Authors: Bruce Buff
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To the people who give meaning to my life: my wife, Claire, and our children, Maggie, Julia, Susanna, Timothy, and Patrick
n the murky early years of post-Soviet Russia, a dark veil hung where once there had been an iron curtain. Within its folds lurked danger and despair, threatening anyone who became entangled with the remnants of the Soviet Union.
Through bursts of showers on a chilly, black night, Dan had driven Russian scientist Pavel Sarasov, his wife, Katya, and their six-year-old son, Mikhail, from Moscow over three hundred fifty miles of bumpy highways and rougher roads.
Five hundred feet ahead was the Ukrainian border. Hastily constructed a few years earlier, a simple building on each side of the road housed border guards, Russians on one side, Ukrainians on the other. Two lanes in each direction, with a concrete median in between, separated the structures. A tollgate blocked vehicles from passing until authorized. Moisture from the recent rain cloaked the buildings, dripping from the edges of the roof. Puddles dotted the pavement. Mist rose languidly from the ground, forming an opaque barrier through which Dan strained to see what awaited them.
Reaching the gate, Dan stopped as a car that had been cleared on the other side passed them. No other vehicles were in sight.
Dan lowered the car window and handed passports and other travel papers through the open window to the guard inside. The guard flipped through the items several times, barely looking at them. Although Dan was only on his first real assignment after field training, he knew something was amiss. The paperwork with their false
identities was flawless. Had anyone doubted their authenticity, they would have examined the papers closely. Instead, the guard seemed disinterested in them and was merely stalling for time.
Apprehensive but outwardly calm, Dan glanced in the rearview mirror, and then looked ahead.
Finally, speaking in Russian, the border guard said, “Please come inside.”
Replying in fluent Russian, Dan said, “Park there?” pointing to spaces beyond the gate, thinking that if they could just get to the other side, whatever came next, most of the danger would have passed.
“Leave the car and come now,” the border guard commanded in a menacing voice.
Heeding the warning, Dan and the Sarasovs got out of the car. They ignored gestures from the guard for them to enter the building on the Russian side and moved toward a door on the Ukrainian side, looking over their shoulders as they walked.
It was clear that getting Pavel and his family out of Russia was going to be more difficult than it had first seemed. Pavel Sarasov was a hot commodity, and Russia was not about to let him go. The scientist was reportedly working on a program to enhance human capabilities, perhaps even radically evolve the human species. There was nothing new with that aspiration. What was different, and what the US wanted to get its hands on, was technology that could lead to the rapid sequencing
manipulation of the whole human genome. Nothing like it existedâor was even close to existingâanywhere else. Word in the US intelligence community was that Pavel had achieved several major advances but was hindered from further progress by the limits of Russian technology. With access to superior technologies and funding, Pavel might be able to complete his workâfor US interests. The human species was on the cusp of a new future.
Acting confidently, Dan continued to guide the Sarasovs ahead, Pavel on his right, the others on his left. Pavel was mid-fifties, with graying black hair. His slim face was expressionless and tight. Behind him, Katya clasped Mikhail's small hand in hers while she brushed a shock of wavy black hair out of his eyes. She was about forty but
looked older, a reflection of a childhood spent in Siberia. Mikhail, too young to understand what was going on but old enough to sense it was something big, remained quiet as his wide, brown eyes gazed up at his mother.
Before they had gone far, a man yelled out from behind them, “Halt, Dr. Sarasov, or your family will be shot, one by one!”
Turning round, they faced a man standing fifty feet away. A little over six feet, he had a stout build and rigid posture. A thick, jagged scar crossed his left eyebrow. A holstered gun was visible under his open black-leather jacket. In a loud, authoritative voice filled with arrogance, he said, “Dr. Sarasov. You are committing a grave crime by attempting to leave the country. Come back now and,
this one time,
we will overlook your transgression.”
A red laser dot, meant to be seen, from the rifle of a hidden sniper appeared on Katya's right shoulder.
,” the Russian ordered.
In a strong voice, Pavel said, “I no will longer work for people who intend to use my research as a weapon against others.”
After nodding at each other, Pavel and Katya began to turn toward the Ukrainian side.
The sound of a gunshot ripped the air. Katya crumbled to the ground, holding her shoulder, but not letting out even a whimper. Ashen-faced, Pavel quickly knelt beside her and opened her coat to look at the wound. Dan bent down next to both of them. Frightened, Mikhail grabbed his mother's hand.
“She will live if she gets immediate treatment in a
hospital. The choice is yours,” the Russian said to Pavel.
Whispering to Dan, Katya said, “We cannot,
“The consequences are on your shoulders,” the Russian yelled.
A red dot appeared on Mikhail's forehead.
Immediately, Dan picked up the small, trembling boy and, using his own body to shield Mikhail, took a few steps toward the Ukrainian side of the border. A sharp pain ripped through the meaty part of Dan's left arm, followed by the shot's report.
“The next bullet will shatter your skull, Mr. Lawson,” the Russian said in English as he began to walk toward them.
Through his pain, Dan was startled that the Russian knew who he was.
Out of the denser mist on the Ukrainian side, two vehicles materialized. Special Agent Evans, head of Dan's CIA division and also his mentor, jumped out of one car with a Ukrainian government security agent, while two other Ukrainian agents emerged from the second.
Signaling for the agents to remain behind, Evans walked over to Pavel.
Across the narrow divide, Evans and the Russian stared at each other with malice.
It was now a standoff, though Dan doubted the Ukrainian security agents would act against the Russian. But the possibility was apparently enough to deter the Russian, and his sniper, from further action.
Taking advantage of the situation, Dan carried Mikhail to the building, left him inside, and then returned to Sarasov and Evans. Blood ran down Dan's left arm. Evans glanced at it, then looked at the Russian before bending down to help Katya up with Pavel's assistance.
Again in English, the Russian said, “Your appearance doesn't change anything, Agent Evans. Pavel Sarasov will not be allowed to leave.”
A red dot was now on Evans's chest, over his heart. It would be an act of extreme aggression to kill an American official on ÂUkrainian soil with a shot fired in Russia. Maybe it was a bluff, maybe the ÂRussian was deadly serious. Somehow, despite the international conÂsequences that would follow, Dan believed this Russian would, without any hesitation, do whatever he wanted.
Ignoring the threat, Evans turned and helped Katya walk toward his car.
After three steps, two shots in quick succession split the air. Katya's and Pavel's bodies slammed to the pavement.
Evans turned, drew his gun, and aimed it at the Russian, ready to pull the trigger regardless of the cost. The red dot was now on Evans's forehead. Seeing it, Dan threw himself against Evans and knocked him out of the way behind the corner of the building just before another shot rang out. When Dan peered out, the Russian was gone.
Getting to his feet, Evans rushed over to Katya and Pavel, with Dan right next to him. Katya was dead; soon Pavel would be, too.
Looking at Katya forlornly, in a thin voice, punctuated by shallow gasps, Pavel said, “I thought I had found the key to unlock the secrets of creation.”
Leaning close to Pavel, Evans asked, “What key? Hang in there!”
“The Torah says that God banished humanity from Eden to keep people from the Tree of Life,” Pavel continued, gasping for breath to form each word.
Turning his palms and eyes upward, as his chest heaved, Pavel said, “Maybe there is a God. Maybe He meant what He said.”
And then Pavel exhaled for the last time.
an awoke as though he had been slapped. Perspiration coated his skin. Visions of the soulless Russian at the Ukrainian border dissipated as he stared at the ceiling. All he could remember of the Russian's face was the thick scar across his left eyebrow.
The vivid memories had reemerged in his dream after all this time. Dan wondered what had triggered their recall. Pavel's and Katya's deaths had haunted him for years, but gradually, and through great effort, the memories had faded into the deep recesses of his mind. It had been a long time since he had thought about them.
Miles away, yet right next to him, Laura slept soundly. Unless things changed,
changed, she would leave. A chasm had grown between them, not because she didn't love him, but because what they once had was no longer enough, and he couldn't offer even that anymore. For reasons unknown to himself, he was becoming a shell of a person. He knew his deficiencies were their problem but there was nothing he could do about it. And he had been honest from the beginning. He didn't think himself capable of, and didn't want, a long-term commitment. In the end, nothing lasts and there was no reason to pretend otherwise. Still, he felt for her and was aware of the hole that would be left in his life once she was gone.
Unsettled, he got up, walked to the living room window, and peered out into the cold December night. Across Storrow Drive,
where few cars traversed at this hour, Dan looked at the placid Charles River, with Boston to his right and Cambridge to the left.
Although the repercussions for Dan had been nowhere near as severe as for the Sarasovs, he, too, had suffered consequences. After an extensive investigation, it had been decided that Dan's unauthorized participation in a Moscow food bank while he waited to make arrangements to get the Sarasovs out, although motivated by noble intentions, had made him too visible and contributed to the failure of the mission. There was also the matter of getting too close to a woman who, they later found out, had government ties. After the Sarasovs, there were other incidents, all minor, all involving Dan taking too much risk and caring too little about his own safety in pursuit of ideals beyond his assigned mission. Even though the later assignments were all successful, and he was regarded as a talented agent, he was also considered a liability.
Throughout it all, Evans had kept a close eye on Dan, guiding him wherever he could, perhaps in gratitude for saving his life, or perhaps to make up for sending Dan out on a first mission without more support. Although Evans wasn't quite old enough to be Dan's father, at least according to present family practices, they had a bond that had evolved from stern direction to cautious oversight to mutual respect. Not that Dan didn't create challenging moments for Evans along the way.
Eventually, when Dan was on the verge of being fired for taking one too many risks, Evans had intervened and arranged Dan's transfer to a cyber-intelligence division, where he subsequently excelled. A decade later, with the expertise he had developed, Dan left to start an Internet security company, where he also prospered. A few years after that, the company was bought out, giving him the freedom to do mostly what he wanted.
Despite all his financial success, he was not a happy man. At one time, he had thought that a world based solely on science would transform humanity for the better. That belief was the last of his faiths to die.
Turning his gaze toward Cambridge, he realized why he had thought of Pavel and his family. Earlier in the day he had read an
article about ENCODE, a project to identify all the functional components of DNA. Though the author of the article didn't mean to imply anything supernatural, he had used the phrase
Book of Life
to describe DNA, almost the same way Pavel once implied.
Thinking of the article now also reminded Dan of his near-lifelong friend Stephen Bishop. It had been a long time since they had spoken and longer still since it had been a good friendship.
Settling his weary body onto the couch, Dan turned on his laptop and typed “Stephen Bishop, geneticist.” A string of results, mostly headlines from various articles, appeared: “World's Preeminent Geneticist”; “How Long until a Nobel Prize?”; “Rock Star Scientist Leaves Academia to Lead the Human Betterment Corporation”; “It's Just a Matter of Time until Science Learns the Secrets of DNA”; “On the Threshold of Genetic Breakthroughs”; “Ethical Use of Genetic Information”; “Reading the Language of Evolution”; “Gene-Editing the Human Species”; and “Are We Now God?”
Thinking of Pavel and his warnings, for a brief moment Dan considered putting aside his anger and reaching out to Stephen, but decided against it. Stephen had ignored his overtures for some time, and Dan wasn't going to give him the chance to do it again.
If there was one thing Stephen had made clear, it was that he could take care of himself.
Without directing any ill will his way, Dan thought people like Stephen always believed they could handle anything, always believed their success was due solely to themselves, always believed they deserved every good thing that came their way, until too late they realized all of that was wrong.