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01:03 Charlie, Hama-n, Thursday, October 2
Stars glittered in the vast Arabian sky, giving Rafiq Zayed just enough light to work without night scopes. Flint chinked against his shovel as he scraped sand from beneath the electrified perimeter fence that guarded the 12,000-acre laboratory compound.
The night had cooled, but he could smell the residual warmth of the day's sun trapped in the deeper layers of desert sand. He could feel it rise softly against the skin he'd left exposed around his eyes. The rest of his face was hidden by a black turban he'd wound around his head, Bedouin-style. The camel he'd hobbled behind him snorted softly as it tugged at sparse tufts of dead grass.
A dog barked suddenly in the distance.
Rafiq stilled, listened. Waited.
A car door slammed somewhere and an engine started, the sound gradually dying into the distance. Then all was quiet again—that expansive hush peculiar to the desert, marred only by the distant murmur of ocean waves against sandstone cliffs.
He quickly secured the shovel to his camel bag, ready to refill the hole on his return. He could leave no sign that he had ever been here. The slightest mistake would alert the enemy and instantly trigger a biological attack on the United States. Millions would fall ill within hours, and then the violence would spread—people killing each other in a wave of pure murderous terror.
And it would only be a precursor, the first in a series of events designed to topple the U.S. government and seize control of the global economy.
He narrowed his eyes as he studied the massive black Nexus Research and Development Corporation laboratory complex in the distance. The antidote, the answer to it all, lay somewhere in those buildings in this secure U.S. corporate compound on Hama-nian soil. He'd memorized the layout from blueprints secured from the French construction company that had built the place. He needed to get into the fourth quadrant on the left.
He squashed himself flat, wriggled through the hole. Once on the other side, he dusted sand from his tunic and consulted his watch. The soft green glow showed he had about three hours of complete darkness left, max.
He hunkered down and ran low over the sand, his hand primed to grasp the jambiya at his waist at the slightest sign of movement in the night shadows. * * *
Dr. Paige Sterling worked with customary slow and calculated movements, air hissing gently through the yellow hose that plugged into the back of her bright blue biohazard suit. The inside of her suit smelled faintly like the inside of a new plastic bucket, and her flexible helmet restricted her peripheral vision. But she was in her comfort zone—the Biosafety Level 4 lab where she routinely handled pathogens for which there was no known cure. Here, no task could be rushed. Every action had to be measured, because one slip would mean death.
This was her kind of science, gut-checking, high-stakes work that required a level head and laser focus at all times. This is where Paige did preemptive research that she hoped would help save lives one day, and it took a particular personality to work regularly in maximum containment like this, an ability that far exceeded mere scientific competence. Paige prided herself in being such a personality, and her knack for maintaining her cool in the hot zone was a trait she carried well beyond the lab and into her personal life.
She picked up the vial she'd taken from the cryogenic container that had arrived in the shipment room early that morning and lumbered over to the stainless steel lab table in her heavy yellow boots. She held the vial up to the light. It was labeled simply with a bar code that meant nothing to her. But it was the contents of the glass tube that piqued her interest.
This sample had arrived early this morning in a biohazard container from the Ishonga region of The Republic of the Congo and had been destined for Quadrant 3, not for her quadrant. This had puzzled her.
Her disease—her exclusive research project—had its origins among a unique and elusive troop of bonobos that resided only in the remote Blacklands region near Ishonga. It was work her parents had started, and the Blacklands was where her parents had vanished 17 years ago. The unsolved mystery of their disappearance was something that haunted Paige, and nothing ate at Paige Sterling like an unanswered question—which was why she'd taken the sample against her better judgment.
"Curiosity killed the cat, Paige," she muttered as she emptied the biological sample onto a cutting tray. She selected a scalpel and began to slice tiny bits of tissue into the size of pinheads. Paige worked meticulously, taking care not to puncture the latex gloves she had taped to her sleeves. The sample had been marked Biohazard Level 4. She had no idea why—and she wasn't taking any chances.
She reached for an empty test tube in the rack to her right...and sensed sudden movement behind her.
Someone was in her office, on the other side of the thick glass pane that separated it from her lab. Paige turned her upper body very slowly, enabling a view round the side of her visor. But she could see nothing.
A whisper of nerves died in the hiss of her suit. She shook herself. The lab compound was secure. There were guards, electrified fences, pass codes, video surveillance in the corridors. It was almost two in the morning. No one could be in here now, apart from the bonobos in the cages in the next room. Her pygmy chimps always seemed to sense her presence and get excited. Perhaps she'd just sensed them this time.
But she couldn't quite shake the unease that murmured through her. And that in itself unsettled Paige. She never felt skittish in her lab. She couldn't afford to. She told herself it was just guilt at having "borrowed" one of the samples that had been shipped into the Nexus compound early this morning.
She forced her attention back to her task, telling herself it was probably just some other disease from the same region that Quadrant 3 was researching. But deep down she knew this was unlikely. She dropped the samples into the test tube and filled it with a fast-drying plastic resin that penetrated and hardened the tissue almost immediately. She removed the now-hard cylinder of tissue and lumbered carefully over to the ultramicrotome, a diamond-bladed, tissue-slicing machine that produced ultrathin sections. She shaved the cylinder into minute rounds, placed them onto a copper sample screen and dropped the screen into the electron microscope holder.
Paige steadied herself with two deep breaths, then seated herself at the microscope station, mindful of the hose connection in the back of her suit. She adjusted the dials and peered into the microscope, allowing her gaze to relax as she entered life at the cellular level—her world. But as she began to move through thread-like neurons and pods of coiled proteins, her heart skipped a beat. Her fingers tightened on the dial. She zoomed in, and everything leaped to higher magnification. An unspecified fear began to leak through her veins.
This couldn't be true.
She zoomed to an even higher magnification, the images pouncing out at her. And her heart began to thud. There was no mistake. This was human brain tissue, and it was riddled with holes like a sponge. It also had the distinctive prions—malformed proteins—that were the biological signature of her recombinant pathogens, diseases that were not supposed to exist beyond the walls of this lab. Diseases that, until now, she had only seen manifested in her primate trial groups.
Never in humans.
Paige tried to swallow against the tightness in her throat. She had no idea what went on in Quadrant 3, just as the scientists in Q3 should have no knowledge of her work in Q4. Keeping the various quadrants compartmentalized was the Nexus way of guarding highly sensitive and incredibly lucrative industrial secrets. But this—this just didn't make sense.
She quickly readjusted the dials and began to work her way through the microscopic coils of recombinant proteins, unable to shake the horrifying thought that the tissue she was looking at came from the brain of a person who had died from a disease created in her lab. By her.
How could it have been introduced into a human population without her knowledge? Had someone stolen her work? She felt nauseous.
The possibility of a Nexus experiment falling into the wrong hands had always been her greatest fear. It was an inherent risk with the kind of preemptive research they did here. And it was one of reasons for the all the secrecy and security.
She tweaked the dial, leaned closer to the screen, perspiration beading on her forehead. For years she'd been working on isolating the agent that caused an aggressive form of transmissible spongiform encephalopathy—or TSE—in the Blacklands bonobo troop. The disease was related to mad cow disease or Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease in humans. But while those illnesses took years to manifest, this particular TSE ate through the brains of bonobos like wildfire and caused intense aggression in the host, which in turn helped facilitate the spread of the pathogen through bodily fluids. Death came in a matter of days.
It was frightening to witness.
Her father and mother had been the first to identify the rare disease, and Paige, picking up on the work of her parents, had finally isolated the causative agent more than a decade later.
The result was earth-shattering. Her findings went against the grain of all current scientific thinking, yet she'd been unable to share her discovery with the rest of the world because of her legal obligations to Nexus.
Once she'd isolated the causative agent, she'd experimented by manipulating DNA and found that she could create a whole subset of TSE-style pathogens that affected the primate brain in different ways. Then, using her parents'observations, she was able to zero in on an antidote that was currently in the testing phase.
The pathogen she was looking at right now was unmistakably one of her recombinant diseases, a virulent variation of the original bonobo pathogen that, if released, had the potential to spread like wildfire in the human population.
Paige sat back. She felt shaky. Hot. She tried to breathe slowly, tried to tell herself there had to be a logical explanation for this. But who could she ask? She'd be fired, possibly even prosecuted, just for taking the sample.A confidentiality breach at Nexus was a deadly serious offense.
Then she sensed it again—a sudden movement behind the glass. Paige jumped, spun round and bumped her knee against the station. But she couldn't see anyone. She cursed softly. She was imagining things.
She'd lost her sense of control, and this was dangerous.
It was time to get out of the hot zone. Besides, she needed to digest what she'd just seen. She had to formulate the questions before she could even begin to hypothesize a scenario that might explain her horrific discovery.
Paige pushed her chair back and stood, feeling vaguely nauseous and way overheated in her suit. She lumbered over to the steel door, reached for the circular air lock, and hesitated. She shouldn't leave the tissue samples where someone might find them. Although this was her private lab and access was limited to her alone, after what she'd seen tonight, she wasn't taking chances.
She moved back to the lab table, collected the evidence, placed it in a waste carton, and waddled over to the small on-site incinerator. She dropped the carton into the hatch, sealed the door.
Paige watched the glow of flame through the little glass window, making doubly sure the evidence was completely devoured. This was one incineration she certainly wasn't going to log, and that, too, was breaking Nexus protocol.
By stealing that vial this morning, she'd opened some kind of Pandora's box.
She exited the lab with a lump of fear in her throat.