The Ladder Project

by Bill Scott

We may never know the origin of the COVID-19 pandemic, how it came to be, or who if anyone was responsible. One individual’s guess is as good as anyone else’s.

We can be assured of this. Life itself has been at war with unseen enemies for millions, if not billions of years, as evidenced by living beings constantly evolving from one state to another to survive.

If not for evolution, man would have been erased from the Earth ages ago. And as such, deceit may be our greatest weapon. It is unthinkable that one nation has not thought of using evolution to gain power.

The Ladder Project is a fictitious novel based on imagination and current events. But one thing is clear. Covid-19 is merely a glimpse of what may be our future.


Chapter One

The floor looks different from down here, he thought as he strained to focus on a wood-grained pattern spanning a horizontal landscape. It appeared to end far away where he imagined a pinhole of light racing towards him at one-thousand miles-per-hour. He made no attempt to move out of its way. He could not have moved even if he had wanted. It was as if plastic wrap had been slammed down over his body and pinned him to the floor. The tunnel he envisioned stopped directly beneath an antique cuckoo clock—a grotesque Salvador Dali creation with a dying bird and a missing hour-hand.

Mark Todd lay motionless for a time. He had the urge to go back to sleep, but the buzzing in his brain mimicked a noisy alarm clock without a snooze button.

In addition to a torrent of confusion, a spectacular show of brightly colored lights accompanied a persistent throbbing that radiated shards of lightning throughout his skull. He tried to focus on a point at the end of his nose. It looked huge and appeared to be decorated with red paint like that of a circus clown.

Immediately before the lights went out, he remembered opening the door to his apartment and placing his keys on a small, walnut tableone of the remaining heirlooms he had decided to keep after his parents disappeared. What once was a table lay thoroughly disassembled in front of him. He reached up and grasped the doorframe and, with a great deal of effort, pulled himself into a standing position.

Fumbling around in his left-rear pocket, he pulled out a handkerchief and attempted to wipe the blood from his face. It came off in pieces, telling him whoever left him in such a disorganized heap must have vacated the premises long before he regained consciousness.

He groped his way to the far end of the living room and into the kitchen where he located a tall, green bottle resting on the kitchen sink. Pouring a generous amount of J&B into a short glass, he added an inch or two of tap water and slammed it down, resulting in a familiar seizure of coughing and wheezing that accompanied it.

“Shit, how can anybody drink this crap?” He shuddered. The first slug of scotch always gave him the willies...the way castor oil affected him when his mother tried to force it through his clamped jaws. Immediately, he poured a second one.

Making his way to the couch, he fumbled with the telephone dial several times before managing to generate a number in a format that Ma Bell recognized. The infernal buzzing of the phone terminated with a groggy but familiar voice on the other end of the line.

“Harry here,”“Hello? Hello?”

“Harry…it’s Mark,” the man said. “I need you to come to my apartment immediately.”

Harry was a pain in the ass. Mark hated having a babysitter, but Walter had insisted on providing him with a nannie, and he had chosen Harry for that task.

“What’s up, big fella?” he asked.

“Somebody rearranged my scalp when I got home.”

“Why doesn’t that surprise me?” Harry mumbled in response. “I’ve been meaning to bring you up-to-date on the perils of jealous husbands.”

Mark waved his left index finger around in front of his eyes, trying to focus on the tiny swirls that formed his fingerprint. “Say, what time is it anyway?”

“Are you okay?”

“I think soa little disoriented, perhaps.”

“It’s two in the morning, for Christ sakes, can’t it wait?”

“Listen you insensitive weasel,” Mark shouted. “I need your help, and I need it right now!”

“Awright, awright,” he said. “I’ll be there in fifteen minutes.”

Mark took a quick look around the apartment and found everything in order, everything but his aching body that is. He pulled a tray of ice cubes out of the Frigidaire and made an ice pack out of an old dishrag. Two cubes escaped and skittered across the floor, but Mark paid no mind and made his way back to the living room, collapsed on the sofa and continued to collect his thoughts.

In a short time, there was a familiar knock on the door. Two knocks, a pause, followed by three knocks—Harry Swanson’s trademark.

“Come in,” Mark said, loud enough for any normal human being to hear. But Harry, being abnormal in Mark’s estimation, knocked a second time.

“Goddamit,” Mark cursed as he struggled to rise from the sofa. Before he had circumvented the coffee table, Harry was standing in the room.

“Doggies, Jethro,” Harry remarked, imitating Jed Clampett from an episode of the Beverly Hillbillies, “you look like you been sorting wildcats in a burnin’ hayloft.”

Mark tossed him a look of disgust, struggled back to the couch, and plopped himself down again. He reapplied the hastily made ice pack to his forehead. Two additional cubes escaped, skittered across the floor, and bounced off the wall.

“Who did it?” Harry asked.

“Damned if I know,” Mark replied. “The last thing I remember is dropping my keys on the table by the door.”

Mark took another sip of his drink, pointed to the bar, and said, “You want one?”

“Pity,” Harry said, kicking ice cubes out of his path and making a beeline for the scotch.

“Did you call Walter?” Harry shouted from the kitchen.

“And tell him what?”

“You wuz robbed?”

“Nothing’s missing as far as I can tell, and I don’t think Walter would be interested in a fucked-up robbery.”

Harry took a seat in the chair in front of the coffee table. Setting his drink down, he retrieved a cigarette from a partially squashed pack of Lucky’s. Fumbling around in his pocket, he produced a well-worn, World War II Zippo, ignited it, lit the Lucky, and leaned back blowing smoke making a circle above his head.

“What’s the plan?” he asked.

“We need to get to the lab ASAP.”


“Right fuckin’ now.”

“You don’t wanna call Walter first?”

“No, I do not wanna call Walter, not until we check on a few things first.

“Harry, call security and give ‘em a heads up,” Mark ordered. “Tell ‘em to go to a medium-alert state until we get there. I’ll clean up and we’ll get moving.”

“Roger that,” Harry said and picked up the phone to make the call.

The main gate of Barksdale Air Force Base was located along Airline Drive. It was manned by a young Air Force second lieutenant and three lesser-ranked APs armed with M-14s.

Carpet-bombing of North Vietnam was cranking up into high gear. At least one bomb-laden, B-52 Stratofortress took off from Barksdale every hour around the clock. Even a squirrel was expected to show ID before making it through any of the gates.

The officer on duty gave Mark the customary salute and assured him that after a thorough investigation they had uncovered no evidence of an attempted entry into the lab, and nothing unusual had taken place.

“Don’t salute me, you idiot. Do you see any bars on my shoulders?” God, I hate these gung-ho military idiots, he thought.

“No, sir,” the lieutenant replied, dropping his salute and re-assuming parade rest at the entrance to the guardhouse.

After Mark and Harry had signed the logbook, Harry drove to the building where the lab was located, parked in his assigned parking space, and they both exited the vehicle. Mark entered his security code into a keypad, and they entered the building.

At four in the morning, the lab was devoid of PhDs running around in their white coats. They wouldn’t start filtering in until around six.

Half the lab was occupied by an environmentally controlled computer room. A recently acquired IBM System/360 was busily running overnight calculations. Twenty-one tape drives spun silently, like the gears of some monstrous mechanical apparatus contemplating the end of the world. Harry made a detour to the printer room to search through recent reports, looking for anything with their name on it.

“Nada,” he said as he entered the cubicle where Mark was sitting.

“Find out what time Langstrum will come in today.”

“He usually gets here around eight,” Harry replied. “You want me to call him?”

“Let him sleep... he’s gonna need it. Get the conference room set up for a meeting. I need an update on yesterday’s progress.”

* * *

Skimming through the reports, Mark found the overnight printouts not much different from the day before, and the day before thatone depressing failure after another. Not since 1953, when biologists Watson and Crick conceived of the double helix with rungs connecting two strands to form a molecule of DNA, had any serious advances been made in their research. It was apparent to Mark that his Einsteins weren’t about to disappoint him by breaking the tedious trend.

Unlocking the code to life’s greatest mysteries had confounded the largest single collection of assembled scientific researchers since the Manhattan Project. No less urgent, success on The Ladder Project depended on the same magnitude of scientific breakthroughs. It had become an obsession of the CIA: if the Russians succeeded in being first in the creation of artificial life, they would surely attempt to use it to gain world domination. Dr. Langstrum was the ‘you’re it’ character in the game of biogenetic tag.

Peter Langstrum was a graduate of MIT and was the best choice the US government could come up with to manage the scientists in The Ladder Project, much as Oppenheimer had done the same in the Manhattan Project. Wanting someone capable of coming up with fresh ideas, and his thesis, “Single-Molecule Detection and DNA Sequencing by Synthesis”, caught the attention of the director of the CIA, and he was hired before he completed his post-doc.

In his paper, Peter had concluded the success of creating synthetic organisms depended upon the ability to rearrange polynucleotide chains in such a way as to expedite the process of injecting DNA molecules into bacterial cells.

Langstrum was assisted by a team of twenty more molecular biology specialists, housed in a building inside Barksdale Air Force Base, just outside of Shreveport, in Bossier City, Louisiana.

Mark’s opinion of Langstrum was that he was an anally retentive asshole with a personality akin to a pile of dog shit. No matter. He was also certain Langstrum felt the same about him. Like Leslie R. Groves who was in charge of the Manhattan Project, Mark Todd knew he was hated and despised by the teams assigned under Langstrum. He could care less. His management style was more like that of George S. Patton who expected to be treated as an unquestionable god, whereas Oppenheimer was a captivating individual and a charismatic figure that could easily draw people’s attention and interesta quality he found missing in Langstrum.

Growing up in Massachusetts on Rachel Cove in the forties, Mark Todd had been blessed with wealthy parents and a lavish lifestyle. His family and everyone who they associated with were incurable, liberal democrats.

His parents were crushed when Eisenhower beat Adlai Stevenson in the ’52 presidential election. When Ike prevailed again in ’56, they rolled in their virtual graves.

But when one of their own bested Nixon in 1960, they were vindicated at last, and the mumbling and grumbling gave way to wild, drunken orgies that seemed to go on forever.

Mark, on the other hand, always detested politics and ran from political discussions whenever they came up. Nevertheless, his parent’s wealth and political connections bought his way into a world-class education and went on to serve him well during the early days of his career.

After graduating from high school, Cambridge, Massachusetts, became his home. He rarely saw his parents much after that. One day at the end of his senior year at MIT, during a class, out of the blue, the dean called him to his office and told him his parents had gone missing somewhere out in the Atlantic, east of Nahant. Neither the boat nor his parents were ever recovered.

He gave them an extravagant memorial that drew the elite who’s-who from all around the New England area. The president’s brother Teddy gave the eulogy and the president himself sent a wreath that would rival first prize at the Kentucky Derby. In the spring, Mark became one of the few millionaires to graduate from MIT. No relatives showed up to help mark the auspicious occasion.

After that, Mark stayed on at the university for two more years to get his engineering degree, and another four to receive his doctorate. His thesis was entitled, DNA Evolution and Replication of Proteins and Genes.

An old friend of the family landed him a civilian job with the CIA, where he became intensely interested in project management. This led to him being assigned as Project Managerto The Ladder Project.

Mark Todd never married. The reason wasn’t that he didn’t care for women, he just didn’t care for them very long. Not much of a drinker, he satisfied his urges by making his rounds to the bars in Cambridge and picking up the occasional coed who found him interesting enough for a one-night stand. There was a new supply of women every fall, and he would pick through them like one would search for pecans in a canister containing mostly peanuts. He rarely went out with a woman more than once. Never receiving love from his own mother and father, growing up as a strange sort of orphan, he never got lonely and the thought of starting a family was foreign to him. He had known families for sure, but he never entertained the idea of having one himself.

Mark did have at least one romance that started off with promise, but the moment she told him she planned on becoming the mother of at least three, he avoided her as one would avoid a stack of radioactive plutonium. He could not fathom being a father.

 "The Ladder Project" by Bill Scott



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