The Judas Strain

Page 33

The patient was not in a coma. The more accurate status of the patient was catatonic stupor. She displayed marked cerea flexibilitis, or waxy flexibility. Move a limb and it would stay in that position, like a mannequin. Even painful positions ... as Lisa had tested there herself.

By this time Lisa knew everything about the woman's body.

Exhausted, she took a moment to better examine the patient.

Not with tools, not with tests, but with empathy.

To see the woman behind the test results.

Dr. Susan Tunis had been a well-regarded researcher, on her way to a successful career. She had even found the man of her dreams. And except for being married for five years, the woman's life paralleled Lisa's. Her fate now was a reminder of the fragility of our lives, our expectations, our hopes and dreams.

Lisa reached out with gloved fingers and squeezed the woman's hand as it lay atop the thin bedsheet.

No reaction.

Out in the other room, the orderlies stirred as the suite's cabin door opened. Lisa heard Dr. Devesh Patanjali's voice. The head of the Guild's science team pushed into the room.

Lisa released Susan's hand.

She turned as Devesh entered the room. His ever-present shadow, Surina, slipped to a chair in the outer room and sat, hands neatly folded on her lap. The perfect companion . . . perfectly deadly.

Devesh leaned his cane beside the door and joined her. "I see you've been getting well acquainted with our Patient Zero this morning."

Lisa simply folded her arms. This was the first time Devesh had spoken to her in any significant regard, leaving her to her study. He had been spending more time with Henri in the toxicology lab and Miller in the infectious-disease lab. Lisa had even been taking her meals alone in her room or here in the suite.

"Now that you've gained a complete picture of my prize patient, what can you tell me about her?"

Though the man smiled, Lisa sensed the threat behind his words.

She remembered Lindholm's cold murder. All to teach a lesson: be useful. Devesh expected results from her, insights that had escaped all the other researchers. She also sensed that the time left alone with the patient was intended to isolate her from any preconceived bias.

Devesh wanted her unique take on the situation.

Still, she remembered his early words about the virus, what it was doing inside the woman. It's incubating.

Lisa crossed to the patient and exposed the length of her forearm. From the medical reports, boils and bloody rashes had once coated her limbs. But presently, her skin was clear of any blemish. It seemed the virus was more than incubating inside her.

"The Judas Strain is healing her," Lisa said, knowing it was a test. "Or more precisely, the virus suddenly decided to reverse what it had started doing to her bacteria. For some unknown reason, it has begun reverting the deadly bacteria in her body back to their original benign state."

He nodded. "It's flushing out the very plasmids it had once put into the bacteria. But why?"

Lisa shook her head. She didn't know. Not for sure.

Devesh smiled, a strangely warm and companionable expression. "It's stumped us, too."

"But I have a hypothesis," Lisa said.

"Truly?" His voice rang with a note of surprise.

Lisa faced him. "She's healing bodily, but it made me wonder why she remains in a catatonic state. Such stupor only arises from head trauma, cerebrovascular disease, metabolic disease, drug reactions, or encephalitis."

She stressed the last cause.


Inflammation of the brain.

"I noted one test conspicuously absent from all the reports," she said. "A spinal tap along with a test of cerebrospinal fluid. It was missing. I'm assuming it was performed, to examine the fluids around her brain."

Navir nodded. "Bahut sahi. Very good. It was tested."

"And you found the Judas Strain in the fluid."

Another nod.

"You said the virus only infects bacteria, turning each into a new nasty bug, and that the virus cannot invade human cells directly. But that doesn't mean the virus can't float around in the brain's fluid. That's what you meant by incubation. The virus is inside her head."

He sighed his agreement. "That does seem to be where it wants to get."

"So it's not just this one patient."

"No, eventually it's all of the victims ... at least those that survive the initial bacterial attack."

He waved her to a corner of the room, where a computer station had been set up. He began clicking through various computer screens.

Lisa continued while he worked, pacing at the foot of the bed. "No organism is evil for the sake of being evil. Not even a virus. There has to be a purpose to its toxification of bacteria. Considering the broad spectrum of bacteria it converts, it can't be random chance. So 1 wondered: What does it gain by doing so?"

Devesh nodded, urging her to continue. But plainly her conclusions were not anything new. He was continuing to test her.

Lisa stared at the patient. "What does it gain? It gains access to forbidden territory: the human brain. Dr. Barnhardt mentioned how ninety percent of the cells that make up our body are nonhuman. Mostly bacterial cells. One of the few places that remain off-limits to viral or bacterial infections is our skulls. Our brains are protected against infection, kept sterile. Our bodies have developed an almost impenetrable blood-brain barrier. A filter that lets blood's oxygen and nutrients reach the brain, but little else."

"So if something wanted to get inside our skulls . . . ?" Devesh prompted.

"It would take a major assault to bridge the blood-brain barrier. Like turning our own bacteria against us, to weaken the body enough that the virus could slip through the barrier and into the brain's fluid. That's the biologic advantage gained by the virus when it turns bacteria toxic."

"You do amaze," Devesh said. "I knew there was a reason to keep you alive."

Despite the compliment buried in there, Lisa drew little comfort at the implied threat.

"So the ultimate question is why," Devesh continued. "Why does the virus want to get inside our heads?"

"Liver fluke," Lisa said.

The non sequitur was strange enough to finally regain Devesh's full attention. "Come again?"

"Liver flukes are an example of nature's determination. Most flukes have a life cycle that involve three hosts. The human liver fluke produces eggs that pass out of the body in feces, which are then washed into sewers or waterways and consumed by snails. The eggs then hatch into little worms that drill out of the snail and seek out their next host: some passing fish. The fish is then caught, consumed by humans, where the worm travels to the liver, and grows into an adult fluke, where it lives happily ever after."

"Your point being?"

"The Judas Strain may be doing something along this line. Especially if you consider the Lancet liver fluke. Dicrocoelium dendriticum. It also uses three hosts: cattle, snail, and ant. But what it does in the ant stage is what I find most intriguing."

"And that is?"

"Inside the ant, the fluke controls the insect's nerve centers, changes its behavior. Specifically, whenever the sun sets, the fluke compels the ant to climb a blade of grass, lock its mandible, and wait to be eaten by a grazing cow. If not eaten, the ant returns to its nest at sunrise—only to repeat the same thing again the next night. The fluke literally drives the ant like its own little car."

"And you think the virus is doing that?" Devesh said.

"Possibly in some manner. But I mostly bring this up to remind you how insidious nature can be in finding territory to exploit. And the brain, sterile and off-limits, is certainly virgin territory. Nature will try to exploit it, like the fluke with the ant."

"Brilliant. Definitely an angle to pursue. But there may be a fly in that particular ointment." Devesh returned to the computer. He had been uploading a Quicktime video. "I mentioned that the virus has been penetrating into the cerebrospinal fluid of all the patients that survived the initial bacterial assault. Here is what happens when it does."

He clicked the play button.

A silent video began to run. Two white-smocked men struggled to strap down a writhing naked man, his head shaved, wires running from electrodes attached to skull and chest. He fought, snarling and frothing. Though he was plainly debilitated, with sores and blackened boils, one arm ripped free of the tied cuffs. A clawed hand raked one of the restrainers. The patient then reared up and bit deep into the same man's forearm.

The video ended.

Devesh switched off the monitor. "We're already getting reports of similar manic responses from some of the patients, those earliest exposed."

"It could be another form of catatonia. Catatonic stupor is just one form." Lisa nodded to the patient in the bed. "But there is also an opposite reaction, its mirror image: catatonic excitement. Characterized by extreme hyperactivity, severe facial grimaces, animal-like shrieks, and psychotic violence."

Devesh stood and turned back to the hospital bed. "Two sides of the same coin," he mumbled, and studied the prone woman.

"The man in the video," Lisa asked. She had noted the background in the video. The film had not been taken aboard the cruise ship. "Who was he?"

Devesh nodded sadly toward the bed. "Her husband."

Lisa tensed at the revelation. She stared at the woman sprawled on the bed. Her husband. . .

"The pair were exposed at the same time," Devesh said. "Found on a yacht that had become grounded on a reef near Christmas Island. Your John Doe below, with the flesh-eating disease, must have swum to shore. We recovered these two, still aboard the yacht. Too weak, near to death."

So that was how the Guild first learned about all this.

Devesh nodded to the woman. "Which of course begs the question Why did her husband have a complete schizoid breakdown, while our patient here is on the way to healing her external wounds and remains happily complacent and catatonic? We believe a possible cure for everyone lies in that answer."

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