The Judas Strain

Page 24

"We'll be fine." Devesh held open the cabin door and bowed his head for the young Indian woman to enter. "1 believe Dr. Cummings and Dr. Barnhardt would like to hear what I have to lay. And Surina will be with me."

Lisa and Henri were ushered into the cabin.

Devesh stepped after them, closing the door—then stopped and turned back to the Maori leader.

"Oh, yes, and Rakao, gather the children, if you'd be so kind. The ones I picked out. That's a good man."

Devesh closed the door, but not before Lisa noted the Maori leader's face darken into a glower. His tattoos stood out more starkly, an indecipherable map.

As the lock clicked, Devesh strode over to the cabin's desk. It was actually two desks joined together, one unbolted and moved from another cabin. The pair of desks supported three LCD monitors linked to two tower HP computers. They were the only additions to the suite. The remainder of the cabin consisted of a comfortable seating area of teak furniture facing patio doors and a shaded balcony.

Surina stepped to one of the sofas and lowered herself, bending only at the knees, to perch on one of its arms. And while the movement had a measure of demure modesty, Lisa sensed power and threat: the focused eyes, the smooth control of a geisha, but mostly it was the pair of sheathed daggers exposed on both ankles as she sat.

Lisa glanced away. A bedroom opened behind the desk. A pair of large steamer trunks rested at the foot of the bed. This must be Devesh Patanjali's personal room. But why had he brought them here?

Devesh awoke the sleeping computers with the tap of a few buttons, drawing her attention back. All three monitors bloomed to a brilliant glare in the dim room.

"Dr. Barnhardt... or Henri, if I may presume ... ?" Devesh glanced back.

The toxicologist merely shrugged.

Devesh continued. "Henri, I must commend you on your assessment of the true threat hidden within the shroud of the toxic assault. It had taken our scientists weeks to ascertain what you managed to discern in less than twenty-four hours."

Lisa's skin went cold. Weeks. So their captors had been aware of the threat at the island long before the full crisis broke. But what did any of this have to do with the Guild?

"Of course, we did not so much appreciate the general alarm you raised, reaching all the way to Washington. It required accelerating our timetable.. . and some improvisation. Like utilizing the scientific talent here and merging it with my own. But so be it. We must move quickly if there is to be any hope."

"Hope for what?" Lisa finally asked.

"Let me show you, my dear." Devesh patted one of the two chairs, inviting her to sit.

She remained standing, but he seemed to take no offense, busy with the computer keyboard. On the center monitor, a video began playing. It depicted a dense microscopic field of twitching chains of rod-shaped bacteria.

"How much do you know about anthrax?" Devesh asked, glancing back.

Lisa's skin went cold at his question.

Henri answered, "Bacillus anthracis. It mostly infects ruminants. Cows, goats, sheep. But spores can also infect humans. Often proving fatal."

It was a clinical assessment, devoid of emotion. But Lisa noted the tense hold to the toxicologist's shoulders.

Devesh nodded. "Bacillus species are found worldwide in soil. Harmless for the most part. For example, here is one such benign organism, Bacillus cereus."

The screen image changed to a microscopic close-up of a single bacterium. Rod-shaped with a thin membranous wall, the cell's DNA strands were stained to stand out in the center.

"Like other members of the species, this little bug can be found in gardens around the world. Happily feeding on microorganisms and nutrients in the soil. It causes no harm to anything larger than an amoeba. But its brother, Bacillus anthracis—" Devesh clicked to bring up another image, side by side, with the first, a second bacterium that looked identical.

"Here is the organism that causes anthrax," he continued, "one of the most deadly bacterium on the planet. It shares the same genetic code with its peaceful, garden-dwelling brother." Devesh tapped the two cells' stained twists of DNA. "Gene by gene, nearly identical. So why does one kill and the other remain harmless?"

Over a shoulder, Devesh stared back at Lisa and Henri.

Lisa shook her head. Henri remained silent.

Devesh nodded as if satisfied by their reticence. Turning back, he toggled a key and the anthrax bacterium zoomed on the screen. The mass of DNA swelled on the monitor. Within the cytoplasm of the interior cell, separate from the main tangle of DNA, floated two perfect rings of genetic material, like a tiny pair of eyes staring back at them.

"Plasmids," Henri said, naming the rings.

Lisa's brow tightened as she was forced to draw upon her pre-med education. As well as she could recall, plasmids were circular strands of DNA separate from main chromosomal DNA. The free-floating bits of genetic code were unique to bacteria. Their role was still poorly understood.

Devesh continued. "These two plasmids—pXoi and pXo2—are what turn ordinary Bacillus species into superkillers. Remove these two rings, and anthrax transforms back into an innocent organism, living happily in any garden. Put those same plasmids into any friendly Bacillus and the bug turns into a killer."

Devesh finally swung around to face them. "So I ask you, where did these extraneous and deadly bits come from?"

Lisa answered, intrigued despite herself. "Can't plasmids be shared directly from one bacterium to another?"

"Certainly. But what I meant was, how did these bacteria first acquire these foreign bits of genetic material? What's their original source?"

Henri stirred, moving closer to study the screens. "The evolutionary origin of plasmids remains a mystery, but the current theory is that they were acquired from viruses. Or more specifically bacteriophages, a category of viruses that only infect bacteria."

"Exactly!" Devesh turned back to the screen. "It's been theorized that, sometime in the ancient past, a viral bacteriophage injected a peaceful Bacillus with this deadly pair of plasmids, creating a new monster in the biosphere and transforming a sweet little garden bug into a killer."

Devesh tapped more rapidly, clearing the screen. "And anthrax isn't the only bacterium thus infected. The bacterium that causes the black plague, Yersinia pestis ... its virulence is also enhanced by a plasmid."

Lisa felt a prickling chill as realization dawned. All this talk of transforming bacteria reminded her of the patients on the ship. The girl with seizures from vinegar bacteria, the woman with choleric dysentery from yogurt bacteria, the John Doe whose skin bacteria were eating his legs away .. .

"Are you suggesting it's happening here again?" she mumbled. "This same corruption of bacteria."

Devesh nodded. "Indeed. Something has risen again out of the depths of the sea, something with the ability to turn all bacteria deadly."

Lisa remembered Henri's example of how prevalent bacteria were in the world, how 90 percent of the cells in our own bodies were composed of bacteria. Nonhuman. If that tide should shift against us . . .

Devesh continued. "From studying the genetics of anthrax and other toxic bacteria, microbiologists have predicted the existence of an ancient strain of viruses. A strain that created the early ancestors of anthrax and other plague bacteria. Scientists have even coined a name for this ancient strain of viruses, one that turns friend into foe: the Judas Strain."

Henri must have read something in Devesh's face, a brightness to his eyes, an excitement. He straightened. "Something tells me you've isolated the causative agent in the outbreak here, haven't you? This Judas Strain. Or you wouldn't be here."

"We think so."

Devesh tapped another two keys. The bacterium vanished, replaced with a rotating figure on the screen, an image from an electron micrograph, all in shades of silver. It made the organism depicted seem more mechanical than biological. It looked like some lunar lander. The main shell was geometric, an icosahedron, made up of twenty flat triangular pieces. Out from every corner stretched thin tendrils, spiked at the tips, made to latch on and pierce.

Lisa had seen many such images back in medical school.

A virus.

"We discovered it in a sample of the cyanobacteria from the toxic tide. It turned the innocent phosphorescent sea bacteria into a flesh-boiling, poison-spewing killer. And within such windblown steaming clouds of toxin, the virus spread onto land, beginning the slow alteration of the island's bacteria into monsters."

"And now we're seeing it happen among the patients," Henri said. "Turning our own bodies against us."

Devesh tapped the screen. "The ultimate betrayer of life. This organism has the capability to travel through the planet's biosphere, transforming all bacteria into lethal, life-destroying organisms. It's nature's neutron bomb, a viral explosion with the potential to wipe out all higher life-forms, leaving behind only a toxic soup of deadly bacterial ooze. If unchecked, we've already seen a peek of what the world may become on the windward side of Christmas Island."

"And if it should spread . . ." Henri's face had paled. "We'd have no way of stopping it."

Devesh finally stood and retrieved his cane. "Perhaps. But we've barely begun to analyze the organism. The good news is that so far the virus appears to be short-lived and does not infect human cells. Only bacteria. So the virus poses little direct risk to us. It hijacks a bacterial cell, uses the cell to churn copies of itself, then leaves behind the toxic plasmids. Outside the cell, the new virus is fragile. It can easily be killed with simple disinfectants and controlled with good hygiene."

Lisa pictured the work crews moving through the ship in cloud of disinfectant. They were sterilizing the ship.

"But unfortunately, the virus leaves behind a killer in its wake. Deadly bacteria that divide and multiply, each a new monster added to the microbial world, contaminating the biosphere forever with never-before-seen life-forms."

Henri placed a worried palm on his forehead. "If the viral exposure breaks free into the general biosphere . . . we're talking about a thousand different new diseases hitting the world simultaneously. A plague with the capability of changing faces faster than we can react. The world has seen nothing like this before."

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