Thunder rumbled overhead even now as the storm grew in intensity. At least the ship remained steady, sheltered in the caldera of a sunken volcano. Still, word of a typhoon and countless responsibilities had soon ended Ryder's impromptu party.
It had lasted only a couple of hours.
Lisa stripped to her bra and panties, glad to be done with the matter. She climbed back into her jeans and slipped a loose blouse over her head, shimmying it in place. Barefoot, she crossed to the evening purse on the bed, another gift of Dr. Patanjali, a Gucci frame bag with silver tassles. The bag had a price tag still on it.
Over six thousand dollars.
Still, what it held was of far greater value. During the festivities, Ryder had discreetly passed to her a pair of party favors, which she had quickly tucked into her purse.
A small radio and a pistol.
And the news that accompanied the gifts was even more welcome.
Monk was alive!
And on board the ship!
Lisa quickly hid the gun in the waistband of her jeans and covered it with the edge of her loose blouse. Radio in hand, she crossed to the door and listened with her ear pressed against it.
There was no regular guard posted at her door. The entire wing had been cordoned off at the stairwell and at the elevator banks. Devesh had assigned an inside cabin for her, only two doors down from where her patient still slumbered in a catatonic stupor.
Satisfied she was alone, Lisa dialed the radio to channel eight and slipped on the radio's earpiece and microphone. She pressed the transmitter. "Monk, are you there? Over."
A bit of static rasped, then a familiar voice spoke. "Lisa? Thank God! So Ryder got you a radio. Did you get the gun? Over."
"Yes." She desperately wanted to hear his entire story, how he survived, but now wasn't the time. She had more important concerns. "Ryder said that you had some plan."
"A plan might be too generous a term. More like a seat-of-your-pants run for your life."
"Sounds great to me. When?"
"I'm going to coordinate with Ryder in another few minutes. We'll be ready at twenty-one hundred. You be ready, too. Keep the pistol with you." He gave her a brief overview of his plan to free her.
She filled in some necessary details to help him, then checked her watch. Less than two hours.
"Should I tell anyone else?" Lisa asked.
A long pause.
"No. I'm sorry. If we're going to have any hope of escaping, we're going to have to bolt with as few people as possible, using the cover of the storm. Ryder has a private boat in a slide launch on the starboard side. I've got a map from your friend Jessie. There's a small township about thirty nautical miles away. The best hope is to reach it and raise the alarm."
"How's Jessie coming with us?"
An even longer pause followed.
Lisa clicked the transmitter again. "Monk?"
A sigh filled her ear. "They caught Jessie. Threw him overboard."
"What?" Lisa pictured his smiling face and propensity for stupid puns. "He's . . . he's dead?"
"Don't know. I'll explain more when we meet."
She felt a well of grief for a young man whom the had only known for a few hours. Lost in that well, she could not find her voice.
"Twenty-one hundred hours," Monk repeated. "Keep your radio with you, but out of sight. I'll contact you again then. Out."
Lisa removed the headpiece and grasped the radio in both hands. The physicality of the hard plastic helped center her. They would talk again in a couple of hours.
She clipped the radio inside her pocket, folding and tucking in the headpiece. She kept its bulge hidden by the drape of her blouse.
She stared at the cabin door. If they were going to make an escape, Lisa did not want to leave empty-handed. She knew there were reams of data and files in the room with her patient.
Plus there was a computer . . . with a DVD burner.
She had talked with Henri and Dr. Miller up at the cocktail party. In hushed whispers, they had related how Devesh and his team were collecting samples of various toxic bacteria produced by the Judas Strain, the worst of the bunch, storing them in incubation chambers in an off-limits lab, run by Devesh's virologist.
"I think they're also doing experiments with the virus on known pathogens," Dr. Miller had reported. "I saw stacks of sealed plates marked Bacillus anthracis and Yersinia pestis disappear into the restricted lab."
Anthrax and the Black Plague bacterium.
Henri postulated that Devesh must be experimenting to produce a su-perstrain of these deadly pathogens. During their discussions, one word remained unspoken—the reason for all of this.
Lisa checked her watch and crossed to her door. If the world was going to have any chance of stopping the myriad plagues that the Guild was collecting and producing, they needed as much data as possible from her patient. The woman's body was healing itself, ridding its tissues of the toxic bacteria, flushing it clean.
How and why?
Lisa knew Devesh was right about Susan Tunis.
This one patient holds the key to everything.
Lisa couldn't leave without gathering as much data as possible.
She had to take the chance.
Squeezing the door handle tightly, Lisa tugged it open. She crossed the five steps to Susan Tunis's room. Ahead, the circular bay of scientific suites was still busy with technicians coming and going. A radio was playing honky-tonk, but the singer crooned in Chinese. The air smelled of disinfectant and an underlying earthy smell.
Lisa briefly made eye contact with the armed guard who patrolled the central space, circling the pile of discarded crates and idle equipment. Down the hall behind her, she heard more guards talking.
She ducked over to Susan Tunis's room, swiped the card Devesh had given her, and pushed inside. As always, two orderlies manned the room. Devesh never left his prize patient unattended.
One man lounged in a chair in the main salon, feet up on the bed, watching television with the volume on low. It was some Hollywood movie shown on a shipwide broadcast. The other orderly was in the well-lit bedroom with the patient, clipboard in hand, recording the quarter-hour vitals.
"I'd like a moment alone with the patient," Lisa said.
The large man, shaved bald and dressed in scrubs, could be the identical twin of the other. She never learned their names, internally referring to them as Tweedledee and Tweedledum.
But at least they spoke English.
The orderly shrugged, handed her the clipboard, and crossed out to his partner.
Lightning flashed brightly through the balcony doors, and thunder grumbled. The world beyond—lagoon and surrounding forested island—appeared in stark relief, then vanished back into darkness with a fierce clap.
Rain pounded more heavily.
Lisa slipped on a mask and pair of surgical gloves and crossed over to her patient. She again collected the ophthalmoscope from the tray of examination instruments. She had been monitoring a strange anomaly in the patient's eyes, something she had kept secret from Devesh. Before she left she wanted to check one more time.
She slipped back the flap of the isolation tent, leaned down, and used a fingertip to gently peel up the lid of the woman's left eye. Lisa clicked on the ophthalmoscope's light and adjusted the focus. Leaning down, nose to nose, she began a funduscopic exam of the patient's inner eye.
All the retinal surfaces appeared normal and healthy: macula, optic disk, blood vessels. The anomaly was easy to miss, as it wasn't structural. Holding her position, Lisa clicked off the ophthalmoscope's light source. She continued to stare through the instrument's lens.
The back of the patient's eye, the entire retinal surface, shone back at her, softly aglow with its own milky light. Some strange phosphorescence had infused the retinal tissues. It had started around the optic disk, where the main nerve bundle from the brain attached to the eye. But over the past few hours, the glow had spread outward and now encompassed the entire retinal surface.
She had read the historical reports of the first manifestation of the disease, an algal bloom, back at the island, how the seas had glowed with phosphorescent cyanobacteria.
And now the patient's eyes glowed.
There must be some clue here. But what?
Based on these earlier findings, Lisa had discreetly performed a second tap of the patient's cerebral spinal fluid. She wanted to know if anything had changed in the fluid around the brain. The results should be back by now, fed into the computer in the corner of the room.
Lisa finished her exam, shed her gloves and mask, and crossed to the computer station. It was out of direct view of the other room.
She brought up the menu for laboratory tests. Her CSF tap's results had indeed returned. She glanced through the chemical analysis. Protein levels were rising, but little else had changed. She switched over to the microscopic exam. Bacteria had been detected and identified.
Cyanobacteria. As she had suspected.
When the blood-brain barrier had been weakened to allow the Judas Strain virus into the brain, it brought some company.
Company that was growing and multiplying.
Anticipating these very results, Lisa had done some earlier research. Cyanobacteria were one of the most ancient strains of bacteria. In fact, they had the distinction of being among the world's oldest known fossils. Almost four billion years old, one of the earth's first life-forms. They were also unique in that they were photosynthetic, like plants, able to produce their own food from sunlight. If fact, most scientists considered cyanobacteria to be the ancestor of modern plants. But these ancient bacteria also proved to be very adaptable, spreading into every environmental niche: salt water, freshwater, soil, even bare rock.
And with the help of the Judas Strain, apparently the human brain.
The glow of the patient's eyes suggested that the cyanobacteria in the brain must have traveled along the optic-nerve sheath to the eye, where they were now setting up house.
From the sample Lisa saw that a technician had performed a new microscopic scan of the Judas Strain virus. Curious, she brought the fresh image to the screen. Once again, she was faced with the true monster here: the icosahedron shell with the branchlike tendrils sprouting from each corner.
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