Gridlock: A Scientific Thriller

by Alvin Ziegler

About The Book

Name: Jude Wagner
Vocation: Computer Expert
Specialty: Cyber Attacks
Base of Operation: Stanford & Consulting to San Francisco FBI
Availability: Worldwide

Jude Wagner should be on top of the world. His computer discovery unlocks mankind’s greatest scientific discovery–the human genome. Leveraging a vast computer network (that really exists), Stanford now can interpret an individual’s DNA with lightning speed. It brings hope to millions as personalized medicine becomes reality.

But rapid modernization sparks a violent reaction. Wagner’s closest colleagues are dying mysteriously. Will Wagner be next? Pitted against a powerful, faceless enemy, he hunts to rescue the person closest to him and forestall catastrophic GRIDLOCK.



Get Up To Speed

Biotechnology is transforming the world in unimaginable ways—promising to extend our children’s lives by decades. Everyone has a stake. Doctors are diagnosing disease genetically using computers and the Internet.

The sea change in medicine began with the decoding of the human genome in 2003, but the genome remained locked because scientists understand less than one percent of it. Some liken the difference between decoding our DNA and interpreting it to the difference between identifying every part of the space shuttle and getting it to fly. Unmercifully, the sick and dying have been given a promise that science hasn’t delivered—until now.

A lightning fast computer network called a grid is interpreting our DNA. It can solve virtually any question that can be calculated. Using grid technology, scientists—departing from the one-size-fits all approach to medicine—are creating custom drugs to treat diseases, such as cancer, that are as individual as a fingerprint. Like a giant tidal wave, the trend of personalized care is forcing countless businesses to rapidly modernize or be tossed aside in the wake of change.

This book was inspired by actual organizations, technologies, and science.


The Hook

Prologue

Friday, October 28

Meyrin, Switzerland

 

Jűrgen rushed from his apartment at 9:05 a.m., tightening his watch strap. The Mercedes limousine waited at the curb. He climbed into the backseat clutching his briefcase. Leather upholstery squeaked under his long legs.

“Let’s go. I’m expected in twenty minutes,” he said through the limo window.

The limo hummed through the foothills of the jagged Jura Mountains. He peered at the silver shimmer of Lake Geneva, surrounded by snow-capped peaks that extended to the Savoy Alps in France. Cloud mist swirled over the water, a fitting backdrop for Jűrgen’s God complex. Through the Mylar glass, he glimpsed platinumblonde hair beneath the driver’s cap.

Jűrgen looked through the limo partition. “Where’s Adrian?”

“Out sick.”

This was no day for bumbling around in the twenty-six cantons of Switzerland.

“You do know the quickest way to CERN?”

Their eyes met in the rearview mirror. “Yes, Director Hansen.”

At least the limo service had filled her in. He wanted everyone to know about CERN. No lab in the world matched it in the number of physicists it employed and the extent of its international presence. Twenty member countries ran it.

The car hugged mountain roads, passing schoolchildren playing tag at a bus stop.Jűrgen slid papers from his briefcase to occupy himself. Drumming his fingers, he studied notes and photos of attendees. He memorized the faces of executives of the medical community who’d flown from around the world to visit CERN. Their donations could do it, enable personalized diagnosis over the Internet, using a patient’s DNA.

When the BlackBerry in his suit coat pocket vibrated, he scanned Tatiana’s missive: I’m wearing Escada perfume—soon that will be all I’m wearing.

He checked the closeness of his shave. A petite redhead who traveled with silk handcuffs and a riding crop awaited him after his speech at CERN. Tatiana helped him unwind with sexual role-play. He text messaged a reply, giving her the address of their chateau. Tonight they would meet high in the Alps where he would star in her Russian seductress fantasy. He adjusted the knot on his tie. Jűrgen had picked up Tatiana at a Geneva club two weeks back. He didn’t know yet how long he’d keep her—girlfriend shelf life ran five weeks tops.

Shrouded by tinted glass, he reclined against the headrest. Jűrgen envisioned Tatiana’s lips working his chest while the limo cut along the highway, dropping in elevation—until the tires grumbled over rocks. The noise pulled him back to reality.

The driver had veered the limo off the highway.

“What are you doing?”

They’d turned onto a narrow side road. Giving way to clover and dirt, the lane settled into a partially paved cow trail.

He shouted through the divide. “Driver.”

Without answering, the chauffeur pressed a button in the glove compartment.

Holding his BlackBerry, Jűrgen hit the three-digit Swiss code for emergencies. No cell signal.

Communications were usually good here.

Looking through the rear window, his eye caught the lush Bernese Alpine Valley. “Where are you going?”

“There is construction, Sir,” the chauffeur said sternly. “We’re making a detour.”

Jűrgen’s hands went clammy. “A detour? Damn it.”

Hunched at the wheel, the driver rolled up her sleeves. “We are close.” The limo halted at the edge of a lake.

A wave of nerves fluttered through his stomach.

The driver got out and whipped open Jűrgen’s door. “Out.”

Jűrgen gripped the edge of his seat. “Now hold it. What do you want?”

The hard-faced woman leveled a handgun at Jűrgen’s forehead. “Whoa!” He raised his hands high.

The clearing had the calm of a cemetery. Jűrgen eased out of the back seat—his gaze trained on the woman. She had the shoulders of a competitive swimmer. Caked on makeup covered her face, doing nothing to improve her masculine features.

She opened the limo trunk, revealing a coil of heavy gauge fishing line and a twenty-pound gym weight used for bench pressing.

“Remove the line,” the woman ordered. “The weight, too.”

Mouth stone dry, he lifted the weight. A buzz came from overhead. A twin-engine plane—a businessman on holiday, perhaps. If only Jűrgen could radio for help. His eyes swept over the wooded lake. Not a house within sight . . . who would come to his aid?

The plane noise passed. A breeze rustled crisp leaves over his feet.

“Tie the weight to your leg. Knot it tight.”

Was this to keep him from running? He momentarily stumbled for words. Cradling the weight against his chest, Jűrgen begged, “I’ve got money.” “Save your breath.” The gun still trained on his head.

He bent and tied, tensing for his strike. “You’re not going to stop the Grid.”

Jerking into a standing position, he lunged, hurling the weight at the woman’s head. She dodged. The weight struck her shoulder, knocking her down. The gun dropped from her hands.

Jűrgen leapt for the gun but the woman got to it first. She pointed the weapon and fired.

With a yowl, he went to his knees. He touched the burning wound on his shoulder, gasping at the blood oozing between his fingers. Is this it? Will I die right here, at age 39?

The woman got up.

“What is it you want?” Jűrgen’s voice broke. She lowered the gun. “Get the weight.”

Blood snaked down his arm. He crawled over dirt and pebbles on his knees until he could pull the gym weight and fishing line close with one hand. With shaking hands, he bound the line around his ankle.

The woman pulled on her dusty cap and gestured for him to get up.

Jűrgen staggered to his feet, holding his shoulder. “Killing me or even Jude Wagner doesn’t end the medical revolution. It only slows—”

He quit stalling when her expression darkened, and she motioned with the gun muzzle for him to step into the lake.

He hesitated then moved into the water. Waist deep, he stepped out of his loafers then ducked under the algae-covered surface, struggling underwater to untie the weight. The October sun had failed to warm the icy lake. With fingers going numb, he fumbled with the fishing line. He gasped at the surface again—and heard a blast.

In the first nanosecond he felt a sharp tap. No pain. But he could no longer fill his lungs with air. His carefree childhood reeled by in snapshots. Misspent teenage years vanished before him.

Another shot slammed into his forehead. Time stopped.

Ripples spread in symmetry above his sinking head.

One

Friday, October 28

San Francisco, CA

 

The dinged-up MX6 slotted into a perpendicular space along crammed Russian Hill. Lucky snag for Jude Wagner, just one block from home. Still getting a feel for his Mazda, Wagner noticed how snugly his broad shoulders fit in the bucket seat then climbed out. He snapped the door locks closed from his keychain. Seized in a drug raid, the Mazda bore the scars of its street-gang past—pelted with dents from its fenders to rear bumper. The perfect vehicle for parking on the street, thanks to his find at the FBI auction.

A foghorn groaned, bassy and long. Misty salt air whipped Wagner’s tangled brown hair against his light forehead. Across the gulch, Coit Tower glowed, a beacon in the dark. Wagner navigated around a family of five on Hyde Street piling out of the local ice cream parlor. The store manager followed them out, flipping a closed sign on the glass door. The dad’s scoop of ice cream hit the pavement and the kids shrieked with laughter.

Head throbbing from straight bourbon, Wagner realized he hadn’t heard the infectious laughter of kids in years—a circumstance of his city living. Nostalgia came over him for his younger years in Kentucky. Without warning, his work routine had become his life pursuit at the expense of everything else.

A smile of pure amusement filled the mother’s cheeks. It reminded him of his own mom and how she savored their last family sail.

At the entrance of his ground-floor flat, his foot touched an electric blue plastic bag. He picked up the bag containing his New York Times—a reminder that he’d fallen behind on world events amidst the confusion of the cyber hack. The FBI may have been running the investigation into Wagner’s Stanford Grid computer breach, but it didn’t alleviate matters. Just the opposite. Collaborating with the FBI ate up his time and ripped him away from his regular computer coding. For two weeks he showed up at the San Francisco bureau to fulfill his emergency duty, and it restricted him to only checking on his Stanford Bioengineering Department remotely.

He carried the newspaper through his front gate to the Mediterranean-styled three-story building. Under a trellis of ruby bougainvillea, he strode brick steps two at a time to his door. He shoved the key inside the Baldwin lock. It cranked too easily . . . no resistance. Slowly he pushed the door open. On the balls of his feet, he moved inside his narrow place. Ceiling spotlights in the hallway were on. Had he turned them off when he’d left that morning? Analyzing the vulnerability of his Grid made him forgetful. His gut tensed. Quieting his steps, he crossed into the living room.

The place had been ransacked. His bookcase had been emptied. His African carving, mystery paperbacks, San Francisco history books and rock concert ticket stubs blanketed the floor. Papers he’d stacked on the steamer-trunk coffee table were now strewn on the faux-oriental rug.

Odor of someone’s cigarettes hung faintly in the air. Wagner’s pulse quickened. Could the intruder be here? He listened for creaks in the floor. Nothing—only gusts lashed at the windows. Nerves on edge, he stepped to the kitchen. The cupboard drawers and doors were closed as he’d left them. Chips still sat on the counter. In the bedroom, though, his Chinese dresser doors were ajar. Shirts, suits and a high school wrestling trophy lay on the floor. In his mini-study, he checked his desktop computer. The shelf where his back-up hard drive sat gaped hollow and dark—the hard drive was missing. He cursed. His computer was locked to the desk, but the drive he backed up his data on wasn’t. Someone could easily break into his backed up messages and get hold of highly sensitive information about the Stanford Grid. Something scratched the floor, maybe hard-soled shoes. The noise sent a shiver down his spine. He braced himself. A door flung.

A man in a suit raced from the closet and outside the flat. Wagner gave chase through the hallway and barreled into the cold night. Wind buffeted off the bay.

The wide intruder bounded down the treacherous grade of the Filbert Street steps. Practiced at navigating the decline, Wagner clacked down the steps behind the lumbering figure. They raced past stucco apartment buildings and into North Beach.

Reaching the bottom of the hill, he pushed closer to his intruder. Wagner clipped by Washington Square Park. Just feet away, he lunged. Arms extended, he snagged the man’s jacket. They crashed to the ground outside a neon-signed pizzeria. Concrete grated one side of Wagner’s face. His skin burned.

The man grunted—gripping the hard drive beneath him. Wagner scrambled onto the man’s back and planted a knee between his shoulder blades. He worked to control the man’s thrashing arms.

“Call the police,” a girl shouted from inside the pizzeria.

With heaving force, Wagner cranked the intruder’s left arm behind him. A dark Chevrolet Blazer screeched to the curb.

The man twisted his arm, got on one knee and broke free of Wagner’s control.

A karate punch darted toward Wagner’s neck. Wagner blocked it on reflex with his forearm.

The hard drive dropped to the ground. Wagner reached and grasped it when he took a blow to his kidney.

The thud connected like a sack of flour falling from a top shelf. Wincing on his hands and knees, Wagner clutched the hard drive tight.

The man readied a swift soccer kick.

Wagner tightened his abdomen. Motion blurred. Thwud!

Gagging from the kick, Wagner curled knees to his chest. A high-pitched sound whined in his ears. Everything dimmed, even the neon lights glowing on Columbus Avenue.

Cars idled in traffic outside the crowded pizzeria on Columbus Avenue where Jude Wagner lay curled on the ground. The waiting Chevrolet Blazer had roared off as red and blue emergency lights beamed across retail buildings. A patrol car’s P.A. chirped for traffic to move.

With his knees to his chest, Wagner had drifted to high school wrestling practice—a time when grappling was sport. A waft of cornmeal crust told him where he was as a sturdy voice hollered. “Wake up.”

Wagner’s eyes cracked open to three heads silhouetted against the night sky. Two cops and a bystander. The older officer with a bushy mustache stared stoically.

Cradling his wrenching gut, Wagner got up and stiffly handed over his billfold.

The bystander mumbled about a partial license plate and left the scene. Headlights from passing cars reflected on the younger cop’s brass nameplate above his midnight blue shirt pocket. The name Flanagan showed as he studied Wagner’s billfold.

Wagner wiped sidewalk dirt from the hard drive. “This guy was trained in hand-to-hand combat. Did you see the dark Blazer?”

“No. He was after that . . . computer part?”

“Yes,” Wagner cursed. “I don’t usually play tackle on Columbus Avenue.”

The older officer’s eyes narrowed.

Wagner shoved a hand in his pocket, reassured to feel his Grid access key.

The officer stroking his mustache came across Wagner’s FBI Guest Pass. A biting wind rushed down the street. Wagner blinked dirt from his eyes, explaining that he worked at Stanford and was helping the FBI investigate a cyber hack.

The cop looked at Wagner again, considering his story and the blood droplets on his cheek.

“What? Don’t I look like a workaholic?” Wagner remembered hearing that most on-duty cops resented the bureau altogether, that feds padded their arrest reports with busts made by beat cops.

While Flanagan scratched notes, Wagner got out his cell phone and dialed his FBI contact, Special Agent Nathalie Noiret, who was recently assigned to Stanford. Noiret said she’d come right over to his apartment.

He put his phone away to describe the would-be thief. After a ride up the hill in the squad car, Wagner clambered out the backseat—narrowly avoiding a lecture on the risks of vigilantism in North Beach. With his hard drive in hand, he went inside, and bolted his door lock. He started straightening loose papers as a way to cool down, then stopped. Agent Noiret needed to see this mess as he’d found it. The cost of losing Grid information was incalculable.

At his computer desk, he booted up to find his data files were intact. The pounding in his chest slowed, but only slightly. The back-up drive went into a locked drawer.

He went to the kitchen freezer and pulled out a bag of Birds Eye frozen corn for his throbbing cheek. He stared in the bathroom mirror at road burn texturing one side of his face. Next, he checked his bottom desk drawer. The lock was broken. His flash memory stick was gone. Screw me. His nerves rattled again. Documents pertaining to the Google deal were saved on it. Months of negotiations. This confidential deal, combined with Stanford’s alliance with CERN, would destabilize mainstream medicine—the biggest industry in the world. Google would enable access to the Grid through their website. He thought about calling Niles. But with a plan to sail the next day, Wagner opted to tell him in person tomorrow.

Wagner warmed up leftover chicken, preparing for a draining night of fitful sleep. He removed his hot plate when a firm knock on his front door startled him.

Two

Friday, October 28

Meyrin, Switzerland

 

Alone on the second floor observation deck of the CERN laboratory, Hideo Onagi felt his heart thumping. Noise traveled easily in this all-white chamber, three hundred feet underground, beneath the Franco-Swiss border, beneath the sprawling buildings where thousands worked. It was where the famous Large Hadron Collider operated—the most expensive scientific experiment in history. The hum of high voltage electricity vibrated through the floors of the cavernous building. Hideo held the facility phone close. “What? Not even a message from him? Can’t someone drive to Jűrgen’s apartment and physically search for him?”

A moment passed when Hideo hung up the wall phone. His face flushed hot with frustration. Would he have to wing this entire presentation without his speech partner?

These strangers would render a pass-fail verdict on work that had consumed him for years. At the trial of his life, he was minus his expert witness. Rolling his sloped shoulders, he flipped through 3×5 note cards, reviewing his talking points. Returning the cards to his pocket, his finger brushed against something else there. He took out a photo. His daughter beamed in her fourth-grade school picture. Her gaze transfixed him, then he pushed the headshot back into his front trouser pocket.

Family turmoil and this fund-raising presentation for genomic medicine set off his ulcer. After months of jetting from city to city to find sponsors for the Grid, Hideo realized that work travel was ruining his marriage. His wife and daughter were his sun and moon and soon they could be gone. Once this ended, he’d fly to meet his estranged wife. Perspiration dampened his Polo shirt.

Below, maintenance staff worked on a ground level that opened into a tunnel. The vast space appeared like a subway platform from the future. But this wasn’t built to transport any person or thing. Only light. The giant tube housed superconducting magnets—magnets which cooled particle beams, speeding them through a seventeen-mile subterranean circle. Running in opposite directions, the beams were guided to collide in an explosion that scientists used to study the fundamental particles of the universe.

The first few attendees were being led in by Jűrgen’s assistant. They gawked at the girders and struts supporting the high ceilings. It all took decades to build. Just one problem: these were Jűrgen’s contacts. His absence could wreck this chance for vital donations. Hideo walked downstairs to join the group. On the first floor, he nervously tapped his rubber-soled dress shoe while attendees looked about at the consoles connected by colored wires lining the walls.

Hideo had given up his private practice to join Stanford and change medical history. Delay of action on this genome project would mean that hundreds of thousands of cancer sufferers would go on dying. But his area of expertise was molecular biology and chemistry—not physics. Jűrgen represented the CERN side of this partnership. As CERN’s Life Science Director, Jűrgen said he’d handle the walking-tour part of this. Hideo used his cell phone to fire off an unusually direct text message. Where are you?

A dozen more consortium members arrived. They stared at him, huddled together like a mini United Nations. He couldn’t hold off this meeting any longer. Sucking up his embarrassment, Hideo introduced himself and gestured toward the huge bright blue metal pipe that lined the tunnel. “The amount of metal used in this pipe ring could build another Eiffel Tower. It’s the most powerful collider in the world, operating at minus two hundred and seventy-one Centigrade—colder than deep space.”

Gaining confidence, Hideo spoke up. “This nine-billion-dollar underground linear accelerator was designed to smash protons to analyze the questions of the big bang, cosmology—oh—and unified theory.” Exotic instruments flashed on the wall.

A murmur rippled through the audience. The group was fidgety.

Hideo forced a smile. “Scientists wouldn’t have gotten anywhere without an enormous computer to analyze all the data from these experiments. That’s why I’m showing you this. CERN used a grid computer system to study results. That same grid computer is now helping Stanford medicine.”

They started to chatter. One man rubbed his arms. Hideo was losing his audience.

A fat man said, “Like an electrical power grid?”

“Not exactly. Computer grids link thousands of computers to work as a single virtual super machine. Colliding particles produces vast amounts of data. Ultimately, this grid analyzes the equivalent of twenty-five million DVD’s worth of information monthly. Stanford’s Grid will answer anything that involves calculating, no matter how complex.”

He paused to let the message sink in and was gratified to see he had eye contact.

A severe-faced woman dressed in black pointed at the flashing instruments. “So that’s grid-based medicine?”

Hideo spread his hands broadly. “Partially. CERN’s physicists built this grid to handle questions that no other computer system could handle before. Conveniently, the grid runs over the World Wide Web—which

CERN also invented to analyze atom-smashing results.”

A technician entered the room below and checked dials attached to electrical equipment.

Hideo raised his voice to speak over a new burring noise, “I’m proud to say that the computers here and the Grid computer at Stanford University are working as one through distributed processing.” Expressions were skeptical.

“Where is Jűrgen Hansen?” A bald man asked.

“Unfortunately, a personal emergency called him away,” Hideo lied.

“Jűrgen has been talking to me about this for five months,” the man said, “and you tell me he’s not here? Isn’t he the liaison between this lab and Stanford’s.”

“Yes, he maintains the pipes that link this Grid to Stanford. And thank you all for meeting with me at this glorified agricultural village. We’ve all heard our share of puffery about scientific breakthroughs.”

The bald man shook his head. “So what does a linear accelerator have to do with healthcare? What’s the scholarly revelation?”

Hideo’s stomach churned. He needed to speed past Jűrgen’s part. Attendees cared more about how their dollars could mine the genome, the ultimate human recipe book. The genome held four billion years of information on humanity. It was arguably the greatest discovery in scientific history.

“Listen everyone. Traditional medicine is failing,” Hideo finally said sternly. “It treats everyone who has cancer with a short list of drugs like we’re all the same. In reality cancer is as individual as a fingerprint. It’s time we matched individual treatment to individuals and that takes massive computer power. Let’s go to

Building Six. There I’ll explain how Stanford is poised to conquer dozens of diseases.”

With a flick of his CERN tour guide flag, he directed them. Mercifully, Hideo’s attendees followed. He stole a look at his watch. Jűrgen was over an hour late. Good God. Could he be hung over from another night of carousing?

After an elevator ride to the ground level, they filed to Building Six. While the group exchanged hotel stories and restaurant recommendations, Hideo checked his phone. No messages.

Once in the conference attendees ate hors d’oeuvres until he motioned for everyone to get comfortable at the rosewood table. Bottles of Evian water and brochure packets were set on the table at precise intervals for each person. The orderly area reminded Hideo of his fastidious wife and their heart-wrenching probability of divorce. His daughter’s face flashed before him. His thoughts drifted before he could resume his performance.

“In all my years of practice,” Hideo finally said, “I’ve never seen a technology so perfectly poised to improve healthcare. But how? How will a partnership between CERN and Stanford do a thing for those suffering from illness?”

“Yes,” a Persian man said holding his Evian.

“All disease has a hereditary basis and the genome is our roadmap to understanding it.” Hideo fiddled with his wedding ring. “We’re tapping that. The U.S. government sequenced the human genome in 2003, but that was just a start and that took two-point-seven billion dollars.”

“Currently, side effects and misprescription kill over one hundred thousand people a year.” Hideo took a deep breath. “That’s unacceptable. As you’ll find in your brochure, the Stanford Project works like this: a person would have his genome sequenced by an outlet which will soon appear in malls like a contact lens store. That analysis would cost the same as prescription lenses. When results come back to doctor and patient, the information can be accessed from a secured website on the Grid.” Several attendees nodded.

“What does genomic medicine do that traditional medicine can’t?” the fat man asked.

Personalized medicine is pie in the sky until we make it affordable,” another man said.

Hideo expected this one. He stood tall to elongate his short stature. “Exactly. That’s the point. We’re democratizing medicine, making the costly part—research and diagnosis—much cheaper.” “How?” the same man interjected.

“First, genomic medicine allows us to use inexpensive information services versus costly clinical studies. Grids not only run over the Internet, which is virtually free, but they get power from volunteers’ idle computers. In the packet you’ll see how this grid at CERN relies on volunteers’ computers.” Chatter interrupted him again.

“I see doubt. Believe me, with more funding great things will come. Isn’t fighting cancer as worthy a mission as landing spacecraft on Mars? Why not invest a fraction of that to outsmart diseases like cancer, which claim fifteen hundred lives a day in America alone?”

Audience members turned to one another. Hideo scored a point. As the group opened brochures an elderly man on the far end raised his hand. “What specifically would our endowment funds accomplish?”

To Hideo’s relief, eyes tracked him as he paced. “Your dollars will expand the system which runs like a worldwide database, bringing supercomputing power to desktops, virtually. It’s replicating how researchers from 25 countries analyzed particle collisions here through a grid of institutions and universities around the world. And, yes, we’ll need specially trained pharmacists to formulate the customized drugs. But at Stanford, we’re already diagnosing volunteers’ illnesses using their DNA.

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Hideo elaborated until his mind strayed to his flight. There was barely enough time for him to get to the airport. After delivering his final plea for investment, he used the phone on the table to beckon an assistant. A young man in a tie, short sleeves and slim-fitting pants entered the room.

Glancing at the wall clock, Hideo said, “This fellow can tell you more about CERN.”

Hideo checked his pocket to make sure that his plane ticket was there. “Excuse me everyone, I must be leaving for a flight now. Thank you.”

His pitch had to have won some new backers. But no word back from Jűrgen. Unbelievable. Fortunately, Hideo was quick on his feet. Any money raised today could help save countless lives. But, like it or not, mainstream medicine enjoyed an iron grip on the American public. Inevitably, the huge change that flowed from Stanford’s Grid would provoke violent opposition.

Three

Friday, October 28

San Francisco, CA

 

After checking the peep-hole, Jude Wagner set down his chicken leg and unlatched the bolt. “You got here quickly.”

Agent Nathalie Noiret strode in, visibly alarmed. “Like a fireman. You are all right, no?”

“I am. Some service I’m getting tonight. A thief, two cops and a federal agent with a sense of urgency.” “You are the center of attention,” she said dryly.

He wished the media didn’t advertise that he was the computer expert driving the human genome project. Wagner’s computer code—a data mining algorithm which accelerated the medical computer network—had worked wonders, for sure. His breakthrough in the Grid project acted as a spark to accelerate personalized medicine, but the war against cancer had just begun.

She shook her head. “Your face. It looks awful.”

“I’ll take that as sympathy.”

He was sore and sleep-deprived; she, the picture of poise and grace with French élan. Clad in a doublebreasted coat and black turtle neck sweater, she carried a leather satchel which added to her rational perfectionist image. Exchange her sling back shoes for white bucks and the U.S. Navy would take her as one of their own.

He reflexively locked the door behind her. Wired magazines, auto insurance papers and Wells Fargo bank statements were still strewn on his living room floor. Part of him lay naked and exposed right there.

Agent Noiret moved into the living room, taking it in like it was a Jackson Pollack painting that needed interpreting.

“What did this perp—perpetrator—look like?”

“He was a walking oak tree with stubbled, blond hair. He looked paramilitary. A dark Chevrolet Blazer pulled up for him.” Wagner worked to recall more for the special agent assigned to him. The trouble started two weeks back when his Stanford’s Bioengineering Department Grid server was hacked. The intrusion easily qualified for the $100,000 threshold of damages to trigger a federal investigation. He and agent Nathalie Noiret now collaborated on investigating the breach. All they had so far were suspicious files on a computer server. “Anything stolen?” she asked.

“Yeah. The thief got my memory stick which held confidential papers to the Stanford deal with Google.” “Why was that not under lock and key?”

“It was. You can see my snapped drawer lock where my computer is cabled to my desk. You’d think I was guarding nuclear missiles.”

“It’s fortunate for all of us you are not.”

“Tell me about it.” He was in no mood to be toyed with. Wagner had confided in agent Noiret that once Stanford partnered with Google, his project would have airtight security—then genomic medicine would take off.

She stepped around the papers, absorbing the scene. He could almost see her mathematics Ph.D. gears turning behind those intense, almond-shaped eyes. Maybe she was developing her theory; or maybe she was judging Wagner for his carelessness. He couldn’t say. His bachelor quarters probably revealed something lacking in him.

Aside from his disheveled floor, Wagner’s living room was sparingly decorated and self-contained. The only warmth came from a hand-me-down club chair in the corner. His starkly masculine furniture highlighted the 1920s crown moldings and Wagner’s no-nonsense personality. The walls shone eggshell white—a fitting shade since the Stanford Program now rested on eggshells too.

“When will Stanford be connected to Google exactly?” she asked.

“November 7.”

“That’s ten days of vulnerability, no.”

“Right. Ten days of sitting like a duck in a pond.”

Blankly, she shook her head. Then she removed a small flashlight from her carrying case and walked outside. Without asking questions, he followed her into the dark. He pointed to where his car was parked. Alongside the passenger door, she crouched then nimbly dropped to her side on the ground to look under his vehicle. She moved the beam of light around its underside. “Your Mazda is worn like a used stunt car. No slap and track, though.”

“That’s something. I’m not being followed.” They returned to his living room where he sat in his club chair.

She walked around his rug again, adjusting her worn satchel on her shoulder. “Tell me why your Stanford group severed its alliance with Johnston & Quib.”

“The partnership no longer added up. If Google invests in us, we can keep diagnosis over the Grid cheap or free. A Pharma company Goliath like J&Q would change that. So we broke the deal with them two weeks ago. Besides, J&Q had a conflict of interest taking us on. They couldn’t promote our personalized drugs without cannibalizing their traditional, big-bucks product lines.”

“Okay. Did J&Q get its investment dollars returned?”

“Yes, but they’re still panicking.”

“You think?”

“I know. The “patent cliff” is dealing a body blow to multinationals like J&Q. These pharma companies earn more than half their money from blockbuster drugs. And drug patents are expiring left and right.” “So new alternatives threaten expensive, brand-name drugs,” she said.

“Exactly. You don’t have to rely on a giant company for drug discovery anymore. Small companies and even

University settings are compounding—mixing custom drugs.”

“So what’s the impact, huh?”

“Big Pharma companies are going leaner through mergers, closing entire therapeutic lines. The most promising drugs are being designed for only a small sliver of patients.”

He paused for dramatic effect and to see if she was fully listening. “Stanford is pushing medicine into the digital age. Curing people is binary now.”

“I see,” she said. “I hope you still have your access key.”

He crossed his arms. “I do.”

“At least something is safe.” She said it like he had no cryptographic procedure in place. But he did. Without the authentication key the intruder had nothing. No one could access the Grid without the key and the owner’s thumb print. The key, which Wagner carried with him everywhere, displayed a number that changed every thirty seconds—in sync with the Grid server—enabling Grid access.

She looked at him. “We need to view this apartment robbery like a break-in to a genomics lab.” She pensively smoothed her hair. “First you had an electronic break-in and now a physical one.

He cracked his knuckles.

“We have the makings of a concerted attack to knock your Grid offline. Big money could be behind this.”

The fine-boned, self-possessed agent was catching on. “If someone corrupts the medical Grid, the whole diagnostic solution would go up in smoke. It would take years to start over.” She had a quizzical expression.

He added, “A corrupted Grid would send the world a clear message: if a hacker could compromise the network and its privacy controls, it wouldn’t be safe for the public to donate their idle computer power to it. Nor would they trust uploading their genome data to the Grid for analysis.”

Wind bellowed through his metal-lined chimney. She looked as skeptical and focused on problem-solving as he was—two analytical peas in pod.

He wanted to get back to work on network protection. He’d made inroads on identifying malware that could penetrate Stanford’s bioengineering servers, yet they hadn’t installed the antivirus.

“What would happen if someone got hold of your algorithm?”

“Nothing. I’ve given it away on the ‘Net already, making it open source. That’s not a worry, but protecting the Grid from hackers is.”

He gave Nathalie his hard drive in a baggie in case she could extract prints from it after isolating his own. Then he showed her the intruder’s hiding place in his apartment.

She took her flashlight to his hallway closet, the only part of his hall that would not have been disturbed by foot traffic, and shined it low across the floor. The beam exposed dusty tread prints.

“Do you or any one you know wear hiking boots?”

“No, but that intruder was.”

“Hmm.” She pulled a plastic sheath from inside her satchel.

“What’s that?”

“A gelatin lifter.” She removed a sticky sheet of plastic from a foot-long pouch. Kneeling on the hallway closet floor, she carefully placed the lift over the boot mark to get a good impression. She let the gel lift set.

The silence became awkward while she worked. “How was your trip to Montreal?” he said.

“It was the usual family visit. A lot of food and debate about how life would change if Quebec seceded from Canada. No excitement, believe me.” “I’d take boredom over this.”

“True. Put your Grid team on the alert.” She spoke with unmistakable self-control. Or maybe it was her French Canadian accent which made her come off as ultra-systematic.

She gingerly slid the gel impression into its pouch and back into a separate divide of her satchel. “This could help us isolate a suspect.”

“If we ever arrive at a suspect list,” he said.

“Don’t lose faith, not yet.”

“Would you say that to an agnostic?”

Ultimately, her stopping by reinforced one belief: Stanford’s bioengineering department needed the advanced security of a large organization. A rush of blood rose to Wagner’s face and ears. He wished his team had already closed the partnership negotiations they started with Google.


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