Thursday, December 01, 2011

SAECULUM (A Novel: Part 12) – CONCUBIUM IV & V.

SOL OCCAXUS (Sunset) Monday, 19 September, 2011

CREPUSCULUM (Evening Twilight)
I. Friday, 23 September, 2011
II. Thursday, 29 September, 2011
III. Thursday, 29 September, 2011
IV. Sunday, 16 October, 2011

VESPER (Evening Dusk)
I. Sunday, 23 October, 2011
II. Sunday, 30 October, 2011
III. Wednesday, 9 November, 2011
IV. Monday, 14 November, 2011
V. Monday, 14 November, 2011

CONCUBIUM (First Sleep – Coitus – Rest)
I. Thursday, 17 November 2011
II. Sunday, 20 November, 2011
III. Friday, 25 November, 2011
IV. Thursday, 1 December, 2011
V. Thursday, 1 December, 2011



MATUTINUM (Dawn Goddess)

DILUCULUM (Dawn Twilight)

SOLI ORTUS (Sunrise)




The dial tone indicated a free line and as Michael Mara waited for his call to be answered there was a gentle knock on the bedroom door. He held the phone to his ear as he disengaged the lock and opened the door to the hotel night porter who was carrying a tray. “Your sandwich and tea Señor.”
“Thank you. Please put it down –”
“Hello,” a voice interrupted. “US Army Advanced Biological Research Center, Manassas. General Arnold’s office.” The voice was polite with a soft southern accent.
“One moment please,” Michael said as he indicated where he wanted the tray put down, waited for this to happen and then handed the porter a tip as he shut the door behind him.
“Hello! General Arnold’s office.” The voice was less polite at the delay.
“I’m sorry,” Michael explained. “I was just closing a door to get some privacy. General Arnold, please.” He resisted the urge to immediately bite into the sandwich.
“Who is that calling?”
“Doctor Michael Mara.”
“Oh yes, Doctor Mara. General Arnold is in a conference raaght now but instructed me to disturb him if you called. Please hold.” The line sound switched to a recording of the Bourrée from Handel’s Firework music and it was only when it had just begun a third repeat that the southern voice broke in again, “Sorry for the delay, Doctor Mara. Ah am putting you through to the General, raaght now.”
The connection was seamless. “Bob Arnold here. Is that you, Michael?”
“Yes, Bob.”
“I’m sorry about the delay but had to transfer your call to a secure line in my office. I’ve been trying to track you down since yesterday.”
“I know. Caroline told me.”
“Then, why didn’t you contact me?” Arnold demanded in his military way.
“Many reasons, but most of them are none of your business,” Michael replied in a good-humoured voice. “I’m on holiday as of yesterday and I wanted to enjoy the first day at least. It always spells trouble when you start looking for me, Bob.”
“Where are you, Michael?”
“Spain.” Michael was not prepared to be more specific than that.
“That’s good. We can speak safely.”
Arnold sounded very serious. “What do you mean, Bob?”
“Oh it is just that our Sat Intel and intercept monitoring is at ‘A status’ in Spain. Any attempt or suspicion of interference will automatically lock-out your call.”
The military loved their games, Michael thought as he smiled to himself. “Is all this cloak and dagger necessary, Bob?” he asked.
“Yes, Michael, it is. There is a ‘Priority 1’ level only, clearance on this conversation. It will be taped.”
“Say what?”
“The Director of the CIA, Marshall, the Secretary of State, Freeborn, and Burns of the Advanced Research Projects Agency will be made aware of all that is said between us, but it is off limits to everyone else. Is that understood, Michael?”
Michael looked at his sandwich regretting he had not eaten before making the call. He poured some tea. “Sure. It must be important. Go on, Bob.”
“The parallel piggyback vector-study trial results have started coming in from Beltsville and our Israeli friends in Bet Dagon, a bit earlier than expected. They . . .” Arnold paused, as if hesitating about giving some bad news.
“And?” Michael asked, wary. The results had not been due for another month. There was another prolonged silence. Oh Jesus, he thought, just get it over with Bob.
“They have exceeded all expectations,” Arnold said in a deadpan monotone.
Bastard! You had me worried there,” Michael laughed, thinly.
“Couldn’t resist it, Mikey boy. Great news . . . yeah?”
“Give me some specifics, Bob.”
“As you predicted in the gene sequence design, enzyme activity has been reduced to about one percentage of normal. Almost undetectable! The Anx-P works a dream.”
“That’s encouraging, Bob.” Michael tried to suppress his excitement.
“Encouraging! It’s more than fucking encouraging. We have the bastards licked, boy.”

Michael Mara had worked, before starting up Hoxygene, on a project to isolate and identify the gene sequence for the enzyme that controlled the cocaine production in the leaves of Erythroxylum coca. Funding for the experiments had been provided by a Federal grant from the Advanced Research Projects Agency. The patent for the isolated sequence had been secretly filed and approved in 1994, but field trials of a follow-up technique, using the sequence information to design an inhibiting probe to suppress the action of the enzyme, had only begun in 1998. They had called the blocker sequence that they had developed ‘an anti-expression probe’ or ‘Anx-P’.

“Not really, Bob. We still have the problem of being able to deliver the Anx-P to the plant with predictive effect and accuracy,” Michael said with scientific caution.
“It’s no longer an issue, Michael. You’re not listening to me.”
“What do you mean?”
“Don’t you understand? Your solution has worked a dream. Nobel prize stuff!”

Michael thought back over the road they had travelled together. He reminded himself that although Bob Arnold was also a scientist he was firstly an army general and, at times, was given to significant hyperbole to justify his huge expenditure and that although his sequencing solution had been elegant it was hardly the stuff of a Nobel prize. In order to be able to deliver a new gene sequence carrying a blocking instruction to the cocaine producing plants it would either, have to be done at the time of the plant’s fertilization in a lab, or alternatively by using the vector of a natural plant virus to carry the sequence along with it, when it infected the plant. He had concentrated on the second solution. The US Department of Agriculture had isolated a leaf-mosaic virus that affected the Erythroxylum coca plant, in 1989. The initial hopes for the virus by the Department were dampened however by early studies which showed that it had a very low virulence and penetration and thus in the wild caused little damage to the cocaine producing leaves. By this time Michael had established Hoxygene and the US Department of Agriculture had approached him to see if there was some way of enhancing the virus activity. With the help of an Israeli colleague, Moshe Hertzog, Michael had found a way of splicing into the leaf mosaic virus, with the help of a short unique insertion code, a gene sequence from another plant species pathogen, the Tobamovirus. The gene sequence from the Tobamovirus had a very specific function. It directed the production of, what plant virologists called a ‘movement-protein’. These movement-proteins allow viruses like Tobamovirus to accelerate their own rapid transfer between cells and thus increase their infectivity. They had utilized the large volume STMV or satellite Tobamovirus crystals grown in the Space Shuttle experiments in 1992. By incorporating the Tobamovirus gene sequence into the cocoa leaf-mosaic virus, it then gained an ability to direct a movement protein and Michael’s approach meant they had been able to increase the penetration of the mosaic virus by about 300 per cent. Michael also remembered that the necessary luck, that sometimes accompanies hard scientific work and which occasionally allowed unexpected discoveries, had been with them. They had found that the addition of the Tobamovirus movement-protein sequence into the middle of the leaf-mosaic virus structure had also altered one of its terminal sequences. This unexpected alteration provided them with the opportunity to then chemically attach, or piggyback, the Anx-P onto the altered sequence. The new ‘modified’ cocoa leaf-mosaic virus had therefore, a movement-protein, borrowed from the Tobamovirus, to increase its penetration and the attached Anx-P blocking-enzyme sequence, which would then activate to inhibit cocaine enzyme activity without any obvious reduction in the enhanced infectivity of the new virus.

Michael realised fully the great importance of the information Bob Arnold was sharing. The Anx-P sequence had been one of the first patents granted to Hoxygene and to a large extent the future of the company depended on its successful application. “Go on, Bob,” he encouraged as calmly as he could.
“If anything, infectivity is further enhanced.” The general required very little encouragement. “All plants analysed, so far, show a 100 per cent penetration and expression of the virus. In addition both E.coca and E.novogranatense are equally affected.”
“That’s the beauty of it, Mikey. The plant structure is not altered. The leaf-mosaic virus appears to modify its previous characteristics to concentrate fully on the role of piggyback delivery. In addition, in the second and third generation studies that have just come through, the altered plants, although no longer producing cocaine, appear to have a preferential growth over native uninfected stock. We could not have hoped for a better result. We have codenamed it MSV – Mara’s Stealth Virus.”
“That’s excellent new – ssslurrp”
“What did you say, Mikey?”
“Sorry, Bob, I was just taking a bite of a sandwich. It just arrived as I phoned you and I’m ravenous.” Michael wiped the dripping mayonnaise from his mouth and waited for the bolus of food to swallow. “I said that is excellent news Bob. We should however wait for at least ten generations to analyze any down sides.”
“That’s the first problem, Michael. We may not be able to wait that long.”
“What do you mean, Bob? We agreed on this in the protocols.”
“I know, but the President, with the advice of the State Department and their scientific advisors, has authorized full scale MSV production with the intention of beginning high altitude airborne dispersion in the Putamyo-Caqueta region of southern Columbia next January. Peru and Bolivia will follow soon after.”
Michael went on immediate alert. “But that is preposterous, Bob! It is far too soon. We must fully evaluate any other human and environmental impacts. Remember the problems you are encountering and have encountered with both the glycophosphate herbicides and the EN-4 fungus. Without full evaluation you will also contravene the 1975 Convention on Biological Weapons. Neither I, nor Hoxygene will be associated with that plan. Please set up a meeting with the President and his advisors for me. I will be back on Sunday.”
“It’s too late, buddy. The President signed an executive order yesterday.”
“I’ll withhold the virus patent,” Michael said angrily.
“It’s too late for that as well, Michael.”
“What do you mean, Bob?”
“In the interests of National Security a second executive order rescinded your patent and transferred it to the Army.”
“I do not believe you. That’s illegal.”
“Michael as you well know the United States is one of the most powerful dictatorships in existence. A Presidential executive order in the interests of National Security supersedes many legal rights. By way of compensation you are to be paid 11,000,000 dollars, raised by the CIA venture capital firm, In-Q-Tel.”
“That’s bloody piracy, Bob! It’s worth twenty times that to the company, but at this juncture the money is not the issue. I have got to be fully sure of the altered virus’s impact. We must act responsibly.”
“Give the money to me if you like, Michael, I know the price of my soul. In any event, we are being responsible and for a very good reason.”
“Who’s in charge, Bob?”
“Jack Mitchell, Assistant Secretary of State; with responsibility for the Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement. A good man. Used be an ambassador in Peru. He reports directly to Sec State and the President. West Hemi is out of the inner loop.”
“You did not hear me say this. He’s weird.”
“I’ve never met him.”
“Oh Jesus! He gave a press briefing in March and lectured the hacks on herbicide use in the alpha quadrant of our planetary system and on how the US of A wakes up every morning wanting to save the world. We were all diving for cover.”
“This is definitely a new administration, Bob. Alienate the Europeans with CO2 and the Chinese and Russians with treaty busting reactivation of ‘Star Wars’ missile testing. In fact, alienate everybody by dispensing with all international treaties!” Michael tried taunting the soldier-scientist but to little effect.
“The present administration,” Arnold continued. “Are however to their credit, going all out on implementing ‘Plan Columbia’ of the Clinton administration. In addition to the 750,000,000 dollars to the Columbian Army counter-narcotic battalions for helicopters and other equipment the President has even directed that the ARPS-funded ‘High Altitude Endurance Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Program’ be moved to the Patrick Air Force Base in Melbourne, Florida and seconded to the new INL task force under Mitchell. A total budget of one billion dollars has been approved. MSV has entered the secret stratospheric world of emergency supplemental budgets.”
“Jesus!” Michael tapped out a cigarette from the packet lying on the bedside table and lit it with a shaking hand. He needed time to think.
“Michael, are you still there?”
“Yes, Bob.”
“There is one other problem.”
“Only one, Bob?”
“I’m being very serious here, Michael. In fact, I'm being deadly serious! We suspect that the news about MSV has already leaked out.”
“To who?” Michael almost shouted.
“INL suspect that a secret organization with links to the Asian opium trade have got wind of the experiments and want to take it into their control.”
“Who? Is it the warlord, Khun Sa? How did he get that type of information so quickly?” The smoke from his cigarette was filling the room.
“The INL boys do not think the Burmese are involved. The intelligence was obtained from a source in Afghanistan, but it points to a European-based organization. There may have been a leak about the field trials at the Israeli end and the information passed to an intermediary.”
“We think that somebody working for the pharmaceutical firm, Alpanna BioPharm, paid for the information and passed it on to the Afghans. An investigation is underway as we speak.”
Alpanna. Charles Alexander. The bastard! I should have guessed his company might be involved.” Michael could feel sweat forming droplets on his forehead. He needed to be careful however about what he divulged to Arnold.
“Do you know him, Michael?”
“Alpanna BioPharm has just made a hostile bid for Hoxygene, Bob. This is industrial espionage. If the news breaks about the virus, it will not only make us a target for every pissed-off cocaine producer but also when it is known that the American government has appropriated it, the company’s shareholders will want to bale out. No virus, no profits,” Michael explained.
“Listen, Michael. We’re not sure if Alexander is involved in getting the information or what his relationship, if any, with the opium boys might be. The CIA has placed him under surveillance as of yesterday.”
“This is very disturbing, Bob.”
There was a long pause at the other end of the line. Michael could hear another phone ringing and being answered in the background.
“Michael, be very careful. Ring me tomorrow.” Bob Arnold rushed his words.

Suddenly another voice came on the line. It was curt, electronic in character. “This connection is terminated.”

The line went dead.


The satellite videophone connection took some time to establish and even then the picture was of very poor quality. Ali baik salaam,” a man wearing a balaclava spoke from through the haze.
“Who wishes to use our shade?” the balaclava asked.
“I have been instructed by the Overlord to ask a favour of the Khannakiya.”
“And that is?”
“For the Pir-i-Roshan to find the truth.”
“But he is the Sahib al-zaman, the Lord of Time. Is this truly necessary?”
“There is a passage, my friend from the Persian poet Sa’di’s Gulistan which says that ‘a lie, which does a good work, is better than truth, which breeds confusion’. Just accept that it is deemed necessary by the Overlord.”
“So be it!”
“One other thing.”
“Recover the hourglass of his guardianship.”
“It will be done.”

The line went dead.

No comments: