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Excerpt: The Soul of the Matter, Chapter 4

Bruce Buff

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Editor’s note: We are delighted to offer three excerpts from Bruce Buff’s new novel, The Soul of the Matter, with the permission of Simon & Schuster/Howard Books. See David Klinghoffer’s review here. Find Chapter 3 here.

To work off frustration, Alex decided to walk down the ten flights of stairs to the service entrance instead of taking the elevator.

He had to find out what they were decoding. It didn’t help that he doubted the source of their work and, by extension, Stephen. The encryption they were decoding was extraordinarily sophisticated. It was difficult for a materialist like Alex, who believed only in the natural world, to think that the coded information was based on DNA, despite what Stephen had said. And the apparent relationship of DNA’s coding to the laws of physics was also hard to fathom, yet he seemed to see it himself. The implications were profound.

One of his biggest worries had always been misuse of science by big business and government. It was the reason he had joined a group of scientists and ethicists who met twice a month to discuss the use of science. Until a few months ago, it had seemed a safe thing to do. Then Elena began attending. She had said she was an independent European journalist investigating international networks that were determined to manipulate genetic research to their advantage, regardless of its impact on others.

Curious about what she knew, Alex had gone to coffee with her after a few meetings, often in the same cafe, to discuss the threat they agreed unconstrained science posed to humanity. He found her thoughtful, informed, and well-intentioned. She radiated eastern European mystery and sensuality, with short, frosted blond hair, dark green eyes, and soft features layered on top of what, at times, seemed like a hard foundation. Despite his strong marriage, he was drawn to her, and she seemed to encourage and welcome the interest. It disturbed and enthralled him, though he told himself nothing would ever come of it.

Two weeks ago, she had turned the cafe discussions to Boston­area biotech firms, HBC in particular, saying their work was leading toward unprecedented genetic technology. She talked about Stephen, claiming that he had a myopic focus on research that others would exploit to genetically modify life in unimaginable ways.

To defend him, Alex told her that he knew a little about Stephen’s work and was confident that his intentions were good and broader than she thought.

She pressed him. He told her general things — nothing about encrypted information and his efforts to help Stephen decode it. Elena said that it was clear that Alex was aiding Stephen in important ways and insisted he find out more, lest he become an unwitting tool for the very things he said he opposed.

Alarmed by her interest and pressure, he cut off contact and stopped attending meetings.

It wasn’t enough.

Just that morning, Elena had shown up outside his MIT office. “I understand your confusion,” she said. “You’re in a tough position. You’re worried about Stephen’s work, yet you don’t want to do anything disloyal. I can help you with that.”

Without waiting for his response, she clasped his hands warmly in hers, looked deep into his eyes, and said, “Won’t the peace of mind be worth it?”

With his guard momentarily down, Alex told her Stephen was about to move his work from HBC’s computers to a more secure environment, leaving out his own role in the move.

The warmth in her eyes had been replaced at disconcerting speed by a steely glint. Her previously velvety voice took on an icy hardness. “The world is on the precipice of a tremendous transformation. An enormous amount rests on your willingness to do the right thing.”

Then her voice turned soft again, and she said, “Don’t we have the same interests?” She paused, her eyes lingering on his. “I have to go now. Find out what you can.” As a warm smile crossed her face, she kissed his check, then turned and was gone.

Throughout the rest of the day, Alex struggled with his doubts. Thoughts of Elena elicited a mixture of caution, desire, fear, and excitement. She called several times in the afternoon, but he ignored the calls and the messages she left.

Reaching the service door now, Alex turned up his collar and put on his gloves. It would be a cold walk to his car, parked in a remote section of the lot, hidden from view. He had once thought Stephen’s precautions excessive. Now he hoped they’d be enough.

Stepping outside, he was struck hard by the bitter wind.