A few days later, he started analyzing file number 178, which was a strange one. Crony had come upon a morphing correlation between twenty-six different picture sequences, all of which were good quality as they had been taken by the airport security cameras.

The sequences started in 2001 and finished the week before, on October 16th, 2010. The subject had flown back home on the afternoon Delta Air Lines flight to New York. The problem was, the sequences belonged to two different people. One of the first twenty was apparently George McKilroy, a US citizen. The last six instead belonged to Sean Ewals, an American as well.

Avi scrutinized the pictures. Indeed, there was some resemblance. The morphing controller stated that George could have morphed into Sean by applying eye and nose surgery, plus some lifting, as Sean looked significantly younger. Then Avi also checked in the border control file. In both cases, there was nothing suspicious.

Nothing to report during their stay in Israel, and nothing connecting either one to the Shin Bet database of foreign suspects.

Avi launched a search on the whole Israel territory on both subjects. After one hour, he figured out that neither George nor Sean went near any sensitive military site. They both appeared in some parking lot and traffic light footage in the Petah Tikvah area. The hotel videos showed that they stayed at different places, while George’s pictures had been taken in the Jerusalem area, Sean always stayed in the surroundings of Tel Aviv. Looking at their customs interview reports, they both declared to be technology entrepreneurs and their whereabouts confirmed that. They were born about thirty years away from each other and this was in line with the images.

There was still a strange resemblance flagged by the system, as if George and Sean could be the same person. But then why did Sean look so much younger than George? The opposite would have made sense.

Avi was about to trash the log as yet another case of false results, then he remembered that his country simply could not afford false outcomes. Besides that, no one could blame him for being too cautious, so he compiled his analysis of file 178 and sent it to the Shin Bet email address.

Chapter 2

 

Eyal Podhoretz was the man in charge of the office for the analysis of internal intelligence at Shin Bet. His team was collecting and putting together information taken from all sorts of sources, from satellite imagery to words whispered in the streets of the Old City of Jerusalem, with the goal of identifying any internal threat to the Jewish State.

This year was relatively quiet, at least in comparison to the years of the Palestinian revolts of the Intifada, but Eyal knew that peace was a concept with a much different interpretation in this part of the world. It simply meant no imminent danger and therefore more time to focus on preventing the next threat. The officer who had received the report from Avi had reached the same conclusion, something was not adding up and he had done more research.

It turned out that George had died in 2005 and Sean’s visits had begun shortly after. They were both technology entrepreneurs. George had started in computers, then mobile phones, and then veered to biotechnology, which is where Sean started.

However, Sean was active with a completely different set of companies.

Eyal had sent two of his guys to politely, yet thoroughly interview the people who had done business with George in Petah Tikvah. Evidently, there were no problems whatsoever.

According to his colleagues, he was a very creative and rich man, well connected in the business community. Politically, he seemed just like the average American, ready to side with Israel no matter what.

Could he have been an industrial spy?

Unlikely, as he was the one that brought the new ideas and techniques, not the other way around.

And how about his death?

Totally unexpected. They noted that at some point he got slightly thinner, but who knew why? Then no news for a few months, and all of the sudden the obituary popped up on the ‘San José Mercury’.

So no one attended the funeral?

Apparently not, it was a family-only ceremony. One of the interviewees distinctly remembered the name of George’s wife, Sheila.

The colleagues of Sean gave very similar responses, he was very reliable, very open, and a good friend of Israel without any doubt.

What was he working on?

This is where the interviewees hesitated. They were stuck between the security of their home country and the business secrets of their investors. All that the team of Eyal learned was that Sean was working on breakthrough research in aging.

To complete the puzzle, it was necessary to either interview the family of George McKilroy or catch Sean, maybe during his next trip to Israel. He sent instructions to the border agency to alert Shin Bet immediately upon his next arrival, but to let him go undisturbed. This was what had to be done in Israel.

To get the US side of the story, he picked up the phone and called his counterpart at the Mossad.

Yaakov Mayer answered on the fifth ring as usual, after some quick speculation on the reasons behind the call. He knew Eyal when they had served together in the same commando unit during the last Lebanese war of 2005, hunting for the missile launch sites of the Lebanese Shia party and Israel’s archenemy, Hizbollah. He knew he would not call without a solid reason.

“Hello Eyal. How can I help you?”

“Hi, Yaakov, we have a potential threat we need your help to fully assess. We are tracking a foreign suspect. We believe he has changed identity over the last few years and he is continuously entering Israel.

He is active in biotechnology, and a regular visitor to the Petah Tikvah research area. We cannot get any more information about him from our sources and databases, so if you could just activate your network abroad..”

“Hang on, where is this guy from? Please do not tell me he is..”

“Unfortunately, yes, he is American.”

Even without video link, Eyal could imagine Yaakov shaking his head in disappointment. It would have been much easier to ask the Mossad for some services in Iran or Afghanistan, as the United States were one of the hottest places to gather intelligence. Not so much for the inherent difficulty to get to your sources, but rather for the political fallout if anything went wrong.

“Eyal, let me ask you one question first: can’t we just do this by simply calling someone at the FBI or Homeland Security? If we suspect this one is a bad guy, maybe he is also conspiring against the US. Our two countries tend to have common enemies, and it would save us a big embarrassment.”

“Yaakov, I thought about it and I would rather not get the FBI or HS involved, at least for now. The two guys have bulletproof identities. Their passports are one-hundred percent authentic, as well as work and residential addresses, and their social security codes. When the first guy died, guess what…he asked for his body to be cremated with no relatives or friends at the funeral.”

“So you are afraid he might be acting under the cover of one or more federal agencies. This would mean that our friends from across the pond are spying on us and we are just returning the favor. Maybe Bibi Netanyahu, our Prime Minister, could buy this, if we can prove it. I need to ask you a few additional questions though. First of all, are you really sure we are talking about the same person?”

“The double identity pattern has been detected by the new software that you handed over to us a few months ago. I sent one of my team members at Ben Gurion, to check how the border control officer at the airport was using the software. The boy, I think his name is Avi, thought he had made some mistake, but after a full day of examination my team member confirmed that Avi can efficiently operate the ChronoPic application. So, yes, to the very best of our knowledge the two individuals, George and Sean, are the same.”

“And why do you think this George-Sean is a bigger threat to us than Hezbollah?”

“I did not say he is a bigger threat than Hezbollah, or Hamas rockets, or the Iranian nuke program. All I’m saying is we have a man who has dealt with the biggest technology breakthroughs for the last twenty-five years, who chose to change lives and who is now playing around with biotech in our backyard, under intense protection.

What if he is in to get some of our secrets for the Americans to reuse? You know that some of the companies he is working with are also engaged in our new bio-drone program.

Or what if he is trying to smuggle biohazardous stuff inside the Tel Aviv metro area? I am not asking to put him in jail or kidnap him in Connecticut, I am just asking your help with a discreet assessment.”

“Alright, but I need to tell you, we will do this via our sayanim first, I do not want to expose our teams without more solid evidence. And this means it will take more time than usual.”

“No problem, Yaakov. We are ready to help with the analysis of the data as soon as you start getting some news. I am sending you the file right now.”

Yaakov had barely put down the phone, when the computer showed the incoming message from Eyal. Yaakov opened it with the intention of putting it at the end of his priorities. Half an hour into reading it, he looked at the clock on the wall. He would have to wait another three hours before he could give an early wake up call to Ben, his resident agent on the US East Coast.

Chapter 3

 

Ben’s main job was to keep good relations with the secret services of the United States and Canada, while exchanging information about common enemies. On the other side, he also gathered information about those very same allies.

Like all other Mossad agents, he had to coordinate the network of the sayanim, the Jewish word for foreign collaborators. They were mostly made of Jews of the Diaspora who were loyally serving both their homeland and the country of Israel, that vowed to act as a last resort shelter for all the Jews of the world. And Jews knew all too well that fleeing your homeland on short notice could never be disregarded.

Ben was constantly trying to get as much information without exposing his sayanim to the threat of espionage charges from their home country. However, the FBI and the Homeland Security Agency were making it increasingly difficult.

The call from Yaakov came through Ben’s secure mobile line.

Yaakov explained the full story he had learned from Eyal, except the detail about the biodrone research, as Ben did not need to know about it and there was always the possibility of someone else listening in on the call.

At the end of the briefing, Ben took initiative and sketched out a plan of action.

“Alright, we basically have three concerns.

First, make sure that George and Sean are the same person. Then, if this is confirmed, we have to find out what Sean-George is really doing. And last, who are the guys he is working with.

I would use the sayanim and some light surveillance to resolve the first issue, and depending on what we find out, we work out a strategy for the second and third ones.”

“Good idea. Now, do you have some ideas on how to go about the first part?”

“We have several sayanim on the West Coast, some of them are active in Silicon Valley venture capital firms, others in the movie industry in Hollywood. Maybe we are lucky enough that some of them already got in touch with George and might have direct access to his relatives. The idea is to grab some of George’s stuff from which we can extract DNA samples.

I do not think it will be an issue to get some bio samples from Sean, just with some basic shadowing. You have thousands going on every day in New York City alone. FBI and Homeland Security won’t notice anything at all.”

“Sounds reasonable, I want you to report back to me in two weeks or so, as soon as you have some news. We have four weeks to get started.”

Once Ben had hung up, he started browsing through his list of contacts on the West Coast, sorting out who to call in the late afternoon.

After just two calls, it turned out that one sayan called Aaron Kahlberg, was a very close friend to one of the partners of George in his mobile phone venture. Aaron was used to giving some advice or answering some questions for Ben. He knew this was helping the cause of Israel and there was nothing wrong with that.

This time the request was strange, though. For some reason which Ben could not disclose, he was searching for any objects that had come in contact with George McKilroy. Aaron asked if they were looking for some DNA samples, but all he got as a response was that they would be returned exactly in the same condition as they were, in no time.

A few days later, Aaron went to his friend’s home for a party and he purposely commented on one of the big phones that was sitting on the memorabilia shelf in the lab room. He asked his friend if he could borrow it to show to one of his grandsons that phones without screen really used to exist.

The plan worked and the very next day the hefty car phone was taking off from Los Angeles, headed to Tel Aviv.

Sean was easier to manage since he was still alive, but there were constraints as well. Intruding into Sean’s house, even in his absence, was out of the question until they had more evidence on his double life. What if a policeman or a neighbor intercepted the agent?

Ben decided to leverage Sean’s on-the-go lifestyle by contacting someone of the sayanim at United Airlines who had access to the global reservation system. With some luck, Sean would pass through an airport in the New York area, since he belonged to the frequent flyer club.

The very same day he received the full list of Sean’s past and future reservations, from a private email address. Sean had started flying exactly after George passed away. This confirmed Ben was onto something.

Once he had called the Mossad operative to organize the sample collection on the next flight, he noticed the pattern of his visits to Singapore.

The sample collection was scheduled to be taken on his next flight from New York to Paris. As Sean always booked the same aisle seat, it was easy to assign the agent to the window seat next to him. The mission seemed very simple, but Ben insisted on having an experienced agent carry it out.

It was much better to annoy an expert operative than to risk a small failure and delay the collection of information. Two days later, he chuckled when Shlomo slammed a plastic slip with a small strand of hair down on his desk, shouting threats to move back to Africa where at least there was some action.

The slip flew to Israel that day, in the official packaging of the Israeli ambassador to the United Nations.

By the time the lab analysis report arrived, twenty-four days had passed since the call between Ben and Yaakov. The report stated that the dandruff samples found trapped in the telephone receiver had a ninety-seven percent probability of belonging to the same individual from which the hair had been taken. The holes of the telephone receiver had shielded the dandruff microsamples from the heat and light that would have irremediably damaged the DNA, and luckily not many other people had used this phone.

This meant there was an American agent operating undercover in Israel and dealing with advanced biotechnology research.

Eyal and Yaakov decided to raise the case priority to high.

Chapter 4

 

Skip Ross received the report of ‘FriendWatch’ from the NSA like every Monday morning.

A Texan from Dallas, he had graduated in Law at the University of Texas during the aftermath of September 11th and he had chosen to give up a career as a lawyer to join civil service. His first assignment had been to serve as the legal manager of the team that developed ‘FaceFinder’, the system that took pictures of all foreigners entering the US and compared them in real time with the suspect image databases of all US security agencies. It was a big success and as soon as US allies heard about it, they had made a quiet but very persistent request to get it as well and now several versions were being used in at least half a dozen other countries.

Skip had insisted to use it to scan US citizens too, but the amount of data to be correlated first and the arrival of the Obama administration, put an end to these plans. The software was still checking all foreigners entering the US but required a legal warrant to be applied to US citizens without any criminal record.

He was now serving as deputy director of the Special Investigation Section of the Homeland Security in Washington, D.C.. His job was to lead the cooperation with the NSA for all the electronic intelligence that his colleagues at the Department of Defense were gathering, on matters that may affect US security.

The report he was reading was the reason for his last promotion. Back in 2007, when he was still the head of the New York Border Control Agency, he had persuaded the NSA to develop a software that would automatically scan all calls, mail and internet logs of every individual who worked in sensitive areas regarding border control.

The list initially contained all airport and port authority employees, US immigration and customs officers, and foreign embassy and consulate employees but quickly grew to include all those who were somehow connected to the travel and transportation business, among them airline reservation teams.

By 2009, Skip had identified the sayanim of the Mossad working in the sector but he decided it was not worth disrupting. Although sending information to a foreign secret service was against the law, Skip knew that this was not necessarily against US interests, and after all his system was not completely in line with the rules either.

So, instead, he decided to refine the software to get a better understanding of what and who the sayanim were after.

In many cases, he found they were tracking the same suspects, in other cases the request was a single check that did not allow further follow up. However, the case he had in front this morning was a long, repetitive pattern of queries that identified the target.

For some reason, the Mossad was tracking Sean Ewals, a young US citizen who visited Israel regularly and whose profile did not reveal anything suspicious.

He thought about the alternatives.

Either the Mossad was spying on Ewals or Ewals was working for them. In both cases, Skip should report his finding to FBI, which was in charge of the counterintelligence within the US.

Skip decided to do a full scan of Sean’s electronic correspondence, for which the Special Operations section of Homeland Security did not need any legal warrant. The holiday season was around the corner, and he would receive the analysis at the beginning of 2011, the year marking the tenth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks.

He stopped, leaned back in his chair, and looked out of the window; allowing himself a quick appraisal for the last decade. He knew his country was safer now, and he had played an important role in it. He felt proud that he had earned the power to track his fellow citizens’ lives for the good of his great nation. There was no reason not to continue in this manner.

The report about Sean landed on his desk in mid-January. The graph highlighted his personal and business connections with different color codes. The man was a complete workaholic, without a private life except for his girlfriend in Singapore whom he regularly visited once a month. None of the connections belonged to any suspect, and this was a good sign, although more than a third of them were abroad and could be hiding secrets.

All the companies Sean was involved with looked spotless, also. A couple of them had some open litigations with the IRS, but after a quick look Skip saw it was only the Californian way of trying to hide income behind complex stock compensation schemes; just normal business.

The field of activity was much more interesting. All the companies Sean was investing in, were active in anti-aging drug research. Skip could hardly understand the report, however the summary was clear enough; all of these companies were working on a new generation of drugs that could extend average life span up to one hundred and twenty years.

The complete list counted twelve companies with a direct investment from Sean that, together with their subcontractors and business partners, added up to a total of fifty-two enterprises. Eighteen were located overseas, spread out between Europe, the Middle East, and Asia.

There were only two Israeli companies, and according to the relationship graph they provided key components to the two core companies.

The Israelis had probably figured out what the whole deal was about and were now trying to get more information to launch a third company. The winner of this race was in to get huge financial rewards and political clout. And Skip knew that his job was to now make sure the winner would be a US company.

That was enough to push him to take action, so he immediately setup a meeting with the head of the operations service. He needed a detailed secret inspection of Sean’s house to make sure it was not already under surveillance. He did not go through the seven-hundred page appendix, missing the fact that there was no document dating before 2005.

The inspection was carried out in February, during one of Sean’s frequent trips abroad and it did not reveal anything abnormal. The house had not been bugged and it did not contain anything unusual except a set of unmarked drugs, in all likelihood the samples being produced at one of the companies. One box, with some pills inside and a T stamped over it, was kept in the bathroom and it looked like Sean was testing it on himself.

Meanwhile, ‘FriendWatch’ reports showed that the sayanim had been tracking every movement of Sean for the past three months and Skip was about to call him for a formal warning when he discovered that one of the known Mossad agents on the East Coast flew with him to Paris.

This completely threw Skip off track.

Maybe Sean was a spy or, worse, a traitor selling industrial secrets to Israel. He needed more time and information to come to a decision. For the moment he reclassified Sean’s case as a potential threat and put him on the highest level possible of electronic surveillance.

From now on, all his calls and mail would be recorded, analyzed, and stored, and his home discreetly searched at least once a month.

Chapter 5

 

September 4th, 2011 was a glorious late summer day in Tel Aviv, as Eyal drove to work.

He had scheduled the periodic review and alignment meeting with the Mossad in the morning and he was happy to see that after many months of procrastination, Yaakov had gotten around to the Sean Ewals case.

This, mixed with the memory of the last Shabbat spent at the beach with his girlfriend Ruth, made for a very good start of the week.

When Yaakov finished the slides about the second point, the excitement had turned into disappointment. Since it was a face to face meeting, Yaakov understood immediately.

They knew that George and Sean were the same person.

They had managed to find out that he also had a girlfriend in Singapore, as they could see from the picture of the two taken on the poolside of the Raffles hotel by the Mossad operative. She was a Spanish woman named Rosa who was working as a financial analyst in a hedge fund and Eyal could not help noticing she looked a bit like Ruth.

Another interesting fact was that George/Sean was at the center of an extensive network of global connections, logging countless airline miles. Beyond a regular monthly trip to Singapore to visit Rosa, he visited Europe at least twice a month, Middle East (including Israel) twice every three months, and occasionally the Far East – mostly in South Korea and Japan. Yaakov had not been able to send an operative to every country, but in the countries he had managed to get a team member into, like France and England, all they had reported was the typical venture capitalist lifestyle. There were no suspicious associates found and Yaakov did not have enough resources to evaluate everyone George/Sean had met during these past months of surveillance.

Eyal had not much more information to offer. During his missions in Israel, they had tracked every number that Sean had called and everything he had brought along in his suitcase – including a full scan of his hard disk which was copied during the airport security checks – but again, nothing suspicious showed up.

In any case, the Israeli people known to George and connected to the biodrone project, had been moved to other companies. The business partners of George reported that he asked about their new jobs, but he did not try to contact them again.

“So, at the end of the day,” sighed Eyal, “the only suspicious activity here is that we have a former Silicon Valley billionaire that likes to live a second life and appears to be barely thirty when he is actually sixty-something…nothing that you could not reach with the help of a good plastic surgeon up in Beirut and nothing that poses an immediate threat to Eretz Yisrael..”

“Correct,” chimed in Yaakov, “the only other strange thing we can add to the list is that the man is going to spread out into Hollywood. One sayan in Los Angeles is active in the movie production industry and told us that Sean is helping to finance a new sci-fi movie about a future where part of mankind has become immortal while the vast majority is condemned to live in the slums. The plot looks quite plain, but they are going to hire big actors like Matt Damon or Tom Cruise to make it sell. The movie name has not yet been decided. It could be ‘Olympus’ or ‘Elysium’, some fancy mythological Greek name.”

“Alright, how do we move forward then?” Eyal continued, “We know we have an extremely well-crafted identity change, we know it has to do with advanced biological research and all the big money associated to that, we know that – although we have no evidence – it was intentional, and it has got into contact with one of our most secret research programs. The big media might soon be involved. I think we need to fire a warning signal, Yaakov, even though we do not want to…”

Yaakov knew where Eyal was going with this proposal. A warning signal meant officially asking the CIA if they knew something about it, watching Sean undercover, and questioning foreign secret services. This was tricky business from here on out. Not to mention that if you were proved wrong, you would owe the CIA a favor.

“Alright,” Yaakov gave in, “we will take all the necessary steps with our friends in Foggy Bottom, but I won’t bring this about on an urgent basis, rather I will mention it verbally as an off-agenda topic in the monthly interexchange meeting we have in Cyprus, two weeks from now. Then, as I understand, you plan to question our man next time he sets foot in Israel so please let me ask you one favor: do not arrest him or take any action that could create an issue for us.”

Eyal noted that Yaakov had used the nickname Foggy Bottom to refer to the CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia. He usually did this when he wanted to be particularly cautious. So he tried to reassure his colleague as much as he could.

“Come on, Yaakov, we are not in the US where they send to Guantanamo everything that moves. Worst case, we get yet another complaint call from the US Embassy about our tight security procedures at Ben Gurion airport. And as usual our answer will be that, according to the latest survey we took, ninety-nine percent of US citizens approve of it,” he added with a laugh.

Chapter 6

 

George landed in Tel Aviv in the late evening of October 14th, 2011, this time coming from Zurich. He found himself lined up at the passport check with a much more diverse crowd than the one made of Orthodox Jews, Christian pilgrims, and Wall Street executives that used to pack the direct flights from New York.

George noticed that the young woman at the control station was taking more time than usual inspecting his passport and then she politely but firmly asked him to leave the line and go to a waiting room in the arrival hall.

With relief, George found he was not alone. There were four other passengers coming from Zurich and another five from previous flights. It was a bit like a dentist waiting room, except there were some vending machines.

He asked a few questions around, and it turned out that the wait was about an hour, then they were called in one by one for some questioning, and sent on their way after an hour or so. Some of the travelers that pretended to be more experienced, said this was the standard procedure for those who were entering Israel for the first time or that otherwise had visas from countries like Saudi Arabia or Pakistan.

George began to feel uneasy as he did not belong to either category. What did they want from him?

George began to mentally repeat the story of Sean, his childhood in Boston, the loss of his parents in a car accident fourteen years ago, his years in college in Harvard. At the same time he started studying the others in the room. There were three Italians, one of them actually looked like an Arab, all with their eyes fixed on their phones.

There were also two Frenchmen, who instead were talking on their phones to complain about the situation with their loved ones at home. All the others stayed silent, and from their looks they seemed to be from Eastern Europe.

From time to time, someone would be allowed to pass the border and someone else entered the waiting room. However, there was no clear pattern on how people were called into questioning. George’s turn came towards midnight, after about two hours of waiting.

The first questioning took place in a nearby office, which was large enough to fit a desk and a cabinet along the wall. The officer was again a young woman, not even twenty-five years old, but experienced enough to show off flashy badges on her otherwise sloppy uniform.

The questioning was relatively easy: lots of questions on the motive of his visit, where George told the simple truth, the request for the phone numbers of his contacts in Israel for a possible check – again, no problem – and a number of questions about him and his past. But George was ready, even though he was a bit surprised of being asked the name, place and date of birth of his grandparents. He could not remember much, since the last one to pass away, who was his grandmother, had died when he was four. Yes, he remembered playing with her in the courtyard of her house back in New England, he could not recall exact dates. He only knew he had Irish roots.

He was sent back to the waiting room. It had lasted forty minutes and George was not sure what to do next. He realized it was now too late to call his business contacts in Israel, it would only scare them. And in any case it would be better not to give the impression he was calling for help. He could have called Helena, but again, what could she do? It would just get her worried. His phone was without a doubt being tracked by now. He called his office in Stamford, Connecticut to tell his assistant about this small inconvenience.

She had to be ready to reschedule the calls and meetings of the following day in case this lasted much longer.

Just before two in the morning, a screaming man burst into the waiting room, where George and four other people were patiently sitting. He was shouting in French, but George clearly understood the “fascistes” that popped up here and there in his sentences. He looked up at the arrival screen. The man had most likely disembarked from the last flight from Rome.

After a few minutes, the man sat down next to a vending machine, and after another ten minutes of complaining he started asking around how long each one of them had been waiting. One of the Italians sitting nearby him, engaged in conversation and the newcomer introduced himself as Mustapha Dakka, a Belgian citizen with Moroccan ancestors who worked in the music industry. He was there for an interview with a woman with an unpronounceable name – at least for an American – who was the biggest trans-sexual singer in Israel and a rising star in the Mediterranean pop culture.

Of course the fascist policemen of this most fascist State had discriminated against him based off on his looks and origin. The guards at the Belgian embassy were all sleeping now, but it was just a few hours until he would make sure to create a big scene.

George was getting a good laugh from the whole situation, when he was called in for the second round of questioning – again a young female officer, again barely above twenty, again the shoddy uniform, except this time the style was much more assertive. Apparently, it was her job to play the bad cop. At two-thirty in the morning, George figured he would be allowed to take his time in answering and again stuck to the truth, like before. All the truth he knew about Sean.

When he came back to the room, it was around three fifteen in the morning and he found that the place had morphed from the dentist waiting room into something like an Alcoholic Anonymous meeting, with Mustapha playing the facilitator.

There were only six people left in the room, including Mustapha and himself, and he thought it would be a bit suspicious not to join the conversation. But he had to be careful with his words. He exaggerated a yawn, he took a coke from the vending machine, and he sat three seats away from Mustapha.

Mustapha was speaking with the only Italian left in the room, about two pop singers of the seventies, with Mustapha claiming that a song called ‘Gloria’ was the work of a certain singer – with yet another unpronounceable name – and the Italian arguing it was owned by another singer. No one seemed to give in. Then all of the sudden the Italian started singing the tune and Mustapha immediately shut up. He turned his attention over to George, who in the meantime was reviewing his two interviews for the third time, in search for any omissions. So far, he had not found any.

“Hello, we have not yet introduced ourselves. I am Mustapha, music critic, as you can see. Where are you from?”

“Nice to meet you, I’m Sean, from the US. I work in the technology sector.”

“Ah, I am sorry you are going through this, but I am also a bit happy you can see for yourself how your allies behave! They make the life of foreign guests miserable, and let’s not get into how they treat Palestinians. But you Americans always side with them blindly. What state are you from?”

“Stamford, Connecticut. Which is located roughly halfway between New York and Boston, but I grew up in Boston.”

“Boston! Oh what a great place! Really civilized. I have always wondered how they can get along with Texans. The music scene is great there, too! The Aerosmith! The Pixies! A city of rock! I would love to go there again.”

“Well, I guess so, but I am not into that stuff. I used to listen to the radio and that’s about it.”

“Of course, but so many great musicians are out there. Donna Summer, I am sure you know her. I was talking with our Italian friend here, about the sound of the seventies. Amazing productions come from that era! Boston had nothing to envy California over, their artists were on a par with the Eagles and Joan Baez. And then there was that one song..,” Mustapha started humming an old tune.…”I love it, but I do not remember the group..”

“Wow, you really are an expert” laughed George sarcastically. “I do happen to know that song, it is from the Buckinghams. They were from Chicago. I know, because my father always sang it.”

At six in the morning, he was the only one left, along with Mustapha. When he was called again, this time he was led through a longer corridor, to a larger office, where a man in casual clothes was waiting for him.

The desk was completely empty except for an iPod connected to a wireless speaker, playing in the background at very low volume.

George had decided to be aggressive this time, threatening to call the US embassy, but the change of environment led him to relax a little. The man was wearing a badge. George tried to read the name but it was in Hebrew. The man noticed and immediately introduced himself.

“Mr. Ewals, you can call me Eyal. First of all let me apologize for the huge inconvenience you have experienced tonight. You have visited Israel several times so you must understand that we take our country’s safety seriously. I have to tell you that today we have received some information which required verification on our side, including this nasty round of interviews.

I cannot disclose the source, nor the content, however I can tell you that you have come out of it with a clean record. We will let you go right away and you can continue to engage with your Israeli business partners without any restrictions. In case you are wondering, yes, we have verified with some of your partners the information you have provided for us tonight and it matched. Now, we can both relax ourselves,” he said, as he turned up the volume. It was “Blowing in the Wind” by Bob Dylan, except that it was played by a woman.

“Do you recognize her?”, asked the man.

“She sounds like Joan Baez, but I tell you I am no music expert.”

“Correct, Mr. Ewals! She grew up in Boston, just like you told our agents you are from.”

Chapter 7

 

The oppressive humid heat of the summer had given way to the warm winds of late October that Tarek was enjoying, on his brand new Riva motorboat, in front of the mangroves, not far from Abu Dhabi.

His business focus had now shifted to brokering deals between the government of the Emirates and a score of technology companies, which were selling advanced surveillance and control systems.

The Arab Emirates were a booming, open, and diverse country, yet the ruling families needed to make sure that the Emirati nationals, now a tiny minority of less than ten percent of the total population, had all the means to detect any threat from inside and keep control of the country.

Tarek had managed to delegate to his company’s management the daily chores of running the business and he had kept for himself the high-level relations that were nonetheless essential in getting deals. This gave him plenty of free time to enjoy the lavish lifestyle of the Gulf upper class with his family.

This day had to be devoted to fishing, while Jailane, his wife, was sunbathing on the deck.

He was patiently awaiting a Giant Trevally fish for more than two hours when he received a call from Jean-Pierre Bezas, the French secret service head agent in Abu Dhabi. He was furious and asked Tarek to immediately meet him at the Rotana Beach Hotel pool bar.

Tarek realized that the fishing day was over. He started the engine, muttered a few words of disappointment to his wife, and headed to Abu Dhabi.

Jean-Pierre was waiting on the pier of the marina and did not wait for him to reach the secure bungalow at the Rotana seaside, before starting his rants.

It was about those CIA identities handed over a few years ago. The bad news was that the one of Sean Ewals, was being used to cover up an illegal spy in Israel.

The Mossad had found out and asked Langley, the CIA headquarters, if they knew something or – God forbids – they were involved in any way. The allegations had been initially dismissed, but the CIA would certainly take a good look and get back to their allies with any news.

The CIA’s internal investigation had clarified that these identities had been handed over to the French Foreign Service, the DGSE, in exchange for other favors so the ball was now back in France’s court, and Jean Paul had to make sure this identity did not end up in the wrong hands.

“Tarek, please tell me you are not bothering the Iranians. Who did you give it to?”

“I can assure you, to none of the folks around here. You know I would have told you. I can only tell you he was a US gentleman who had good reasons to change his life, but I never met him again. I do not know why he is messing with Israel. How did the Israelis find out?”

Jean Paul stopped. The fact that Tarek had never betrayed him meant he could take his word that the identity was being used by a US citizen, but never meeting him again? This sounded like bullshit.

Jean-Paul answered, “According to what my CIA contact told me, the Mossad is nervous because they have classified Sean as a US intelligence initiative, so they are proceeding very cautiously. Now, the CIA does not want them to know they have lost control, but they are taking care because it might be us, from France, and they do not want to put us in trouble either, at least not immediately. In any case, it’s time to call game over, that’s the point. We have exactly two weeks left. If you happen to get in touch with this gentleman, please tell him he has to stop interacting with the Israelis. It looks like he has been heading too close to one of their secret security programs. All he has to do is report to the Boston FBI section. He might be able to retain his secure identity if he has not done anything horribly wrong and maybe continue his new life undisturbed, as long as he agrees to never visit Israel again.”

Tarek weighed the information. It could have been an overreaction by the Israelis, but the identity of Sean was now unusable. What’s next? If Sean reported to the FBI, he would be under constant surveillance. Would he be able to resist all the pressure? Or would he give up? Tarek needed to re-evaluate the scenario with someone who had a more practical outlook on things and knew Sean better.

“Understood, Jean-Paul. Now, if you excuse me, I have to place a few calls to start getting this fixed.”

When Helena saw the “Emirates” caller i.d. on her office phone she let it rang and started counting. It stopped after the third ring. This was the code she had agreed with Tarek to have a secure communication on short notice. She then reached into her bag and took out a pre-paid mobile phone, which had been purchased by the teenage son of a friend of her Indonesian housekeeper. She had asked him to buy two, and let him keep the second one as a reward, along with a one hundred dollar bill.

She then dialed the Emirates number.

“Hi Tarek, it looks like poor Sean is in trouble with Mossad and Homeland Security…”

“And I am bringing the CIA and champagne to the party,” added Tarek with a chuckle.

Helena briefed Tarek about the Israeli questioning at the airport. The good news was that George had not panicked and behaved as if nothing serious happened, allowing him to finish the business trip as planned. The only exception had been Helena but she was his girlfriend, after all, and he had purposely delayed the call to Helena, waiting to call her when he was back in the US. However there was an unexpected change in plans. As soon as he had landed in New York, he had been approached by two FBI agents led by an officer of the Homeland Security named Skip Ross, who had taken him in a windowless room just past the passport checks and had briefed him about a potential threat from the Mossad.

They explained how they had been watching over him for several months and had finally come to the conclusion that the Israelis wanted to steal the secrets of the new drug he was working on. The agency had asked some experts about the nature of the drug and everyone had agreed this could mean billions for his ventures and therefore, for the entire US pharmaceutical industry. The matter deserved US government protection.

They went on and assured George that Homeland Security would not disclose any information to third parties. Then they expressed their concerns for Sean’s tendency to work with foreigners, and why he was letting a Swiss company manufacture the drug prototypes. In the end they made it clear that it was time to act now, and with his cooperation they would have the Mossad framed in no time.There would be no headlines, all that Homeland Security wanted was to show the Obama administration that they were able to detect and block all the threats against US interests, even the most elusive ones coming from trusted allies.

George cooperated and did not mention his adventure with Shin Bet. His safest bet was playing fellow American patriot. In fact, just about six months ago, his business partners had become more cautious and some layoffs happened, with good researchers leaving the companies and worse ones joining. He got his PC searched many times, but he knew Israelis were obsessed with security and he had always used one with the minimal amount of information stored. He would not be going back to Israel, better not to risk the money of his venture partners. But how long would this last? He did not want to become a secret agent. When was Homeland security planning to end the operation?

As he listened to Helena, Tarek went from worry to amazement. George had been able to face two consecutive major threats without breaking down and had also managed to set up the Mossad against a good part of the US security. It could not last long though, that was clear. They needed to meet all together in a safe place and decide on a new way to move forward.

“Well, Helena, it seems like I will be hosting you for a tea in the middle of the desert. Do not forget your heavy sweaters at home, it gets extremely cold at night.”

Chapter 8

 

Louis, the inventor of Telomerax, had not yet gotten used to his new identity of biotech entrepreneur that he had to face the first serious emergency, occurred more than ten years after the group had been formed.

They landed in Abu Dhabi coming from different places of Europe between the 8th and 9th of November, 2011. They had booked different hotels and different desert tours with four separate agencies. In each group someone knew that there were special guests that would not join the main tour but rather leave on an armored Land Cruiser with tinted windows, and infrared wind shields.

There would be just one trusted driver and an escort, who would receive the coordinates to insert into the GPS navigator via text message, just after leaving Abu Dhabi on the way to Al Ain.

Tarek requested armed escorts because the tour guides were used to serving important guests who provided their own form of security – usually an AK-47 rifle. Asking for armed escort made them think they were not dangerous enough to afford their own weapons.

The Land Cruisers all drove their guests to the middle of the desert region of Al Quo’a, close to the Omani border, making sure no one was following them.

As soon as the caravan arrived at the meeting point, the eight escorts mounted one large desert tent for their guests. There were six people in total, two of which were women. The guest tent had been woven with thin metallic wires to deflect remote electronic surveillance. They would be the perfect drone target and they would show up on surveillance satellites, but as long as the purpose was to have a quiet conversation away from any undue curiosity that was the perfect solution.

The attendants set up their own tent one hundred yards away and then they stationed themselves at the top of the dunes surrounding the camp. Their infrared goggles and binoculars made sure there was no one within at least ten miles. Tarek had made sure they could understand only Arabic, Urdu, and English so Louis could hold the meeting in French.

Despite the urgency, they stuck to the typical meeting agenda, with updates on the disclosure preparation plan given by Valerio and news about Telomerax from Louis. George’s situation was saved for last.

Louis had two major news, possibly the biggest since the invention of Telomerax. He started with a long introduction,

“George, before we get to your situation, have you noticed anything in particular while you have been learning French, these last couple of years?”

Surprised and relieved not to have received a question about his mishaps, George was quick to respond.

“It certainly was a great surprise. Somehow I felt like I was learning twice as fast as normal. No need to go back to the dictionary to check a word, no pronunciation exercises. It was significantly easier than my Spanish class in high school, and I do not need to mention how my Spanish has improved afterwards!”

He finished the sentence and reached out to Helena who sat next to him on the carpet, to pull her closer.

“And how about your everyday skills?,” Louis continued, “Does that apply only to George and languages? What is everyone else feeling?”

“Now that you mention it”, added Valerio, “I also saw something similar with my English, and not just because I live in London most of the time now. It also goes beyond that. For the past few months I have dropped the Outlook agenda. I can mentally keep track of my schedule for the next two weeks.”

“Maybe this is thanks to our Arabic habit of long introductions before getting to the point,” jumped in Tarek, “but I also feel as if our meetings happen in slow motion and I am always three steps ahead of the group.”

Helena noticed Dora was smiling, with her eyes fixed on Louis, and she already knew what he was about to announce. So as soon as Tarek finished the sentence, she cut in.

“Louis, let’s stop with the suspense. To answer your question, I will tell you that I do my math faster than Excel, but I do not think we need to waste any more time. This has to do with Telomerax, so please tell us. The good news and the bad news.”

“There is no bad news..at least not yet,” Louis said slowly. “As you know, Telomerax is blocking the aging of all cells, including neurons, which in a normal body tend to decrease with age. Typically the average human does not suddenly lose all brain capability, because the neurons compensate their reduction by developing more connections between the remaining ones.

Telomerax not only blocks aging, but also prevents neurons from decreasing, therefore increasing the number of connections that eventually form. Basically, as time goes on, the performance of our minds improve.”

“Do you think this could lead to other side effects? Maybe negative ones?”, asked Tarek.

“I do not know”, Louis replied, “I realized this a couple of years ago, then went on studying all I could in neurophysiology. Everything I have just disclosed is pretty much certain, but it is too early to say if and what additional effects Telomerax might have on our brain beyond this….this superintelligence.”

“And how about the second piece of information?,” Helena interrupted. She was anxious to get on to the case of George.

Louis took a deep breath,

“Alright, so during the analysis of the effects of Telomerax on the neural system I also created a new variant of Telomerax that interferes with the dopamine cycle, amplifying the effects of cocaine while greatly reducing the collateral damage.

Basically, thanks to the extra connections built over time by the neurons, much smaller amounts of cocaine are needed to get the rush and Telomerax also cleans up the metabolites of cocaine that create addiction and long term damage.”

Silence followed, forcing Louis to continue.

“If used with pure cocaine, addiction will develop but Telomerax removes all the nasty effects, and leaves sniffers with immortality as a byproduct of exhilaration. I guess the old friends of Helena would be fairly interested in this feature.”

“The bad news about this is pretty obvious,” Valerio noted plainly. “Now Telomerax is not only creating a huge gap between those who age and those who do not, now it is also creating an evolution in mankind. It could be that in a very short timeframe, say fifty years, the difference in intellectual ability between Telomerax users and others could be like the one we see today between man and apes.

On top of that, you have created a way to legalize drug consumption. If I worked for the government, I would classify all of this as extremely dangerous to world order. Better wiping us out quietly than facing the risks of spreading this invention. And even our safety network might be of little assistance…our enemies can be delayed, but they would not give up. And we would give them plenty of time to come up with a good strategy, by the way, since we are immortal.”

“Maybe this is why George had the brilliant idea to get caught up in between two of the most paranoid governments on the planet…what do we do about that?”, Helena asked the audience.

Tarek was the first to answer.

“I think we need to look at the worst case scenario, that is the US and Israeli governments finding out the full story and over-reacting. All the other countries will eventually find out too. Maybe there will be some miscommunication that gives us an advantage, but we cannot bank on it.

We have to assume that we are or soon will be on the bad guys list and will be chased by every government on the planet. Basically, we have to find a way to save our asses. And as much as I do not like it, the only way out is to expedite the diffusion of Telomerax.”

The conclusion was drawn by George,

“So from now on we can trust only non-government organizations, powerful enough to help shield us from any threat and interested enough to understand why we must be kept alive. Louis, you know what that means.”

“Yes, George, I know. To start, I have to think how to increase Telomerax production on an industrial scale.”

Silence fell as everybody contemplated the consequences. After a few minutes, Dora – who had stayed silent next to Louis throughout the entire meeting – stood up.

“It’s chilly outside, but I need to see the stars now.”

She then walked outside, followed by all the others.

Once outside the tent, they automatically split into three pairs of two, and started descending down the dune in different directions. The moon was flooding the desert with a cold, white light, making only the brightest stars visible.

Dora pressed herself close to Louis.

“Louis, do you realize the implications? We are going to side with criminals; we are going to give immortality to rich addicts and all sort of crooks. This is not what we wanted. They are the last to deserve it.”

“We have no choice, darling. If we want to keep our chance of improving mankind, we have to find some temporary corrupted allies. Do you really believe any normal government would let us live? True, Telomerax may become public anyway but I do not want this to happen without me or you.”

Dora stopped. She knew Louis was right, given the circumstances. As right as her mother had been when she chose to marry her father and as right as both of them had been when they decided not to tell her about her ancestry. Now it was up to her to be reasonable and right, and to make a decision that was best for her future.

She pulled Louis to her and started kissing him furiously.

From the dune in front of them, Helena noticed them. She was, once again, listening to the monologue of George who was re-analyzing all he had done in the past several months to try to figure out where he had been detected and how much they exactly knew about them. She suddenly got fed up with George, and envied Dora.

Unlike George, Louis had understood the situation and took responsibility without any hesitations. She waited for his next pause, then took control.

“Stop it, now! We have to assume the worst case scenario, like you said. All the rest of what you say is a waste of time. Now, you come to Singapore with me and I will introduce you to a few clients of mine. You have to change sectors, from biotechnology to logistics and transport. I know it is less glamorous, but that’s life.”

George tried to reach for her but was pushed away with force.

“We have no time for fun, listen to me very carefully. You have to memorize the story of your new life. We can’t afford any more mistakes.”

Tarek and Valerio had stayed in silence on the entrance of the tent. After a while, Tarek sat on the sand, followed by Valerio. Tarek’s eyes moved across the horizon, making sure the patrols were still at their places on the dunes near their tent.

“What can we do?”, asked Valerio in the darkness.

“They did not listen to us three years ago. Now it is starting to snowball and this new strategy is flawed, too..there is an Arabic quote that describes our situation. It says ‘do not climb up the palm tree from which you are no longer able to descend’. I fear we are heading towards situations that we will not be able to get ourselves out of…and we have no choice.”

“And we are starting to invite more and more people up the tree. It’s going to get pretty crowded and soon people will start to fall out,” added Valerio.

“Valerio, I do not know how nor with whom, but I think we have to start preparing for this fall.”

They re-entered the tent and tried to savor the rich Arabic coffee. As soon as the others arrived, Louis asked if there were any objections to the new strategy. After ten seconds of silence, he moved on to the third point on the agenda and they started to discuss the details of the new lives they would have to lead, starting the next day.

Chapter 9

 

“Marhaba, habibi. How come you no longer want to have lunch with me?”

Tarek had been waiting for the call from Rasim Al-Manna for a few days.

“Marhaba, Rasim. You know I am always at your service. What if we meet at the Intercontinental Dubai tomorrow? That way we can use your private suite for protection.”

Rasim Al-Manna was a Palestinian with a Jordanian passport, in his mid-forties. He had survived the Lebanese war of 1982 while most of his family had been killed in the Sabra refugee camp, during the massacres carried out by the Lebanese Christian militias. To take care of his only remaining older sister, he had volunteered for the Fatah security service, which served as the bodyguards of Yasser Arafat, the late Palestinian leader.

He owed to Fatah his education, his career, and the well-being of what little family he had left. For this, he stayed loyal to Yasser Arafat up until his death in 2004. He was one of the few allowed to stay with the controversial leader during his last days in the military hospital of Clamart, France.

After, he spent some time in Paris and was approached by the emissaries of the Al-Nahyan family, the rulers of Abu Dhabi, who needed a professional from outside the country to join their counterintelligence team.

The Emiratis were looking for a secular Arab, who was impassive to the radical Islam beliefs, able to move internationally, and had a proven track record of loyalty to his employer. Rasim was their guy, and like many other fellow Palestinian nationals who were rebuilding their lives after moving to the Gulf monarchies, he accepted the proposal.

Beyond the generous salary and the security of the Arab Emirates, he felt the Al-Nahyans were creating a new image for the Arab world – crafting a new model of society beyond those of failed dictatorships or rogue theocracies.

After almost eight years of service, Rasim had moved up the ranks and now was the head counterintelligence, with direct access to the ruling family members. He respected Tarek, because they both had similar backgrounds and, most importantly, because Tarek had never failed him in many years of business. At least up until now. As soon as Tarek entered the privy suite, they greeted each other, as close friends.

“Happy new year 2012, by the way, even if it may be January 9th,” said Tarek.

They sat in the living room. The waiter served appetizers of Falafel balls, labneh salad, and hommous, and then swiftly walked away.

“I guess you want to hear something about a certain gentleman named Sean Ewals, who entered the country last November 8th, and has seemingly disappeared into thin air after not returning to his hotel in Abu Dhabi…but before getting to that, just tell me…did you receive a request from the Americans or was it your initiative, maybe with local French persuasion?”

Rasim appreciated people who never got caught off guard because they were so rare, even in their world of spies, and Tarek was always expecting the unexpected.

“Let’s put it this way, you know that since we got the Mossad raid in February of 2010 where they killed Mahmoud Al-Mahbeh, the Hamas officer, right in the center of Dubai, I am more and more nervous about having unknown foreigners in the country. At the time, the ruling family of Dubai assumed I let the Israeli do their job because the target belonged to the Islamists of Hamas while I used to belong to the opposite party, the secular Fatah.

I risked my place, and maybe a bit more, and I was put through a few miserable weeks before it was clear I was not involved at all and the plan could only be the work of that devil, Meir Dagan, at that time the big boss of Mossad – may he burn in hell for eternity.

Anyway, from that moment on I urge foreign residents to tell me everything. Our friend Jean-Paul, in particular, is very cooperative and told me about the American probe in our December meeting, as well as the chat he had with you. You can imagine my reaction when I saw the name of Sean Ewals in the passenger list of the Etihad flight from Heathrow, and then finding out he missed the outbound flight to Istanbul. Where and why are you hiding him, Tarek? Was he part of the brigade you took on the desert tourist trip two months ago? I was told they all spoke French fluently, so this makes me think it was not a place for the average American, but in our business you never know.”

Tarek felt relieved. They still had an edge on the CIA, so he had more time to get Rasim and the rulers on his side.

“He is out of the country now. He took a flight to Singapore from Dubai the day after Christmas, with a different name and nationality. It is far more interesting to know who he really is and what he can offer to you. Both the Americans and the Mossad are after him because he has found the recipe of a new drug that can block aging and they want to control it. I do not know if it is his invention or he has stolen it somewhere – the point is it works. I have been using it on myself for several years. Now the man has two of the nastiest secret services on his back and is looking for protection.

Maybe out of desperation, he asked me to take care of him a few years ago, but I can no longer do it alone against both the CIA and the Mossad. I need your help, Rasim. I need to talk to the rulers. This country can become far more than an airline hub or a bunch of oilfields. It can become the beacon of a new era. However we need the support of the ruling families, at least the most important ones. And in case you have doubts, ask one of your experts to try to analyze one of these.”

Tarek placed four white pills next to the plate of shrimp cocktails. They were about the same size as an aspirin, with a small T carved on the top. He took the fifth one and drank a glass of water.

“Now I beg your pardon, but I have to go. It has been more than two months since I have had a decent fishing day.”

Two days later Tarek received an anonymous text message with just an address and time, 11:30 PM. The address was one of the gates of Zayed, a military base in Abu Dhabi. There was no need to specify the day, these messages always referred to the same day. The time suggested that he would most likely be the last person to be received. He took this as a good sign, considering the ruler would have had more time to make immediate decisions without having the distraction of future appointments.

Which ruler, by the way? Like all Arabic ruling dynasties, the Al-Nahyans were a large family, with hundreds of members. For sure, it would not be Khalifa, the President. There was a high chance it would be one of his sons, born between the late sixties and seventies, who were helping to manage the country.

Tarek parked his Audi right in front of the gate at eleven and twenty-seven, and after the security check, he was shortly admitted into the rulers room in Building A of the military base.

The room was furnished in luxurious Arabian style, covered by carpets and tapestries, with a rectangular mahogany table at the center of the room, surrounded by cushions. The table was about one yard wide and two yards long, a sign that few guests were expected to attend meetings there. There were no windows on the walls, but with the room size, the bright lighting, and the rich arabesques engraved on the walls it was warm and inviting. Tea, coffee, and dates had already been served – removing the need for the server.

As Tarek expected, Rasim was in the room sitting at the head of the table. On the right side, to the surprise of Tarek, there was not one, but two rulers – Hamdan and Mansour, respectively the Deputy Prime Minister and the Minister of Foreign Affairs. With a calm, gesture they invited him to sit on the side of the table opposite to them and poured him tea.

Tarek performed the ceremonial greeting and took a sip of it. Then Hamdan turned his head toward Rasim, who started to brief the Al Nahyans on the conversation he and Tarek held in Dubai, and finally added the results he had received this morning from the brand new pharmaceutical lab at the University of Abu Dhabi.

The lab director, a Pakistani citizen with a PhD in Pharmacology at Harvard, reported that the pills were of an unknown strain, and engineered by a pharmacological genius, after seeing the active molecule break down while going through the deformulation process. The scientist also ruled out that the pills were some sort of synthetic drug, like ecstasy, as none of the typical hallucinogen compounds were present.

The two Sheikhs looked at each other. Then Mansour, the younger, started to speak.

“Dear Tarek, we appreciate your loyalty and we know you have never done anything against the interest of our country. You have to realize, though, that with this request you are asking us to cross a border.”

He stopped and his brother continued.

“Even if you lead a secular lifestyle – and we do not have anything against it because it is only up to God to judge men – you must realize that this new invention clashes with Islam and the teachings of our Prophet, may peace be upon him. Many in our community will protest.”

Tarek waited for the sheikh to finish, then waited another few seconds until Mansour gave a small nod and stared at him, to signal he could answer.

“Your Highnesses, I fully share your concerns and that is precisely why I am asking for your help. Like the Prophet – may peace be upon him – I come as a messenger. I am certainly not the messenger of the Almighty, but of a more mundane and possibly evil force. The inventor of this drug has set up things in such a way that if he dies, the formula will be spread all across the world, and the consequences would be dire.

He also understands the risks and wants to keep it hidden, but now there is the imminent danger that it falls in the wrong hands. He believes that your approach to modernity, open, yet very respectful of tradition, is the best guarantee to keep the risk of contagion under control.

We know we are asking you alot, to become the guardians against chaos, but we also know how well you have watched over your country and therefore we are convinced your family can take up this challenge.”

The Sheikhs stayed silent for a while, then Mansour replied.

“Indeed, we know when we must accept a responsibility…you can ask Rasim from now on about anything you need. There are conditions, though, so listen very carefully.

First, we do not want this drug to be produced or sold in our country. Not even nearby us.

Second, we want to know on a regular basis the progress of its diffusion and any other relevant development, especially here in the region.

Third, if you break any of the above conditions we will consider you to have betrayed our trust and that will have serious consequences.”

Tarek repeated each rule, whispering them to himself loud enough for the others could hear. He then raised his eyes to Mansour, and then to Hamdan.

“It is clear, your Highnesses. I just have one final question; can we leverage the country logistics? For example, the Jebel Ali free trade zone?”

Mansour looked at Hamdan. They spoke by exchanging half winks, and then Mansour turned back to Tarek and nodded.

“Yes, this is allowed. For all other needs, please refer to Rasim. He has heard the conditions and will be the guardian of our pact.”

Before standing up, Hamdan made the final comment.

“I want to make it clear that we believe this drug is extremely dangerous and we accept your help request out of our sense of responsibility toward our country, our people, the community of Muslims, and first and foremost, God the Almighty. I think you are right when you say this is an evil matter and has to be controlled with firm hands. And as for us, personally, we will never make use of it.”

But Tarek got the feeling that this was exactly what the two Sheikhs desired most.

Chapter 10

 

Greg Russo Jr. was once again controlling fear and anger, funneling the extra amount of adrenaline in his brain to find a way to get out of the deadlock.

He belonged to a family that became part of the so-called CIA aristocracy as both his father and grandfather had served in the agency.

He enjoyed boasting that his grandfather had been the first Italian American operative of the OSS – as the agency was called during World War II – and he had collected intelligence in Sicily prior to the Allied landing of 1943. His enemies would add that that was how the revered grandfather had managed to get cleared of the allegations he was dealing with in the New York City mafia, but nobody bothered to check.

Less than forty years old, Greg had reached the respectable position of Assistant to the Deputy Director of Operations, the highest operative officer at the agency. He was now responsible for the CIA activities over the Mediterranean and the Middle East, which meant managing loyal but sometimes troublesome allies like the French, the Italians and, first and foremost, the Israelis.

He had been informed of the problem with the Mossad the very same day of the Cyprus meeting and he had immediately found that the cover was indeed belonging to the CIA. As he was waiting for an answer from those snail-eating French, he had ordered a quiet check on Sean’s house in Connecticut.

As soon as the search revealed that the house was bugged by those typically used by the Homeland Security, Greg knew he was in a big mess.

He could always blame his predecessor for recklessly giving away cover, but that was a very weak excuse. He might save his position, but there certainly would not be any promotions in his future.

In addition to Sean, there were seven other identities that had been activated. His only chance was to set up Mossad against Homeland Security and jump in at the last minute to save the day.

He mentally recapped the points.

Yaakov Mayer had stated that they were sure, and could even prove, that Sean Ewals did not exist and someone else, maybe American or maybe not, was using him as a cover. The cover was extremely well done. It was obviously made with interference of the CIA in mind.

Skip Ross, from Homeland Security, said that they suspected Mossad was spying on Sean, the perfect model of the American entrepreneur, but had no conclusive evidence. In any case, they warned Sean of the risks and Sean provided some useful information about a new Israeli bioresearch program.

Then Sean left to London and did not show up on the return flight that was supposed to take him back home before Christmas, after a long tour of Europe and the Middle East. Greg had been avoiding Skip’s requests to know exactly where Sean had disappeared for five consecutive days. Sean was taking non-US airlines the whole trip and it was not easy for Homeland Security to get access to foreign airline records, so they needed the CIA’s assistance. Or were people in Langley – the CIA headquarters in Virginia – covering something?

“Yes”, thought Greg, “we are trying to avoid headlines like ‘Middle Eastern agents spy Israel under a CIA cover and under Homeland Security protection.’”

He needed to know more. He called Skip and asked him to come to his office in Langley.

“The thing is, our man seemingly disappeared in Israel. If you look at this record, he was regularly booked on the outbound Turkish flight from Abu Dhabi to Tel Aviv, with a layover in Istanbul. But he never landed in Amsterdam on the return leg to the US. It does not necessarily mean he has been detained or kidnapped. He might have gone for a swim in the Red Sea and decided it was worth an extra week of holiday and then just came back with a different airline. I need to find out more to help you.”

Skip did not fully believe Greg’s side of the story, but he could not prove it wrong. And after all Sean was a US citizen he had vowed to protect, so he revealed the latest findings: they had placed the pictures of all Israeli contacts of Sean in FaceFinder and it turned out that two of the researchers that had left the companies, had already been in the US under a different name. They were visiting various biotech laboratories and agencies, including Homeland Security’s own National Biodefense Analysis and Countermeasures Center. Why send researchers abroad under cover? Or was the name used in Israel the real cover?

Skip and Greg came to the conclusion that they were not harmless researchers and ordered a full enquiry on the background of the two Israeli researchers.

As soon as Skip left the office, Greg called Yaakov. Yes, the CIA had found something, but there were a few pieces of the puzzle where they needed the help of their loyal allies in the Middle East to make sense of it all.

Greg admitted that Sean was a cover but it was not from the CIA, he bluffed, hoping Yaakov had not gathered enough information from his sayanim. They were now checking with the FBI, the Homeland Security, and a few other foreign services where they had better connections than Mossad. There was not much to expect from the other US agencies. If it was their work, these covers would have been meant to protect witnesses and it would have taken some time to pan out.

The same applied to the foreign services. It would take even longer, and in any case, they would not come up with complete details. Yaakov got to the point.

“Greg, I get the message. Someone has stolen the honey but you have not found any sticky fingers yet, and are in desperate need of help.”

“I have always liked your practical approach. I think it is in the interest of both of us to sort this out quickly. By the way, also Homeland Security was investigating about Sean. He was dealing with two of your military researchers….I am going to send you the file. I think we have to find out who Sean really is.”

“We can help you here, Greg. I did not tell your agent in Cyprus because I did not want to accidentally disclose some information to a lower ranking officer. Fact is, our image identification software – well, our modified version of yours – is telling us beyond doubt, that this Sean Ewals is no one else than George McKilroy, a venture capital billionaire well known in his neighborhood. Now, just try to google his name and see what you get…”

Yaakov paused and hoped he could stop there, without further questions about how they managed to get the DNA crosschecks or, worse, about the two researchers. He heard Greg typing on the keyboard.

“Yaakov, George McKilroy passed away seven years ago and Sean looks considerably younger than the sixty plus years he should have, if he were George incognito.”

“Greg, you know in our business you cannot always show the evidence. All I can tell you is, we are absolutely sure that this man is George McKilroy. We had enough reason to hesitate putting him under intense surveillance, because we were fully aware this meant raising eyebrows from your side.”

Greg felt the pressure lifting. There was time to assess the threat to the United States, if there was any. For sure, the Mossad felt there was a very real one to Israel, and this had maybe to do with the two researchers that deserved alot more scrutiny. But now it was time to play loyal ally.

“Yaakov, I have known you long enough to trust you. So if one of our citizens starts to play suspiciously with one of our allies, the very least we can do is accept the responsibility to find out. If you agree, I will organize a project for all relevant US security agencies to work with you, to figure this out as soon as possible. It will be done under CIA leadership, obviously, as this involves other foreign services and we have just experienced how our domestic services are somehow, unsuitable for this.”

“You are always the same motherfucking bastard, Greg. I am happy to have you on board,” laughed Yaakov on the other line.

Greg sighed, relieved to have made it past one obstacle. Many more were to come.

Chapter 11

 

It was a hot and rainy July day. The view of the Hong Kong harbour, from the 67th floor of the International Commerce Center in West Kowloon, was breathtaking and it made Helena and George press themselves against the glass windows of the waiting room in the office of Lee Shing Chen.

The headquarters of “Prosperity”, the conglomerate holding company of the Chen family, took over half of the floor and it was where Lee oversaw the operation of an empire with interests in real estate, logistics, food retail, pharmaceutical manufacturing, and leisure. All the operating companies had their nameplate on the main entrance, and spacious offices that also served as meeting rooms. All companies of Lee’s empire were officially represented, except the most important and profitable one, which had no plate in the main hall and was run exclusively from Lee’s office.

Helena and George had arrived, as requested, half an hour before the meeting time to allow enough time to go through the security procedures. All their electronics had been taken and stored in a safe. They were only allowed to bring a few printouts, a paper notebook, and pencils that were given to them with the “Prosperity” logo on top. They were admitted into Lee’s office at exactly 4 PM.

Lee welcomed them warmly, showed them to the tea table next to the window, and then sat down at his desk. The office was a simple room with two large glass windows overlooking the harbor and two massive screens on one wall. There was just one decoration in the entire room, a painting of an impressionist view of a bougainvillea tree and landscape. “Maybe Monet or an early Cezanne,” thought George.

“Before we start, let me introduce you to the two gentlemen with whom I share my desk today. On my left you have Paolo, from London, and here on my right is Guillermo, who just arrived from Los Angeles.”

The two men stood up in their flawless Armani suits and offered their hands, with just the trace of a smile on their faces.

“I hope you will excuse them if they look tired. I am afraid that despite all the recent improvements, Cathay First Class still cannot match a Gulfstream VI private flight. But we did not want to risk any undue attention from our….competition in the pharmaceutical retail business, if we want to call it that.”

“Good,” thought Helena. With Europe’s organized crime and Latin America’s narcos at the table, their proposal had raised interest.

“We can start by reviewing the results from the experiments we have run on your samples.”

Lee clapped his hand and the lights dimmed, as one of the screens on the wall switched on. George looked out of the window, staring at the International Finance Center skyscraper opposite to them that towered over Hong Kong island.

“Do not worry, Mr. Virenque, they cannot see us from outside. The windows are tinted. And also armored,” chuckled Lee.

The video started. An Asian lab researcher, wearing mask and goggles, confirmed that joint usage of cocaine and Telomerax greatly increased the effects of cocaine while reducing the body damage linked to the cocaine metabolites. The experiments also confirmed that it was possible to keep the patient addicted, with the subjects only seeking the new buzz, as coming back to standard cocaine would be a downgrade. As for the claimed rejuvenating effect, the conclusion was that it was too early to say, but it could not be ruled out.

“One thing they do not mention,” thought Helena, “is if they have been able to reverse engineer the drug or not.” Most likely the answer was no, as they were still sitting there. But Lee was known for his love of special effects and surprises.

At the end of the video, Lee stared at them, and suddenly the smile he had kept so far fell into a frown.

“Who are you exactly and why are you offering this to us? Having a great product is not necessarily a guarantee for success. And your name; I do not if it is destiny or not, but Richard Virenque was a cyclist that got disqualified for doping. Or do you happen to be relatives?”

Cover blown. Clearly the identities they were getting from the Emiratis were not at the level of the CIA’s, that had resisted for months before being broken by the Mossad. Helena exchanged a glance with George. It was up to him. He took a deep breath and started explaining.

“Mr. Lee, we are part of a small team of extremely brilliant researchers and extremely innovative entrepreneurs, to the extent that we have invented something so revolutionary that it cannot be brought to the market in the usual way. We tried, and faced stiff opposition, even risking our lives. So we had only two options, either trash Telomerax and return to our normal lives, or double our work and figure out how to get this to the market.”

George paused and moved his eyes from Lee to Paolo, Guillermo, and eventually to Helena, who took over.

“However, it is not the last resort. We are so committed to taking this public that the whole package would make its way out through multiple media outlets if anything serious happens to any of us. But I think we can all agree it is better to have an orderly diffusion and enough remuneration to make up for the risks we all would be taking.”

Guillermo kept his eyes fixed on Helena. Paolo exchanged a glance with Lee, understanding they were on the same page, and then spoke.

“If we were drug dealers, we would actually be very afraid of this product. It could remove addiction from cocaine and make it acceptable, to the extent that it could be legalized and sold like aspirin in pharmacies, provided that you take this Telomerax strand together with it. On the other hand, if I look at it from the perspective of our pharmaceutical industries, I acknowledge this could become the next Viagra – actually ten times bigger than that. But it would then be copied, and after twenty-five years the patent would be lifted, with profits gone forever. And unlike Viagra, it would bring a lot of hot political debate, making the investment a lot riskier. Maybe it would make more sense to handle it in an illegal way, in which case we are obviously not interested. And the price you propose is more suitable for the deep pockets of organized crime, rather than for a respectable corporation like ours.”

Paolo stopped, and Guillermo picked up immediately. He had followed every word, even if he had kept his eyes on Helena for most of the time.

“However, Madame Virenque – if that is in fact, your name – we are still not sure if we can fully trust you. In the pharmaceutical industry it is not unusual to try to sell botched products to your competitors, dressing it up like a promising startup, in the hope to restore part of the investment. That is why we tend to favor in-house research. Origin matters a lot.”

As he moved his eyes back to Lee with the content grin of rejecting the proposal, Helena crossed his glance and shouted,

Guillermo, todavia no te recuerdas de mi? Soy Helena!

Guillermo froze for a long second, with his eyes and mouth wide open, until Lee stood up from the table. “Maybe Paolo has understood thanks to his Latin background, but I need an explanation from my team. Can the two of you excuse us for a few minutes?”

After George closed the door behind them, he collapsed into the nearest chair, bewildered, and looked up at Helena for clarification.

“It’s OK, Guillermo has recognized me. He was one of the bodyguards of Emiliano. Since he was also a clever boy, they decided to send him to high school. I was not the only beneficiary of narco scholarships. He saw me for the last time around thirty-five years ago, when I left to attend college in the US. He must have made a very good career if they send him to negotiate global deals like this. He now knows two things; that I am from the clan, and there is some truth in the rejuvenating power of Telomerax.”

They were called back in after about a half an hour. Lee addressed George.

“Mr. Virenque, we have come to the conclusion that you do not have a solid business case for cocaine. Maybe we should explore more in detail the anti-aging effects of Telomerax. Trading cosmetics is a fully legitimate business. I am sure you have already developed a plan to set up a robust and secure supply chain for the product that you want to show us.”

“Absolutely, Mr. Lee. It is just like distributing fine chocolates, you make it in a Swiss factory and send it all over the globe via Dubai and Hong Kong.”

Chapter 12

 

Valerio was driving his rented Alfa Romeo along the Grand Junction Ring of Rome, or GRA as it was universally known, the three lane highway that encloses the city.

Like the walls of Emperor Aurelianus in the third century AD, its purpose was to contain and protect the city. This time not from barbaric invasions, but from traffic congestions. And just like the walls, it had failed miserably.

Luckily, traffic was very rare at 5 PM on a late August Sunday, as most Romans were soaking in the last rays of sunshine on the beaches or trekking along the lakes and hills surrounding the Capital. Valerio accelerated as soon as he went past the last speed radar and got off the GRA at the Via Ardeatina exit, heading south into the countryside.

He arrived at the Shrine of Our Lady of Divine Love in Castel di Leva at 5:30 PM, just one hour before the beginning of the evening Mass. He went straight to the church rectory and pushed on the intercom.

As he anticipated, nobody answered on the first ring. He waited three minutes and rang again, and again. On the fourth attempt, the voice of an aged woman answered. She started by apologizing for the delay, but she had to make sure it was not a prank from the local teenagers. What was the reason for the call?

Valerio spoke softly, asking if it was possible to see Father Giacomo Bontardini. He asked for her to announce the arrival of Valerio Orsini.

Two minutes later the door opened and the woman led Valerio through the cool shade of the entrance and up the stairs, to the first floor. There was a simple hallway with five doors, that were left open to let the evening air refresh the rooms. The parish secretary pointed towards the last door and then walked back downstairs.

Valerio stepped into the small living room and was greeted by a very old man, with a big smile on his round face, in which two dark eyes were full of surprise and joy.

“Valerio, my dear son, it seems to have been ages since the last time we saw each other.”

He hugged him, and Valerio realized he was using him to stay upright. They sat on the couch next to the tea table and Valerio pondered an answer. He could recap every minute of their last meeting.

They had last talked on May 17th, 1985, exactly twenty-seven years and three months ago. Valerio had already left the Vatican and broken up with Anna, while Father Giacomo was a powerful Monsignor in his mid-fifties at the peak of his career, working with the Cardinal Secretary of State, for whom he kept the relations with the Roman political world.

Unlike many of his peers in the Curia, Father Giacomo had asked to take care of a small parish in the outskirts of Rome. Many within the Vatican walls disapproved of Father Giacomo managing both the Palace and the parrochial affairs at the same time.

Normally it would not have lasted long, but his brilliant intelligence and shrewdness made him very respected and sometimes feared in the Curia. Plus, the unconditional love he showed for his herd of working-class parishioners had deterred more than one attempt to get him removed.

Father Giacomo was aware of the reasons that had driven Valerio away from what he called “the pulsing and bleeding heart of the Church” and one day he had managed to invite him to lunch with a good friend of his, Father Ivano Zaccardo, who had dedicated his life to the assistance of troubled teenagers by setting up a public school near Venice. Valerio had accepted the invitation more out of courtesy and curiosity than anything else. He had heard several times about “Father Zac”, as Father Giacomo called him, and he had no important meetings scheduled that day.

Father Giacomo remembered that day, too, even if his memory was fading at the age of eighty-one.

“You are right. It was a great day. I remember Father Zac also had to organize the summer trip of his pupils to Rome and was seeking some help with the accomodation. He was furious with the Jesuits,” Fr. Giacomo chuckled, “he insulted them in Venetian dialect claiming that lodging in a brothel would have been less of a ripoff and much less of a moral inconvenience. How humorous he could be in his wrath! Do you know that he passed away six years ago? Just after the election of Pope Benedict XVI.”

“I read the article in the local newspapers. It said he had grown his small school to a landmark educational institution in the Northeast of Italy, and he was opening up in Latin America. Yes, it was a great day. The two of you were talking about very ordinary things: the organization of the trip, the political gossip of the day, I was expecting some spiritual advice and questioning about my life but you were deeply conversing with each other…not that you were cutting me off from the conversation…then at some point the two of you started recalling the Gospel where John and Andrew met Jesus for the first time…and I can still tell every word of your dialogue. It was like…the two of you…”

Valerio started stumbling with his words. The speech he had prepared for the meeting started to fall apart, despite the help of the superintelligence of Telomerax.

“By the way, Valerio, you look absolutely great – as if time has not passed at all. I will have to review my homilies about the dangers of secular life habits. You are disproving them all! Please do not show up to Mass now or my herd will never trust me any more.”

Father Giacomo was getting to the point.

“Father, do not get me wrong. I do not consider myself much of a believer now, if I ever been that. However, I have come back to you, because you showed me the possibility of….I do not know exactly. I would say grace, but you are the theologian here.”

“Grace….” Father Giacomo repeated slowly, his eyes wandering to the shelves, where books and photos covered the whole wall.

“….yes, grace….but Mass time is approaching, and I have to prepare myself in ten minutes.”

“There is another reason I came to you today, Father. I need your help to meet the Pope, alone. I see in the press that leakages do indeed happen also in the Vatican, and I must avoid that.”

“How can I do that, Valerio? Who would listen to a dying priest in a sleepy countryside parish, who all of the sudden is seeking to arrange a private meeting between a media tycoon and the Holy Father about an unknown topic?”

Valerio saw a flash in Father Giacomo eyes. Maybe that was also grace. He thought a few seconds and replied.

“You know how to handle the Curia. As for my sould, Father Giacomo, please hear my confession.”

Three weeks later, Valerio was preparing the weekly meeting of his public relations team in the East End offices of his company at Canary Wharf. It was rainy and cool, making Valerio think that the wet London fall was arriving in advance. The phone rang at five o’clock. It was a landline number from Rome. He picked up the call, on the other side there was the voice of Father Giacomo.

“I think you may want to be in Rome tomorrow for a special meeting that you requested. It will last fifteen minutes only, so be prepared.”

“Tomorrow?! How can I….it is five o’clock here! I live in London, I told you!”

“I know you will find a way. See you tomorrow, at the online reservations line of the Vatican Museum. Eleven o’clock sharp.”

Valerio hung up, looked around at his team, and called the meeting off. He had to leave for urgent personal issues and would be back in a couple of days. He asked Sarah, his assistant, to book a place on the first available flight to Italy and got on the road.

At that time of day in the East End, the only possibility to get to Italy was the last evening flight directly from London City to Milan, so he had to hurry. At the duty free shop, he bought a suit and change of clothes for the day after.

He then called Caroline, his girlfriend of one year, to cancel the evening dinner. She wanted to know why he was rushing to Italy. He thought shortly, and then replied with the plainest tone he could manag.

“Caroline, I cannot tell you now and I do not want to make up a lie. Maybe one day…”

“Oh, Tony, maybe one day you will stop playing secret agent! It’s not the first time you hide your whereabouts from me. I am looking for a decent relationship, not to play the Bond girl.”

She hung up. Gone. Valerio started thinking he was sacrificing too much for this meeting.

When he arrived in Milan at 10:30 PM, a black Mercedes was already waiting for him. The car took the highway and began the five hour trip to Rome. Sarah had managed to book a room in one of the many, small hotels surrounding the Vatican. At least he would enjoy some sleep.

He showed up at the online reservations line at precisely eleven o’clock, skipping the long snake of tourists that lining the Vatican walls, under the warm September sun. Father Giacomo was there, and he smiled, while he handed the entry ticket over to Valerio.

“I know you would make it,” he said, as he patted Valerio on the back. “From here, I will take care of things. When was the last time you visited the Museum?”

Valerio was puzzled, why didn’t they go through the Saint Anne Gate, the main entry point for non-tourist visitors? Father Giacomo read his face and explained, “that is the official entry point and everybody is recorded. I understood you wanted a reserved meeting, or did I get it wrong?”

They strolled through the courts and the Belvedere palace, following the tourist flow into the Museum. Just before the Room of the Maps, a door opened on what, according to the Latin inscriptions, was a new wing of the Vatican Library rennovated by Pope Benedict XVI in 2005. A young priest appeared in the doorway, his eyes scrutinizing the tourist crowd. Father Giacomo took Valerio’s right arm and with energy unexpected from an eighty-year-old, he veered into the door, which was then quickly closed behind them by the young priest.

They walked along corridors and upstairs for about twenty minutes. Valerio noticed that Father Giacomo did not seem to mind the long walk at all. On the contrary, he looked more and more childish, like a toddler strolling in a grass field. Then they entered a wide passageway from which he could see St. Peter’s Square, and Valerio realized they had entered the Pope’s apartment. The trio stopped in front of a white door and the young priest knocked. The door opened, and one of the nuns that assisted Pope Benedict XVI appeared.

Valerio turned to Father Giacomo, who smiled, reassuring him.

“It’s up to you now. Be concise, you have only fifteen minutes. And do not forget to ask for the blessing at the end.”

Valerio left the room exactly fifteen minutes after the door had opened to welcome him. Father Giacomo had been waiting for him, praying with his rosary, while staring out of the window towards St. Peter’s Square.

The young priest led them back to the Vatican Museum. They all stayed silent and entered the Sistine Chapel. The priest quickly shook hands and disappeared, leaving Father Giacomo and Valerio in the midst of the crowd of tourists swirling about the Chapel, with the saints and devils looming on the walls above.

Father Giacomo spoke just after they left the Museum, “How did it go?”

“Well, I briefed him with the ten-minute speech I had put together on my way to Rome and…”

“That is not what I meant. How was the Pope? What was your impression of him?”

“He listened carefully. I have the impression he suffers from the pressure of the recent leaks. One thing that surprised me, was that I expected him to get more nervous as I continued, but instead it was the opposite. At the end, he was almost relieved. He did not take any notes, he just thanked me and asked if he could help me in any way. I answered I had come to him because I felt he and the Church, in general, could help in this transition, so they better know in advance.”

“He added that this meeting was the sign he needed to make a decision on something he had been pondering for a while but I have no idea what he was referring to. And we should not worry too much about the future, he said, as it does not depend on us. Then it was blessing time.”

“You seem disappointed,” said Father Giacomo.

“I am,” replied Valerio, “I was hoping for some reaction, some inspiring advice but none of this happened. Alright, he is a man after all…”

“Valerio, Valerio….you brought him big news, but secular news after all. You brought news from this world, and remember, the world prospers without Jesus Christ.”

Valerio looked at Father Giacomo, astonished.

“I was not expecting that from you.”

“Oh, you should know that by now. But all the prosperity in this world cannot buy you a single, unexpected minute of grace.”

Valerio could not respond before a blue, rather worn down Volkswagen Golf stopped by the roadside and from inside two men started waving at Father Giacomo.

“Look, Silvio and Maurizio! They are two of my parishioners. They must really love me, if you think that they left their families on a Saturday morning to come to pick me up here.”

Father Giacomo hugged Valerio, then entered the car, and disappeared in the flow of Roman traffic.

Chapter 13

 

Irina Kanchelskaya was living in the Arab Emirates since the end of 2009, leading the double life of a secret agent and a top class whore. She was born in Tambov, Russia in 1985, and by the time she graduated in Astrophysics in 2007 from the University of St. Petersburg she had realized she could make a much better living accompanying rich foreign and Russian businessmen in the night clubs than working as a teacher or an engineer.

She also felt a deep sense of sorrow, not so much for herself but for her country, which despite the progress made by President Putin, was still far away from being as strong and respected as it used to be.

She would have liked to find a way to serve her motherland – the Rodina as they called it in Russia – also to feel closer to her father. She knew him only through the stories her mother shared. He had died in Afghanistan in 1986, when his helicopter was hit by a guerilla rocket.

One night, in February of 2009, a man who introduced himself as Gennady had approached her at the club pretending he had a job for her. She immediately noticed he was not even slightly drunk and he did not order any drinks while asking some questions about her customers. When he left, without trying to ask her to spend the night, Irina understood that she had an opportunity she could not miss.

It has been almost three years now, since she agreed to three careers. Her official profession was as a public relations worker in a small Russian company that used to work in the oil and gas sector. The insignificant company served Gazprom, one of their most valuable clients, and tried to do business with the local energy and utility companies.

Everybody knew it was a cover up for a model agency, managing a steady flow of girls between Russia and the Gulf monarchies. The “maskirovka” – or what the Russians call, the art of masking – did not end there though. Many of the models were actually informants and some outright illegal agents of the FSB, the Russian secret service. In the Foreign Operations Directorate, better known as ‘Moscow Center’, the handlers were using the girls to extract information from the rich and the powerful of the Arab countries.

Irina had quickly moved from simple informant to lieutenant of the FSB, and although the pay was not much higher than the one of a mathematics teacher, she felt she was doing her country a far more valuable service.

As she put the finishing touches to her makeup, preparing for the $5,000 stay arranged that night, Irina thought about how smartphones have made her job so much easier. The technology department of the FSB had managed to install a number of backdoors in the most popular applications, so all Irina had to do was to leave her iPhone switched on during the date.

An invisible application would automatically search for all smartphones within range, activate the backdoors, and silently sync all data onto her own device. To safely send the data to the Russian Embassy, she just had to connect to wi-fi for an hour. The data was downloaded onto the Embassy’s secure database, transferred onto a memory card, and then flown to Moscow Center, where it was analysed and stored.

Sometimes her customers would turn off their phones completely or not bring any electronics. When this happened, she got excited, because it was up to her own detective skills to help her country and not some technical wizardry. She had to figure out how to gain his trust and steal his secrets.

So far, she had dealt with four such customers. One of them was Rasim Al-Manna, who had introduced himself as Ibrahim, and never talked about his work.

Irina decided to meet him immediately after two of the girls from her team, simple informants, told her there was a client that kept asking them sneaky questions to figure out if somebody else was trying to extract information about their clients. First and foremost, she had to protect her team and she decided to meet the potential intruder herself.

So when Rasim called the agency looking for a tall, red-haired Russian beauty, she decided it was time to face the threat. Somehow they actually liked each other and started dating on a regular basis, and after six months, he was engaged enough to give Irina some details of his family and personal life.

However, he was also discreetly enquiring about her colleagues and model friends, if she suspected any of them were working with the Russian secret service. If the Arab Emirates secret services had found out, she could easily face expulsion from the country.

Irina said nobody had ever questioned her, but she met lots of interesting subjects and maybe Rasim was interested in hearing a few stories.

In Moscow, Major Olga Kirillova, her superior, disapproved Irina’s boldness. She was taking too many risks. The most dangerous one, was falling in love. So they agreed that Irina would leave the Arab Emirates before the beginning of 2013. She was needed in Egypt more, at the time.

When Irina met Rasim a few days before the Christmas of 2012, at the Intercontinental Dubai, she thought it would be the last time. She was about to leave the room, waiting for one last kiss from Rasim, when he took out a small envelope. She felt pills inside and it totally threw her off course. She stared at him with a puzzled expression.

“Darling, you know I do not use this crap, and you don’t need chemicals either….”

“Oh, habibi, don’t get me wrong. I am giving you this small Christmas gift because I need to know what it is, exactly. Our experts are lost. Maybe some of your geniuses at the Moscow headquarters in Lubjanka square can sort it out.”

“I am not sure we can start working together.” Irina said sadly.

“I know you can present it in the right way to your boss. You have been helping me for a while, after all. You can tell your boss that your courage has saved your organization and yourself. I think it is time to proceed. Or start a brand new career in another country.”

Irina switched on the phone. Rasim frowned, but she quickly reassured him, “Do not worry. I am calling Emirates to book my return ticket to Dubai next January.”

Chapter 14

 

The limousine was waiting at 5:45 AM on a cold January morning, in front of the Long Island mansion of Charles Daniels, the executive vice president of Pfizer, in charge of with finding new pharmaceutical developments. One of his predecessors had invented Viagra and made the company a fortune back in the nineties. Charles was getting paid several millions a year to achieve a similar breakthrough, but after two years into the job nothing similar had come up yet.

Pressure was increasing and he was desperately hoping to find at least a hint to the next big pille during the trip he was about to start. He boarded the limousine at 5:50 AM and the driver headed towards Teterboro airport, where a Netjets private flight was waiting to take him to South Korea.

He had received some extremely promising reports on a new molecule for oncology and tumor control applications, developed by a South Korean research group. It was now time to check if the production process was in line with the US Federal Drug Administration regulations or if the extensive use of stem cells and other human cell sub-products, potentially banned the drug in the US.

He was still reviewing the reports on his tablet when the limo stopped next to Teterboro terminal. He left the car and entered the departure area, preparing for the security checks. The real advantage of flying private was not so much about the extra space on board, which was offset by a bumpier ride, nor by the schedule flexibility, which actually ate into personal life. The real advantage for Charles was to avoid the security lines that built up, even for business and first class passengers.

He was shocked when, after passing his carry-on bag through the X-Ray machine, the young officer asked him to enter a small room without windows and a plate on the door stating ‘US Customs and Border Control’.

The officer closed the door behind him and stayed outside. Inside the room, behind a rather old desk, sat a man in his late thirties, maybe early forties, who sprang up from his chair and invited him to sit.

“Dear Mr. Daniels, let me begin by saying that you are not under any type of scrutiny. On the contrary, we are seeking your help or, better, trying to help you. We ask only a few minutes of your time before you continue your long trip to South Korea.”

The opening remark dispelled any apprehension Charles had, letting his assertive side take over.

“First of all, who are you? You do not even wear an identification badge, and this would be reason enough to call a lawyer and sue the government agency you belong to. Second, how do you know I have a twelve hour flight to Korea in front of me? Have you hacked into my emails or calls? If you are the CIA or the FBI or God knows what, I hope you have all your papers right, or else every extra minute you keep me here will mean another lawyer I am going to throw at you.”

“Mr. Daniels, we are asking for your help and we have to do it discreetly. If you want to bring your lawyers, that is your decision, but then we will ask you in court to publish what you are doing with the South Koreans. Anyway, we need your help on this.”

He handed to Charles a small plastic bag with two pills with the T stamped on top. Charles did not move, watching the border officer with an inquisitive eye.

“Mr. Daniels, all I can tell you is that we do not know what these pills are. We know that there is a company out there that is able to manufacture them, and that they are related to a project developed by two biotech startups, NuAge and Ambrosyan, that shut down operations around six months ago after some of the key investors left the ventures. You might have heard about them. I can also tell you that some of their investors and designers were involved in an industrial espionage story where foreign powers were trying to get their hands on this. The startups claimed to be active in research for life-extending drugs, but we have evidence that part of the team was also involved in military projects. We have finally managed to get some of the production, we are talking about roughly ten pills, but our labs have not been able to tell us what exactly this drug is, except that it is not a synthetic hallucinogen and is extremely well engineered.”

Charles Daniels slowly extended his arm and grabbed the bag. “Then why give it to us? And where are the other eight pills?”

“Because we need your know-how to help us understand what exactly we are dealing with. If it is a threat, we will need your help anyway. If it is not, there is maybe something inside you might find useful for your business. It is the US government’s priority to make sure American businesses have the upper hand over global competition. And to do things fairly, we have sent some of the samples to some of your competitors, Merck, Gilead, and the like. We do not favor certain US businesses at the detriment of others.”

Charles put the bag back on the table, took a post-it from his bag and wrote an address on top. He then put a twenty dollar bill next to it.

“Alright, Mr. Government, I am going to trust you but I need cover as well. You will send the pills via top priority FedEx to this address, in the name of the officer that is sitting outside. I noticed he is wearing a valid badge, I will take a picture of it before leaving. If the package does not bear his name in the sender address, it will be thrashed. Consider the twenty bucks as my personal contribution to cover unexpected shipment costs. We will need at least three months to get some results, I guess you can find a way to contact us.”

“I think we are all set, Mr. Daniels. Your plane is waiting for you. And thanks again for your patience and attention. You can call me Skip.”

As Charles walked past the departure gate, onto his private jet, Skip felt satisfied, beginning his revenge against the CIA.

He had been an idiot. He had fed them all the information he had found, including the research on Sean’s girlfriend and the whereabouts of the two Israelis. The reward was that he had been summoned, one spring day, to Langley. He would never forget it. It was April 25th, with Greg Russo interrogating him.

Greg argued that the Israelis had some merit. They had found out that Sean was a cover up and that it was the same person as George McKilroy.

Greg had worked hard to persuade the Israelis that Homeland Security had not been able to figure out in two years, what they realized in half a year. Anyway, it was too late now. Sean had disappeared, and his girlfriend and many of his business contacts had followed suit.

And one of the key reasons of the disappearance was, of course, the warning Skip gave that the Mossad was after him. “Sometimes good intentions lead to bad outcomes,” commented Greg, as if he was teaching spy 101. Had it not been for Skip’s blatant mistake, Sean would probably been in jail now. What did Skip know exactly about drug traffic? Had he consulted the DEA, the Drug Enforcement Agency? Maybe the Israelis had found out something, but they would certainly not share information now.

Greg refrained from directly confronting Skip because the rest of the work was very accurate. However, it was clear that the enquiry had to be stopped and transferred to the CIA. In any case, Sean and his friends would most likely not show up on US or Israel soil ever again.

Needless to say, Skip got demoted while Greg got promoted. Skip knew that Sean had a valuable secret, though, and if he could not help protect it, surely some other American would. The CIA could never have complete control over the United States.

Chapter 15

 

The Sunday meeting had just finished oh the assessment of the Syrian situation, and everybody was shutting down laptops and untangling the mass of power cables. Everybody except Eyal, noted Yaakov, a clear sign he had another topic in mind. He approached Eyal and invited him to his office.

“What’s going on, my friend? Are you not comfortable with our intelligence about the jihadist groups, in the Golan Heights?”

“Not at all, I just had a thought. Do you remember the Sean Ewals story? Did you really buy the CIA’s version of it?”

“Still thinking about that? It’s more than six months now. Anyways, no, I did not buy it – at least not all of it. I do not see what else we can do though. Greg Russo showed up in person the last time we had the review meeting in Cyprus, he is reporting to the Deputy Director of Operations, so if we think he is a liar we would have to get to the CIA director, just one notch below the President. Which, for us, means placing a call to our foreign minister. And remember they have us on the plank with the two researchers. Is it really worth the trouble?”

“I don’t know, it’s quite strange. First, they confirm our discovery, that Sean is George McKilroy. Then they pretend it is not their cover, but someone else’s, and come up with all the narco evidence, which I have to admit, is quite credible, with the girlfriend and the fake burial company. For some reason, though, this billionaire decided to start doing business with drug traffickers and changed lives. And obviously, the business is linked to the companies he was using, even if we do not see a clear connection. It’s all about these life-extending drugs. What sounds strange is, if it is not from the CIA, why didn’t Greg try to cooperate more openly with us? Are they covering organized crime? There is something they do not want to let us know, but what? I got the feeling, they wanted to drop it and made sure we also dropped it.”

“Indeed,” continued Yaakov “because from their side they found out that in the Israeli companies Sean was working with, we had two experts in drones and biotechnologies under cover. So they suspect we are passing some sensitive war technology to the narcos. It is not true, but we do not want to enter this conversation with the Americans now. Just like when we started developing nuclear weapons and fighter jets, we have to complete the mission first and then tell our friends.”

“And taking into account that Sean has disappeared into thin air, the assessment is to archive the whole story until some new evidence comes up, if ever,” Eyal completed. “We have no other choices, I agree, yet we should keep our eyes open.”

“What is frightening you so much? You know, Sean never showed up again since you gave him the warning….looks like your scare tactics worked out, at least here.”

“I am just lining up the evidence. We have stumbled across a group powerful enough to operate on a global scale, with access to large financial resources, and the latest biotechnology research. This group has been able to get the protection of big name organizations like the CIA or the narcos or both, which means they have resources or information that are of real value. And for some reason they have gotten in touch with Erez Yisrael. After two years of research, they are still elusive and we have no clear idea of who they are, what they do, or what they want. Good for you, if you can sleep at night!”

“Well, I would put them two notches above the Syrian jihadists, on the danger scale, and 14 notches below the Iranian nuclear program,” Yaakov said with a half smile. “Now, if that makes you feel better, I must issue a note to all our agents and sayanim to report anything unusual or new they find in the drug markets, to us. Deal?”

“Deal,” ended Eyal, “I need a double shot espresso now.”

Chapter 16

 

The sun was setting behind the mountains that surrounded the lake of Silvaplana, Switzerland in the evening of July 26th, 2013. Dora and Louis were walking the final meters to the Piz Corvatsch refuge, where they had booked a room for the night. Beyond them, the massive Piz Bernina was already glowing in the pink sunset light.

“You hike remarkably fast for a seventy-nine-year-old, Louis. Oh, sorry, I mean, Richard”.

“And you are without any doubt the most beautiful sixty-year old the world has seen so far, Dora, whoops, Heidi. Your birthday cake is waiting for us!”

The cake had exactly thirty candles, which Dora blew out in a puff after they finished dinner.

They had decided to celebrate this birthday alone, leaving their new circle of friends from the Zurich business community behind.

After a final round of Schnaps, the high-proof German drinks, Dora turned the topic of the conversation to business.

“So how was the trip to Hong Kong? You have not told me anything since you came back yesterday and I can’t control my curiosity any longer. I guess it was Ok, they let you back and I did not find any anonymous threat letters in our mailbox.”

Louis thanked her once again for her patience. She had given him all the time he needed to mentally process the meetings from the previous week, with Mr. Lee and his team, made up of the Italian from London and the Mexican from Los Angeles.

Mr. Lee had insisted to have the periodic progress meeting with Louis. He had been wanting to meet Louis in person for several months.

If security was a concern, he was ready to hold the meeting in any place of their choice, provided he was notified a day in advance.

Eventually, Helena and George settled for one of the many luxury hotels of Hong Kong. Mr. Lee was told to report in one of the business suites of The Peninsula Hotel and he arrived with a small team that made sure the room was not bugged.

“He spent the first half an hour asking me questions about my boyhood and the early stages of Telomerax,” said Louis. “I got the impression that he was genuinely curious, at times even amused. Then he left the floor to one of his partners, the Mexican named Guillermo, who gave a presentation on the current diffusion of Telomerax.”

“Basically, they have around a thousand clients on Telomerax. They started from top-notch cocaine users that wanted to pull out because the drawbacks were starting to outweigh the benefits and the results have been amazing. All of them continued with cocaine usage and accepted to pay a hefty amount for Telomerax.

They roughly get one million dollars per user for every year, which, when you deduct the cost of the reduced amount of cocaine and the supply of Telomerax, makes up for a profit of almost nine hundred million dollars a year.”

“Louis, you were feeling greedy when George asked for five thousand dollars per pill! We should ask for more!”

“I think it will go in the opposite direction. Mr. Lee and his team know their customers. They are spread across the world, roughly a quarter of them are Asians, a bit less than half are North Americans, and the rest in Europe and the Middle East. Mostly consisting of rich entrepreneurs, financiers, celebrities, a few politicians. Now they want to expand the market five-fold every year, reaching more than two million customers by end of 2018.

This means they need to bring down the cost of the cure to less than one hundred thousand dollars per year per person. So they want the price to drop, to at least one fifth of the price. If everything goes according to their plan, they will make one hundred billion dollars in revenue, and a ninety billion dollar profit, five years from now, tax-free. The planet will see the first legion of one million immortals, although most of them won’t be aware at all, as the pill is marketed only as a remedy to cocaine side effects.”

“One million people on Telomerax? In less than five years?”, Dora asked, skeptically.

It was bigger than anything she had ever imagined.

“Yes, it is huge. There is something that scares me more, though. Mr. Lee and his friends do not see this mainly as a ticket to immortality. They see Telomerax as the vehicle to bring all the planet, or at least vast parts of it, to cocaine addiction, almost a fully legal one. And they are not aware of superintelligence.”

“This means that in the long term, or even in a few years time..”

“…we might have a serious conflict with these gentlemen. Nonetheless, for the time being, we have no choice but to follow them in the drug use expansion. I will have to extend the production facility. The only deal we made was Mr. Lee agreeing not to expand in territories like Africa, India and the Middle East, where there is no activity right now.”

“And how about the distribution? Will that scale up as well?”

“The Italian guy – I think his name is Paolo – openly praised the system, and those types do not give credit easily. In the two inspections that the shipments incurred, the customs officers simply thought that Telomerax was part of the chocolate inside, as it does not react positively to any known drug test.

That way, every country is receiving his share of chocolate via Dubai but customs officers would not be immediately able to correlate to our boutique chocolate factory in Switzerland.

And we are just sending unmarked chocolates to our Dubai trading partner, with a clear agreement that they can repackage and resell them to whoever they want. As for the quantity, I do not think we have a problem, I read in the in-flight magazine that Emirates is upgrading the Zurich daily flight to an Airbus Superjumbo. We can send two tons of chocolate per day.”

“Louis, am I wrong or do you seem quite happy about this? I mean, despite your thoughts on how “Prosperity” intends to use Telomerax…”

“You are right. The system is working. We are starting to spread the drug, in a way we did not imagine but nevertheless it is moving forward. Most importantly, I felt Mr. Lee respects me and he won’t try to screw us over, or at least he will do it in the most honorable way if he is forced to.”

“And how about Helena and George? We have not met since that meeting in Abu Dhabi, when all of this got started.”

“Oh, they look great. George is perfectly integrated in the Hong Kong life. Aside from coordinating Telomerax distribution with Mr. Lee, he is also trying to start up new ventures with the Chinese.

As for Helena, I do not know if it was a new makeup trick or if she also had a bit of a facelift, but she looks a bit more Asian. Last, I almost forgot to mention that, she is three-weeks pregnant. Please, keep that for yourself and do not tell Tarek or Valerio.”

Dora stopped her spoon, full of raspberry yogurt, in midair and stared at Louis intensely.

“I know what you are going to say. I also thought about it during the whole journey back from China. I think it is a risk now. I do not know if there might be side effects with Telomerax. For some reason, Helena wanted this. You know her, she does not stop at anything. Let’s wait to see how it goes. Please.”

Dora nodded, trying to conceal the envy she was starting to feel for Helena.

Chapter 17

 

While Louis and Dora were celebrating Louis’ seventy-ninth birthday, Rasim was sailing on a motorboat in the seas of Istanbul, heading toward a yacht moored about one mile off the coast.

There were two motorboats following him, one held three Arab Emirates agents on board. The other belonged to the Turkish security service.

He climbed the rope stairs and boarded the yacht, which proudly waved a Grand Cayman flag. As soon as he set foot on the deck, he was greeted by Irina and her new boss, who introduced himself as Alexey Petrenko.

He resisted the temptation of hugging Irina, wondering if it was the same for her, and formally shook hands with his guests.

They moved down to the living room and Alexey asked Rasim where he would like the ship to go. The meeting was expected to last a few hours and they could afford some sightseeing.

“Oh, well, if you already have the transit permit, I would definitely love a ride across the Bosphorus Strait.”

“Of course we have”, chuckled back Alexey. “When we ask our Turkish friends for the means to properly host our guests, they always think of everything that might be needed. And they don’t ask any questions afterwards. Of course, both of us will have to return the favor somehow, but the world affairs in our region always give plenty of opportunity to pay off the debt.”

During the first hours, the meeting dealt with exchanging of intelligence about Chechnian and Arab foreign fighters in Northern Syria.

Irina had been promoted and was now sitting at the table as the official ‘rezident’ of the FSB in the United Arab Emirates. Since this was confidential business, her public duty was to manage the cultural and scientific matters of the Russian Embassy.

Alexey was in charge of the Middle East Section of the Foreign Directorate of the FSB. He was used to sitting in meetings with Vladimir Putin every so often.

By the time they reached the final point of their agenda, the yacht was starting to enter the Bosphorus. They decided to take a break, left the living room, and went out on the deck to breathe some fresh air.

Rasim and Irina recognized the Topkapi Palace, which was the residence of the Ottoman Sultans and, before them, of the Byzantine Emperors. As they sailed along the Strait, they could spot the Palace lodge situated right at the end of the Golden Horn peninsula.

From those huge arched windows, Byzantine emperors and Turkish sultans had overlooked for centuries the trade between Europe and Asia.

Now the ancient kingdoms were gone, replaced by the Turkish republic. Hagia Sophia had been turned into a museum, and the Blue Mosque was more of a tourist attraction than a place of worship. Only trade continued steadily, along the Bosphorus. Irina and Rasim exchanged a look, knowing they were also part of that trade.

“Have you ever read the Koran, Irina?” asked Rasim suddenly. Irina had been caught off guard.

“The Koran? Rasim, I was brought up in the last years of the Soviet Union. I barely know some verses from the Bible, save for the one that says tax collectors and prostitutes will be the first in the Kingdom of God. Obviously I have a clear, vested interest in that,” she said with a subtle smile, regaining control.

“You should do it, especially now that you are in charge of cultural affairs for your Rodina in a Muslim country. Anyway, this place reminded me of the quote by Orhan Pamuk, a Turkish writer, to the verses in the Surah of the Limb that describe why Satan was kicked out of heaven. The account is slightly different from the one of the Bible. According to the Koran, Satan was driven out of heaven because he refused to obey the order of God to adore Adam, the last creation. Adam was made out of clay while Satan, like all other angels, had been made out of fire. And since fire is superior to clay, the request was a bit inconsistent.”

“I see,” commented Irina. “It was not plain rebellion. He actually tried to outsmart God.”

“Yes, I think the Bible has a similar concept too. But at the beginning of mankind, God decided to have man worshipped by creatures that are superior to him. Therefore, taking this into account, it is completely natural that people develop a sense of vanity, envy, rivalry and greed. This is actually the will of God, not the pollution of Satan. You can imagine how this interpretation created a huge problem with Pamuk and the Muslim clergy, but there is more merit in it. Don’t you think?.”

“Why are you telling me this now, Rasim? I do not see the connection.”

“I do not know. It just popped up in my mind. Maybe I am just trying to find a reason for what we are doing here.”

One of the sailors quietly approached them, and motioned for them to re-enter the living room. Inside, protected by the darkened windows, Alexey had finished his cigarette and was waiting for them to restart the meeting.

Alexey had switched off the projector and distributed some printouts. They contained the full report of the Biochemistry Analysis lab of the Academy of Science of the Russian Federation, in both English and Russian. Alexey started going into the last topic of the agenda.

“We do not have to go through all of this, you can read it afterwards. To sum it up, our best scientists have confirmed the conclusion of your experts. This drug is extremely difficult to deformulate, despite the many samples you have provided for us. All they could find is that it is based on the telomerase enzyme, plus an additional set of active molecules that make it interfere with dopamine and cocaine. The effects are those that you have described, you can slash cocaine consumption and keep the people addicted with less side effects. I suppose you do not want to tell us who is producing this stuff and how, so why are we talking about it?”

“Because I have a deal to propose to you. We do not control the production of this pill, but we have access to an unlimited quantity of it. We are a trading country, after all. I know that consumption is spreading with huge returns for the drug dealers. What if you also entered this business? We can supply you with as much of this drug as you need, I mean several thousands per month, and this would easily finance your covert operations. Every pill is sold on average at $50000 on the European and North American markets, and the markets in Africa and large parts of Asia have still to be developed.”

Alexey weighed the proposal. Black funds financing secret operations were always of paramount importance for any secret service. The CIA had come up with the brilliant idea to print fake dollars in North Korea, but with the price of keeping the FSB and China quiet, it was never enough.

Additionally, the FSB had fewer issues with Congress and Parliament control than their cousins in the West.

“Let’s assume we are interested. You understand that we do not want to pay cash and I do not think you are interested in oil or gas from us, right?”

“Absolutely not. You know, looking at how things are developing in our region, my government is seeking ways to secure its status and security among its turbulent, ambitious and sometimes utterly chaotic neighbors. Our assessment is that the Iranians will sooner or later develop weapons of mass destruction.

This last episode of the nerve gas crisis in Syria, that your President skillfully defused, is yet another demonstration that WMDs do help to stabilize governments, especially in our area. Everyone remembers that Saddam was attacked by the Americans even when they knew he had no WMDs, despite the false public evidence denying it.”

Alexey raised his hand and interrupted Rasim.

“Alright. Message received. I cannot give you an answer now, however I can tell you that nuclear weapons will most likely be out of the question. We need a few weeks to decide.”

He stood up and the trio shook hands. As they all went out on the deck, a motorboat pulled up next to the yacht, allowing Rasim to board. He gave one last wave to Irina, then the motorboat sped down the Bosphorus Strait towards a pier near the Dolmabahce Palace, built in perfect European style, that once served as the home to Ottoman admirals.

Chapter 18

 

Sally Goldberg, the assistant of Charles Daniels, announced the arrival of Dinesh Kheradpir. He had arrived perfectly on time, so she invited him to enter the executive office of Charles on the top floor of the Manhattan skyscraper of the Pfizer headquarters.

Despite a glorious July day and the gorgeous view of Midtown, Charles was discouraged. Just the day before the FDA, the Food and Drug Administration, had made clear they would not test the South Korean antitumoral drug before another round of trials that would last months. In addition the South Koreans were threatening to sell all the research to Novartis, the European competitor of Pfizer.

He hoped that Dinesh, the chief researcher for advanced cancer products based in Cambridge, Massachusetts would make his day better. Strangely enough, Dinesh, a holder of multiple PhDs from the Indian Institute of Technology of Mumbai and Harvard, had refused to use the videoconference and insisted to meet Charles personally on the status of the analysis of the pills.

“Hi, Dinesh,” yawned Charles, as soon as the guest entered the room, not bothering to raise the eyes from the screen of his Macbook. “Please sit down, I am just sending this email and I am with you.”

Dinesh paid no mind to him and went straight to the meeting table, connecting his tablet to the projector.

When Charles eventually paid attention, he found Dinesh was standing next to the table, pointing to the slide on the wall that read:

“Are you one-hundred-percent sure that no one is listening to us here? I would not appreciate to be sent back to India with charges of espionage. Just nod if it is the case, otherwise we can take a walk at the zoo in Central Park.”

Half an hour later they were walking in front of the monkey cage, where it was loud enough that they could barely hear themselves speaking. Dinesh started.

“Alright, so you must know how difficult it has been to find out something about this drug. We broke the samples into four pieces and lost the first with the standard deformulation process.

Then we tried non-destructive techniques on the second one just to find out that the main active element has something to do with the telomerase enzyme, which is quite strange, as no one is working on this right now. We tried to break down the crown of composites around the core, and we lost the second sample.

With the third sample, I changed approach and tried to see what happens when I send it down a tube that simulates a person’s esophagus and stomach. If I am not able to figure out the function of the pill with static breakdown, I have a better chance of doing so by observing how it works as it goes through the body.

I had only one sample left, and no idea on how to dissect it. So I decided to call Bill Bradley, who does my very same work at Merck. He is also puzzled, so your government contact effectively put us all in competition.

Anyway, at Merck they are stuck as well although they have a lot of connections with Europeans, I doubt that this stuff is coming out of Europe. Bill would have found out. Sure, he could have lied to me, but considering the fact that you get tested regularly for progress by your government guy, we came to the conclusion that no one is getting a hold of it. At least in Europe and in America.”

“Alright, Dinesh, this I have known for weeks, why are you repeating it in front of the baboons?”, yelled Charles. He was exasperated.

“Just to recap and make sure we are on the same page. Now onto the big news. Out of desperation, I call Anatoly Vatutin, who is working in Moscow at the Biochemistry and Pharmacology Insitute of the Russian Academy of Science and whom I have known for a while since he used to visit India..”

Charles paled, but before he could speak Dinesh waved his hands to calm him down and continued,

“….do not worry, I did not send him anything. The fact is, Anatoly is working a lot with the Chinese, so he is the only one that can lead us on the right track. It turns out that he knows something but cannot speak about it on the phone.”

“So what?” Charles’ anxiety was growing.

“There are congresses, luckily! Back in the days of the Cold War, the KGB had good reasons to spy on all the Soviet scientists that went abroad.

Now, with more freedom to go abroad and less funds, for the FSB control is far less strict so one month ago I met him at the annual Pharmacovigilance conference in London. We drove a good two hours to make sure no one followed us and then we went in a small pub almost forty miles outside of London, in the middle of the British countryside.”

“There, he showed me a full bag of the pills. They were exactly like ours, also with the T stamped on top.

I gaped in astonishment and before I could say a word he said he could not give me any of it, because they were counted and under the control of the secret service. He was already risking a lot in taking them with him to London, but we had something he was very interested in.”

“And what was it?”, snapped Charles immediately.

“Oh, relatively minor stuff. He was interested in the molecular structure of our new anti-leukemia drug, of which we published some research after having secured the patents. With all the nuclear dumps they have in Russia, tumors are a big issue so this can help them a lot. And for us it is not a big risk, even if they develop an imitation similar to ours. No one will ever buy the Russian brand here in America. I said I had to check back with you, but he demanded an immediate decision. So I connected to our server, downloaded the files, and handed them over to him. I hope you won’t fire me, but I guess that you would have done the same.”

“What did you get in exchange?”, Charles bluntly asked. “As for your discharge”, he thought to himself, “it depends on your answer”.

“Well, three key hints. First, the Russians also failed in the deformulation process and it is not a Chinese product. Second, the pill works together with cocaine to amplify the effects of dopamine and clean up the particles of cocaine at the same time. In retrospect, this explains some of the molecules present in the casing of the main active element. Third, Anatoly seemed to have access to an endless supply of pills, but it was fully controlled by the FSB and he had no idea where they come from.”

“Did he tell you anything about the life-extending properties the drug is supposed to have?”

“Nope. If I look back at what we learned so far, this might be linked to the similarity of the main molecular structure with the telomerase enzyme. However, I kept these ideas to myself, obviously,” Dinesh lied, with his most serious face.

Charles looked at the cup of coke he was holding in his hand. He had not been drinking this whole time, just listening carefully to Dinesh and thinking. The drink was now unpleasantly warm. He threw it in the trash bin, turned to Dinesh.

“Alright, it looks like this walk was well worth all the sweat and smells that it costed us. I think you made the right decision in passing on the leukemia drug to your friend. Poor Russian radioactive children won’t have to wait the patent expiration day to have a chance of survival,” Charles ended with a grin.

Dinesh did not comment. He thought he had done the right thing in lying. It was not fair to leave the knowledge about this drug in the hands of people like Charles.

Chapter 19

 

Louis worried that the pregnancy of Helena would not go smoothly and asked her to stop taking Telomerax at least until the birth of the baby. He also asked her to come to Switzerland, just in case. It was the only place where he could manage excellent healthcare and absolute privacy at the same time.

Initially, Helena balked at his requests, but the first signs of nausea and the persistence of George made her change her mind. She arrived to Zurich in the October of 2013, during her fourth month of pregnancy.

She first stayed at Louis’ house, a villa with a charming garden located on the peaceful street of Eichhaldenweg. However her health kept worsening so on November 29th she was admitted to the Hirslanden Klinik, within the posh Seventh District, close to where Louis and Dora were living.

George landed in Zurich two days later, and Louis picked him up at the airport. George noticed that Louis had not used his new SUV, but modest Toyota. Since he was expecting bad news, he chose to start the conversation with an irrelevant subject.

“Hey Louis! You look great! What happened to your shiny, blue X5? You are going to need it now, in the Swiss winter. It’s not time to drive around with an environmentally friendly Prius.”

“I changed it on purpose this morning before picking you up. The SUV might be bugged and I do not want anyone overhearing what I have to tell you. I asked one of my colleagues at the Swiss Federal University, where I work as part time chemistry lecturer, to swap cars for the weekend because I was curious to try his hybrid model. He was more than happy to lend it to me, and I did not have to go through a rental car company that could be tracked.”

George was forced to accept that his attempt to lighten the conversation failed, thought George. If Louis was giving up his usually long introduction and instead resorting to the direct style of Helena, there was a lot of reason to be worried.

“Ok, what is wrong with Helena? How bad is it?”

“I received the lab analysis yesterday evening. It is cancer. The bad news is that it is of an unknown type, something between a lymphoma and leukemia, so the doctors do not have a clue on how to cure it. The good news is that it is progressing very slowly, for now.”

“An unknown type…do you think is it linked to Telomerax?,” asked George, anxiously.

“Yes, I am quite sure about it. It is very similar to how Telomerax works. The main molecule, the one that enters the cells and produces the enzyme so that DNA replication can be perfect, actually spreads into the body like a virus, entering every single cell.

The viral behavior is in turn controlled by the set of molecules that form the casing of the main active element. Initially, they attack a few cells along the stomach and the rest of the digestive tract and use them to replicate the component, which then spreads and infects the rest of the body. It is the small sacrifice of a few cells, put together it is not even a hundredth of a square millimeter of skin, to keep the rest immortal.”

“And that explains why after taking the pill sometimes you suffer from a light fever.”

“Exactly. The diffusion around the body is indeed a small viral infection, and the immune system reacts in the same way. But it is a quick one, because the active element disappears quickly into each cell and what is left behind is immediately wiped out by the antibodies. The initial multiplication phase is also very fast. That is why Telomerax is so difficult to deformulate. If you analyze it statically, the set of molecules simply looks too intricate. If you look at it when it works in the body, there is too much interaction in too short a time. Now, the problem with Helena lies precisely in these drug dynamics. I should have realized it before.”

“What do you mean?”

“Two out of the eleven tumor cases I had in the clinical trial phase, thirty years ago, were pregnant women. The problem is, they were all the pregnant women I was testing on. I did not notice, or maybe I did not want to notice at the time. As much as the external molecules interact with dopamine, they also interact with a variety of other molecules, namely hormones. I recognized this a long time ago, and that is why I ruled children out from Telomerax. However, also pregnant women are huge hormone producers. And this mix seems to trigger the cancer that Helena has got now.”

“But she stopped taking it right after she took the pregnancy test,” objected George.

“George, she has been taking it for almost twenty years. I kept studying the six of us over the last several years, we all have in different degrees some residual active molecules that keep floating in our bodies. It is as if our immune system has found a symbiotic balance with Telomerax and no longer attacks it.”

“You mean we can stop taking the drug? We are definitely immortal?” George’s thoughts ran wildly.

“Not yet, this is what could happen several years from now. But we have to focus on Helena now. And the baby as well,” added Louis.

The last statement silenced George, until they arrived at the clinic and entered the room where Helena was resting.

She woke up immediately, her eyes racing around the room like when she was watching out for threats in the streets of the Mexico City slums. She saw George, she attempted to smile and waited for his kiss. George and Louis sat next to her bed.

“Where is Dora?,” Louis asked.

“She just left,” Helena responded with fatigue. “I am afraid she is not strong enough for this type of news,” she thought to herself. “So, what is it that I have, Louis? It is pretty serious, right? At least it feels that way.”

Louis went through the explanation again, and this time he continued to the end.

“Basically, Helena, you and George must decide whether you want to try to cure yourself and undergo chemotherapy or continue the pregnancy. It’s either one or the other.”

“Hang on. The fetus is almost five months old. Look at the sonogram. She has a face, her face…”

“Helena, this is a private Swiss clinic for the rich,” interrupted George. “I mean, I do not want to imply we should decide based off of this, but it is clear that laws here..”

“Yeah, the law won’t be a problem,” Helena completed the sentence. “As usual, law won’t be a problem for us – for the rich, the immortals. I won’t decide according to the law. I never decide based on laws.”

The discussion was turning way too emotional, and Louis jumped in.

“Helena, let’s stay on the known facts. The tumor is quite slow, so if we cure it now I think – and the doctors here agree with me – that you have a very good chance of making it. In the meantime I am sure I will find a way to fix Telomerax so that next time this does not happen again. As for the shock of losing the baby, if it happens, Dora has had many patients that went through similar sad circumstances. She will do her best to comfort you. You will heal from all this pain.”

Helena sprang up from the bed, her arms struggling to keep her upright. George moved towards her to try to help her out but the look he received from Helena kept him away.

“You two assholes really do not get the point. Maybe that is because you have never had the pleasure like I did of watching the gruesome death of someone that you hated deep within your heart. You come up with all this wisdom and knowledge that do nothing but mask the sacrifice of an innocent victim, for a good cause.

All sacrifices are carried out for good causes and in good faith. So good, that in the best case also the victim agrees! Well, I don’t agree. First we, or better, I am getting my girl into the world. Then, you cure me. Do not try any tricks. I would realize it sooner or later and you know what revenge does to me.”

“But Helena, what if the tumor gets out of control in the following months?,” sighed George.

“It will be your problem to raise a little girl alone, my dear. I do not think it would be too difficult, with almost half a billion dollars in the bank. I just could not live with that on my conscious forever.”

Her muscles gave out and she fell back on the bed. George and Louis looked at each other. They were searching for a response, when they realized Helena had fallen asleep. They left the room and drove to Louis’ house on the shore of the lake of Zurich.

Aurora was born on March 15th, 2014.

According to the record of the Swiss demographic office, she was the daughter of Helena Hernandez Avila, a Mexican citizen, and her partner Richard Stirner, a British overseas citizen of Hong Kong.

Chapter 20

 

Eyal was looking at the latest satellite pictures from the Gaza Strip, where the Israeli Defence Forces were fighting against Hamas since the beginning of July 2014, in the so-called Operation Protective Edge. It was now the beginning of August, and his team was analyzing the evidence from the destruction of the tunnel system built by Hamas to smuggle militants and weapons into Israel.

Together with the Army Chief of Staff, Shin Bet had to prepare a report for the government to evaluate if the conditions were suitable to declare an open-ended cease fire with Hamas. In other words, if the damage to Hamas’ infrastructure was serious enough to grant Israel several months or even a few years of tranquility before the next eruption happened.

He was discussing the effects of the last airstrike with his team, when Yaakov slammed the door of Eyal’s office wide open and gave an undecipherable glance to him.

Eyal broke the silence that followed, to ask his team to leave them alone.

As soon as the last person left his office, Eyal set the tone.

“I hope this is urgent, as the Army Chief of Staff is waiting for our report in three hours to review it before the meeting of the Cabinet. In any case, you have half an hour maximum.”

“More than enough for a run-through. You can go over the details tonight. I am sorry that you have to cancel your date with Ruth, but I bet you will find this more interesting,” responded Yaakov, placing a printout on the desk, between Eyal and himself.

“Do you remember our old friend George McKilroy aka Sean Ewals? He is back, and we have identified the full gang.”

“Where did he show up?”

“It all started from a report from David Schneersohn, our resident in Bangkok, who is also covering the rest of South East Asia. Around one year ago, he detected the arrival of a new type of drug in the Thai jet-set. He started to investigate and he found out that it was spreading all across the region.

The thing that caught his attention is that this one was not based on heroin, as usual, but rather on a mix of cocaine and a synthetic component. He found it strange, so he did some research, and it turns out that the new stuff is being distributed by the same organizations that controlled heroin, which are now pushing the market to this new drug. David then got in touch with his contacts in Hong Kong, who confirmed that the Chinese gangs had decided to move away from classic drugs on the high end market, thanks to a deal they struck with the Europeans. With some patience, he was also able to have one of his agents take a picture of one of the emissaries, just a few days ago. And here he is.”

The picture left no doubt, even if it was taken with a long telescope lens. It was the face of George McKilroy, hurrying out of the ICC Tower in West Kowloon and diving into a limousine.

“So we were right…there is big crime behind this guy,” whispered Eyal.

“I wish it was that simple.” continued Yaakov. “In the meantime, David had managed to get some of the drug samples and sent them to us to analyze. I did not notify you, because it seemed ordinary procedure. One was just cocaine, not even top quality, while the synthetic one is impossible to figure out. Our best researchers at Technion are going crazy over it.

Since we could not sort it out alone, we discreetly activated our sayanim among leading biochemists and pharmacologists around the world. And guess what we got? It seems that both the Russians and the Americans are dealing with the same issue.”

“Why did they not report it right away?,” burst Eyal. “We lost precious time!”

“Eyal, that’s how it works with the sayanim. They normally do not take initiative unless they see a clear danger for Israel. Otherwise they stay dormant, waiting for our specific request. In addition to all of this exciting news, our friends in the Russian Academy of Science reported a rumor that the best minds of the biochemistry labs have been working for months to formulate a new drug based on samples they receive directly from the FSB. For reasons you can imagine, they excluded all Jewish researchers from the project.

We even got information from a woman in the United States, who works as executive assistant at a very important pharma corporation, that her boss kept attending meetings with the head of drug research and someone unknown, she believed he was from government. We showed her some photos and she recognized Skip Ross, the new deputy operations director of the CIA.”

“Skip Ross?,” repeated Eyal in disbelief. “You mean the not-so-brilliant Homeland Security department guy who ruined Greg’s career with the negligence scandal four months ago, and got the much coveted DDO position for himself?”

“In flesh and bones.” Yaakov continued, “We were just wondering what the scandal was, that undermined the career of Greg, who has been demoted to hell as head of the US Coast Guard. I sent Ben to talk to him three weeks ago.

Ben told me that Greg is seething with resentment. You can imagine his mood after going from master of the secret universe, to boss of the baywatchers. So a bit out of revenge and a bit out of our friendship, he talked very openly and all the pieces came together. He also gave us the complete file that Skip had built around Sean Ewals.”

“Great, were there any new facts I should know about?”

“Well, now it is clear that Sean is not the real master. The drug is manufactured somewhere in Europe, by one of his friends. We are working on the connection graph created by the Homeland Security. We are closing down on dozens of subjects. The most important point is these guys have also made a deal with the Russians. Skip demonstrated that with information he received from Pfizer, and used this to nail down Greg for his failure.

Basically, Skip had found out everything but Greg blocked him and the result is that now Russians have their hands on it, or at least partially. Skip managed to find this out thanks to his idea of involving one of the top bosses of Pfizer into the game. Last fact is Skip genuinely dislikes us. Greg told us loud and clear that Skip is convinced we helped Greg frame him one year ago.”

Eyal looked at the clock on the wall. Still five minutes to go.

“Alright, the puzzle looks finished now. But why did you rush to tell me? After all, it is a story fully in your foreign jurisdiction. I do not see major implications for Israel’s security, apart from adding another row in the illegal substance list and another check to do at our borders.”

“Because, there is this last bit. Up to now we worked on the assumption that this is mostly a narcotic story. It is not. The drug is actually a life extender, it is that powerful. And we got the information from a completely different source. It comes from our connections at the Vatican. Straight from the top.”

“Yaakov, I am not aware of any secret calls from Pope Francis to Bibi Netanyahu. It would have gotten to me somehow, by now.”

“Eyal, come on. You do not send this type of news by wire or letter. It has to go by trusted word of mouth that can be denied, without evidence, if anything leaks. What day was last Friday?”

“Um, August 15th, what about it?”

“You should know that August 15th is an important Catholic solemnity. They celebrate the Ascension of the Virgin Mary to Heaven. Well, last Friday Cardinal Tim Dolan of New York City decided to celebrate the evening Mass in the parish of St. Matthews, in Brooklyn Crown Heights, right on the Eastern Parkway. And you must know what else is located on Brooklyn’s Eastern Parkway.”

Eyal knew by heart. At 770 East Parkway were the world headquarters of the Lubavitch Chabad Hasidic Jews, one of the most orthodox and influential bodies of all Judaism.

“So you mean the Cardinal went to the synagogue? Or the Rabbi went to the church?”

“No, since Friday was also the eve of Shabbat, the Cardinal invited the Rabbi to a short evening meeting in the Parish house, where he offered some kosher snacks and spent a few minutes alone with him in an obscure room that no one would think to enter.”

“Is the information coming from the Cardinal or from Pope Francis directly?”

“What the Rabbi told us, is known by Pope Francis alone and very few trusted Cardinals. However, there is no official document going around in the Vatican, I would even bet no document at all.”

“And the content?”

“The content verifies all we have been collecting so far. Basically, the drug is not a simple life extender. It makes people effectively immortal. It is controlled by a restricted group of people. One of the members is an Italian and he is most likely the source from the Vatican. But they have added five other people to the list, two of which are women. This is in line with what we know. This team is starting to feel increasingly insecure and has decided to start spreading the drug. And this is exactly what we are seeing.”

Eyal looked at the clock. Five minutes past the half an hour. He gathered the papers from the middle of the table.

“Now I understand why you came to me. Over a short time, the news will spread worldwide. That means we have to be ready to activate Plan Lot. Why do you think the Vatican decided to tell us?”

“The Rabbi asked the same question to Cardinal Dolan. He got a political answer. He said they are worried that something bad will happen to us when the news starts spreading and this way, we can prepare for the worst.”

“Well,” said Eyal, “He certainly cannot say that he knew the Rabbi would somehow tell the Mossad. Do you plan to intercept and neutralize the group?”

“Read the details in the file. It is evident that a mindless action would lead to a faster diffusion, which we do not want, but I agree we need to take some action with these guys. As soon as we finish identifying them.”

Chapter 21

 

While the giant LED screen on the wall connected to his laptop, Louis thought that he had never worked harder than he had been in the past eighteen months, after the birth of Aurora.

He had gone through the frantic search for a modification of Telomerax to avoid a catastrophic interference with pregnancy. He was also monitoring how Aurora was growing up. It had been about six months since Mr. Lee asked him to do the analysis of the Telomerax imitations that were starting to appear in the drug trade underworld.

Even with superintelligence, it required long hours of work, extensive globetrotting, and neglect of personal relationships. Dora had started to complain because there was too much silence and inexpressive nods. He feared it could end up with a divorce, as it had happened between Helena and George shortly after the birth of Aurora.

The first slide appeared on the screen, showing two pills with the carved T on top, placed next to each other. He cleared his mind of all side thoughts and focused on his audience, which was made up of Mr. Lee and three top members of the Central Committee of China’s Communist Party.

Louis had not been told their names. All he knew from Mr. Lee is that they were very close to the Secretary General, Mr. Xi Jinping, who for obvious reasons would not attend the meeting.

Louis had insisted to know at least what they did, otherwise he would not show up in Beijing in person to update them. After much negotiation, Mr. Lee eventually revealed that one was Mr. Xi Jinping’s most trusted personal counselor, another one was the head of the secret service, and the last one a top-ranking officer of the Bank of China.

“Based on the evidence collected by Mr. Lee, we know that the counterfeited version of Telomerax started spreading in South Africa and was later also detected in India, Egypt, and Thailand. We have been able to collect some samples, which I have analyzed in the last few months. As always, there are things we are sure about, things that are very likely or at least possible, and things for which we do not have even the idea of an answer.”

Louis paused, not a sign of life came from his audience, until Mr. Lee invited him to proceed with a long nod.

“We know for sure that the counterfeiters have had extensive access to Telomerax samples, so that they could study its molecular structure and how the drug is used in the body. This explains the similarities in the structure of their molecule. Let me call it Pseudo-Telomerax from now on.”

“Second, they have access to top level biochemistry research facilities. Pseudo-Telomerax is engineered in a very sophisticated way, with tools available only to the most advanced countries or big multinationals.”

“Third, they focused on copying the dopamine interference effects. Pseudo-Telomerax is still very ineffective in replicating the core active principle action. In other words, they understood that the cocaine effect lied on the outer molecules and focused on that.”

Louis was moving to the next slide when one of the attendees interrupted him abruptly,

“Professor Picard, let me call you with your real name, it’s all fine but we need to know who did this.”

“Easy to understand why,” thought Louis. They had a competitor for a multibillion dollar market. And Mr. Lee and the Communist Party of China could not accept the idea that they would have had to share their huge profits with someone else.

“As I said, any ideas about who has done this, is pure conjecture. From what I know, drug cartels do not have this type of scientific knowledge, even though they run large operations….”.

Louis stopped and he thought about the lab tests run by Mr. Lee at the beginning of their cooperation. How long before his legal pharmaceutical company would start commercializing its own counterfeit version of Telomerax? He immediately restarted, fearing his pause might give hints to Mr. Lee about his reflections. Fortunately for him, his mind now processed ideas three times as fast as the one of ordinary people, and his audience barely noticed the pause in his speech.

“….the other thing we are quite sure about, looking at the new molecular structure, is that the imitators have come up with other serious side effects, such as a noticeable growth of the hormones that regulate aggressiveness.”

This time, another member of the audience was polite enough to raise his hand before asking his question. “Maybe he is the trusted advisor of Xi Jinping,” thought Louis. He stopped talking and invited him to speak.

“Do you mean, Dr. Picard, that people using Pseudo-Telomerax would experience the excitement of cocaine, have the metabolites of cocaine disappear, but over time develop an overall, more aggressive attitude?”

“That is correct, but most importantly they will also become far more aggressive while under the effect of cocaine and Pseudo-Telomerax. They would attack things and people around them and would not stop until physically exhausted because they would feel the positive effects of dopamine.”

Mr. Lee looked at the others and chuckled,

“Our imitators have invented the zombie drug then!”

He was immediately interrupted by the impolite member, whom Louis now suspected to be the head of the secret service.

“With the difference that it is easier to kill them, and the effects are not permanent. When do you think the effects will start to appear, Professor Picard?”

“It depends on the individual. However, looking at how Pseudo-Telomerax functions, I think it would take anywhere between two to three years. If I am correct, we should see the first cases on the news in one or two years from now, assuming this stuff has been around since at least one year.”

Mr. Impolite did not bother to comment directly and instead turned his head towards Mr. Lee.

“Still, we do not know how our imitators have managed to get enough material to copy the pill. Are you having problems in your supply chain, Mr. Lee?”

Mr. Lee was not used to answer difficult questions, but he was expecting this one.

“Anyone of our customers can give it to a competitor, and we have more than five thousands users of Telomerax on the five continents by now. You can no longer count on the loyalty of everybody. We are however reviewing our distribution chain to see if there are major inconsistencies.”

Mr. Lee did not mention that he had evidence that in Africa, India and the Middle East also real Telomerax was being sold along the fake one, out of the control of his channels.

“Mr. Picard, at the beginning you said the fake drug was not able to replicate the effects of Telomerax. Are there any effects besides the one of cleaning up cocaine in the body?”

The question came from the last member of the group who had not asked any questions so far. Louis looked at Mr. Lee, who remained impassible. Had Mr. Lee never shared the anti-aging news with his team? Or was it only unknown to this Central Committee group? Were they seeking a further confirmation from him directly? Then, why were they using his real name? His fake identity was a British one.

“I thank you for the great attention you paid to my presentation. The fact is, I started in cosmetics, and Telomerax was supposed to be a skin care treatment, delaying the aging of cells and preserving the youthful appearing of my patients. It had a certain success, but then I found out the side effects on cocaine and my cooperation with Mr. Lee began. It seems that the organization that is now copying my drug has no insight into aesthetics and looks only to reap immediate profits, at the expense of long term losses.”

The man acknowledged Louis’ answer with a smile. Louis thought he was probably the one representing the Bank of China.

When Louis returned back to Zurich, he was still so lost in his thoughts about the Beijing meeting that he almost ran over Frau Hannelore Glockner, their neighbor. He screeched to a halt before the pedestrian crossing, where Frau Glockner was walking. After a short moment of sheer terror, Frau Glockner quickly regained control. She ran to the left side of the car and knocked on the driver window.

As the childless widow of a bank executive, she was living in the house opposite to the one of the Picards and she used to rent out rooms to students and foreign young workers to continue living in the expensive neighborhood. Louis rolled down the car window. Frau Glockner was overwhelmed with disbelief: how could an orderly, polite and respectful person like Louis – whom she knew as Richard Pearlman – behave like her previous Italian neighbors, from of a few years back?

“Frau Hannelore, I am terribly sorry! I was lost in my thoughts and I think the car has a problem, because it did not react immediately…you look terrible, if you want I can take you to see a doctor…just to make sure the scare did not have any other effect….”

“Herr Pearlman, I was not expecting this from you.” Frau Glockner replied coldly, moving back to the last name, after almost two years of addressing him on a first-name basis. “Since your arrival five years ago, I was hoping that your young yet rule-abiding family would help me in restore some much needed discipline to our neighborhood, but I was wrong. I will have to watch over you as well. Good evening, Herr Pearlman.”

She walked past the car to her door, without waiting for a reply. Louis parked the car in the garage and entered his house. From the living room couch, Dora groaned to welcome him home. The television was airing one of the old episodes of Dr. House. He hesitated, then groaned back, and headed to his basement lab.

Chapter 22

 

Louis had been back from China for more than a week, but the only sign of life he gave from his lab was a request for a sandwich.

Dora used to give psychotherapy advice to her patients, but over the last months she noticed she had given up advising couples in trouble. She knew why.

As Christmas was approaching, she used to spend the whole afternoon shopping in the gleaming streets of Central Zurich, accumulating gifts for no one in particular.

She decided it was time to face the problem. She went down to the basement and stood in front of the retina scanner. The door opened and she entered the room. At least Louis had not reprogrammed the security system. She walked down the corridor and there she found him, sifting through images and numbers on three different screens glowing in front of him. He did not realize her presence until she touched his shoulder. He turned towards her, forcing a faint smile, but realized that all his face could show was a mixture of tiredness and sadness. Dora stared back and whispered,

“What is bothering you, Louis? Is it the new version? Is it our team? Or is it me?”

“The new version might not work. I am not sure. I do not even know how to test it. I have not heard from George in weeks. At least I can take comfort in knowing Helena is focused on Aurora. She and the baby are doing well and are safe, in Brazil. And I have the feeling that Tarek and Valerio are not as safe as they pretend to be.

I am tired, Dora. And I fear it might all fall apart in the worst possible way. All of the sudden, I feel all my eighty-one years of life hitting me. Sometimes I think all of this should have never started….as if something inside me telling me it’s time to give up.”

Dora did not answer. She hugged him. She started kissing him and when he hesitated, she drew all the more closer.

“Forget it all. It’s just you and me. We are going to make it, one way or another. And forget your tests for today.”

A few hours later they were in bed, exchanging meaningless small talk and laughing at each other’s inside jokes.

“Louis, have you noticed that Frau Glockner no longer greets us by name? And I have found her staring at our house from her living room window, quite a few times. Imagine if she looked into our windows now..,”

Dora chuckled.

“Oh, Frau Hannelore..I should have told you. I almost ran her over the other day, when I arrived home after my long flight. Do not worry. I think we are back to the ‘neighbor probation process’, like when we arrived back in 2011. In a few months she will be back to normal and greet us on a first name basis.”

“Oh yeah sure, in a few months,” Dora echoed. “So many things can change in a few months.”

Louis suddenly changed his tone. He looked at her with tenderness and fear.

“Dora, you know what Helena went through. She made it. It is not guaranteed at all that you can make it too. Why did you want to take the risk?”

“Why did you accept to take the risk with me, Louis? You could have stayed in front of your screens.”

“Because I knew if I didn’t, I would lose you. Maybe I was selfish, but I prefer to be with you until the end rather than regretting the end of our relationship while we are both still alive for eternity.”

“You men always calculate. I simply felt it was the right thing to do. And now, rush back to your lab, you have one more good reason to fix your drug!”

She kicked him out of bed and stood up to have a shower.

Chapter 23

 

Skip Ross landed in San Francisco with the early afternoon flight from Washington, on a rainy and foggy November day in 2015.

He then checked in at the Marriott Hotel, close to Union Square, and then waited in the lounge. He had been told he would receive instructions, in due time, for the evening dinner. While in the lounge, he went over the last points with the head of the surveillance squad. The squad was hired to discreetly watch his back and, more importantly, to record and find out all necessary information about the people he was about to meet.

All he knew now, was that the dinner had been called by Charles Daniels, who had recently left Pfizer and set up his own company. Charles did mention that other important people would be present at the meeting, but he did not say anything more over the phone.

At about 6:45 in the afternoon, the text message arrived. It contained the address of Danko’s, a restaurant close to Fisherman’s Wharf, on North Point Street. He had to be there in fifteen minutes, so a taxi was the only option.

As he hailed the first one down, he wondered how it was possible to organize such a meeting in a restaurant. Anyone could eavesdrop….or snap a picture with a smartphone. It all felt really unprofessional to Skip.

The taxi pulled up in front of the restaurant, and Skip noticed that the parking spaces were tight. This meant the van of the surveillance squad would have to keep circling around the block. Maybe his hosts had not been completely all that careless in choosing the location. As soon as he walked in, Skip noticed that the restaurant was half empty and all the people at the tables were Asian. More precisely, they were all thirty-years-old Asian men dressed in dark suits. No one looked at him.

The waiter promptly led him across the restaurant, to a curtain that hid the private reception rooms, where there were three people waiting for him. There was Charles Daniels at the end of the table, an Asian with the looks and manners of a wealthy man, lastly, smiling and politely waving him to the place next to his, there was George McKilroy.

They all shook hands. The Asian man introduced himself simply as Mr. Lee. Then Charles took the floor.

“Skip, thanks for accepting the invitation. Before we start, can I ask you to send a text to your team outside that everything is fine and that they do not have to enter the restaurant?

As you can see, we booked the place for the whole evening to keep unwelcome ears and eyes away. Once you send the text, the bodyguards of Mr. Lee, who are having dinner out there, will switch on their necessary means of protection to make sure our privacy is guaranteed. The dinner will last until nine in the evening. Mr. Lee is still suffering from jet lag and wishes to catch up on his sleep.”

“Alright,” thought Skip, “you managed to create secluded Chinese zone in Central San Francisco.” He waited for a moment and then sent the message. Mr. Lee acknowledged his action with a smile and gave a small nod towards a bodyguard by the curtain. As the intimidating man left, Skip glimpsed all the guards at the tables reach for their phones. In a few seconds, his smartphone went black. Mr. Lee started to talk.

“Let me also thank you for your availability, Mr. Ross. I fully understand that with a job like yours, it is not easy to make room in your agenda on such a short notice. However, the matters we have to discuss tonight are extremely urgent and relevant, for the security of our countries.”

“As you may know, in the past we have introduced some changes – positive changes, I dare say – in the drug market. I do not expect you to approve or even endorse this business, however in the past few months there have been some unwelcome intrusions which we must work together to stop.

Our new competitors in the field, the Russians, made their way into the market by buying a distribution channel from our former partners in the Arab Emirates. They paid by giving the Emiratis unlimited access to weapons of mass destruction. All the evidence is stored here, for your experts to analyze.” He placed a memory card on the table. Then George jumped in.

“Skip, I know you are biased towards our organization, but we realized that the Arabs and the Russians are going too far and we cannot simply take them out of the game with standard drug cartel rules. You know what I mean, the occasional street shoot out and what not. We need to show them that they have trespassed a line they should have respected.”

“Hang on,” Skip interrupted. “I am getting lost in your unclear messages. What do you want me, or better, the United States to do? You want us to fix your drug cartel rivalries by bombing Russia or Dubai? Please tell me I got it wrong. Also, give me a very good reason why I should do it.”

Charles replied, for George.

“Skip, the message is very simple. Mr. Lee and George are losing control of Telomerax production and distribution, to the benefit of the Russians and their Arab allies. Meanwhile, the Russians are feeding the Arabs with stockpiles of nerve gas and other biochemical weapons in exchange for the drug. This basically means that biological warfare arsenals are now growing virtually out of control, because we do not know to whom the Arabs may resell them.

So here is the deal: Mr. Lee and George will re-engineer their manufacturing and distribution chain away from these unreliable partners, but they need your help to disrupt the existing one. In a way that nobody will ever try to organize something like this again, for fear of having the most powerful and resolute United States security agencies against them.”

“Back up,” interrupted Skip again, while he was struggling to remove the shell of a giant fried prawn. “You mentioned you needed security agency intervention, but now you are calling for the Armed Forces. I may agree with the idea, but what exactly do you have in mind? And then, how do you plan to rebuild your network? I don’t think you want to destroy your business forever.”

Mr. Lee smiled. This Texan was not dumb at all, even if he was awful at removing shells from seafood. He continued to expose the plan.

“Mr. Ross, we are thinking about using the fifth secret clause in the Sino-American security treaty, the one that grants Taiwan access to all US weapon systems, public and secret, in case of a danger to their territory. And the system we are thinking about to use is Zeus.”

Skip nearly choked on his prawn. So this Chinese tycoon was aware of the existence of Zeus and thought he had the right to ask for it to be put into action?

“Mr. Lee, with all due respect, assuming there is such a thing as a fifth secret clause in the Sino-American security treaty, you know that Zeus requires presidential clearance on our side to be triggered and head-of-state authority from any foreign country before requesting its usage. Do you think you can arrange all that? And do you know that we will have just a few hours?”

“Oh, we know very well that the system was developed in the aftermath of 9/11 to re-program the route of commercial jets, in case no other option was feasible. All major plane makers, which is to say Airbus and Boeing, provided the NSA with backdoors and activation codes, to seize control of their planes when necessary. So your clearance procedure can indeed go through within hours, provided the right evidence is given.”

“Alright,” Skip said. “You seem to know the procedure. I expect you to follow it properly the day you decide to invoke it. However, you have not answered my second question, how do you plan to re-organize your business after your get rid of your unloyal partners?”

“This is the easiest part,” Charles jumped in. “Thanks to your cooperation and the knowledge of George, we can now make the pills on our own. We strongly believe that in a few years from now, we can evolve the drug into a fully legal one, with obvious benefits for the US.”

“That’s why you left Pfizer, you did not want to share the profits with your old employer,” noted Skip sarcastically.

“It’s the animal spirits and free initiative that made our country great, Skip,” George responded. “Now we have the opportunity in front of us to bring this ground-breaking discovery under an American roof, on an equal footing with our Chinese partners. Personally, I hope it becomes legal sooner, rather than later. True, illegal stuff has much higher profit margins and creates alot of opportunity for the black market, but I am counting on you to help us bring this out in the open.”

Skip looked at the clock. There were five minutes to nine. Between prawns, small talk, and the main topic, time had flown. He stood up, shook hands with Mr. Lee, and concluded the meeting.

“Gentlemen, let me summarize the interesting conversation we had tonight. I agree we need to send a strong signal against to stop the Russians and the Arabs meddling with weapons of mass destruction. You will always have us on your side for this. For the rest, let me be very clear; if you get into trouble with the Drug Enforcement Agency, the FBI or even a county sheriff, during your, um…new business venture, don’t even think about mentioning my name. I will side with them. Finally, I have to admit that prawns are not that bad, once you manage to peel them.”

He left the restaurant, followed by Mr. Lee and his platoon of bodyguards. Charles and George remained alone at the table, looking at their empty glasses of wine.

“We did not tell him that the Telomerax we are going to make is not the original one, but a derivative,” said George.

“Forget about it, he would not have understood at all. It took me one entire day to listen to the explanation of Dinesh on how and why the two drugs were different. The key point, is that the cocaine interaction and the anti-aging effect is maintained. By the way, thanks again for joining our venture. Without you, we would have never made it. Were things so bad with your old team?”

“Well, you know, it’s a bit like your own situation. Why did you make the decision to leave Pfizer? You were powerful and respected, after all.”

“Because I increasingly felt I would be better off outside. I felt more and more out of sync with my team mates. And then a new opportunity showed up to leverage my knowledge, and..”

“You see?,” interrupted George, as they walked out of the restaurant. “Just like my case. On a more personal note, after more than ten years away, I was really missing San Francisco and Silicon Valley. This is my hometown after all, even in the foggy rain of November.”

A car slowly stopped by the roadside, and the driver waved to Charles. He said goodby to George, opened the door, and entered the car.

“Hi Sally, how are you doing? I was just about to tell George that you were one of the reasons I left Pfizer, because you cannot work in a place where you are dating your assistant, but he did not let me finish the sentence!”

“I am always great when I am with you, darling! How did you dinner go?”

Chapter 24

 

Tarek and Valerio did not like the way things were going. Ever since the birth of Aurora, they felt the team had started to break apart.

The relation with George was becoming more of a business one than the friendship it used to be. Just within the last year and a half their correspondence had faded to a few emails per month about business updates on the Telomerax production and diffusion. They had not met in person since 2015.

Louis and Dora had isolated themselves in their villa on the secluded hillsides of Zurich, with Louis completely absorbed in his studies on the new variant of Telomerax.

Helena was the only one who kept the friendship alive. She regularly called Tarek and Valerio, using her secure internet connection.

Her video calls almost always ended with the latest mischiefs of Aurora. She had managed to recover fully from the cancer and it was clear that her focus was now on her child. She never said where she was calling from – all that Valerio and Tarek knew was that it was somewhere in Brazil, where she could count on the protection of the narcos clans.

Tarek and Valerio, however, regularly met in person at least once a year, thanks to the fact Tarek took his family to London for the Christmas shopping season. In December 2015, they were sitting in front of their beers in a deserted pub near Canary Wharf. It was a Saturday afternoon and all the surrounding office blocks were empty.

Tarek gave a generous tip to the waitress before lighting a cigarette. As he expected, nobody came to enforce the no-smoking rule.

“How are you doing, Valerio? I am already tired of our annual Christmas shopping week, even though the boys are old enough to take care of mom at Harrod’s and I can spend my time with friends..”

“Being tired of London means being tired of life, Tarek,” Valerio rebuffed. “You have many more trips in your future, and most people would give all they have for our privilege.”

“Ah, yes, our gift. Let’s call it that. Do you think we are on the right track? I honestly have a bad feeling.”

“It is more than a bad feeling, look at this.” Valerio put in front of Tarek some printouts for him to read.

“Hmmm…looks like some Asian millionaire in Taiwan went a bit too far with his cocaine party and the end result was a shoot out with more than twenty dead, including the party host?”

“That is the official story, on the Taiwanese news, translated by Google. But even the original, in Chinese, fails to mention the most important details that I got thanks to my connections in the newspaper industry. First, it was not a normal shootout, like the ones that happen all the time in New York City. It surprisingly was the host, that all the a sudden lost control of himself and started killing his guests by all possible means: from guns, to knifes, and even his bare hands. The casualties include the first three cops who were called in to try to stop him.

Second, the party was only partially based on cocaine. The guy is one of the first customers of Telomerax in the region, at least according to the latest list of customers that Mr. Lee and George gave us six months ago. So I tried to contact George to find out more. After more than two weeks, he called me back as if he was doing me a favor and pretends that Telomerax has nothing to do with it. As if this guy had indeed moved to the Russian version – you can call it Telomeraski if you want. So, yes, it is definitely spinning out of control.”

“Now I understand why Rasim is growing uneasy…” said Tarek “He might have a part in this. You know, he has been giving huge amounts of pills to the Russians, but I thought he did this simply to build his fortune. But apparently Russians have added their own sauce..”

“..and the whole thing is morphing into something no one was expecting,” Valerio completed. “Jesus, the only thing I do not regret about this whole thing is that I told the Pope three years ago.”

“Not even the Pope can solve our problem, Valerio. I do envy you a bit, though, for this special, last resort outlet you have to discharge your soul, when you remember to have one..” Tarek laughed. “Did you hear anything from the Vatican again? What are they doing with the information?”

“About one year after the new Pope took office, he called me on the phone. I was right in the middle of a client meeting, when I see the number from Rome. I pick it up, and a voice tells me they are going to put me in contact with His Holiness Pope Francis. I was surprised, but not too much, since it is known he often calls personally, when he is touched by some special case. I knew I had told Benedict XVI special information.

I automatically wondered how to make sure the conversation was confidential, as I do with every important call, so you know the thing I said? ‘Please confirm that the following discussion will not be wiretapped or recorded in any way.’ I felt like an idiot, the moment I finished the sentence.”

Tarek’s eyes were pointed to the ceiling. He was doing his utmost not to burst into laughter, and Valerio continued.

“I think he also was laughing on the other end of the line, however he responded respectfully by saying he had discussed my case with his honorable predecessor, and he was praying for me.”

“That’s it?,” asked Tarek, who was regaining control over his laughing fit and taking interest in the story. “I mean, it is not every day you get put on the Pope’s list of special intentions but did he give you any advice?”

“He mentioned he was trying to see what he could do with the information, he thanked me again because this would help him finalize his decisions, and he stated we had to rely on God’s grace to get answers on difficult matters. This, in practical terms, meant a lot of prayer and discussion with those he trusted within the Church.”

“So he is sharing the secret inside the Church,” Tarek pointed out. “If he shares this with more than a dozen trusted people, we have a very good chance that someone betrays him and uses it for their own interest.”

“That’s exactly what I thought, but I did not dare bring it up. I am sure he is also fully aware. But if you look at what he is doing and saying in public, it seems he is really trying to refocus the Church away from any specific moral or political positioning, and return to the basics.”

“Alright,” concluded Tarek. “So we have His Holiness, Pope Francis, on our side with all his Swiss guards, that everybody knows have about as much strength as an ant. What is next?”

“Don’t be an asshole,” said Valerio “At least he comforted me, even with a one-minute call. In the long run, it will help to be on good terms with the Pope. And unlike Galileo, we have time to see things unfold.”

“Well, we definitely could use some faith now,” said Tarek. “Back to other business, Rasim has been called by George to go to Taiwan in about one month from now. George said that Mr. Lee wanted to reassure the local head of the drug dealers that we, alone, sell quality products.

Rasim asked me to go with him, hinting that George would like to see both of us. But I did not get any call from George and I do not have that much interest to pick up the phone. Anyway, I was wondering what was behind this invitation to Taiwan, but now that you told me this shoot out story, things start to add up. But why would George not tell us anything?”

“It looks like he trusts Mr. Lee more than us. Or he believes that we side with Helena after they broke up,” Valerio said. “The problem is, what if he passes completely to the other side? Will we still be part of the team or be on the enemy list?”

“Valerio, in our business you cannot afford to run risks. If you are not one-hundred percent sure that someone is a friend, it is much better to put him on the enemy list.”

“George, an enemy?,” pondered Valerio.

“Maybe not, or just not yet,” Tarek said. “but you know what? I moved to a new house, and changed a few habits that George knew all too well. He can still reach me, but he no longer knows if I put the house keys under the doormat or next to the garage door. I suggest you do the same. And also, prepare a quick relocation plan to a safe place in case something goes wrong with him or with his new best friends. Just as Helena did.”

Tarek put out his cigarette in the remaining beer at the bottom of his glass, and asked for the bill.

“Now you have to excuse me. In half an hour, my wife will be waiting for me outside Harrod’s, and I am way too far from there. Merry Christmas, Valerio, and say that to Francis as well, in case he calls you back for the season’s greetings.”

Tarek patted Valerio on the back and shook his hand, stepped out of the door into the chilly winter air, and jumped in the first taxi.

Chapter 25

 

February mornings were unbearably cold in the Negev Desert. Eyal and Yaakov had been flown to the secret weapons test range during the middle of the night, and with them were the top ranks of the Israel Defense Forces. They were about to see the first demonstration of the new biodrone technology that had long been in development and which Eyal and Yaakov had strived to keep secret. They had only a few hours to carry out the test, because Russian and American spy satellites would soon overfly the area and the test had to remain secret.

As the sun started to rise, the flat, rocky plain started to change colors, turning to purple, and then yellow. Soon, all the landscape would reverberate in white. In the distance, through the thin and clean air, it was still possible to see the buildings of Dimona, where Israel’s first nuclear bomb had been developed. People realized that the targets were of different nature. Instead of old tanks and transport vehicles, there were a few sheeps, goats, and even a couple of horses closed in a somewhat neglected iron corral.

Then, the loudspeaker asked the attendees to take their places on the stands, as the test was about to begin. Yaakov evaluated the distance to the targets – certainly more than a few hundred yards but perhaps less than half a mile. Anyway, too close to test high explosives. The loudspeaker declared that the test had begun, and asked the audience to look out towards the Western horizon. After a few seconds, they could spot a drone. It flew over the animals at a height of about one thousand feet, then it let a small circular device go, that exploded about fifty yards above ground. To use the word explosion was actually an exaggeration, thought Eyal, especially for people who had witnessed real wars.

The noise was more like the uncorking of a giant bottle of champagne. Then nothing happened for a few minutes. Yaakov was about to tell Eyal that the test had maybe failed, and they had wasted a good night’s sleep, when the goats and sheeps started to fall to the ground one by one. In less than a minute, only the two horses were left standing in the corral.

The speaker declared that the test had succeeded. A few jeeps were waiting next to the stands, for transportation to the corral.

When they got there, Eyal and Yaakov examined the animals. The goats and sheep were undoubtedly dead, without any wound on their bodies so they have had to be killed chemically. Yet the toxin had to be extremely volatile considering only five minutes had passed since the attack, and they were walking in the area under no danger. The one question left was; why had the horses survived?

People were exchanging glances and unfinished sentences, when Tamir Pardo, the head of the Mossad, appeared and introduced a young lieutenant who would give all the explanations. His name was Avi Eitan. He stepped into the corral and spoke,

“Today you have all witnessed the first live test of our new biodrone. After many attempts, we have managed to insert a microchip, stored with a small but lethal amount of toxin, into the nervous system of a fly. The chip sees everything what the fly sees and can override its brain function to drive the fly in any desired direction. The chip is activated via remote radio control, and in this case it received images of the targets to attack – sheep and goats but not horses. In this experiment, the microchips were activated before they left the drone, and as they started flying around they detected the animals. As soon as the scanners identified the image that it was programmed to attack, it overrode the fly’s brain and forcefully crashed it on the skin of the selected animals.

The impact released the toxin, a special variant of the nerve gas, Sarin, that penetrated the skin and eventually killed the animals. If you observe carefully, on the surface of the carcass you will see the remains of the flies. But unless you have a very powerful microscope, you will not be able to detect the microchip, if anything of it is left at all.”

“Very impressive, Lieutenant Eitan, and well explained. I can imagine a lot of applications for this but how many can we build? And what is the cost?”

The question came from Gadi Eizenkot, the ‘Rav aluf’, or head of the chiefs of staff in Israel.

Tamir Pardo was the only one who could answer. This was a Mossad project, after all.

“I will start from the costs and the answer is: very low. Every microchip costs a few hundred dollars, then with the toxin we have to add another few hundred dollars, but we never exceed one thousand dollars per fly. The production process is still to be perfected, though.

The circuitry has to be wired to the fly while it is still a larva in the development phase, and the production yield here is still about ten percent. Which means, out of one thousand larvae, we can create roughly one hundred armed flies. Fortunately, failed larvae do not develop at all, so we can recover the chips and try again. Larvae are obviously not an issue to obtain. Flies tend to be short-lived, on the other hand. They last a few months at best. A few years back we leveraged some…how can I define it – external industrial advice to treat them in a way that our armed flies could survive for as long as one year. As of now, we can produce about one hundred flies a month, for a total cost of less than one million dollars. Of course, in case of national emergency, production can be quickly ramped up. In the test, today, we used fifty of them which makes an average of five flies per target struck.”

Yaakov and Eyal exchanged a glimpse of complacency. That old bastard was counting only the marginal cost of production, when in reality billions had been invested in the program for the last few years. However, the same could be said of the nuclear program. Gadi knew that as well, but he decided it was not worth spoiling Tamir’s moment of glory.

Yaakov and Eyal then got back into the jeeps that would take them to the airstrip, when suddenly, Tamir got into the car with them. He immediately closed the door behind him, and ordered the driver to leave without waiting for other passengers.

“Let’s take advantage of this short ride to have a meeting about the life potion sorcerers,” he said, looking at Eyal. “I can see Yaakov in my office anytime, since he reports to me, but I also need your input as representative of the counterespionage.”

Eyal wondered why the head of the Mossad would discuss this with him. After all, Tamir had all the authority to decide what to do outside of Israel.

“Let me cut it short,” Tamir continued. “We have reliable information that the diffusion of this drug is accelerating, with new variants popping up. It also seems like the original group is losing control. We got word from a sayan who is inflitrated in their organization. I discussed the matter with the prime minister, and our assessment is that we need to get the group under our control. We need to be in a strong position when this starts spreading beyond the wealthy circles.”

“By getting the group under your control, do you mean that you want to take them to Israel? Against their will, most likely?” asked Eyal.

“You guessed it. Listn, we are aware of the risks. The fact is, this story is spinning out of control anyway. The only difference will be if we have a chance to sway the turn of events in our favor, or not.”

Eyal looked at Yaakov, who did not comment. It was clear that the decision had been made. He looked back again at Tamir and said,

“Then why do you need my input, Sir?”

“Because you are the only one in our security community who had a chance to talk to one of the creators of the drug in the past. What was your impression? How would they react?”

“Based on a five minute conversation and the analysis of the video footage, the one I met, named George McKilroy, looked like a very reasonable person you could negotiate with. I do not know how the others – especially the founder, Louis – might react.What happens if they do not cooperate?”

“We have not decided yet. For sure, they would not be on our friends list. But you do not have to kill all who are not friends with you – at least, not immediately. What would you do in my place?” Tamir was genuinely interested in Eyal’s response.

“I know it is difficult, but I would try to set up a dialogue rather than to impose control. After so many years of investigation, we still do not have a clear idea of their goals. We just keep acting based off our own ideas about them.” Eyal commented, but he knew he could not change the decision.

The three men stayed silent for the rest of the trip, until they were dropped off at the airstrip, where Tamir boarded a helicopter. Eyal and Yaakov would follow on another plane with the rest of the audience. As the helicopter took off, Eyal asked Yaakov,

“When is the confrontation going to take place? Are we talking days, or weeks? Who are you targeting?”

“The first two members of the commando are already on site for one week for the final preparations. In two weeks, they will be joined by the other two. We are targeting Louis and Dora, his wife.”

“Shit, Yaakov, do you realize that if anything goes wrong, we risk having Telomerax go public in a few days? It takes years to have Plan Lot ready, and you are going in a direction where we might need it in a few months!”

“I know, and I share your concern but the boss is the boss and Tamir wanted to get this operation started at all cost. Do not ask me anything else. I need to catch up on my sleep now.”

Chapter 26

 

The plane took off from Abu Dhabi on time and began its route to the first waypoint, just south of Pakistan. The flight was scheduled to land in Taipei, Taiwan eight hours later. At the border between Bangladesh and Myanmar, four hours of flight away from the destination, the plane banked deeply to the right.

Most of the passengers did not notice, as they had fallen asleep after lunch was served.

Rasim, who was used to be always on the lookout for danger since his childhood, immediately realized it. He turned on the flight tracker menu of the entertainment system. The plane was turning south, veering off its route and heading straight into the South Indian Ocean. After a few minutes, the flight tracker was switched off, and the flight service manager was called into the cockpit. When he walked back, his face turned pale. Rasim called him to his first class seat, he stated his identity and asked to talk to the captain. The flight service manager did not even bother to ask permission and walked him through the cockpit door.

There, the captain was hastily talking to the first officer in Urdu, their mother tongue from Pakistan, and sending messages in English via radio. As soon as the two crew members noticed Rasim, they stopped talking and sent him an inquisitive look.

“Good evening, gentlemen. You do not have to worry about me, I can only tell you that I am a high ranking officer in the mukhabarat, the State security service, and I personally know Abdel-Rahman Al-Thaimi, your airline’s chief security officer.

I understand something strange is going on here. You can call me Ibrahim. Can you tell me exactly what is happening?”

Hearing the name of the chief security officer, plus the calm and collected manners of Rasim, persuaded the crew they could trust him. The captain dismissed the flight service manager.

“Sir,” the captain responded, “my name is Naveed Shaheen, and I have nearly fifteen thousand hours of experience flying. What is happening here is simple and yet impossible to understand. About ten minutes ago we completely lost control of the aircraft. I mean the flight management system has been reprogrammed to follow a new route, and there is no way we can reset it.

We tried to disengage the autopilot, and fly the plane manually, but it does not respond to any command. The radio does not work either. All the identification signals that every airliner normally sends out, have been switched off too. It is as if someone has taken control of the plane, and is flying us where he wants.”

“Where is the plane heading now?”, asked Rasim. “Could the hijacker be someone in the plane with some advanced technology?”

“We are going straight into the South Indian Ocean, in an area where the sea is so deep that the wreckage might never be found. Especially if we do not manage to switch the radio back on. Right now, we are invisible to the flight control centers. Military radars might detect us, but they rarely pass through this area. As for the passengers, I ordered the flight service manager to quietly search for anyone with any active electronic device.”

Before the captain could finish his report, Rasim fired his orders.

“Naveed, please give me the passenger list and the cargo loading bill, I want to check them. Next, I want the crew to carry out a full inspection of the cargo hold. If the culprits are inside the plane, they could very well be hiding below. And be careful, they might be armed.”

The captain nodded, and the first officer left the flight deck. Rasim sat next to the captain, who handed him all the flight documentation.

There was a total of two hundred and forty-seven people on board, of twelve different nationalities. Most of them were Taiwanese and Europeans but there were also some Russians, no Americans. None of the names sounded familiar to Rasim. He went on, to read through the cargo bill.

After a few minutes of sifting through the list he found it. In the cargo hold below the main deck, there were two separate shipments of Telomerax. One was the original one, in the disguise of Swiss chocolate.

The other one was the Russian imitation, which traveled under cover as lokum, the traditional Turkish sweets. And that was not it. The plane also contained some base chemicals from the very same factory, that had been used to manufacture the weapons Rasim had gotten from the Russians. The materials had apparently been ordered by a local Taiwanese company.

Rasim stopped reading, he turned towards the captain and asked how many hours they had left.

“Counting fuel reserves, just below five hours,” the captain answered calmly. “Considering our current position, if we do not regain control of the plane in the next two hours, we will crash into the sea.”

“captain Naveed,” said Rasim, “This is not by chance. I am the target, along with part of the cargo. Let’s assume the plane is being controlled by an evil entity like the NSA or some similar company. What could we do to regain control as a last resort?”

“I have been thinking about it while you were reading the flight documents. The only thing we can do – which is very dangerous – is to completely switch off all the flight management system and try to fly the plane just with the hydraulics and the basic electrical system. Except passengers will notice..”

A few minutes later, the co-pilot returned after inspecting the cargo, with nothing to report. The captain explained what he had to do and dispatched him to the avionics bay. Rasim decided to go with him. As he was stepping out of the cockpit, the flight service manager hurried in.

Worry was growing in the cabin, the entertainment system had stopped working for more than one hour, and some passengers who were used to flying the route were asking why they could not see the lights of Vietnam and China below them.

Rasim, the flight service manager, and the captain talked briefly, then the captain took the intercom.

“Ladies and gentlemen, this is your captain speaking. Unfortunately our flight has been affected by some minor issues. As you have noticed, we have a problem with the entertainment system, which we are now working to solve. We will need at least another couple of hours to fix it. Additionally, the Chinese air traffic control has put us on a route much further south than planned, and we are now passing above the South China Sea. It will take us a bit longer than scheduled, but we will be landing in Taipei four hours from now.”

Rasim smiled to reassure the passengers and followed the co-pilot to the electronics room, below the passenger deck.

The co-pilot switched off the main electrical board, and the protection system activated automatically as expected. He then moved to switch off the flight management system, making sure the seat belt lights were still off, not to panic passengers. He then called the captain in the cockpit. The computers were off, but the autopilot was still engaged and it was impossible to regain manual control. The copilot switched to Urdu again, and the conversation quickly got animated. Then he stopped and turned to Rasim.

“Sir, our strategy is not working. Somehow the route has been installed into the system. There is only one option left, and the captain wants your advice. The idea is to completely switch off the engines and the auxiliary power systems, hoping this resets the computers and allows us to regain control. There is a risk though that we are not able to restart the engines.”

“Switch everything off, now,” Rasim calmly responded.

The engines stopped first, then the auxiliary power system was shut down and the plane became completely dark. Left suddenly without power, the aircraft reduced speed, and started to descend. Some passengers started screaming.

The captain immediately initiated the restart procedure. After a few seconds, the hum of the engines was vibrating through the cabin again, lights came back and eventually the plane regained speed and altitude.

Hostesses and stewards were running through the cabin, desperately trying to calm down passengers.

The captain announced that the failure in the entertainment system had created the major malfunction they had just experienced, but now everything was back under control and they would safely be landing in Taipei, in a couple of hours. Rasim went back into the cockpit.

“How can we ever be landing in Taipei, or anywhere else, if the plane has not changed direction?,” he asked calmly.

“It didn’t work,” responded the captain. “And I think my passengers have already suffered enough panic and fear over the last few hours. I beg your pardon for not discussing it with you first, but I decided they would live the last two hours of their lives in peace.”

Rasim agreed. He had always imagined that death would come to him swiftly and unexpectedly, in an ambush of some sorts. He was instead given two hours, that he did not know how to use.

In the meantime, the captain reactivated the entertainment system and turned to his co-pilot.

“Sir, it was a pleasure working with you over these last two years.” He shook hands and hugged him. The co-pilot, a man in his thirties, was quietly crying in front of the control screens, as he was going through the photo gallery of his smartphone, looking for the last time at the pictures of his family.

Ten thousand miles away, in Colorado, Major Andrew F. of the US Strategic Air Command was observing the plane route in a room placed in the depths of Cheyenne Mountain. Zeus, the system he was now trying out for its first live mission, was being managed with the same procedures that regulated the launch of the US nuclear missiles. Just like every other member of the US strategic forces, Andrew was trained to take action without questioning orders. Even if it implied the death of thousands or millions of innocent people.

He was relieved that his duty caused minimal collateral damage, involving just a few hundred lives, in order to block the imminent and serious threats to the US and their allies. The procedure had been efficiently carried out, with all presidential clearances arriving. He had to trust that up the decision chain, all the information had been properly conveyed to the President, who decided that Zeus had to be activated.

The screen showed that the plane still had about one hour and a half left of fuel and it was already well into the Indian Ocean, in an area where sea depth exceeded fifteen thousand feet, which made any rescue attempt impossible. Major F. had observed the remarkable attempt of the crew to regain control of the plane and decided it was too risky to leave the plane for another hour in the air. Maybe the crew could come up with a new idea to control the plane, or they might manage to re-establish radio contact.

So he typed the engine maximum power command on the keyboard, and then ordered the rudder to put the plane in a deep dive, to maximize the impact with the sea. At five hundred miles per hour, and with the help of gravity, the plane disappeared into the sea in less than forty seconds.

Major Andrew F. recorded the completed mission, as he fought the disgust that he started to feel, by using the techniques he had learned during his psychological training.

After a few minutes, his struggle was over. He had nothing to reproach himself. He had executed orders, and nothing in the procedure had gone wrong. It was war, and war has victims. In this case, he knew that the vast majority of them were innocent, but he knew what he was getting into when he was first offered the job.

Eventually he stood up from his chair, shut his computer, and went to the coffee machine to get a well-deserved mokaccino.

Chapter 27

 

The first espionage squad of the Mossad was made up of two young agents who pretended to be interior designers on a scouting trip for a wealthy client, looking for a house in Zurich. This allowed them to provide a quick explanation if police stopped them as they were moving through the restricted streets of the Witikon neighborhood.

They arrived to Zurich in January 2016, tracked down the house of Dora and Louis, and started to shadow them. They soon realized that Louis was rather unpredictable in his errands. He often stayed home the whole day with just a short evening walk. Dora followed a far more regular routine. She always left the house at around nine-thirty in the morning and returned just before noon.

This made her a much better target for an abduction, but from the Tel Aviv headquarters, Yaakov had made it clear that the target was Louis and no one else. The surveillance team was then forced to spend hours waiting in the car, or take long walks around the neighborhood, to properly log Louis’ habits. This eventually made them blip on the radar of Frau Glockner.

Their Middle Eastern looks made her immediately categorize them as Muslim immigrants, and as they were loitering around during the day, they were also probably without a job.

One misty February morning, she decided to confront them and knocked on the windows of their car asking what they were doing around her neighborhood. They answered with a very poor German accent, that Frau Glockner could barely understand. All she could grasp was that they were looking for sites for their clients. What sites? What clients? Then she suddenly realized. These guys were probably looking for a new site to build another mosque, as if the one in the nearby Forchgasse was not enough.

She still remembered how fiercely her former husband had opposed that project, before dying of a cancer. Frau Hannelore Glockner was sure the mosque story had had a part in his husband’s fatal illness. No, Muslims would not take over Zurich, at least as long as she was alive.

The surveillance squad had fully realized that Frau Glockner risked becoming a major problem, so they started to circle around Louis’ house from a distance. They failed to take into account Frau Glockner’s tenants, though.

Frau Hannelore had called all her Serbian renters to the dining room and persuaded them to side with her. Some of them had had relatives killed by the Muslim militias in the bloody Bosnian war of the early nineties of the last century. Now their host country was under a similar danger and she needed their help to fight off this new wave of invaders, of which the first two were the young men who have been patrolling the neighborhood for the last several days.

She wanted to know their whereabouts at all times, to be ready to report them to the police as soon as something went wrong, which surely it would. They used to move around the street, but after she had confronted them they had appeared less frequently. Her tenants accepted, more out of fear of losing their rooms than of a Muslim invasion.

By the time the other two members of the attack squad arrived in late February, Frau Glockner’s household had tracked the whole recognition squad and was dutifully reporting the daily positions to the landlady, who recorded them on an old city map.

The abduction squad decided they would act the first week of March. The plan was very simple, the surveillance squad would follow Louis on the first occasion he left the house in the late afternoon, while the abduction team would wait on the main road. Louis would be distracted by the surveillance squad just before reaching the corner between his street and the main road. There, one of the members of the abduction squad would sedate him from behind, and load him quickly into the car with the help of the other two. Then, three people would bring Louis to the private terminal of the airport and take a private jet to Tel Aviv, while the last member of the surveillance squad would return to the car and fly back to Israel alone on a commercial flight.

The plan worked perfectly, except that as soon as Louis was being loaded into the car, unconscious, one of Frau Glockner tenants was already calling her with a full description of the kidnappers’ vehicles.

Two Swiss police patrols equipped with heavy weapons intercepted the squad when they were still one mile away from the airport.

The last member of the commando was arrested, completely unaware of the interference at the Hertz rental car return area. As the Swiss policemen had quickly disarmed the squads, the Isreaelis did not have the time to tell anybody in the Mossad headquarters that the operation had miserably failed.

In Tel Aviv, Tamir Pardo received a call from Yaakov in the afternoon that the operation had started and it should have finished by 7 PM. Fifteen minutes past seven, no departure confirmation had arrived yet, but this could be due to a number of reasons, like traffic jams. However, the call that Tamir received around 7.30 PM came unexpectedly. It was the Israeli Foreign Minister in person, who put him in conference call with a furious Yigal Canspi, the Israeli ambassador to Switzerland.

Yigal had just been invited to attend an urgent meeting with both the Swiss Interior and Foreign ministers to discuss an unfortunate episode that had just happened.

“How unfortunate?”, Yigal had asked.

“Very,” was the blunt answer of the Swiss Foreign minister.

The instructions from the Israeli Foreign minister were crystal clear; the damage had to be minimized to try to mend the relationship with Switzerland in the shortest possible time.

After he hung up the call with the minister and the ambassador, Tamir called an open-ended meeting with Yaakov and his staff, starting at ten-thirty in the evening. They would not finish until a decent recovery plan would be set.

When Yaakov entered the office of Tamir a few hours later, he knew all too well that the recovery plan depended on him, as he was responsible for the failed mission. His goal as an experienced officer was not to avoid being laid off, but rather to leave in the most professional way and, most importantly, to ensure a legacy in his office.

Yaakov achieved the first goal by exposing the backup plan he had prepared in case of failure. The reaction of the Mossad was focused on the defamation of Louis Picard. The line to be kept with Swiss authorities was to admit to using the wrong way of an illegal abduction, to achieve the respectable goal of securing the safety of Israel from a very dangerous drug dealer who was running a business from Switzerland, including drug production on Swiss soil.

The allegations came with a complete file of the activities of Louis and his team members in the past few years. If the Swiss asked why the Mossad had not followed the legal channels to get the cooperation of the Swiss authorities, the answer was also easy.

There was overwhelming evidence that Louis was well connected in the financial, industrial, and even academic community of Switzerland, so the Israelis feared something might have leaked, putting him on alert.

Tamir Pardo appreciated the attention given to preparing Plan B. It was as accurate as the main plan, that had unfortunately failed. He thought it was really a pity to have to fire Yaakov, most probably for circumstances that were beyond his control, but he needed a victim to placate his government and the Swiss one, and Yaakov was the perfect culprit.

The meeting ended shortly after midnight, Tamir dismissed all the team with the exception of Yaakov. The people in the room left in silence. As soon as the last one closed the door behind, Yaakov took the envelope with his resignation from a pocket in his computer bag. He handed it over to Tamir, who set it aside on his desk, without bothering to open it.

“I need to ask you a few final questions before letting you go, Yaakov,” Tamir said plainly. “First, do you already have any ideas for your new life out of Mossad? We can help you build a new career, of course. And second, I would be very interested to get your advice on your successor as head of foreign operations.”

Yaakov did not miss out on the opportunity to leave his legacy at the office that he had run for the last eight years.

“Well, Tamir, let’s start from the end. No matter how well we get out of this accident, I think we are heading into more difficult times. Therefore I think you need somebody who is even more focused than I was on the security of Israel and much more attentive to details. I think Eyal would be a good choice. It is your decision, of course.”

Tamir paused, then after a few seconds he grabbed the envelope and continued impatiently.

“You have not answered my first question.”

“Oh, my future..”, Yaakov paused for a while, “…you know, I have managed to set up some connections over the past years. I do not think feeding my family will be an issue. Believe me, Tamir, focus on protecting our country. It will require all your energy.”

Yaakov stood up, without waiting for permission, shook hands with Tamir and left the room for good.

Chapter 28

 

The first winter snow was blanketing the mountains around Teheran. Alireza Gilani, the head of the foreign service of the VAJA, the Ministry of Intelligence of Iran, liked to look at them to draw inspiration when he was facing a particularly challenging situation.

“This is a tough call,” he thought, as he read the reports received from Lebanon and the Gaza strip for the third time. He had to report to the Minister in a few hours and he had not yet figured out what type of threat his country was facing.

The first event occurred in August 2016, when at one of the tunnel building sites in Gaza, four workers suddenly died. Then something eerily similar happened again at two other sites in Gaza and then at three secret missile caches in Lebanon, all within less than two months from the first incident.

In total, the allies of Iran – Hamas in Gaza and Hizbullah in Lebanon – had lost nineteen members, plus three innocent people who were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Then, rumors started to spread that workers at those sites were exposed to dangerous substances that killed people, and this made recruitment much more difficult and expensive. There was a serious risk that could jeopardize the next campaign against Iran’s arch-enemy, the Zionist State of Israel.

Alireza was sure the Israelis were behind this. In at least two cases, Israeli drones had been spotted nearby, and for him this was evidence enough. He still needed to figure out all the rest to be able to respond to the attacks, though, and after four months from the first one he still had little insight.

According to Islamic law, all the victims had been immediately buried within the next day, and as unburying was viewed as a profanation, Alireza had ordered to bring the corpses of the victims of the next attack to Teheran for a post-mortem examination. However, this was met by the strong resistance of his allies, as Alireza was unable to guarantee that the bodies would be back in time to comply with the Muslim burial practice.

On the contrary, Alireza knew the corpses had to stay in Teheran for a fairly long period.

This was an unfair advantage their enemies had, as the Israelis and Americans would have unburied and dissected the corpse without blinking an eye.

The situation reminded him of ‘The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Tulp’, the painting from Rembrandt he had seen in The Hague while working in the Netherlands, at the beginning of his career. For Alireza, this painting conveyed all the most dangerous Western vices that he had vowed to protect his people from. Rembrandt had been able to portray the insane curiosity to explore the border between life and death, the excitement for the discoveries of the new science, and the quiet awareness that this knowledge could be transformed into power over the world and other human beings. All things that God had clearly forbidden. This was the radical difference between him and his Western enemies, not just the fight for power over Middle East, or the different moral habits that the Islamic Republic defended.

However, if he wanted to continue to lead his battle with a chance of success, Alireza had to turn himself into some kind of Dr. Tulp.

“My God,” he prayed, “it is very difficult to fight an enemy that is putting you in a dilemma, either to abide by my religion and lose, or win by denying what I want to be.”

Then he looked at the clock. There was no more time. He rehearsed his proposal for the Minister, then called his assistant and left the office to join the meeting.

When he came back, he was relieved. The Minister, a doctor of Islam as the Iranian constitution dictated, had approved his plan. He picked up the phone, and called his chief agent in Lebanon on the secure satellite line.

Three weeks later, Alireza was showing to the Minister the results of the autopsy. The victims had been killed by a new nerve toxin that had been injected into the bloodstream. The toxin was very similar to other poisons routinely used by the Mossad.

The physicians ruled out the possibility of inhalation, as there were no traces of toxin in the lungs. Then, the Hamas and Hizbullah officers excluded the presence of snipers, seeing that the sites were too far from the Israeli border and there was no evidence of any bullet wound on the bodies of the victims. As no further evidence was available, Alireza instructed his allies to seal off the site of the next attacks – he was sure there would be many more – and to not touch anything before the arrival of a crime scene investigation team from Teheran. He also suggested to deliberately leave some hints on the new missile and tunnel building sites, to make them an easier target for Israel.

At the end of his report, Alireza could see the Minister was quite satisfied with his work. Although many pieces were still missing, the method was the right one.

“Good job, Alireza. Let me ask you one thing; did you use the fatwa I gave you last time to persuade our friends to unbury and send us the bodies?,” the Minister asked.

“Yes, Sir, it was absolutely necessary. It was not sufficient, though, as people were very reluctant to unbury the bodies. We had to hire some Lebanese Christians to do it.”

“I see,” the Minister replied. “Now, Alireza, there is another thing I would like you to investigate. It is more a matter of control, but it might have some consequences, that we need to be prepared for. It’s about drugs.”

“Drugs, Sir?” Alireza could not hide his surprise. Sure, his team was involved in the heroin dealings in Afghanistan, but it was more a way to exert influence in the area than a business concern and he was certainly not smuggling it into the Islamic Republic. The Minister handed a police report over to him.

“It is a new type of synthetic drug that has appeared a few months ago among members of the upper class. It seems to have the same effects of cocaine but it is much more difficult to detect. We know it is being smuggled in the country, mostly through Turkey and the Arab Emirates. Given its effectiveness, it is being sold for a very high price in the market, and it looks like it is spreading among some influential members of the Pasdaran, the guardians of the revolution. We do not have a clear understanding. We have to find out who is behind this, and identify all the users in order to protect the Islamic Republic. I trust you can do this, Alireza.”

Alireza took the report, bowed slightly to the Minister, and walked out of his office.

Chapter 29

 

Valerio drove into Zurich the afternoon of April 21, 2017, roughly a month after the kidnap attempt. He took the morning flight to Stuttgart, Germany and then hired a car using a fake driving license that had been provided by Tarek. He had to brief Louis about the latest developments, and the only way to do it was in person, since they could no longer trust any other means of communication. They met at Louis’ house, which was under surveillance of a Swiss police patrol. They walked along Witikonerstrasse for a few minutes, then took a taxi to the city center, walked along the lake shore and boarded of the boats that were touring the lake. They sat at the bar inside the boat. It was impossible for someone to have followed them.

“How miserable is your life, Louis?” Valerio started, staring at his friend. It was clear he had not had a decent sleep in weeks.

“I am seriously starting to regret the discovery, Valerio,” sighed Louis. “The Swiss police are treating me more like a criminal than a victim. After two weeks of having my face on all the major newspapers, all of my neighbors recognize me and make sure to steer clear. I could eventually get over it, but Dora cannot bear the growing social isolation. She is feeling more and more depressed and this is affecting the pregnancy. In addition to that, three days ago there was an attack on the pill factory. The building was completely burned down. The firefighters said it was probably due to a short circuit. Bullshit. I designed every detail of that building, it was one of the safest in this country. It was destroyed, and Swiss authorities are siding with the attackers for some reason. I have no idea of who they might be. The Mossad? The CIA? Or our dear friend, Mr. Lee?”

Valerio let Louis rant on, to allow him to discharge his tension. The boat was just about in the middle of the lake, when Valerio interrupted him. For sure somebody on the other side of the lake was waiting to listen in on their conversation, so he had to convey the important part of the message.

“Listen, Louis, the situation is bad but we still have a chance. The Swiss are being manipulated by the Mossad, I checked with my connections in the German press and they confirmed the local media is being fed by companies that are typically used by the Israelis to spread their own ideas. There is worse news, though. Do you remember the case of the airliner that went missing over the Indian Ocean a few weeks ago? For a couple of weeks it hit all the headlines, now the story is brought up only on aviation media and it will soon be put on the backburner. Well, we know for sure that it was not coincidental and it is in fact linked to Telomerax…”

Louis snapped back to reality in an instance and interrupted Valerio.

“We know? How do we know?”

“Rasim Al-Manna, the head of the Arab Emirates counterintelligence service, was on that flight. Shortly after the tragedy, the government of the Emirates received evidence that it was a brutal warning, not to mess up with the Telomerax trade.”

Louis was getting impatient.

“Jesus Christ, how do you know this? You are just embellishing the story, aren’t you. Or does it come from Tarek?”

“The tragedy kind of took a turn in our favor. After the death of Rasim, Tarek was called by the rulers of Abu Dhabi. They informed him that Rasim had made some very dangerous deals with the Russians, and this was the retaliation. Then, they asked him to take Rasim’s place to sort it out…”

“So now Tarek is head of the Arab Emirates counterintelligence?,” Louis cut in with a faint smile, “This is a piece of good news, at least.”

“It is, because it gave Tarek access to information we did not have before. Unfortunately it is mostly bad news,” Valerio continued. “Rasim had been invited to Taiwan, as a trap set by George. Rasim had invited Tarek to join, but Tarek missed the plane. He was fishing and had gotten trapped in a mangrove. By the time he managed to clear his motorboat from the vegetation, it was too late to catch the flight.”

A long silence followed, then Louis asked the question that Valerio and Tarek had been asking themselves for weeks now.

“Was George aware that Rasim may have brought Tarek along? Did George actually ask Rasim to take Tarek to Taiwan with him or did Rasim have a plan of his own?”

“We do not know. Rasim left no evidence and neither Tarek nor I want to ask George. One thing is sure, he did not even try to contact any of us since the accident.”

Another long minute of silence followed. This time Valerio began again.

“Louis, we are under attack. And those who are after us do not mind killing hundreds of innocent people to hit their target. I do not want to take a position on George, at least not for now. I do not want to blame him, yet we can no longer trust him. We have to reorganize ourselves, and this is possible in only two places right now. One is to join Tarek in Abu Dhabi..”

“..and the other one is to go to Brazil with Helena,” Louis completed the sentence and continued, “I pick this one. Dora told me several times she would like to share the experience of raising the baby with the help of Helena, which by the way will be a boy.”

The thought of the baby seemed to revive Louis, so Valerio lingered on the subject.

“A boy! Congratulations, Louis! What are you going to name him?”

“He will be Dorian, the last name however is still to be decided…it depends on the next set of passports that Tarek sends us,” Louis responded with a grin and then continued. “There is also another issue, can we still trust commercial airlines? What if they discover our identity and decide to shoot us down on our way to Brazil?”

“Tarek analyzed the risks and came up with a plan,” Valerio said, as he placed a cardboard box about the size of a book in front of Louis. “Here you have three sets of passports and the airline itinerary. It is a bit complicated, but it should allow you to elude surveillance. It is all about timing. You have to leave Switzerland within six days from now.”

“Six days?,” Louis stared in disbelief. “My goodness, I have to dismantle the lab in my house and..”

“Tarek and Helena calculated that is the time you need to transfer your assets to the new accounts, set up by Helena in Panama,” Valerio cut in. “As for the lab, just make sure you destroy all the sensitive data in your computers. Unfortunately, all what Dora and you can bring along has to fit in two carry-ons.” Valerio paused, he saw that Louis’ face was lost in thought. He started talking to himself, his eyes fixed on the table.

“I hate escaping like a thief. Worse still, I am inflicting this on Dora. Despite all of our achievements, or actually because of them, she has to escape her world just like her father did, only with a son in her womb.”

The boat slowed down, and was moored at the pier. The movement brought Louis back to the decision he had to make. He looked back at Valerio, then quickly grabbed the box and put it into his pocket. Valerio was trying to find something to say to console him, when Louis abruptly asked him,

“Are you coming to Brazil, too?”

“No,” Valerio answered. “I am going to live in Dubai, for now.”

“I could have bet my house on that. Not that I need it anymore.” Louis commented. Before Valerio could reply, he hugged him, disembarked, and took the first taxi home.

Chapter 30

 

Tarek did not like the office that had belonged to Rasim, in the military city, but it was a part of the job he could not change. He had learned the real cause of Rasim’s death from Sheikh Hamdan, the Foreign Minister, just a few days after he had started his new job.

His mission, the Minister told Tarek, was now to undo the deal that Rasim had set up with the Russians, but without losing all the benefits that the Arab Emirates had obtained. In other words, the Sheikhs wanted to keep the weapons of mass destruction that Rasim had acquired. The Americans and the Chinese had made it clear that they wanted the Russians to stop the drug trade and the Emirates to destroy their chemical weapons. Tarek needed to have the Russians on his side, but for some reason they were pushing the Emiratis to give in. If Russia stood firmly with the Emiratis, it would be easier to strike a deal with China, since a long term oil supply would be involved. And then the US would be cornered.

Tarek needed something to get leverage on the Russians, but he could not find anything. He had had a number of talks with Arkady Dobrynin, the new Russian intelligence chief in the Arab Emirates, and he felt the Russians were hiding something from him. Tarek knew Rasim was giving them samples of the pill, which the Russians used to base their own version of Telomerax off of.

He was still reflecting on the course of action to take when he received a text message on his phone, requesting his presence at the Aquarium of the Dubai Mall. It was from Rasim Al-Ibrahim.

Very few people knew that Rasim used Ibrahim as a fake name, so the message must have come from somebody belonging to his inner circle. Could it be an ambush? Probably not, it made no sense to attack someone in the middle of the Dubai Mall. Tarek decided this was a good opportunity to spend the day out of the walls of the military base. He left the office and drove to Dubai, that sunny May morning.

Two hours later, he was admiring the coral reefs in the giant pond at the entrance of the aquarium, when he was approached by a young, red-haired woman who greeted him in Arabic.

“Marhaba, you must be Tarek. You match the description that Rasim gave me,” she said. “My name is Irina, and I am the predecessor of Arkady. I am currently working in Moscow, but I feel there is some unfinished work to do here so I took a short break and flew in yesterday. Has Rasim ever talked to you about me?”

“Not too much, he told me he was quite happy with the way you had managed the Telomerax deal. Unfortunately, I am afraid that the new boss that has replaced you is not as cooperative. May I suggest we go have a cup of green tea?,” offered Tarek, while moving towards the nearest coffee shop.

As Irina sipped her tea, Tarek recalled that Rasim had told him that Irina was a young woman in her thirties. But she looked considerably younger. He decided to continue the conversation from there.

“ Irina, I must admit that Rasim was right,”“ said Tarek as he passed the sugar. “One of the few things Rasim told me about you, is that you were by far the most attractive agent in the country. I hope that you do not get these looks with some, how can I put it…unconventional methods.”

“Let’s leave flattery aside, I called you to discuss some work issues,” replied Irina, wondering what else Rasim could have told Tarek. “And I do not quite get what you mean by unconventional methods.”

“I am talking about injections, pills, and other unnatural procedures. Sometimes they work but sometimes they lead to nasty side effects, if not properly manufactured.”

“If you are referring to the pills that Rasim gave us, then yes, I have used them,” Irina responded promptly. “Why? Is their quality poor?”

Tarek thought it was time to put all the cards on the table. He needed the help of the Russians to get his host country out of the corner where Rasim had forced it.

“Oh, you do not run any risk if you use the original version. Unfortunately, poor imitations have sprung up, just like what happens with Lacoste shirts or Ferrari glasses. And the one from Russia has proven, bad effects on people’s aggressiveness, as we have witnessed in a few episodes in the Far East and Africa. There will surely be more to come.”

“And how about the Chinese version? It is the same as the American one. Did you also have the opportunity to study it?,” Irina asked. She wanted to show Tarek she was knowledgeable, too.

Tarek paused for a while and then continued. Irina had managed to impress him.

“The Chinese version…yes, we know it is out there. We have not yet carried out a full analysis. But we suspect nasty side effects as well. One of the best experts I know of thinks it is massively increasing the spread of tumors, and you see, it is not going to stop. The pressure we are receiving from the Americans and the Chinese is overwhelming. They will not slow down the diffusion of the drug nor the multiplication of their variants any time soon. I think they are doing this to protect their own trade.”

“You are totally right, Tarek. My new colleague, Arkady, has not realized it yet. I can give you some information that could help block the American and Chinese pressure, bringing Russia to your side. Of course, I would need something in exchange.”

The eyes of Tarek flashed. Irina might well have been an angel sent by God to save him, he thought.

“Absolutely. What do you need from us?”

“Very simple. I want to know the name of the man who drew Rasim into the trap.”

Chapter 31

 

Charles Daniels was furious. Dinesh Kheradpir, his chief technology officer, had decided to resign the day before the May investor meeting, that Charles had been carefully planning for months. This was a crucial step to present the new products that were based off of Telomerax, and to prepare for a stock offer worth several billions of dollars. Luckily, George, who was one of the main investors in the new venture, had been able to replace Dinesh and they had agreed to keep his leave secret, justifying his absence with unexpected personal issues.

This would calm the financial analysts for some days, maybe weeks, yet Charles and George had to quickly figure out why Dinesh had left the company, and what his plans were next.

They anticipated the answer. Dinesh was going to start his own venture, and maybe he had already been working on it for a while. The rewards of Telomerax were too high not to ignite the ambition of brilliant people like Dinesh, especially now that the Russians were being knocked out of the market and Louis Picard, the inventor, was under heavy surveillance. Charles and George needed to know more, quickly, so they decided to call Skip for help.

A few weeks later, in June, Skip invited both of them to Washington, D.C.. He was now working to become the next CIA director, and he could not afford to leave the Capital for a single day.

Skip set the tone of the meeting on a sarcastic note.

“My dear, brave venture capitalists, heralds of entrepreneurial initiative and of the free market, it looks like the two of you persuaded your government into killing two hundred and forty-five innocent citizens, a few months back, for nothing.”

Skip paused for a while. George and Charles shifted uneasily and Skip continued.

“Your old colleague is back in India. He has set up a pharmaceutical laboratory close to Mumbai, which is guarded very well. It is a mix of private security and regular soldiers, which means he has good connections in the government upper ranks. We are trying to find out more about the involvement of the Indian government.”

“Um….any idea of what he is making there?” George chimed in, with the most sheepish tone he could manage.

“Ideas? You think we can be satisfied with ideas here? You are the ones that make money out of ideas, not us!” Skip snapped back. Then he regained control and continued, “this is what they are making there.” He opened a drawer under his desk, lowered his arm, and raised his arm, a small paper box firmly in his hands.

“The last time I handed a few pills over to you, Charles, it ended up with a plane crash in the middle of the Indian Ocean and no results in terms of our control over the diffusion of the drug. Apparently also the Indians are making their own strain, the Russians came to know and they are now refusing to give up their own variant. The outcome is, the drug is getting around completely out of our control. It is a complete fiasco, let’s face it. Lastly, I have to report this to the new President in two weeks. You can imagine she will not be very glad to know that the evolution of the drone attack strategy of his predecessor Obama, started with hundreds of victims,” Skip stopped just short of saying that this was jeopardizing his chances of becoming the next director of the CIA.

A short silence followed, as each of them thought of possible ways forward. George was the first to speak,

“Alright, we are in a situation where Telomerax, no matter what version, is accelerating its diffusion, mostly in an illegal way. In the last meeting I had with Mr. Lee, he showed me that we have more than three hundred and fifty thousand people addicted, all around the world. It sounds like a large number, but it is less than five percent of regular cocaine users. Each of them are paying an average of fifty thousand dollars a year for the treatment, which means more than fifty billion dollars net profit every year. We do not know how many users control the Russians and their allies, but we can assume several tens of thousands as well. Quite soon, the Indians will join the party as well so-..”

“So what, Sean?,” Skip cut in. “I know the CIA is getting almost three billion of unaccounted cash per year from this, but I cannot tell the President this was the real reason behind destroying the plane. It would be highly inappropriate.”

“What I think George is trying to say,” Charles responded, “is that we have to look at it from an economic standpoint. The illegal market is going to expand, with new players coming in, so we have to secure a bigger market share by increasing the production and by speeding up the launch and the adoption of a legal version of Telomerax. If we arrive first, we can dominate the legal market by fighting a patent infringment war with the Indians and the Russians. The cocaine users will switch to the legal variant, and Mr. Lee and his friends will not lose money, as organized crime will just increase the price of cocaine.”

“Exactly,” George continued, “This is the only way we can follow, to make sure that those people in the plane did not die in vain.”

Skip pondered the proposal. It seemed like it may work, yet there were still missing pieces.

“Let me recap. You said you want to manage this in a fully transparent and legal way, so I understand the CIA won’t be called in for the kind of services we did last time. But then how about Louis Picard, the inventor? He could come to court and claim he holds the rights.”

“Louis actually created a system to make sure everything would be kept secret,” added George, as he had already imagined all of the consequences.

“Yeah,” Charles joined in, “but he might change idea, when he sees that we are making money by the tens of billions…Skip is right, we have to take care of that. By the way, it looks like Louis has disappeared as well, a few weeks after his Swiss laboratory was destroyed by Skip’s team.”

“Gentlemen,” Skip interrupted, “Let me be very clear. I helped you to activate Zeus, because there was a clear danger to US interests, but this does not mean that the CIA is now at your service. If you do not know how to locate and deal with Louis, this is your problem, not mine.”

As he finished the sentence, Skip thought that his involvement in the first, failed activation of Zeus could cost him the promotion. He had to reduce his dependency on Mr. Lee and his friends.

Charles drew to the conclusion.

“Alright, we can all agree that we have to proceed with the launch of the anti-aging pill. Louis might become an issue, in that case we will try to manage it between us, without asking for Skip’s support. Unless we identify a clear threat to US interests, of course.” George nodded, and Skip was quick to understand the subtle blackmailing in Charles’ words.

“Correct,” commented Skip, “I think we are all set. Are you flying back to California tonight? Otherwise we could have dinner together – no business, just small talk.”

Charles responded first, “Thanks for the invitation, but I am losing my girlfriend if I am not back home in Long Island tonight. I have been on the road for the past three weeks.” George, on the other hand, had a Netjets private flight waiting for him at Reagan Airport. They both left.

Charles received the call from Skip about two hours later, just after he got home. Sally frowned.

“Good evening Skip, did we leave anything out of our talks today?”

“I believe we covered it all,” answered Skip, “however there is a new scenario I have to assess. What if George also decides to leave your company, just like Dinesh did? Would he be able to start his own?”

“He may be able to copy our Telomerax, but he would be exposed to the same infringment suits and without the protection of a foreign government, things would be much more difficult. So I think he realizes it would be better for him to stay near Louis and the original formula. This is my problem, you said it.”

“Indeed, Charles, indeed,” Skip rushed to confirm. “It is just to get an idea of future events. We have to be prepared to face anything. I trust you are not sharing this with anyone, not even Sally.”

Charles stopped, wondering when he had ever told Skip about Sally, but before he could put together a question, Skip had hung up the phone.

Chapter 32

 

Louis stared out of the window of the laboratory overlooking the terrace where Dora was feeding Dorian, their two-month-old son. Just a few seconds of admiring the scene was all he needed to continue his work. His eyes then shifted, beyond the terrace, to the cove of Copacabana beach and the rhythmic waves of the South Atlantic Ocean.

Dora and Louis had spent the first six months in Brazil changing home every three weeks, until Helena announced that their final destination was ready. To their surprise, they learned that their new home would be a renovated house in a ‘favela’, meaning the slums of Brazil. It was located on the slopes of Morro dos Cabritos, one of the mountains that surround Rio de Janeiro.

The favelas proved to be actually very organized communities, mainly controlled by the narcos, with full access to the infrastructure of the modern city. Built around the hills like Middle Age villages, they typically had a single entrance that led from the city streets to the maze of the favelas’ alleys. It was easy to transform the tiny towns into fortresses, making them inaccessible to hostile intruders.

Helena had restructured a set of houses, transforming them into a four-thousand-square-feet apartment spread over several buildings, which also included enough space for Louis’ new laboratory. The most important people of the favela had all been put on payroll, so now Louis could count on a small army of five-thousand people to ensure continuous surveillance and protection.

He liked the new location, it was so different from the quiet and reserved neighborhoods of Zurich. The terrace, on the other hand, reminded him of ‘Le Jardin’ in Passoy. Dora also enjoyed the new life, and kept saying that it was the ideal climate to raise their newborn child. She was engaged in the community, helping to run the local kindergarten at the entrance of their favela.

As for Louis, he was busy studying all the Telomerax strains that had been made. Counting the Indian imitation, there were now four versions around. His was still the best. He had managed to remove the carcinogenic effects that had caused the tumor in Helena, and Dora’s pregnancy had come to pass without any issues. He had also discovered that the version developed by the company of Charles and George could still increase the chances of developing tumors. He was completing the analysis on the Indian samples he had received from Tarek the previous month.

Along with the samples, Tarek had also given him heads up to be prepared for surprise visits. Louis was about to restart the molecular analysis software he was using to test the Indian pills, when Jorginho, the head of his security team, called his walkie-talkie.

Jorginho was at the entrance of the favela, where an extremely fit, middle-aged man had shown up with an interpreter, and asked to meet Louis. The man had invited the security team to check him thoroughly, and from his behavior, Jorginho immediately understood.

Olha, look, Louis,” said Jorginho, “there is some guy here who claims to be named Yaakov. He wants to apologize for being responsible for your move to Brazil and he says a man called Tarek wishes you and Dora all the best. This guy is some sort of professional agent, I can smell it. What shall we do? Kill him or send him away with a warning?”

Louis immediately wondered if Yaakov was aware of all the risks he was running.

“Jorginho, pelo amor de Deus, don’t jump to conclusions so fast. Just scan him with the metal detector, make sure he is clean, and take him alone to the bar of Lenilton Silva. I will join you there. For sure, I do not want him in my house. Please make sure you have three of your best people with you too, you guessed correctly, he is a cop of the worst kind.”

Half an hour later, Louis entered the small, windowless warehouse of the bar, where the air was suffocatingly hot. Louis invited Yaakov and Jorginho to sit down at a worn-out plastic table, while the security team stood at a distance, near the door.

“Welcome to Brazil, Mr. Yaakov,” started Louis, “I hope you have other reasons for your visit, beyond making sure I have been able to settle in here.”

Yaakov hesitated, as he quickly glanced at the bodyguards. Louis understood.

“You can speak freely, they do not understand English at all. Some of them cannot even speak proper Portuguese, as they grew up on the streets. What news from Tarek are you bringing?”

“In a nutshell,” Yaakov responded, “We need your help. By we, I mean the State of Israel. As you might know, I used to work in the Mossad, and we have been following you for years, therefore we know quite a lot about Telomerax. Last February, we tried to have a conversation with you but, I have to admit, it was not the right way to start a partnership.”

“Are you also responsible for setting my Swiss lab on fire?,” snapped back Louis.

“No, we are not. We believe it was a CIA job, judging by the type of explosives used. Plus, the Swiss did not even try to blame this on us. Anyway, let me get back on topic. We know that this Telomerax is spreading like wildfire. We know there are at least three other strains besides yours and we need somebody that can help us. None of the big guys will cooperate with us, so you are our last resort.”

“How do you know that there are three strains of Telomerax? And why should I help you? Your first approach was far from charming, you even said so yourself.”

“Louis, let me make it simple. Tarek told us about the Indian strain. Israel and the Arab Emirates are both small countries at the center of much bigger interests, so as soon as Tarek learned that I had left the Mossad, after the Zurich failure, he contacted me.

I am a freelancer now so what I say does not involve my former employer, although I do still have strong connections and influence there. Anyway, here is the deal: you provide us scientific advice on the drug – which we do not want to manufacture by the way – and we make sure the CIA does not interfere too much with your life here. All the other countries, including China and Russia, cannot compete with the narcos influence here in Latin America, so if you keep the ‘gringos’ at bay you are safe. We have quite some influence in Washington D.C., and we also have a good network here. We built it to hunt for Nazi criminals in the past.”

Louis thought that this deserved some challenge.

“Yaakov, you should know that if something bad happens to me or my family Telomerax goes public. Why should the CIA or anyone else try to hurt me?”

“Louis, don’t you realize that the situation has changed? Those that control the three new strains hope that you keep it secret, not to derail their business. And they will react if and when you decide to take it public. You have the knowledge, we have a shield to offer to you and your team. It is an unusual alliance, but it is bound by the most robust glue; mutual need. Just think about it, Tarek knows how to reach me.”

“Alright,” Louis conceded, “So if I keep it secret, they won’t bother me. Then why should I help you? You see that I am very safe here.”

“You might be very safe, but not your loved ones. Not forever,” replied Yaakov calmly. “Could you hand me my bag for a second? You know there is nothing dangerous inside.”

Louis nodded, and Jorginho carefully handed it back to Yaakov. The three bodyguards reached for their guns. Yaakov slowly took out a few pictures, they were all of Dora and Dorian playing on the beach.

“All of these were taken from a number of hotel rooftops here in Copacabana, from a distance that can be easily managed by a sniper rifle. The only way to be truly safe is to live in a cave.”

“Are you blackmailing me, Mr. Yaakov? Is this what will happen if I do not cooperate?”

“Louis, please, don’t get too emotional. The terms of the deal are clear. If you help us when we ask, we will make sure that you and your loved ones are safe. Not only in this favela, but wherever we have influence and control. Otherwise, you will have to take care of security on your own and you now see how tough that can be. I think it is a fair deal. All we ask for in exchange, is some updates and some consultation. Anyway, I understand you might want to discuss the proposal with Tarek and your team first. If you agree, just send me a text message within one week, simply stating it is ok.”

“There is no need to wait one week. Just do not give me tight deadlines. I still need my freedom for research. And I want to keep a small production lab here, for the benefit of the people in the favela. I think you and your associates can survive with a small, independent producer in the market, with no other ambition than quality and research.”

“Absolutely, Louis. We fully acknowledge the value of having you alive and on our side,” Yaakov grinned.

Chapter 33

 

Bassam Al-Biri clocked out his time, to end the work day in the tunnel, just as the sun was setting. It was a little past the iftar, the daily break of the Ramadan fast. Enduring the fast was becoming more manageable, in 2019, as the Holy Month was moving away from the summertime and instead taking place in May. Bassam brushed the dust off of his arms and looked forward to the meal that his wife had prepared. He could afford a good dinner, and had invited many relatives and friends, as his pay had risen several times during the last few years. Because of the continuing, mysterious deaths of workers, the tunnel builders had by far the best paid jobs in Gaza.

Bassam had managed to get a place at the construction site thanks to his cousin, Moussa, who was a Hamas activist. Bassam himself was not a strong believer in the cause of Hamas, but he had four kids to feed and to send to school, and he had also managed to negotiate a special insurance of fifty-thousand dollars in case of death. Every time the noise of the drilling machine or the dehydration got unbearable, he thought about how his kids would eventually benefit from his efforts, finish high school and maybe, one day, get a good job in the Arab Emirates. Unless Hamas, inshallah, had managed to destroy the Zionist State of Israel in the meantime. In that case all his family would come back to what they considered their land, Palestine.

His thoughts were on the fresh labneh yogurt that was waiting for him at home, when he felt a slight pinch on his right arm. His left hand reacted immediately and smashed the bug on his skin. He was about to look down to see what insect he had just killed, when a strong sense of nausea struck him. He lost his balance and fell to the ground, the nausea became a big black cloud that wiped out all his thoughts like a huge hammer. The last thing he saw were the shadows of his coworkers, rushing towards him from the tunnel entrance that he had just left.

The team stopped just short of Bassam’s body. They controlled the mixture of fear, anger, and grief they were feeling, and followed the instructions they had been given; not to touch the scene.

In minutes, an Iranian officer arrived with his assistants, and started taking pictures and collecting every kind of sample from the scene. At the end of the examination, in the middle of the night, Bassam was enclosed in a thermal-controlled body bag and smuggled into the Sinai Desert, from one of the many tunnels that were running below the border between Gaza and Egypt. Two days later, the corpse of Bassam was laying on a table in the research laboratories of the VAJA, the Ministry of Intelligence in Teheran, where the full dissection could eventually take place.

Four months later, Mehrdad Esfahani, the VAJA research head, sent out the Outlook invitation to brief all interested parties, as this time there was ground-breaking discovery.

Alireza Gilani accepted immediately, canceling all other important meetings, and then went back to the Financial Times article he was reading. It was about the imminent offer of the shares of Ambrosiax, a new US pharmaceutical company that was claiming to have invented a drug that could extend life by many decades.

Alireza was feeling a growing sense of anguish, as if he was under a siege of threats that were increasing by the day. He was sure that such a drug would be banned in his country, like the other synthetic drug that he had been fighting for the last several months, to no avail. At least he was now hoping to get some answers on this mysterious killer.

The triumphant tone used by Mehrdad Esfahani to start his presentation left no doubt; there was major progress done. Together with Alireza, there were the heads of the Gaza and Lebanese secret operations and the chief ayatollah of the Ministry, who was reporting directly to the Supreme Guide of the Revolution.

“For once,” said Mehrdad “we have to thank the Americans. Our officer in Gaza used to work in the Los Angeles Police Department, as a crime scene investigation expert, before deciding to return to Iran from the California exile of his family. It is thanks to his expertise that we have been eventually able to isolate the cause.”

“Why was his family exiled?” Alireza prompted. “Are we sure we can trust him?”

“His family left Iran back in 1979, because his father worked in the secret police of the Shah, and Iran was no longer a safe place for him. He was born in the United States, grew up amid the Iranian diaspora of the West Coast, and became a police officer. Despite being a US citizen, he felt he needed to come back home. He returned to Iran in 2010, at the aged of thirty, and offered his skills to the Islamic Republic. After several years of loyal service, we decided we could entrust him to the most intricate tasks, like overseeing our investigation in Gaza. It paid off big time.”

“What did he find out?,” urged the head of the Gaza operations, eager to know the results.

“We analyzed each and every thing that was on the body of the victim, from clothes to terrain samples. We actually dug out and collected everything that was around the body in a radius of five yards, took it here to our labs, and went through a full examination of it all. It was nearly five hundred pounds of dirt. That’s why it took some time, but we now know the answer. Our man – his name was Bassam – has been killed by a fly.”

“A fly?” commented Alireza, showing his disbelief.

“Obviously not an ordinary fly,” Mehrdad continued, “this one has a microchip attached to it, and it is full of the toxin used to kill the victims. It is the attack weapon, no doubt. We have been two times lucky, or better, God has blessed us two times. First, the victim killed the fly and it remained attached to his body. Second, the methodology we used this time made sure no evidence could be lost.”

“Beware of your statements,” the chief ayatollah interrupted Mehrdad to challenge his view, “one might say that it was Western science, and not God’s will, to help us out.”

“But it was God that changed the heart of our officer, putting his knowledge at our service to show His glory and help us defend our country,” Mehrdad promptly rebuked. He was used to the theological challenges from the ayatollah, and he never gave up an opportunity to stand up for his faith.

“Anyway, now we know exactly what type of new threat we are facing. From here, we have to find a way to fight back, but it won’t be easy.”

“No,” thought Alireza, “it won’t be easy. We will need help.” He congratulated the research team, and he promised he would suggest them for a special reward in his next meeting with the Minister, in a few days. He then concluded the meeting and went back to his office. He noticed that after the long, dry summer the mountains outside of his window looked more barren and desolate than usual.

Israel had come up with a new, disruptive weapon, potentially more dangerous than the nuclear weapons that Iran was trying to match.

Three days later, he got his strategy approved by the Minister in the security review meeting. As soon as he was back in his office, he called the head of the Arab Emirates mukhabarat – the secret service. Alireza had never met him in person, however all his agents had unanimously told him that the responsible for the counterintelligence, an agent named Tarek, was a reliable correspondent.

Chapter 34

 

On a sunny morning in January 2021, Valerio hopped into his brand new electric car and told the vehicle management system to take him to his office in the Dubai Internet City. He sat back as the car put itself in motion and moved out of the garage, then he connected to the office server via the free, ubiquitous high speed wireless network and started downloading the morning newswire feed.

The traffic was always so congested in Dubai that it took him almost an hour to drive from his posh villa in the Palm Jebel Ali Marina to the office, but starting a few days ago, this was no longer a problem- The self-controlled car took care of everything and he could focus on his work.

As he did every morning, he checked what he had called the “Animal House Report”. Valerio had programmed his newswire software to track and record every drug-related report, to see if and how the side effects of the Russian Telomerax version were spreading around the world. As Louis expected, these events were becoming more frequent, with an average of four per month, worldwide. Tracking tumors in pregnant women was more complex, since Valerio did not have access to any clinical data. He eventually managed to build a robot that scanned all available medical publications. If something abnormal started to happen in the cancer rates of women, the medical community would find out, but nothing had surfaced until now.

Valerio was contemplating his idea about the effects of the spreading of the different Telomerax versions, when a call from California came in. He picked the call up, to hear George greet him with one of the loudest hellos he had ever heard.

George had made international headlines, as he earned more than ten billion dollars in a day, with the initial stock sale of Ambrosiax, the company he had co-founded with Charles Daniels. George was now in the same league of titans as Bill Gates and Steve Jobs. As Valerio recalled the story, he realized that he had not been in contact with George for almost five years. What was he looking for? Was he calling to explain how it all happened? Valerio hid his surprise, and put together the most nonchalant answer he could manage.

“Glad to hear from you George, I was just wondering if your fame had made you forget about old friends, but that does not seem to be the case…”

George scorned his introduction and cut to the chase.

“Valerio, maybe you have spent too much time in London, allowing you to master the art of the British understatement, but I do not have much time for that. I need help, from you and the team, if you still care.”

“Well, you can count on me, and maybe Louis, but I cannot guarantee the support of Helena and Tarek, for reasons you know all too well,” Valerio replied immediately. “If he wants to talk raw,” he thought, “I better lay all the problems on the table right away.”

A few seconds of silence followed, then George continued,

“Look, Valerio, in Tarek’s case things are not what they seem. I cannot explain it now, but you have to trust me when I say that I was not the one behind the plot against Rasim. As for Helena, you know, these things happen. I even feel pain for not being able to see my daughter for almost four years. Anyway, can I count on you, at least?”

His tone was firm, yet Valerio sensed that George was scared. He was about to ask George why he did not call him before, when there was still time to explain, but then he remembered his conversation with Father Giacomo, almost ten years ago. Valerio had been allowed to share his problems with Giacomo without any questions asked beforehand.

“Alright, George, I am here. Tell me what’s going on.”

“It’s Telomerax, the one we market at Ambrosiax. Despite the modifications introduced by Dinesh, our former head scientist, the drug still has horrible carcinogenic side effects. And they are starting to appear now. We have had hundreds of cases popping up in the last two months. It is still not publicly known, however the early reports that the FDA, the Food and Drug Administration, shared with us leave little room for doubt. Within six months from now the research will be complete, and by the end of the year it will go public, creating maybe the biggest scandal in the history of American pharmacology.”

“Oh no, George,” Valerio grumbled, “You experienced firsthand the drawbacks othe first version of Telomerax had, and you know how much effort Louis put in to try to fix it. How could you just go and trust the first scientist that you meet in your venture?”

“Well, Louis is not the only brilliant biochemist on the planet, Dinesh is a great mind as well,” George snapped back, almost resentfully. “In our defense, we did test our version and it seemed that we had managed to remove the carcinogenic effect. Turns out that it had only been delayed. Yet this is past us, we need to look at the future. I need two things from you.”

“Ok, tell me,” Valerio sighed.

“First, I need your company to manage the public relations of Ambrosiax. A huge storm is coming, and I need somebody with the full knowledge of the story to talk to the public with the right pitch. There will be congressional hearings, hundreds of lawsuits, monumental financial losses, but the biggest risk for Ambrosiax and its team – including myself – is to lose its reputation and disappear into oblivion. The line we want to follow is very simple; Ambrosiax made a big mistake that hurt our customers and ourselves, no doubt, and we will pay for the damages, however it was a learning experience. So we will fix the issue and continue our journey. This means that we will have to dispel all the negative criticism that will be thrown at Ambrosiax management.”

“Tough request, but doable,” Valerio commented. “What is the second thing you need?”

“I need Louis to give me the true formula, or at least some surrogate product – a simple life extender, without nasty side effects. I am sure that you can persuade him.”

“George, I am afraid this is not possible,” Valerio replied firmly. “If Louis does it, Dora and his child would be at risk. That’s the deal that the Mossad made, with the agreement of the CIA, to guarantee his family’s security.”

Through the silence that fell, Valerio could sense George’s frustration, yet he was not giving up.

“Valerio, are you sure about the conditions of the deal? I have connections at the CIA. I know the guy that is most likely to become the new director, now that the Republican candidate has won the presidency.”

“No, I must admit I do not know precisely. All that Louis shared was he struck a deal with an Israeli guy, who claimed to have good connections to the CIA. The message was clear: stay out of the Telomerax trade and do not share anything with anyone and we won’t bother you. Fact is, this happened almost three years ago, and so far the deal has worked. I do not think Louis wants to try to renegotiate it.”

“Alright, Valerio. I need to sort a few things out with my contacts in Washington before I can come back to you and Louis. Nonetheless, I hope you can accept to work with my company on the public relations issue. If you agree, I am going to ask our vice president of public affairs to get in touch with you to work out the contract details.”

Valerio wondered what he had to do. He thought about Tarek; how would he react to this cooperation? Valerio wanted to help George, but could he afford to become a kind of traitor in the eyes of his Egyptian friend? He needed more time. After a long pause, he responded.

“George, do not take it as a no, I just need a bit of time to reflect on it. Can you call me back tomorrow, so we can have a more structured discussion?”

“Tomorrow, I will have a structured no, Valerio,” George replied bluntly. “It is not your fault, and you have plenty of reasons to decline, just do not fool me around.”

Valerio tried to reply, but George hung up. He then tried to recall the number, but all that Valerio got was the automated voice of the department of public affairs of Ambrosiax that invited him to leave a message after the tone. As he took his eyes away from the multifunction display screen, he realized that his car had just finished parking in its reserved space in the garage of the new, half-mile high Dubai Internet Tower.

Chapter 35

 

Dora and Louis were sitting at a table in the Pousada d’Areia hotel, next to the beach of Arraial do Cabo, sixty miles away from Rio de Janeiro. It was late May 2022, the overbearing heat of the southern tropical summer had given way to a warm fall. They had decided to take a long weekend off with Helena and Guillermo, who had been married for one year.

Just outside of the pousada, Aurora and Dorian were playing in the white sand of the beach, and jumping in and out of the crystal clear water. Around them, Jorginho and his team were doing a discreet but careful surveillance of the area, with guns hidden in their diving suits. Two motorboats, moored a few hundred yards away from the shore, were also part of the surveillance squad.

They were just ending their lavish seafood lunch, when Helena’s phone blinked. It was a call from Valerio. Helena answered and greeted Valerio warmly, then suddenly fell silent. Dora and the others could hear that the tone of Valerio’s voice was serious, but could not catch any words. After a few seconds Helena turned pale, and then she tapped her glasses to signal the other three to put on theirs also.

Helena switched the call into videoconference mode, and the face of Valerio appeared on the glasses of everybody.

“Ok, Valerio, now you can see and hear all of us. Please, repeat the news. I think it is better that we all know at once.”

Valerio took a deep breath and repeated again.

“Hi everyone, George has just died. He was found dead yesterday evening, Pacific time – which means a few hours ago – on the Sunnyvale, California golf course he used to frequent. I got the newswire feed one hour ago, just after the coroner confirmed the death. It is now breaking news.”

Guillermo immediately asked the question that everybody was thinking.

“Is there any idea of the cause of the death? I mean, was it natural?”

“At this stage, no one really knows. I just called the editor of the San Francisco Chronicle, who happens to know the coroner. There were no signs of any wound on the body so it is either a natural death, like a stroke or heart attack, or a very sophisticated murder. We need to wait for the results of the autopsy.”

“Forget the autopsy!” Helena shouted, “He has obviously been killed! We all know how you can manipulate post-mortem examinations. George was one of the first to benefit from this, a long time ago. We just have to find out who killed him, and get our revenge.”

She did not add anything else. George was still the father of Aurora, and Helena could not tolerate this.

Louis tried to calm her, with practicality.

“Helena, please, this is a possibility, but don’t get overwhelmed. After the Ambrosiax scandal broke out three months ago, there are tens of thousands of people that have very good reasons to blame George and his company – starting from the nearly seven thousand women that developed cancer during pregnancy after taking Ambrosiax. Almost all of them have died, leaving grief and anger among their husbands, children and relatives. Then, consider the hundreds of thousands of women that have taken it, and now have to face the decision between getting pregnant and getting a tumor, like you and Dora did a few years back. These women did not know they were taking a risk. They paid tens of thousands of dollars to get the life-extending drug, assuming it was safe. Last, do not forget about the hundreds of thousands of disgruntled shareholders that put tens of billions of their dollars into Ambrosiax and in a few weeks saw their holdings and savings disappear by this scandal. The list of people who might have wished to see George dead is simply too long. Even if he has been killed, we will never find out.”

Helena stood up, her eyes scanning the people sitting at the table,

“I did not say it will be easy. I just cannot let it go unpunished. I have all the time I need to prepare my revenge; sooner or later I will find out.”

She left the table and hurried to the beach, calling Aurora to get in the car to go home. Aurora tried to protest, but quickly gave in. It was one of the times when arguing with mom was hopeless.

Dora and Louis remained alone at the table. They simultaneously looked out of the window to see Dorian, who was giving a hard time to a crab that was desperately trying to get back into the water. A few yards away, Jorginho was observing the scene with a smile of amusement.

Dora and Louis continued the meeting with Valerio.

“Have you already got in touch with Tarek? What’s his view?”, Louis asked.

Valerio nodded, his face got all the more somber,

“He called me shortly after the news broke. I think he knows something. He predicted no wounds would be found on the body, before I talked to my colleague at the Chronicle. Either Tarek knows personally the coroner in California, which I do not believe, or he has some information that might be relevant to us. I asked him to elaborate further, but he refused. He just told me that as soon as he gets some evidence he is expecting from his informants, he may contact you, Louis.”

Dora jumped in,

“What was Tarek’s reaction? Is he thinking about revenge, like Helena?”

“No, not at all,” Valerio replied, “I do not want to say that he was happy to hear about George’s death, but he was quite apathetic. He kind of expected this to happen, because he has always thought George had disordered desire for success, even with the many talents and gifts he possessed. He told me he is going to get in touch with the two of you soon. He thinks you are trusting the Mossad way too much.”

“Ok, Valerio,” Louis interrupted, “We will be waiting for his call. Telomerax has gone public, and the results are tens of thousands of innocent victims, among which George. I wish I could take a break from all of this, just for one day, but apparently it is not possible. Please get back to me as soon as you have some news. We must drive back to Rio now.”

Louis ended the video call, then all the team boarded the jeeps and the small convoy headed back to Rio. Dorian made it clear that he was not pleased with having his afternoon at the seaside cut short, and he did not stop crying until Jorginho captured “his” crab in an empty plastic bottle for him to bring home. It was not until they had almost reached their destination, on the bridge that connects Rio to Niteroi over the Guanabara Bay, that Dora recalled the actual purpose of the whole trip.

She first glanced back at Dorian, was sleeping with the bottle firmly grasped in his hands.

“Louis,” she said, “You told me that you wanted to invite Helena and Guillermo out to share big news. I am guessing Valerio’s news spoiled it…”

“Yes, indeed. It was about Aurora, and Dorian as well…how they are growing up. I cannot determine if the news is good or bad.”

Dora moved closer to Louis, turning an eye towards the backseat to make sure Dorian was still asleep. She then whispered,

“What do you mean? Are they going to develop some strange feature? You did not say it is bad, so it must not be a sickness..”

“Dora,” Louis replied further lowering his voice, “It is not a sickness. It is the way they are. Their DNA replicates perfectly for some reason, I still have to find out, but it’s like they have Telomerax embedded in their genes.”

“Louis, this means that…”

“Yes, Dora. They are the first members of a new species of humans. They are the first naturally born immortals.”

 

Part Three

 

Prohibition and War

 

Chapter 1

 

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.

Chapter 2

 

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.

Chapter 3.

 

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.”

Chapter 4

 

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.”

Chapter 5

 

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.

Chapter 6

 

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.

Chapter 7

 

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.

Chapter 8

 

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.”

Chapter 9

 

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.”

Chapter 10

 

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.

Chapter 11

 

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.”

Chapter 12

 

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.”

“Aye, Sir.”

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.”

Chapter 13

 

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.”

Chapter 14

 

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.”

Chapter 15

 

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.

Chapter 16

 

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.

Chapter 17

 

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.”

Chapter 18

 

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.”

Chapter 19

 

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.

“Yes, Sir?”

“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.”

Chapter 20

 

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.

“Clear, Sir.”

“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.”

Chapter 21

 

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.”

Chapter 22

 

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.

Chapter 23

 

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.”

Chapter 24

 

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.”

Chapter 25

 

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.”

Chapter 26

 

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.

Chapter 27

 

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?”

Dinesh answered,

“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.”

Chapter 28

 

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….”

Skip laughed,

“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.”

Chapter 29

 

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.”

Chapter 30

 

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.”

Chapter 31

 

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.”

Chapter 32

 

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 give 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.


The Last Enemy - Parts 1,2 & 3 - 1934-2054

“The last enemy to be destroyed shall be death”, 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, “The Last Enemy”, 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.

  • ISBN: 9781370359110
  • Author: Luca Luchesini
  • Published: 2016-12-31 15:50:35
  • Words: 119546
The Last Enemy - Parts 1,2 & 3 - 1934-2054 The Last Enemy - Parts 1,2 & 3 - 1934-2054