The way Jacob figured it, by the end of today, he would either be the most hated man in the world, or the most loved. At least that’s how the media was playing it. But for now, between the interrupted sleep and the jetlag from the twelve-hour flight to Paris, he could barely keep awake in the taxi. He’d been spoiled by all those years living in London, when Paris was only a two-hour ride on the Eurostar. Flying from San Diego was a different story. Still, it was good to be back. He hadn’t visited the City of Light in at least five years.
The taxi made its way through the familiar Place Des Vosges with its antique shops, cafés, and street musicians, then to the grand, tree-lined Champs-Élysées, and on to the Hotel Concorde La Fayette, where the conference was being held. As they progressed slowly toward the hotel, Jacob looked at the conference welcome letter he’d printed out for the trip.
Welcome to the World Conference on NBIC Convergence and Human Performance, a gathering of thought leaders in nanotechnology, biotechnology, information technology, and cognitive science.
His eyes traveled down to his photo. Next to it was the writeup about his keynote presentation: Memory Recovery and Transmission from Intracranial Nanobotic Networks in Severe BI Candidates, which seemed an overly fancy way of saying “recovering and transmitting memories from a dead or damaged brain using microscopic robots.” Some of the other topics included transhumanism and cyborg development; brain-machine interfaces; and human cognitive and physical performance enhancement in warfare. He thought about the incredible advancements in his field in the last five years. But those presentations were about works-in-progress—things to come in the near future. His breakthrough was already here. And people were now going to see it in living color.
As he looked up, he could see that the taxi was finally approaching the hotel. And there they stood out front, just as he had expected: the swarms of protesters. Not surprising, given the news coverage recently.
The driver pulled just ahead of the mob, and Jacob stepped out to pay him. As the taxi drove off, he tried to make his way through the crowd. It wasn’t easy, as everyone was pushing and shoving. Protest signs were everywhere, and in all different languages. As he forced his way through the sea of people, an angry bald guy started yelling at him in what sounded like Italian, making the sign of the cross on his chest and forehead.
Jacob shook his head and continued on.
Goddamn lunatics would rather see us usher in the dark ages.
Out of the corner of his eye, to his left, he noticed a little girl crying. She couldn’t have been more than four or five. There was no sign of her parents anywhere. Worse yet, this girl was going to be trampled on, and damn soon. He reached out his hand and led her through the masses and into the hotel lobby. He knelt in front of her. The poor girl looked scared to death.
“What’s your name?”
She looked at him like a deer in the headlights.
“Tu es française?” he asked. “Tu comprends?”
She nodded her head as she sobbed. At least she understood French.
He asked her name again, this time in her language.
“Kat,” she said, still sniffling.
“Ta maman? Ton papa?” Her parents had to be here somewhere.
Just then, as if someone had hit a switch, her face lit up and she yelled, “Maman!”
Jacob looked up to see the girl’s mother approaching, a stocky blonde-haired woman carrying a protest sign. The woman gave him a nasty look and pulled her daughter away as if he were a kidnapper, then disappeared back into the crowd. Nice woman, bringing her daughter to a protest.
Jacob proceeded to the spacious, modern lobby. As he was looking around for the reception desk among the maze of palm trees and seating areas, an elderly man in an expensive suit approached him.
“Doctor Newman?” the man said in a slight German accent. “Jacob Newman?”
“Yes, and you are—?”
“You will excuse me, please; I recognized you from the photograph.” He held up the brochure. “My father was a good friend of your grandfather. I met your grandfather once when I was a child. He was a great man—a brilliant man.”
“Thank you. I’ll have to agree with you.”
“Our families were neighbors in Germany in the old days. Before, well . . . .” His voice tailed off. Then he added, “He would be proud.”
“Thank you. Are you here for the conference?”
“Yes, of course. I serve on the ethics committee. When I saw you were coming here, I wanted to be sure to meet you.”
“Why, thank you very mu—“
“Tell me, Jacob. Did your grandfather ever talk to you of Landsberg?”
Landsberg? What did this man know of Landsberg?
Jacob wanted to probe further, but thought better of it. He wasn’t about to reveal a family secret to a stranger.
“No, I can’t say he did. Did your father meet him there?”
“No, nothing like that,” said the old man. “It is not important. Just idle curiosity.”
The old man was looking at him oddly. Then he said, “This project of yours—you seem to have hit a nerve. The protesters—”
“I’m a scientist. It’s our duty to advance humanity, is it not?”
“Yes. It is.”
“Well, then I’m glad we agree, Doctor . . . or is it Mister . . .?”
Jacob was fishing for a name, but the man just smiled as if he’d gotten the answer he was looking for and said, “I think we will get along quite well.”
Before Jacob could say anything, the old man held out his hand. “I must be going,” he said, “but I will see you this evening no doubt. It was a pleasure to meet you.”
Jacob shook the man’s hand and watched as he walked past the lobby desk where a well-decorated military officer—American, judging from the uniform—was waiting for him. The old man whispered something to the American, and they both looked in Jacob’s direction. Then the two men walked off together.
Jacob stood at the podium and looked out at what seemed to be a tense audience. He had never been comfortable speaking to large crowds, and this time he was more nervous than usual. He wiped the sweat from his forehead, cleared his throat, and switched on the podium microphone.
“What you are about to see,” he began, “is the culmination of twenty years of research, and the beginning of a new era in human knowledge and capability.”
He stepped back for dramatic effect and waited for the lights to dim. The room hushed. “This video,” he said, “captures the perspective of a young German soldier during World War II.”
The crowd murmured. Jacob pressed the play button and returned to his seat in the first row to watch with them.
The widescreen video image began projecting, showing the title, NBIC – Program 4233, File Q1240 Sample #12. Then it cut to a prisoner running away toward an open field. He was wearing a tattered striped uniform and an armband that signified him as a Jew.
“Shoot him,” said an offscreen voice in German just to the right, the words translated into English and French underneath the picture. The camera panned to the young soldier’s trembling hand holding a gun. He hesitated, aiming but not shooting.
“Shoot him!” the voice next to him repeated.
The prisoner reached a row of trees in the distance, pulled off several pieces of fruit, and started heading back.
“Look,” said the soldier. “He was only going for fruit. He’s coming back.”
The man offscreen grabbed the gun out of the soldier’s hand and shot the prisoner in the head. The prisoner stumbled and fell, the fruit spilling onto the grass. The crowd gasped.
Jacob rose from his seat and the lights came on. His blood still boiled every time he watched the scene. The noise in the room escalated as he returned to the podium. He raised a hand to quiet the crowd.
“The video you have just seen,” he said, “was extracted from a dying man’s brain. The man was a German soldier and later an American citizen.” The crowd got loud again, and he raised a hand to quiet them. “This is the first time a human memory has been captured in a transmittable format.”
With that, most people in the audience stood and applauded. Some appeared shocked.
“The possibilities,” he continued, then decided to wait for the applause to stop. “The possibilities of this research are endless, from solving crimes to learning about our past. We’ve only begun to explore the applications. The report in your folders explains the technology. And now I’ll take questions. We’ve got five minutes left in this segment, so I can only take a few, I’m afraid.”
“How did this soldier come to volunteer his brain?” said a man in the first row.
“Ten years ago,” said Jacob, “he was on his deathbed, a ninety-year-old former scientist. In fact, he’d been an advisor on our program well into his eighties. He was one of several volunteers; he knew he’d be ideal for a variety of reasons, and we agreed.”
“Can this work with a living brain?” another person asked. “I mean a healthy one?”
“Why, would you like to volunteer?”
A smattering of laughter came from the audience. Then a middle-aged woman in the back rose.
“Why did you select such a horrible memory?” she asked.
“Because those are the strongest and easiest to extract.”
People began shouting other questions all at once—Jacob’s cue to make an exit. He excused himself and made his way from the podium to the stairs at the end of the stage.
A loud voice emerged from the crowd. “Is it true, Dr. Newman—” Jacob turned to see a man standing in the middle of the audience. He was German, judging from the accent, and had a scar running down the side of his face to his neck. A tall man with short blond hair, he appeared to be in his thirties. “Is it true that you hand selected this image because of your family past, and that you are using it for your own political agenda, thus proving very clearly the danger of this research?”
Who the hell was this guy?
Jacob wanted to ignore the man, but thought that might not be a good idea. “It was a random memory,” he said. “It emerged because of its strength. Your information is wrong.”
A million people started firing questions again, but Jacob said, “I’m afraid it’s time for the next speaker” and left the room.
As he proceeded into the lobby, a group of people from the audience followed him, including a few relentless reporters who were still shouting questions as he walked. The protesters were still out front. Off to the left outside, he could see the taxi he’d ordered waiting for him. Now the trick would be to make it through the crowd again. He exited the front door and elbowed his way through the mob. It was denser than before, and he felt himself being pushed back. Out of nowhere, he felt a hand pull him through the crowd. He could make out an arm, but he couldn’t tell who was attached. When he finally emerged from the hordes, he looked around. Whoever had helped him through the mob was gone.
He stepped into the taxi and directed the driver to take him to Charles De Gaulle airport. As soon as the taxi pulled off, he heard the three beeps on his cell phone that indicated a call was coming in from a secure line. Malcolm, no doubt. Jacob picked it up.
“Jake, I hear things went well.”
“It depends who you talk to.”
“Listen, I know this is out of left field, but we need to pull you off the program.”
“Pull me off? I know there’s controversy, there always is, but isn’t that—”
“Jake, it’s not that. Something’s happened. Something big was found in the South Pacific. We believe it’s foreign.”
There was silence on the line for a few seconds.
“What do you mean foreign, like Russian?”
“No, not Russian. We’re not sure what it is.”
Malcolm wasn’t usually cryptic like this. It felt like they were playing a game of 20 questions.
“Is it some kind of sub?”
“No, not a sub. Nothing like that.”
Jacob was trying to imagine what Malcolm was talking about. A big, foreign, not-Russian thing that wasn’t anything like a sub. Alive? Dead? Technology? A hidden terrorist camp?
“What else can you tell me then?”
“Jake, I can’t tell you any more at this point. I can only say it has major significance. We’re talking level four SCI classification. Once I get the code word clearance for you, I’ll send more information encrypted to your email. But we’ll need you in Santiago Chile by tomorrow night.”
Jacob wasn’t sure how to react. With a simple phone call, his whole world was being turned on its head. He had to continue his research. His whole future depended on this project, especially since Kim was so ill. Still, the scientist in him thought the discovery sounded intriguing, but the timing was all wrong.
“Malcolm, Kim’s undergoing chemo. You know that, right? I was planning on a short trip for family matters in the morning, and then I was planning on being home the next few weeks after that. It’s why I couldn’t even stay for the rest of the conference. You’ve got to have someone else you can call in the meantime, right?”
“I can give you a day, Jake. Once you see what I’m talking about, you’ll understand why you’re the only one who can help us. I’m sorry. I know you know the drill.”
“I do, Malcolm. Understood.”
After ending the call, Jacob leaned back in the taxi and stared out the window. He’d known Malcolm most of his life. He trusted him implicitly. And if there was one thing he knew about Malcolm, it’s that he never panicked and never exaggerated. If he said it was urgent, it was urgent. More important, Malcolm was compassionate. If there were a way to avoid bringing him in, Malcolm would have found it.
On one hand, Jacob couldn’t wait to learn more about the discovery. On the other, he wasn’t looking forward to telling Kim he’d be running off again. But when you’re doing top secret work for the CIA, duty calls, and you have no choice but to answer.