Devesh led her back down the hall to the virology lab. "So perhaps now you'll be a bit more forthcoming and open."
As they reentered the lab, questioning glances were cast their way.
Lisa simply shook her head and sank to her stool.
Once they were settled, Dr. Eloise Chenier shifted from her seat in front of the computer. "While you were gone," she said, "I pulled up Dr. Pollum's files. Here is the protein schematic you ordered. From the virus in the toxic soup."
The doctor backed from the screen so all could see the rotating image, spinning like a toy top on the monitor.
It depicted the icosahedron shell of the virus: twenty triangular sections, forming a sphere, like a soccer ball. Except some of the triangles bulged out with alpha proteins, while others were sunken in by beta proteins. Lisa had wanted it all mapped out to better test her hypothesis.
Lisa pointed. "Can you stop the rotation?"
Chenier tapped a button on her mouse and the spinning halted, freezing the image on the screen.
Lisa stood back up. "Now, on the other monitor, can you bring up the protein map of the virus recovered from Susan Tunis's cerebral spinal fluid?"
A moment later, a second soccer ball appeared, spinning. Lisa moved closer, studying it. She manipulated the mouse button herself this time, freezing the image where she wanted it.
She faced the others.
Devesh shrugged, using his whole upper body. "So? It looks the same."
She stepped back. "Picture the two side by side."
Henri stood up, eyes widening. "They're not the same!"
She nodded. "They're mirror images of each other. They may superficially look the same, but they are really exact opposites. Geometric isomerism. Two forms of the same geometric shape, just mirrored one upon the other."
"Cis and trans," Chenier said, using the technical term for the two sides of the same coin.
Lisa tapped the first screen. "Here is the trans form, or the bad form of the virus. It infects bacteria and turns them into monsters." She waved to the other screen, depicting the virus found inside Susan's skull. "Here is the cis form, or the good virus that heals."
"Cis and tram," Miller mumbled. "Good and bad."
Lisa elaborated her theory. "As we already know, the trans virus toxified bacteria in order to weaken the blood-brain barrier, thus allowing it to penetrate that virgin territory of the inner skull. It even brought along some company."
"The cyanobacteria," Miller said. "The glowing bacteria."
"And normally the toxins produced by the bacteria corrupted the brain in such a manner that it triggered catatonic excitement with psychosis. But in Susan's case, something else happened. The virus, when it hit her brain fluid, somehow altered. Changed from its evil trans form over to its beneficial cis form. And once altered, the new virus swept out and began reversing all the damage done by its evil twin, healing the patient and sending her into a deep recuperative stupor, contrary to the manic excitement phase of the other patients."
"Even if you're correct," Henri said, "which I believe you are, what was so special about Susan's biochemistry to trigger this change?"
Lisa shrugged. "I wager over the next days or weeks, we'll see a handful of other patients make the same transformation. Susan was infected five weeks ago. So it may be too soon to judge. But I think it's still a very rare event. A random quirk in her genetics. For example, are you familiar with the Eyam phenomenon during the Black Plague?"
Chenier raised her hand as if in a schoolroom. "I am."
Lisa nodded. Of course, an infectious disease expert would know the story.
Chenier explained, "Eyam was a small village in England. Back in the sixteen hundreds, the Black Plague struck the village. But after a year, most of Eyam still lived. Modern genetic studies revealed why. A rare mutation was present in the villagers. In a gene called Delta 32. It was a benign defect that was passed from one family member to another, and in such an isolated township, inbred as they were, a good portion of the town had acquired the mutation. Then the plague struck. And this strange little mutation, just hanging about, saved them. Made them immune."
Devesh spoke up. "Are you suggesting our patient carries the Delta 32 equivalent against the Judas Strain? Some random protein that enzymatically switched the virus in her from trans to cis."
"Or maybe it's not that random," Lisa mumbled. She'd been struggling with this question ever since her discovery of the altered virus. "Only a very small percentage of our DNA is actually functional. Only three percent, in fact. The other ninety-seven percent is considered genetic junk. It doesn't code for anything. But some of that junk DNA bears a remarkable resemblance to viral code. The current belief is that such coding might serve a protective role, to help us survive future disease."
As Lisa continued, she pictured the body of Susan's friend, attacked and eaten. "Like cannibalism, for example."
Her strange statement drew everyone's eyes from the monitors.
Lisa elaborated. "Genetic markers found worldwide show that most humans carry a specific set of genes against diseases that can only be acquired by eating human flesh. These findings suggest that our ancient ancestors might have all been cannibals. Maybe Susan has a similar genetic marker to protect her brain against the attack by the Judas Strain virus. Something left over from our long-lost genetic history. Something buried in our collective past.
"Intriguing as usual, Dr. Cummings." Devesh rocked back and forth on his toes, plainly excited. "But whether the transformation was random chance or was triggered by some viral genetic marker from our past... it doesn't truly matter. Now that we know about this new virus, we can use this knowledge to produce a cure!"
Chenier looked less sure. "Possibly," she stressed. "It will take more study. Luckily we have a boatload of sick patients upon which to test potential treatment regimens. But first, we'll need more of that cis virus." She glanced significantly over to Devesh.
"No worries," he said. "With Rakao and his men already hunting the island, we'll soon have Susan Tunis and the others back. But with that matter settled—"
Devesh turned to Lisa. "It's now time to discuss your punishment."
As if on cue, a figure stepped forward, carrying a doctor's satchel in her hands.
Her long black hair had been retied into a braid.
Monk climbed the steep switchback, following the naked rear end of one of the cannibals. Another dozen tribesmen scaled the crooked trail in the rock ahead of him. Behind Monk, more followed, another forty strong.
His cannibal army.
Rain poured out of the dark skies. But at least the winds had mostly died down, snapping with only occasional gusts across the jagged peaks. Monk had purposefully timed this ascent, waiting for the eye of the storm to crest over the island. It had been an agonizing delay, but his patience had opened a small window of opportunity.
He continued on. Though the path they climbed was sheltered, cut deep into the rock, the downpour made the rocks slippery, treacherous, requiring crawling at times on hands and knees.
Monk glanced behind him.
Ryder and Jessie had his back. Strung out behind them, a line of tribesmen followed, dressed in feathers, shells, bark, bird claws, and bones.
Lots of bones.
The improvised strike team bore short spears, sapling bows, and sharpened clubs. But half of them also carried rifles and a smattering of old assault weapons—Russian AK-47S, United States Mi6s—along with bandoliers strapped with extra magazines and cartridges. It seemed the cannibals had been trading for more than just two-legged meat with the pirates that shared their cove.
From this height, Monk had a wide view of the dark lake. The cruise ship glowed like a sodden wedding cake in the middle. It was the goal of the cannibal strike team.
It seemed whatever Rangda, the witch queen, wanted, the mesmerized cannibals would make sure she got.
And Rangda wanted that cruise ship.
Her wishes and orders were translated by the young Jessie. He spoke Malay, and as it was the official trading language of the pirates, most of the cannibals understood it, too. They were much in awe of the young nurse, that he should understand the language of their queen and was able to pass on Rangda's desires. She even bestowed a kiss on her interpreter's cheek, blessing the young nurse.
No one dared disobey him.
But while Jessie had been integral in organizing the assault, the plan here was all Monk's.
He turned his back on the cruise ship. With the waters surely watched, they'd never manage an assault by boat. And swimming was certainly not an option. Even from this height, Monk noted the occasional flashes streaking through the lagoon far below. The storm had the denizens stirred up and hunting the shallows.
So it had left only one choice.
Monk climbed higher, all the way to the roof of the world. They had finally reached the giant steel support posts and massive cabling that anchored this section of the island's net.
Monk stared out across the net's underside.
Rain poured from it, soaking through all the camouflaging vegetation woven into the web's upper side. Someone had to be maintaining that illusion. And Monk guessed it wasn't just the pirates.
Proving this, one of the cannibals scurried up the nearest cable, his bare feet flogging his lithe form up the span. He vanished through the netting. A rope ladder cascaded back down.
Others began scaling up.
Monk turned to Jessie. "You can still go back down, join Susan at the beach. We can pick you both up there."
Jessie swept rain-soaked hair out of his eyes. "I'm going. Otherwise, who's going to translate for you?" Before Monk could argue, the nurse grabbed the ladder and scurried up.
Ryder followed next, clapping Monk on the shoulder as he passed. Once the billionaire had shoved through the net overhead, Monk grabbed the lower rung, staring back at the spread of his dark army. Feathered, armed to the teeth, ready to do the bidding of their queen.
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