THE JOLLY GREEN GIANT

The elevator doors opened and Kirby stepped out on Level Three. Rawley surveyed the corridor.

“Where are we going now?” he asked.

“You’re supposed to be here to find out about our work with HIV. Right?”

Rawley pointed to the sign on the wall which read Influenza Re­search & Prevention. “Here?”

“Karl’s up here for the afternoon. Maybe we can persuade him to take you off my hands for a few hours.” What Kirby didn’t tell Rawley was why he wanted to get rid of him; Frey’s hexadecimal e-mail message was still in his pocket, Kirby needed time to translate it. Perhaps it would shed light on Frey’s state of mind at the time of his death. “I’ll introduce you to Eugene while we’re here. Besides tossing discus half the day, he manages this Level.”

The Influenza Division on Level Three was primarily a research divi­sion where new vaccine strategies were developed. They found Anders bent over a stack of transparencies. “Busy?” Kirby asked.

“Hey, it’s Kid Midas!” Anders roared. He gave Kirby a friendly punch to the midsection.

King,” Kirby said blocking his stomach with his arms. “I’m the King, pal, and you know it!”

Anders towered over his two visitors. Kirby called him ‘The Jolly Green Giant’ because of the green shirt Anders had been wearing the first time he saw him. Anders never showed up in it again, but the title stuck.

“You just caught me,” Anders said holding up one of the transparen­cies. “I’m giving a talk in Maryland tomorrow morning.”

Kirby turned to Rawley. “Eugene here suffers from a delusional state wherein he’s managed to convince himself that people really are interested in what he has to tell them about the flu.” Kirby rolled his eyes. “Who are the suckers this time.”

Anders chuckled. “Same old crowd.”

“The Army, huh? Well, I guess someone’s got to pay the bills around here.”

“Who’s your friend?”

Kirby introduced Rawley. “Think you can spare ten minutes to show us around? Show us how you make those vaccines we’re so famous for?”

Anders grinned and stretched a big arm toward the door. “Anything for my protégé.”

“We call this the Egg Room.” Anders led them through to a small outer room where Schiller was hunched over a counter top with a technician. Resting beneath his fingers on a layer of cotton wool was an upright chicken’s egg. Two meters behind them was a glass wall that separated the outer room from a much longer enclosure filled with incubators on one side, safety cabinets on the other. A manually-operated door was set into the glass on one side. Above it was a sign.

“This is the traditional way flu vaccines are made,” Anders said. They went over to the counter. “The first thing we do is breed the virus inside a chicken embryo. Like this one.”

Schiller had persuaded the technician to show him how it was done. The top of the egg had been carefully sawn off, leaving a hole about two centimeters wide. Peering through it, one could make out the bloody mass of veins and tissue forming the chicken embryo. Using one hand, the technician adjusted the embryo’s position with a long pair of tweezers. In his other hand, Anders noted, the technician was holding a syringe filled with a suspension of influenza virus. While they all watched, he inserted the needle into the nutrient-rich sac above the embryo and inoculated it with virus.

Anders provided the background commentary. “In the wild, influenza’s natural reservoir is the gut of water fowl. So it’s not too surprising that chicken embryos manage to provide us with an almost perfect alternative reproductive environment.” He pointed to the eggs in the incubators. “All you have to do is keep them warm and let the virus go about its business. Downstairs we might use a hundred thousand eggs at a time, from which we would harvest about six hundred liters of pure virus.”

“Biosafety Level Two…” Rawley said reading the sign.

“That’s just to keep visitors out,” Anders said. “We don’t handle any­thing inordinately dangerous here. Level Two is as high as we go in this building. Even in Production.”

“And how do you deactivate it,” Rawley said. “The virus. Once you have enough of it?”

“To make the vaccine?” Anders said. “We kill it. We heat the virus until it falls apart. At least, until the genes fall apart; the surface proteins are hardier. That way there’s no danger of the vaccine being infectious, and the immune system can get on with the job of developing antibodies against the proteins that are left intact. But of course, as a vaccine technol­ogy, this stuff is old hat. Genetic vaccines are the frontier technology today. Come see me when I get back and I’ll give you a run down.” An­ders extended his hand abruptly in Rawley’s direction to indicate his departure.

“Good luck with your talk,” Rawley said.

Kirby spoke quickly to Schiller, arranged for Rawley to be given a tour of the downstairs labs, and then walked Anders back to his office.

“I just found out that Arnie Frey used to work here,” he told Anders.

“Arnie? Don’t tell me you knew him?”

They walked on in silence for a few seconds, neither one looking at the other. “Tell me something,” Kirby said finally. “You must have talked to him, right?”

“Sure. Sometimes… Mostly he kept to himself, though. Why?”

“You think he could have killed himself?”

“Kill himself? Wasn’t it supposed to have been an accident? That’s what I heard.”

“So you don’t think he could have — ”

“Jesus, Richard.” Anders sounded almost embarrassed at the idea that Frey had jumped to his death. “I don’t know. I didn’t really know the guy that well. Like I said, he was kind of quiet.” Anders gave Kirby a quick pat on the shoulder. “Gotta go. I’ll see you Friday.”

DECODED

Kirby felt awkward about reading the message, but it was all he had to go on. He stopped by Tao’s office and casually brought up the subject of hexadecimal again — as if, since his discovery of it the day before, the abstract ways that information could be stored on computers now inter­ested him.

“There’s not that much to it,” Tao said. “Hex just looks strange.”

He then launched into an incomprehensible monologue on how infor­mation could be represented in hexadecimal form. Kirby had to stop him. “Here,” he said, taking out the page he’d picked up from the printer. “Use this to show me what you’re talking about.”

Tao flattened the page on his desk. “What’s this?”

“That’s what I’m trying to find out. What can you tell me?”

“Two things for a start. First it’s hex. That’s what this 0x prefix speci­fies — that the following characters are to be interpreted as hexadecimals. Second… this is part of that e-mail sector Debreu was reading the other day, isn’t it?”

“How do you know that?”

“The bit size. There’s only two characters.” Tao explained that each character was a shorthand notation for a string made up of four “binary ones and zeros.” Two characters could therefore specify 24, or sixteen, possible binary strings. In hexadecimal these strings were represented by the sixteen characters 0, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, a, b, c, d, e, and f. Thus hexadecimal was a base-sixteen representation. “Using one hex character allows you to store sixteen strings, two allows sixteen squared or two hundred fifty-six strings — not very big if you want to store numbers,” he went on, “but plenty if it’s the ASCII character set: the twenty-six letters of the alphabet, the numbers zero to nine, and a bunch of punctuation charac­ters and special symbols. There’s only two hex characters in the numbers on this page. Therefore it’s probably ASCII. Therefore probably the e-mail we were talking about earlier.” Tao looked pleased with his detective work.

“Fine,” Kirby said. “How do I decode it?”

“Use this.” Tao pulled a manual off his desk and flipped to the back. “It’s a conversion table for the printable ASCII characters.”

Tao spun the page around for Kirby to see. “I won’t ask why you’re doing it,” he said. “I have a feeling I probably don’t want to know, but here’s a pointer for you: cross out all these characters first.” He put a line through the first instances of the hex characters 20 and 0a. “This one’s a space, that’s a new line. Breaks it up into words.” He looked at Kirby oddly again. “I hope you find what you’re looking for.”

“Yeah. So do I.”

Back in his office Kirby stared at the numbers which had appeared on Debreu’s screen. Because the printout contained only the last screenful of numbers that had flashed across her workstation, Debreu had captured only the last part of Frey’s email.

Kirby crossed out the “space” and “newline” characters. Then, charac­ter by character, he decoded the remaining hexadecimal words into read­able text using the conversion table. When he had finished, he copied the text onto another piece of paper. The fragment of the translated message read:

Kirby’s pulse raced as he quickly read the passage over. He went over it a second time, more slowly. The message wasn’t signed; there was no way of knowing whether it was a copy of something Frey had sent out, or received.

Juneau. Where was that? Kirby grabbed a dictionary and looked it up. It turned out to be the capital city of Alaska. The expression “gives me the creeps” had given Kirby a similar feeling when he read it. If Frey had written the message, then it appeared he’d done something he later regret­ted. Even though Kirby had no reason to think the message and his friend’s death might in any way be related, a nagging feeling in his gut told him otherwise.

“You wanted to see me?”

Kirby looked up. Mitch Boehlert was at his door.

“Just a minute, Mitch.” Kirby put the printout and the decoded message into his desk drawer. “What’s up?”

“Karl said you wanted to speak to me. Is it about the filters?”

“What filters?” Kirby had no idea what Boehlert was talking about.

“Oh. That’s the other guy, isn’t it?” Boehlert came in and sat down in an upholstered chair by the door. He looked tired. Boehlert was well past the age of retirement. He was seventy-five, slightly overweight, but gen­erally in good health. Until recently there had been no question about replacing him with a much younger storeman. But there was the rumor about Mitch’s drinking, and apparently equipment orders were either going missing or simply not being placed. Unfortunately it fell to Kirby to sort it all out — but right now didn’t seem like the best of times. He glanced dis­tractedly at his watch.

“You think I’m getting old, don’t you?” Boehlert said.

“No. It’s just that — ”

“It’s all right, Richard. Hell, I am old.” He pointed to the poster on the wall showing Linus Pauling and his alpha helix. “Did you know I worked for him? Back in the fifties…”

“I’d heard that.”

“Linus was a sweet man,” Boehlert reminisced. “About as close to being perfect as any human I’ve met. Long time ago now, of course.”

“It must have been an exciting time,” Kirby said. Despite wanting to get rid of Boehlert, he was fascinated by the fact that the old man had actually known Pauling. He envied him.

“A different time,” Boehlert said struggling to his feet. He strolled across to the poster, looked at it close up. “Scientists back then… they were a different breed to what you have today. Had a sense of what they were doing. Where they were headed.”

“You don’t think that’s true today?”

“Hell no.” Boehlert turned back to Kirby. “Those guys grew up in the shadow of the bomb. It never left them. Always there was this constant reminder about the morality of their work. You don’t have that today. The atom bomb is something this generation associates with black and white newsreels, not real life.”

Boehlert gazed at the image of Pauling. “You know what this guy did when Kennedy invited him to the White House?”

Kirby shook his head.

“Kennedy was throwing this dinner party, see, for the Nobel laureates. Well, on the same morning Linus gets out there on the street — this is right outside the White House, mind you — and he joins a demonstration march protesting Kennedy’s testing of the bomb. Then Linus joins him later that evening for dinner. That took courage. They gave him the Nobel Peace Prize after that. We could do with more guys like Linus today.”

“I’m sure you’re right.” There was nothing to suggest that Boehlert had been drinking. He seemed completely coherent. Kirby began to suspect the old guy was merely pining for the way things had been in the ‘old days.’ Maybe that was the reason for his lax performance lately. But even if it was the case, it still wasn’t a good excuse.

Kirby crossed his arms and tried to look like a boss. “All the same, Mitch,” he said. “It would really help if we could be sure those orders were being placed before we need them.”

Boehlert stood there, staring uneasily at Kirby, as if trying to decide what to say next. But he merely nodded, and then walked out of Kirby’s office.

Kirby opened his drawer again, but closed it when he saw Debreu standing outside his door. “I got it,” she said with a toothy grin. “And it is beauti­ful.” She told him she had a result for Delta interferon on her screen; she wanted him to come look.

Kirby wanted to read Frey’s message again, but it would have to wait. “What’s the verdict?” he said. “Does it look like an interferon, or not?”

“That’s what I want your opinion on,” she said excitedly. “But I don’t think you’ll be disappointed.”

Her office was dark when they got there; the light was off and the shades drawn. On Debreu’s workstation screen were 3-D representations of two proteins, one above the other. For each molecule there were two side-by-side copies, one slightly rotated with respect to the other for stereo visualization.

Stereoviews comparing the schematic molecular structure of the gamma interferon dimer (top) with the “delta interferon” protein isolated by Catherine Debreu (bottom). Coils denote alpha-helix protein segments of which there are six per (separately colored) monomer in each molecule. Three-dimensional molecular coordinate data was determined from the protein folding program BLINDFOLD, using the amino acid sequences for the two proteins as input.

“The one at the top is gamma interferon,” Debreu said. “At the bottom is Delta.”

It was clear from visual inspection that Debreu’s Delta form was at least structurally related to gamma interferon. That was good news, Kirby thought. Very good news. Gamma interferon was known to exhibit a strong regulatory effect on the immune system, and in his mind he began equating the image on the screen with an HIV vaccine in high-risk areas like central Africa and southeast Asia. A type of immune booster. Maybe Debreu was right. Maybe Delta was an example of a restriction gene that had been established in response to an ancient retroviral infection — even an HIV-like infection. And if it had…

“I don’t know about you,” Kirby told her. “But my heart rate just doubled.”

Debreu giggled. At the very least, she seemed to be right about one thing. Delta and gamma interferon had too much in common for it to be a coincidence. “They’re both dimers,” she said putting a finger on the screen. “Six alpha helices in each chain. Four on one side, two on the other. The same fold as seen in gamma. See?”

Kirby pulled a chair in front of the screen. “Where are the glasses?”

“The glasses?” Debreu said. “…Oh them. No. I don’t use them.” She was talking about stereo glasses, a pair of specially-designed spectacles used to bring the two side-by-side images of one molecule into a single three-dimensional image. Not everyone used them.

“Great,” Kirby said. “I’m getting too old to be doing this. But let’s see if I can do it without them…” Ten years earlier he had looked at stereo images all the time without glasses. These days it was harder. He moved his head to within a foot of the screen and stared at the two Delta images. Then he relaxed his eyes, as though he were staring far behind the screen. Slowly the two images moved together and overlapped each other. He could see the 3-D structure of Delta interferon. “Got it.” He shifted his eyes to the gamma pair and compared the structure.

“What do you think?” Debreu said.

“Not bad. Not bad at all.” Kirby continued to shift his eyes back and forth between the two proteins until his eyes began to hurt. He looked away from the screen.

“How come nobody’s ever seen this before?” he said. It seemed to him that, since the interferon proteins had received intense study over the last four decades, somebody should have discovered this long before Debreu.

“I doubt they could have found it,” she said. “Even if they had known it was there.”

“Why not?”

“It’s what you might call a trace trace.” Debreu was reminding him that interferons were trace proteins; they were only present in the body in extraordinarily small quantities. But even these tiny amounts represented abundance in comparison to the concentration of Delta. Debreu doubted that ten years earlier anyone could even have detected it. The sensitivity of the available biological assays had simply not been good enough. Even in her case, she said, Delta had initially been mistaken as “experimental noise” in her assays, rather than the feeble signature of an unknown pro­tein. She said that spotting it had been a matter of luck.

“There’s also the possibility that I was just looking in the right place.”

“The right place?” Kirby wasn’t sure what she meant.

“The location,” Debreu said. “Where I collected my samples. I have a feeling the only people who carry Delta are descended from the original Amerindian tribes of central America. Like the Mayans and the Aztecs. I’ve been doing some research. So far, the idea fits with what I know about Delta.”

Kirby found himself staring at her in disbelief. “I think you’d better start from the start.”

Debreu told him about how she had spent time in rural southern Mexico looking into an outbreak of chicken flu. “It was an H5 variety. I was trying to see whether it could cross over into humans in a way similar to what happened in Hong Kong a few years back. Whether there was the potential for a new source of flu pandemic.”

It turned out there was no danger. But what Debreu did discover by accident in eighty percent of her human tissue samples, was Delta. She later realized that eighty percent was also roughly the fraction of the population in which she had been working that was directly descended from the original tribes of Mexico. But by the time she had realized that, she was back in New Jersey at Merck. She wanted to test her idea, but on the east coast that was hard to do.

Since Rosen had thought her observation interesting, she went ahead and developed an antibody assay from her tissue samples. She got lucky again; instead of a barely discernible signal, her antibody assay turned bright green in the presence of Delta, vastly simplifying the screening process. But it wasn’t until she got out to San Diego that she really had a chance to test it in the local Mexican population, where it turned up about sixty percent of the time. Not only that, but the presence of Delta corre­lated well with those who claimed non-Spanish ancestry.

“It fits with the idea of Delta being the product of a restriction gene,” Debreu said.

“Have you tested for Delta in Caucasians?”

Debreu nodded. “Never shown up. But it’s probably all through Central America, and probably only Central America, if I’m right.”

“Because?”

“Because Delta must have arisen there, and we know the Amerind tribes were isolated from the rest of the world for a very long time. We know that because of what happened when the Spanish turned up.”

What happened when the Spaniards turned up was that they virtually wiped out the Aztec tribes of Mexico. A single Spanish soldier carrying smallpox had been enough to do it. The local Indians showed little resis­tance to a disease they had never seen before. Within two years four mil­lion Aztecs were dead and their civilization in ruins.

“But they surely had their own bouts with disease before that,” Debreu added. “I think Delta interferon probably arose by chance and was selected for because it gave them resistance to some retroviral infection long since vanished.”

“Well, it sure sounds like an interesting theory — ”

“But you don’t believe it.”

Kirby remembered the Chinese speaker who had gone on before him at the WHO meeting. “What it reminds me of is something I heard about in Geneva. Something about a botched hepatitis vaccine…” Kirby was trying to remember the details of the talk he’d heard — a new vaccine had failed to induce immunity to hepatitis B, despite the success of similar strategies which involved exposing the immune system to hepatitis proteins in places like Africa. Was there something unique to the population of east Asia that rendered the new vaccine ineffective? A restriction gene?

Debreu’s face turned pale. “Somebody’s already done this?”

“Not exactly,” he said trying to reassure her. “They didn’t mention anything about restriction genes, as far as I remember. But maybe they just hadn’t made the connection yet? I wonder… Either way, they’re not look­ing at the same thing you are.”

His remarks didn’t seem to cheer her up any. Debreu opened the shades, and the room filled with light. “Maybe I should have another talk with Dr. Rosen,” she said.

“Let me know what he says.” Kirby got up to leave. “By the way, Cath­erine. Did Dr. Frey ever mention to you anything about a trip to Alaska? In particular to Juneau?”

“Juneau?” Debreu shook her head. “No. But for a long time I was hardly ever in here. He could have gone and come back and I wouldn’t have noticed. Why?”

“I heard that he might have gone there. Just wondered why.”

Debreu hunched her shoulders. “Maybe you could ask his wife — if it’s important.”

Arnie’s wife. Of course. She would know. Kirby wondered if he should go out and see her. On the other hand, given the circumstances prompting the visit, it probably wouldn’t be easy on either of them. But Arnie had been his friend. Kirby had to meet her.

“Dr. Frey’s address?” Sato sat down and tapped on her keyboard. “Should be somewhere… Ah. Here it is. Pacific Beach. His wife’s name is Susan.” She gave Kirby Susan Frey’s phone number and address. Then he went to find Rawley.

“Read this,” he said when they were back in his office. “It’s a copy of a message Arnie sent to someone.”

Rawley looked it over. It wasn’t addressed, it wasn’t signed. “How do you know what it is? Where did you get it?”

Kirby told him where it had come from.

“Still doesn’t tell you much,” Rawley said, evidently unimpressed with Kirby’s detective work. “What was he up to in Juneau?”

Kirby snatched the message back. “I think it’s time we found out. Don’t you?”

“And how do you think you’re going to do that?”

“I’m going to see his wife. Tonight.”

“And say what? Hi? My name’s Richard and I think someone killed your husband. Can I come in?”

A moment of awkward silence passed between them.

“I’ll just tell her I need to look through his stuff,” Kirby said quietly. “I’ll make something up.”

“Yeah. Well just don’t freak her out, you know?” Rawley struck Kirby as seeming genuinely sincere with his advice. “Even if you happen to be correct, which I doubt, it probably wouldn’t help for her to know about it. Would it?”

Kirby found himself nodding. He looked at his watch. “Four fifteen,” he said. “Rosen’s normally out of here by four thirty.” If Rawley was going to do the job he came for, he would need to leave before Rosen did. “Fortunately for you, he lives only a mile down the road. You’ll be fin­ished by quarter to five.”

Rawley nodded. “Might just hang out there a little longer. Got nowhere else to go, you know?”

“Where are you staying?” Kirby had a feeling that Rawley was going to tell him he slept in his car.

“There’s a place on the other side of the bay. Not the Ritz, but it’ll do.” He grabbed his bag and hoisted it over his shoulder. The light from the windows was casting shadows across the wall. It was a rich golden light that made Rawley’s pink face glow. “I’ll see you tomorrow then?”

“Don’t kill too many bad guys, OK?”

“No, sir.” Rawley gave him a friendly salute on the way out. It made Kirby feel like he had known the man for a long time.

When Rawley was gone Kirby turned his chair around and put his feet up on the window sill. He began going over everything that had happened in the last few days. He tried to think when the last time was that he had seen Frey. It bothered him now that they had never kept in touch. It hadn’t been intentional; they had probably just been too involved with their work. He knew it was the case for him. If it wasn’t for Cassie he probably wouldn’t have noticed that the outside world was there at all. It was a crazy way to live, he thought. And now it was too late, his friend was gone. He thought about it all for a very long time. Finally, when the light had grown dim, he switched on his desk lamp, picked up the phone, and dialed Susan Frey’s number.

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In the storytelling tradition of Michael Crichton and Tom Clancy comes a tale of climate-induced chaos sparked by the hottest year on record. High action follows page-turner suspense after an undisclosed ecological catastrophe changes the face of Northern China.

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Leonard Crane

Leonard Crane

Heavily science-oriented. In the past I have spent time dabbling as a: physicist, novelist, software developer, copywriter, and health-related product creator.

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