The Judas Strain

Page 15

He reached and touched the man. He flinched.

"We have to go. Before the crabs decide to return to their forest."

Graff allowed himself to be led down to the forest floor. There were still hundreds of crabs down here; they moved cautiously through them.

Monk broke off a feathery branch of the chestnut tree and swept away any of the crabs that got too near.

Slowly Graff seemed to return to himself, to settle back into his own skin. "I. . . I want one of those crabs."

"We'll have a crabfeed when we get back to the ship."

"No. For study. Somehow they survived the toxic cloud. It could be important." The researcher's voice steadied, in his element.

"Okay," Monk said. "Considering we left all our samples behind, we shouldn't return to the ship empty-handed."

He reached down and snagged up one of the smaller crabs with his prosthetic hand, grabbing it by the back of its shell. The feisty fellow snapped its claws backward at him, straining to get him.

"Hey, no marring the merchandise, buddy. New fingers come out of my paycheck."

Monk went to smash it against a tree trunk, but Graff waved his good arm. "No! We need it alive. Like I said before, there's something odd about their behavior. That bears examination, too."

Monk's jaw tightened in irritation. "Fine, but if this bit of sushi takes a chunk out of me, you're paying for it."

They continued through the plateau forest, wending across the island.

After forty minutes of trekking, the forest thinned and a panoramic cliff-top view opened. The island's main township—named simply The Settlement—spread out along the beach and port. Out in the surrounding sea, beyond Flying Fish Cove, the white castle that was the Mistress of the Seas floated, a cloud in a midnight-blue sky.

Home, sweet home.

Movement drew Monk's eyes to a group of smaller boats, a dozen, rounding Rocky Point, each leaving a contrail of white wake. The group traveled in a wide V, like an attack wing of fighter jets.

A matching group appeared on the other side of the township's port.

Even from here Monk recognized the shape and color of the crafts.

Blue speedboats, long in keel and shallow draft.

"More pirates . . ." Graff moaned.

Monk stared between the two converging groups, two pincers, even more deadly than any red crab. He gaped at what was trapped between them. The Mistress of the Seas.

1:05 P.M.

Lisa stared at the radiograph X-ray.

The portable light box was set up on a desk in the cabin. Behind her, a figure lay sprawled on the bed, a sheet fully covering the patient.


"It looks like tuberculosis," she said. The radiographs of the man's lungs were frothy with large white masses or tubercles. "Or maybe lung cancer."

Dr. Henrick Barnhardt, the Dutch toxicologist, stood at her side, leaning a fist on the table. He had called her down here.

“Ja, but the patient's wife said he'd shown no signs of respiratory distress prior to eighteen hours ago. No coughing, no expectorating, and he does not smoke. And he was only twenty-four years old."

Lisa straightened. They were in the cabin alone. "And you've cultured his lungs?"

"I used a needle to aspirate some of the fluid from one of the lung masses. The content was definitely purulent. Cheesy with bacteria. Definitely a lung abscess, not cancer."

She studied Barnhardt's bearded face. He stood with a bit of a hunch as if his bearish size somehow embarrassed him, but it also gave him a conspiratorial posture. He had not invited Dr. Lindholm into these discussions.

"Such findings are consistent with tuberculosis," she said.

TB was caused by a bacterium, Mycobacterium tuberculosis, a highly contagious germ. And while the clinical history here was definitely unusual, TB could be dormant for years, slow-growing. The man could have been exposed years ago, been a ticking time bomb—then his exposure to the toxic gas could have stressed his lungs enough to cause the disease to spread. The patient would have definitely been contagious at the end.

And neither she nor Dr. Barnhardt wore contamination suits.

Why hadn't he warned her?

"It wasn't tuberculosis," he answered. "Dr, Miller, our team's infectious disease expert, identified the organism as Serratia marcescens, a strain nonpathogenic bacteria."

Lisa remembered her discussion earlier, regarding the patient with normal skin bacteria that was churning out flesh-eating poisons.

The toxicologist confirmed the comparison. "Again we have a benign non-opportunist bacterium turning virulent."

"But, Dr. Barnhardt, what you're suggesting . .."

"Call me Henri. And I'm not just suggesting this. I've spent the past hours searching for similar cases. I found two others. A woman with raging dysentery, literally sloughing out her intestinal lining. Caused by Lactobacillus acidophilus, a yogurt bacterium that is normally a healthy intestinal organism. Then there is a child demonstrating violent seizures, whose spinal tap is churning with Acetobacter aceti, a benign organism found in vinegar. It's literally pickling her brain."

As she listened, Lisa found her vision narrowing, focusing on the implication.

"And these can't be the only cases," Henri said.

She shook her head—not disagreeing, only in the growing, terrifying certainty of the truth of his words. "So something is definitely turning these benign bacteria against us."

"Turning friend into foe. And if this turns into an all-out war, we are vastly outnumbered."

She glanced up to him.

"The human body is composed of a hundred trillion cells, yet only ten trillion are ours. The other ninety percent are bacteria and few other opportunistic organisms. We live cooperatively with this foreign environment. But if this balance should tip, should turn against us. . . ?"

"We need to stop it."

"It's why I called you down here. To convince you. If we're going to move forward, Dr. Miller and I need access to your partner's forensic suite. We must begin answering critical questions. Was this a toxic or chemical alteration to these bacteria? If so, how do we treat it? And what if it's contagious? How do we isolate or quarantine against it?" He grimaced through his beard. "We need answers. Now."

Lisa checked her watch. Monk was already an hour late. Either he's lost in his work or appreciating the island's beauty and beaches. But now was not the time for sightseeing.

She nodded to Henri. "I'll have someone radio Dr. Kokkalis. Get him back here ASAP. But in the meantime, you're right. Let's get started."

She led the way out of the cabin. Monk's forensic suite was near the top of the ship, five decks up. Sigma had commissioned one of the largest cabins to accommodate his equipment. Some of the crew had even unbolted beds and furniture to open space for the makeshift lab. The suite also had a wide balcony overlooking the starboard side. Lisa wished she was there now, needing sunlight, a fresh breeze on her face, something to chase away the mounting fear.

As she headed toward the ship's elevator, she knew she'd have to call Painter yet again. She could not bear this responsibility on her own. She needed the full support of Sigma's R&D team.

Plus she wanted to hear his voice again.

She pressed the button to call the elevator.

As if the button were attached to a detonator, a loud boom echoed from the other side of the ship, from the direction of the ship's docking bay, where the tender boats ferried folks between the shore and the ship.

Had there been an accident?

"What was that?" Henri asked.

A second louder explosion rattled on their side of the ship, somewhere near the bow. Screams distantly echoed. Then Lisa heard a familiar sound, the strafing ping of automatic fire.

"We're under attack," she said.

1:45 P.M.

Monk bounced the rusted Land Rover down the steep slope. He had hotwired the old truck from a parking lot near the island's phosphate mine, abandoned during the evacuation. They sped along a dirt track that led down the back side of the mine toward the coastal township.

Dr. Richard Graff was belted into the seat next to him, one arm raised to the roof to help hold him in place. "Slow down."

Monk ignored him. He needed to reach the coast.

The two had broken into one of the mine's workshops and tried the phone. No service. The island was all but empty at this point. They were at least able to find a first-aid kit in the shack, Graff's shoulder was slathered in antibiotic salve and wrapped up in gauze.

The researcher had managed his own care while Monk had hotwired the truck. Graff still had the first-aid kit clutched to his belly with his wounded arm. Once emptied, it served as a nice cage for their crab specimen.

A curve of jungle road forced Monk to downshift. He flew around the bend, carting the truck up on two wheels by a couple inches. They slammed back down, jostled in their restraints.

Graff gasped. "You're not going to do anyone any good if you bury our front end into the jungle."

Monk slowed—not because of Graff's words of caution, but because the road ended at a paved crossroads. They had reached a remote section of the island's coastal highway, a narrow two-lane blacktop. The dirt track dropped just to the south of Flying Fish Cove. To the north, the bulk of the township rose, a mix of seaside hotels, Chinese restaurants, dilapidated bars, and tourist traps.

But Monk's attention remained focused out into the waters, beyond Flying Fish Cove. The Mistress of the Seas was surrounded by burning ships, blasted yachts, and the ruins of the Australian Coast Guard cutter. Smoke choked high into the midday sky. Like circling sharks, a score of blue speedboats sped and roared through the water.

A single yellow-and-red helicopter, a Eurocopter Astar, circled the cove, an angry hornet stirring up the smoke. From the flashes of muzzle fire out its open hatch, it was no friend.

Monk had caught glimpses of the sea assault as he swept down the switchbacks from the highlands: explosions, flashes of gunfire, shattering eruptions of flaming debris. The blasts had echoed up to their truck like the sound of distant fireworks.

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