Seichan voiced Nasser's question. "So where did you get the gun?"
"I arranged it with Painter. Back in Hormuz. I didn't want him to mobilize any local teams here. But I did ask for one small concession. A single gun, smuggled into the Elephant Bar bathroom before we ever got there, taped behind a toilet. I knew Nasser might still be suspicious of me, even search me multiple times. But Kowalski. . ."
"At the bar, I remember," Seichan said. "Before we left. Kowalski said he had to 'take a leak.'"
"I knew we'd be searched before the meeting at the bar. It was the easiest way to get a gun to us afterward. To keep it close until my parents were safe."
Kowalski grunted. "Jackass should've watched the goddamn Godfather a few more times."
Lisa called behind him. "I have Painter on the line."
Gray's fingers tightened on his pistol. "My parents? Are they—?"
"I already asked. They're safe. And unharmed."
Gray let out a long breath of relief.
He cleared his throat. "You'd better tell Painter to set up a quarantine perimeter, at least a ten mile radius around the ruins."
Gray pictured the cloud of toxic gases, surely rich with the Judas Strain. The gateway had been open for only twelve minutes, slammed closed and bleached by Nasser's bomb. A small blessing there. But how much of the Judas Strain had gotten loose?
Gray glanced at Susan. She huddled in the doorway. Kowalski guarded her. Had she succeeded? Gray was aware of everyone who shared the well with him. Each had contributed in no small measure to get them here. But had it all been in vain?
Lisa spoke up. "Quarantine's under way."
Gray searched the top of the well, weapon high. There was still a Guild army out there. "Then tell Painter we could use some help here, too."
She relayed the menage—then lowered the phone. "He says it's already on the way. He said look up."
Gray glanced skyward. The rich blue of the afternoon sky swirled with stiff-looking hawks, wings wide. Scores of them, converging from all directions. But these hawks carried assault rifles.
Reaching a hand back, Gray asked for the phone.
Lisa slapped it into his palm.
Gray put the receiver to his ear. "I thought we agreed not to mobilize a local response."
"Commander, I don't exactly classify forty thousand feet in the air as local. And besides, I'm your boss. Not the other way around."
Gray continued to watch the skies.
The strike team plummeted toward the ruins, spreading out in an attack pattern. Each soldier had a fixed-wing glider harnessed to his back, like miniature wings of a jet fighter, allowing for high-altitude deployment.
They dove downward.
Spiraling and spiraling.
Then on one signal, each man pulled his ripcord, all shedding wings in unison. Glide chutes deployed, snapping wide for the last stretch of their descent. Like a choreographed dance, they swooped in from all directions.
Others noted the dramatic approach. Gray heard boots pounding on stone, most heading away. Gray imagined black berets were being stuffed into garbage cans as the Guild's mercenaries hightailed it out of here.
But not all were so craven.
A few spats of rifle fire echoed. Slow at first, then furiously. A firefight raged for a full, tense minute. A glide chute swept overhead, the pilot firing on the fly. Then another, his legs lifted high as he prepared to alight on the ruins. Bodies thudded, landing all around the well, probably zeroed in on the phone in Gray's hand.
A man suddenly lunged over the well's low wall, a bit too quickly.
Gray came close to shooting him until he recognized the jumpsuit.
U.S. Air Force.
"You blokes all okay?" he called down in an Aussie accent, unhooking his chute.
Lisa shoved past Vigor, her voice full of amazement. "Ryder?"
The man grinned down at her. "That man of yours. .. Painter . . . bonzer bloke! Let me come along for the ride. It's not climbing over electrified nets with cannibals. . . but then what is?"
Someone called out.
Ryder lifted an arm, acknowledging, then glanced back down. "Hold fast! Ladders on their way!" He rolled away and vanished.
Gray continued to keep guard over those here, his weapon ready.
It was all he could do.
That, and one last thing.
He lifted the phone to his ear again. "Director?"
"Thank you for not listening to me, sir."
"That's what I'm here for."
July 14, 10:34 A M Bangkok, Thailand
A week later Lisa stood at the window to her room in a private hospital outside of Bangkok. Tall walls surrounded the small two-story facility and its lush gardens of papaya trees, flowering lotus, sparkling fountains, along with a few quiet statues of Buddha wrapped in saffron robes, trailing thin spikes of smoke from morning prayer sticks.
She had said her own prayers at dawn this morning.
The window stood open, the shutters thrown back for the first time in a week. Their quarantine was over. She took a deep breath, inhaling the scent of jasmine and orange blossoms. Beyond the wall she heard the slow bustle of village life: the lowing of oxen, the chatter of a pair of elderly women passing the gates, the heavy tread of an elephant dragging a log, and best of all, unseen, but as vibrant as sunshine, the laughter of children.
How close had they come to losing it all?
"Did you know," a voice said behind her, "that standing in front of the window, the sun shines right through that hospital gown? Leaves very little to the imagination. Not that I'm complaining."
She turned, swelling with joy.
Painter leaned against the door frame, holding a paperwrapped bundle of yellow roses, her favorite. He was dressed in a suit, no tie, clean-shaven and scrubbed. He had a slight tan after a week in the tropics, out of Sigma's subterranean lair, setting off the spark to his blue eyes and dark hair.
"1 thought you weren't going to be back here until late tonight," she said, stepping way.
He entered the room. Unlike the sterility of most hospital accommodations, the private facility had rooms lavishly appointed in teak. It was also adorned with vases of flowers, even a pair of fishbowls, swimming with tiny, orange-and-crimson goldfish.
"The meeting with the Cambodian prime minister was postponed until next week. And is probably unnecessary. Even the quarantine there will be ending within the next few days."
Lisa nodded. Crop dusters had spread a weak solution of disinfectant over the outlying areas. The ruins of Angkor Thom had been soaked thoroughly. The refugee quarantine camps had revealed some cases, but they were responding to treatment.
The cure had worked.
Susan was in another wing of the hospital, under the strictest guard, but even that was proving an unnecessary caution. She had indeed come forth with the cure, walking through fire to do it. Afterward, there remained no. trace of the virus—cis or trans—inside her. It was all gone.
Except for the cure.
It proved not to be an antibody, or an enzyme, or even a white blood cell. It was bacteria. The same cyanobacteria that had made her glow.
The second toxic exposure had altered the bacteria yet again, churning the life cycle fully around. Like healthy lactobacillus in yogurt, the bacteria, when ingested or inoculated, produced beneficial compounds that destroyed any toxic bacteria generated by the Judas Strain and scavenged away all trace of the virus itself, digesting it.
The cure produced symptoms equivalent to a mild flu, then you were immune from further reinfection. The bacteria also appeared to act as a vaccine in healthy subjects, offering immunity against exposure, similar to the Salk's vaccine against polio. But best of all, the bacteria also proved easy to culture. Samples had been passed to laboratories around the world. Vast quantities were already being generated, a global storehouse to stamp out the early pandemic and protect the world from any future recurrence.
Health organizations continued to remain vigilant against such an event.
"What about Christmas Island, where it all started?" Lisa asked, sitting at the edge of her bed.
Painter replaced some wilting flowers with his roses. "Looking good. By the way, I read some of the papers your friend Jessie stole from the cruise ship before it sank. Apparently, as the Guild departed Christmas Island, they had dumped a tanker load of bleach along the windward shoreline. Not out of any altruism, mind you. Just trying to wipe out the major bloom, to confound any competitors to their discovery."
"Do you think that will keep the bloom from reappearing?"
Painter shrugged, stepped to the bed, and sat down. He took her hand— not in any purposeful way, just reflex, which was why she loved him so much.
"Hard to say," he answered. "The typhoon swept over the island. International teams of marine scientists are monitoring the waters—led by Dr. Richard Graff. After his help with the crab situation . . . figured he deserved the assignment."
Lisa squeezed Painter's hand. The mention of Graff only reminded Lisa of Monk. She sighed, watching the twirl of goldfish in the bedside bowl.
Painter freed his hand, put his arm around her shoulders, and pulled her close. His other hand found hers again. He knew where her heart lay at the moment. His voice dropped to a soft rumble, setting aside some of his playfulness.
"You heard we were interviewing all the survivors of the Mistress of the Seas."
She didn't answer, just slid her arm around his waist. She knew the news to come was bad.
The island was still under quarantine, a joint venture between Australia and the United States. Australian commandos had been able to orchestrate a massive evacuation of the ship as it burned and sank. Most of the Guild's work now rested a thousand feet underwater, a new addition to the deepwater home of the predatory squids. It made diving on the wreck extremely dangerous. The squids had been classified as a new species of Taningia, granted the name Taningia funis in the memory of Susan's husband.
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