The Judas Strain

Page 54

They were led forward.

A single boar rooted through the open space in front and squealed back from the strangers' approach. More pigs huddled under an overhang, squeezed tight together, rump to rump.

Monk led Susan through the sheet of water and under the large overhang. He shivered as the rain cascaded over his bare chest. The heat of the fire inside was welcome, but the smoke choked and stung, doing its best to exit a narrow flue in the thatching.

Around the fire ahead, a crowd had gathered, some standing, some squatted. Monk estimated over a hundred. Men, bare-breasted women. But cave openings lined the walls. More faces peered out. A few naked children stood staring, wide-eyed. One cradled a piebald piglet.

At some signal, the drums suddenly stopped with one resounding note. The quiet intimidated.

In that sudden silence, a voice called out.


Startled, he turned. A thin figure stood pressed up against the bamboo bars of a cage built into a back corner. He wore a torn shirt and a pair of muddy white briefs. "Jessie?"

The young nurse was still alive!

But before they could continue their tearful and heartfelt reunion, a towering figure stepped forward, though for the tribe, towering was about five-foot-nothing. The old graybeard looked like someone had sold him a skin suit two sizes too large. He was greased and daubed in ash, too. He wore some sort of twisted gourd over his privates and a shock of purpled feathers in his hair, sticking straight up, as if startled. And nothing else.

Monk recognized that this was the tribe's leader.

It was time to perform, to dance for his supper—or rather, to dance not to become supper.

Monk lifted his arm toward the elder. "Boogla-boogla rah!" he intoned solemnly, then tensed his forearm and reached his other hand to pull the toggle at his wrist.

Freed from its electromagnetic contacts, his prosthetic hand dropped to the muddy volcanic stone.

A gasp arose from the crowd.

The leader fell back a step, almost into the fire.

Monk lowered his arm, staring down at his disembodied hand.

Besides looking authentically fleshy, the prosthetic was a marvel of DARPA engineering, incorporating direct peripheral nerve control through its titanium wrist contact points. It also was bioengineered with advanced mechanics and actuators, allowing sensory feedback and surgically precise movements.

But that was only half the story.

Monk's stumped end of his wrist was encased in a polysynthetic cuff, surgically attached to the end of his wrist and wired into nerve bundles and muscle tendons. In actuality, it was the other half of his prosthesis. The hand might be the brawn, but the wrist cuff was definitely the brain.

With his remaining hand, he manipulated the titanium contacts on the cuff. It was the best feature of his artificial hand. Monk performed this stunt at parties all the time. So why should this be any different?

The cuff and hand were linked wirelessly, a digital radio interface.

As Monk tapped a practiced sequence on his wrist, his severed hand lifted up onto its fingers and began to dance across the rock like a five-legged spider.

This time the cannibal leader did step into the fire, searing his backside enough to yelp and leap away.

Monk sent his hand chasing after him.

By now a wide ring cleared around the party.

Ryder had drawn Susan back into the shadows of the cliff face, giving Monk the stage.

"Now that I have your attention," Monk bellowed.

He strode toward the fire.

Guessing no one spoke English here, he had to sell it with a bravado of expression and a great pounding of his bare chest. Still, it wasn't good enough just to scare the superstitious folk. He needed to win them over. It was time for an American-led coup of Cannibal Island.

Turning on a heel, Monk pointed back to Susan.

On his signal, she unwrapped Monk's borrowed shirt from around her head. Ryder reached and stripped the hospital gown from her shoulders and let it fall away. Susan lifted her arms, bare-breasted like the women here.

Only she glowed in the shadows.

A hushed amazement spread through the tribespeople.

Monk gaped at Susan himself. She glowed even brighter than when he had first seen her. Significantly brighter. Her skin shone with an inner moonlight, turning her skin almost translucent.

Ryder motioned to Monk, urging him from the sideline to continue.

Rattled, Monk collected himself. He stepped to Susan, dropped to his knees, and shouted the only word he knew in the cannibals' language, taught to him by a toothless pirate.

A name.

"RANGDA!" Monk called out, naming the cannibals' queen of the island, mistress of the lagoon's glowing demons.

Glowing like Susan.

He bowed down.

"All hail the witch queen of the islands!"

1:04 A.M.

Devesh entered Lisa's room, tapping his cane.

Sprawled in bed, hooked to an IV, Lisa knew she could not stall any longer. Earlier, as she was hauled back onto the ship from the tender dock, she had swooned in her guard's arms, catching him by surprise and collapsing with a bone-jarring thud to the deck.

Lisa had split her lip doing so, but she'd had to make it look convincing. It hadn't been hard. With her calf sliced open by a sword, her body torn and lacerated in hundreds of places by the clawed grip of the predatory squids, and her lungs still coarse from the near drowning, only adrenaline had kept her on her feet.

So she had collapsed, even passing out for a few breaths.

The act had her rushed up to the scientific suite, where she was treated by the ship's doctor and one of the WHO medical staff. Her leg had been cleaned and stitched, along with the worst of her lacerations. An IV catheter was established, streaming in fluids, antibiotics, and pain relievers. She now lay in her old room, an inside cabin with no balcony or window, under guard. Beneath the thin sheet, her body was a patchwork of bandages and taped gauze.

Such care was not administered out of mercy or compassion. It was done to serve one end: to make sure she completed her promise to Devesh atop the deck.

The Judas Strain. I know what it's doing.

For such a revelation, Devesh was not about to lose her, especially with Susan Tunis vanished somewhere on the storm-swept island. Devesh needed Lisa. So she stretched her advantage, stalling. She had tasked Devesh with some busywork, various assignments for the head of his clinical labs.

Her justification: to test and confirm her hypothesis.

But that could stretch for only so long.

"So," Devesh said. "Results are being compiled right now. It's time to have our little delayed chat. If I don't like what I hear, we'll begin slowly reversing all your medical care. I imagine reopening your wound with pliers will persuade you to cooperate."

Devesh turned on a heel and waved to a waiting nurse.

Lisa's IV catheter was quickly pulled and taped over.

Lisa sat up. The room swam a bit, then steadied.

Ever the gentleman, Devesh held out a thick cotton robe with the ship's logo. Lisa stood up, draped in a thin hospital gown, but naked underneath. She tolerated his politeness to pull on the robe and cover herself. She cinched the belt snugly.

"This way, Dr. Cummings." Devesh crossed back to the door.

Barefoot, Lisa was led out of her cabin. Devesh headed across to the infectious-disease suite.

The door stood open. Voices could be heard.

Following Devesh inside, Lisa immediately recognized two familiar faces: the bacteriologist, Benjamin Miller, and her confidant since arriving, the Dutch toxicologist Henri Barnhardt. The two clinicians were seated on one side of a narrow table.

Lisa glanced around. The back half of the suite had been emptied of all furniture and refilled with laboratory equipment, much of it stolen from Monk's gear: fluorescence microscopes, scintillation and auto-gamma spectrometers, carbon dioxide incubators, refrigerated centrifuges, microliter and ELISA readers, and along one wall, a small fraction collector.

Some universities weren't so well equipped.

Dr. Eloise Chenier, the Guild's virologist and chief administrator of the infectious-disease lab, stood on the other side of the table, dressed in an ankle length lab coat. In her late fifties, with salt-and-pepper hair and a pair of read ing glasses hung on a chain around her neck, she looked like some quaint schoolmarm.

The virologist had an arm raised to a pair of computer stations behind her. Data flowed across one monitor, the other displayed a jumble of overlapping files. She was just finishing some explanation with Henri and Miller, accented heavily in French.

"We gained an excellent viral load by washing a sample of the cerebral spinal fluid through a series of phosphate buffers, then fixed it with glutaralde-hyde, and pelleted it by centrifugation."

Chenier noted their arrival and waved them to the table.

Devesh joined his colleague while Lisa found an empty stool next to Henri. Her friend placed a reassuring hand on her knee. Henri glanced at her, his expression asking, Are you okay?

She nodded, glad to be seated.

Devesh turned to Lisa. "We've completed all the ancillary tests you requested, Dr. Cummings. Perhaps now you can explain why?"

His accusing gaze weighed heavily on her.

Lisa took a deep breath. She had delayed for as long as possible. Her only hope for further survival was to offer the truth and pray her ingenuity proved of great enough value to overcome her earlier betrayal.

She remembered Devesh's first lesson: Be useful.

Lisa started slowly, relating her discovery of the strange retinal glow in Susan's eyes. But as she spoke, she read the disbelief shining already in Devesh's expression.

Lisa turned to Henri, seeking substantiation. "Were you able to perform the fluorescent assay on the spinal fluid sample?"

"Ja. The fluid sample did demonstrate a low fluorescence."

Chenier agreed. "I spun the sample down. The bacterial pellet did glow. And was confirmed to be cyanobacteria."

Miller, the bacteriologist, nodded his agreement.

Devesh's skepticism shifted to interest. His eyes focused back to Lisa. "And from this, you determined the bacteria migrated from the brain, down the optic nerve, and colonized the fluids of the eye. So you ordered the second spinal tap."

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