Twenty minutes before he was scheduled to meet Judith Knight, Dieter Steffen opened the lower left-hand drawer of his seldom-used desk and removed the lid from a sealed box of business cards. He withdrew a card and examined it: Dieter Steffen, Ph.D., Senior Scientist, Hoff-Zeigy, AG. So that’s who I am, he thought. He put several cards in his shirt, closed the drawer, and left.
Ten minutes later he boarded the tram. The ride from Dreirosenbrücke to Barfüsserplatz took twelve minutes. He spent the time looking out the window at night-time Basel, occasionally catching glimpses of the river before crossing it on the Mittlere Brücke over into the Old City.
When the train went under an overpass he saw his reflection in the glass of the window. How jowly he had become! At one time, in his early teens, he had been a competition skier, an athlete. Now he was the very embodiment of unphysicality. He was embarrassed to find himself thinking this way: he never thought about his looks. It was only his going to meet a woman, an assignation in a café right out of a spy movie, that had gotten his mind going along this unfamiliar path. All day long he had found himself wondering what she would look like— endless variations on the themes tall, floral-pattern dress and hat with a flower in the brim.
He got off the tram and headed towards Freie Strasse. The air was cooler than had anticipated, and he was chilly. He walked close to the buildings on the right side of the street in a largely unsuccessful attempt to find warmth. At Freie Strasse he turned left. Five minutes later he was on the terrace, looking nervously about.
Then he saw her.
It had to be her. She was tall, she was the right age, she was wearing a floral print dress and a hat with a flower; a jacket was folded over her arm. But why, if she had wanted to make sure that she would be recognized, had she said only that she was tall, was dressed in such a fashion, would be wearing such and such a hat? Why had she not said, “I am a Nubian princess, the color of Swiss milk chocolate, possessor of such grace and beauty that men walk into walls when they first see me?” He knew for a fact that she was thirty-seven years old. It was hard to believe. Had she, in her work, perhaps solved the mystery of teleomeres, the chromosomal timekeepers attached to each human cell’s DNA chain, and thereby drunk from the fountain of youth? He took a deep breath and approached her.
“Miss Knight? I am Dieter Steffen.”
“Hello,” she said. “Thank you for coming.”
“Of course. Shall we sit?”
They took seats at an open table; a waiter approached.
“Miss Knight?” Dieter asked.
“Campari, please,” she said.
“Wartek, bitte.” Dieter said. Yes, by all means, a beer. Quickly. “I am hoping you have enjoyed your visit so far?”
“Very much, thank you. It is indeed a lovely city.”
The drinks arrived; Dieter resisted the urge to consume his in one gulp, to help him to regain his composure. The circumstances, her fame, his shyness had made him nervous enough already. Her being an exotic African beauty in the bargain was nearly more than he could handle. Her forehead was high and sloped back like a pharaoh’s. Her eyes were dark, her nose aquiline, her teeth a brilliant white. She had a dimple in her right cheek.
“Well now,” he said, “how is it that I can be helping you?”
“Perhaps you know me as a scientist with Human Potential,” she said. He nodded.
“But it is not in that capacity that I wish to speak with you today. Are you familiar with ARB, the Association for Responsible Biotechnology?”
“I believe that I have heard the name, but I must confess that I do not now recall anything about this organization.”
Do you know a Paul Aubrey, from your company?”
“We may have met. In what capacity he may be working I am not remembering.”
Dieter! What is it with this accent? It’s not as if you don’t speak English every day!
“Paul Aubrey is a matchmaker,” she said. “Like all the pharmaceutical companies, Hoff- Zeigy wants to know as much as it can about the Human Genome Project. Paul Aubrey is your company’s ambassador to the small biotechnology companies of the world, where much of this work is going on. Small companies like Human Potential.” She paused, to make sure he was following her. Certainly he was following her. He would have followed her anywhere.
“He met with the board of directors of our company last week. I sit on the board of directors.”
“He came to us to propose a collaboration between Hoff-Zeigy and Human Potential. To be precise, Doktor Steffen, he proposed a collaboration between your nanotechnology laboratory, and my genetic research laboratory.”
Oh merde, he thought. Doktor Steffen. And I have been calling her Miss Knight. So ne duubel! What an oaf!
“I must admit to being at somewhat of a loss, Dr. Knight. This is the first I have heard of this proposed collaboration.”
“So I thought; that is no matter. My board has declined the offer. The reason that I have called upon you is that Paul Aubrey is still casting about for a corporate partner to provide research results on the human genome. His proposal to my company was rejected, but there are other companies. As a member of the board of directors of Human Potential, Incorporated, I can do nothing with this knowledge. It was divulged to me in strictest confidence; I cannot ethically share this information with anyone who wasn’t part of that discussion. Many people, including your corporation’s lawyers, I am sure, would consider that I have already broken my agreement by speaking with you. But you are not an uninterested party, Doktor Steffen. The whole reason for Paul Aubrey’s quest is your work.”
“Please go on, Dr. Knight,” he said. “Only, I would ask a favor. If it would not make you uncomfortable, I would prefer that you call me Dieter. I am Swiss, but I have spent much time in the States. I am more comfortable with the American form of address.”
“Very well. And you should call me Judith.”
“Thank you. Please continue Judith.”
“As I was saying, as a member of the board of Human Potential I have nothing to say about Hoff-Zeigy’s corporate research strategy. But as a human being, as a founding member of the Association for Responsible Biotechnology, I am very concerned about the kind of partnership that Aubrey is seeking to bring about. I don’t think such a partnership should take place now, perhaps not ever. Humankind has not yet developed the wisdom necessary to manage the offspring that might come about from such a union.
“I don’t know very much about your nanotechnology work, Dieter,” she continued. “I only know what Paul Aubrey told me. I am certain that he intended to divulge only enough information to see whether we would be interested in proceeding further. So I only know the general outlines of your approach.”
“Tell me then, please, what you understand of it,” Dieter said.
“You and your team are working on a nanomachine for DNA repair. This machine would be smaller than a virus, yet capable of storing the information equivalent of the human genome, all twenty-six human chromosomes, fractally condensed. This machine would be programmable, so that any portion of the stored genome could be used as a template for repair of a damaged chromosome in a target cell. Finally, this machine would be strong; strong enough to live outside of laboratory conditions, strong enough even to live in the air.”
“It seems that you know a lot about my work.”
“Dieter, this is very, very dangerous work. I am sure that you can see that.”
“If you mean that there exists the possibility for misuse of this technology, certainly you are right. But that is true of any science, of any technology. Steel can be used to make surgeon’s scalpels or, what do you call them, dum-dum bullets. Fertilizer can be used to grow crops or to make terrorist bombs. Computers can be used to explore the ocean bottom or to manipulate the stock market. It is up to society to determine how technology is put to use, not up to the scientist.”
“That is certainly a common argument, and a convenient one. But sometimes it begs important questions. It took the scientists of the Manhattan Project two years to invent an atom bomb, and yet fifty years later Iraq cannot do it; they must seek to buy their bombs elsewhere. What would the world be like if atom bombs were not so difficult to make, if you could get one as easily as you can buy a toothbrush? What moral burdens would rest on the shoulders of those first bomb-makers? Your work is perhaps as much in advance of the world. If you stopped working now, it might be fifty years until some other team reached the stage that you are now at. Fifty years is a long time. I would rather take fifty years to get ready, to think through what we are about, than to go ahead and make something dangerous now, just because we know how to make it.”
“So my work is like a Manhattan Project, an atom bomb? I was under the impression I was working on a universal medicine, a cure for Cystic Fibrosis and cancer,” he said.
“Of course it could be used for that, and I am sure that is your intent. But you cannot escape the fact that this technology could also be used for biological warfare of the most sophisticated, the most evil kind. Assume you succeed in making your device, your nanomachine. You could release these,” —she hesitated, looking for a word— “these things in the air, and they could be programmed to seek out people who had a certain gene, say, a gene for blond hair. When they find that gene they change it to the ‘right’ gene. Or they launch another program to kill the ‘defective’ person who has that gene. These machines would be so small that they could pass through any gas mask. They would be virtually undetectable. And if they were enclosed in a sixty- carbon, flexible-diamond shell they would be virtually indestructible. There would be no way to stop them.”
“In theory what you say is correct. But how likely is it?”
“How likely does it have to be? How likely was it that the HIV virus would jump from monkey to man?”
She was leaning over at him now, speaking very rapidly in a loud whisper, as if restraining herself from yelling. Dieter noticed her hands gripping the sides of the table; she almost looked ready to release it and slap him.
“How likely that HIV would be able to penetrate the immune system?” she said. “When you are talking about the most powerful weapon in history, the perfect terrorist weapon, the answer to Hitler’s prayers for a final solution—the likelihood doesn’t have to be very great before it becomes frightening. How would you feel if Saddam Hussein were loading warheads with these devices?”
Dieter was taken aback by her intensity, but in a moment he found a way to answer.
“Well, you can rest easy for a little while, Judith,” he said. “We have not figured out how to make these things, as you call them. In computer simulation, it is possible to design simple nanomachines. But to build a machine that could survive in the real world? The real world, where a two degree rise in temperature has the same effect as a nuclear explosion? No, you can rest easy, Dr. Knight. We are not there yet,” he said.
In truth, he had had inklings of some of these same concerns from time to time, but he had always put them out of his mind. Thoughts like Judith’s could drive you crazy. Start down this path and you might never get back on the right track, never regain your momentum. And once a scientist loses momentum, it’s all over, kaput.
“That is reassuring, certainly,” Judith was saying. “But based on what Aubrey told us I would have to conclude that you are getting close. Otherwise why would Hoff-Zeigy go shopping for a partner? I would add that when Aubrey met with our board he mentioned money available to the right partner. Very large amounts of money. Enough to make every person in the room a millionaire many times over, instantly. And that would only be the down payment if the collaboration succeeded. Not many boards of directors will be able to resist that lure. Especially a board of directors like mine, I might add, which holds title to remarkable technology, but hovers on the brink of bankruptcy.”
“I don’t suppose that many such boards of directors will be able to resist the lure. But it occurs to me, Judith, that perhaps you are talking to the wrong person. Why not talk to Aubrey himself?”
Judith Knight looked up from the table; her eyes fixed Dieter’s for a long time before she spoke.
“Paul Aubrey is only an agent of Hoff-Zeigy,” she said. “He is an ambassador, a salesman. Hoff-Zeigy must find a genome-research partner, the financial incentives are just too great to do otherwise. If Paul Aubrey did not want to pursue this work, the corporation would easily find somebody else to take his place. . . But without you, without the science, Hoff-Zeigy is dead in the water. You are irreplaceable.”
She stared at him so earnestly that he had to look down for a moment before he answered.
“You flatter me. But perhaps I am not as indispensable as you might think. I have a colleague, perhaps Mr. Aubrey mentioned his name. He must be the source of Aubrey’s knowledge, since I have not spoken with Aubrey myself, and my reports go only to this other person, the research director of the NanoSection. His name is Pavel Isaacs.”
She sighed, then appeared to bite her lower lip, however briefly.
“I think I would like to try a sip of some authentic Kirsch,” she said. “I have been told that the varieties available in the States pale in comparison to the real thing.”
“May I suggest, then, a local product, made here in Basel.”
Dieter turned to the waiter. “Zweite Basler-Dybli, bitte.”
“Thank you,” she said. “I’ll just need a few seconds to collect my thoughts.”
In the space of those few seconds the waiter reappeared, bearing a tray on which were two large shot glasses filled to the brim with clear liquid.
“Brost,” Dieter said, raising his glass to his lips. They each took sips, and Dieter felt the sensation of the strong bitter drink, vaguely reminiscent of the taste of cherries, on his tongue.
“Well,” she resumed. “What I am about to say is going to place an imposition on your goodwill. I cannot talk with Pavel Isaacs, as you call him. This ‘Isaacs’ and I have, how shall I say this, a complex and intimate history. I cannot go into details. But I can tell you this. I fear this man. I fear him greatly. It was when I became certain of his identity that I knew I must come here to speak with you.”
Dieter was stunned. He took another sip of his brandy. How could this be? He had known the man for nearly ten years. It was true that in that time they had met outside of work perhaps four times. They were both extremely quiet and private people, each knew very little of the affairs of the other. But if he were indeed such a dangerous man, wouldn’t Dieter have noticed something?
“You astonish me, Dr. Knight.” In spite of himself, the formality reasserted itself.
“Dieter,” she said. “Listen to me carefully. You must not let Pavel Isaacs know that we have met. I apologize for putting you in such an awkward position, but I assure you that I am in earnest. Carry on with your work, if that is what you must do. I hope that I can convince you otherwise, but that is something that you will have to decide for yourself. But please, do not let him know that we have spoken. You may choose not to look at the potential for evil embodied in these machines you are trying to build, but Pavel is aware of this potential. That is his motivation.”
“Judith, I am speechless.” he said. “Are you telling me that my colleague, my collaborator at MIT and here in Basel, the most brilliant scientist I have ever known, is a terrorist?”
“Dieter, please. The more I tell you, the more I endanger you. Let us not talk about Pavel Isaacs. Why don’t you imagine that he was an old boyfriend of mine and that the wounds are too deep for me to bear to see him again. We can leave it at that. Please. But let us talk, as scientists, about your work, and about the collaboration that Aubrey is trying to bring about.”
“Very well,” he said, hoping his voice sounded confident.
“I am guessing that Isaacs designs the computer. These will be as powerful as a supercomputer but one hundred thousand times smaller. They will be very fragile. They could not survive outside of a vacuum chamber, much less in a human body.
“You are a very astute observer, Judith.”
“But a fullerene shell, a hollow graphite sphere would be impregnable, wouldn’t it? A buckminsterfullerene sphere could protect the computer.”
“That is something we do not know,” he said.
“The problem is, a graphite sphere is impregnable from the inside as well as from the outside. You would need to modify the sphere, to create an injector, a tunnel back and forth.”
“It seems there is little you have not guessed.”
“So we would have a sphere with a long tunnel coming out at one point. It would look a little like a water tower, or a blade of onion grass that has gone to seed, perhaps, shall we say, like a bacteriophage? The T4 strain would be a good model— ”
“Judith,” he interrupted, “would you care to join me for another taste of kirsch?”
“Yes, I think I could use it. And I think I’ll take the opportunity to excuse myself for a moment.”
She left, leaving Dieter in a mild state of shock. The nature of his collaboration with Pavel Isaacs was something intuitive; he had never discussed it with anybody. Nobody but Pavel had seen the fullerene-with-tube design, which was, indeed, based on the model of the bacteria-infecting virus known as T4. And yet Judith Knight had just sat there and told him all these things, as if she were reading from a cue card. This woman was more than smart, she was clairvoyant.
She returned as the second shots of Kirsch arrived.
“Well now,” Dieter said. “If I am not to discuss our conversation with Pavel, and if Aubrey is, as you say, only a salesman, then what is it that you would have me do? Should I become suddenly stupid, and sabotage my own work? Should I run away from this research, and take up residence on a desert island? What are you asking of me?”
“There are several things that you can do,” she said. “As you say, you can abandon your research. Honestly, I think it might be better for everybody if you did that. But we both know that that is not going to happen. Another thing you can do is make sure that there is a way to disable the device you are building, and publicize it widely. Make the device vulnerable to salt water, or laundry soap, or weak radiation. Your machine could still be used for medicine, but would be less attractive as a weapon. I know that this makes the job more difficult, but you must consider what is at stake.”
“Why did you turn down the offer to work with Hoff-Zeigy? You could have built these safeguards in yourself.”
“Because we of the Association for Responsible Biotechnology do not believe that there are any safeguards strong enough for such devices. The only way to get rid of the threat is to never build them in the first place.”
Dieter paused a second to take this in.
“You say I cannot talk to Isaacs, that he is some kind of dangerous person. Can I raise these concerns with Paul Aubrey? Can I tell him that one day after he divulged Hoff-Zeigy secrets to Human Potential I received an urgent phone call from Human Potential’s chief scientist?”
“That is something that you will have to decide for yourself. I believe that Isaacs has collaborators, but I don’t think Aubrey is one of them. I think it is more likely that he is being used. Just as you are being used.”
“I hardly know what to say. I came here to meet a famous scientist, perhaps to talk over some recent scientific developments of mutual interest. Instead I find myself invited to intrigue.”
“I can imagine how crazy this must all sound. Take time to think over what I have said. I won’t intrude upon you again unless you e-mail me first. If you use two precautions, an anonymous e-mail account and simple encryption, our correspondence should be safe from prying eyes. Anybody poking around in your files is going to assume you’ve got a secret correspondent for some excitement in your life and probably not get suspicious of anything else. Have you got a card? I don’t want you to have anything with my name on it.”
He fumbled in several pockets before locating one. By the time he handed it to her the cap was off her gold-nibbed Mont Blanc pen.
“Here is an address, an anonymous address at a server in Sweden.”
“The server will assign you a new account number, so I’ll know how to get in touch. Now, we’ll need a password.”
“Basler-Dybli,” he said, smiling for the first time today. “It’s the brand name of the Kirsch we’ve been drinking.” He reached in his pocket for another card and wrote the words on the back.
“Thank you, Dieter. Please don’t call me; my phones may not be secure,” she said. “Well, that’s what I came here to say. Perhaps it would be better if I left now. It has been a pleasure speaking with you, Herr Doktor Steffen.”
She arose quickly and put on her jacket and hat. He stood as quickly as he could, nearly upsetting his chair. She offered her hand and he shook it. She smiled pleasantly, as if they had just agreed to a future date at the opera. Then she turned, and in an instant disappeared into the crowd.
©1999-2010 John Sundman.