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Authors: Earl Merkel

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Final Epidemic

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This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events or locales is entirely coincidental.

 

FINAL EPIDEMIC

 

A
Signet
Book / published by arrangement with the author

 

All rights reserved.

Copyright ©
2002
by
Earl Merkel

This book may not be reproduced in whole or part, by mimeograph or any other means, without permission. Making or distributing electronic copies of this book constitutes copyright infringement and could subject the infringer to criminal and civil liability.

For information address:

The Berkley Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Putnam Inc.,

375 Hudson Street, New York, New York 10014.

 

The Penguin Putnam Inc. World Wide Web site address is
http://www.penguinputnam.com

 

ISBN:
0-7865-3910-0

 

A
SIGNET
BOOK®

Signet
Books first published by The Signet Publishing Group, a member of Penguin Putnam Inc.,

375 Hudson Street, New York, New York 10014.

SIGNET
and the “
S
” design are trademarks belonging to Penguin Putnam Inc.

 

Electronic edition: June, 2003

Again, for my family

 

WASHINGTON (WNS)—Citing a growing number of experts in international terrorism, a federal interagency commission will be established within the next six months to deal with what one prominent official termed “the virtual certainty” of an attack on the United States by terrorists using lethal viruses as biological weapons.

William MacKenzie Carson, the White House national security advisor, said the need to prepare for such an attack is “both real and urgent.”

“In February 2000, more than 300 physicians, scientists, public officials and law enforcement agents gathered to discuss strategies for dealing with a potential biological attack,” Carson said. “That was more than a year and a half before the World Trade Center fell, more than a year and a half before anthrax became a threat to anyone who received mail.

“Yet it is an undeniable conclusion—we remain ill-equipped to deal with such potentially cataclysmic assaults,” Carson said.

Said the presidential advisor: “I can do no more to illustrate the danger than to quote Donald A. Henderson, the former director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Civilian Biodefense Studies, who warned this nation in 2000 that is was not a question of
if
an atttack will occur; it is only a matter of
when
it will happen here, among our citizens.”

Carson noted that Henderson’s statement, which received wide attention after the events of September 2001, concluded with both a warning and a probable timeline.

“In 2000, Henderson warned that the United States was likely to see an attack within the next five years,” Carson said. “By that prediction, we are now alarmingly overdue.”


Washington News Syndicate Release Date: January 18

“I know how not to get AIDS. I don’t know how not to get the flu.”

 

—Alfred W. Crosby,
historian and author of
America’s Forgotten Pandemic:
The Influenza of 1918

Prologue

Selitova Island, Siberia
January 10

Another blast of frigid air swirled across the tundra, chilling flesh even through the layers of insulated garments they wore under their heavy arctic parkas. Occasionally, it was strong enough to rock anything merely human that stood in its path, particularly when weariness had brought on the mind-dulling blankness so common to cold-weather exertion. In this environment, a diet carefully planned to provide a daily minimum of nine thousand calories scarcely provided sufficient energy to fuel both the arduous work of excavation and the equally important task of maintaining a core temperature capable of sustaining life.

Anji Suzuki shivered involuntarily. He was born on Kyushu, one of the Home Islands far to the south. In the eleven days he had been here, on this godforsaken outcropping of frozen tundra and rock a few degrees above the Arctic Circle, he had never imagined anywhere so cold and desolate.

I will be glad to be gone from this terrible place,
he thought, pressing his body weight hard against the pneumatic drill. He much preferred operating the ground-penetrating radar equipment. With the air drill, the vibrations shook him
so harshly that his vision blurred each time the auger bit into the permafrost. After a few seconds, he released his grip on the trigger lever and leaned against the heavy tool.

On the barren tundra, near the mogul-like dome tents and stretched tarpaulins that served as housing and equipment shelters, almost two dozen parka-clad figures labored. A few worked with surveying transits, others strained against the weight of equipment-laden sledges; but most were engaged in the backbreaking work of driving hollow steel core-sampling rods into the ever-frozen earth along a geometric grid marked by yellow plastic cord. The heavy hammers rose and fell, but not even that tumult reached Anji’s ears. The only sound not drowned by the banshee howl of the bone-numbing gale was his own labored breathing.

He was middle-aged, and the years he had spent in biogenetic research laboratories were proper preparation for neither the manual labor nor the environment. Nor was the more recent confinement he had endured, even if it had been in a facility the medical staff had insisted on calling a “rest haven.” There had been no rest there, not even during the sessions when he had been sedated.

In dreams, he could still recall the worst of it: the smooth, slick feel of unyielding nylon restraints; the cold electrodes taped to his temples; the taste of the rubber block they would force between his teeth; the acid sting of the sedative injection. Then the voltage would hit him, a vibrating fire that alternately paralyzed and convulsed his body. The sedative modulated the seizure, of course. Externally, it appeared little more than a ripple across his face. But inside, a terrifying electrical demon raged, slashing and ripping and throwing Anji against the walls of his very skull.

Anji’s skin still prickled with the remembered horror, even if it had been the price of his Enlightenment.


Hai
!” a deep voice boomed, not far from his ears. As Anji turned, a heavy hand clapped him on the shoulder.

Fusaka Torji grinned at him, his stained and crooked teeth
a pedigree of childhood privation. Under the heavy quilting of his cold-weather gear, Fusaka’s legs were short and bowed. But the man’s upper body was barrel-chested and thick with muscle. Among the group of Aum faithful who had come to labor at this dismal site, he alone seemed tireless and unaffected by the climate.

Which made sense,
Anji thought; the man was an Inuit, what the less enlightened still called an Eskimo—at least, his mother had been, and her genes had evidently dominated over those of his Yokahama-born father—and his earliest years had been spent on a cold and wind-swept island not wholly unlike the one where they now labored.

The two men leaned together so that the snorkel hoods of their parkas almost touched.

“Bring the drill,” Fusaka shouted above the wind. He gestured to a figure behind him, which knelt beside a shallow excavation in the frozen ground. “One of the Initiates has found one, he believes.”

Together, the two men wrestled the drill to the new location, its cold-stiffened pressure line dragging sullenly behind them. The young man on the ground stood up, his face a beatific smile.

“Here,” he said, pointing his leather mitten to indicate the spot. “Quickly!”

This one is a True Believer,
Anji thought, and smiled to himself.
As are we all now, those of us who remain. I, most of all.

When the Sensei had chosen him for this assignment, Anji had bowed with the proper dignity—as had they all, Anji thought; even Fusaka, for once, had not committed some oafish breach of manners. But alone of the Select, Anji’s mask of impassive devotion had almost slipped. His face had glowed when, with a touch on his forehead, the Sensei had selected him. Since the expedition had arrived here, he had been the most driven of the team, constantly urging them to arise earlier, to skip rest periods, to work harder. Some of his
comrades had grumbled aloud, though most had contented themselves by staring at Anji behind an impassive mask that itself spoke volumes.

Like me, they are also Aum Truthseekers,
Anji chided himself—he hoped sincerely.
That makes each of these men forever my brother, my cohorts in the Sensei’s consciousness. But, oh—I have given much to ensure this hour will come to pass. I have sacrificed even the man I once was.

Together, Anji and Fusaka positioned the drill where the younger man indicated. For several minutes they worked without speaking, the chatter of the tool and the wind rasping past their hooded heads competing in volume.

Suddenly, Fusaka grabbed Anji’s arm and shouted something unintelligible. Anji cut the airflow to the drill and dropped to his knees, pawing with mittened hands at the loosened chunks of permafrost. Fusaka knelt close beside as the biogeneticist gradually exposed a mounded outline. Frozen hard to the ground was a rough-woven canvas form bound with hemp ropes.

“I told you,” Fusaka said, poking Anji with an elbow. “This was where they placed the bodies. My mother’s mother would tell her how they were sewn into sailcloth when there were no more sealskin robes.” He looked around the flat tundra. “There will be several dozen more nearby. They were buried in a single trench. A meter or so below the surface, perhaps a little more.”

Anji only grunted, watching closely as Fusaka pulled off his leather mittens and opened a pocket knife. Carefully, he worked the blade against the stiff cloth, cutting a semicircle that he peeled back with difficulty.

Underneath was the face of a young woman. Her features were the mix of Oriental and Indian that distinguishes the Komaji from other Inuit peoples. It was an unmarked visage, almost childlike, peaceful in repose in a way that belied the manner of her death.

Anji looked at her, filled with a reverence that came from
far more than a cultural respect for the dead. His awe was not for the individual woman before him—how could it be? She was insignificant, merely one of the tens of millions who had died with her. No, Anji’s awe was reserved for the instrument of her death, which the biogeneticist fervently prayed still lived on inside her, waiting to be awakened from a slumber of almost a century. Waiting, he remembered the Sensei saying, for a man of Anji’s unique skills to help it do so.

Now it begins,
Anji thought, as the other members of the party began to prepare this first corpse for the journey it would take. He stood for a moment longer, his eyes locked on the long-dead face swathed in its sailcloth cocoon. Unbidden, a phrase came to his mind.

I am Shiva, destroyer of worlds.

He shivered again, this time in a way that had nothing to do with the cold.

 

Six months after the team’s return from the expedition, Anji Suzuki left for the United States. He worked hard to keep his face stoic—as stoic as any of the other Japanese on the plane. It was difficult, because his entire being was aflame with the joy of having been selected—
by the Sensei himself!
Anji remembered, in awe—for this final, divine mission.

Since the expedition to the frigid Arctic almost half a year before, Anji had made this trip several times to meet with the
ganjini,
the godless barbarian crazies that the Sensei had ordered him to find and cultivate in America. He had performed this duty well, finally selecting two of the
ganjini
private armies—they called themselves militias, he reminded himself—one near the East Coast, one in the American West. He had supplied them with the unique weaponry from the Aum arsenal and instructed them in its use.

In the coming days, he had been informed, it will be a useful diversion.

It will be as if angry wraiths, swarming from every crevice, seek to overwhelm them,
the Sensei had told Anji.
Then shall come the final darkness, from which there will be no escape.

Anji savored the image with the zeal of a True Believer.

They had prepared, and waited. Among the Aum, some still held hope that the unbelievers—the subhumans who had mocked their Truths, the mindless beasts who had harried the Divine Aum Asahara mercilessly before finally removing him to their corrupt courtrooms—would somehow find their own Enlightenment. They had steadfastly held to that hope for several years—preparing for the worst, but betraying to the world nothing save a sense of their own harmlessness. So the Sensei had counseled them, with a wisdom that had sustained them since the Divine One had been seized.

All the while, the rituals of a sham justice painted their leader as a murderous madman rather than a savior.

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