EARLY FALL, 1998
In the murky early years of post-Soviet Russia, a dark veil hung where once there had been an iron curtain. Within its folds lurked danger and despair, threatening anyone who became entangled with the remnants of the Soviet Union.
Through bursts of showers on a chilly, black night, Dan had driven Russian scientist Pavel Sarasov, his wife, Katya, and their six-year-old son, Mikhail, from Moscow over three hundred fifty miles of bumpy highways and rougher roads.
Five hundred feet ahead was the Ukrainian border. Hastily constructed a few years earlier, a simple building on each side of the road housed border guards, Russians on one side, Ukrainians on the other. Two lanes in each direction, with a concrete median in between, separated the structures. A tollgate blocked vehicles from passing until authorized. Moisture from the recent rain cloaked the buildings, dripping from the edges of the roof. Puddles dotted the pavement. Mist rose languidly from the ground, forming an opaque barrier through which Dan strained to see what awaited them.
Reaching the gate, Dan stopped as a car that had been cleared on the other side passed them. No other vehicles were in sight.
Dan lowered the car window and handed passports and other travel papers through the open window to the guard inside. The guard flipped through the items several times, barely looking at them. Although Dan was only on his first real assignment after field training, he knew something was amiss. The paperwork with their false identities was flawless. Had anyone doubted their authenticity, they would have examined the papers closely. Instead, the guard seemed disinterested in them and was merely stalling for time.
Apprehensive but outwardly calm, Dan glanced in the rearview mirror, and then looked ahead.
Finally, speaking in Russian, the border guard said, “Please come inside.”
Replying in fluent Russian, Dan said, “Park there?” pointing to spaces beyond the gate, thinking that if they could just get to the other side, whatever came next, most of the danger would have passed.
“Leave the car and come now,” the border guard commanded in a menacing voice.
Heeding the warning, Dan and the Sarasovs got out of the car. They ignored gestures from the guard for them to enter the building on the Russian side and moved toward a door on the Ukrainian side, looking over their shoulders as they walked.
It was clear that getting Pavel and his family out of Russia was going to be more difficult than it had first seemed. Pavel Sarasov was a hot commodity, and Russia was not about to let him go. The scientist was reportedly working on a program to enhance human capabilities, perhaps even radically evolve the human species. There was nothing new with that aspiration. What was different, and what the US wanted to get its hands on, was technology that could lead to the rapid sequencing and manipulation of the whole human genome. Nothing like it existed—or was even close to existing—anywhere else. Word in the US intelligence community was that Pavel had achieved several major advances but was hindered from further progress by the limits of Russian technology. With access to superior technologies and funding, Pavel might be able to complete his work—for US interests. The human species was on the cusp of a new future.
Acting confidently, Dan continued to guide the Sarasovs ahead, Pavel on his right, the others on his left. Pavel was mid-fifties, with graying black hair. His slim face was expressionless and tight. Behind him, Katya clasped Mikhail’s small hand in hers while she brushed a shock of wavy black hair out of his eyes. She was about forty but looked older, a reflection of a childhood spent in Siberia. Mikhail, too young to understand what was going on but old enough to sense it was something big, remained quiet as his wide, brown eyes gazed up at his mother.
Before they had gone far, a man yelled out from behind them, “Halt, Dr. Sarasov, or your family will be shot, one by one!”
Turning round, they faced a man standing fifty feet away. A little over six feet, he had a stout build and rigid posture. A thick, jagged scar crossed his left eyebrow. A holstered gun was visible under his open black-leather jacket. In a loud, authoritative voice filled with arrogance, he said, “Dr. Sarasov. You are committing a grave crime by attempting to leave the country. Come back now and, this one time, we will overlook your transgression.”
A red laser dot, meant to be seen, from the rifle of a hidden sniper appeared on Katya’s right shoulder.
“Return now,” the Russian ordered.
In a strong voice, Pavel said, “I no will longer work for people who intend to use my research as a weapon against others.”
After nodding at each other, Pavel and Katya began to turn toward the Ukrainian side.
The sound of a gunshot ripped the air. Katya crumbled to the ground, holding her shoulder, but not letting out even a whimper. Ashen-faced, Pavel quickly knelt beside her and opened her coat to look at the wound. Dan bent down next to both of them. Frightened, Mikhail grabbed his mother’s hand.
“She will live if she gets immediate treatment in a Russian hospital. The choice is yours,” the Russian said to Pavel.
Whispering to Dan, Katya said, “We cannot, will not, go back.”
“The consequences are on your shoulders,” the Russian yelled.
A red dot appeared on Mikhail’s forehead.
Immediately, Dan picked up the small, trembling boy and, using his own body to shield Mikhail, took a few steps toward the Ukrainian side of the border. A sharp pain ripped through the meaty part of Dan’s left arm, followed by the shot’s report.
“The next bullet will shatter your skull, Mr. Lawson,” the Russian said in English as he began to walk toward them.
Through his pain, Dan was startled that the Russian knew who he was.
Out of the denser mist on the Ukrainian side, two vehicles materialized. Special Agent Evans, head of Dan’s CIA division and also his mentor, jumped out of one car with a Ukrainian government security agent, while two other Ukrainian agents emerged from the second.
Signaling for the agents to remain behind, Evans walked over to Pavel.
Across the narrow divide, Evans and the Russian stared at each other with malice.
It was now a standoff, though Dan doubted the Ukrainian security agents would act against the Russian. But the possibility was apparently enough to deter the Russian, and his sniper, from further action.
Taking advantage of the situation, Dan carried Mikhail to the building, left him inside, and then returned to Sarasov and Evans. Blood ran down Dan’s left arm. Evans glanced at it, then looked at the Russian before bending down to help Katya up with Pavel’s assistance.
Again in English, the Russian said, “Your appearance doesn’t change anything, Agent Evans. Pavel Sarasov will not be allowed to leave.”
A red dot was now on Evans’s chest, over his heart. It would be an act of extreme aggression to kill an American official on Ukrainian soil with a shot fired in Russia. Maybe it was a bluff, maybe the Russian was deadly serious. Somehow, despite the international consequences that would follow, Dan believed this Russian would, without any hesitation, do whatever he wanted.
Ignoring the threat, Evans turned and helped Katya walk toward his car.
After three steps, two shots in quick succession split the air. Katya’s and Pavel’s bodies slammed to the pavement.
Evans turned, drew his gun, and aimed it at the Russian, ready to pull the trigger regardless of the cost. The red dot was now on Evans’s forehead. Seeing it, Dan threw himself against Evans and knocked him out of the way behind the corner of the building just before another shot rang out. When Dan peered out, the Russian was gone.
Getting to his feet, Evans rushed over to Katya and Pavel, with Dan right next to him. Katya was dead; soon Pavel would be, too.
Looking at Katya forlornly, in a thin voice, punctuated by shallow gasps, Pavel said, “I thought I had found the key to unlock the secrets of creation.”
Leaning close to Pavel, Evans asked, “What key? Hang in there!”
“The Torah says that God banished humanity from Eden to keep people from the Tree of Life,” Pavel continued, gasping for breath to form each word.
Turning his palms and eyes upward, as his chest heaved, Pavel said, “Maybe there is a God. Maybe He meant what He said.”
And then Pavel exhaled for the last time.
The Soul of the Matter
Dan Lawson, a former government cyber-intelligence analyst, is surprised to be contacted by his estranged friend Stephen Bishop, a renowned geneticist. Stephen says that he’s discovered amazing information within DNA, including evidence of a creator, and needs Dan’s help to protect his findings. Dan is skeptical and wonders whether he is being manipulated, or if the recent illness of Stephen’s only child, Ava, has caused his childhood friend to fall back on religion for answers to questions best left to science. Spurred by his desire for proof that life has meaning, however, Dan puts aside his doubts and agrees to help.
When an experiment goes terribly awry, Dan realizes he must get to the bottom of Stephen's discoveries. With the help of Trish Alighieri, a pediatric oncologist trying to save Ava’s life, Dan desperately searches for answers—including whether the human soul can survive science’s conquest of nature.