Authors: Kirk Withrow
While there are actual places referenced in the novel,
all characters appearing in this work are fictitious. Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.
© 2014 by Kirk Withrow
August 21, 2015
Franz stood absentmindedly perusing the wares at the open-air market in rural Brazil. At 52 years old, Franz Wurst was a short and rather frail man. He and Carlos had traveled to Brazil to get away from all the drama back in New York. Carlos, an athletic 23 year old, told the older man he longed for adventure, and wanted to see the place where his ancestors had lived. Reluctantly, Franz acquiesced; he never told Carlos no.
The stifling heat in the remote region of Brazil was merciless. Franz pulled out his eloquently patterned handkerchief and dabbed at the rivulets of sweat flowing down his sun-beaten face from his receding hairline. It had taken them almost fourteen hours and two different buses to travel to the small village from Rio de Janeiro. Oh how Franz wished they could have just checked in to a luxurious penthouse at one of the numerous five-star hotels in downtown Rio, where they could have been pampered like kings. Instead, he stood drowning in his own perspiration in the middle of the Brazilian equivalent of a ‘flea market,’ looking at an uncomely doll fashioned from a gourd by a peasant.
What the hell was keeping Carlos?
The younger man left to get a drink of water and had been gone for over ten minutes.
Are any of these ‘indigenous’ crafts actually made in Brazil, or are they all sourced from China like everything else?
To Franz, the most interesting thing at the kiosk was the odd little monkey ambling out of the jungle behind the booth. As Franz inspected the merchant’s goods, the monkey strode over and leapt unceremoniously into his arms. Initially startled, he found the picayune monkey quite charming. It rather reminded him of Carlos, he thought, with a fiendish sneer. Without warning, the diminutive devil bit down hard into the soft, fleshy webbing that stretched between the thumb and index finger on his left hand. Franz shrieked and hurled the little bastard monkey toward the merchant, who then began to curse him in Portuguese.
He watched as the monkey staggered, disappearing into the lush jungle as he held pressure on the small wound and bemoaned the fact the little bugger had drawn blood.
What in the HELL could be taking Carlos so long?
He considered who owned that damned demon monkey, if not the merchant at the kiosk. Given that the monkey was wearing a collar, he knew it was not wild.
Someone needs to take responsibility and pay for the actions of that miserable little shit!
As he wrapped his throbbing hand with his silk handkerchief, he reflected on the thin, sturdy collar with the small rectangular charm he had seen attached to the monkey’s neck. Though he only stole a brief glance, he swore it looked like a small USB drive.
When Carlos finally returned, Franz relayed every detail of the last fifteen minutes with dramatic fervor, all the while berating the younger man for convincing him to come to this cesspool of humanity.
More like inhumanity!
He was fed up; merely wanting to go back to their quarters to rest, clean up, and tend to his wound.
The following morning Franz felt reasonably well, albeit a bit grumpy, but over the next several hours his health began to deteriorate rapidly. Initially suffering from a sore throat and an excruciating headache, he soon began to experience severe sweats and chills concerning for a raging fever. To Carlos, it seemed impossible that such a miniscule bite from a monkey – quite literally a scratch – could cause all these worrisome symptoms. He always heard how dirty the human mouth was, so he imagined the mouth of a nasty monkey would be no different. Despite his worsening condition, Franz flatly refused to see the local healthcare provider – calling him a ‘witch doctor.’ Not knowing what else to do, Carlos obtained some antibiotics for him.
“Franz, what if that damned monkey gave you the bird flu or something?” pleaded Carlos in his usual effeminate tone.
Despite feeling anything but amused, Franz had to laugh at the younger man. “The bird flu? From a monkey? Carlos, you really need to spend a bit less time at the gym, and a bit more time at the library,” chided Franz, while managing to hold on to a sardonically, wicked grin.
“Funny, Franz. I’m serious! You know what happened to the First Lady! You don’t know what those filthy beasts are carrying! No one is safe these days,” whined Carlos.
This really made Franz want to laugh, but he no longer possessed the fortitude to do so. Instead he replied, “Carlos, I’m fine. I will not be lured into the ridiculous, panicked hysteria that is the real disease these days. I just need to rest. Now be a dear and rub my shoulders, would you?”
Before the two men left the United States, they both went to see their primary care physician to obtain the requisite vaccinations and laboratory testing. Carlos was relieved when the doctor told him his CD4 lymphocyte count remained high and his viral load undetectable. Franz, on the other hand, learned that while his CD4 count was still high, he did have an increase in his viral load compared to previous testing. The doctor was not overly concerned by this result, explaining it was likely just a ‘blip’ – a variation in measurable viral burden that carries little, if any, clinical significance.
“You are fine, Franz. An obstinate man like you will probably live to be one hundred! Just keep taking your medicine,” the doctor said.
Carlos was no doctor but he certainly didn’t think Franz looked
Despite everything Carlos could think to do, Franz rapidly progressed to a lethargic state, punctuated by brief periods of psychosis. Less than twenty-four hours after the seemingly harmless bite, Franz lay motionless with eyes wide, barely making a sound. He continued to sweat profusely and, other than the subtle rise of his chest, he appeared dead to Carlos. With Franz unable to mount further protest, Carlos decided it was time to take him to the local doctor. Though Franz was not a heavy man, weighing a mere 105 lbs., Carlos had serious doubts about his ability to carry the older man’s ‘dead’ weight to their vehicle by himself. Not seeing anyone to ask for help, he decided to construct a litter he could use to drag Franz outside. As soon as it was ready, he crossed the small room to where Franz lay motionless.
As he approached, he noticed with horror that the subtle chest rise that had been the only evidence Franz was even alive had ceased. In a panicked terror, Carlos felt for a pulse but found none. He desperately tried to perform CPR, but after ten ineffectual minutes, he collapsed in a sobbing, exhausted heap on the chest of his lifeless lover. Minutes stretching to hours, he remained there paralyzed by the shock and impossibility of what he had just experienced. The pervasive silence filling the room was so absolute, Carlos briefly wondered if they had both died. The only sound was his occasional sniffle and even that had largely faded. Out of the corner of his red, tear-stained eye, he caught sight of the small, battery-operated shortwave radio Franz brought with him to keep up with the news. With the automaticity of a robot, he reached to the nearby table, and switched on the radio. At that moment, his need to hear another voice,
voice, was far greater than his loathing for the annoying humdrum broadcasts Franz always found so interesting. The Voice of America broadcast, as monotone as ever, crackled and droned, but even when the signal made it through the ionosphere, it fell on seemingly deaf ears. Carlos sat with his senses numb with disbelief.
“This is Da…….polsky reporting for Voi……..merica. Unemploy….rates in U.S. fell to below eight percent, makin…..lowest since…..ber two thousand and eight, though still higher than pred….rrent administration. Cases of………flu have continued to increase both………..U.S and abroad. The epidemic has…….. panic and……to instances of violence…………infected. North Korea declared that the Armist….greement of nineteen fifty-three was invalid renew….cerns of escalation of viol….tween the North and South. In Brazil there have been repor…..plosion of a remote res…..ility earlier this week. Despite health concern….cal population there has been no statem….zil’s government or any other agency on the matter….”
The atmospheric interference worsened, causing further signal disruption until the weak transmission was lost all together. The broadcaster’s voice trailed off leaving only the dull hiss of static in its wake. All at once a low, unearthly, guttural sound punctuated the silence enshrouding Carlos’ mind like a thick, impenetrable blanket of fog on the early morning sea. He was not initially startled by the noise, as it began as such a low rumble that it was scarcely noticeable as a sound at all; it registered more as a feeling deep in his chest.
Where was it coming from?
Was it a car engine? Had someone heard the commotion and called for help?
“Too late,” mumbled Carlos, as he raised his head to gaze around the room that was now firmly entrenched in the darkness of the moonless night. He was uncertain how long he had been lying there but was appalled when he noticed that Franz, no longer suffering from the violent fevers, had grown quite cold. As the sound grew ever louder, Carlos soon realized it was in fact coming from within the room. Perplexed, he continued peering around for the source. The confusion he felt was only surpassed when he noticed a subtle movement from his lifeless lover.
Must be the moonlight casting shadows – playing a cruel game.
Suddenly, all doubt was cast aside as Franz’ lips twitched, and he feebly began to raise his head.
“Franz!” Carlos shouted in amazement as he leaned in, closing the impossible distance between them. He had been wrong! Franz was not dead! After all, he was not a doctor; he had been wrong! Maybe he did not even have the bird flu after all! These were some of the elated thoughts racing through Carlos’ mind…right up to the point when he saw Franz fall away from him—blood and muscle hanging sloppily from his working jaws.
muscle, he soon realized.
“Franz, you bastard!” he shrieked for no one in particular to hear. Several short, gurgling screams followed as Carlos exsanguinated almost instantly, his life source spraying across the room in a spectacular arc from the severed stump of his carotid artery. As Carlos’ quiet and lifeless body pitched forward, the only sounds remaining were the soft hiss of the shortwave radio, and the low, guttural moan that would soon become twice as loud.
July 27, 2015
ICT Facility, Northern Brazil
There was a subtle rap on the door of his living quarters as Dr. Marcus Johnson lay quietly on his bed, staring at the ceiling. The faint voice that followed was so low he wondered if he had actually heard it or if it was just another sound inside his head.
“Dr. Johnson? Dr. Bhatnagar would like you to see the latest test results,” called the muffled voice.
As he listened, there was a slight pause followed by another round of knocks on the door. In recent months his room increasingly felt like a coffin, and he silently contemplated what kind of person would beat on the lid of a closed coffin. He also wondered if the disembodied voice coming from the other side of ‘the lid’ was privy to his internal musings.
“Dr. Johnson? Dr. Bhatnagar would like to show you the latest test results,” the muted voice announced again.
Slowly, Marcus got up and crossed the ten feet between his bed and the door. He opened the door to find one of the lab technicians, a diminutive South American woman, whose name he had forgotten or perhaps never known.
“Doctor?” she said gesturing down the hall toward laboratory A.
Reluctantly, Marcus trudged down the hall toward the lab. As he walked, he could not clear the mental image of a lifer on their final trek down death row—the screaming voices within his head made certain of that.
February 2, 2014
Dr. Marcus Johnson sat discontentedly in his office, bored out of his mind. He worked for a vaccine therapeutics development firm based in Hawaii – a job that required him to spend progressively longer hours in the lab over the last several months. When he first took the job three years earlier, he was able to take full advantage of all Hawaii had to offer. He enjoyed the weather, surfing, and even a girlfriend for a short while, until the rigors of his job took all of it away.
With his shaggy blonde hair, tan skin, and moderate build he certainly looked more at home with the surfing crowd than the research community. Now after three years, the most exciting thing in his life was the occasional cubicle warfare skirmish with some of the other science nerds during the downtime between experiments. Needless to say, Marcus was not happy in his current situation, and it was at that time that he was first approached by InterCorps Therapeutics.
From the first meeting something impressed him as peculiar about the company and their proposal. Marcus always believed that if something seemed too good to be true it probably was, and this definitely seemed like one of those situations. InterCorps Therapeutics, or ICT, was a fledgling upstart biological therapeutics company, and they had a job for him offering an insanely large sum of money. In addition, they guaranteed him unlimited access to any and all resources required to complete the project. Though he had not heard of ICT, he knew there must be some powerful players behind the company, if even half of what they promised could be delivered. He would be working hand-in-hand with one other handpicked, top-notch research scientist, and would have ten to twenty dedicated laboratory technicians at his disposal. The job required him to transfer to the newly constructed state-of-the-art ICT research facility that was to be outfitted with any equipment the two scientists deemed necessary to complete the assignment. The caveat to all of this was that he would be forced to essentially abandon his old life.
The ICT representative with whom he met was a well-groomed man of approximately 60 years, dressed in an impeccable black suit likely worth more than he made in a month, Marcus thought. In spite of the man’s modest build, Marcus could tell he was strong and capable. He carried himself with the unshakable confidence of a man half his age, and immediately Marcus sensed he was not someone he wanted to cross. There was a frighteningly intense aura about the man – his very presence commanding respect and attention like charismatic leaders such as Adolf Hitler or Jim Jones. Though the midnight residing deep in the man’s eyes made them anything but vacant, they remained as unreadable as if he were wearing sunglasses.
“As you well know, secrecy is paramount in any R&D venture. Intellectual property is worth more than gold these days, and what we are developing will be worth far more than that. For that reason, the shareholders require those working on the project submit to doing so in complete secrecy and isolation. The stakes are high, the money is high, and your sacrifice will need to be equally high,” the man said.
“You will be paid half of the money up front and will be required to stay at the facility for the duration of the project, which is expected to be up to two or three years. Upon successful completion of the project, you will be given the remaining half of the money and be cleared to leave the facility,” he added. “Think it over. We will meet again next week to discuss the proposal further. I am not authorized to disclose any additional information about the project, or ICT, until I am certain of your intent to participate. I trust this conversation will remain completely confidential,” concluded the man as he stood and walked away. Vanishing into the crowd of pedestrians like an apparition, he left nothing to say he was ever there.
Though Marcus deliberated about the ICT proposal all week, deep down he knew from the moment he heard the proposition he would accept the position. After all, nothing tied him to his old life, and his current job was absolutely crushing what little remained of him. His parents, who died in an automobile accident over seven years ago, had been more concerned about their next big social event than they had ever been about Marcus or his sister. Kate, his only sibling, had become so distant since she married her asshole husband that Marcus wasn’t entirely certain where she presently lived. The only fond memory of his family he could drudge up was of the brief time he spent with his niece Annalee, shortly after she was born.
How old would she be now? Seven? Eight?
He thought about the money, the scientific contributions, the fame, and what it all could mean for his future. He thought of everything missing from his life now. The day after his second meeting with the man from ICT he boarded a private jet, destined for where exactly, he was not sure.
As soon as he settled into his small but plush living quarters at the ICT facility, he was introduced to his new partner and co-researcher, Dr. Sanjit Bhatnagar.
Sanji, as his friends called him, was a first generation American born to Indian immigrant parents, both of whom were accomplished scientists themselves. Accordingly, they always expected Sanjit to pursue a similar career in science. Not wishing to disappoint his parents, he did so, a task made relatively easy by his brilliant intellect. As he grew older, however, he developed a taste for the pleasures of western culture he experienced in America and, as such, his disdain for his Indian heritage and his parents flourished. When ICT approached him he took the job without a moment of hesitation.
Dr. Marcus Johnson and Dr. Sanjit Bhatnagar were selected for the project based on their exceptional innate intelligence, as well as their acquired knowledge of virology, microbiology, neurobiology, and vaccine construction. What they were not told was that countless hours of psychological profiling and personality analysis also played an equally important role in their selection. Accordingly, it was determined that they were both fairly susceptible to manipulation, prone to greed and corruption, and possessed sufficiently flaccid moral values that could easily be molded to fit the needs of their employer. In addition, neither of them had any strong family or social contacts to tie them to their old lives. In the first year of the project all of these assessments proved to be dead on.
The well-dressed ICT representative took his position at the head of the imposing boardroom table in the impressively equipped meeting room and began to speak. “Gentleman, welcome to ICT. I am quite sure that your questions far outnumber the answers you’ve received at this point, and I assure you, all will be addressed in time. Let me start by emphasizing that we feel it is imperative that everyone working on this project do so completely of his or her own volition, without any coercion whatsoever. You are both here because you are the best at what you do. As you were both briefed, once the project commences, neither of you will be permitted to leave this facility until cleared to do so at project completion. Similarly, there will be no means of communication with the outside world. There are measures in place to ensure the integrity of this facility and project. Your complete consent and understanding of the demands of this job up front will ensure the full extent of these measures never need to be implemented.”
Marcus sensed a subtle undercurrent of malice swirling behind the man’s words and wondered what his last statement meant.
The man continued, “As you were told, any and all necessary resources will be provided for you. At the conclusion of today’s briefing both of you will be asked to reconsider this position in light of the additional details provided. If either or both of you feel you cannot consent completely to the stipulations presented, we will take you back to your old life with no questions asked. The only thing that will be required of you, should you choose to leave, is complete confidentiality regarding all you have been told about the project thus far. Are there any questions at this point?”
Marcus shifted in his seat and sheepishly raised his hand. “Yeah. You guys already seem to know everything about us. What’s your name?”
“My name, Dr. Johnson, is not important. I, too, abandoned my old life when I joined the project. You, gentleman, may call me Mr. Handler.”
After the briefing Marcus and Sanjit sat quietly for several long moments, vacant expressions etched on each of their dumbstruck faces. Marcus felt as if he had been hit squarely in the solar plexus, forcing all of the air to rush out of his entire world.
Sanjit, on the other hand, felt little if anything at all. Again, they had been informed of the necessary quarantine at the facility, as well as the communications blackout that would be enforced for the duration of the project. The ‘measures,’ they learned, included a tracking device they would be required to wear on the wrist. Not only would it relay their GPS coordinates to ICT, but it also recorded and logged several vital parameters including pulse, temperature, and vascular tone. The latter was a surrogate measure of autonomic nervous system activity that, in turn, provided information regarding the stress level of the wearer. Additionally, the device served as a proximity alarm designed to ensure the wearer remain within the designated area. Mr. Handler indicated that an electronic perimeter was established at approximately 100 yards around the facility and repeatedly stressed the importance of maintaining its integrity, noting ‘dire’ consequences should an internal breach occur.
“As I told each of you during our first encounter, secrecy is paramount in any R&D venture, and what we are developing is worth far more than its weight in gold. While every effort has been made to vet each person working on this project, the shareholders are not so credulous as to ignore the impact of stress and the unpredictability of basic human nature. I’m sure both of you can appreciate the need for such precautions,” said Mr. Handler in a cool, almost cordial voice that resonated with the slight hiss of a venomous pit viper.
To Marcus, the ‘internal’ security measures were far from the most disconcerting thing he heard during the briefing. The aim of the project proved much more nefarious than his unsuspecting mind allowed him to consider previously. In short, the true goal as Mr. Handler described it, was the creation of a new bio-assassination weapon: a completely lethal and entirely undetectable – and thus untraceable – pathogen that could be delivered with the precision of a modern surgical airstrike, only on an individual level. The ‘precision,’ as Mr. Handler called it, would be possible due to the non-transmissible nature of the pathogen, while the ‘undetectability’ would result from engineering a new pathogen for which no clinical testing existed. The ‘lethality’ spoke for itself. He recapped the historical importance of ‘modifying’ political landscapes from behind the scenes, citing that traditional tactics for accomplishing such things were no longer adequate in a nontraditional, modern world.
“Such ideas and actions are far from new to this world. Today, with a camera on every corner and everyone’s uncle on the other side of the world being able to know instantaneously what is happening on the opposite side of the rock, the price of secrecy and discretion has increased substantially,” said Mr. Handler.
Marcus and Sanji spent the rest of the day discussing and debating all they had learned during the earlier briefing. The following morning they awoke and began the initial work of their new project.
The progress made toward accomplishing their end goal during the first year was nothing short of astonishing. Their advances in lentiviral vector technology alone would have made even the most seasoned and accomplished researchers salivate. With the promise this technology had already shown in regards to gene therapy, the two scientists had no trouble envisioning the far-reaching clinical significance of their accomplishments to that point on the project. At that time, Marcus and Sanji talked excitedly for hours in the evenings about everything from news conferences to Nobel prizes.