—Kira Peikoff, author of No Time to Die and Die Again Tomorrow
“After a devastating epidemic that changes the very nature of humans, two sisters, an epidemiologist, and a neurobiologist hold the key to humanity's survival.”—Library Journal
BEGINNING OF THE END
They call it Pandoravirus. It attacks the brain. Anyone infected may explode in uncontrollable rage. Blind to pain, empty of emotion, the infected hunt and are hunted. They attack without warning and without mercy. Their numbers spread unchecked. There is no known cure.
Emma Miller studies diseases for a living—until she catches the virus. Now she’s the one being studied by the U.S. government and by her twin sister, neuroscientist Isabel Miller. Rival factions debate whether to treat the infected like rabid animals to be put down, or victims deserving compassion. As Isabel fights for her sister's life, the infected are massing for an epic battle of survival. And it looks like Emma is leading the way . . .
“Harry has a first-rate speculative mind, well grounded in current science. The ideas he puts forth are extremely engaging.” —Kirkus Reviews
“A good storyteller . . . harrowing stuff!” —The New York Times Book Review
“Like Crichton and H.G. Wells, Harry writes stories that entertain roundly while they explore questions of scientific and social import.” —Publishers Weekly
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CHUKOTKA AUTONOMOUS OKRUG, SIBERIA
Infection Date 7, 1500 GMT (3:00 a.m. Local)
The sound of the zipper on Emma Miller's tent woke her with a start. Cold air flooded in. Backlit in dim starlight she saw a man, his breath fogged. Her heart raced as she fumbled for her flashlight ... and found her pistol. "Who's there?" She flicked the light on. It was the blond Russian soldier who had saved her life hours earlier. His pupils were black and unresponsive. "Stop!" He said nothing. She kicked at him. "Stop-stop!" He crawled atop her. She dropped the flashlight while flicking the pistol's safety off.
Bam! In the flash, his head rocked back with a hole in his brow.
Sgt. Sergei Travkin collapsed heavily onto Emma's shins. "Oh-my-God!"
A knife stabbed her tent and sliced it open. Men hoisted Emma — whimpering before she thought to hold her breath — into the shockingly cold air. The ever sober young scientist loosed an animal sound. "Nooo! No!" Someone wrenched from her grip the pistol Travkin had given her after being infected. The pistol with which she had killed him.
Emma's sobs merged with her shivering. Anonymous men clad in personal protective equipment unzipped her blue jeans and yanked. Goosebumps sprang from bare thighs. A bright lantern blinded her. Her jeans snagged at each ankle. "Stoooop!" she screamed. "PPlease!" Buttons popped off her blouse. "Wait!" An ugly knife sliced through the front of her bra. She covered her breasts. Gloved fingers found the elastic of her panties. She clamped her knees together and stooped in a futile attempt at modesty. Her teeth clenched against an overpowering chatter. She shook from the cold, from the shock of killing a man and from the incapacitating terror at what may lie ahead.
"Would ... somebody ...?" Frigid spray stung her midriff. She doubled over with a grunt. Three men in gowns, hoods, boots, and gloves sprayed disinfectant through a wand, pumped a cylinder like an exterminator, and scrubbed her roughly with a brush at the end of a telescoping pole. She willed herself to stand upright, raising quivering arms and turning circles in place, as soldiers rolled Emma's tent into a single biohazard bundle.
Travkin's dilated pupils hadn't contracted even in the brilliance of her flashlight. Did he infect me? Noxious liquid burned her eyes and fouled her mouth. Despite its awful taste, she swished, gargled, and spat. The pool brush scraped at her hair. She grabbed it and used it to scrub her head and face herself. "He wouldn't stop!" she shouted before coughing and spitting. He never got closer than my knees. Maybe I'm okay?
Soldiers hoisted the impermeable crimson bag, covered in prickly black biohazard symbols, by loops at its corners and carried away her tent, parka, and backpack along with Travkin's remains. The faint rays of her flashlight shone blood-red through its plastic.
Buckets of cold water cascaded over her head. "Jee-zus!" One after another. "Aaaaw!" Her chest seized so tight she couldn't even breathe.
A tall French medic extended a blanket at the end of the pole. She wrapped herself in it but could force no words past locked jaws. The medic draped a second blanket over her head and waved away Russian soldiers' rifles. In the distance — and upwind — the World Health Organization's Surge Team One, and her own Surge Team Two, which had arrived just that day, watched in grim silence. From the shadows all witnessed their worst fears materialize as the grip of rigid infection control protocols seized a colleague.
"Hang tough, Emma!" "You can do it!" "You can beat it!" Their accents were varied, but their theme was consistent. "Farewell, Emma Miller." She cried as she stumbled barefoot across hard ground, her feet already numb. The medic kept his distance but illuminated her path with a lantern. Emma heard disturbing noises with each jarring misstep that must have emanated from her.
She asked where they were going. The French medic replied, "Quarantine." Her destiny was now binary. Either she'd contracted the new disease, whatever the hell it was, or not. Like a prisoner in a Roman coliseum, Emma awaited her thumbs up or thumbs down.
Whirring sounds grew louder — air pumps at quickerect isolation shelters. Travkin had been hustled into one after fighting off the suicidal attack on their landing zone. Emma had watched from a distance and upwind as he, too, had been stripped and scrubbed. But the shelters had been off-limits when she'd come to thank him. Seven hours later, eyes black, it had been Travkin who visited Emma.
The isolation shelters reminded Emma of the bouncy house her brother rented for her nephew's twelfth birthday. Emma and her twin sister, tipsy from the wine at the grown-ups' table, had giggled and jumped like schoolgirls. But those playpens maintained their shape by positive pressure. Isolation shelters were the opposite — held up by poles as their tainted miasma was sucked out through HEPA filters, removing micron-sized particles one hundred air changes an hour. Negative pressure kept germs from escaping the openings.
"What about the other guy?" she asked in vibrato, shivering. "I don't wanta catch it from him."
"Corp. Leskov died," the medic replied.
Oh, God! Please! I'll be good. Please! Okay. Focus. Concentrate. Science.
"Blown pupils," she said, "c-c-can be from intracranial pressure." Her sister Isabel, a neuroscientist, had once told her about that phenomenon. "How'd Travkin get out?"
"He attacked my medical team," replied a new man, also with a French accent, also in PPE, who arrived to escort them the last few meters to the bouncy houses. "Fractured my doctor's windpipe." The open-air site of the mobile isolation ward was brightly lit. "Eye gouging and asphyxiation for one medic." Emma lay on a gurney, as bidden. "Broken neck for the other." They peeled away her blankets. Emma reflexively covered her breasts and pubis. Gas heaters bathed her in blessed warmth. "You're lucky to be alive." Emma scoffed at any mention of her good fortune, emitting a puff of fogged breath.
A wireless blood pressure cuff squeezed her biceps. A thermometer was clamped to her fingertip. The prick of an IV needle caused her to jump. A drip bag flowed cold into her arm. "Antibiotics," the doctor said.
"Cipro?" He snorted. Better. Last-ditch. Kept out of use to prevent resistance. A doomsday-stopper. But oh, the things epidemiology professors know. Statistically, the new disease was probably a virus — not a bacterium — as impervious to antibiotics as fungi, protists, prions, protozoans, and worms, other tiny predators that ate their prey from the inside.
When she'd asked others on her team earlier how bad the new illness was, it had strangely been a big secret. But she asked again, and as a professional courtesy, or as required by the Hippocratic oath, the French doctor seemed to reply honestly. "Until we get the pathogen's taxonomy done and ICD assigns it a name, we're calling the illness SED: severe encephalopathic disease."
"Severe?" Emma asked. "So, a high initial-case fatality rate?"
"Fifty percent," the doctor replied. Christ! An incubation period rivaling cholera. First symptoms around two hours. An even shorter latency period. People are contagious before first symptoms, which are gastroenteritis, chills, nausea, vomiting, respiratory distress, joint pain, high fever peaking at hour four in convulsions and acute intracranial pain. The medic laid a third blanket onto Emma, but it did nothing to stop her trembling. "Direct mortality is between four and six hours of exposure. But survivors then report feeling no discomfort at all."
"Whatta you mean, direct mortality?" she barely forced out.
"Well," he explained, "Travkin's death wasn't direct."
"Oh." Jeeze! "So, if you survive, what th-then? What does it do?"
The doctor glanced at a nearby unit, different from the others in that its vinyl walls were opaque, not clear. Bright light leaked through the zippered seals of its single doorway. "We don't know a lot yet." Just outside the unit lay the unzipped empty body bag from which protruded the remains of Emma's tent. Her flashlight still shone inside.
"You're doing an autopsy?" Emma said. "Of Travkin?"
"You made a mess of his cranium," the doctor replied in tacit confirmation.
"What's the pathogen's vector?" Emma asked.
"It's not zoonotic. It didn't mutate and leap species. The Russians were drilling for oil when a mud logger caught it. Apparently, as an early test for hydrocarbons before the spectrographic analysis is done, old-timers taste the rock cuttings. Our guess is the pathogen was frozen a few dozen meters under the permafrost 30 to 40 thousand years ago. The crew, fifty-one, mostly men, all got sick. The Russians called Geneva. As soon as Surge Team One was assembled here, they declared a sudden-onset emergency and called for your Surge Team Two."
"Fifty-one people?" The other isolation shelters were empty. "Where are they?"
"The half that survived the acute phase... . Well, you ran into a few of them when your helicopter landed. The Russians are rounding up the others in the forest."
Jesus! Emma thought. "So, Encephalopathic? It causes ... b-brain damage?"
In a terrifyingly sympathetic tone, he replied, "To the cerebral cortex," and laid a hand on her shoulder.
"Is the damage reversible?"
He shook his head.
"So, p-permanent brain damage?"
"Structural alterations. In every victim we've studied. I'm sorry."
Oh-God-oh-God-oh-God! Get a grip. Get a grip! But she couldn't. Science! "What," she said, choking on her fears, "what does the damage do?"
"Did you note Travkin's lack of emotional responsiveness?" He again put his hand on her now-quaking shoulder. "And they can be very, very violent."
The tall medic plunged a syringe into the injection port on Emma's IV.
"What's thaaah —" Emma started to ask just before tumbling into a calm and comfy bliss. She smiled at arriving Russian soldiers, armed and in camouflaged protective gear, so unlike the solid green worn by the très chic French. Change of procedure after Travkin? she wondered, barely clinging to reality against the undertow.
Emma drifted on a river of euphoria. She was Dr. Miller, epidemiology professor, yeah, Johns Hopkins, on assignment, for. . . for the NIH, that's it, and the WHO! That took a lot out of her, so she relaxed into the current. She was Emmy of sunny days playing tennis and swimming, and languid evenings gossiping and flirting. A life in a world-within-a-world, her family's Greenwich country club, in a galaxy far, far away.
In summers, she ventured out of that bubble only for sailing lessons on the Sound, which were the highlights of her poor, poor sister's week. Emma had sports teammates; clubs masquerading as charities for college applications; and boyfriends one after the other, scandalously overlapping. Her identical twin sister, Isabel, in contrast, had mom and dad. The three would binge-watch television series and movies, together — one of Dad's John Wayne movies or whatever for each of Izzy's romantic comedies. They thus ruined Isabel's scant chance for a social life by providing her refuge from some awkward years.
Both twins, now thirty-two, were five-foot-four, both 110 pounds, both fit, both pretty for God's sake. Both were groomed, educated, and wellraised in a wealthy, high-achieving family. Both had light brown hair that turned blond in summers. But Emma's was cut short for convenience on these grown-up scientific adventures. The tips of her hair now felt frozen and her arm cold as she twirled a strand. It had once been long and lustrous like Isabel's still was. Emma felt envious. A medic placed her arm back under the blanket.
Emma raised her wobbly head. Someone was dissecting Travkin's brain in the opaque bouncy house. Was hers next? She had to warn her siblings. "I wasn't told 'bout the risks."
"You were here," the doctor replied, "to determine whether there were any wildlife hosts or amplifiers. You weren't supposed to be on this side of the isolation barrier."
"Then I got attacked! Oops! We're sure it's transmiss'ble human-to-human?" A nod. "Also rel'vant. Listen. You owe me. You gotta warn my sister and brother."
"I'm sorry," the doctor replied. "I can't do that. We have strict orders to keep this totally secret." He raised a tablet. "For my report, where did you get the pistol?"
"From Travkin! He knew they turn violent? So he gave me his gun? He was ... protective. I thought, you know, he liked me? Pro'lly wanted to make sure I was okay."
The distracted doctor said, "Or he came to rape you. Both women on the rig's catering crew were infected during sexual assaults." He gave orders in French to his staff. Among the uninfected, life went on. A medic read something off a monitor. The doctor typed something on his tablet. But in Emma's world, all was ending. She tried to focus. HEPA filtration. "It's airborne?" The doctor's silence chilled her worse than the Siberian air. "If it passes that easily, just from breathing, everyone is ... doomed! The whole fracking world!" The doctor, medics, and armed Russian soldiers were all listening now.
They helped Emma rise and ushered her to her very own clear plastic cube. The tall medic held the drip bag over her head. The short medic held out earbuds, "To talk." The doctor held out a hand, muttering about needing visual observation. They wanted to watch her change into what Travkin had become. She gave him her blankets and covered herself with her hand and forearm. Her skin was streaked red from scrubbing. The doctor droned on and on about ensuring her a high quality of care. In a small act of defiance, Emma turned away to uncover herself and inserted her earbuds. In the silence that followed, however, her fears quickly overcame her defenses.
A lucky near miss, death or brain damage? Buy a ticket and spin the wheel.
In the cube, a medic hung the bag from a hook beside a bare, metal-framed cot and plugged more tubes into Emma's plumbing before leaving her alone. She then curled up on the plastic floor in the fetal position. Breathe. Just breathe. She was trembling. Science. Science. On the uninfected side of the transparent walls, they worked in the open. Air would dilute the pathogen, reducing its concentration and the risk of infection.
Emma considered whether the two Russian soldiers who stood outside would shoot if she ran for it, and concluded they would. But would they also shoot her even if she didn't bolt? Should she make a break now before she grew too ill? But to where? Naked in frozen northeastern Siberia? Hunted like the rest of her kind? She tried to focus. Science.
"Can I have a clock?" When asked if she wanted local, GMT or time since exposure, she chose the last. Lab time. Who cares about local, GMT or time back home?
Which was where? Her sister had fretted endlessly about rootlessness when their parents died in a car wreck their sophomore year of college. After the funeral, they had packed all their belongings into storage units. A month later, their childhood home was sold, and the three siblings were set adrift. No more shrine to childhood memories. No parents celebrating academic accomplishments or consoling broken hearts. Her sister Isabel had spent her next few summers with their big brother, Noah, and his young wife, clinging to family. Emma got a string of jobs — and boyfriends — to fill her school breaks. But now she wasn't at home in her apartment in Maryland or in any of the various guys' places she frequented or in nearby Virginia where Noah lived. Emma had people but no place, she thought, as her incomplete life possibly neared its end.
On the laptop screen, a digital clock counted up past 0:31:43.
A new, tall man arrived in full PPE. "Hello?" he said through a mic into her earbuds. "It's Hermann Lange." He pronounced his name in German fashion — "Err-mahn Lang-uh" — even though he was French Swiss. Emma did her best to cover herself. He took his hood off briefly to don a headset and extracted files and a laptop from his satchel.
Excerpted from "Pandora: Outbreak"
Copyright © 2018 Eric L. Harry.
Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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