"Chuck, good to see you." Walter Zukoff firmly shakes CIA Director Charles Isaacson's hand.
"Always a pleasure, Z," Isaacson replies, using Zukoff's nickname reserved for friends. They both sit down at a small round table deep inside CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia.
"The president signed off on the directive." Isaacson continues, tapping a document on the table, then offering it to Zukoff to verify for himself. Sliding his glasses out of his sports jacket pocket, he reads it over and looks up.
"You weren't expecting otherwise were you?"
"Not at all. In an off-the-books meeting I had with him and his national security team, he literally used the words 'Manhattan Project' in discussing our work. He said something like 'this does not have the urgency of that project, but in terms of long-term implications, this work could be more important because it would affect not tens of thousands, but potentially millions.' Not sure I agree with him, but it certainly added some gravity to the assignments."
Zukoff directs the biological research division of the CIA, a classified facility in a rural area of Maryland, affectionately called Sherwood Forest by those who know it exists. Locals realize it’s some kind of government base, but they have no idea that it’s the headquarters for the development of biological weapons. Anthrax, chemical weapons, ricin, radioactive compounds for weaponry, basically anything outside of regular firearms or classic ammunitions.
In 1989, the U.S. Government enacted the Bioweapons Anti-Terrorism Act, prohibiting the research of “lethal” biological weapons. However, like much of the English language, the term “lethal” is open to interpretation. In this case the CIA chooses to interpret the word “lethal” as killing someone immediately, making a biological weapon that slowly kills its target over a week or two “non-lethal,” and therefore legal to develop under the BWC.
Isaacson begins again. "So, here are the details. I'm running the commercialization aspect of the telomere project and covering any economic benefits to be derived from commercial licensing. You'll be handling the non-lethal biological weaponry. But there’s a bit of a twist." Isaacson pauses for dramatic impact, and Zukoff looks quizzically at him. "The commercial part will be run by Ron Michaels."
Zukoff chuckles. "Ha! Putting a dead man in charge. That's quite a cover story. What brainiac thought that up?"
"Walt, Ron Michaels isn't dead."
"What? You must be kidding. He died in the Hemispheres crash and was buried with his wife. It was all over the news."
Isaacson decides not to fill him in on the entire story, even though they’re friends. "Not exactly. Due to cooperation between the agency and FBI counter-intelligence, he wasn't on the jet. He assisted us in an operation before the plane crash, and we kept him in a safe house for months after we extracted him."
"I'll be damned. We can be secretive can't we? What was he assisting with, besides his own project? And where is he now?"
“I still can't share that information. But believe me, he's 100% alive and well and he's been continuing his research, at Sherwood actually.”
“Do you mean to tell me he’s been right under my nose all this time and I didn’t even know it?”
“That, my friend, is why I’m the director of the CIA and you head up research.” Chuck jokingly replies. “All kidding aside, there was no good way to start without him, and we can’t use a contractor like Biological Blood Services anymore, too many other nations want to get their hands on these breakthroughs. Each researcher working with Michaels at Sherwood was briefed on the classified status of this information, and for the foreseeable future we won't allow him to leave, he is ensconsed with his own team at Sherwood. He's been given a new identity on paper, and maybe we’ll get him some plastic surgery down the road, or set him up on a remote farm in New Zealand. He can be put out to pasture later, but not until we use his telomere breakthroughs for medical and weaponry purposes. This isn’t the first time secrets possessed by one branch or division aren’t being fully shared with another."
"True." Walt manages, doodling in the margin of his note pad. Nice five-point stars, which he shades in as he briefly wonders whether the Hemispheres crash was connected to Ron Michaels' research. And, why he didn’t appreciate Michaels and a team were inside Sherwood. But he doesn't ask Isaacson, who continues explaining the master plan.
"The bio-medical part of the research, which preliminarily demonstrated the extension of cell life, will continue under Michaels. Before the crash, he officially confirmed it on animals. Unofficially, on a few human test subjects, which we found out about later. So no scientifically sound human trials exist, only animal trials. Still, the animal testing was nothing short of amazing. He extended the life span of fruit flies and mice over 50%, which could translate to a 15 to 25% extension of cell life in humans, and the issue of side effects is still unknown.”
“On the bio-medical commercialization side, the president's directive calls for licensing the technology within 18 months, to American companies. Because of other intelligence information, he also wants monthly progress reports on the telomere weaponization and a viable ‘non-lethal’ weapon within 18 months. Desired features include easy delivery, non-detectable, and irreversible death within less than 10 days. He says it could be a game changer with some of our high-value terrorist targets."
"Wait a second, this is ludicrous. No clear path exists for this type of thing. Three years would be the soonest for any bioweapon according to my timeline. Please tell me you didn't say we could meet an 18-month window."
"I didn't say we couldn't."
"I don't want unnecessary pressure on myself or my team because of an unrealistic deadline.”
"Look, the president and his advisors were adamant. Our current drone program saves troop lives, but it's a public relations disaster. Sure, we kill our targets, but there’s collateral damage — family members, neighbors. Our field agents are saying with every drone strike that destroys a building we create hundreds of new terrorists, because the videos the extremists post all over the internet tie us to the damage. We need a weapon that eliminates the high-value targets without creating their new terrorist propaganda videos in the process. Understand?"
“Yes, I do. Out of curiosity, in what way do you envision this bioweapon working? By making cells die faster instead of making them last longer?"
"That’s a possibility, but consider this. Michaels' original focus was on cancer, to slow the growth or spread of tumor cells. Then he showed that rapamycin and mTOR hugely impact cell life. The telomerase enzyme signals the telomere somehow and increases the total number of divisions before it dies, extending cell life and presumably human life."
"So, if telomerase can stimulate healthy cells to divide more than normal and live longer…"
Zukoff interrupts. “Then the same could possibly be done with abnormal cells, like cancerous cells, causing a victim to die far quicker than with many forms of cancers." He stares at the crease where the conference room wall meets the ceiling, thinking. “Unfortunately, I don’t see our enemies lining up for blood transfusions so we can infect them with mutant cells.”
"Of course not. Michaels knows that blood transfusions are far too invasive and not realistic for the commercial applications either, so he's already working on a different delivery system. You’ll have immediate access to his findings, but your team should be brainstorming too."
Zukoff is now holding the pen vertically on top of the note pad, eyeing Isaacson. “This reminds me of how they lambasted President Reagan when he said he wanted to develop a space laser to zap nuclear missiles, and the press called it 'Star Wars.’ It sounds great, but can it be done? What about costs?”
"No budget constraints, just requisition in the usual fashion." Isaacson replies.
"I've already decided who my research director will be. He's been with us for less than a year."
"Peter Larsen. But the name won’t mean anything to you since you aren't acquainted with any of my key people. Chuck, you do realize human testing will be required."
"That will never fly here. You do what you need to do, but do it somewhere else in the world. And be damn sure there are no dots connecting it back to the agency."
"Got it." Zukoff's mind wanders to the infamous LSD studies the government secretly conducted stateside that were eventually declassified. There’s no way any human trials he commissions will surface in declassified reports. Figuring out how to cleanly deliver a non-lethal bio-weapon comes before worrying about testing, he decides.
"Michaels’ group can't know about your project." Isaacson insists. "Your group will be apprised of their progress, but not vice-versa."
"Impossible. They're both working at Sherwood."
"Walt, I mean it. You didn’t know Michaels was even there. During orientation, advise your team everything they learn and create is top secret, no exchange of information, even within the compound. Accept it. "
"Okay, but why?"
"Ron Michaels. Every brilliant researcher is eccentric, and he is by no means an exception. I worry about his reaction if he found out his telomere breakthroughs might be used as a weapon."
"Don't you trust him? You just disclosed he was assisting the agency at one point."
"Let's say this. He's instrumental to these breakthroughs. I trust him implicitly as to the research. However, some circumstances, shall I say, raise some questions. One more thing. He fathered a son while in protective custody and we supplied him a full-time nanny."
"His wife died when the plane went down, but they had frozen her eggs years ago. He used an agency-cleared surrogate to have another child. So, yes, Justin, his son, is with him and someone who has worked at Sherwood for years is his live-in nanny. The kid’s less than a year old. He can't really leave the compound to take his son places, given that the outside world believes he’s six feet under."
"We're talking about a top secret situation with tremendous implications. Are you sure you trust someone who has a young toddler to think about?"
"I trust him.” As he says this, Isaacson's mind wanders to Ron Michaels' refusal to continue his research until the CIA and FBI agreed to let him see his daughter and brother. Did I make the right decision? Not the time for self-doubt, he concludes.
Zukoff interrupts his thoughts. "I'm going to need all of Michaels' data as soon as possible. Then, as we move forward, how will I receive updates?"
"I’ll give them to you directly as they supply them to me. We'll also have active surveillance all over the lab, which will be covered during your team’s orientation."
"Then let's get to work. Are you ready to change the world?" Isaacson asks as they walk towards the conference room door.
"Of course. That's why we came to work here, isn't it?"
* * *
Isaacson walks down the quiet hallway to his expansive corner office. Before he reaches the doorway he asks his assistant, Barbara, to come into his office. When they first started working together, she would appear with a notepad and pen, now she walks in with her tablet.
"I want you to call a couple of our research organizations and set up two different symposia. One needs to appeal to the top minds in the scientific community, so title it something like 'Ethical & Economic Implications of Extending Human Life 25 Percent.'”
"Isn't that a little vague? Shouldn't you say ‘to 110 or 125 years of age?’"
"Whatever, you can create the exact title. It’ll cover the potential healthcare system costs of such an extension — increased costs of Social Security, contributions to the workforce with senior workers, all of those issues."
"What's the second one?"
"How about 'Fast-Tracking Drug and Medication Approvals: Current cutting-edge methods to expedite human trials and obtain approval.' Set them both up within 45 days if possible."
"Got it." she says, rising to walk out of his office. Isaacson can’t help but appreciate the shape of her long legs as she leaves, but the dominant thought pervading his mind is the enormity of the challenge facing both Zukoff and himself.
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