Authors: Alex Lukeman
Tags: #Literature & Fiction, #Action & Adventure, #Men's Adventure, #Mystery; Thriller & Suspense, #Thriller & Suspense, #War & Military, #Thrillers & Suspense, #Spies & Politics, #Espionage, #Thriller, #Thrillers
Copyright 2015 by Alex Lukeman
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed or transmitted in any form or by any means except by prior and express permission of the author.
This is a work of fiction. Organizations, places, events and incidents are either the product of the author's imagination or used entirely as an element of fiction. Any resemblance of characters in this book to actual persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
Ring around the rosie,
A pocket full of posies,
All fall down.
Constantinople: 541 C.E.
The city was dying.
Smoke and ash from the funeral pyres drifted from a metallic grey sky, covering everything with a layer of fine black soot, even the dome of the emperor's magnificent church. The dead and dying lay in rotting heaps throughout the city. The stench reached to the heavens.
A lone figure made his way through the deserted streets, a rag held over his mouth and nose. He stepped around a decomposing corpse. Fat, green flies swarmed around the body, crawling over the dead man's eyes and into his open mouth. The fingers of the corpse were black and rotten.
Andreas cursed the day he'd come here. At first it had been good. His reputation as a maker of good copper pots had spread and in a few months he'd started to earn decent money. Then the plague had come.
Some said it came from Egypt, some said from the underworld itself. Wherever it came from, there were not so many people now to wonder about it. Those that were left had given up any pretense of morality. They copulated in the streets, drank until they were unconscious, attacked the weak and defenseless. The thought made Andreas feel for the comforting shape of the dagger he kept under his tunic.
A sudden headache made him stumble. He felt thirsty, tired, and his stomach was uneasy. His throat burned. Fear rippled through his body. He lifted his tunic and searched for the outward signs of the disease, the black patches that spread like poisonous flowers over the doomed.
He found nothing and breathed a sigh of relief. It was probably just a headache. Who wouldn't be tired? He couldn't remember when he'd last had a good night's sleep or eaten a good meal. He'd been hiding with his wife and son. They should have left the city while they were still healthy but his wife had been afraid and now it was too late. The emperor had ordered the gates sealed before he'd died and no one had countered the order..
Hunger and the cries of his child had driven him into the streets. His destination was a bakery in the next alley. Andreas turned the corner and saw three men standing drunk in front of the shop. Through the open door of the shop, he saw the baker lying on the floor. The stones were stained red around him. Beyond the body, there was still a single loaf of bread on one of the shelves.
One of the men saw Andreas approaching and nudged his comrades. He raised a wineskin to his lips, swallowed and threw the empty skin to the side.
"What do you want?" he said. His words were slurred.
Andreas felt for his dagger. "Bread. A loaf of bread for my family."
"Go away," the man said. "This is our shop, our bread."
The second man peered at him through bloodshot eyes. "That's a nice tunic you're wearing," he said. "Give it to me."
Andreas drew his dagger. "All I want is bread for my child. Let me pass."
"Ooh," the leader said. "A pig sticker."
Suddenly the three men didn't seem so drunk anymore. The leader drew a long curved blade from behind his back. The second man drew a dagger from his belt. The third reached for a stout cudgel standing against the wall of the shop.
Andreas coughed, a deep. racking cough that shook his body in a violent spasm. He tasted blood, a sudden rush of warm liquid inside his mouth. He bent over and vomited a thick, red stream onto the cobbles.
The three men backed away in fear. Without another word, they turned and ran.
Andreas wiped his lips. He retched again, then staggered into the shop, stepped over the body of the baker and took the stale loaf from the shelf.
My poor family
, he thought.
What will you do when I'm gone?
In the broad central square of the city, the funeral pyres burned.
The biological weapons lab where Kim Bong Cha worked was deep inside an abandoned gold mine in North Korea's Pinandok Mountain Range, invisible to the spy satellites of the West. Cha had been given a lot of responsibility for her twenty-seven years. Her superiors often praised her dedication. It was hard to find much to criticize about her, even in a society where criticism was a way of life.
If Cha had a flaw, it was bad judgment in men. She lived with a petty criminal named Hyo who made his living smuggling recordings of foreign television programs out of China and into the Democratic People's Republic. When he pulled off one of his deals there was good money and Hyo was happy. Hyo was always happy with money in his pocket and enough to drink. But the money never lasted and he would become surly and abusive until he found his next big score. Now he'd found it and he needed Cha to make it possible.
Hyo had been urgent this morning as Cha was getting ready to go to work, even scary. She could smell the first drink of the day on his breath. There was menace in his voice when he'd told her what he wanted.
"Hyo, it’s dangerous. If I’m caught, they'll take me to one of the camps."
"You won't be caught. All you have to do is open the door."
It was his promise that they'd use the money to escape to the South that persuaded Cha to do what he'd asked. She’d always wanted to go to the South, away from the grim paranoia and poverty of the North. The forbidden television programs made it look like a magical place where everyone was happy and wealthy.
She looked at the clock on the wall.
, she thought.
Cha was part of a team responsible for creating new biological weapons using genetic mutations in bacteria and viruses. She was working with a sample identified only as E495. At 200 X magnification, E495 looked like a rod-shaped clump of safety pins entwined in sticky strands and filaments. The bumps and filaments told her that the sample was from the family of
, bubonic plague. She'd worked with plague before but she'd never seen a sample like this. It was a mutation resurrected from the dead and given new life with the best genetic enhancements science could devise.
North Korea's scientists had manipulated genomes from the teeth of three skeletons unearthed in Turkey to bring it back to life. The sample under Cha's microscope hadn't come from a skeleton, though. It had been taken from the blood of a rat living in her laboratory.
The rat wouldn't be among the living for long.
The most common form of bubonic plague was well understood, the famous Black Death that had ravaged Europe and London in the Middle Ages. It responded to modern antibiotics and was seldom fatal, if caught in time. But E495 came from victims of an extinct strain that had swept through the Byzantine Empire in the sixth century. It was different from the common varieties. It always emerged as the pneumonic form, becoming airborne soon after the host was infected. All the rats and monkeys used for tests had died or were dying. They coughed and sneezed a lot before they died. The fatality rate was one hundred percent. So far, E495 had resisted all efforts to find a cure.
Cha tried not to think about why her country wanted to experiment with the lethal plagues and viruses she saw on a daily basis.
It's not my concern
, she told herself. She often told herself that things were not her concern. In the People's Democratic Republic of North Korea, the words were a mantra of survival.
Doctor Park would make the final evaluation, but she could see that this particular sample was different. The shape of the deadly bacillus was highly unusual. The bacteria were mutating. She made a final note, removed the specimen from her microscope and placed it back in its secure container. Once inside the container, the plague was isolated and safe.
She got up from the bench where she'd been working and made her way to the storage cabinet where Level 4 pathogens were kept. Hoses connected to her pressurized suit trailed in loops behind her from a rack overhead. The Level 4 vaults contained a collection of the deadliest infectious agents in the world and there had been many deaths at the facility over the years, though most of those had been prisoners used in experimental trials. The biohazard suit kept her alive when she was in the room.
She placed the sealed container of E495 in the storage locker, closed the door and activated a system that exchanged and sterilized the air inside. It was essential to purify the air because the storage vault could be accessed from outside the room where she worked without entering the lab itself. Only secure containers went into that locker, brought in from the outside or taken away in specially constructed transport boxes. The containment laboratory where she worked was for when the killers were out of their cage.
She'd been suited up for half an hour and was exhausted. The air entering her suit did little to keep her cool. It was difficult enough to work with something that would kill her if she gave it a chance. The stress was made worse by the confines of the suit. It was hard work.
Exiting the lab was a tedious process. She went through a pressurized airlock and into a decontamination room where chemical sprays soaked her suit. Then she entered a vacuum room where she could undress. After that came a series of stinging showers that smelled of more chemicals. She hated the showers. They dried out her hair and irritated her skin. Still naked, she went through another airlock into a room where she dressed. After one more airlock she was outside again, breathing normally.
Usually there were people here in the outer room, but not tonight. She'd stayed late, claiming the pressure of work. Everyone was gone except for the guards in the halls. From the outside, the door to the laboratory could only be opened with the proper card and biometric authentication. From the inside, anyone could press down on the handle. She walked over to the locked door leading into the rest of the underground complex.
Bong Cha looked at her watch and remembered Hyo's instructions. He'd been adamant, specific, making her repeat what he'd said.
You open the door at 7:20 tonight. 7:20 exactly. You understand? Someone will come in. Don’t talk to him. Show him where the containment locker is. Go home. That’s all you have to do."
"There are cameras. What if someone sees? What if I’m caught?"
"It's taken care of, no one will see. Look, this is our chance. My cousin is waiting for us in Seoul. He’s the one who told me about this man, it’s alright."
"Your cousin is mafia."
"My cousin is a businessman, that’s all."
"The locker is restricted. What about the guards?"
"Don’t worry about it. Look, I told you, it’s all taken care of. The guards won't be a problem. Just show him where the samples are stored, then leave. Don’t argue."
She looked at her watch. It was 7:20. She opened the door and took an involuntary step away.
Three men stood there, not one. They were dressed in black. They had black masks pulled over their faces. One of them had a pack on his back. Two of them held assault rifles. The third had one of the specialized transport carriers in his hand.
"Hello, Cha," the first man said.
He drew a knife and in one, quick motion slashed it across her throat. Bong Cha's blood sprayed out across her attacker, across the door, the wall. She tried to speak, to scream, but only blood bubbled from her mouth. She clutched at her throat with both hands, stumbled backward and died.
"Move," the leader said. His voice was guttural, low. "Get the locker open and take everything. Be careful."
The second man stood guard with his assault rifle. The third went to the locker and opened the door. There were sixteen samples inside, neatly labeled. With great care, he began transferring the contents into the container he'd brought with him.
"Hurry up," the leader said.
The man at the locker closed the lid of the transport container and locked it down.
The leader set his rifle down, un-shouldered his pack, opened the flap and reached in. He flipped a switch. Inside the pack, a digital counter began ticking down a four minute count in red numbers.
"Four minutes," he said. He left the pack on the floor and picked up his rifle. One man took the container and the three left the room.
Behind them, Bong Cha lay sprawled and graceless, ugly in death. She would never know what she had done by opening that door.
It was just as well.