Some secrets ought not to be shared.
Despite himself, Leon was a little intimidated by the streamlined, palatial offices of Driffield Brown Pharmaceuticals. Having been approved by the formidable security front desk and escorted through an atrium like the main glasshouse at Kew Gardens and whisked up some hundreds of metres in a transparent elevator, shepherded by a supermodel with no conversation, he now found himself in a large space, two walls of which were of tinted glass, commanding impressive views of London and the Thames. The floor was covered with a thick brown velvety carpet in which the dents of his own footprints were clearly visible. He was perched on a black plastic and chrome chair of such modernity that it was barely recognisable as furniture. The chair was placed opposite a desk composed of a single irregular rectangle of black granite balanced on trestles of chrome-plated tubular steel. Behind the desk, in a monstrous big brother of Leon's chair, Professor Hiram Ochre, a very important man at Driffield Brown Pharmaceuticals, squatted like a bulbous toad. Leon had only met Ochre once, when his research grant was initially awarded.
Ochre's desk was completely clear except for a black cellphone as slender as a credit card, almost invisible against the granite, and one of these fancy devices that projected a holographic keyboard and screen on the desk surface. Professor Ochre touched one of the phantom keys on his desk, and a disembodied female voice trilled, "This conversation is being recorded."
"Dr Hartmann, thank you for coming to see us today," said Professor Ochre, without any actual appearance of gratitude.
"It's a pleasure," lied Leon, whose mind buzzed with serious concern about the status of his Driffield Brown grant.
"I expect you are wondering why we called you in today. I am aware that you have been sending us quarterly reports on your project, and I am told that your work is satisfactory, if a little long-term."
Leon cleared his throat to remind the professor that a five-year clinical trial of a new drug was necessarily long-term, but Ochre silenced him with a gesture of his pale hand.
"I should like you to cease work on the er... work you are doing. We are not cancelling your research. It will be continued at a later date."
Leon felt he had to speak now. He needed the money the grant represented to pay his rent, grocery bills and other expenses. "But surely..." he began.
Ochre again gestured for silence and touched a corner of his keyboard. "This conversation is now off the record," trilled the voice of the recorder, "Information communicated now is secure, non-disclosable and deniable."
sick persons all over the world will be healed"Dr Hartmann," said Ochre, "I am authorised to tell you that we already know that the drug you are testing not only does not work very well but has a number of embarrassing side-effects. You are conducting this trial in order to play for time while we develop something better, so the longer it takes for the results to come out, the better it is for all concerned, except, perhaps, the patients on the trial." Ochre then read a form of words from his holographic screen, "You may not disclose this information but you may use it to assist your decision- making process now and in the future."
Leon was lost for words, choking with surprise, or shock, but before he could express himself, Ochre had re-activated the recorder. "This conversation is being recorded".
Ochre continued: "You are acquainted with Doctor Jennifer Warriston." It was not a question, but Leon managed to nod. "You were, in fact, ah, romantically involved with Doctor Jennifer Warriston."
"We were, yes."
"Now, this is important. Do you still harbour friendly thoughts towards her?"
"Yes, I do, but..."
"But you fear that these friendly thoughts are not reciprocated. We thought so. However, if you could help her, you would."
"Yes, indeed." Leon's brain was in orbit by now. What was this?
"And if by helping Dr Warriston you could help Driffield Brown and help yourself..."
Ochre's hesitation gave Leon the opportunity to ask, "Can you just tell me what's going on?"
"In short", replied Ochre, "We would like you to recruit Dr Warriston. We will reward you well for even making the attempt, with a bonus if you succeed."
Leon weighed three facts in his mind before replying. Fact one: Jennifer Warriston would never work for a pharmaceutical giant - Jenny's walk-out on him was provoked primarily by Leon's surrender to a business she considered criminally immoral. Fact two: Leon would very much like to be rewarded. Fact three: he would like to see Jenny again. By accepting Ochre's offer, which was, in any event, probably one of these offers you cannot refuse, he could do himself some good and Jenny no harm. "I'll certainly do my best, Professor."
Ochre continued: "I am aware of the resistance Dr Warriston may feel. She is a principled person running her own production facility in a remote part of Africa, providing inexpensive pharmaceuticals for underprivileged third world people. We have approached her officially and been rebuffed. She would not even discuss the package we offered her, a package that guaranteed to maintain and increase her philanthropic output, while making her medicines available to all our customers and, incidentally, allowing her virtually unlimited funds and research facilities. As it is, we now sell our own drugs into these markets at a trifle above cost price. She's going to go out of business."
"What can I offer her that's better than the offer you have already made?"
"We believe that she distrusts us, and has not even considered our terms. You are to be the honest broker. We will give you the contract. You will then carry it to her. She will be unlikely to refuse to look at it if you lay it at her feet. You will find out what she really wants; we will make the requested changes to the contract; you will have it checked by a lawyer of your choice. She may perhaps accept our terms; sick persons all over the world will be healed; Dr Warriston will be rich, fulfilled, and grateful to you; you will be, at least, rich, perhaps also fulfilled, and happy; Driffield Brown will be more profitable."
At the time, Leon found these aspirations rather appealing. "O.K. I'll try," he said.
Tripoli was founded by the Phoenicians, who called it Oea, at about the time when Homer was having his nappies changed. It was then civilized, century by century, by Greeks, Carthaginians, Romans, Turks, Italians, not necessarily in that order, and, eventually, by the Libyans themselves. Much of the city's architectural history still lurked behind the modern concrete and glass. One such remnant was Café Hassan, more of an expatriate club than the teashop it purported to be. Its battered frontage, eroded by time, traffic and bullets, carried no sign. Leon only knew he'd made it to the meeting point because his g- phone, having guided him through a warren of alleys, told him so. The walk from his hotel had nevertheless been rather alarming. He was assailed in the broad modern streets by noisy fast traffic, most of which was propelled by big brutish internal combustion engines - unheard of in the oil-starved West. The few solarcars, with their 30kph top speed were treated like ox carts. Once in the souk, he had been constantly importuned by sellers of carpets, brasswork, oriental pleasures and hashish, so that he was baked and shredded by the time he stood in the doorway, nineteen minutes late.
As Leon entered the establishment, eyes glanced briefly at him and turned away. Only one pair of eyes met his and stayed. Leon threaded his way to a tiny table of wrought metal and plastic at which a thin woman was seated. Her physique and manner were young, but, up close, Leon realised that she must be in her fifties, lean and sinewy, with a lined, tanned face, grey eyes, and dressed in clean khaki shirt and trousers. He tried not to show surprise, but she grinned and said: "Hi, I'm Rae. Don't tell me. You expected your pilot to be a man."
"I guess so. I'm Leon, Rae. I didn't have any expectation at all. I was more puzzled about the route I'm having to take to Chad."
"Well, as you probably already know, it's impossible for a foreigner to enter the country without a lot of hassle and a huge chain of bribes. If you slip up anywhere you could land in jail or in a ditch. It's actually quicker, cheaper and safer to enter illegally."
"How close can you get to where I'm going?"
"There's an airstrip and there's some route from there to the hospital. I'm taking supplies in quite regularly, but I've never seen the medical facility. You a medic, then?"
"Kind of. But it's news to me that it's a hospital. The doctor I'm visiting is a pharmaceutical expert. I thought she was manufacturing drugs."
"Oh, yeah, I heard that, too, but they've definitely got patients. A couple of Chinese medics went in a few weeks ago. Some of my passengers are mercenaries for the so-called freedom fighters. Not many of them make the return journey. White man's grave. Worse now, because of the war. But there's a steady trickle of patients for the hospital. There's a rumour they can cure AIDS there. The patients I ferry in and out are rich and sick. I think they're what's funding the hospital, and this trip you're making is not cheap, 'cos it ain't legal. Anyway, you've brought everything?"
The money. No-one used money much these days. In London, Paris and New York, the only thing you could buy with actual banknotes were illegal narcotics and services from various freelance enterprises - chiefly bookmakers, prostitutes, plumbers and electricians.
The wad of US dollars that Leon handed over would have paid for a round-the-world cruise in a luxury cabin on the QE4. Leon had wondered how Driffield Brown explained the cash to their accountants.
"I take it, even though this is strictly illegal, you don't anticipate any trouble?" Something about handing over this much cash made Leon a little nervous.
"We don't show up much on radar, and we don't look like a military threat. When I first started these trips, they scrambled a couple of Russian helicopter gunships to look me over. They don't bother any more. Don't worry."
"OK. I won't."
"Anyway, this is a two day trip. I'm taking you as far south as I can today. Then, if the weather's OK, we'll get where you're going tomorrow."
"Let's go, then," said Rae, leading the way out to a battered Toyota Ecojeep which was soaking up some solars in a nearby dusty square. "Don't know why I bother with this sun-bucket," she apologised, as they entered the maelstrom that was Tripoli traffic, "Gasoline is only ten dollars a gallon here." It was eight euros a litre in London, more than fifty dollars a gallon, and it was rationed.
Twenty minutes and ten near-death experiences later, they arrived at what appeared to be a private airfield. If Leon expected anything of Rae's aircraft, it would have been like something out of a 20th century thriller movie - a small monoplane with a single gasoline engine. The craft Rae drove him to wasn't remotely like that. It was dominated by its slender wing, thirty or forty metres in span, matt black on top, light grey below. The fuselage and tail assembly were hung on below the wing like an afterthought, as were a quartet of what looked like jet turbines. It stood on a seemingly random set of skinny undercarriages which supported the long wings and stubby body at various points.
"Wow, Rae, what's this?"
"Another surprise, Leon? Meet Nostromo."
"Nostromo? Wasn't that the spaceship in Alien?"
"Yup. She's made of the lightweight stuff they make tennis racquets out of. The wings are photo-voltaic collectors, it's got these new lightweight batteries and it's entirely electronically controlled. More of a powered glider, really. Solar powered. A dream to fly."
"So these aren't jet engines under the wings?"
"No. Electric fans. They give propulsion when needed and generate electricity on the overrun."
"Wow. It looks as if it would blow away in a brisk breeze. I can see it shifting as I stand here."
"Watch the tail."
"Oh, I see. It's trimming itself all the time to face the wind."
"That's right. It needs lots of room so it can turn itself around. Up to a sixty knot wind, it automatically adjusts its orientation and control surfaces to stay lift neutral. The harder it blows, the harder it stays down. Above sixty knots, it's safer airborne. The makers recommend you get a line on it and let it fly like a kite. But I've never tried that because you'd need much more flat ground than I've usually got. High winds like that only happen a couple of times a year around here, and if Meteorology says there's a storm on the way, I just fly out and dodge it. The harder it blows, the higher I fly."
"It looks expensive."
"It was, but the running costs are negligible. You ready?"
The heroes of the revolution down below like to take potshots at any aircraft they seeLeon watched as Rae organised an operator with an ancient Land Rover to tow Nostromo to the start of the runway. The Land Rover drove a few hundred yards down the tarmac, paying out a long nylon rope. Leon climbed aboard into a seat behind the pilot, surrounded by crates of plastic containers, while Rae connected the end of the rope somewhere up front. She then climbed in, pressed a button to start the fans, and waved to the driver of the Land Rover. In seconds, they were bowling along steadily, the aircraft already alive and eager to fly, towed by the Land Rover. Rae operated something up front, and they leapt into the air quite suddenly. She pulled a lever, and they were free, still climbing under the power of the fans. Rae was working hard, pulling and locking various levers.
"Getting up the undercarriage," she explained over her shoulder, "Saves electricity if I do it by hand."
"Do you always need a tug to get airborne?" asked Leon.
"No. Same answer. The fan'll get us up, but a tow saves juice. Give me a minute or two. I'll just find us a nice thermal for altitude."
From several thousand feet, Leon could see the startling effects of the Libyan desert irrigation project. Sea water distilled to fresh. Huge rectangles of arable land were appearing in the desert.
The only sounds in the aircraft were the wind and the intermittent hum of the fan. The ride was amazingly smooth. Rae talked endlessly about the wonders of Nostromo. Theoretically, she could stay airborne indefinitely, like an albatross, drawing on the energy of the wind and sun, though, of course, there were food, drink and other matters to consider.
Progress was irregular. Sometimes they paused and circled in an updraught to gain height; sometimes they flew steadily with the electric fans humming; often, they cruised in straight and slightly downward flight like a sailplane. Some six hours after take-off, they landed at what appeared to be a former oil company airstrip, attended by an Italian-speaking caretaker who seemed to have been expecting them.
They ate pasta prepared by the caretaker, drank water, and bedded down for the night in a corrugated iron hut. They took off in the early dawn next day, an almost vertical ascent into a stiff breeze. A few hours into the flight, Leon started to see the signs of stunted bushes and trees, which thickened as the day progressed. The vast Lake Chad (less vast than it was in yesteryear) stretched to the southern horizon.
Eventually, Rae pointed out a set of military huts below. "There's your hospital. I'm turning west for the airstrip."
The setting sun blazed into the cockpit, and Leon heard bursts of crackling over the wind rush.
"What's that?" he asked.
The airstrip was visible now. Tiny figures in a jeep below were gesticulating. They were only 30 metres above the raw desert. Rae was busy deploying the undercarriage as she spoke: "Gunfire. The heroes of the revolution down below like to take potshots at any aircraft they see in case it's a government attack. They use SAM missiles from time to time, but I don't generate enough heat or radar signal for them to get a target lock. They seldom hit anything with small arms fire."
A loud ping and rattle somewhere up front gave the lie to this statement, but nothing more happened before they were dropping onto the start of a rough runway of crushed red gravel. There was another aircraft drawn up to the side, a couple of army trucks decorated with red crosses on white circles and a few men in khaki.
"Hello, what's this?" said Rae, "I don't usually have any company here."
"Looks military medical," said Leon.
"It certainly does. If you don't want to stay, I'll take off right away."
While it looked a little iffy, Leon wasn't keen to abandon his mission at this stage. "They don't look particularly hostile. I'll see if they'll give me a lift to the hospital."
Rae taxied to an open space, and they climbed stiffly to the ground. Surprisingly, most of the soldiers paid no attention to them as they approached. One, however, came towards them with a smile.
"Leon, I think they're Chinese," said Rae. "That's one of the medics I flew in last month, but he wasn't in uniform then."
The medic concerned spoke good English, greeted them politely and was apparently delighted to ferry Leon to the hospital. But he pointed out that Dr Warriston was not there.
"Do you know where she is?" asked Leon.
"Yes, I do."
"She is here, of course. I will take you to her."
Jenny, perspiring in the loading bay of the aircraft, was surprised, but not pleased, to see Leon. She broke off from whatever she was doing, and jumped down.
"What in God's name are you doing here, Leon?" were her exact words, uttered in a voice that discouraged reply.
"Hi, Jenny. This is Rae, who brought me here."
"Hello, Rae, we've never met, but I'm aware of your shuttle service. I suppose, Leon, that these clowns at Driffield Brown are still trying to recruit me, and that you are their latest desperate attempt. Professor Ochre, yes?"
"He's had my answer by phone, letter and e-mail."
"I told them they were wasting their time, but I thought 'Why not come and see you, anyway?'"
"It's not a good moment."
"I imagine not. What's going on?"
"Well, maybe it is a good moment. I'm closing down here and setting up a new facility in China." She paused, and eyed Leon carefully. "Got your passport?"
"Well, give us a hand here, and you can come along. I've been told I can bring anyone I like. I'm sure Professor Ochre would approve of your persistence. You can decide later whether to ditch Driffield Brown and join the good guys."
"C'mon. It's either this or back to the Professor. I think the People's Republic is much less risky."
Half an hour later, they waved to Rae, who was repairing a bullet hole in Nostromo with a sort of puncture repair kit, and boarded the plane chartered by the Chinese, an elderly, not to say ancient, Canadian de Haviland Dash 7, painted in camouflage colours, with Red Cross symbols and hard-to-read identification insignia. On board, in addition to the French pilot, Jenny and Leon, were the two Chinese medics and four Africans in medical stretchers, who nevertheless looked pretty healthy to Leon. Every inch of cargo space was occupied by cardboard crates.
It was pitch dark outside as they took off along a faint flare path of flickering LEDs. In the spartan cabin, Leon looked at Jenny and raised an eyebrow. He felt a thrilling frisson at being with her again.
"What?" she asked.
"It's nice to see you, too." He said it sarcastically, but he smiled to take the sting out.
Jenny's mouth firmed into a straight line. Then she said, "It's a bit of a surprise."
"But a pleasant one?"
I'll get back to you on that. I'm very busy right now, as you may have noticed."
"Can you bear to fill me in?"
"We fly to Sudan, transfer to a Chinese military transport, and continue to Tientsin in Northern China. There's a new facility out in the sticks just waiting for us to arrive, and I won't be starved for resources."
"What happened to 'cheap medicines for third world countries'?"
"You know what happened. I wasn't the only pirate operation in the world. Every philanthropist with a degree in pharma started a cottage industry, and now all the big companies are doing what we asked them to do years ago, and selling their mature products at a price a small setup couldn't match."
Leon began to feel uncomfortable at this hard-faced Jenny, "So you're out of business."
"In that respect, yes. But what I've got now is something very much better."
"And that is?"
"A breakthrough in HIV treatment."
"But the entire board of Driffield Brown would crawl over broken glass for that."
"Not for my cure."
"You're getting into too much detail. I don't want to discuss it."
"You've got a new treatment for HIV, and you don't want to discuss it?"
"Not with you. Not with anyone."
"Except your Chinese friends."
"So you can corner the market? Like one of the pharma companies you always hated?"
"No. Look. I'm going to make it available. I'm going to China so that the big drugs companies can't suppress it with legal injunctions, negative propaganda and commercial blackmail."
"So what is it?"
"Are you sure you want to know? Knowing will commit you. I may have to kill you."
"Oh, Jenny, you can trust me."
"Absolutely. Let's have it." Leon was sure of this. Part of it was to get closer to Jenny, he realised that, but being associated with an important discovery was a huge potential bonus.
"OK," said Jenny, "I'll go back to the beginning. I started out by building a production line for nuceloside analogues - HIV inhibitors - like AZT et cetera. I knew how to do that."
"Sure. That was the way to go."
"And a protease inhibitor for combination HIV therapy, also freely adapted from a commercial product."
"Obviously," said Leon, "You'd need that too."
"You realise why I had to do this in a third world country."
"Of course. If you set up a production line in South London, you'd be locked up for patent infringement in a fortnight. I'm just sorry I didn't feel rebellious enough to come with you."
"But here's the thing, Leon. I needed a whole raft of HIV sufferers to test on. I mean, the chemicals were OK. They analysed indistinguishable from the pukka product. I just wanted to build a little confidence. This was Africa. There would be no shortage of HIV positives, I thought. But there was a shortage. In the precise area of Chad where I'd set up shop, where HIV and AIDS were a big problem a few years ago, I could only find a handful of subjects - less than fifty. It turned out, and this is where it starts to sound weird, a local village doctor had a cure."
Leon smirked. How often had there been rumours like this? "Oh, c'mon, Jenny."
"I know. But listen. Among my test subjects, there was a pair of sisters that I'd been treating. I had good records on them over several months. Both were HIV positive. In the middle of my drug trial, their relatives saved up enough money to send them to the doctor. We're not talking big bucks here. A breeding pair of goats in Chad will cost a peasant a year's income. The sisters were cured. Both of them. The HIV had gone. No trace. Well, I say 'no trace'..."
"The 'cure', you see, is actually another disease. It's been known for some time that one virus can interact with another and produce a different virus by a process of reallocation of viral RNAs. It appears that two different HIV strains have combined to create a new virus which doesn't cause immunity problems in humans, and which out-competes the strains of HIV that do cause trouble. It's also been known for some time that occasional patients turn up, who appear to be immune to HIV. You know about the Kenyan prostitutes?"
"Didn't they turn out not to be immune after all?"
"Well, those that ceased to have regular contact with HIV eventually lost the immunity, that's true. But it appeared that continuous exposure maintained the resistance. My theory is that this new disease resembles HIV sufficiently closely to give the body immunity."
"So where did this witch doctor get the treatment from?"
"He's not a witch doctor. He's more of a herbalist and vet. Don't ask me how he stumbled on it, but it appears that one of his tricks was to draw blood from one person and inject it into another. I think he had a sort of vague idea of vaccination. He'd been doing it for years. You may know that Chinese alchemists administered smallpox inoculation a thousand years ago, so it was a known technique before it was discovered in the West."
"Yes, I heard that."
"Well, at some point, he must have mixed up strains of HIV and produced this new one in a patient, then transmitted it along not knowing what he was doing. His patients also spread it by sexual contact, and in a remarkably short time, he had a healthy population of HIV-resistant patients and their friends and relatives. It's a small world in an African village. I did a lot of checking, and a little experimentation, but it worked. It really works. All that's required is to spread the disease. I'm having the impudence to call it Warriston's Disease."
"So why don't you tell everybody?"
"It has a side-effect."
"Leon, there's a plague in this world. It's a plague that's destroying quality of life for millions, killing the planet, threatening even the continuation of the human race."
"AIDS is hardly that bad."
"I'm not talking about AIDS, Leon. I'm talking about over-population."
"So you're going to withhold your cure and let everyone die of AIDS?"
"No. I'm going to let the side-effect run amok."
"What's the side effect?"
Leon was silent for a moment or two. "But that means that people have to choose immunity or children."
"Not if they don't know."
"But it'll leak out."
"Eventually. It'll be noticed. Meanwhile, the Chinese and Indians are very interested because both have exploding populations and a largely hidden HIV problem. For many in the West, immunity from AIDS and a lifelong contraceptive would be a bonus, by the way."
"Meanwhile, I'm starting with four donors - you saw them being loaded - and a plan to create thousands more in a project in China. A test tube of blood from a donor will treat twenty or thirty patients, but we still have to build a production facility like an inverted pyramid. A donor can give a pint of blood every couple of weeks, but will take thousands of donors to manufacture doses in sufficient quantity to be effective. It will be a while before it becomes widely available. Certainly, it could be years before the problem became well known. And even then anyone with HIV would probably be glad to make the sacrifice of sterility in return for a permanent cure, don't you think?"
Leon was horrified. "I don't believe you are doing this. A bit of philanthropic patent busting is one thing, but knowingly spreading a sterility virus in secret is something else altogether!"
"I thought it might be a mistake to tell you. You were always a sanctimonious little prick, Leon."
"No, I haven't. I've still got the good of the planet at heart." Jenny was silent for a few moments. "Look, I need to know if you're with me."
"You can't expect me to go along with this!"
"I'm sorry to hear that, Leon. It's pretty lonely out here. Anyway, I have to keep the lid on it for the time being. So... I'm afraid you are going to be another donor for a while. I can't let you go now, Leon. I'm sorry. Perhaps we can work together when you get used to the idea."
Leon tried to stand up, but the Chinese medics grabbed him and strapped him down to a spare stretcher.
"You'll never get away with it!" he yelled.
"Oh, God. That line comes from a James Bond movie, Leon. I already have got away with it. My teams of donors are already spreading across Africa, keen to mingle their body fluids with willing patients, spreading good health and birth control throughout the continent. Your little friend Rae has ferried quite a few gratefully diseased well-off people to Tripoli, most of whom will energetically introduce the virus into Europe and America."
Leon resorted to insults and entreaties. The plane droned on and Jenny caught a little sleep. Her lack of response made Leon even more desperate.
Shortly thereafter, one of the Chinese medics anaesthetized Leon to keep him quiet.
Copyright © Gil Williamson 2010 All Rights Reserved
Date and time of last update 16:24 Wed 24 Feb 2010
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