The Fifth Horseman: A Novel of Biological Disasterby Richard Sherbaniuk
During the worst drought in memory, a ruthless international conspiracy unleashes Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) as weapons of mass destruction. This deadly poison contaminates the vital waters of the Euphrates River, killing thousands and threatening the lives of millions more. Breeding out of control, the mysterious organism spreads rapidly, endangering… See more details below
During the worst drought in memory, a ruthless international conspiracy unleashes Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) as weapons of mass destruction. This deadly poison contaminates the vital waters of the Euphrates River, killing thousands and threatening the lives of millions more. Breeding out of control, the mysterious organism spreads rapidly, endangering the water supply of entire nations and raising the horrific prospect of an all-out Mid-East War. But the world itself is in danger as well, for the lethal organism possesses terrifying capabilities that even its murderous creators didn't anticipate . . . .
In desperation, the White House summons an expert who patrols the dirtiest, most toxic beat on earth: environmental detective Dr. Michael Zammit. Head of the cutting-edge International Environmental Response Team, Zammit has faced both radioactive waste and hired thugs in his tumultuous career, but can he -- even with his hand-picked team of scientific masterminds -- find a way to save the planet from the greatest threat humanity has ever known?
"The Fifth Horseman is a thrill-a-minute ride. Richard Sherbaniuk combines his impressive knowledge of biology, environmental science, and world history in an enormously entertaining tale of planetary disaster."-Tess Gerritsen, New York Times bestselling author of The Apprentice
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1Dzerzhinsk, Russian Federation, August 25, 2003Mike Zammit stood at the lip of the pit, wreathed in poisonous yellow fumes.He tried to estimate the extent of the damage, aware that he could easily slip to his death down the steep greasy slope. The iridescent green lake a hundred feet below at the bottom of the pit was almost pure acid, and his protective suit would dissolve in seconds. Flakes of white ash from the toxic waste burning in the garbage dumps danced in the air around him, their edges glowing red, like Satan’s version of a winter storm.He had heard Dzerzhinsk called the City of Death because it was the most polluted place on earth. Now he knew it was true.Gazing through the plastic visor of his helmet, with the hiss of oxygen in his ears, feeling its sting in his nostrils, he was grateful his suit was completely sealed. If you smelled anything but oxygen, you were in trouble—you’d sprung a leak. Breathing the yellow fumes would sear your lungs in seconds. He stared at the cascade of rusted drums that spread far below like an avalanche of corrosion. Many had burst and were leaking. He knew some contained industrial acid, but the others? Cyanide, fluorine, PCBs, spent reactor rods—the worst stuff on earth.He looked at the slimy green river that trickled from the factory complex, belching foul black smoke. The few dying trees were the color of charcoal from their coating of soot. They seemed to be lifting beseeching arms toward the diarrhea-brown sky.The mosquito-like whine was unnerving. Zammit turned to his two partners, also encased in the orange bulk of protective suits. “I haven’t heard a Geiger counter scream since Chornobyl. Frankie, what’s going on?”Frances Fitzgerald Richards held up the black box in her hand as Zammit leaned over to look. The red needle quivered at the far end of the dial. The pit zone was as hot as the aftermath of a nuclear explosion.Constantine Palaeov’s muscular body-builder frame tensed as he also leaned to look. At twenty-four, he was new to the emergency field team and the most likely to panic. “Boss, I think we should get out of here.”“Connie, we’re still OK,” replied Zammit. “I’ve been through this a thousand times. There’s a reason we get hired as environmental detectives. We’re thorough, and we take risks no one else will take. Frankie?”Frankie Richards pointed to a pile of ruptured drums, then looked again at the Geiger counter. “Some of those could cause cancer in a block of concrete. We have time, but not much.”Zammit nodded and turned away from the pit. “Over here.”Their boots squelched as they slogged to a crater filled with pink liquid, like melted candy. In this black contaminated landscape, the bright pool was as incongruous as a party hat on a skeleton. Glancing back at the smoke from the factory, Zammit noted the direction of the slight breeze. Gesturing for the others to follow, he walked away from the crater and around the rim, moving upwind and farther away.Facing the pool again from a distance of twenty feet, he ripped open the Velcro flap on one of the pockets of his protective suit and removed what looked like a black golf ball. He pressed a sequence of buttons on the bomblet and a red light glowed. Silently Zammit counted to five, then stepped forward and tossed it underhand into the pool. The instant the tiny incendiary device disappeared into the pink liquid there was an explosive whomp. Electric blue and acid green flames licked toward the sky and black smoke roiled.Zammit glanced at his chronometer and waited. Twenty seconds. Thirty seconds. Sixty seconds. The pool was still burning.“You want me to collect some samples of whatever that crap is, when it finally burns out?” asked Connie Palaeov unhappily.“There’s no point,” replied Zammit. “I’m not a miracle worker, and that’s what it would take to clean up this mess.”“Besides, with all this radiation we better get out of here,” added Richards.Zammit took a final look at the crackling flames and tried to lessen his sense of defeat with some black humor. “Hey, Connie. Got any more of those sausages we had for breakfast? It’s not often you can have a weenie roast in hell.”Palaeov suddenly pointed. Zammit turned. Yury Bogov, their official translator and fixer, ran toward them, stumbling in his bulky protective gear as he gestured back the way they’d come. A former member of the disbanded KGB, Bogov was now a freelance spy, a definite asset in a country as corrupt as Russia. Zammit wiped greasy brown film off his visor so he could see better.A couple of hundred yards away, by his mobile lab, two Mercedes limousines disgorged half a dozen large men. The athleticism suggested by their brightly colored track suits was belied by heavy, slope-shouldered gaits as they shambled toward the troops guarding the lab. They all walked from the shoulders, like bears. Big Russian bears. Zammit’s escort of young soldiers was backing away. Mafia thugs. Bad news.Bogov reached them, panting. “I told you there would be trouble. We shouldn’t have argued, we should have just paid what they asked.”“Maybe,” said Zammit. It wouldn’t be the first time he’d been threatened by people who didn’t want an environmental detective investigating their affairs.They trudged through the barren, devastated landscape toward the mobile lab, black muck sucking at their boots.It was now another fifty yards to the vehicle. Flakes of ash still swirled through the air, but the Geiger counter finally fell silent. Zammit stripped off the helmet and gloves of his protective suit. He wiped his streaming brow and coughed as the air bit his lungs with the acrid smell of sulfur and smoke. How to deal with the six men?“Frankie, what do you think?”Frances Richards pulled off her helmet and gloves, as did the others. She plucked a piece of grit from her long blond hair. “The mafia chief didn’t seem unhappy with the deal we made. Maybe his boys are bored, out for a Sunday drive.”As Zammit assessed the situation, the natural warmth in his sea-blue eyes vanished and hard lines appeared around his eyes and mouth. Three of the track suits stared down the troops, arms folded on top of their huge bellies. The five pale young soldiers supplied by Moscow to protect Zammit’s team were slouched in a tense but hangdog posture of submission that said they were already beaten but still feared attack. Two other track suits poked their heads into the open doorway of the mobile lab. One watched them approach. As they drew near he used his fingers to clear first one nostril, then the other, spraying wads of snot onto the ground.“I thought Neanderthal man was extinct, and here he is having a convention,” said Zammit.“Chechnya war vets,” said Bogov. “We might as well be protected by Boy Scouts.”One of the track suits was urinating against the side of the mobile van. “There can’t be many forms of life lower than these guys,” remarked Zammit.Bogov shrugged. “They exist to eat, drink, fuck, and kill. Mainly drink and kill.”“Any suggestions on how we deal with them?” asked Richards.“More bribes are good. Unless they have orders to murder us. More money would’ve …”“Yury, for the last time,” said Zammit, “our agency isn’t a bank with limitless funds, and we can’t spend that kind of money just to pay off a gangster. We negotiated a fair price.”“Besides,” added Richards, “we’re here on behalf of the government in Moscow.”Bogov coughed. “Here they wipe their asses with the government in Moscow. And our troop bodyguards are conscripts who only shave once a week and never get paid.”As they got closer to the lab, one of the track suits pulled the dead two-headed calf from the interior of the vehicle. Zammit had collected the badly deformed animal from a nearby farm. Holding it by the legs, the gangster spun around as if throwing the hammer, finally sending the carcass soaring through the air toward them as his friends roared with hoarse laughter.“Good distance,” said Richards. “This guy’s a definite for the mutation Olympics.”They passed the dead calf, its two tongues lolling from its two slack mouths. Zammit made a decision. “Frankie, where did you plant the gun?”“It’s clipped behind the third structural rib on your left as you reach through the door.”They walked through the group of six track suits to the lab, ignoring them. The men had the bloated, overfed look of people who ate nothing but fatty, salty food, and too much of it. There was a strong smell of alcohol. Zammit caught the eye of one man and held it briefly. He saw dull curiosity, nothing more. One of the track suits removed his sunglasses to fix Frankie Richards with a predatory stare. As he nudged the man next to him and whispered something, she coolly returned his gaze.Zammit leaned into the vehicle, tossed his gloves and helmet on the seat, and picked up the satellite phone that would connect him with headquarters in Seattle. Pressing the speed-dial with his left thumb, he braced against the door frame, ready for trouble. He faced a hulking crew-cut blond in a magenta-striped navy track suit. The slit Mongol eyes betrayed the genetic legacy of a 13th-century rape that had mingled the genes of Genghis Khan with those of some flaxen-haired Slavic peasant. The thug stared with flat hostility.With his right hand Zammit reached inside the door for the Heckler and Koch .33 caliber automatic. Had they found it? A surge of relief as he grasped the butt. “Me good guy,” he said to the blond. “You bad guy.”Suddenly the connection came through. “Get me Cairo Jackson.” Without taking his eyes from the thug, he delivered a terse report. “Cairo, this is the most poisoned environment I’ve ever seen. Dzerzhinsk’s been a chemical production center for fifty years—mustard gas, DDT, Agent Orange, you name it. They weren’t too careful about how they disposed of their waste. Also, lots of illegal incineration and dumping of radioactives. You can cut the air with a machete and the soil is soaked with dioxin. Flammable pools of chemical cocktail on the surface, drinking water’s cloudy and stinks of kerosene, everybody’s gray-faced and coughing. The only thing higher than the mutation rate is the incidence of alcoholism. There’s nothing we can do. Only Mother Nature can clean this place, and it’s going to take her a long, long time. Anything at your end?”He frowned as his eyes met Frankie’s. “Thousands of people dying in a remote region of Turkey after drinking water from the Euphrates River. That’s all you’ve got?” He listened intently. “The source appears to be the reservoir of the Ataturk Dam.” He raised an inquiring eyebrow at Frankie. She shrugged and shook her head. “If the White House is supervising data gathering, it must be important. You’ll have to brief me later.”Zammit glanced at the track suits surrounding him. Two of them took experimental steps forward as the soldiers shuffled and averted their gaze. It was the thugs’ job to be intimidating, and they must be armed, but there were no weapons in sight. Maybe they just needed a deterrent.“The local primate population is hostile. Hang on.” He pressed the hold button as he swung the gun around the door frame and pointed it at the torso of the blond in the navy track suit, moving the barrel in a slight circle to keep his aim limber. Without taking his eyes from the man, he tilted his head toward Connie and said, “Beads.”The muscular young Russian disappeared into the van and returned immediately with four bottles, two of Martell cognac, two of Johnny Walker whiskey. Smiles split the faces of the track suits, gold bridgework gleaming among teeth the color of tree stumps. Tension disappeared as the bottles were opened and upended. The blond backed away and grinned. He hawked and spat before drinking, then handed the bottle to one of his friends. Frankie was right—the lads were just out for a drive, looking for some fun.“Yury. Remember we got drunk one night and you taught me some Russian insults? I forget how you call someone a walrus’s penis.”“Please, Dr. Zammit, that’s not funny. You don’t have a wife and kids. I do.”A grinning turquoise-blue track suit with lank black hair wiped lips wet with liquor and said something to the translator. Bogov listened, eyes flicking back and forth. “Do you want a missile, very cheap? An SS-25. Forty grand. There’s no launcher, and the guidance system doesn’t work anymore. But the warhead is still live, and it checked out OK a month ago. If you pay cash in American dollars he’ll throw in an armored car and a couple of girls.”Zammit spoke into the phone. “I thought it was impossible, but this place has suddenly gotten filthier. Cairo, I’m coming home.”Copyright © 2001 by Richard Sherbaniuk
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