by Greg Bear
FOR MY MOTHER,
WILMA MERRIMAN BEAR
The Alps, near the Austrian Border with Italy
The flat afternoon sky spread over the black and gray mountains like a stage backdrop, the color of a dog’s pale crazy eye.
His ankles aching and back burning from a misplaced loop of nylon rope, Mitch Rafelson followed Tilde’s quick female form along the margin between the white firn and a dust of new snow on the field. Mingled with the ice boulders of the fall, crenels and spikes of old ice had been sculpted by summer heat into milky, flint-edged knives.
To Mitch’s left, the mountains rose over the jumble of black boulders flanking the broken slope of the ice fall. On the right, in the full glare of the sun, the ice rose in blinding brilliance to the perfect catenary of the cirque.
Franco was about twenty yards to the south, hidden by the rim of Mitch’s goggles. Mitch could hear him but not see him. Some kilometers behind, also out of sight now, was the brilliant orange, round fiberglass-and-aluminum bivouac where they had made their last rest stop. He did not know how many kilometers they were from the last hut, whose name he had forgotten; but the memory of bright sun and warm tea in the sitting room, the Gaststube, gave him some strength. When this ordeal was over, he would get another cup of strong tea and sit in the Gaststube and thank God he was warm and alive.
They were approaching the wall of rock and a bridge of snow lying over a chasm dug by meltwater. These now-frozen streams formed during the spring and summer and eroded the edge of the glacier. Beyond the bridge, depending from a U-shaped depression in the wall, rose what looked like a gnome’s upside-down castle, or a pipe organ carved from ice: a frozen waterfall spread out in many thick columns. Chunks of dislodged ice and drifts of snow gathered around the dirty white of the base; sun burnished the cream and white at the top.
Franco came into view as if out of a fog and joined up with Tilde. So far they had been on relatively level glacier. Now it seemed that Tilde and Franco were going to scale the pipe organ.
Mitch stopped for a moment and reached behind to pull out his ice ax. He pushed up his goggles, crouched, then fell back on his butt with a grunt to check his crampons. Ice balls between the spikes yielded to his knife.
Tilde walked back a few yards to speak to him. He looked up at her, his thick dark eyebrows forming a bridge over a pushed-up nose, round green eyes blinking at the cold.
“This saves us an hour,” Tilde said, pointing at the pipe organ. “It’s late. You’ve slowed us down.” Her English came precise from thin lips, with a seductive Austrian accent. She had a slight but well-proportioned figure, white blond hair rucked under a dark blue Polartec cap, an elfin face with clear gray eyes. Attractive, but not Mitch’s type; still, they had been lovers of the moment before Franco arrived.
“I told you I haven’t climbed in eight years,” Mitch said. Franco was showing him up handily. The Italian leaned on his ax near the pipe organ.
Tilde weighed and measured everything, took only the best, discarded the second best, yet never cut ties in case her past connections should prove useful. Franco had a square jaw and white teeth and a square head with thick black hair shaved at the sides, an eagle nose, Mediterranean olive skin, broad shoulders and arms knotted with muscles, fine hands, very strong. He was not too smart for Tilde, but no dummy, either. Mitch could imagine Tilde pulled from her thick Austrian forest by the prospect of bedding Franco, light against dark, like layers in a torte. He felt curiously detached from this image. Tilde made love with a mechanical rigor that had deceived Mitch for a time, until he realized she was merely going through the moves, one after the other, as a kind of intellectual exercise. She ate the same way. Nothing moved her deeply, yet she had real wit at times, and a lovely smile that drew lines on the corners of those thin, precise lips.
“We must go down before sunset,” Tilde said. “I don’t know what the weather will do. It’s two hours to the cave. Not very far, but a hard climb. If we’re lucky, you’ll have an hour to look at what we’ve found.”
“I’ll do my best,” Mitch said. “How far are we from the tourist trails? I haven’t seen any red paint in hours.”
Tilde pulled away her goggles to wipe them, gave him a flash smile with no warmth. “No tourists up here. Most good climbers stay away, too. But I know my way.”
“Snow goddess,” Mitch said.
“What do you expect?” she said, taking it as a compliment. “I’ve climbed here since I was a girl.”
“You’re still a girl,” Mitch said. “Twenty-five, twenty-six?”
She had never revealed her age to Mitch. Now she appraised him as if he were a gemstone she might reconsider purchasing. “I am thirty-two. Franco is forty but he’s faster than you.”
“To hell with Franco,” Mitch said without anger.
Tilde curled her lip in amusement. “We are all weird today,” she said, turning away. “Even Franco feels it. But another Iceman…what would that be worth?”
The very thought shortened Mitch’s breath, and he did not need that now. His excitement curled back on itself, mixing with his exhaustion. “I don’t know,” he said.
They had opened their mercenary little hearts to him back in Salzburg. They were ambitious but not stupid; Tilde was absolutely certain that their find was not just another climber’s body. She should know. At fourteen, she had helped carry out two bodies spit loose from the tongues of glaciers. One had been over a hundred years old.
Mitch wondered what would happen if they had found a true Iceman. Tilde, he was sure, would in the long run not know how to handle fame and success. Franco was stolid enough to make do, but Tilde was in her own way fragile. Like a diamond, she could cut steel, but strike her from the wrong angle and she would come to pieces.
Franco might survive fame, but would he survive Tilde? Mitch, despite everything, liked Franco.
“It’s another three kilometers,” Tilde told him. “Let’s go.”
Together, she and Franco showed him how to climb the frozen waterfall. “This flows only during midsummer,” Franco said. “It is ice for a month now. Understand how it freezes. It is strong down here.” He struck the pale gray ice of the pipe organ’s massive base with his ax. The ice linked, spun off a few chips. “But it is verglas, lots of bubbles, higher up — mushy. Big chunks fall if you hit it wrong. Hurt somebody. Tilde could cut some steps there, not you. You climb between Tilde and me.”
Tilde would go first, an honest acknowledgment by Franco that she was the better climber. Franco slung the ropes and Mitch showed them he remembered the loops and knots from climbing in the Cascades, in Washington state. Tilde made a face and retied the loop Alpine style around his waist and shoulders. “You can front most of the way. Remember, I will chisel steps if you need them,” Tilde said. “I don’t want you sending ice down on Franco.”
She took the lead.
Halfway up the pillar, digging in with the front points of his crampons, Mitch passed a threshold and his exhaustion seemed to leak away in spurts through his feet, leaving him nauseated for a moment. Then his body felt clean, as if flushed with fresh water, and his breath came easy. He followed Tilde, chunking his crampons into the ice and leaning in very close, grabbing at whatever holds were available. He used his ax sparingly. The air was actually warmer near the ice.
It took them fifteen minutes to climb past the midpoint, onto the cream-colored ice. The sun came from behind low gray clouds and lit up the frozen waterfall at a sharp angle, pinning him on a wall of translucent gold.
He waited for Tilde to tell them she was over the top and secure. Franco gave his laconic reply. Mitch wedged his way between two columns. The ice was indeed unpredictable here. He dug in with side points, sending a cloud of chips down on Franco. Franco cursed, but not once did Mitch break free and simply hang, and that was a blessing.
He fronted and crawled up the bumpy, rounded lip of the waterfall. His gloves slipped alarmingly on runnels of ice. He flailed with his boots, caught a ridge of rock with his right boot, dug in, found purchase on more rock, waited for a moment to catch his breath, and humped up beside Tilde like a walrus.
Dusty gray boulders on each side denned the bed of the frozen creek. He looked up the narrow rocky valley, half in shadow, where a small glacier had once flowed down from the east, carving its characteristic U-shaped notch. There had not been much snow for the last few years and the glacier had flowed on, vanishing from the notch, which now lay several dozen yards above the main body of the glacier.
Mitch rolled on his stomach and helped Franco over the top. Tilde stood to one side, perched on the edge as if she knew no fear, perfectly balanced, slender, gorgeous.
She frowned down on Mitch. “We are getting later,” she said. “What can you learn in half an hour?”
“We must start back no later than sunset,” Franco said to Tilde, then grinned at Mitch. “Not so tough son of a bitch ice, no?”
“Not bad,” Mitch said.
“He learns okay,” Franco said to Tilde, who lifted her eyes. “You climb ice before?”
“Not like that,” Mitch said.
They walked over the frozen creek for a few dozen yards. “Two more climbs,” Tilde said. “Franco, you lead.”
Mitch looked up through crystalline air over the rim of the notch at the sawtooth horns of higher mountains. He still could not tell where he was. Franco and Tilde preferred him ignorant. They had come at least twenty kilometers since their stay in the big stone Gaststube, with the tea.
Turning, he spotted the orange bivouac, about four kilometers away and hundreds of meters below. It sat just behind a saddle, now in shadow.
The snow seemed very thin. The mountains had just passed through the warmest summer in modern Alpine history, with increased glacier melt, short-term floods in the valleys from heavy rain, and only light snow from past seasons. Global warming was a media cliche now; from where he sat, to his inexpert eye, it seemed all too real. The Alps might be naked in a few decades.
The relative heat and dryness had opened up a route to the old cave, allowing Franco and Tilde to discover a secret tragedy.
Franco announced he was secure, and Mitch inched his way up the last rock face, feeling the gneiss chip and skitter beneath his boots. The stone here was flaky, powdery soft in places; snow had lain over this area for a long time, easily thousands of years.
Franco lent him a hand and together they belayed the rope as Tilde scrambled up behind. She stood on the rim, shielded her eyes against the direct sun, now barely a handspan above the ragged horizon. “Do you know where you are?” she asked Mitch.
Mitch shook his head. “I’ve never been this high.”
“A valley boy,” Franco said with a grin.
They stared over a rounded and slick field of ice, the thin finger of a glacier that had once flowed nearly seven miles in several spectacular cascades. Now, along this branch, the flow was lagging. Little new snow fed the glacier’s head, higher up. The sun-blazed rock wall above the icy rip of the bergschrund rose several thousand feet straight up, the peak higher than Mitch cared to look.
“There,” Tilde said, and pointed to the opposite rocks below an arete. With some effort, Mitch made out a tiny red dot against the shadowed black and gray: a cloth banner Franco had planted on their last trip. They set off over the ice.
The cave, a natural crevice, had a small opening, three feet in diameter, artificially concealed by a low wall of head-size boulders. Tilde took out her digital camera and photographed the opening from several angles, backing up and walking around while Franco pulled down the wall and Mitch surveyed the entrance.
“How far back?” Mitch asked when Tilde rejoined them.
“Ten meters,” Franco said. “Very cold back there, better than a freezer.”
“But not for long,” Tilde said. “I think this is the first year this area has been so open. Next summer, it could get above freezing. A warm wind could get back in there.” She made a face and pinched her nose.
Mitch unslung his pack and rummaged for the electric torches, the box of hobby knives, vinyl gloves, all he could find in the stores down in the town. He dropped these into a small plastic bag, sealed the bag, slipped it into his coat pocket, and looked between Franco and Tilde.
“Well?” he said.
“Go,” Tilde said, making a pushing motion with her hands. She smiled generously.
He stooped, got on his hands and knees, and entered the cave first. Franco came a few seconds later, and Tilde just behind him.
Mitch held the strap of the small torch in his teeth, pushing and squeezing forward six or eight inches at a time. Ice and fine powdered snow formed a thin blanket on the floor of the cave. The walls were smooth and rose to a tight wedge near the ceiling. He would not be able to even crouch here. Franco called forward, “It will get wider.”
“A cozy little hole,” Tilde said, her voice hollow.
The air smelled neutral, empty. Cold, well below zero. The rock sucked away his heat even through the insulated jacket and snow pants. He passed over a vein of ice, milky against the black rock, and scraped it with his fingers. Solid. The snow and ice must have packed in at least this far when the cave was covered. Just beyond the ice vein, the cave began to slant upward, and he felt a faint puff of air from another wedge in the rock recently cleared of ice.
Mitch felt a little queasy, not at the thought of what he was about to see, but at the unorthodox and even criminal character of this investigation. The slightest wrong move, any breath of this getting out, news of his not going through the proper channels and making sure everything was legitimate…
Mitch had gotten in trouble with institutions before. He had lost his job at the Hayer Museum in Seattle less than six months before, but that had been a political thing, ridiculous and unfair.
Until now, he had never slighted Dame Science herself.
He had argued with Franco and Tilde back in the hotel in Salzburg for hours, but they had refused to budge. If he had not decided to go with them, they would have taken somebody else — Tilde had suggested perhaps an unemployed medical student she had once dated. Tilde had a wide selection of ex-boyfriends, it seemed, all of them much less qualified and far less scrupulous than Mitch.
Whatever Tilde’s motives or moral character, Mitch was not the type to turn her down, then turn them in; everybody has his limits, his boundary in the social wilderness. Mitch’s boundary began at the prospect of getting ex-girlfriends in trouble with the Austrian police.
Franco plucked a crampon on the sole of Mitch’s boot. “Problem?” he asked.
“No problem,” Mitch replied, and grunted forward another six inches.
A sudden oblong of light formed in one eye, like a large out-of-focus moon. His body seemed to balloon in size. He swallowed hard. “Shit,” he muttered, hoping that didn’t mean what he thought it meant. The oblong faded. His body returned to normal.
Here, the cave constricted to a narrow throat, less than a foot high and twenty-one or twenty-two inches wide. Angling his head sideways, he grabbed hold of a crack just beyond the throat and shinnied through. His coat caught and he heard a tearing sound as he strained to unhook and slip past.
“That’s the bad part,” Franco said. “I can barely make it.”
“Why did you go this far?” Mitch asked, gathering his courage in the broader but still dark and cramped space beyond.
“Because it was here, no?” Tilde said, voice like the call of a distant bird. “I dared Franco. He dared me.” She laughed and the tinkling echoed in the gloom beyond. Mitch’s neck hair rose. The new Iceman was laughing with them, perhaps at them. He was dead already. He had nothing to worry about, plenty to be amused about, that so many people would make themselves miserable to see his mortal remains.
“How long since you last came here?” Mitch asked. He wondered why he hadn’t asked before. Perhaps until now he hadn’t really believed. They had come this far, no sign of pulling a joke on him, something he doubted Tilde was constitutionally capable of anyway.
“A week, eight days,” Franco said. The passage was wide enough that Franco could push himself up beside Mitch’s legs, and Mitch could shine the torch back into his face. Franco gave him a toothy Mediterranean smile.
Mitch looked forward. He could see something ahead, dark, like a small pile of ashes.
“We are close?” Tilde asked. “Mitch, first it is just a foot.”
Mitch tried to parse this sentence. Tilde spoke pure metric. A “foot,” he realized, was not distance, it was an appendage. “I don’t see it yet.”
“There are ashes first,” Franco said. “That may be it.” He pointed to the small black pile. Mitch could feel the air falling slowly just in front of him, flowing along his sides, leaving the rear of the cave undisturbed.
He moved forward with reverent slowness, inspecting everything. Any slightest bit of evidence that might have survived an earlier entry — chips of stone, pieces of twig or wood, markings on the walls…
Nothing. He got on his hands and knees with a great sense of relief and crawled forward. Franco became impatient.
“It is right ahead,” Franco said, tapping his crampon again.
“Damn it, I’m taking this real slow, not to miss anything, you know?” Mitch said. He restrained an urge to kick out like a mule.
“All right,” Franco said amiably.
Mitch could see around the curve. The floor flattened slightly. He smelled something grassy, salty, like fresh fish. His neck hair rose again, and a mist formed over his eyes. Ancient sympathies.
“I see it,” he said. A foot pushed out beyond a ledge, curled up on itself — small, really, like a child’s, very wrinkled and dark brown, almost black. The cave opened up at that point and there were scraps of dried and blackened fiber spread on the floor — grass, perhaps. Reeds. Otzi, the original Iceman, had worn a reed cape over his head.
“My God,” Mitch said. Another -white oblong in his eye, slowly fading, and a whisper of pain in his temple.
“It’s bigger up there,” Tilde called. “We can all fit and not disturb them.”
“Them?” Mitch asked, shining his light back between his legs.
Franco smiled, framed by Mitch’s knees. “The real surprise,” Franco said. “There are two.”
Republic of Georgia
Kaye curled up in the passenger seat of the whining little Fiat as Lado guided it along the alarming twists and turns of the Georgian Military Road. Though sunburned and exhausted, she could not sleep. Her long legs twitched with every curve. At a piggish squeal of the nearly bald tires, she pushed her hands back through short-cut brown hair and yawned deliberately.
Lado sensed the silence had gone on too long. He glanced at Kaye with soft brown eyes in a finely wrinkled sun-browned face, lifted his cigarette over the steering wheel, and jutted out his chin. “In shit is our salvation, yes?” he asked.
Kaye smiled despite herself. “Please don’t try to cheer me up,” she said.
Lado ignored that. “Good on us. Georgia has something to offer the world. We have great sewage.” He rolled his rs elegantly, and “sewage” came out see-yu-edge.
“Sewage,” she murmured. “Seee-yu-age.”
“I say it right?” Lado asked.
“Perfectly,” Kaye said.
Lado Jakeli was chief scientist at the Eliava Institute in Tbilisi, where they extracted bacteriophages — viruses that attack only bacteria — from local city and hospital sewage and farm waste, and from specimens gathered around the world. Now, the West, including Kaye, had come hat in hand to learn more from the Georgians about the curative properties of phages.
She had hit it off with the Eliava staff. After a week of conferences and lab tours, some of the younger scientists had invited her to accompany them to the rolling hills and brilliant green sheep fields at the base of Mount Kazbeg.
Things had changed so quickly. Just this morning, Lado had driven all the way from Tbilisi to their base camp near the old and solitary Gergeti Orthodox church. In an envelope he had carried a fax from UN Peacekeeping headquarters in Tbilisi, the capital.
Lado had downed a pot of coffee at the camp, then, ever the gentleman, and her sponsor besides, had offered to take her to Gordi, a small town seventy-five miles southwest of Kazbeg.
Kaye had had no choice. Unexpectedly, and at the worst possible time, her past had caught up with her.
The UN team had gone through entry records to find non-Georgian medical experts with a certain expertise. Hers was the only name that had come up: Kaye Lang, thirty-four, partner with her husband, Saul Madsen, in EcoBacter Research. In the early nineties, she had studied forensic medicine at the State University of New York with an eye to going into criminal investigation. She had changed her perspective within a year, switching to microbiology, with emphasis on genetic engineering; but she was the only foreigner in Georgia with even the slightest degree of the training the UN needed.
Lado was driving her through some of the most beautiful countryside she had ever seen. In the shadows of the central Caucasus they had passed terraced mountain fields, small stone farmhouses, stone silos and churches, small towns with wood and stone buildings, houses with friendly and beautifully carved porches opening onto narrow brick or cobble or dirt roads, towns dotted loosely on broad rumpled blankets of sheep- and goat-grazed meadow and thick forest.
Here, even the seemingly empty expanses had been swarmed over and fought for across the centuries, like every place she had seen in Western and now Eastern Europe. Sometimes she felt suffocated by the sheer closeness of her fellow humans, by the gap-toothed smiles of old men and women standing by the side of the road watching traffic come and go from new and unfamiliar worlds. Wrinkled friendly faces, gnarled hands waving at the little car.
All the young people were in the cities, leaving the old to tend the countryside, except in the mountain resorts. Georgia was planning to turn itself into a nation of resorts. Her economy was growing in double digits each year; her currency, the lari, was strengthening as well, and had long since replaced rubles; soon it would replace Western dollars. They were opening oil pipelines from the Caspian to the Black Sea; and in the land where wine got its name, it was becoming a major export.
In the next few years, Georgia would export a new and very different wine: solutions of phages to heal a world losing the war against bacterial diseases.
The Fiat swung into the inside lane as they rounded a blind curve. Kaye swallowed hard but said nothing. Lado had been very solicitous toward her at the institute. At times in the past week, Kaye had caught him looking at her with an expression of gnarled, old world speculation, eyes drawn to wrinkled slits, like a satyr carved out of olive wood and stained brown. He had a reputation among the women who worked at Eliava, that he could not be trusted all the time, particularly with the young ones. But he had always treated Kaye with the utmost civility, even, as now, with concern. He did not want her to be sad, yet he could not think of any reason she should be cheerful.
Despite its beauty, Georgia had many blemishes: civil war, assassinations, and now, mass graves.
They lurched into a wall of rain. The windshield wipers flapped black tails and cleaned about a third of Lado’s view. “Good on loseb Stalin, he left us sewage,” he mused. “Good son of Georgia. Our most famous export, better than wine.” Lado grinned falsely at her. He seemed both ashamed and defensive. Kaye could not help but draw him out.
“He killed millions,” she murmured. “He killed Dr. Eliava.”
Lado stared grimly through the streaks to see what lay beyond the short hood. He geared down and braked, then careened around a ditch big enough to hide a cow. Kaye made a small squeak and grabbed the side of her seat. There were no guardrails on this stretch, and below the highway yawned a steep drop of at least three hundred meters to a glacial melt river. “It was Beria declared Dr. Eliava a People’s Enemy,” Lado said matter-of-factly, as if relating old family history. “Beria was head of Georgian KGB then, local child-abusing sonabitch, not mad wolf of all Russia.”
“He was Stalin’s man,” Kaye said, trying to keep her mind off the road. She could not understand any pride the Georgians took in Stalin.
“They were all Stalin’s men, or they died,” Lado said. He shrugged. “There was a big stink here when Khruschev said Stalin was bad. What do we know? He screwed us so many ways for so many years we thought he must be a husband.”
This Kaye found amusing. Lado took encouragement from her grin.
“Some still want to return to prosperity under Communism. Or we have prosperity in shit.” He rubbed his nose. “I’ll take the shit.”
They descended in the next hour into less fearsome foothills and plateaus. Road signs in curling Georgian script showed the rusted pocks of dozens of bullet holes. “Half an hour, no more,” Lado said.
The thick rain made the border between day and night difficult to judge. Lado switched on the Fiat’s dim little headlights as they approached a crossroads and the turnoff to the small town of Gordi.
Two armored personnel carriers flanked the highway just before the crossroads. Five Russian peacekeepers dressed in slickers and rounded piss-bucket helmets wearily flagged them down.
Lado braked the Fiat to a stop, canted slightly on the shoulder. Kaye could see another ditch just yards ahead, right in the crotch of the crossroads. They would have to drive on the shoulder to go around it.
Lado rolled down his window. A Russian soldier of nineteen or twenty, with rosy choirboy cheeks, peered in. His helmet dribbled rain on Lado’s sleeve. Lado spoke to him in Russian.
“American?” the young Russian asked Kaye. She showed him her passport, her E.U. and C.I.S. business licenses, and the fax requesting — practically ordering — her presence in Gordi. The soldier took the fax and frowned as he tried to read it, getting it thoroughly wet. He stepped back to consult with an officer squatting in the rear hatch of the nearest carrier.
“They do not want to be here,” Lado muttered to Kaye. “And we do not want them. But we asked for help…Who do we blame?”
The rain stopped. Kaye stared into the misting gloom ahead. She heard crickets and birdsong above the engine whine.
“Go down, go left,” the soldier told Lado, proud of his English. He smiled for Kaye’s benefit and waved them on to another soldier standing like a fence post in the gray gloom beside the ditch. Lado engaged the clutch and the little car bucked around the ditch, past the third peacekeeper and onto the side road.
Lado opened the window all the way. Cool moist evening air swirled through the car and lifted the short hair over Kaye’s neck. The roadsides were covered with tight-packed birch. Briefly the air smelled foul. They were near people. Then Kaye thought maybe it was not the town’s sewage that smelled so. Her nose wrinkled and her stomach knotted. But that was not likely. Their destination was a mile or so outside the town, and Gordi was still at least two miles off the highway.
Lado came to a stream and slowly forded the quick-rushing shallow water. The wheels sank to their hubcaps, but the car emerged safely and continued on for another hundred meters. Stars peeked through swift-gliding clouds. Mountains drew jagged dark blanks against the sky. The forest came up and fell back and then they saw Gordi, stone buildings, some newer two-story square wooden houses with tiny windows, a single concrete municipal cube without decoration, roads of rutted asphalt and old cobbles. No lights. Black sightless windows. The electricity was out again.
“I don’t know this town,” Lado muttered. He slammed on the brakes, jolting Kaye from a reverie. The car idled noisily in the small town square, surrounded by two-story buildings. Kaye could make out a faded Intourist sign over an inn named the Rustaveli Tiger.
Lado switched on the tiny overhead light and pulled out the faxed map. He flung the map aside in disgust and heaved open the Fiat’s door. The hinges made a loud metal groan. He leaned out and yelled in Georgian, “Where is the grave?”
Darkness was its own excuse.
“Beautiful,” Lado said. He slammed the door twice to make it catch. Kaye pressed her lips together firmly as the car lurched forward. They descended with a high-pitched gnash of gears through a small street of shops, dark and shuttered with corrugated steel, and out the back side of the village, past two abandoned shacks, heaps of gravel, and scattered bales of straw.
After a few minutes, they spotted lights and the glow of torches and a single small campfire, then heard the racketing burr of a portable generator and voices loud in the hollow of the night.
The grave was closer than the map had showed, less than a mile from the town. She wondered if the villagers had heard the screams, or indeed if there had been any screams.
The fun was over.
The UN team wore gas masks equipped with industrial aerosol filters. Nervous Georgian Republic Security soldiers had to resort to bandannas tied around their faces. They looked sinister, comically so under other circumstances. Their officers wore white cloth surgical masks.
The head of the sakrebulo, the local council, a short big-fisted man with a tall shock of wiry black hair and a prominent nose, stood with a doggishly unhappy face beside the security officers.
The UN team leader, a U.S. Army colonel from South Carolina named Nicholas Beck, made quick introductions and passed Kaye one of the UN masks. She felt self-conscious but put it on. Beck’s aide, a black female corporal named Hunter, passed her a pair of white latex surgical gloves. They gave familiar slaps against her wrists as she tugged them on.
Beck and Hunter led Kaye and Lado away from the camp-fire and the white Jeeps, down a small path through ragged forest and scrub to the graves.
“The council chief out there has his enemies. Some locals from the opposition dug the trenches and then called UN headquarters in Tbilisi,” Beck told her. “I don’t think the Republic Security folks want us here. We can’t get any cooperation in Tbilisi. On short notice, you were the only one we could find with any expertise.”
Three parallel trenches had been reopened and marked by electric lights on tall poles, staked into the sandy soil and powered by a portable generator. Between the stakes lengths of red and yellow plastic tape hung lifeless in the still air.
Kaye walked around the first trench and lifted her mask. Wrinkling her nose in anticipation, she sniffed. There was no distinct smell other than dirt and mud.
“They’re more than two years old,” she said. She gave Beck the mask. Lado stopped about ten paces behind them, reluctant to go near the graves.
“We need to be sure of that,” Beck said.
Kaye walked to the second trench, stooped, and played the beam of her flashlight over the heaps of fabric and dark bones and dry dirt. The soil was sandy and dry, possibly part of the bed of an old melt stream from the mountains. The bodies were almost unrecognizable, pale brown bone encrusted with dirt, wrinkled brown and black flesh. Clothing had faded to the color of the soil, but these patches and shreds were not army uniforms: they were dresses, pants, coats. Woolens and cottons had not completely decayed. Kaye looked for brighter synthetics; they could establish a maximum age for the grave. She could not immediately see any.
She moved the beam up to the walls of the trench. The thickest roots visible, cut through by spades, were about half an inch in diameter. The nearest trees stood like tall thin ghosts ten yards away.
A middle-aged Republic Security officer with the formidable name of Vakhtang Chikurishvili, handsome in a burly way, with heavy shoulders and a thick, often-broken nose, stepped forward. He was not wearing a mask. He held up something dark. It took Kaye a few seconds to recognize it as a boot. Chikurishvili addressed Lado in consonant-laden Georgian.
“He says the shoes are old,” Lado translated. “He says these people died fifty years ago. Maybe more.”
Chikurishvili angrily swung his arm around and shot a quick stream of mixed Georgian and Russian at Lado and Beck.
Lado translated. “He says the Georgians who dug this up are stupid. This is not for the UN. This was from long before the civil war. He says these are not Ossetians.”
“Who mentioned Ossetians?” Beck asked dryly.
Kaye examined the boot. It had a thick leather sole and leather uppers, and its hanging strings were rotted and encrusted with powdery clods. The leather was hard as a rock. She peered into the interior. Dirt, but no socks or tissue — the boot had not been pulled from a decayed foot. Chikurishvili met her querulous look defiantly, then whipped out a match and lit up a cigarette.
Staged, Kaye thought. She remembered the classes she had taken in the Bronx, classes that had eventually driven her from criminal medicine. The field visits to real homicide scenes. The putrescence protection masks.
Beck spoke to the officer soothingly in broken Georgian and better Russian. Lado gently retranslated his attempts. Beck then took Kaye’s elbow and moved her to a long canvas canopy that had been erected a few yards from the trenches.
Under the canopy, two battered folding card tables supported pieces of bodies. Completely amateur, Kaye thought. Perhaps the enemies of the head of the sakrebulo had laid out the bodies and taken pictures to prove their point.
She circled the table: two torsos and a skull. There was a fair amount of mummified flesh left on the torsos and some unfamiliar ligaments like dark dry straps on the skull, around the forehead, eyes, and cheeks. She looked for signs of insect casings and found dead blowfly larvae on one withered throat, but not many. The bodies had been buried within a few hours of death. She surmised they had not been buried in the dead of winter, when blowflies were not about. Of course, winters at this altitude were mild in Georgia.
She picked up a small pocket knife lying next to the closest torso and lifted a shred of fabric, what had once been white cotton, then pried up a stiff, concave flap of skin over the abdomen. There were bullet entry holes in the fabric and skin overlying the pelvis. “God,” she said.
Within the pelvis, cradled in dirt and stiff wraps of dried tissue, lay a smaller body, curled, little more than a heap of tiny bones, its skull collapsed.
“Colonel.” She showed Beck. His face turned stony.
The bodies could conceivably have been fifty years old, but if so, they were in remarkably good condition. Some wool and cotton remained. Everything was very dry. Drainage swept around this area now. The trenches were deep. But the roots -
Chikurishvili spoke again. His tone seemed more cooperative, even guilty. There was a lot of guilt to go around over the centuries.
“He says they are both female,” Lado whispered to Kaye.
“I see that,” she muttered.
She walked around the table to examine the second torso. This one had no skin over the abdomen. She scraped the dirt aside, making the torso rock with a sound like a dried gourd. Another small skull lay within the pelvis, a fetus about six months along, same as the other. The torso’s limbs were missing; Kaye could not tell if the legs had been held together in the grave. Neither of the fetuses had been expelled by pressure of abdominal gases.
“Both pregnant,” she said. Lado translated this into Georgian.
Beck said in a low voice, “We count about sixty individuals. The women seem to have been shot. It looks as if the men were shot or clubbed to death.”
Chikurishvili pointed to Beck, and then back to the camp, and shouted, his face ruddy in the backwash of flashlight glow. “Jugashvili, Stalin.” The officer said the graves had been dug a few years before the great People’s War, during the purges. The late 1930s. That would make them almost seventy years old, ancient news, nothing for the UN to become involved in.
Lado said, “He wants the UN and the Russians out of here. He says this is an internal matter, not for peacekeepers.”
Beck spoke again, less soothingly, to the Georgian officer. Lado decided he did not want to be in the middle of this exchange and walked around to where Kaye was leaning over the second torso. “Nasty business,” he said.
“Too long,” Kaye spoke softly.
“What?” Lado asked.
“Seventy years is much too long,” she said. “Tell me what they’re arguing about.” She prodded the unfamiliar straps of tissue around the eye sockets with the pocket knife. They seemed to form a kind of mask. Had they been hooded before being executed? She did not think so. The attachments were dark and stringy and persistent.
“The UN man is saying there is no limit on war crimes,” Lado told her. “No statue — what is it — statute of limitations.”
“He’s right,” Kaye said. She rolled the skull over gently. The occiput had been fractured laterally and pushed in to a depth of three centimeters.
She returned her attention to the tiny skeleton cradled within the pelvis of the second torso. She had taken some courses in embryology in her second year in med school. The fetus’s bone structure seemed a little odd, but she did not want to damage the skull by pulling it loose from the caked soil and dried tissue. She had intruded enough already.
Kaye felt queasy, sickened not by the shriveled and dried remains, but by what her imagination was already reconstructing. She straightened and waved to get Beck’s attention.
“These women were shot in the stomach,” she said. Kill all the firstborn children. Furious monsters. “Murdered.” She clamped her teeth.
“How long ago?”
“He may be right about the age of the boot, if it came from here, but this grave isn’t that old. The roots around the edge of the trenches are too small. My guess is the victims died as recently as two or three years ago. The dirt here looks dry, but the soil is probably acid, and that would dissolve any bones over a few years old. Then there’s the fabric; it looks like wool and cotton, and that means the grave is just a few years old. If it’s synthetic, it could be older, but that gives us a date after Stalin, too.”
Beck approached her and lifted his mask. “Can you help us until the others get here?” he asked in a whisper.
“How long?” Kaye asked.
“Four, five days,” Beck said. Several paces distant, Chikurishvili shifted his gaze between them, jaw clenched, resentful, as if cops had interrupted a domestic quarrel.
Kaye caught herself holding her breath. She turned away, stepped back, sucked in some air, then asked, “You’re going to start a war crimes investigation?”
“The Russians think we should,” Beck said. “They’re hot to discredit the new Communists back home. A few old atrocities could supply them with fresh ammunition. If you could give us a best guess — two years, five, thirty, whatever?”
“Less than ten. Probably less than five. I’m very rusty,” she said. “I can only do a few things. Take samples, some tissue specimens. Not a full autopsy, of course.”
“You’re a thousand times better than letting the locals muck around,” Beck said. “I don’t trust any of them. I’m not sure the Russians can be trusted, either. They all have axes to grind, one way or the other.”
Lado kept a stiff face and did not comment, nor did he translate for Chikurishvili.
Kaye felt what she had known would come, had dreaded: the old dark mood creeping over her.
She had thought that by traveling and being away from Saul, she might shake the bad times, the bad feelings. She had felt liberated watching the doctors and technicians working at the Eliava Institute, doing so much good with so few resources, literally pulling health out of sewage. The grand and beautiful side of the Republic of Georgia. Now…Flip the coin. Papa loseb Stalin or ethnic cleansers, Georgians trying to move out Armenians and Ossetians, Abkhazis trying to move out Georgians, Russians sending in troops, Chechens becoming involved. Dirty little wars between ancient neighbors with ancient grievances.
This was not going to be good for her, but she could not refuse.
Lado wrinkled his face and stared up at Beck. “They were going to be mothers?”
“Most of them,” Beck said. “And maybe some were going to be fathers.”
The end of the cave was very cramped. Tilde lay under a low shelf of rock, knees drawn up, and watched Mitch as he kneeled before the ones they had come here to see. Franco squatted behind Mitch.
Mitch’s mouth hung half open, like a surprised little boy’s. He could not speak for a time. The end of the cave was utterly still and quiet. Only the beam of light moved as he played the torch up and down the two forms.
“We touched nothing,” Franco said.
The blackened ashes, ancient fragments of wood, grass, and reed, looked as if a breath would scatter them but still formed the remains of a fire. The skin of the bodies had fared much better. Mitch had never seen more startling examples of deep-freeze mummification. The tissues were hard and dry, the moisture sucked from them by the dry deep cold air. Near the heads, where they lay facing each other, the skin and muscle had hardly shrunk at all before being fixed. The features were almost natural, though the eyelids had withdrawn and the eyes beneath were shrunken, dark, unutterably sleepy. The bodies as well were full; only near the legs did the flesh seem to shrivel and darken, perhaps because of the intermittent breeze from farther up the shaft. The feet were wizened, black as little dried mushrooms.
Mitch could not believe what he was seeing. Perhaps there was nothing so extraordinary about their pose — lying on their sides, a man and a woman facing each other in death, freezing finally as the ashes of their last fire cooled. Nothing unexpected about the hands of the man reaching toward the face of the woman, the woman’s arms low in front of her as if she had clasped her stomach. Nothing extraordinary about the animal skin beneath them, or another skin rumpled beside the male, as if it had been tossed aside.
In the end, with the fire out, freezing to death, the man had felt too warm and had thrown off his covering.
Mitch looked down at the woman’s curled fingers and swallowed a rising lump of emotion he could not easily define or explain.
“How old?” Tilde asked, interrupting his focus. Her voice sounded crisp and clear and rational, like the ring of a struck knife.
Mitch jerked. “Very old,” he said quietly.
“Yes, but like the Iceman?”
“Not like the Iceman,” Mitch said. His voice almost broke.
The female had been injured. A hole had been punched in her side, at hip level. Blood stains surrounded the hole and he thought he could make out stains on the rock beneath her. Perhaps it had been the cause of her death.
There were no weapons in the cave.
He rubbed his eyes to force aside the little jagged white moon that threatened to distract him, then looked at the faces again, short broad noses pointing up at an angle. The woman’s jaw hung slack, the man’s was closed. The woman had died gasping for air. Mitch could not know this for sure, but he did not question the observation. It fit.
Only now did he carefully maneuver around the figures, crouched low, moving so slowly, keeping his bent knees an inch above the man’s hip.
“They look old,” Franco said, just to make a sound in the cave. His eyes glittered. Mitch glanced at him, then down at the male’s profile.
Thick brow ridge, broad flattened nose, no chin. Powerful shoulders, narrowing to a comparatively slender waist. Thick arms. The faces were smooth, almost hairless. All the skin below the neck, however, was covered with a fine dark downy fur, visible only on close examination. Around their temples, the short-trimmed hair seemed to have been shaved in patterns, expertly barbered.
So much for shaggy museum reconstructions.
Mitch bent closer, the cold air heavy in his nostrils, and propped his hand against the top of the cave. Something like a mask lay between the bodies, actually two masks, one beside and bunched under the man, the other beneath the woman. The edges of the masks appeared torn. Each had eye holes, nostrils, the appearance of an upper lip, all lightly covered with fine hair, and below that, an even hairier flap that might have once wrapped around the neck and lower jaw. They might have been lifted from the faces, flayed away, yet there was no skin missing from the heads.
The mask nearest the woman seemed attached to her forehead and temple by thin fibers like the beard of a mussel.
Mitch realized he was focusing on little mysteries to get past one big impossibility.
“How old are they?” Tilde asked again. “Can you tell yet?”
“I don’t think there have been people like this for tens of thousands of years,” Mitch said.
Tilde seemed to miss this statement of deep time. “They are European, like the Iceman?”
“I don’t know,” Mitch said, but shook his head and held up his hand. He did not want to talk; he wanted to think. This was an extremely dangerous place, professionally, mentally, from any angle of approach. Dangerous and dreamlike and impossible.
“Tell me, Mitch,” Tilde pleaded with surprising gentleness. “Tell me what you see.” She reached out to stroke his knee. Franco observed this caress with maturity.
Mitch began, “They are male and female, each about a hundred and sixty centimeters in height.”
“Short people,” Franco said, but Mitch talked right over him.
“They appear to be genus Homo, species sapiens. Not like us, though. They might have suffered from some kind of dwarfism, distortion of the features…” He stopped himself and looked again at the heads, saw no signs of dwarfism, though the masks bothered him.
The classic features. “They’re not dwarfs,” he said. “They’re Neandertals.”
Tilde coughed. The dry air parched their throats. “Pardon?”
“Cavemen?” Franco said.
“Neandertals,” Mitch said again, as much to convince himself as to correct Franco.
“That is bullshit,” Tilde said, her voice crackling with anger. “We are not children.”
“No bullshit. You have found two well-preserved Neandertals, a man and a woman. The first Neandertal mummies…anywhere. Ever.”
Tilde and Franco thought about that for a few seconds. Outside, wind hooted past the cave entrance.
“How old?” Franco asked.
“Everyone thinks the Neandertals died out between a hundred thousand and forty thousand years ago,” Mitch said. “Maybe everyone is wrong. But I doubt they could have stayed in this cave, in this state of preservation, for forty thousand years.”
“Maybe they were the last,” Franco said, and crossed himself reverently.
“Incredible,” Tilde said, her face flushed. “How much would they be worth?”
Mitch’s leg cramped and he moved back to squat beside Franco. He rubbed his eyes with a gloved knuckle. So cold. He was shivering. The moon of light blurred and shifted. “They’re not worth anything,” he said.
“Don’t joke,” Tilde said. “They are rare — nothing like them, right?”
“Even if we — if you, I mean — could get them out of this cave safely, intact, and down the mountain, where would you sell them?”
“There are people who collect such things,” Franco said. “People with lots of money. We have talked to some about an Iceman already. Surely an Iceman and woman—”
“Maybe I should be more blunt,” Mitch said. “If these aren’t handled in a proper scientific fashion, I will go to the authorities in Switzerland, Italy, wherever the hell we are. I will tell them.”
Another silence. Mitch could almost hear Tilde’s thoughts, like a little Austrian clockwork.
Franco slapped the floor of the cave with his gloved hand and glared at Mitch. “Why fuck us up?”
“Because these people don’t belong to you,” Mitch said. “They don’t belong to anybody.”
“They are dead!” Franco shouted. “They do not belong to themselves, do they, anymore?”
Tilde’s lips formed a straight, grim line. “Mitch is right. We are not going to sell them.”
A little scared now, Mitch’s next words rushed out. “I don’t know what else you might plan to do with them, but I don’t think you’re going to control them, or sell the rights, make Caveman Barbie dolls or whatever.” He took a deep breath.
“No, again, I say Mitch is right,” Tilde stated slowly. Franco regarded her with a speculative squint. “This is very huge. We will be good citizens. They are everybody’s ancestors. Mama and Papa to the world.”
Mitch could definitely feel the headache creeping up. The earlier oblong of light had been a familiar warning: oncoming head-crushing train. Climbing back down the mountain would be difficult or even impossible if he was going to fall under the spell of a migraine, a real brain-splitter. He hadn’t brought any medicine. “Are you planning to kill me up here?” he asked Tilde.
Franco shot a glance at him, then rolled to look at Tilde, waiting for an answer.
Tilde grinned and tapped her chin. “I am thinking,” she said. “What rogues we would be. Famous stories. Pirates of the prehistoric. Yo ho ho and a bottle of Schnapps.”
“What we need to do,” Mitch said, assuming that she had answered in the negative, “is to take a tissue sample from each body, with minimal intrusion. Then—”
He reached for the torch and shone the light beyond the close, sleepy-eyed heads of the male and female to the far recesses, about three yards farther back in the cave. Something small lay there, bundled in fur.
“What’s that?” he and Franco asked simultaneously.
Mitch considered. He could hunker and sidle his way around the female without disturbing anything except the dust. On the other hand, it would be best to leave everything completely untouched, to retreat from the cave now and bring back the real experts. The tissue samples would be enough evidence, he thought. Enough was known about Neandertal DNA from bone studies. A confirmation could be made and the cave could be kept sealed until -
He pressed his temples and closed his eyes.
Tilde tapped his shoulder and gently pushed him out of the way. “I am smaller,” she said. She crawled beside the female toward the rear of the cave.
Mitch watched and said nothing. This was what it felt like to truly sin — the sin of overwhelming curiosity. He would never forgive himself, but, he rationalized, how could he stop her without harming the bodies? Besides, she was being careful.
Tilde squeezed so low her face was on the floor beside the bundle. She gripped one end of the fur with two fingers and slowly turned it around. Mitch’s throat seized with anguish. “Shine a light,” she demanded. Mitch did so.
Franco aimed his torch as well.
“It’s a doll,” Tilde said.
From the top of the bundle peered a small face, like a dark and wrinkled apple, with two tiny sunken black eyes.
“No,” Mitch said. “It’s a baby.”
Tilde pushed back a few inches and made a small surprised hmm.
Mitch’s headache rolled over him like thunder.
Franco held Mitch’s arm near the cave entrance. Tilde was still inside. Mitch’s migraine had progressed to a real Force 9, with visuals and all, and it was an effort to keep from curling up and screaming. He had already experienced dry heaves, by the side of the cave, and he was now shivering violently.
He knew with absolute certainty that he was going to die up here, on the threshold of the most extraordinary anthropological discovery of all time, leaving it in the hands of Tilde and Franco, who were little better than thieves.
“What is she doing in there?” Mitch moaned, head bowed. Even the twilight seemed too bright. It was getting dark quickly, however.
“Not your worry,” Franco said, and gripped his arm more tightly.
Mitch pulled back and felt blindly in his pocket for the vials containing the samples. He had managed to take two small plugs from the upper thighs of the man and the woman before the pain had peaked; now, he could hardly see straight.
Forcing his eyes open, he looked out upon a heavenly sapphire blueness precisely painting the mountain, the ice, the snow, overlain by flashes in the corners of his eyes like tiny bolts of lightning.
Tilde emerged from the cave, camera in one hand, pack in the other. “We have enough to prove everything,” she said. She spoke Italian to Franco, rapidly and in a low voice. Mitch did not understand, nor did he care to.
He simply wanted to get down the mountain and climb into a warm bed and sleep, to wait for the extraordinary pain, all too familiar but ever fresh and new, to subside.
Dying was another option, not without its attractions.
Franco roped him up deftly. “Come, old friend,” the Italian said with a kindly jerk on the rope. Mitch lurched forward, clenching his fists by his sides to keep from pounding his head. “The ax,” Tilde said, and Franco slipped Mitch’s ice ax out of his belt, where it tangled with his legs, and into his pack. “You are in bad shape,” Franco said. Mitch clenched his eyes shut; the twilight was filled with lightning, and the thunder was pain, a silent crushing of his head with every step. Tilde took the lead and Franco followed close behind. “Different way,” Tilde said. “It’s icing badly and the bridge is rotten.”
Mitch opened his eyes. The arete was a rusty knife edge of carbon shadow against the purest ultramarine sky, fading to starry black. Each breath was colder and harder to take. He sweated profusely.
He plodded automatically, tried to descend a rock slope dotted with patches of crunchy snow, slipped and caught on the rope, dragging Franco a couple of yards down the slope. The Italian did not protest, instead rearranged the rope around Mitch and soothed him like a child. “Okay, old friend. This is better. This is better. Watch the step.” “I can’t stand it much more, Franco,” Mitch whispered. “I haven’t had a migraine for over two years. I didn’t even bring pills.” “Never mind. Just watch your feet and do what I say.” Franco shouted ahead to Tilde. Mitch felt her near and squinted up at her. Her face was framed with clouds and his own lights and sparks. “Snow coming,” she said. “We have to hurry.” They spoke in Italian and German and Mitch thought they were talking about leaving him here on the ice. “I can go,” he said. “I can walk.” So they began walking again on the glacier slope, accompanied by the sound of the ice fall as the slow ancient river flowed on, splitting and booming, rattling and cracking on its descent. Somewhere giant hands seemed to applaud. The wind picked up and Mitch turned away from it. Franco turned him around again and pushed less gently. “No time for stupidity, old friend. Walk.” “I’m trying.” “Just walk.” The wind became a fist pressed against his face. He leaned into it. Ice crystals stung his cheeks and he tried to pull up his hood and his fingers were like sausages in his gloves. “He can’t do this,” Tilde said, and Mitch saw her walk around him, wrapped in swirling snow. The snow straightened suddenly and they all jerked as the wind grabbed them. Franco’s torch illuminated millions of flakes whipping past in horizontal streaks. They discussed building a snow cave, but the ice was too hard, it would take too long to dig out. “Go! Just head down!” Franco shouted at Tilde, and she mutely complied. Mitch did not know where they were going, did not much care. Franco cursed steadily in Italian but the wind drowned him out, and Mitch, as he dragged forward, pulling up and putting down his boots, digging in his crampons, trying to stay upright, Mitch knew that Franco was there only by his pressure on the ropes. “The gods are angry!” Tilde yelled, a cry half triumphant, half jesting, with high excitement and even exaltation. Franco must have fallen, because Mitch found himself being tugged hard from the rear. He had somehow come to be holding his ax and as he went over, he fell on his stomach and had the clarity of will to dig the ax into the ice and stop his descent. Franco seemed to dangle for a moment, a few yards down the slope. Mitch looked in that direction. The lights were gone from his vision. Somehow he was freezing, really freezing, and that was allaying the pain of his migraine. Franco was not visible in the straight parallel bands of snow. The wind whistled and then shrieked and Mitch pulled his face close to the ice. His ax slipped from its hole and he slid two or three yards. With the pain fading, he wondered how he might get out of this alive. He dug his crampons into the ice and pulled himself back up the slope, by main force dragging Franco with him. Tilde helped Franco get to his feet. His nose was bloody and he seemed stunned. He must have hit his head on the ice. Tilde glanced at Mitch. She smiled and touched his shoulder. So friendly. Nobody said anything. Sharing the pain and the creeping evil warmth made them very close. Franco made a sobbing, sucking sound, licked at his bloody lip, pulled their ropes closer. They were so exposed. The fall cracked above the shrieking wind, boomed, snapped, made a sound like a tractor on a gravel road. Mitch felt the ice beneath him shudder. They were too close to the fall and it was really active, making a lot of noise. He pulled on the ropes to Tilde and they came back loose, cut. He pulled on the ropes behind him. franco stumped out of the wind and snow, his face covered with blood, his eyes glaring behind his goggles. Franco knelt beside Mitch and then leaned over on his gloved hands, rolled to one side. Mitch grabbed his shoulder but Franco refused to budge. Mitch got up and faced downslope. The wind blew from up the slope and he keeled forward. He tried it again, leaning backward awkwardly, and fell. Crawling was the only option. He dragged Franco behind him, but that was impossible after a few feet. He crawled back to Franco and began to push him. The ice was rough, not slick, and did not help. Mitch did not know what to do. They had to get out of the wind, but he could not see well enough where they were to choose any particular direction. He was glad Tilde had abandoned them. She could get away now and maybe someone would make babies with her, neither of them of course; they were now out of the old evolutionary loop. All responsibility shed. He felt sorry that Franco was so banged up. “Hey, old friend,” he shouted into the man’s ear. “Wake up and give me some help or we’re going to die.” Franco did not respond. It was possible he was dead already, but Mitch did not think a simple fall could kill someone. Mitch found the torch around Franco’s wrist, removed it, switched it on, peered into Franco’s eyes as he tried to open them with his gloved fingers, not easy, but the pupils were small and uneven. Yup. He had pranged himself hard on the ice, causing concussion and flattening his nose. That was where all the new blood was coming from. The blood and snow made a red messy slush on Franco’s face. Mitch gave up talking to him. He thought about cutting himself loose, but couldn’t bring himself to do that. Franco had treated him well. Rivals united on the ice by death. Mitch doubted any woman would really feel a romantic pang, hearing about this. In his experience, women did not much care about such things. Dying, yes, but not the camaraderie of men. So confusing now and warming rapidly. His coat was very warm, as was his snow pants. Topping it off was that he had to pee. Death with dignity was apparently out of the question. Franco groaned. No, it wasn’t Franco. The ice beneath them vibrated, then jumped, and they tumbled and slid to one side. Mitch caught sight of the torch beam illuminating a big block of ice rising, or they were falling. Yes, indeed, and he closed his eyes in anticipation. But he did not hit his head, though all the breath was slammed out of him. They landed in snow and the wind stopped. Clumped snow fell on them, and a couple of heavy chunks of ice pinned Mitch’s leg. It got quiet and still. Mitch tried to lift his leg but soft warmth resisted and the other leg was stiff. It was decided.
In no time at all, he opened his eyes wide to the sky-spanning glare of a blinding blue sun.
Gordi Lado, shaking his head in sad embarrassment, left Kaye in Beck’s care to return to Tbilisi. He could not be away from the Eliava Institute for long.
The UN took over the small Rustaveli Tiger in Gordi, renting all of the rooms. The Russians pitched more tents and slept between the village and the graves.
Under the pained but smiling attention of the innkeeper, a stout black-haired woman named Lika, the UN peacekeepers ate a late supper of bread and tripe soup, served with big glasses of vodka. Everyone retired to bed shortly after, except for Kaye and Beck.
Beck pulled a chair up to the wooden table and placed a glass of white wine in front of her. She had not touched the vodka.
“This is Manavi. Best they have here — for us, at any rate.” Beck sat and directed a belch into his fist. “Excuse me. What do you know about Georgian history?”
“Not a lot,” Kaye said. “Recent politics. Science.”
Beck nodded and folded his arms. “Our dead mothers,” he said, “could conceivably have been murdered during the troubles — the civil war. But I don’t know of any actions in or around Gordi.” He made a dubious face. “They could be victims from the 1930s, the ‘40s, or the 1950s. But you say no. Good point about the roots.” He rubbed his nose and then scratched his chin. “For such a beautiful country, there’s a fair amount of grim history.”
Beck reminded Kaye of Saul. Most men his age somehow reminded Kaye of Saul, twelve years her senior, back on Long Island, far away in more than just distance. Saul the brilliant, Saul the weak, Saul whose mind creaked more every month. She sat up and stretched her arms, scraping the legs of her chair against the tile floor.
“I’m more interested in her future,” Kaye said. “Half the pharmaceutical and medical companies in the United States are making pilgrimages here. Georgia’s expertise could save millions.”
“Right,” Kaye said. “Phages.”
“Attack only bacteria.”
“I read that Georgian troops carried little vials filled with phages during the troubles,” Beck said. “They swallowed them if they were going into battle, or sprayed them on wounds or burns before they could get to hospital.”
Kaye nodded. “They’ve been using phage therapy since the twenties, when Felix d’Herelle came here to work with George Eliava. D’Herelle was sloppy; the results were mixed back then, and soon enough we had sulfa and then penicillin. We’ve pretty much ignored phages until now. So we end up with deadly bacteria resistant to all known antibiotics. But not to phages.”
Through the window of the small lobby, over the roofs of the low houses across the street, she could see the mountains gleaming in the moonlight. She wanted to go to sleep but knew she would lie awake in the small hard bed for hours.
“Here’s to the prettier future,” Beck said. He lifted his glass and drained it. Kaye took a sip. The wine’s sweetness and acidity made a lovely balance, like tart apricots.
“Dr. Jakeli told me you were climbing Kazbeg,” Beck said. “Taller than Mont Blanc. I’m from Kansas. No mountains at all. Hardly any rocks.” He smiled down at the table, as if embarrassed to meet her gaze. “I love mountains. I apologize for dragging you away from your business…and your pleasure.”
“I wasn’t climbing,” she said. “Just hiking.”
“I’ll try to have you out of here in a few days,” Beck said. “Geneva has records of missing persons and possible massacres. If there’s a match and we can date it to the thirties, we’ll hand it over to the Georgians and the Russians.” Beck wanted the graves to be old, and she could hardly blame him.
“What if it’s recent?” Kaye asked.
“We’ll bring in a full investigation team from Vienna.”
Kaye gave him a clear, no-nonsense look. “It’s recent,” she said.
Beck finished off his glass, stood, and clutched the back of his chair with his hands. “I agree,” he said with a sigh. “What made you give up on criminology? If I’m not intruding…”
“I learned too much about people,” Kaye said. Cruel, rotten, dirty, desperately stupid people . She told Beck about the Brooklyn homicide lieutenant who had taught her class. He had been a devout Christian. Showing them pictures of a particularly horrendous crime scene, with two dead men, three dead women, and a dead child, he had told the students, “The souls of these victims are no longer in their bodies. Don’t sympathize with them. Sympathize with the ones left behind. Get over it. Get to work. And remember: you work for God.”
“His beliefs kept him sane,” Kaye said.
“And you? Why did you change your major?”
“I didn’t believe,” Kaye said.
Beck nodded, flexed his hands on the back of the chair. “No armor. Well, do your best. You’re all we’ve got for the time being.” He said good night and walked to the narrow stairs, climbing with a fast, light tread.
Kaye sat at the table for several minutes, then stepped through the inn’s front door. She stood on the granite flagstone step beside the narrow cobbled street and inhaled the night air, with its faint odor of town sewage. Over the rooftop of the house opposite the inn she could see the snow-capped crest of a mountain, so clear she could almost reach out and touch it.
In the morning, she came awake wrapped in warm sheets and a blanket that hadn’t been laundered in some time. She stared at a few stray hairs, not her own, trapped in the thick gray wool near her face. The small wooden bed with carved and red-painted posts occupied a plaster-walled room about eight feet wide and ten feet long, with a single window behind the bed, a single wooden chair, and a plain oak table bearing a washstand. Tbilisi had modern hotels, but Gordi was away from the new tourist trails, too far off the Military Road.
She slipped out of bed, splashed water on her face, and pulled on her denims and blouse and coat. She was reaching for the iron latch when she heard a heavy knock. Beck called her name. She opened the door and blinked at him owlishly.
“They’re running us out of town,” he said, his face hard. “They want all of us back in Tbilisi by tomorrow.”
“We’re not wanted. Regular army soldiers are here to escort us. I’ve told them you’re a civilian advisor and not a member of the team. They don’t care.”
“Jesus,” Kaye said. “Why the turnaround?”
Beck made a disgusted face. “The sakrebulo, the council, I presume. Nervous about their nice little community. Or maybe it comes from higher up.”
“Doesn’t sound like the new Georgia,” Kaye said. She was concerned about how this might affect her work with the institute.
“I’m surprised, too,” Beck said. “We’ve stepped on somebody’s toes. Please pack your case and join us downstairs.”
He turned to go, but Kaye took his arm. “Are the phones working?”
“I don’t know,” he said. “You’re welcome to use one of our satellite phones.”
“Thanks. And — Dr. Jakeli is back in Tbilisi by now. I’d hate to make him drive out here again.”
“We’ll take you to Tbilisi,” Beck said. “If that’s where you want to go.”
Kaye said, “That’ll be fine.”
The white UN Cherokees gleamed in the bright sun outside the inn. Kaye peered at them through the window panes of the lobby and waited for the innkeeper to bring out an antiquated black dial phone and plug it into the jack by the front desk. She picked up the receiver, listened to it, then handed it to Kaye: dead. In a few more years, Georgia would catch up with the twenty-first century. For now, there were less than a hundred lines to the outside world, and with all calls routed through Tbilisi, service was sporadic.
The innkeeper smiled nervously. She had been nervous since they arrived.
Kaye carried her bag outside. The UN team had assembled, six men and three women. Kaye stood beside a Canadian woman named Doyle, while Hunter brought out the satellite phone.
First Kaye made a call to Tbilisi to speak with Tamara Miri-anishvili, her main contact at the institute. After several tries, the call went through. Tamara sympathized and wondered what the fuss was about, then said Kaye was welcome to come back and stay a few more days. “It is shameful, to push your nose into this. We’ll have fun, make you cheerful again,” Tamara said.
“Have there been any calls from Saul?” Kaye asked.
“Twice he calls,” Tamara said. “He says ask more about biofilms. How do phages work in biofilms, when the bacteria get all socialized.”
“And are you going to tell us?” Kaye asked in jest.
Tamara gave her a tinkling, sunny laugh. “Must we tell you all our secrets? We have no contracts yet, Kaye dear!”
“Saul’s right. It could be a big issue,” Kaye said. Even at the worst of times, Saul was on track with their science and their business.
“Come back, and I’ll show you some of our biofilm research, special, just because you are nice,” Tamara said.
Kaye thanked Tamara and handed the phone back to the corporal.
A Georgian staff car, an old black Volga, arrived with several army officers, who exited on the left side. Major Chikur-ishvili of the security forces stepped out from the right, his face stormier than ever. He looked like he might explode in a cloud of blood and spit.
A young army officer — Kaye had no idea what rank — approached Beck and spoke to him in broken Russian. When they were finished, Beck waved his hand and the UN team climbed into their Jeeps. Kaye rode in the Jeep with Beck.
As they drove west out of Gordi, a few of the townspeople gathered to watch them leave. A little girl stood beside a plastered stone wall and waved: brown-haired, tawny, gray-eyed, strong and lovely. A perfectly normal and delightful little girl.
There was little conversation as Hunter drove them south along the highway, leading the small caravan. Beck stared thoughtfully ahead. The stiff-sprung Jeep bounced over bumps and dropped into ruts and swerved around potholes.
Riding in the right rear seat, Kaye thought she might be getting carsick. The radio played pop tunes from Alania and pretty good blues from Azerbaijan and then an incomprehensible talk show that Beck occasionally found amusing. He glanced back at Kaye and she tried to smile bravely.
After a few hours she dozed off and dreamed of bacterial buildups inside the bodies within the trench graves. Biofilms, what most people thought of as slime: little industrious bacterial cities reducing these corpses, these once-living giant evolutionary offspring, back to their native materials. Lovely polysaccharide architectures being laid down within the interior channels, the gut and lungs, the heart and arteries and eyes and brain, the bacteria giving up their wild ways and becoming citified, recycling all; great garbage dump cities of bacteria, cheerfully ignorant of philosophy and history and the character of the dead hulks they now reclaimed.
Bacteria made us. They take us back in the end. Welcome home.
She woke up in a sweat. The air was getting warmer as they descended into a long, deep valley. How nice it would be to know nothing about all the inner workings. Animal innocence; the unexamined life is the sweetest. But things go wrong and prompt introspection and examination. The root of all awareness.
“Dreaming?” Beck asked her as they pulled over near a small filling station and garage clapped together from sheets of corrugated metal.
“Nightmares,” Kaye said. “Too much into my work, I guess.”
Mitch saw the blue sun swing around and darken and he assumed it was night, but the air was dim green and not at all cold. He felt a prick of pain in his upper thigh, a general sense of unease in his stomach.
He wasn’t on the mountain. He tried to blink the gunk from his eyes and reached up to rub his face. A hand stopped him and a soft female voice told him in German to be a good boy. As she wiped his forehead with a cold damp cloth, the woman said, in English, that he was a little chapped and his nose and fingers were frostbitten and that he had a broken leg. A few minutes later he went to sleep again.
No time at all after that, he awoke and managed to sit up in a crisp, firm hospital bed. He was in a room with four other patients, two beside him and two across from him, all male, all less than forty years old. Two had broken legs in movie-comedy slings. The other two had broken arms. Mitch’s own leg was in a cast but not in a sling.
All the men were blue-eyed, wiry, handsome in an aquiline way, with thin necks and long jaws. They watched him attentively.
Mitch saw the room clearly now: painted concrete walls, white enameled bed frames, a portable lamp on a chromed stand that he had mistaken for a blue sun, mottled brown tile floor, the dusty smell of steam heat and antiseptic, a general odor of peppermint.
On Mitch’s right, a heavily snow-burned young man, skin peeling from his baby-pink cheeks, leaned over to say, “You are the lucky American, are you not?” The pulley and weights on his elevated leg creaked.
“I’m American,” Mitch croaked. “I must be lucky because I’m not dead.”
The men exchanged solemn glances. Mitch could see he had been a topic of conversation for some time.
“We all agree, it is best for fellow mountaineers to inform you.”
Before Mitch could protest that he was not really a mountaineer, the snow-burned young man told him that his companions were dead. “The Italian you were found with, in the serac, he is broken-neck. And the woman is found much lower down, buried in ice.” Then, his eyes sharply inquisitive — eyes the color of the wild-dog sky Mitch had first seen over the arete — the young man asked, “The newspapers say, the TV say. Where did she get the little corpse baby?”
Mitch coughed. He saw a pitcher of water on a tray by his bed and poured a glass. The mountaineers watched him like athletic elves trussed up in their beds.
Mitch returned their gazes. He tried to hide his dismay. It did him no good to judge Tilde now; no good at all.
The inspector from Innsbruck arrived at noon and sat beside his bed with an attending local police officer to ask questions. The officer spoke better English and translated for him. Their questions were routine, the inspector said, all part of the accident report. Mitch told them he did not know who the woman was, and the inspector responded, after a decent pause, that they had all been seen together in Salzburg. “You and Franco Maricelli and Mathilda Berger.”
“That was Franco’s girlfriend,” he said, feeling sick, trying not to show it. The inspector sighed and pursed his lips disapprovingly, as if this was all very trivial and only a little irritating.
“She was carrying the mummy of an infant. Perhaps a very old mummy. You have no idea where she got it?”
He hoped the police had not gone through his effects and found the vials and recognized their contents. Perhaps he had lost the pack on the glacier. “It’s too bizarre for words,” he said.
The inspector shrugged. “I am not an expert on bodies in the ice. Mitchell, I give you some fatherly advice. I am old enough?”
Mitch admitted the inspector might be old enough. The mountaineers did not even attempt to hide their interest in the proceedings.
“We have spoken to your former employers, the Hayer Museum, in Seattle.”
Mitch blinked slowly.
“They tell us you were involved in the theft of antiquities from the federal government, the skeletal remains of an Indian, called Pasco man, very old. Ten thousand years, found on the banks of the Columbia River. You refused to hand over these remains to the Army Corpse of Engineers.”
“Corps,” Mitch said softly.
“So they arrest you under an antiquities act, and the museum fires you because there is so much publicity.”
“The Indians claimed the bones belonged to an ancestor,” Mitch said, his face flushing with anger at the memory. “They wanted to bury them again.”
The inspector read from his notes. “You were denied access to your collections in the museum, and the bones were confiscated from your house. With many photographs and more publicity.”
“It was legal bullshit! The Army Corps of Engineers had no right to those bones. They were scientifically invaluable—”
“Like this mummified baby from the ice, perhaps?” the inspector asked.
Mitch closed his eyes and looked away. He could see it all very clearly now. Stupid is not the word. This is fate, pure and simple.
“You are going to throw up?” the inspector asked, backing away.
Mitch shook his head.
“Already it is known — you were seen with the woman in the Braunschweiger Hiitte, not ten kilometers from where you were found. A striking woman, beautiful and blond, observers say.”
The mountaineers nodded at this, as if they had been there.
“It is best you tell us everything and we hear it first. I will tell the police in Italy, and the police here in Austria will interview you and maybe it will all be nothing.”
“They were acquaintances,” he said. “She was — used to be — my girlfriend. I mean, we were lovers.”
“Yes. Why did she return to you?”
“They had found something. She thought I might be able to tell them what they had found.”
Mitchell realized he had no choice. He drank another glass of water, then told the inspector most of what had happened, as precisely and clearly as he could. Since they had not mentioned the vials, he did not mention them, either. The officer took notes and recorded his confession on a small tape machine.
When he was finished, the inspector said, “Someone is sure to want to know where this cave is.”
“Tilde — Mathilda had a camera,” Mitch said wearily. “She took pictures.”
“We found no camera. It might go much easier if you know where the cave is. Such a find…very exciting.”
“They have the baby already,” Mitch said. “That should be exciting enough. A Neandertal infant.”
The inspector made a doubtful face. “Nobody says anything about Neandertal. So maybe this is a delusion or joke?”
Mitch was long past losing everything he cared about — his career, his standing as a paleontologist. Once more he had screwed things up royally. “Maybe it was the headache.
I’m just groggy. Of course, I’ll help them find the cave,” he said.
“Then there is no crime, merely tragedy.” The inspector rose to leave, and the officer tipped his cap good-bye.
After they were gone, the mountaineer with the peeling cheeks told him, “You are not going home soon.”
“The mountains want you back,” said the least snow-burned of the four, across the room from Mitch, and nodded sagely, as if that explained everything.
“Screw you,” Mitch muttered. He rolled over in the crisp white bed.
Eliava Institute, Tbilisi
Lado and Tamara and Zamphyra and seven other scientists and students gathered around the two wooden tables on the south end of the main laboratory building. They all lifted their beakers of brandy in toast to Kaye. Candles flickered around the room, reflecting the golden sparkles within the amber-filled glassware. The meal was only halfway finished, and this was the eighth round Lado had led this evening, as tamada, toastmaster, for the occasion. “For darling Kaye,” Lado said, “who values our work…and promises to make us rich!”
Rabbits, mice, and chickens watched with sleepy eyes from their cages behind the table. Long black benches covered with glassware and racks and incubators and computers hooked to sequencers and analyzers retreated into the gloom at the unlighted end of the lab.
“To Kaye,” Tamara added, “who has seen more of what Sakarrvelo, of Georgia, has to offer…than we might wish. A brave and understanding woman.”
“What are you, toastmisrress?” Lado demanded in irritation. “Why remind us of unpleasant things?”
“What are you, talking of riches, of money, at a time like this?” Tamara snapped back.
“I am tamada\” Lado roared, standing beside the oak folding table and waving his sloshing glass at the students and scientists. Above slow smiles, none of them said a word in disagreement.
“All right,” Tamara conceded. “Your wish is our command.”
“They have no respect!” Lado complained to Kaye. “Will prosperity destroy tradition?”
The benches made crowded Vs in Kaye’s narrowing perspective. The equipment was hooked into a generator that chugged softly out in the yard beside the building. Saul had supplied two sequencers and a computer; the generator had been supplied by Aventis, a huge multinational.
City power from Tbilisi had been shut off since late that afternoon. They had cooked the farewell dinner over Bunsen burners and in a gas oven.
“Go ahead, toastmaster,” Zamphyra said in affectionate resignation. She waved her fingers at Lado.
“I will.” Lado put down his glass and smoothed his suit. His dark wrinkled face, red as a beet with mountain sunburn, gleamed in the candlelight like rich wood. He reminded Kaye of a toy troll she had loved as a child. From a box concealed under the table he brought out a small crystal glass, intricately cut and beveled. He took a beautiful silver-chased ibex horn and walked to a large amphora propped in a wooden crate in the near corner, behind the table. The amphora, recently pulled from the earth of his own small vineyard outside Tbilisi, was filled with some immense quantity of wine. He lifted a ladle from the amphora’s mouth and poured it slowly into the horn, then again, and again, seven times, until the horn was full. He swirled the wine gently to let it breathe. Red liquid sloshed over his wrist.
Finally, he filled the glass to the brim from the horn, and handed it to Kaye. “If you were a man,” he said, “I would ask you to drink the entire horn, and give us a toast.”
“Lado!” Tamara howled, slapping his arm. He almost dropped the horn, and turned on her in mock surprise.
“What?” he demanded. “Is the glass not beautiful?”
Zamphyra rose to her feet beside the table to waggle a finger at him. Lado grinned more broadly, transformed from a troll into a carmine satyr. He turned slowly toward Kaye.
“What can I do, dear Kaye?” Lado said with a flourish. More wine dripped from the tip of the horn. “They demand that you must drink all of this.”
Kaye had already had her fill of alcohol and did not trust herself to stand. She felt deliciously warm and safe, among friends, surrounded by an ancient darkness thick with amber and golden stars.
She had almost forgotten the graves and Saul and the difficulties awaiting her in New York.
She held out her hands, and Lado danced forward with surprising grace, belying his clumsiness of a few moments before. Not spilling a drop, he deposited the ibex horn into her hands.
“Now, you,” he said.
Kaye knew what was expected. She rose solemnly. Lado had delivered many toasts that evening that had rambled poetically and with no end of invention for long minutes. She doubted she could equal his eloquence, but she would do her best, and she had many things to say, things that had buzzed in her head for the two days since she had come down from Kazbeg.
“There is no land on Earth like the home of wine,” she began, and lifted the horn high. All smiled and raised their beakers. “No land that offers more beauty and more promise to the sick of heart or the sick of body. You have distilled the nectars of new wines to banish the rot and disease the flesh is heir to. You have preserved the tradition and knowledge of seventy years, saving it for the twenty-first century. You are the mages and alchemists of the microscopic age, and now you join the explorers of the West, with an immense treasure to share.”
Tamara translated in a loud whisper for the students and scientists who crowded around the table.
“I am honored to be treated as a friend, and as a colleague. You have shared with me this treasure, and the treasure of Sakartvelo — the mountains, the hospitality, the history, and by no means last or least, the wine.”
She lifted the horn with one hand, and said, “Gaumarjos phage!” She pronounced it the Georgian way, phah-gay. “Gaumarjos Sakartvelos! “
Then she began to drink. She could not savor Lado’s earth-hidden, soil-aged wine the way it deserved, and her eyes watered, but she did not want to stop, either to show her weakness or to end this moment. She swallowed gulp after gulp. Fire moved from her stomach into her arms and legs, and drowsiness threatened to steal her away. But she kept her eyes open and continued to the very bottom of the horn, then upended it, held it out, and lifted it.
“To the kingdom of the small, and all the labors they do for us! All the glories, the necessities, for which we must forgive the…the pain…” Her tongue became stiff and her words stumbled. She leaned on the folding table with one hand, and Tamara quietly and unobtrusively brought down her own hand to keep the table from upsetting. “All the things to which we…all we have inherited. To bacteria, our worthy opponents, the little mothers of the world!”
Lado and Tamara led the cheers. Zamphyra helped Kaye descend, it seemed from a great height, into her wooden folding chair.
“Wonderful, Kaye,” Zamphyra murmured into her ear. “You come back to Tbilisi any time. You have a home, safe away from your own home.”
Kaye smiled and wiped her eyes, for in her sodden sentiment and relief from the strain of the past days, she was weeping.
The next morning, Kaye felt somber and fuzzy, but experienced no other ill effects from the farewell party. In the two hours before Lado took her to the airport, she walked through the hallways in two of the three laboratory buildings, now almost empty. The staff and most of the graduate student assistants were attending a special meeting in Eliava Hall to discuss the various offers made by American and British and French companies. It was an important and heady moment for the institute; in the next two months, they would probably make their decisions on when and with whom to form alliances. But they could not tell her now. The announcement would come later.
The institute still showed decades of neglect. In most of the labs, the shiny, thick, white or pale green enamel had peeled to show cracked plaster. Plumbing dated from the 1960s, at the latest; much of it was from the twenties and thirties. The brilliant white plastic and stainless steel of new equipment only made more obvious the Bakelite and black enamel or the brass and wood of antique microscopes and other instruments. There were two electron microscopes enshrined in one building — great hulking brutes on massive vibration isolation platforms.
Saul had promised them three new top-of-the-line scanning tunneling microscopes by the end of the year — if EcoBacter was chosen as one of their partners. Aventis or Bristol-Myers Squibb could no doubt do better than that.
Kaye walked between the lab benches, peering through the glass doors of incubators at stacks of petri dishes within, their bottoms filled with a film of agar swept and clouded by bacterial colonies, sometimes marked by clear circular regions, called plaques, where phages had killed all the bacteria. Day after day, year after year, the researchers in the institute analyzed and cataloged naturally occurring bacteria and their phages. For every strain of bacteria there was at least one and often hundreds of specific phages, and as the bacteria mutated to throw off these unwanted intruders, the phages mutated to match them, a never-ending chase. The Eliava Institute kept one of the largest libraries of phages in the world, and they could respond to bacterial samples by producing phages within days.
On the wall over the new lab equipment, posters showed the bizarre spaceshiplike geometric head and tail structures of the ubiquitous T-even phages — T2, T4, and T6, so designated in the 1920s — hovering over the comparatively huge surfaces of Escherichia coli bacteria. Old photographs, old conceptions — that phages simply preyed upon bacteria, hijacking their DNA merely to produce new phages. Many phages did in fact do just that, keeping bacterial populations in check. Others, known as lysogenic phages, became genetic stowaways, hiding within the bacteria and inserting their genetic messages into the host DNA. Retroviruses did something very similar in larger plants and animals.
Lysogenic phages suppressed their own expression and assembly and were perpetuated within the bacterial DNA, carried down through the generations. They would jump ship when their host showed clear signs of stress, creating hundreds or even thousands of phage offspring per cell, bursting from the host to escape.
Lysogenic phages were almost useless in phage therapy. They were far more than mere predators. Often these viral invaders gave their hosts resistance to other phages. Sometimes they carried genes from one cell to the next, genes that could transform the cell. Lysogenic phages had been known to take relatively harmless bacteria — benign strains of Vibrio, for example — and transform them into virulent Vibrio cholerae. Outbreaks of deadly strains of E. coli in beef had been attributed to transfers of toxin-producing genes by phages. The institute worked hard to identify and eliminate these phages from their preparations.
Kaye, however, was fascinated by them. She had spent much of her career studying lysogenic phages in bacteria and retroviruses in apes and humans. Hollowed-out retroviruses were commonly used in gene therapy and genetic research as delivery systems for corrective genes, but Kaye’s interest was less practical.
Many metazoans — nonbacterial life-forms — carried the dormant remains of ancient retroviruses in their genes. As much as one third of the human genome, our complete genetic record, was made up of these so-called endogenous retroviruses.
She had written three papers about human endogenous retrovirus, or HERV, suggesting they might contribute to novelty in the genome — and much more. Saul agreed with her. “Everyone knows they carry little secrets,” he had once told her, when they were courting. Their courtship had been odd and lovely. Saul himself was odd and sometimes quite lovely and kind; she just never knew when those times would be.
Kaye paused for a moment by a metal lab stool and rested her hand on its Masonite seat. Saul had always been interested in the bigger picture; she, on the other hand, had been content with smaller successes, tidier chunks of knowledge. So much hunger had led to many disappointments. He had quietly watched his younger wife achieve so much more. She knew it hurt him. Not to have immense success, not to be a genius, was for Saul a major failing.
Kaye lifted her head and inhaled the air: bleach, steam heat, a waft of fresh paint and carpentry from the adjacent library. She liked this old lab with its antiques and humility and decades-old story of hardship and success. The days she had spent here, and on the mountain, had been among the most pleasant of her recent life. Tamara and Zamphyra and Lado had not only made her feel welcome, they had seemed to open up instantly and generously to become family to a wandering foreign woman.
Saul might have a very big success here. A double success, perhaps. What he needed to feel important and useful.
She turned and through the open doorway saw Tengiz, the stooped old lab caretaker, talking to a short, plump young man in gray slacks and a sweatshirt. They stood in the corridor between the lab and the library. The young man looked at her and smiled. Tengiz smiled as well, nodded vigorously, and pointed to Kaye. The man sauntered into the lab as if he owned it.
“Are you Kaye Lang?” he asked in American English with a distinct Southern drawl. He was shorter than her by several inches, about her age or a little older, with a thin black beard and curly black hair. His eyes, also black, were small and intelligent.
“Yes,” she said.
“Pleasure to meet you. My name is Christopher Dicken. I’m from the Epidemic Intelligence Service of the National Center for Infectious Diseases in Atlanta — another Georgia, a long way from here.”
Kaye smiled and shook his hand. “I didn’t know you were going to be here,” she said. “What’s the NCID, the CDC—”
“You went out to a site near Gordi, two days ago,” Dicken interrupted her.
“They chased us away,” Kaye said.
“I know. I spoke with Colonel Beck yesterday.”
“Why would you be interested?”
“Could be for no good reason.” He thinned his lips and lifted his eyebrows, then smiled again, shrugging this off. “Beck says the UN and all Russian peacekeepers have pulled out of the area and returned to Tbilisi, at the vigorous request of the parliament and President Shevardnadze. Odd, don’t you think?”
“Embarrassing for business,” Kaye murmured. Tengiz listened from the hall. She frowned at him, more in puzzlement than in warning. He wandered away.
“Yeah,” Dicken said. “Old troubles. How old, would you say?”
“What — the grave?”
“Five years. Maybe less.”
“The women were pregnant.”
“Yesss…” She dragged her answer out, trying to riddle why this would interest a man from the Centers for Disease Control. “The two I saw.”
“No chance of a misidentification? Full-term infants impacted in the grave?”
“None,” she said. “They were about six or seven months along.”
“Thanks.” Dicken held out his hand again and shook hers politely. He turned to leave. Tengiz was crossing the hall outside the door and hustled aside as Dicken passed through. The EIS investigator glanced back at Kaye and tossed a quick salute.
Tengiz leaned his head to one side and grinned toothlessly. He looked guilty as hell.
Kaye sprinted for the door and caught up with Dicken in the courtyard. He was climbing into a small rental Nissan.
“Excuse me!” she called out.
“Sorry. Gotta go.” Dicken slammed the door and turned on the engine.
“Christ, you sure know how to arouse suspicions!” Kaye said loudly enough for him to hear through the closed window.
Dicken rolled the window down and grimaced amiably. “Suspicions about what?”
“What in hell are you doing here?”
“Rumors,” he said, looking over his shoulder to see if the way was clear. “That’s all I can say.”
He spun the car around in the gravel and drove off, maneuvering between the main building and the second lab. Kaye folded her arms and frowned after him.
Lado called from the main building, poking out of a window. “Kaye! We are done. You are ready?”
“Yes!” Kaye answered, walking toward the window. “Did you see him?”
“Who?” Lado asked, face blank.
“A man from the Centers for Disease Control. He said his name was Dicken.”
“I saw no one. They have an office on Abasheli Street. You could call.”
She shook her head. There wasn’t time, and it was none of her business anyway. “Never mind,” she said.
Lado was unusually somber as he drove her to the airport.
“Is it good news, or bad?” she asked.
“I am not allowed to say,” he replied. “We should, as you say, keep our options open? We are like babes in the woods.”
Kaye nodded and stared straight ahead as they entered the parking area. Lado helped her take her bags to the new international terminal, past lines of taxis with sharp-eyed drivers waiting impatiently. The check-in desk at British Mediterranean Airlines had a short line. Already Kaye felt she was in the middle zone between worlds, closer to New York than to Lado’s Georgia or the Gergeti church or Mount Kazbeg.
As she reached the front of the line and pulled out her passport and tickets, Lado stood with arms folded, squinting at the watery sunlight through the terminal windows.
The clerk, a young blond woman with ghostly pale skin, slowly worked through the tickets and papers. She finally looked up to say, “No off going. No taking.”
The woman lifted her eyes to the ceiling as if this would give her strength or cleverness and tried again. “No Baku. No Heathrow. No JFK. No Vienna.”
“What, they’re gone?” Kaye asked in exasperation. She looked helplessly at Lado, who stepped over the vinyl-covered ropes and addressed the woman in stern and reproving tones, then pointed to Kaye and lifted his bushy brows, as if to say, Very Important Person!
The pale young woman’s cheeks acquired some color. With infinite patience, she looked at Kaye and began speaking, in rapid Georgian, something about the weather, hail moving in, unusual storm. Lado translated in spaced single words: hail, unusual, soon.
“When can I get out?” she asked the woman.
Lado listened to the clerk’s explanation with a stern expression, then lifted his shoulders and turned his face toward Kaye. “Next week, next flight. Or flight to Vienna, Tuesday. Day after tomorrow.”
Kaye decided to rebook through Vienna. There were now four people in line behind Kaye, and they were showing signs of both amusement and impatience. By their dress and language, they were probably not going to New York or London.
Lado walked with her up the stairs and sat across from her in the echoing waiting area. She needed to think, to sort out her plans. A few old women sold Western cigarettes and perfume and Japanese watches from small booths around the perimeter. Nearby, two young men slept on opposite benches, snoring in tandem. The walls were covered with posters in Russian, the lovely curling Georgian script, and in German and French. Castles, tea plantations, bottles of wine, the suddenly small and distant mountains whose pure colors survived even the fluorescent lights.
“I know, you need to call your husband, he will miss you,” Lado said. “We can return to the institute — you are welcome, always!”
“No, thank you,” Kaye said, suddenly feeling a little sick. Premonition had nothing to do with it: she could read Lado like a book. What had they done wrong? Had a larger firm made an even sweeter offer?
What would Saul do when he found out? All their planning had been based on his optimism about being able to convert friendship and charity into a solid business relationship…
They were so close.
“There is the Metechi Palace,” Lado said. “Best hotel in Tbilisi…best in Georgia. I take you to the Metechi! You can be a real tourist, like in the guide books! Maybe you have time to take a hot spring bath…relax before you go home.”
Kaye nodded and smiled but it was obvious her heart was not in it. Suddenly, impetuously, Lado leaned forward and clutched her hand in his dry, cracked fingers, roughened by so many washings and immersions. He pounded his hand and hers lightly on her knee. “It is no end! It is a beginning! We must all be strong and resourceful!”
This brought tears to Kaye’s eyes. She looked at the posters again — Elbrus and Kazbeg draped with clouds, the Gergeti church, vineyards and high tilled fields.
Lado threw his hands up in the air, swore eloquently in Georgian, and leaped to his feet. “I tell them it is not best!” he insisted. “I tell the bureaucrats in the government, we have worked with you, with Saul, for three years, and it is not to be overturned in one night! Who needs an exclusive, no? I will take you to Metechi.”
Kaye smiled her thanks and Lado sat down again, bending over, shaking his head glumly and folding his hands. “It is an outrage,” he said, “what we have to do in today’s world.”
The young men continued snoring.
Christopher Dicken arrived at JFK, by coincidence, on the same evening as Kaye Lang, and saw her waiting to go through customs. She was transferring her luggage to a cart and did not notice him.
She looked dragged out, wan. Dicken had been in the air himself for thirty-six hours, returning from Turkey with two locked metal cases and a duffel bag. He certainly did not want to run into Lang under the present circumstances.
Dicken was not sure why he had gone to see Lang at Eliava. Perhaps because they had separately experienced the same horror outside Gordi. Perhaps to discover if she knew what was happening in the United States, the reason he had been recalled; perhaps just to meet the attractive and intelligent woman whose picture he had seen on the EcoBacter web site.
He showed his CDC identification and NCID import pass to a customs supervisor, filled out the requisite five forms, and slouched through a side door into an empty hall. Coffee nerves gave everything an extra sour edge. He had not slept a wink on the entire flight and had slugged back five cups in the hour before landing. He had wanted time to research and think and be prepared for the meeting with Mark Augustine, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Augustine was in Manhattan now, giving a talk at a conference on new AIDS treatments.
Dicken carried the cases to the parking garage. He had lost all track of time on the plane and in the airport; he was a little surprised to discover dusk falling over New York.
He made his way through a labyrinth of stairs and elevators and drove his government Dodge out of long-term parking and faced the bleak gray skies above Jamaica Bay. Traffic on the Van Wyck Expressway was dense. With a solicitous hand, he steadied the sealed cases on the passenger seat. The first case held dry ice to preserve a few vials of blood and urine from a patient in Turkey, and tissue samples from her rejected fetus. The second contained two sealed plastic pouches of mummified epidermal and muscle tissue, courtesy of the officer in charge of the United Nations extended peacekeeping mission in the Republic of Georgia, Colonel Nicholas Beck.
The tissue from the graves near Gordi was a long shot, but there was a pattern emerging in Dicken’s mind — a very intriguing and disturbing pattern. He had spent three years tracking down the viral equivalent of a boojum: a sexually transmitted disease that struck only pregnant women and invariably caused miscarriages. It was a potential bombshell, just what Augustine had tasked Dicken to find: something so horrible, so provocative, that funding for the CDC would be guaranteed to rise.
During those years, Dicken had gone time and again to Ukraine, Georgia, and Turkey, hoping to gather samples and put together an epidemiological map. Time and again, public health officials in each of the three nations had stonewalled him. They had their reasons. Dicken had heard of no fewer than three and as many as seven mass graves containing the bodies of men and women who had supposedly been killed to prevent the spread of this disease. Getting samples from local hospitals had proven extremely difficult, even when the countries had made formal agreements with the CDC and the World Health Organization. He had been allowed to visit only the grave in Gordi, and that one because it was under UN investigation. He had taken his samples from the victims an hour after Kaye Lang had left.
Dicken had never before dealt with a conspiracy to hide the existence of a disease.
All his work could have been important, just what Augustine needed, but it was about to be overshadowed, if not blown wide open. While Dicken had been in Europe, the quarry had broken cover on the CDC’s home turf. A young researcher at UCLA Medical Center, looking for a common element in seven rejected fetuses, had found an unknown virus. He had shipped the samples to CDC-funded epidemiologists in San Francisco. The researchers had copied and sequenced the virus’s genetic material. They had reported their findings immediately to Mark Augustine.
Augustine had called Dicken home.
Rumors were spreading already about the discovery of the first infectious human endogenous retrovirus, or HERV. As well, there were a few scattered news stories about a virus that caused miscarriages. So far, no one outside the CDC had yet put the two together. On the plane from London, Dicken had spent an expensive half hour on the Internet, visiting key professional sites and news groups, finding nowhere a detailed description of the discovery, but everywhere a slam-dunk predictable curiosity. No wonder. Someone could end up getting a Nobel — and Dicken was ready to lay odds that that someone would be Kaye Lang.
As a professional virus hunter, Dicken had long had a fascination with HERV, the genetic fossils of ancient diseases. Lang had first come to Dicken’s attention two years ago when she published three papers describing sites in the human genome, on chromosomes 14 and 17, where parts of potentially complete and infectious HERV could be found. Her most detailed paper had appeared in Virology: “A Model for Expression, Assembly, and Lateral Transmission of Chromo-somally Scattered env, pol, and gag Genes: Viable Ancient Retroviral Elements in Humans and Simians.”
The nature of the outbreak and its possible extent was a closely guarded secret for the time being, but a few insiders at the CDC knew this much: The retroviruses found in the fetuses were genetically identical with HERV that had been part of the human genome since the evolutionary branching of Old World and New World monkeys. Every human on Earth carried them, but they were no longer simply genetic garbage or abandoned fragments. Something had stimulated scattered segments of HERV to express, then assemble the proteins and RNA they encoded into a particle capable of leaving the body and infecting another individual.
All seven of the rejected fetuses had been severely malformed.
These particles were causing disease, probably the very disease that Dicken had been tracking for the past three years. The disease had already received an in-house name at the CDC: Herod’s flu.
With the mix of brilliance and luck that characterized most great scientific careers, Lang had precisely pegged the locations of the genes that were apparently causing Herod’s flu. But she did not yet have a clue what had happened; he could tell that in her eyes in Tbilisi.
Something more besides had drawn Dicken to Kaye Lang’s work. With her husband, she had written papers on the evolutionary significance of transposable genetic elements, so-called jumping genes: transposons, retrotransposons, and even HERV Transposable elements could change when, where, and how often genes expressed, causing mutations, ultimately altering the physical nature of an organism.
Transposable elements, retrogenes, had very likely once been the precursors of viruses; some had mutated and learned how to exit the cell, wrapped in protective capsids and envelopes, the genetic equivalents of space suits. A few had later returned as retroviruses, like prodigal sons; some of those, over the millennia, had infected germ-line cells — eggs or sperm or their precursors — and somehow lost their potency. These had become HERV.
In his travels, Dicken had heard from reliable sources in Ukraine of women bearing subtly and not-so-subtly different children, of children immaculately conceived, of entire villages being razed and sterilized…In the wake of a plague of miscarriages.
All rumors, but to Dicken evocative, even compelling. In his hunting, he relied on well-honed instincts. The stories resonated with something he had been thinking about for over a year.
Perhaps there had been a conspiracy of mutagens. Perhaps Chernobyl or some other Soviet-era radiation disaster had triggered the release of the endogenous retrovirus that caused Herod’s flu. So far, he had mentioned this theory to no one, however.
In the Midtown Tunnel, a big panel truck decorated with happy dancing cows swerved and nearly hit him. He stood on the Dodge’s brakes. Squealing tires and a miss of mere inches brought sweat to his brow and unleashed all his anger and frustration. “Fuck you!” he shouted at the unseen driver. “Next time I’ll carry Ebola!”
He was feeling less than charitable. The CDC would have to go public, perhaps in a few weeks. By that time, if the charts were accurate, there would be well over five thousand cases of Herod’s flu in the United States alone.
And Christopher Dicken would be credited with little more than a good soldier’s footwork.
Long Island, New York
The green and white house stood on top of a low hill, medium in size but stately, 1940s Colonial, surrounded by old oaks and poplars, as well as rhododendrons she had planted three years ago.
Kaye had called from the airport and picked up a message from Saul. He was at a client lab in Philadelphia and would be back later in the evening. It was seven now and the twilight sky over Long Island was glorious. Fluffy clouds broke free from a dissipating mass of ominous gray. Starlings made the oaks noisy as a nursery.
She unlocked the door, pushed her bags through, and keyed in her code to deactivate the alarm. The house smelled musty. She put down her bags as one of their two cats, an orange tabby named Crickson, sallied into the hallway from the living room, claws ticking faintly on the warm teak floor. Kaye picked him up and skritched him under the neck and he purred and mewed like a sick calf. The other cat, Temin, was nowhere in sight. She guessed he was outside, hunting.
The living room made her heart sag. Dirty clothes had been scattered everywhere. Microwave cardboard dishes lay scattered on the coffee table and oriental rug before the couch. Books and newspapers and yellow pages torn from an old phone book sprawled over the dining table. The musty smell came from the kitchen: rotten vegetables, stale coffee grounds, plastic food wrappers.
Saul had had a bad time of it. As usual, she had returned just in time to clean up.
Kaye opened the front door and all the windows.
She fried herself a small steak and made a green salad with bottled dressing. As she opened a bottle of pinot noir, Kaye noticed an envelope on the white tile counter near the espresso maker. She set the wine out to breathe, then tore open the envelope. Inside was a flowery greeting card with a scrawled note from Saul.
Sweetest Kaye, love love love I am so sorry. I missed you and this time it shows, all over the house. Don’t clean up. I’ll have Caddy do it tomorrow and pay her extra. Just relax. The bedroom is spotless. I made sure of that.
Kaye folded the note with an unmollified sniff and stared at the counter and cabinets. Her eye fell on a neat stack of old journals and magazines, out of place on the butcher block table. She lifted the magazines. Underneath, she found a dozen or so printouts, and another note. She turned off the heat on the stove and put a lid over the pan to keep the steak warm, then picked up the pile and read the first sheet.
You peeked! This stack by way of apology. Very exciting. Got it off Virion and asked Ferris and Farrakhan Mkebe at UCI what they know. They wouldn ‘t tell me everything, but I think It’s here, just like we predicted. They call it SHERVA — Scattered Human Endogenous Retrovirus Activation. There’s very little useful on the web sites, but here s the discussion.
Kaye did not know quite why, but this made her cry. Through a film of tears, she flipped through the papers, then put them on the tray beside her steak and salad. She was tired and overwrought. She carried the tray into the den to eat and watch television.
Saul had made a small fortune patenting a special variety of transgenic mouse six years ago; he had met and married Kaye the year after that, and immediately he had put most of his fortune into EcoBacter. Kaye’s parents had contributed a substantial amount as well, just before their deaths in an auto accident. Thirty workers and five staff filled the rectangular gray and blue building in a Long Island industrial park, cheek-by-jowl with half a dozen other biotech companies. The park was four miles from their house.
She wasn’t due at EcoBacter until noon tomorrow. She hoped that something would delay Saul and she would have more time by herself, to think and prepare, but this wish made her choke up again. She tossed her head in disgust at her rampant emotions and drank her wine through dripping, salty lips.
All she really wanted was for Saul to be healthy, to get better. She wanted her husband back, the man who had changed her perspective on life, her inspiration and partner and stable center in a rapidly spinning world.
As she chewed small bites of steak, she read the messages from the Virion discussion group. There were over a hundred, several from scientists, most from dilettantes and students, rehashing and speculating upon the spotty news.
She sprinkled A-l sauce over the last of the meat and took a deep breath.
This could be important stuff. Saul had a right to be excited. There were so few specifics, however, and not a clue as to where the work had been done, or where it was going to be published, or who had leaked the news.
She took her tray into the kitchen just as the phone rang. With a little pirouette in her stocking feet, she balanced the tray on one hand and answered.
“Welcome home!” Saul said. His deep voice still sent a small thrill. “Dear far-traveling Kaye!” He became contrite. “I wanted to apologize for the mess. Caddy couldn’t come in yesterday.” Caddy was their housekeeper.
“It’s good to be back,” she said. “Working?”
“I’m stuck here. Can’t get away.”
“I’ve missed you.”
“Don’t clean up the house.”
“I haven’t. Not much.”
“Did you read the printouts?”
“Yes. They were hidden on the counter.”
“I wanted you to read them in the morning with coffee, when you’re at your sharpest. I should have more solid news by then. I’ll be back by eleven tomorrow. Don’t go to the lab right away.”
“I’ll wait for you,” she said.
“You sound beat. Long flight?”
“Bad air,” she said. “I got a nosebleed.”
“Poor Mddchen” he said. “Don’t worry. I’m fine now that you’re here. Did Lado…?” He let the sentence trail off.
“Not a clue,” Kaye lied. “I did my best.”
“I know. Sleep snug and I’ll make it up to you. There’s going to be stunning news.”
“You’ve heard more. Tell me,” Kaye said.
“Not yet. Anticipation is its own joy.”
Kaye hated games. “Saul—”
“I am adamant. Besides, I haven’t got all the confirmation I need. I love you. I miss you.” He made a kiss-sound good night, and after multiple good-byes, they broke the connection simultaneously, an old habit. Saul was sensitive about being last on the line.
Kaye looked around the kitchen, wrapped a dishrag around her hand, and began to clean up. She did not want to wait for Caddy. After straightening to her satisfaction, she showered, washed her hair and wrapped it in a towel, put on her favorite rayon pajamas, and built a fire in the upstairs bedroom fireplace. Then she squatted in a lotus on the end of the bed, letting the bright flames and the soft smoothness of the rayon reassure her. Outside, the wind rose and she saw a single flash behind the lace curtains. The weather was turning rough.
Kaye climbed into bed and pulled the down comforter up under her neck. “At least I’m not feeling sorry for myself anymore,” she said in a bold voice. Crickson joined her, parading his fluffy orange tail across the bed. Temin leaped up as well, more dignified, though a little damp. He condescended to be rubbed down with her towel.
For the first time since Mount Kazbeg, she felt safe and balanced. Poor little girl , she accused. Waiting for her husband to return. Waiting for her real husband to return.
New York City
Mark Augustine stood before the window of his small hotel room, holding a late night bourbon and water on the rocks, and listened to Dicken’s report.
Augustine was a compact and efficient man with smiling brown eyes, a firmly rooted head of concentrated gray hair, a small but jutting nose, and expressive lips. His skin was permanently sun-browned from years spent in equatorial Africa, and from his years in Atlanta, his voice was soft and melodious. He was a tough and resourceful man, adept at politicking, as befitted a director, and it was said by many at the CDC that he was being groomed to be the next surgeon general.
When Dicken finished, Augustine put down his drink. “Ver-r-r-r-ry inter-esting,” he said in an Artie Johnson voice. “Amazing work, Christopher.”
Christopher smiled but waited for the long assessment.
“It fits with most of what we know. I’ve spoken with the SG,” Augustine continued. “She thinks we’re going to have to go public in small steps, and soon. I agree. First, we’ll let the scientists have their fun, cloak it in a little romance. You know, tiny invaders from inside our own bodies, gee, isn’t it fascinating, we don’t know what they can do. That sort of thing. Doel and Davison in California can outline their discovery and do that for us. They’ve been working hard enough. They certainly deserve some glory.” Augustine again lifted the glass of whiskey and twirled the ice and water with a quiet tinkle. “Did Dr. Mahy say when they can get your samples analyzed?”
“No,” Dicken said.
Augustine smiled sympathetically. “You would rather have followed them to Atlanta.”
“I’d rather have flown them there myself and done the work,” Dicken said.
“I’m going to Washington Thursday,” Augustine said. “I’m backing up the surgeon general before Congress. NIH could be there. We aren’t bringing in the secretary of HHS yet. I want you with me. I’ll tell Francis and Jon to put out their press release tomorrow morning. It’s been ready for a week.”
Dicken admired this with a private, slightly ironic smile. HHS — Health and Human Services — was the huge branch of government that oversaw the NIH, the National Institutes of Health, and the CDC, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, Georgia. “A well-oiled machine,” he said.
Augustine took this as a compliment. “We’ve still got our heads shoved up our asses. We’ve riled Congress with our stance on tobacco and firearms. The bastards in Washington have decided we’re a big fat target. They cut our funding by a third to help pay for a new tax cut. Now a big one comes and it’s not out of Africa or the rain forest. It has nothing to do with our little rape of Mother Nature. It’s a fluke, and it comes from inside our own blessed little bodies.” Augustine’s smile turned wolfish. “It makes my hair prickle, Christopher. This is a godsend. We have to present this with timing, with drama. If we don’t do this right, there’s a real danger no one in Washington will pay attention until we lose an entire generation of babies.”
Dicken wondered how he could contribute to this runaway train. There had to be some way he could promote his field-work, all those years tracking boojums. “I’ve been thinking about a mutation angle,” he said, his mouth dry. He laid out the stories of mutated babies he had heard in Ukraine and outlined some of his theory of radiation-induced release of HERV.
Augustine narrowed his eyelids and shook his head. “We know about birth defects from Chernobyl. No news in that,” he murmured. “But there’s no radiation here. It doesn’t gel, Christopher.” He opened the room’s window and the noise of traffic ten floors below grew. Breeze puffed the inner white curtains.
Dicken persisted, trying to salvage his argument, at the same time aware that his evidence was woefully inadequate. “There’s a strong possibility that Herod’s does more than cause miscarriages. It seems to pop up in comparatively isolated populations. It’s been active at least since the 1960s. The political response has often been extreme. Nobody would wipe out a village or kill dozens of mothers and fathers and their unborn children, just because of a local run of miscarriages.”
Augustine shrugged. “Much too vague,” he said, staring down at the street below.
“Enough for an investigation,” Dicken suggested.
Augustine frowned. “We’re talking empty wombs, Christopher,” he said calmly. “We have to play from a big scary idea, not rumors and science fiction.”
Long Island, New York
Kaye heard footsteps up the stairs, sat up in bed and pulled her hair from her eyes in time to see Saul. He stalked on tiptoes into the bedroom, along the carpet runner, carrying a small package wrapped in red foil and tied with a ribbon, and a bouquet of roses and baby’s breath.
“Damn,” he said, seeing she was awake. He held the roses to one side with a flourish and bent over the bed to kiss her. His lips opened and were so slightly moist without being aggressive. That was his signal that her needs came first but he was interested, very. “Welcome home. I have missed you, Madchen”
“Thank you. It’s good to be here.”
Saul sat on the side of the bed, staring at the roses. “I am in a good mood. My lady is home.” He smiled broadly and lay beside her, swinging his legs up and resting his stocking feet on the bed. Kaye could smell the roses, intense and sweet, almost too much this early in the morning. He presented her with the gift. “For my brilliant friend.”
Kaye sat up as Saul plumped her pillow into a backrest. Seeing Saul in fine form had its old effect on her: hope and joy at being home and a little closer to something centered. She hugged him awkwardly around the shoulders, nuzzling his neck.
“Ah,” he said. “Now open the box.”
She raised her eyebrows, pursed her lips, and pulled on the ribbon. “What have I done to deserve this?” she said.
“You have never really understood how valuable and wonderful you are,” Saul said. “Maybe it’s just that I love you. Maybe it’s a special occasion just that you’re back. Or…maybe we’re celebrating something else.”
She realized with growing intensity that she had been away for weeks. She pulled off the red foil and kissed his hand slowly, eyes fixed on his face. Then she looked down at the box.
Inside was a large medallion bearing the familiar bust of a famous munitions manufacturer. It was a Nobel prize — made of chocolate.
Kaye laughed out loud. “Where…did you get thisl”
“Stan loaned me his and I made a cast,” Saul said.
“And you’re not going to tell me what’s going on?” Kaye asked, fingering his thigh.
“Not for a little while,” Saul said. He put the roses down and removed his sweater and she began unbuttoning his shirt.
The curtains were still drawn and the room had not yet received its ration of morning sun. They lay on the bed with sheets and blankets and comforter rucked all around them. Kaye saw mountains in the rumples and stalked her fingers over a flowered peak. Saul arched his back with little cartilaginous pops and swallowed a few great gulps of air. “I’m out of shape,” he said. “I’m becoming a desk jockey. I need to bench-press a few more test benches.”
Kaye held out her thumb and forefinger and spaced them an inch apart, then raised and lowered them rhythmically. “Test tube exercises,” she said.
“Right brain, left brain,” Saul rejoined, grabbing his temples and shifting his head from side to side. “You’ve got three weeks’ worth of Internet jokes to catch up on.”
“Poor me,” Kaye said.
“Breakfast!” Saul shouted, and swung his legs out of bed. “Downstairs, fresh, waiting to be reheated.”
Kaye followed him in her dressing gown. Saul is back, she tried to convince herself. My good Saul is back.
He had stopped by the local grocery to pick up ham-and-cheese stuffed croissants. He arranged their plates between cups of coffee and orange juice on the little table on the back porch. The sun was bright, the air was clean after the squall and warming nicely. It was going to be a lovely day.
For Kaye, with every hour of good Saul, the lure of the mountains faded like a girlish hope. She did not need to get away. Saul chattered about what had been happening at EcoBacter, about his trip to California and Utah and then Philadelphia to confer with their client and partner labs. “We have four more preclinical tests mandated by our caseworker at the PDA,” he said sardonically. “But at least we’ve shown them we can put antagonistic bacteria together in resource competition and force them to make chemical weapons. We’ve demonstrated we can isolate the bacteriocins, purify them, produce them in neutralized form in bulk — then activate them. Safe in rats, safe in hamsters and vervets, effective against resistant strains of three nasty pathogens. We’re so far ahead of Merck and Aventis they can’t even spit at our butts.”
Bacteriocins were chemicals produced by bacteria that could kill other bacteria. They were a promising new weapon in a rapidly weakening arsenal of antibiotics.
Kaye listened happily. He had not yet told her the news he had promised; he was building to that moment in his own way, taking his own sweet time. Kaye knew the drill and did not give him the satisfaction of appearing eager.
“If that wasn’t enough,” he continued, his eyes bright, “Mkebe says we’re close to finding a way to gum up the whole command and control and communication network in Staphylococcus aureus. We’ll attack the little buggers from three different directions at once. Boom!” He pulled back his eloquent hands and wrapped his arms around himself like a satisfied little boy. Then his mood changed.
“Now,” Saul said, and his face went suddenly blank. “Give it to me straight about Lado and Eliava.”
Kaye stared at him for a moment with an intensity that almost crossed her eyes. Then she glanced down and said, “I think they’ve decided to go with someone else.”
“Mr. Bristol-Myers Squibb,” Saul said, and lifted a rolling and waving hand in dismissal. “Fossil corporate architecture versus young new blood. They are so wrong.” He gazed across the yard at the sound, squinted at a few sailboats dodging small whitecaps in the light morning breezes. Then he finished his orange juice and smacked his lips dramatically. He fairly wriggled in the chair, leaned forward, fixed her with his deep gray eyes, and clasped her hands in his.
This is it, Kaye thought.
“They will regret it. In the next few months we are going to be so busy. The CDC just broke the news this morning. They have confirmed the existence of the first viable human endogenous retrovirus. They’ve shown that it can be transmitted laterally between individuals. They call it Scattered Human Endogenous Retro Virus Activation, SHERVA. They dropped the R for dramatic effect. That makes it SHEVA. Good name for a virus, don’t you think?”
Kaye searched his face. “No joke?” she asked, voice unsteady. “It’s confirmed?”
Saul grinned and held up his arms like Moses. “Absolutely. Science marches on to the promised land.”
“What is it? How big is it?”
“It’s a retrovirus, a true monster, eighty-two kilobases, thirty genes. Its gag andpol components are on chromosome 14, and its env is on chromosome 17. The CDC says it may be a mild pathogen, and humans show little or no resistance, so its been buried for a very long time.”
He placed his hand over hers and squeezed it gently. “You predicted it, Kaye. You described the genes. Your prime candidate, a broken HERV-DL3, is the one they’re targeting, and they are using your name. They’ve cited your papers.”
“Wow,” Kaye said, her face going pale. She leaned over her plate, the blood pounding in her head.
“Are you all right?”
“I’m fine,” she said, feeling dizzy.
“Let’s enjoy our privacy while we can,” Saul said triumphantly. “Every science reporter is going to be calling. I give them about two minutes to go through their Rolodexes and search MedLine. You’ll be on TV, CNN, Good Morning America!’
Kaye simply could not wrap belief around this turn of events. “What kind of illness does it cause?” she managed to ask.
“Nobody seems clear on that.”
Kaye’s mind buzzed with possibilities. If she called Lado at the institute, told Tamara and Zamphyra — they might change their minds, go with EcoBacter. Saul would stay good Saul, happy and productive.
“My God, we’re hot shit,” Kaye said, still feeling a little woozy. She lifted her fingers, la di da.
“You’re the one who’s hot, my dear. It’s your work, and it ain’t shit.”
The phone rang in the kitchen.
“That’ll be the Swedish Academy,” Saul said, nodding sagely. He held up the medallion and Kaye took a bite out ofit.
“Bull!” she said happily, and went to answer.
The hospital gave Mitch a private room as a show of respect for his newfound notoriety. He was just as glad to get away from the mountaineers — but it hardly mattered how he felt or what he thought.
An almost total emotional numbness had stolen over him in the past two days. Seeing his picture on the television news, on the BBC and Sky World, and in the local papers, proved what he knew already; it was over. He was finished.
According to the Zurich press, he was the “Sole Survivor of Body-Snatching Mountain Expedition.” In Munich, he was “Kidnapper of Ancient Ice Baby.” In Innsbruck, he was called simply “Scientist/Thief.” All reported his preposterous story of Neandertal mummies, helpfully relayed by the police in Innsbruck. All told of his stealing “American Indian Bones” in the “Northwest United States.”
He was widely described as an American crackpot, down on his luck, desperate to get publicity.
The Ice Baby had been transferred to the University of Innsbruck, where it was being studied by a team headed by Herr Doktor Professor Emiliano Luria. Luria himself was coming later in the afternoon to speak with Mitch about the find.
So long as Mitch had information they needed, he was still in the loop — he was still a kind of scientist, investigator, anthropologist. He was more than just a thief. When his usefulness was over, then would come the deeper, darker vacuum.
He stared blankly at the wall as an elderly woman volunteer pushed a wheeled cart into his room to deliver his lunch. She was a cheerful, dwarfish woman about five feet tall, in her seventies, with a wizened apple face, and she spoke in rapid German with a soft Viennese accent. Mitch couldn’t understand much of what she said.
The elderly volunteer unfolded his napkin and tucked it into his gown. She pressed her lips together and leaned back to examine him. “Eat,” she advised. She frowned and added, “One damned young American, neinl I do not care who you are. Eat or sickness comes.”
Mitch picked up the plastic fork, saluted her with it, and began to pick at the chicken and mashed potatoes on the plate. As the old woman left, she switched on the television mounted on the wall opposite his bed. “Too damned quiet,” she said, and waved her hand back and forth in his direction, delivering a chiding, long-distance slap to his face. Then she pushed the cart through the door.
The television was tuned to Sky News. First came a report on the final and years-delayed destruction of a large military satellite. Spectacular video from Sakhalin Island traced the object’s last flaming moments. Mitch stared at the telephoto images of the veering, sparkling fireball . Outdated, useless, down inflames.
He picked up the remote and was about to shut off the television once more when an inset of an attractive young woman with short dark hair, long bangs, large eyes, illustrated a story about an important biological discovery in the United States.
“A human provirus, lurking like a stowaway in our DNA for millions of years, has been associated with a new strain of flu that strikes only women,” the announcer began. “Molecular biologist Dr. Kaye Lang of Long Island, New York, has been credited with predicting this incredible invader from humanity’s past. Michael Hertz is on Long Island now.”
Hertz was formally sincere and respectful as he spoke with the young woman outside a large, fashionable green and white house. Lang seemed suspicious of the camera.
“We’ve heard from the Centers for Disease Control, and now from the National Institutes of Health, that this new variety of flu has been positively identified in San Francisco and Chicago, and there’s been a pending identification in Los Angeles. Do you think this could be the flu epidemic the world has dreaded since 1918?”
Lang stared nervously at the camera. “First of all, it’s not really a flu. It’s not like any influenza virus, and for that matter, doesn’t resemble any virus associated with colds or flu…It isn’t like any of them. For one thing, it seems to cause symptoms only in women.”
“Could you describe this new, or rather very old, virus for us?” Hertz asked.
“It’s large, about eighty kilobases, that is—”
“More specifically, what kind of symptoms does it cause?”
“It’s a retrovirus, a virus that reproduces by transcribing its RNA genetic material into DNA and then inserting it into the DNA of a host cell. Like HIY It seems quite specific to humans—”
The reporter’s eyebrows shot up. “Is it as dangerous as the AIDS virus?”
“I’ve heard nothing that tells me it’s dangerous. It’s been carried in our own DNA for millions of years; in that way, at least, it’s not at all like the HIV retrovirus.”
“How can our women viewers know if they’ve caught this flu?”
“The symptoms have been described by the CDC, and I don’t know anything more than what they’ve announced. Slight fever, sore throat, coughing.”
“That could describe a hundred different viruses.”
“Right,” Lang said, and smiled. Mitch studied her face, her smile, with a sharp pang. “My advice is, stay tuned.”
“Then what is so significant about this virus, if it doesn’t kill, and its symptoms are so slight?”
“It’s the first HERV — human endogenous retrovirus — to become active, the first to escape from human chromosomes and be laterally transmitted.”
“What does that mean, laterally transmitted?”
“That means it’s infectious. It can pass from one human to another. For millions of years, it’s been transmitted vertically — passed from parents to children through their genes.”
“Do other old viruses exist in our cells?”
“The latest estimate is that as much of one third of our genome could consist of endogenous retroviruses. They sometimes form particles within the cells, as if they were trying to break out again, but none of these particles have been efficient — until now.”
“Is it safe to say that these remnant viruses were long ago broken or dumbed down?”
“It’s complicated, but you could say that.”
“How did they get into our genes?”
“At some point in our past, a retrovirus infected germ-line cells, sex cells such as egg or sperm. We don’t know what symptoms the disease might have caused at that time. Somehow, over time, the provirus, the viral blueprint buried in our DNA, was broken or mutated or just plain shut down. Supposedly these sequences of retroviral DNA are now just scraps. But three years ago, I proposed that provirus fragments on different human chromosomes could express all the parts of an active retrovirus. All the necessary proteins and RNA floating inside the cell could put together a complete and infectious particle.”
“And so it has turned out. Speculative science bravely marching ahead of the real thing…”
Mitch hardly heard what the reporter said, focusing instead on Lang’s eyes: large, still wary, but not missing a thing. Very bold. A survivor’s eyes.
He switched the TV off and rolled over on the bed to nap, to forget. His leg ached inside the long cast.
Kaye Lang was close to grabbing the brass ring, winning a big round in the science game. Mitch, on the other hand, had been handed a solid gold ring…And he had fumbled it badly, dropped it on the ice, lost it forever.
* * *
An hour later, he awakened to an authoritative knock on the door. “Come in,” he said, and cleared his throat.
A male nurse in starched green accompanied three men and a woman, all in late maturity, all dressed conservatively. They entered and glanced around the room as if to take note of possible escape routes. The shortest of the three men stepped forward and introduced himself. He held out his hand.
“I am Emiliano Luria, of the Institute for Human Studies,” he said. “These are my colleagues at the University of Inns-bruck, Herr Professor Friedrich Brock…”
Names that Mitch almost immediately forgot. The nurse brought two more chairs in from the hallway, and then stood by the door at parade rest, folding his arms and lifting his nose like a palace guard.
Luria spun his chair around, back to front, and sat. His thick round eyeglasses gleamed in the gray light through the curtained windows. He fixed his gaze on Mitch, made a small urn sound, then glared at the nurse. “We will be fine, alone,” he said. “Please go. No stories sold to the newspapers, and no big damned goose chases for bodies on the glaciers!”
The nurse nodded amiably and left the room.
Luria then asked the woman, thin and middle-aged, with a stern, strong face and abundant gray hair tied in a bun, to make sure the nurse was not listening. She stood by the door and peered out.
“Inspector Haas in Vienna assures me they have no further interest in this matter,” Luria said to Mitch after these formalities were observed. “This is between you and us, and I will work with the Italians and the Swiss, if we must cross any borders.” He pulled a large folding map from his pocket, and Dr. Block or Brock or whatever his name was held out a box containing a number of picture books on the Alps.
“Now, young man,” Luria said, his eyes swimming behind their thick lenses. “Help us repair this damage you have done to the fabric of science. These mountains, where you were found, are not unfamiliar to us. Just one range over is where the real Iceman was found. There has been a lot of traffic through these mountains for thousands of years, a trade route perhaps, or paths followed by hunters.”
“I don’t think they were on any trade route,” Mitch said. “I think they were running away.”
Luria looked at his notes. The woman edged closer to the bed. “Two adults, in very good condition but for the female, with a wound of some sort in the abdomen.”
“A spear thrust,” Mitch said. The room fell silent for a moment.
“I have made some phone calls and talked to people who know you. I am told your father is coming here to take you from the hospital, and I have spoken with your mother—”
“Please get to the point, Professor,” Mitch said.
Luria raised his eyebrows and shuffled his papers. “I am told you were a very fine scientist, conscientious, an expert at arranging and carrying out meticulous digs. You found the skeleton known as Pasco man. When Native Americans protested and claimed Pasco man as one of their ancestors, you removed the bones from their site.”
“To protect them. They had washed out of a bank and were on the shore of the river. The Indians wanted to put them back in the ground. The bones were too important to science. I couldn’t let that happen.”
Luria leaned forward. “I believe Pasco man died from an infected spear wound in his thigh, did he not?”
“He may have,” Mitch said.
“You have a nose for ancient tragedies,” Luria said, scratching his ear with a finger.
“Life was pretty hard back then.”
Luria nodded agreement. “Here in Europe, when we find a skeleton, there are no such problems.” He smiled at his colleagues. “We have no respect for our dead — dig them up, put them on display, charge tourists to see them. So this for us is not necessarily a big black mark, though it seems to have ended your relationship with your institution.”
“Political correctness,” Mitch said, trying to keep the acid out of his tone.
“Possibly. I am willing to listen to a man with your experience — but, Doctor Rafelson, to our chagrin, you have described a rather gross unlikelihood.” Luria pointed his pen at Mitch. “What part of your story is lie, and what part truth?”
“Why should I lie?” Mitch asked. “My life is already shot to hell.”
“Perhaps to keep a hand in the science? Not to be separated so quickly from Dame Anthropology?”
Mitch smiled ruefully. “Maybe I’d do that,” he said. “But I wouldn’t make up a story this crazy . The man and woman in the cave had distinct Neandertal characteristics.”
“On what criteria do you base your identification?” Brock asked, entering the conversation for the first time.
“Dr. Brock is an expert on Neandertals,” Luria said respectfully.
Mitch described the bodies slowly and carefully. He could close his eyes and see them as if they floated just over the bed.
“You are aware that different researchers use different criteria for describing so-called Neandertals,” Brock said. “Early, late, middle, from different regions, gracile or robust, perhaps different racial groups within the subspecies. Sometimes the distinctions are such that an observer might be misled.”
“These were not Homo sapiens sapiens? Mitch poured himself a glass of water, offered to pour more glasses. Luria and the woman accepted. Brock shook his head.
“Well, if they are found, we can resolve this matter easily enough. I am curious as to your timeline on human evolution—”
“I’m not dogmatic,” Mitch said.
Luria waggled his head — comme ci, comme fa — and turned some pages of notes under. “Clara, please hand me the biggest book there. I’ve marked some photographs and charts, where you might have been before you were found. Do any of these look familiar?”
Mitch took the book and propped it open awkwardly on his lap. The pictures were bright, clear, beautiful. Most had been shot in full daylight with blue skies. He looked at the marked pages and shook his head. “I don’t see a frozen waterfall.”
“No guide knows of a frozen waterfall anywhere near the serac, or indeed along the main mass of the glacier. Perhaps you can give us some other clue…”
Mitch shook his head. “I would if I could, Professor.”
Luria folded his papers decisively. “I think you are a sincere young man, perhaps even a good scientist. I will tell you one thing, if you do not go talking to papers or TV Agreed?”
“I have no reason to talk to them.”
“The baby was born dead or severely injured. The back of her head is broken, perhaps by the thrust of a fire-hardened pointed stick.”
Her. The infant had been a girl. For some reason, this shook Mitch deeply. He took another sip of water. All the emotion of his present position, the death ofTilde and Franco…The sadness of this ancient story. His eyes watered, threatened to spill over. “Sorry,” he said, and dabbed away the moisture with the sleeve of his gown.
Luria observed sympathetically. “This lends your story some credibility, no? But…” The professor lifted his hand and pointed at the ceiling, jabbing slightly, and concluding, “Still hard to believe.”
“The infant most definitely isn’t Homo sapiens neander-talensis,” Brock said. “She has interesting features, but she is modern in all particulars. Not, however, particularly European. More Anatolian, even Turkic, but that is just a guess for now. And I know of no specimens of that sort so recent. It would be incredible.”
“I must have dreamed it,” Mitch said, looking away.
Luria shrugged. “When you are well, would you be willing to walk the glacier with us, look for the cave again in person?”
Mitch did not hesitate. “Of course,” he said.
“I will try to arrange it. But for now—” Luria glanced down at Mitch’s leg.
“At least four months,” he said.
“Not a good time to be climbing, four months from now. In the late spring, then, next year.” Luria stood, and the woman, Clara, took his glass and hers and set them on Mitch’s tray.
“Thank you,” Brock said. “I hope you are right, Dr. Rafelson. It would be a marvelous find.”
They bowed slightly, formally, as they left.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Atlanta
“Virgin females don’t get our flu,” Dicken said, looking up from the papers and graphs on his desk. “Is that what you’re telling me?” He raised his black eyebrows until his broad forehead was a dubious washboard of wrinkles.
Jane Salter reached forward to plump the documents again, nervous, laying them with a solicitous finality on his desk. The concrete walls of his subbasement office enlivened the rustling sound.
Many of the offices in the lower floors of Building 1 of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had been converted from animal labs and holding cells. Concrete dikes jutted up near the walls. Dicken sometimes imagined he could still smell the disinfectant and monkey shit.
“That’s the biggest surprise that I can pull out of the data,” Salter confirmed. She was one of the best statisticians they had, a whiz with the variety of desktop computers that did most of their tracking, modeling, and record-keeping. “Men sometimes get it, or test positive for it, but are asymptomatic. They become vectors for females, but probably not for other males. And…” She finger-tapped a drum roll on the desktop. “We can’t get anyone to infect themselves.”
“So SHEVA is a specialist,” Dicken said, shaking his head. “How the hell do we know that?”
“Look at the footnote, Christopher, and the wording. ‘Women in domestic partnering situations, or those who have had extensive sexual experience.’ “
“How many cases so far — five thousand?”
“Six thousand two hundred women, and only about sixty or seventy men, all partners of infected women. Only constant reexposure transmits the retrovirus.”
“That’s not so crazy,” Dicken said. “It’s not unlike HIV, then.”
“Right,” Salter said, mouth twitching. “God has it in for females. Infection begins with the mucosa of nasal passages and bronchia, proceeds to the mild inflammation of alveoli, enters the bloodstream — mild inflammation of ovaries…and then it’s gone. Aching and some coughing, a sore tummy. And if the woman gets pregnant, there’s a very good chance she’ll miscarry.”
“Mark should be able to sell that,” Dicken said. “But let’s make his case stronger. He needs to scare a more reliable group of voters than young women. What about the geriatric set?” He looked at her hopefully.
“Older women don’t get it,” she said. “Nobody younger than fourteen or older than sixty. Look at the spread.” She leaned over and pointed to a pie chart. “Mean age of thirty-one.”
“It’s too crazy. Mark wants me to make sense of this and strengthen the surgeon general’s case by four o’clock this afternoon.”
“Another briefing?” Salter asked.
“Before the chief of staff and the science advisor. This is good, this is scary, but I know Mark. Look through the files again — maybe we can come up with a few thousand geriatric deaths in Zaire.”
“Are you asking me to cook the books?”
Dicken grinned wickedly.
“Then screw you, sir,” Salter said mildly, head cocked. “We haven’t got any more statistics out of Georgia. Maybe you could call up Tbilisi,” she suggested. “Or Istanbul.”
“They’re tight as clams,” Dicken said. “I was never able to shake much out of them, and they refuse to admit they have any cases now.” He glanced up at Salter.
Her nose wrinkled.
“Please, just one elderly passenger out of Tbilisi melting on an airplane,” Dicken suggested.
Salter let loose an explosion of laughter. She took off her glasses and wiped them, then replaced them. “It’s not funny. The charts are looking serious.”
“Mark wants to let the drama build. He’s playing this one like a marlin on a line.”
“I’m not very savvy about politics.”
“I pretend not to be,” Dicken said. “But the longer I hang around here, the more savvy I get.”
Salter glanced around the small room as if it might close in on her. “Are we done, Christopher?”
Dicken grinned. “Claustrophobia acting up?”
“It’s this room,” Salter said. “Don’t you hear them?” She leaned over the desk with a spooky expression. Dicken could not always tell whether Jane Salter was joking or serious. “The screaming of the monkeys?”
“Yeah,” Dicken said with a straight face. “I try to stay in the field as long as possible.”
In the director’s office in Building 4, Augustine looked at the statistics quickly, flipped through the twenty pages of numbers and computer-generated charts, and flung them down on the desk. “All very reassuring,” he said. “At this rate we’ll be out of business by the end of the year. We don’t even know if SHEVA causes miscarriages in every pregnant woman, or whether it’s just a mild teratogen. Christ. I thought this was the one, Christopher.”
“It’s good. It’s scary, and it’s public.”
“You underestimate how much the Republicans hate the CDC,” Augustine said. “The National Rifle Association hates us. Big tobacco hates us because we’re right in their backyard. Did you see that damned billboard just down the highway? By the airport? ‘Finally, a Butt Worth Kissing.’ What was it — Camels? Marlboros?”
Dicken laughed and shook his head.
“The surgeon general is going right into the bear’s den. She’s not very happy with me, Christopher.”
“There’s always the results I brought back from Turkey,” Dicken said.
Augustine held up his hands and rocked back in his chair, fingers gripping the edge of the desk. “One hospital. Five miscarriages.”
“Five out of five pregnancies, sir.”
Augustine leaned forward. “You went to Turkey because your contact said they had a virus that might abort babies. But why Georgia?”
“There was an outbreak of miscarriages in Tbilisi five years ago. I couldn’t get any information in Tbilisi, nothing official. A mortician and I did a little drinking together — unofficially. He told me there had been an outbreak of miscarriages in Gordi about the same time.”
Augustine had not heard this part before. Dicken had not put it in his report. “Go on,” he said, only half-interested.
“There was some sort of trouble, he wouldn’t come right out and say what. So — I drove to Gordi, and there was a police cordon around the town. I did some asking around in a few local road stops and heard about a UN investigation, Russian involvement. I called the UN. They told me that they were asking an American woman to help them.”
“Goodness,” Augustine said, and pressed his lips into a thin smile. “Woman of the hour. You knew about her work on HERV?”
“So . . . you thought somebody in the UN was on to something and needed her advice.”
“The thought crossed my mind, sir. But they called on her because she knew forensic pathology.”
“So, what were^oH thinking about?”
“Mutations. Induced birth defects. Teratogenic viruses, maybe. And I was wondering why governments wanted parents dead.”
“So there we are again,” Augustine said. “Back to wild-eyed speculation.”
Dicken made a face. “You know me better than that, Mark.”
“Sometimes I haven’t the slightest idea how you get such good results.”
“I hadn’t finished my work. You called me back and said we had something solid.”
“God knows I’ve been wrong before,” Augustine said.
“I don’t think you’re wrong. This is probably just the beginning. We’ll have more to go on soon.”
“Is that what your instincts tell you?”
Mark drew his brows together and folded his hands tightly on the top of the desk. “Do you remember what happened in 1963?”
“I was just a baby then, sir. But I’ve heard. Malaria.”
“I was seven years old myself. Congress pulled the plug on all funding for the elimination of insect-borne illnesses, including malaria. The stupidest move in the history of epidemiology. Millions of deaths worldwide, new strains of resistant disease…a disaster.”
“DDT wouldn’t have worked much longer anyway, sir.”
“Who can say?” Augustine peaked two fingers. “Humans think like children, leaping from passion to passion. Suddenly world health just isn’t hot. Maybe we overstated our case. We’re backing down from the death of the rain forests, and global warming is still just a simmer, not a boil. There haven’t been any devastating worldwide plagues, and Joe Sixpack never signed on to the whole Third World guilt trip. People are getting bored with apocalypse. If we don’t have a politically defensible crisis soon, on our home turf, we are going to get creamed in Congress, Christopher, and it could be 1963 all over again.”
“I understand, sir.”
Augustine sighed through his nose and lifted his eyes to the ranks of fluorescent lights in the ceiling. “The SG thinks our apple is still too green to put on the president’s desk, so she’s having a convenient megrim. She’s postponed this afternoon’s meeting until next week.”
Dicken suppressed a smile. The thought of the surgeon general faking a headache was precious.
Augustine fixed his gaze on Dicken. “All right, you smell something, go get it. Check miscarriage records in U.S. hospitals for the last year. Threaten Turkey and Georgia with exposure to the World Health Organization. Say we’ll accuse them of breaking all our cooperation treaties. I’ll back you. Find out who’s been to the Near East and Europe and come down with SHEVA and maybe miscarried a baby or two. We have a week, and if it’s not you and a more deadly SHEVA, then I’m going to have to go with an unknown spirochete caught by some shepherds in Afghanistan…consorting with sheep.” Augustine mocked a hangdog expression. “Save me, Christopher.”
Kaye was exhausted, felt like a queen, had been treated for the past week with the respect and friendly adoration of colleagues saluting one who has after some adversity been recognized as having seen farther into the truth. She had not suffered the kind of criticism and injustice others in biology had experienced in the last one hundred and fifty years — certainly nothing like what her hero, Charles Darwin, had had to face. Not even what Lynn Margulis had encountered with the theory of symbiotic evolution of eucaryotic cells. But there had been enough -
Skeptical and angry letters in the journals from old-guard geneticists convinced she was chasing after a wild hair; comments at conferences from faintly superior, smiling men and women convinced they were closer to a big discovery…Farther up the ladder of success, closer to the brass ring of Knowledge and Acknowledgment.
That was fine by Kaye. That was science, all too human and better for it. But then there had been Saul’s personal dustup with the editor of Cell, stalling any chance she had of publishing there. She had gone to Virology instead, a good journal, but a step down the ladder. She had never made it as far as Science or Nature. She had climbed a good distance, and then stalled out.
Now, it seemed, dozens of labs and research centers were eager to have her see the results of the work they had done to confirm her speculations. For the sake of her own peace of mind, she chose to accept invitations from those faculties, centers, and labs that had shown her some encouragement in the past few years — and in particular, the Carl Rose Center for Domain Research, based in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
The Rose Center stood on a hundred acres of pines planted in the 1950s, a thick forest surrounding a cubical lab building, the cube sitting not flat on the earth but elevated on one edge. Two floors of labs lay underground, directly beneath and to the east of the elevated cube. Funded in large part by an endowment from the enormously wealthy Van Buskirk family of Boston, the Rose Center had been doing molecular biology for thirty years.
Three scientists at Rose had been given grants by the Human Genome Project — the massive, heavily funded, multilateral effort to sequence and understand the sum total of human genetics — to analyze archaic gene fragments found in the so-called junk regions of human genes known as introns. The senior scientist managing this grant was Judith Kushner, who had been Kaye’s doctoral advisor at Stanford.
Judith Kushner stood just under five and a half feet high, with salted and twisted black hair, a round, wistful face that seemed always on the edge of a smile, and small, slightly protuberant black eyes. She was known internationally as a true wizard, someone who could design experiments and make any apparatus do what it was supposed to do — in other words, to fashion those repeatable experiments necessary to make science actually work.
That she spent most of her time nowadays filling out paperwork and guiding grad students and postdocs was simply the way of modern science.
Kushner’s assistant and secretary, a painfully thin young redhead named Fiona Bierce, led Kaye through the maze of labs and down a central elevator.
Kushner’s office lay on the zeroth floor, below ground level but above the basement: windowless, concrete walls painted a pleasant light beige. The walls were crammed with neatly arranged texts and bound journals. Four computers hummed faintly in one corner, including a Sim Engine supercomputer donated by Mind Design of Seattle.
“Kaye Lang, I am sopmud\” Kushner got out of her chair, beamed, and spread her arms to embrace Kaye as she entered. She gave a little squeal and waltzed her former student around the room, smiling in professorial joy. “So tell me — who have you heard from? Lynn? The old man himself?”
“Lynn called yesterday,” Kaye said, blushing.
Kushner clasped her hands together and shook them at the ceiling like a prizefighter celebrating victory. “Wonderful!”
“It’s really too much,” Kaye said, and at Kushner’s invitation, took a seat beside the Sim Engine’s broad flat display screen.
“Grab it! Enjoy it!” Kushner advised lustily. “You’ve earned it, dear. I saw you on television three times. Jackie Oniama on Triple C Network trying to talk science — wonderfully funny! Is she so much like a little doll in person?”
“They were all very friendly, really. But I’m exhausted from trying to explain things.”
“So much to explain. How’s Saul?” Kushner asked, doing well to hide some apprehension.
“He’s fine. We’re still trying to pin down whether we’ll be going into partnership with the Georgians.”
“If they don’t partner with you now, they have a long way to go before they can become capitalists,” Kushner said, and sat beside Kaye.
Fiona Bierce seemed happy just to listen. She grinned toothily.
“So…” Kushner said, staring at Kaye intently. “It’s been kind of a short road, hasn’t it?”
Kaye laughed. “I feel soyoungl”
“I am so envious. None of my crackpot theories have gotten nearly as much attention.”
“Just gobs of money,” Kaye said.
“Gobs and gobs. Need any?”
Kaye smiled. “Wouldn’t want to compromise our professional standing.”
“Ah, the big new world of cash biology, so important and secret and full of itself. Remember, my dear, women are supposed to do science differently. We listen and slog and listen and slog, just like poor Rosalind Franklin, not at all like brash little boys. And all for motives of the highest ethical purity. So — when are you and Saul going to go public? My son is trying to set up my retirement account.”
“Probably never,” Kaye said. “Saul would hate reporting to stockholders. Besides, we have to be successful first, make some money, and that’s a long way down the road.”
“Enough small talk,” Kushner said with finality. “I have something interesting to show you. Fiona, could you run our little simulation?”
Kaye moved her chair to one side. Bierce sat by the Sim Engine keyboard and cracked her knuckles like a pianist. “Judith has slaved on this for three months now,” she said. “She based much of it on your papers, and the rest of it on data from three different genome projects, and when the word came out, we were ready.”
“We went right to your markers and found the assembly routines,” Kushner said. “SHEVA’s envelope, and its little universal human delivery system. Here’s an infection simulation based on lab results from the fifth floor, John Dawson’s group. They infected hepatocytes in dense tissue culture. Here’s what came out.”
Kaye watched as Bierce played back the simulated assembly sequence. SHEVA particles entered the hepatocytes — liver cells in a lab culture dish — and shut down certain cellular functions, co-opted others, transcribed their RNA to DNA and integrated it into the cells’ DNA, then began to replicate. In brilliant simulated colors, new virus particles formed naked within the cytosol — the cell’s streaming internal fluid. The viruses migrated to the cell’s outer membrane and pushed through to the outside world, each particle neatly wrapped in a bit of the cell’s own skin.
“They deplete the membrane, but it’s all rather gentle and controlled. The viruses stress the cells, but they don’t kill them. And it looks like about one in twenty of the virus particles are viable — five times better than HIY”
The simulation suddenly zoomed in to molecules created along with the viruses, wrapped in cell transport packages called vesicles and pushed out with the new infectious particles. They were labeled in bright orange: PGA? and PGE?
“Hold it there, Fiona.” Kushner pointed and tapped her finger on the orange letters. “SHEVA doesn’t carry everything it needs to cause Herod’s flu. We kept finding a large clump of proteins in SHEVA-infected cells, not coded for in SHEVA, and like nothing I’ve seen. And then — the clump would break down, there would be all these smaller proteins that shouldn’t have been there.”
“We looked for proteins that were changing our cell cultures,” Bierce said. “Really doing a number on them. We puzzled over this for two weeks, and then we sent some infected cells over to a commercial tissue library for comparison. They separated out the new proteins, and they found—”
“This is my story, Fiona,” Kushner said, waggling her finger.
“Sorry,” Fiona said, smiling sheepishly. “It is just so cool we could do it this fast!”
“We finally decided that SHEVA turns on a gene in another chromosome. But how? We went looking … and found a SHEVA-activated gene on chromosome 21. It codes for our polyprotein, what we call the LPC, the large protein complex. A unique transcription factor specifically controls expression of this gene. We looked for the factor and found it in SHEVA’s genome. A locked treasure chest on chromosome 21, and the necessary keys in the virus. They’re partners.”
“Astonishing,” Kaye said.
Bierce ran the simulation through again, this time focusing on the action in chromosome 21 — the creation of the polyprotein.
“But Kaye — darling Kaye, that is far from the last of it. We have a mystery here. The SHEVA protease cleaves three novel cyclooxygenases and lipooxygenases from the LPC, which then synthesize three different and unique prosta-glandins. Two of them are new to us, really quite astonishing. All look very powerful.” Kushner used a pen to point out the prostaglandins being exported from a cell. “This could explain the talk about miscarriages.”
Kaye frowned in concentration.
“We calculate that a full-bore SHEVA infection could produce enough of the new prostaglandins to abort any fetus in a pregnant woman within a week.”
“As if that isn’t strange enough,” Bierce said, and pointed to series of glycoproteins, “the infected cells make these as byproducts. We haven’t analyzed them completely, but they look a lot like FSH and LH — follicle stimulating hormone and luteinizing hormone. And these peptides appear to be releasing hormones.”
“The old familiar masters of female destiny,” Kushner said. “Egg maturation and release.”
“Why?” Kaye asked. “If they’ve just caused an abortion . . . why force an ovulation?”
“We don’t know which activates first. It could be ovulation, then abortion,” Kushner said. “Remember, this is a liver cell. We haven’t even begun investigating infection in reproductive tissues.”
“It doesn’t make sense!”
“That’s the challenge,” Kushner said. “Whatever your little endogenous retrovirus is, it’s far from harmless — at least to us women. It looks like something designed to invade, take over, and screw us up royally.”
“Are you the only ones who’ve done this work?” Kaye asked.
“Probably,” Kushner said.
“We’re sending the results to NIH and the Genome Project today,” Bierce said.
“And giving you advance notice,” Kushner added, putting her hand on Kaye’s shoulder. “I don’t want you to get stepped on.”
Kaye frowned. “I don’t understand.”
“Don’t be naive, dear,” Kushner said, her eyes bright with concern. “What we’re looking at could be Biblical bad news. A virus that kills babies. Lots of babies. Someone might regard you as a messenger. And you know what they do to messengers who bring bad news.”
Dr. Michael Voight strode ahead of Dicken on long, spidery legs down the hallway to the residents’ lounge. “Funny you should ask,” Dr. Voight said. “We’re seeing lots of obstetrics anomalies. We’ve had staff discussions already. But not about Herod’s. We see all kinds of infections, flu, of course, but we still don’t have the test kits for SHEVA.” He half-twisted to ask, “Cup of coffee?”
Atlanta’s Olympic City Hospital was six years old, built at city and federal expense to take the pressure off other hospitals in the inner city. Private donors and a special set-aside from the Olympics had made it one of the best-equipped hospitals in the state, attracting some of the best and brightest young doctors, and a few disgruntled older ones, as well. The world of HMOs and managed care was taking a toll on skilled specialists, who had seen their incomes plummet in the past decade and their patient care practices controlled by accountants. Olympic City at least gave the specialists respect.
Voight steered Dicken into the lounge and drew a cup of coffee from a stainless-steel urn. Voight explained that interns and residents alike could use this room. “It’s usually empty this time of night. It’s prime time out there — time for life to lurch on and deliver its careless victims.”
“What sort of anomalies?” Dicken prompted.
Voight shrugged, pulled a chair away from a Formica table, and curled up his long legs like Fred Astaire. His greens rustled; they were made of tough paper, completely disposable. Dicken sat and held his cup in his hands. He knew it might keep him awake, but he needed the focus and the energy.
“I handle extreme cases, and most of the weird ones haven’t qualified for my care. But in the last two weeks…would you believe, seven women who can’t explain their pregnancies?”
“I’m all ears,” Dicken said.
Voight spread his hands and ticked off the cases. “Two that took birth control pills religiously, so to speak, and they didn’t work…Not so unusual, maybe. Still, there was one who didn’t take birth control, but said she hadn’t had sex. And guess what?”
“She was virgo intacta. Had heavy bleeding for a month, it went away, then morning sickness, period stopped, she went to a doctor, he told her she was pregnant, she comes here when the whole thing goes wrong. A shy young woman living with an elderly man, a real peculiar relationship. She insisted no sex was involved.”
“Second coming?” Dicken asked.
“Don’t be profane. I’m born again,” Voight said with a twitch of his lips.
“Sorry,” Dicken said.
Voight smiled half-apologetically. “Then her ‘old man’ comes in, tells us the real story. Turns out he’s very concerned for her — wants us to know the truth so we can treat her. She’s been letting him get in bed with her and rub up against her…Sympathy, you know. So that’s how she gets pregnant the first time.”
Dicken nodded. Nothing very shocking here — the versatility of life and love.
Voight continued. “It’s a miscarriage. But three months later, she comes back, she’s pregnant again. Two months along. Her elderly friend shows up with her, says he hasn’t been rubbing against her or anything, and he knows she hasn’t been seeing another man. Do we believe him?”
Dicken tilted his head to one side, lifted his eyebrows.
“All sorts of peculiar stuff going on,” Voight said softly. “More than usual, I think.”
“Did they complain of illness?”
“The usual. Colds, fevers, body aches. I think we may still have a couple of specimens in the lab, if you want to look at them. Have you been over to Northside?”
“Not yet,” Dicken said.
“Why not Midtown? Lot more tissue for you over there.”
Dicken shook his head. “How many young women with unexplained fever, nonbacterial infections?”
“Dozens. That’s not unusual either. We don’t keep tests more than a week; if they’re negative for bacteria, we dump them.”
“All right. Let’s see the tissue.”
Dicken took his coffee with him as he followed Voight to the elevator. The biopsy and analysis lab was in the basement, just two doors down from the morgue.
“Lab techs go home at nine.” Voight switched on the lights and did a quick search in a small steel card file.
Dicken looked the lab over: three long white benches equipped with sinks, two fume hoods, incubators, cabinets neatly arrayed with brown glass and clear glass bottles filled with reagents, neatly ordered stacks of standard test kits in slim orange and green cardboard boxes, two stainless-steel refrigerators and an older white freezer; a computer connected to an ink-jet printer with an our OF ORDER note posted on it; and jammed in a back room behind a Dutch door, rolling stock steel storage shelving in standard gray and putty.
“They haven’t put these into the computer yet; takes us about three weeks. Looks like we have one left…It’s procedure now for the hospital, we give mothers the choice, they can have a mortician take the tissue and arrange for a funeral. Better closure that way. But we had an indigent through here, no money, no family…Here.” He lifted a card, walked into the back room, rotated a wheel, found the shelf number on the card.
Dicken waited by the Dutch door. Voight emerged with a small jar, held it up to the brighter light in the lab room. “Wrong number, but it’s the same type. This is from six months ago. I think the one I’m looking for may still be in cold saline.” He handed Dicken the jar and walked to the first refrigerator.
Dicken peered at the fetus: at twelve weeks, about the size of his thumb, curled, a tiny pale extraterrestrial that had failed its tryout for life on Earth. The anomalies struck him immediately. The limbs were mere nubs, and there were protuberances around the swollen abdomen he had not seen before even on severely malformed fetuses.
The tiny face seemed unusually pinched and vacant.
“There’s something wrong with its bone structure,” Dicken said as Voight closed the refrigerator. The resident lifted another fetus in a moisture-frosted glass beaker covered with plastic wrap, sealed with a rubber band, and marked with a tape label.
“Lots of problems, no doubt about it,” Voight said, trading jars and peering at the older specimen. “God sets up little checkpoints in every pregnancy. These two did not make the grade.” He looked upward significantly. “Back to Heaven’s nursery.”
Dicken did not know whether Voight was expressing heartfelt philosophy or a more typical medical cynicism. He compared the cold beaker and the room-temperature jar. Both fetuses at twelve weeks, very similar.
“Can I take this one?” he asked, lifting the cold beaker.
“What, and rob our med students?” Voight shrugged. “Sign for it, call it a loan to CDC, shouldn’t be a problem.” He looked at the jar again. “Something significant?”
“Maybe,” Dicken said. He felt a little creep of sadness and excitement. Voight gave him a more secure jar and a small cardboard box, cotton, a piece of ice in a sealed plastic bag to keep the specimen cold. They transferred the specimen quickly with a pair of wooden tongue depressors, and Dicken sealed the box with packing tape.
“If you get any more like these, let me know immediately, okay?” Dicken asked.
“Sure.” In the elevator, Voight asked him, “You look a little funny. Is there something I might like to know about early, some little clue to help me better serve the public?”
Dicken knew he had kept his face deadpan, so he smiled at Voight and shook his head. “Keep track of all miscarriages,” Dicken said, “Especially this type. Any correlation with Herod’s flu would be dandy.”
Voight curled his lip, disappointed. “Nothing official yet?”
“Not yet,” Dicken said. “I’m working on a real long shot.”
The spaghetti and pizza dinner with Saul’s old colleagues from MIT was going very well. Saul had flown in to Boston that afternoon, and they had gathered at Pagliacci. Talk early in the evening in the dark old Italian restaurant ranged from mathematical analysis of the human genome to a chaotic predictor for dataflow systole and diastole on the Internet.
Kaye filled up on breadsticks and green peppers even before her lasagna arrived. Saul picked at a piece of buttered bread.
One of MIT’s celebrities, Dr. Drew Miller, showed up at nine o’clock, unpredictable as always, to listen and throw in a few comments about the hot topic of bacterial community action. Saul listened intently to the legendary researcher, an expert on artificial intelligence and self-organizing systems. Miller changed seats several times, and finally tapped the shoulder of Saul’s old roommate, Derry Jacobs. Jacobs grinned, got up to find another seat, and Miller placed himself beside Kaye. He picked up a breadstick from Jacobs’s plate, stared at her with wide, childlike eyes, pursed his lips, and said, “You’ve really pissed off the old gradualists.”
“Me?” Kaye asked, laughing. “Why?”
“Ernst Mayr’s kids are sweating ice cubes, if they’ve got any sense. Dawkins is beside himself. I’ve been telling them for months that all that was needed was another link in the chain, and we’d have a feedback loop.”
Gradualism was the belief that evolution proceeded in small moves, mutations accumulating over tens of thousands or even millions of years, usually detrimental to the individual. Beneficial mutations were selected for by conferring an advantage and increasing opportunities to gather resources and reproduce. Ernst Mayr had been a brilliant spokesman for this belief. Richard Dawkins had eloquently argued the case for the modern synthesis of Darwinism, as well as describing the so-called selfish gene.
Saul heard this and got up to stand behind Kaye, leaning over the table to hear what Miller had to say. “You think SHEVA gives us a loop?” he asked.
“Yes. Complete circle of communication between individuals in a population, outside of sex. Our equivalent of plasmids in bacteria, but of course more like phages.”
“Drew, SHEVA only has eighty kb and thirty genes,” Saul said. “Can’t carry much information.”
She and Saul had already gone over this territory before she had published her article in Virology. They had spoken to nobody about their particular theories. Kaye found herself a little surprised that Miller should be bringing this up. He was not known as a progressive.
“They don’t need to carry all the information,” Miller said. “All they need to carry is an authorization code. A key. We still don’t know all the things SHEVA does.”
Kaye glanced at Saul, then said, “Tell us what you’ve been thinking, Dr. Miller.”
“Call me Drew, please. It’s really not my field of endeavor, Kaye.”
“It’s not like you to be cagey, Drew,” Saul said. “And we know you’re not humble.”
Miller grinned from ear to ear. “Well, I think you suspect something already. I’m sure your wife does. I’ve read your papers on transposable elements.”
Kaye sipped from her almost-empty glass of water. “We can never be sure what to say to whom,” she murmured. “We might either offend or give away the farm.”
“Don’t worry about original thinking,” Miller said. “Someone out there is always ahead of you, but they usually haven’t done the work. It’s someone who’s working all the time who will make the discovery. You do good work and write good papers, and this is a big jump.”
“We’re not sure it’s the big jump though,” Kaye said. “It may just be an anomaly.”
“I don’t want to push anybody into a Nobel prize,” Miller said, “but SHEVA isn’t really a disease-causing organism. Doesn’t make evolutionary sense for something to hide this long in the human genome, and then express just to cause a mild flu. SHEVA is really just a kind of mobile genetic element, isn’t it? A promoter?”
Kaye thought of the talk with Judith about the symptoms that SHEVA could cause.
Miller was perfectly willing to continue talking over her silence. “Everyone thinks that viruses, and in particular retro-viruses, could be evolutionary messengers or triggers, or just random goads,” Miller said. “Ever since it was found that some viruses carry snippets of genetic material from host to host. I just think there are a couple of questions you should ask yourselves, if you haven’t already. What does SHEVA trigger? Let’s say gradualism is dead. We get bursts of adaptive speciation whenever a niche opens up — new continents, a meteor clears out the old species. It happens fast, in less than ten thousand years; good old punctuated equilibrium. But there’s a real problem. Where is all this proposed evolutionary change stored?”
“An excellent question,” Kaye said.
Miller’s eyes sparkled. “You’ve been thinking about this?”
“Who hasn’t?” Kaye said. “I’ve been thinking about virus and retrovirus as contributors to genomic novelty. But it comes down to the same thing. So maybe there’s a master biological computer in each species, a processor of some sort that tots up possible beneficial mutations. It makes decisions about what, where, and when something will change…Makes guesses, if you will, based on success rates from past evolutionary experience.”
“What triggers a change?”
“We know that stress-related hormones can affect expression of genes. This evolutionary library of possible new forms…”
Miller grinned broadly. “Go on,” he prompted.
“Responds to stress-produced hormones,” Kaye continued. “If enough organisms are under stress, they exchange signals, reach a kind of quorum, and this triggers a genetic algorithm that compares sources of stress with a list of adaptations, evolutionary responses.”
“Evolution evolving,” Saul said. “The species with an adaptive computer can change more rapidly and more efficiently than hackneyed old species that don’t control and select their mutations, that rely on randomness.”
Miller nodded. “Good. Much more efficient than just allowing any old mutation to be expressed and probably destroy an individual or damage a population. Let’s say this adaptive genetic computer, this evolutionary processor, only allows certain kinds of mutations to be used. Individuals store the results of the processor’s work — which would, I assume, be…” Miller looked at Kaye for help, waggling his hand.
“Mutations that are grammatical,” she said, “physiological statements that don’t violate any important structural rules in an organism.”
Miller smiled beatifically, then held his knee and began rocking gently back and forth. His large square cranium glinted as it caught the reddish gleam of an overhead light. He was thoroughly enjoying himself.
“Where would the evolutionary information be stored — throughout the genome, holographically, in different parts in different individuals, or just in germ-line cells, or…elsewhere?”
“Tags stored in a set-aside section of the genome in each individual,” Kaye said, and then bit her tongue. Miller — and Saul, for that matter — regarded an idea as a kind of food that needed to be thoroughly shared and chewed over before it could be useful. Kaye preferred certainties before she spoke. She searched for an immediate example. “Like heat-shock response in bacteria, or single-generation climate adaptation in fruit flies.”
“But a human set-aside has to be huge. We’re so much more complex than fruit flies,” Miller said. “Have we found it already, but just don’t know what it is?”
Kaye touched Saul’s arm, urging caution. They had a reputation now for riding a certain wave, and even with an old-guard scientist like Miller, a gadfly with sufficient accomplishments under his belt for a dozen careers, she felt nervous giving away their most recent thinking. It could get around: Kaye Long says such and such…
“Nobody’s found it yet,” Kaye said.
“Oh?” Miller said, searching her face with a critical gaze. She felt like a deer frozen in headlights.
Miller shrugged. “Maybe not. My guess is, it’s expressed only in germ-line cells. Sex cells. Haploid to haploid. It doesn’t get expressed, it doesn’t start work unless there’s confirmation from other individuals. Pheromones. Eye contact, maybe.”
“We think otherwise,” Kaye said. “We think the set-aside will only carry instructions for the small alterations that lead to a new species. The rest of the details remain encoded in the genome, standard instructions for everything below that level…Probably working as well for chimpanzees as for us.”
Miller frowned, stopped rocking. “I have to let that run around in my head for a minute.” He glanced up at the dark ceiling. “Makes sense. Protect the design that you know works, at a minimum. So will these subtle changes carried in the set-aside express as units, do you think,” Miller said, “one change at a time?”
“We don’t know,” Saul said. He folded his napkin beside his plate and thumped it with his hand. “And that’s all we’re going to tell you, Drew.”
Miller smiled broadly. “Jay Niles has been talking with me. He thinks punctuated equilibrium is on a roll, and he thinks it’s a systems problem, a network problem. Selective neural network intelligence at work. I’ve never much trusted talk about neural networks. Just a way of clouding the issue, of not describing what you need to describe.” With complete lack of guile, Miller added, “I think I can help, if you want me to.”
“Thanks, Drew. We might call on you,” Kaye said, “but for right now, we’d like to have our own fun.”
Miller shrugged expressively, tipped his finger to his forehead, and walked back to the other end of the table, where he picked up another breadstick and began another conversation.
On the plane to La Guardia, Saul slumped in his seat. “Drew has no idea, no idea.”
Kaye looked up from the airplane copy of Threads.
“About what?” Kaye asked. “He seemed pretty on track to me.”
“If you or I or anybody in biology was to talk about any kind of intelligence behind evolution…”
“Oh,” Kaye said. She gave a delicate shudder. “The old spooky vitalism.”
“When Drew talks about intelligence or mind, he doesn’t mean conscious thought, of course.”
“No?” Kaye said, deliciously tired, full of pasta. She pushed the magazine into the pouch under the tray table and leaned her seat back. “What does he mean?”
“You’ve already thought about ecological networks.”
“Not my most original work,” Kaye said. “And what does it let us predict?”
“Maybe nothing,” Saul said. “But it orders my thinking in useful ways. Nodes or neurons in a network leading to neural net patterns, feeding back to the nodes the results of any network activity, leading to increased efficiencies for every node and for the network in particular.”
“That’s certainly clear enough,” Kaye said, making a sour face.
Saul wagged his head from side to side, acknowledging her criticism. “You’re smarter than I’ll ever be, Kaye Lang,” Saul said. She watched him closely, and saw only what she admired in Saul. The ideas had taken hold of him; he was not interested in attribution, merely in seeing a new truth. Her eyes misted, and she remembered with an almost painful intensity the emotions Saul had aroused in their first year together. Goading her, encouraging her, driving her nuts until she spoke clearly and understood the full arc of an idea, a hypothesis. “Make it clear, Kaye. That’s what you’re good at.”
“Well…” Kaye frowned. “That’s the way the human brain works, or a species, or an ecosystem, for that matter. And it’s also the most basic definition of thought. Neurons exchange lots of signals. The signals can add or subtract from each other, neutralize or cooperate to reach a decision. They follow the basic actions of all nature: cooperation and competition: symbiosis, parasitism, predation. Nerve cells are nodes in the brain, and genes are nodes in the genome, competing and cooperating to be reproduced in the next generation. Individuals are nodes in a species, and species are nodes in an ecosystem.”
Saul scratched his cheek and looked at her proudly.
Kaye waggled her finger in warning. “The Creationists will pop out of the woodwork and crow that we’re finally talking about God.”
“We all have our burdens.” Saul sighed.
“Miller talked about SHEVA closing the feedback loop for individual organisms — that is, individual human beings. That would make SHEVA a neurotransmitter of sorts,” Kaye said, mulling this over.
Saul pushed closer to her, his hands working to describe volumes of ideas. “Let’s get specific. Humans cooperate for advantage, forming a society. They communicate sexually, chemically, but also socially — through speech, writing, culture. Molecules and memes. We know that scent molecules, pheromones, affect behavior; females in groups come into estrus together. Men avoid chairs where other men have sat; women are attracted to those same chairs. We’re just refining the kinds of signals that can be sent, what kinds of messages, and what can carry the messages. Now we suspect that our bodies exchange endogenous virus, just as bacteria do. Is it really all that startling?”
Kaye had not told Saul about her conversation with Judith. She did not want to take the edge off their fun just yet, especially with so little actually known, but it would have to happen soon. She sat up. “What if SHEVA has multiple purposes,” she suggested. “Could it also have bad side effects?”
“Everything in nature can go wrong,” Saul said.
“What if it actually has gone wrong? What if it’s been expressed in error, has completely lost its original purpose and just makes us sick?”
“Not impossible,” Saul said in a way that suggested polite lack of interest. His mind was still on evolution. “I really think we should work this over in the next week and put together another paper. We have the material almost ready — we could cover all the speculative bases, bring in some of the folks in Cold Spring Harbor and Santa Barbara…Maybe even Miller. You just don’t turn down an offer from someone like Drew. We should talk to Jay Niles, too. Get a real firm base laid down. Shall we go ahead, put our money on the table, tackle evolution?”
In truth, this possibility scared Kaye. It seemed very dangerous, and she wanted to give Judith more time to learn what SHEVA could do. More to the point, it had no connection with their core business of finding new antibiotics.
“I’m too tired to think,” Kaye said. “Ask me tomorrow.” Saul sighed happily. “So many puzzles, so little time.” Kaye had not seen Saul so energetic and content in years. He tapped his fingers in rapid rhythm on the armrest and hummed softly to himself.
Sam, Mitch’s father, found him in the hospital lobby, his single bag packed and his leg wrapped in a cumbersome cast. The surgery had gone well, the pins had been removed two days before, his leg was healing on schedule. He was being discharged.
Sam helped Mitch out to the parking lot, carrying the bag for him. They pushed the seat all the way back on the passenger side of the rented Opel. Mitch fitted his leg in awkwardly, with some discomfort, and Sam drove him through the light midmorning traffic. His father’s eyes darted to every corner, nervous.
“This is nothing compared to Vienna,” Mitch said.
“Yes, well, I don’t know how they treat foreigners. Not as bad as they do in Mexico, I guess,” Sam said. Mitch’s father had wiry brown hair and a heavily freckled, broad Irish face that looked as if it might smile easily enough. But Sam seldom smiled, and there was a steely edge in his gray eyes that Mitch had never learned to fathom.
Mitch had rented a one-bedroom flat on the outskirts of Innsbruck, but had not been there since the accident. Sam lit up a cigarette and smoked it quickly as they walked up the concrete stairwell to the second floor.
“You handle that leg pretty well,” Sam said.
“I don’t have much choice,” Mitch said. Sam helped him negotiate a corner and stabilize himself on the crutches. Mitch found his keys and opened the door. The small, low-ceilinged flat had bare concrete walls and hadn’t been heated for weeks. Mitch squeezed into the bathroom and realized he would have to take his craps from a certain angled altitude; the cast didn’t fit between the toilet and the wall.
“I’ll have to learn to aim,” he told his father as he came out. This made his father grin.
“Get a bigger bathroom next time. Spare-looking place, but clean,” Sam commented. He stuffed his hands in his pockets. “Your mother and I assume you’re coming home. We’d like you to.”
“I probably will, for a while,” Mitch said. “I’m a bit of a whipped puppy, Dad.”
“Bullshit,” Sam murmured. “Nothing’s ever whipped you.”
Mitch regarded his father with a flat expression, then swiveled around on the crutches and looked at the goldfish Tilde had given him months before. She had provided a little glass bowl and a tin of food and had set it on the counter in the small kitchen. He had cared for it even after the relationship was over.
The fish had died and was now a little raft of mold floating on the surface of the half-filled bowl. Lines marked the levels of scum as the water evaporated. It was pretty gruesome.
“Shit,” Mitch said. He had completely forgotten about the fish.
“What was it?” Sam asked, peering at the bowl.
“The last of a relationship that almost killed me,” Mitch said.
“Pretty dramatic,” Sam said.
“Pretty anticlimactic,” Mitch corrected. “Maybe it should have been a shark.” He offered his father a Carlsberg from the tiny refrigerator beside the kitchen sink. Sam took the beer and swallowed about a third as he walked around the living room.
“You got any unfinished business here?” Sam asked.
“I don’t know,” Mitch said, carrying his suitcase into the ridiculously small bedroom with bare concrete walls and a single ceiling light fixture of clear ribbed glass. He tossed it on the sleeping mat, squidgied his way around on the crutches, returned to the living room. “They want me to help them find the mummies.”
“Then let them fly you back here,” Sam said. “We’re going home.”
Mitch thought to check the answering machine. The little message counter had gone to its maximum, thirty.
“It’s time to come home and get your strength back,” Sam said.
That sounded pretty good, actually. Go back home at age thirty-seven and just stay there, let Mom cook and Dad teach him how to tie flies or whatever Sam was into now, visit with their friends, become a little kid again, not responsible for anything very important.
Mitch felt sick to his stomach. He pressed the rewind button on the answering machine tape. As it whirred back onto its spool, the phone chimed and Mitch answered.
“Excuse me,” a tenor male voice said in English. “Is this Mitch Rafelson?”
“The very one,” Mitch said.
“I just tell you this, then good-bye. Maybe you recognize my voice, but…no matter. They have found your bodies in the cave. The University of Innsbruck people. Without your help, I assume. They do not tell anybody yet, I don’t know why. I am not joking and this is no prank, Herr Rafelson.”
There was a distinct click and the line went dead.
“Who was it?” Sam asked.
Mitch sniffed and tried to relax his jaw. “Fuckers,” he said. “They’re just messing with me. I’m famous, Dad. A famous crackpot chucklehead.”
“Bullshit,” Sam said again, his face sharp with disgust and anger. Mitch stared at his father with a mix of love and shame; this was Sam at his most involved, his most protective.
“Let’s get out of this rat hole,” Sam said in disgust.
Long Island, New York
Kaye made Saul breakfast just after sunrise. He seemed subdued, sitting at the knotty pine table in the kitchen, slowly sipping a cup of black coffee. He had had three cups already, not a good sign. In a good mood — Good Saul — he never drank more than a cup a day. If he starts smoking again…
Kaye delivered his scrambled eggs and toast and sat beside him. He leaned over, ignoring her, and ate slowly, deliberately, sipping coffee between each bite. As he finished, he made a sour face and pushed the plate back.
“Bad eggs?” Kaye asked quietly.
Saul gave her a long look and shook his head. He was moving slower, also not a good sign. “I called Bristol-Myers Squibb yesterday,” he said. “They haven’t cut a deal with Lado and Eliava, and apparently they don’t expect to. There’s something political going on in Georgia.”
“Maybe that’s good news?”
Saul shook his head and turned his chair toward the French doors and the gray morning outside. “I also called a friend of mine at Merck. He says there’s something cooking with Eliava, but he doesn’t know what it is. Lado Jakeli flew to the United States and met with them.”
Kaye stopped herself in the middle of a sigh, let it out slowly, inaudibly. Walking on eggshells again…The body knew, her body knew. Saul was suffering again, worse even than he appeared. She had been through this at least five times. Any hour now he would find a pack of cigarettes, inhale the hot acrid nicotine to straighten out some of his brain chemistry, even though he hated smoking, hated tobacco.
“So…we’re out,” she said.
“I don’t know yet,” Saul said. He squinted at a brief ray of sun. “You didn’t tell me about the grave.”
Kaye’s face flushed like a girl’s. “No,” she said stiffly. “I didn’t.”
“And it didn’t make the newspapers.”
Saul pushed his chair back and grabbed the edge of the table, then half-stood and performed a series of angled pushups, eyes focused on the table top. When he finished, having done thirty, he sat down again and wiped his face with the folded paper towel he was using as a napkin.
“Christ, I’m sorry, Kaye,” he said, his voice rough. “Do you know how that makes me feel?”
“Having my wife experience something like that.”
“You knew about my taking criminal medicine at SUNY.”
“It makes me feel funny, even so,” Saul said.
“You want to protect me,” Kaye said, and put her hand over his, rubbing his fingers. He withdrew his hand slowly.
“Against everything,” Saul said, sweeping the hand over the table, taking in the world. “Against cruelty and failure. Stupidity.” His speech accelerated. “It is political. We’re suspect. We’re associated with the United Nations. Lado can’t go with us.”
“It didn’t seem to be that way, the politics, in Georgia,” Kaye said.
“What, you went with the UN team and you didn’t worry it could hurt us?”
“Of course I worried!”
“Right.” Saul nodded, then waggled his head back and forth, as if to relieve tension in his neck. “I’ll make some more calls. Try and learn where Lado is taking his meetings. He apparently has no plans to visit us.”
“Then we go ahead with the people at Evergreen,” Kaye said. “They have a lot of the expertise, and some of their lab work is—”
“Not enough. We’ll be competing with Eliava and whoever they go with. They’ll get the patents and make it to the market first. They’ll grab the capital.” Saul rubbed his chin. “We have two banks and a couple of partners and…lots of people who were expecting this to come through for us, Kaye.”
Kaye stood, her hands trembling. “I’m sorry,” she said, “but that grave — they were people, Saul. Someone needed help finding out how they died.” She knew she sounded defensive, and that confused her. “I was there. I made myself useful.”
“Would you have gone if they hadn’t ordered you to?” Saul asked.
“They did not order me,” Kaye said. “Not in so many words.”
“Would you have gone if it hadn’t been official?”
“Of course not,” Kaye said.
Saul reached out his hand and she held it again. He gripped her fingers with almost painful firmness, then his eyes grew heavy-lidded. He let go, stood, poured himself another cup of coffee.
“Coffee doesn’t work, Saul,” Kaye said. “Tell me how you are. How you feel.”
“I feel fine,” he said defensively. “Success is the medication I need most right now.”
“This has nothing to do with business. It’s like the tides. You have your own tides to fight. You told me that yourself, Saul.”
Saul nodded but would not face her. “Going to the lab today?”
“I’ll call from here after I make my inquiries. Let’s put together a bull session with the team leaders this evening, at the lab. Order in pizza. A keg of beer.” He made a valiant effort to smile. “We need a fallback position, and soon,” he said.
“I’ll see how the new work is going,” Kaye said. They both knew that any revenue from current projects, including the bacteriocin work, was at least a year down the road. “How soon will we—”
“Let me worry about that,” Saul said. He sidled over with a crablike motion, waggling his shoulders, self-mocking in that way only he could manage, and hugged her with one arm, dropping his face to her shoulder. She stroked his head.
“I hate this,” he said. “I really, really hate being like this.”
“You are very strong, Saul,” Kaye whispered into his ear.
“You’re my strength,” he said, and pushed away, rubbing his cheek like a little boy who has been kissed. “I love you more than life itself, Kaye. You know that. Don’t worry about me.”
For a moment, there was a lost, feral wildness in his eyes, cornered, nowhere left to hide. Then that passed, and his shoulders drooped and he shrugged.
“I’ll be fine. We’ll prevail, Kaye. I just have to make some calls.”
Debra Kirn was a slender woman with a broad face and a smooth bowl of thick black hair. Eurasian, she tended to be quietly authoritarian. She and Kaye got along very well, though she was prickly with Saul and most men.
Kim ran the cholera isolation lab at EcoBacter with a glove of velvet-wrapped steel. The second largest lab in EcoBacter, the isolation lab functioned at level 3, more to protect Kirn’s supersensitive mice than the workers, though cholera was no joke. She used severe combined immunodeficient, or SCID, mice, genetically shorn of an immune system, in her research.
Kim took Kaye through the outer office of the lab and offered her a cup of tea. They engaged in small talk for several minutes, watching through a pane of clear acrylic the special sterile plastic and steel containers stacked along one wall and the active mice within.
Kim was working to find an effective phage-based therapy against cholera. The SCID mice had been equipped with human intestinal tissues, which they could not reject; they thus became small human models of cholera infection. The project had cost hundreds of thousands of dollars and had produced slim results, but still, Saul kept it going.
“Nicki down in payroll says we may have three months left,” Kim said without warning, setting down her cup and smiling stiffly at Kaye. “Is that true?”
“Probably,” Kaye said. “Three or four. Unless we seal a partnership with Eliava. That would be sexy enough to bring in some more capital.”
“Shit,” Kim said. “I turned down an offer from Procter and Gamble last week.”
“I hope you didn’t burn any bridges,” Kaye said.
Kim shook her head. “I like it here, Kaye. I’d rather work with you and Saul than almost anyone else. But I’m not getting any younger, and I have some pretty ambitious work in mind.”
“So do we all,” Kaye said.
“I’m pretty close to developing a two-pronged treatment,” Kim said, walking to the acrylic panel. “I’ve got the gene connection between the endotoxins and adhesins. The cholerae attach to our little intestinal mucus cells and make them drunk. The body resists by shedding the mucus membranes. Rice-water stools. I can make a phage that carries a gene that shuts down pilin production in the cholera. If they can make toxin, they can’t make pili, and they can’t adhere to mucus cells in the intestine. We deliver capsules of phage to cholera-infected areas, voila. We can even use them in water treatment programs. Six months, Kaye. Just six more months and we could hand this over to the World Health Organization for seventy-five cents a dose. Just four hundred dollars to treat an entire water purification plant. Make a very tidy profit and save several thousand lives every month.”
“I hear you,” Kaye said.
“Why is riming everything?” Kirn asked softly, and poured herself another cup of tea.
“Your work won’t stop here. If we go under, you can take it with you. Go to another company. And take the mice. Please.”
Kirn laughed, then frowned. “That’s insanely generous of you. What about you? Are you just going to bite the bullet and sink under the debts, or declare bankruptcy and go to work for the Squibb? You could get work easily enough, Kaye, especially if you strike before the publicity dies down. But what about Saul? This company is his life.”
“We have options,” Kaye said.
Kirn drew the ends of her lips down in concern. She put her hand on Kaye’s arm. “We all know about his cycles,” she said. “Is this getting to him?”
Kaye half shuddered, half shivered at this, as if to throw off any unpleasantness. “I can’t talk about Saul, Kirn. You know that.”
Kim threw her hands up in the air. “Christ, Kaye, maybe you could use all the publicity to take the company public, get some funding. Tide us over for another year…”
Kim had very little sense of how business worked. She was atypical this way; most biotech researchers in private companies were very savvy about business. No francs, no Frankenstein s monster, she had heard one of her colleagues say. “We couldn’t convince anybody to back us for a public offering,” Kaye said. “SHEVA has nothing to do with EcoBacter, not now at any rate. And cholera is Third World stuff. It isn’t sexy, Kim.”
“It isn’t?” Kim said, and fluttered her hands in disgust. “Well, what in hell is sexy in the big old bidness world today?”
“Alliances and high profits and stock value,” Kaye said. She stood and tapped the plastic panel near one of the mouse cages. The mice inside reared up and wriggled their noses.
Kaye walked into Lab 6, where she did most of her research. She had handed off her bacteriocin studies a month ago to some postdocs in Lab 5. This lab was being used by Kirn’s assistants for the time being, but they were at a conference in Houston, and the lab had been closed, the lights turned off.
When she wasn’t working on antibiotics, her favorite subjects had been Henle 407 cultures, derived from intestinal cells; she had used them to meticulously study aspects of mammalian genomes and to locate potentially active HERV. Saul had encouraged her, perhaps foolishly; she could have focused completely on the bacteriocin research, but Saul had assured her she was a golden girl. Anything she touched would advance the company.
Now, lots of glory, but no money.
The biotech industry was unforgiving at best. Maybe she and Saul simply did not have what it took.
Kaye sat in the middle of the lab on a rolling chair that had somehow lost a wheel. She leaned to one side, hands on her knees and tears slicking her cheeks. A small and persistent voice in the back of her head told her that this could not go on. The same voice continued to warn her that she had made bad choices in her personal life, but she could not imagine how she could have done otherwise. Despite everything, Saul was not her enemy; far from being a brutal or abusive man, he was simply a victim of tragic biological imbalances. His love for her was pure enough.
What had started her tears was this treasonous inner voice that insisted that she should get out of this situation, abandon Saul, start over again; no better time. She could get work in a university lab, apply for funding for a pure research project that suited her, escape this damned and very literal rat race.
Yet Saul had been so loving, so right when she had returned from Georgia. The paper on evolution had seemed to rekindle his interest in science over profit. Then…the setbacks, the discouragement, the downward spiral. Bad Saul.
She did not want to face again what had happened eight months ago. Saul’s worst breakdown had tested her own limits. His attempted suicides — two of them — had left her exhausted, and, more than she cared to admit, embittered. She had fantasized about living with other men, calm and normal men, men closer to her own age.
Kaye had never told Saul about these wishes, these dreams; she wondered if perhaps she needed to see her own psychiatrist, but she had decided against it. Saul had spent tens of thousands of dollars on psychiatrists, had gone through five regimens of drug therapy, had once suffered complete loss of sexual function and weeks of being unable to think clearly. For him, the miracle drugs did not work.
What did they have left, what did she have left in the way of reserves, if the tide turned again and she lost Good Saul? Being around Saul in the bad times had eaten at some other reserve — a spiritual reserve, generated during her childhood, when her parents had told her, You are responsible for your life, your behavior. God has given you certain gifts, beautiful tools…
She knew she was good; once, she had been autonomous, strong, inner-directed, and she wanted to feel that way again.
Saul had an outwardly healthy body, and intellectually a fine mind, yet there were times when, through no fault of his own, he could not control his existence. What then did this say about God and the ineffable soul, the self? That so much could be skewed by mere chemicals…
Kaye had never been too strong on the God thing, on faith; the crime scenes in Brooklyn had stretched her belief in any sort of fairy-tale religion; stretched it, then broke it.
But the last of her spiritual conceits, the last tie she had to a world of ideals, was that you controlled your own behavior.
She heard someone come into the lab. The light was switched on. The broken chair scraped as she turned. It was Kirn.
“ Hereyou are!” Kim said, her face pale. “We’ve been looking all over for you.”
“Where else would I be?” Kaye asked.
Kim held out a portable lab phone. “It’s from your house.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Atlanta
“Mr. Dicken, this isn’t a baby. It wasn’t ever going to be a baby.”
Dicken looked over the photos and analysis of the Crown City miscarriage. Tom Scarry’s battered old steel desk sat at the end of a small room with pale blue walls, filled with computer terminals, adjacent to Scarry’s viral pathology lab in Building 15. The top of the desk was littered with computer disks, photos, and folios filled with papers. Somehow, Scarry managed to keep his projects sorted; he was one of the best tissue analysts in the CDC.
“What is it, then?” Dicken asked.
“It may have started out as a fetus, but nearly all the internal organs are severely underdeveloped. The spine hasn’t closed — spina bifida would be one interpretation, but in this case, there’s a whole series of nerves branching to a follicular mass in what would otherwise be the abdominal cavity.”
“Like an ovary. But containing only about a dozen eggs.”
Dicken drew his brows together. Scarry’s pleasant drawl matched a friendly face, but his smile was sad.
“So — it would have been a female?” Dicken asked.
“Christopher, this fetus miscarried because it is the most screwed up arrangement of cellular material I’ve ever seen. Abortion was a major act of mercy. It might have been female — but something went very wrong in the first week of the pregnancy.”
“I don’t understand—”
“The head is severely malformed. The brain is just a nubbin of tissue at the end of a shortened spinal cord. There is no jaw. The eye sockets are open at the side, like a kitten’s. The skull looks more like a lemur’s, what there is of it. No brain function would have been possible after the first three weeks. No metabolism could have been established after the first month. This thing functions as an organ drawing sustenance, but it has no kidneys, a very small liver, no stomach or intestines to speak of…A kind of heart, but again, very small. The limbs are just little fleshy buttons. It’s not much more than an ovary with a blood supply. Where in hell did this come from?”
“Crown City Hospital,” Dicken said. “But don’t spread that around.”
“My lips are sealed. How many of these have they had?”
“A few,” Dicken said.
“I’d start looking for a major source of teratogens. Forget thalidomide. Whatever caused this is pure nightmare.”
“Yeah,” Dicken said, and pressed the bridge of his nose with his fingers. “One last question.”
“Fine. Then get it out of here and let me get back to a normal existence.”
“You say it has an ovary. Would the ovary function?”
“The eggs were mature, if that’s what you’re asking. And one follicle appears to have ruptured. I said that in my analysis…” He nipped back sheets from the paper and pointed, impatient and a little cross, more with Nature than him, Dicken thought. “Right here.”
“So we have a fetus that ovulated before it was miscarried?” Dicken asked, incredulous.
“I doubt it got that far.”
“We don’t have the placenta,” Dicken said.
“If you get one, don’t bring it to me,” Scarry said. “I’m spooked enough. Oh — one more thing. Dr. Branch dropped off her tissue assay this morning.” Scarry pushed a single paper across the desk, lifting it delicately to clear the other material.
Dicken picked it up. “Christ.”
“You think SHEVA could have done this?” Scarry asked, tapping the analysis.
Branch had found high levels of SHEVA particles in the fetal tissue — well over a million particles per gram. The particles had suffused the fetus, or whatever they might call the bizarre growth; only in the follicular mass, the ovary, were they virtually absent. She had posted a small note at the end of the page.
These particles contain less than 80,000 nucleotides of single-stranded RNA. They all are associated with an unidentified 12,000+ kilodalton protein complex in the host cell nucleus. The viral genome demonstrates substantial homology with SHEVA. Talk to my office. I’d like to obtain fresher samples for accurate PCR and sequencing.
“Well?” Scarry persisted. “Is this caused by SHEVA or not?”
“Maybe,” Dicken said.
“Does Augustine have what he needs now?”
Word spread fast at 1600 Clifton Road.
“Not a peep to anyone, Tom,” Dicken said. “I mean it.”
“No suh, massa.” Scarry zipped his lips with a finger.
Dicken shuffled the report and the analysis into a folder and glanced at his watch. It was six o’clock. There was a possibility Augustine was still in his office.
Six more hospitals in the Atlanta area, part of Dicken’s network, were reporting high rates of miscarriage, with similar fetal remnants. More and more were testing for, and finding, SHEVA in the mothers.
That was something the surgeon general would definitely want to know.
Long Island, New York
A bright yellow fire truck and a red Emergency Response vehicle had parked in the gravel driveway. Their rotating red and blue lights flashed and brightened the afternoon shadows on the old house. Kaye drove past the fire truck and parked behind the ambulance, eyes wide and palms damp, her heart in her throat. She kept whispering, “God, Saul. Not now.”
Clouds blew in from the east, breaking up the afternoon sun, raising a gray wall behind the brilliant emergency lights. She opened the car door, stepped out, and stared at two firemen, who blandly returned her look. A slow and warmer breeze gently combed her hair. The air smelled damp, close; there might be thunder this evening.
A young paramedic approached. He looked professionally concerned and held a clipboard. “Mrs. Madsen?”
“Lang,” she said. “Kaye Lang. Saul’s wife.” Kaye turned to gather her wits and saw for the first time the police car parked on the other side of the fire truck.
“Mrs. Lang, we received a call from a Miss Caddy Wilson—”
Caddy pushed open the front screen door and stood on the porch, followed by a police officer. The door slammed wood-enly behind them, a familiar, friendly sound suddenly made ominous.
“Caddy!” Kaye waved. Caddy made a little run down the steps, clutching her light cotton skirt in front of her, wisps of pale blond hair flying. She was in her late forties, thin, with strong wiry forearms and manly hands, a handsome stalwart face, large brown eyes that now looked both concerned for Kaye and a little panicked, like a horse about to bolt.
“Kaye! I came to the house this afternoon, like always—”
The paramedic interrupted her. “Mrs. Lang, your husband is not in the house. We haven’t found him.”
Caddy stared at the medic resentfully, as if, of all people, this was without a doubt her story to tell. “The house is an incredible sight, Kaye. There’s blood—”
“Mrs. Lang, perhaps you should talk to the police first—”
“Please!” Caddy shrieked at the paramedic. “Can’t you see she’s scared?”
Kaye took Caddy’s hand and made a small shushing noise. Caddy wiped her eyes with her wrist and nodded, swallowing twice. The police officer joined them, tall and bull-bellied, skin deep black, hair swept neatly back above a high forehead and a patrician face; wise, tired eyes with golden sclera. She thought he was really quite striking, much more prepossessing than the others in the yard.
“Missus…” The officer began.
“Lang,” the paramedic offered.
“Missus Lang, your house is in something of a state—”
Kaye started up the porch steps. Let them work out the jurisdiction and procedure. She had to see what Saul had done before she could have any idea as to where Saul might be, what he might have done since…Might be doing even now.
The police officer followed. “Does your husband have a history of self-mutilation, Missus Lang?”
“No,” Kaye said through clenched teeth. “He bites his fingernails.”
The house was quiet but for the tread of another police officer descending the stairs. Someone had opened the living room windows. White curtains billowed over the overstuffed couch. The second officer, in his fifties, thin and pale, slouched at the shoulders, his face seamed with perpetual worry, looked more like a mortician or a coroner. He started to talk, his words distant and liquid, but Kaye pushed up the stairs past him. The bull-bellied man followed.
Saul had hit their bedroom hard. The drawers had been pulled out and his clothes were scattered everywhere. She knew without really thinking that he had been searching for the right piece of underwear, the right pair of socks, appropriate to some special occasion.
An ashtray on the window sill was filled with cigarette butts. Camels, unfiltered. The hard stuff. Kaye hated the smell of tobacco.
The bathroom had been lightly sprayed with blood. The tub was half-filled with pinkish water, and bloody footprints went from the yellow bath mat across the black and white checkerboard tile to the old teak floor and then into the bedroom, where they stopped showing traces of blood.
“Theatrical,” she murmured, glancing up at the mirror, the thin spray of blood over the glass and across the sink. “God. Not now, Saul.”
“Do you have any idea where he might have gone?” the bull-bellied officer asked. “Did he do this to himself, or is there someone else involved?”
This was certainly the worst she had seen. He must have been concealing the worst of his mood, or the break had come with vicious speed, occluding every bit of sense and responsibility. He had once described the arrival of an intense depression as long dark blankets of shadow dragged by slack-faced devils in rumpled clothing.
“It’s just him, just him,” she said, and coughed into her fist. Surprisingly, she did not feel sick. She saw the bed, neatly made, white cover drawn up and folded precisely under the pillows, Saul trying to make order and sense out of this darkened world, and she stopped by a small circle of splatted drops of blood on the wood beside her nightstand. “Just him.”
“Mr. Madsen can be quite sad at times,” Caddy said from the bedroom door, long-fingered hand pressed flat and white against the dark maple jamb.
“Does your husband have a history of suicide attempts?” the medic asked.
“Yes,” she said. “Never this bad.”
“Looks like he cut his wrists in the tub,” said the sad thin police officer. He nodded sagely. Kaye decided she would call him Mr. Death, and the other Mr. Bull. Mr. Bull and Mr. Death could tell just as much about the house as she could, possibly more.
“He got out of the tub,” Mr. Bull said, “and…”
“Bound his wrists again, like a Roman, trying to draw out his time on Earth,” Mr. Death said. He smiled apologetically at Kaye. “Sorry, ma’am.”
“And then he must have gotten dressed and left the house.”
Just so, Kaye thought. They were so right.
Kaye sat on the bed, wishing she were the fainting type, blank this scene here and now, let others take charge.
“Mrs. Lang, we might be able to find your husband—”
“He did not kill himself,” she said. She waved her hand at the blood, pointed loosely toward the hall and the bathroom. She was looking for a tiny shred of hope, thought for a moment she had grasped it. “This was bad, but he…as you said, he stopped himself.”
“Missus Lang—” Mr. Bull began.
“We should find him and get him to the hospital,” she said, and with this sudden possibility, that he might still be saved, her voice broke and she began to quietly weep.
“The boat’s gone,” Caddy said. Kaye stood up abruptly and walked to the window. She knelt on the window seat and looked down on the small dock thrusting from the rocky sea wall into the gray-green water of the sound. The small sailboat was not at its moorage.
Kaye shook as if with chill. She could slowly accept now that this was going to be it. Bravery and denial could no longer compete with blood and things out of place, Saul gone awry, in the control of Sad/Bad, blanketed Saul.
I can’t see it,” Kaye said shrilly, looking out across the choppy water. “It has a red sail. It’s not out there.”
They asked her for a description, a photograph, and she provided both. Mr. Bull went downstairs, out the front door, to the police car. Kaye followed him part of the way and turned to go into the living room. She was unwilling to stay in the bedroom. Mr. Death and the paramedic stayed to ask more questions, but she had very few answers. A police photographer and a coroner’s assistant went up the stairs with their equipment.
Caddy watched it all with owlish concern and then cattish fascination. Finally, she hugged Kaye and said some more words and Kaye said, automatically, that she would be fine. Caddy wanted to leave but could not bring herself to do so.
At that moment, the orange cat Crickson came into the room. Kaye picked him up and stroked him, suddenly wondered if he had seen, then stooped and slipped him gently back on the floor.
The minutes seemed to last for hours. Daylight faded and rain spatted against the living room windows. Finally, Mr. Bull returned, and it was Mr. Death’s turn to leave.
Caddy watched, made guilty by her horror and fascination.
“We can’t clean this up for you,” Mr. Bull told her. He handed her a business card. “These folks have a little business. They clean up messes like this. It’s not cheap, but they do a good job. Husband and wife. Christians. Nice people.”
Kaye nodded and took the card. She did not want the house now; thought about just locking the door and leaving it.
Caddy was the last to go. “Where you going to spend the night, Kaye?” she asked.
“I don’t know,” Kaye said.
“You’re welcome to come stay with us, dear.”
“Thank you,” Kaye said. “There’s a cot at the lab. I think I’ll sleep there tonight. Could you take care of the cats? I can’t…think about them now.”
“Of course. I’ll round them up. You want me to come back?” Caddy asked. “Clean up after…you know? The others are done?”
“I’ll call,” Kaye said, close to breaking down again. Caddy hugged her with painful intensity and then went to find the cats. She left ten minutes later and Kaye was alone in the house.
No note, no message, nothing.
The phone rang. She did not answer for a time, but it continued to ring, and the answering machine had been turned off, perhaps by Saul. Perhaps it was Saul, she realized with a shock, hating herself for having briefly lost hope, and instantly picked up the phone.
“Is this Kaye?”
“Yes.” Hoarsely. She cleared her throat.
“Mrs. Lang, this is Randy Foster at AKS Industries. I need to speak with Saul. About the deal. Is he home?”
“No, Mr. Foster.”
Pause. Awkward. What to say? Who to tell just now? And who was Randy Foster, and what deal?
“Sorry. Tell him we’ve just finished with our lawyers and the contracts are done. They’ll be delivered tomorrow. We’ve scheduled a conference call for four P.M. I look forward to meeting you, Mrs. Lang.”
She mumbled something and put the phone down. For a moment she thought now she would break, a really big break. Instead, slowly and with great deliberation, she went back up the stairs and packed a large suitcase with the clothes she might need for the next week.
Then she left the house and drove the car to EcoBacter. The building was mostly empty by dinnertime, and she was not hungry. She used her key to open the small side office where Saul had placed a cot and blankets, then hesitated a moment before opening the door. She pushed it slowly inward.
The small windowless room was dark and empty and cool. It smelled clean. Everything in order.
Kaye undressed and got under the beige wool blanket and crisp white sheets.
That morning, early, before dawn, she awoke in a sweat, shivering, not ill, but horrified by the specter of her new self, a widow .
The reporters finally found Mitch at Heathrow. Sam sat across from him at a small table in the court around the open seafood bar while five of them, two females and three males, clustered just outside a low barrier of plastic plants surrounding the eating area and peppered him with questions. Curious and irritated travelers watched from the other tables, or brushed past carting their luggage.
“Were you the first to confirm they were prehistoric?” the older woman asked, camera clutched in one hand. She selfconsciously pushed back wisps of hennaed hair, her eyes twitching left and right, finally zeroing in on Mitch for his answer.
Mitch picked at his shrimp cocktail.
“Do you think they have any connection with Pasco man in the U.S.A.?” asked one of the males, obviously hoping to provoke.
Mitch could not tell the three men apart. They were all in their thirties, dressed in rumpled black suits, carrying steno pads and digital recorders.
“That was your last debacle, wasn’t it?”
“Were you deported from Austria?” another man asked.
“How much did the dead climbers pay you to keep their secret? What were they going to charge for the mummies?”
Mitch leaned back and stretched ostentatiously, then smiled. The hennaed female duly recorded this. Sam shook his head, hunkered down as if under a rain cloud.
“Ask me about the infant,” Mitch said.
“Ask me about the baby. The normal baby.”
“How many sites did you plunder?” Henna-hair asked cheerily.
“We found the baby in the cave with its parents,” Mitch said, and stood, pushing back the cast-iron chair with an ugly scraping sound. “Dad, let’s go.”
“Fine,” Sam said.
“Whose cave? The cavemen’s cave?” the middle male asked.
“Caveman and cavewoman,” the younger woman corrected.
“Do you think they kidnapped it?” Henna-hair asked, licking her lips.
“Kidnapped a baby, killed it, carried it for food perhaps into the Alps…Got caught in a storm, died!” Left-side-male enthused.
“What a story that would be!” Number-three-male, on the left, said.
“Ask the scientists,” Mitch said, and worked his way to the counter on crutches to pay the check.
“They give out news like it was holy dispensation!” the younger woman shouted after them.
Dicken sat beside Mark Augustine in the office of the surgeon general, Doctor Maxine Kirby. Kirby was of medium height, stout, with discerning almond eyes set in chocolate skin that bore only a few character lines and belied her six decades; those lines had deepened in the last hour, however.
It was eleven P.M. and they had gone through the details twice now. For the third time, the laptop automatically cycled through its slide show of charts and definitions, but only Dicken was watching.
Frank Shawbeck, deputy director of the National Institutes of Health, returned to the room through the heavy gray door after having made a visit to the lavatory down the hall. Everyone knew that Kirby did not like others using her private washroom.
The surgeon general stared up at the ceiling and Augustine gave Dicken a small, quick scowl, concerned that the presentation had not been convincing.
She lifted her hand. “Shut that down, please, Christopher. My brain is spinning.” Dicken hit the ESCAPE key on the laptop and turned off the overhead projector. Shawbeck turned up the office lights and shoved his hands into his pockets. He took a position of loyal support on the corner of Kirby’s broad maple desk.
“These domestic stats,” Kirby said, “all from area hospitals — that’s a strong point, it’s happening in the neighborhood…and we’re still getting reports from other cities, other states.”
“All the time,” Augustine confirmed. “We’re trying to be as quiet as we can, but—”
“They’re getting suspicious.” Kirby grabbed hold of her index finger and stared at a chipped, painted nail. The nail was teal blue. The surgeon general was sixty-one years old, but she wore teenager’s enamel on her nails. “It’ll be on the news any minute now. SHEVA is more than just a curiosity. It’s the same as Herod’s flu. Herod’s causes mutations and miscarriages. By the way, that name…”
“Maybe a bit on the nose,” Shawbeck said. “Who made it up?”
“I did,” Augustine said.
Shawbeck was acting watchdog. Dicken had seen him play the adversary with Augustine before, and never knew how genuine the role was.
“Well, Frank, Mark, is this my ammunition?” Kirby asked. Before they could answer, she made an approving and speculative face, pouching out her lips, and said, “It’s damned scary.”
“It is that,” Augustine said.
“But it doesn’t make any sense,” Kirby said. “Something pops out of our genes and makes monster babies…with a single huge ovary? Mark, what in hell ?”
“We don’t know what the etiology is, ma’am,” Augustine said. “We’re way behind, down to minimum staff on any single project as it is.”
“We’re asking for more money, Mark. You know that. But the mood in Congress is ugly. I do not want to be caught in anything like a false alarm.”
“Biologically, the work is top notch. Politically, this is a ticking bomb,” Augustine said. “If we don’t go public soon—”
“Damn it, Mark,” Shawbeck said, “we have no direct connection! People who get this flu — all of their tissues are suffused with SHEVA, for weeks after! What if the viruses are old and weak and don’t have any oomph? They express because, what,” he waved his hand, “there’s less ozone and we’re all getting more UV or something, like herpes coming out in a lip sore? Maybe they’re harmless, maybe they have nothing to do with the miscarriages.”
“I don’t think it’s coincidence,” Kirby said. “The figures look too close. What I want to know is, why doesn’t the body eat up these viruses, shed them?”
“Because they’re released continuously for months,” Dicken said. “Whatever the body does with them, they’re still being expressed by different tissues.”
“We’re not sure yet,” Augustine said. “We’re looking at bone marrow and lymph.”
“There’s absolutely no sign of viremia,” Dicken said. “No swelling of the spleen and lymph nodes. Viruses all over, but no extreme reaction.” He rubbed his cheek nervously. “I’d like to go over something again.”
The surgeon general returned her gaze to him, and Shaw-beck and Augustine, seeing her focus, grew quiet.
Dicken pulled his chair forward a couple of inches. “The women get SHEVA from steady male partners. Women who are single — women without committed partners — don’t get SHEVA.”
“That’s stupid,” Shawbeck said, his face curled in disgust. “How in hell does a disease know whether a woman is shacked up with somebody or not?” It was Kirby’s turn to frown. Shawbeck apologized. “But you know what I mean,” he said defensively.
“It’s in the stats,” Dicken countered. “We checked this out very thoroughly. It’s transmitted from males to their female partners, over a fairly long exposure. Homosexual men do not transmit it to their partners. If there is no heterosexual contact, it is not passed along. It’s a sexually transmitted disease, but a selective one.”
“Christ,” Shawbeck said, whether in doubt or awe, Dicken could not tell.
“We’ll accept that for now,” the surgeon general said. “What’s made SHEVA come out now?”
“Obviously, SHEVA and humans have an old relationship,” Dicken said. “It might be the human equivalent of a lysogenic phage. In bacteria, lysogenic phages express themselves when the bacteria are subjected to stimuli that could be interpreted as life-threatening — stress, as it were. Maybe SHEVA reacts to things that cause stress in humans. Overcrowding. Social conditions. Radiation.”
Augustine shot him a warning glance.
“We’re a hell of a lot more complicated than bacteria,” he concluded.
“You think SHEVA is expressing now because of overpopulation?” Kirby asked.
“Perhaps, but that isn’t my point,” Dicken said. “Lysogenic phages can sometimes serve a symbiotic function. They help bacteria adapt to new conditions and even new sources of nutrition or opportunity by swapping genes. What if SHEVA serves a useful function in us?”
“By keeping the population down?” Shawbeck ventured skeptically. “The stress of overpopulation causes us to express little abortion experts? Wow.”
“Maybe, I don’t know,” Dicken said, nervously wiping his hands on his pants. Kirby saw this, looked up coolly, a little embarrassed for him.
“Who does know?” she asked.
“Kaye Lang,” Dicken said.
Augustine made a small gesture with his hand, unseen by the surgeon general; Dicken was on very thin ice. They had not discussed this earlier.
“She does seem to have gotten a leg up on SHEVA before everybody else,” Kirby said. Her eyes wide, she leaned forward over her desk and gave him a challenging look. “But Christopher, how did you know that…Way back in August, in the Republic of Georgia? Your hunter’s intuition?”
“I had read her papers,” Dicken said. “What she wrote about was intrinsically fascinating.”
“I’m curious. Why did Mark send you to Georgia and Turkey?” Kirby asked.
“I seldom send Christopher anywhere,” Augustine said. “He has a wolf’s instincts when it comes to finding our kind of prey.”
Kirby kept her gaze on Dicken.
“Don’t be shy, Christopher. Mark had you out scouting for a scary disease. I admire that — like preventive medicine applied to politics. And in Georgia, you encountered Ms. Kaye Lang, by accident?”
“There’s a CDC office in Tbilisi,” Augustine said, trying to be helpful.
“An office that Mr. Dicken did not visit, even for a social call,” the surgeon general said, brows coming together.
“I went looking for her. I admired her work.”
“And you said nothing to her.”
Kirby sat back in her seat and looked to Augustine. “Can we bring her in?” she asked.
“She’s having some problems,” Augustine said.
“What kind of problems?” she asked.
“Her husband is missing, probably a suicide,” Augustine said.
“That was over a month ago,” Dicken said.
“There seems to be more trouble in store. Before he disappeared, her husband sold their company out from under her, to pay off an investment of venture capital she apparently did not know about.”
Dicken had not heard about this. Obviously, Augustine had been conducting his own probe on Kaye Lang.
“Jesus,” Shawbeck said. “So, she’s what, a wreck, we leave her alone until she heals?”
“If we need her, we need her,” Kirby said. “Gentlemen, I don’t like the feel of this one. Call it a woman’s intuition, having to do with ovaries and such. I want all the expert advice we can get. Mark?”
“I’ll call her,” Augustine said, giving in with uncharacteristic speed. He had read the breeze, saw the windsock swinging; Dicken had won a point.
“Do that,” Kirby said, and swiveled in her chair to face Dicken dead on. “Christopher, for the life of me, I still think you’re hiding something. What is it?”
Dicken smiled and shook his head. “Nothing solid.”
“Oh?” Kirby raised her eyebrows. “The best virus man in the NCID? Mark says he relies on your nose.”
“Sometimes Mark is too damned candid,” Augustine said.
“Yeah,” Kirby said. “Christopher should be candid, too. What’s your nose say?”
Dicken was a little dismayed by the surgeon general’s question, and reluctant to show his cards while his hand was still weak. “SHEVA is very, very old,” he reiterated.
“I’m not sure it’s a disease.”
Shawbeck released a quiet snort of dubiety.
“Go on,” Kirby encouraged.
“It’s an old part of human biology. It’s been in our DNA since long before humans existed. Maybe it’s doing what it’s supposed to do.”
“Kill babies?” Shawbeck suggested tartly.
“Regulate some larger, species-level function.”
“Let’s go with what’s solid,” Augustine suggested quickly. “SHEVA is Herod’s. It causes gross birth defects and miscarriages.”
“The connection is strong enough for me,” Kirby said. “I think I can sell the president and Congress.”
“I agree,” Shawbeck said. “With some deep concerns, however. I wonder if all this mystery could catch up to us down the road a ways and bite us in the butt.”
Dicken felt some relief. He had almost blown the game but had managed to hold back an ace to play later; traces of SHEVA from the corpses in Georgia. The results had just come back from Maria Konig at the University of Washington.
“I’m seeing the president tomorrow,” the surgeon general said. “I have ten minutes with him. Get me the domestic stats on paper, ten copies, full color.”
SHEVA would soon become an official crisis. In the politics of health, a crisis tended to be resolved using familiar science and bureaucratically tried and true routines. Until the situation showed its true strangeness, Dicken did not think anybody would believe his conclusions. He could hardly believe them himself.
Outside, under felt-colored skies, a dull November afternoon, Augustine opened the door to the government Lincoln and said, over the roof, “Whenever anyone asks you what you really think, what do you do?”
“Go with the flow,” Dicken said.
“You got it, boy genius.”
Augustine drove. Despite Dicken’s near fumble, Augustine seemed happy enough with the meeting. “She’s only got six weeks left before she retires. She’s taking my name in to the White House chief of staff as a suggested replacement.”
“Congratulations,” Dicken said.
“With Shawbeck as a very close backup,” Augustine added. “But this could do it, Christopher. This could be the ticket.”
New York City
Kaye sat in a dark brown leather chair in the richly paneled office and wondered why highly paid East Coast lawyers chose such elegantly somber trappings. Her fingers pressed the brass heads of the upholstery nails on the arm.
The lawyer for AKS Industries, Daniel Munsey, stood beside the desk of J. Robert Orbison, her family’s lawyer for thirty years.
Her father and mother had died five years before, and Kaye had not paid Orbison’s retainer. With Saul’s disappearance and the all-too-stunning news from AKS and the corporate attorney for EcoBacter, now sucking up to AKS, she had gone to Orbison in a state of shock. She had found him to be a decent and caring fellow, who said he would charge no more than he had ever charged Mr. and Mrs. Lang in their thirty years of business.
Orbison was thin as a rail, hook-nosed, bald, with age spots all over his head and down his cheeks, whiskers on his moles, loose wet lips, bleary blue eyes, but he dressed in a beautiful custom-fitted pinstripe suit with wide lapels and a tie that almost filled the V of his vest.
Munsey was in his early thirties, darkly handsome, soft-spoken. He wore a smooth tobacco-colored wool suit and knew biotech almost as well as she did; in some ways, better.
“AKS may not be responsible for the failures of Mr. Mad-sen,” Orbison said in a strong, gentle voice, “but under the circumstances, we believe your company owes Ms. Lang due consideration.”
“Monetary consideration?” Munsey lifted his hands in puzzlement. “Saul Madsen could not convince his investors to keep funding him. Apparently, he had focused on a deal with a research group in the Republic of Georgia.” Munsey shook his head sadly. “My clients bought out the investors. Then- price was more than fair, considering what’s happened since.”
“Kaye put a lot of work into the company. Compensation for intellectual property—”
“She has contributed greatly to science, not to any product a potential purchaser could possibly market.”
“Then surely, fair compensation for contributing to the value of EcoBacter as a name.”
“Ms. Lang was not a legal co-owner. Saul Madsen apparently never regarded his wife as more than a managerial employee.”
“It is a regrettable lapse that Ms. Lang did not inquire,” Orbison admitted. “She trusted her husband.”
“We believe she’s entitled to whatever assets remain in the estate. EcoBacter is simply no longer one of those assets.”
Kaye looked away.
Orbison looked down at the glass-covered desktop. “Ms. Lang is a famous biological scientist, Mr. Munsey.”
“Mr. Orbison, Ms. Lang, AKS Industries buys and sells going concerns. With Saul Madsen’s death, EcoBacter is no longer a going concern. There are no valuable patents in its name, no relationships with other companies or institutions that can’t be renegotiated outside our control. The one product that could be marketable, a treatment for cholera, is actually owned by a so-called employee. Mr. Madsen was remarkably generous with his contracts. We’ll be lucky if the physical assets recoup ten percent of our costs. Ms. Lang, we can’t even make payroll for this month. Nobody’s buying.”
“We believe that given five months, using her reputation, Ms. Lang could assemble a team of solid financial backers and restart EcoBacter. Employee loyalty is very high. Many have signed letters of intent to stay with Kaye and help rebuild.”
Munsey raised his hands again: no go. “My clients follow their instincts. Perhaps Mr. Madsen should have chosen another kind of firm to sell his company to. With all respect to Ms. Lang, and nobody holds her in higher esteem than I do, she has performed no work of immediate commercial interest. Biotech is a highly competitive business, Ms. Lang, as you know.”
“The future lies in what we can create, Mr. Munsey,” Kaye said.
Munsey shook his head sadly. “You’d have my own investment in a flash, Ms. Lang. But I’m a softy. The rest of the companies…” He let his words trail off.
“Thank you, Mr. Munsey,” Orbison said, and made a tent with his hands, on which he rested his long nose.
Munsey seemed nonplussed by this dismissal. “I’m very sorry, Ms. Lang. We’re still having difficulty with our completion bond and insurance negotiations because of the way Mr. Madsen vanished.”
“He’s not coming back, if that’s what you’re worried about,” Kaye said, her voice breaking. “They found him, Mr. Munsey. He’s not going to come back and have a good laugh with us and tell me how to get on with my life.”
Munsey stared at her.
She could not stop. The words poured out. “They found him on the rocks in Long Island Sound. He was in terrible shape. I had to identify him from our wedding ring.”
“I’m deeply sorry. I hadn’t heard,” Munsey said.
“The final identification was made this morning,” Orbison told him quietly.
“I’m so very sorry, Ms. Lang.”
Munsey backed out and closed the door behind him.
Orbison watched her silently.
Kaye wiped her eyes with the backs of her hands. “I had no idea how much he meant to me, how much we had become one brain, working together. I thought I had my own mind and my own life…and now, I find out different. I feel less than half a human being. He’s dead.”
“This afternoon I’m going back to EcoBacter and I’m going to hold a little wake with all the people there. I’m going to tell them it’s time to find work, and that I’ll be there right alongside them.”
“You’re smart and young. You’ll make it, Kaye.”
“I know I’ll make it!” she said fiercely. She hit her knee with her fist. “Goddamn him. The…bastard. The creep. He had no goddamn right!”
“No goddamn right at all,” Orbison said. “It was a cheap and dirty trick to pull on someone like you.” His eyes brightened with the kind of anger and sympathy he might have carried into a courtroom, firing up his emotions like a rusty Coleman lantern.
“Yeah,” she said, staring wildly around the room. “Oh, God, it is going to be so hard . You know what the worst part is?”
“What, dear?” Orbison asked.
“Part of me is glad ” Kaye said, and she began to weep.
“Now, now,” Orbison said, an old and weary man once more.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Atlanta
Neandertal mummies,” Augustine said. He strode across Dicken’s small office and shoved a folded paper onto Dicken’s desk. “Time marches on. And Newsweek, too.”
Dicken pushed aside a set of copies of infant and fetal postmortems for the last two months from Northside Hospital in Atlanta and picked up the paper. It was the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and the headline read “Ice Couple Confirmed Prehistoric.”
He skimmed the article with little interest, just to be polite, and looked up at Augustine.
“It’s getting hot in Washington,” the director said. “They’ve asked me to assemble a taskforce.”
“You’re in charge?”
“Good news, then,” Dicken said warily, sensing storms.
Augustine looked at him, deadpan. “We used the statistics you put together and it scared the hell out of the president. The surgeon general showed him one of the miscarriages. A picture, of course. She says she’s never seen him so upset over a national health issue. He wants us to go public right away with the full details. ‘Babies are dying,’ he says. ‘If we can fix it, go fix it, and now.’ “
Dicken waited patiently.
“Dr. Kirby thinks this could be a full-time operation. Could bring in additional appropriations, even more funds for international efforts.”
Dicken prepared to appear sympathetic.
“They don’t want to distract me by appointing me to fill her shoes.” Augustine’s eyes became beady, hard.
“Got the nod. But the president can make his own pick. They’ll hold a press conference on Herod’s flu tomorrow. ‘All-out war on an international killer.’ Better than polio, and politically it’s a slam dunk, unlike AIDS.”
“Kiss the babies and make them well?”
Augustine did not find that funny. “Cynicism doesn’t become you, Christopher. You’re the idealistic type, remember?”
“I blame the charged atmosphere,” Dicken said.
“Yeah. I’ve been told to put together my team for Kirby’s and Shawbeck’s approval by noon tomorrow. You’re my first choice, of course. I’ll be conferring with some folks at NIH and some scientific headhunters from New York this evening. Every agency director will want a piece of this. It’s my job in part to feed them things they can do before they try to take over the whole problem. Can you get in touch with Kaye Lang and tell her she’s going to be drafted?”
“Yes,” Dicken said. His heart felt funny. He was short of breath. “I’d like to have a few picks of my own.”
“Not a whole army, I hope.”
“Not at first,” Dicken said.
“I need a team” Augustine said, “not a loose bunch of fief-doms. No prima donnas.”
Dicken smiled. “A few divas?”
“If they sing in key. ‘Star Spangled Banner’ time. I want a background check for any sort of bad smell. Martha and Karen in human resources can arrange that for us. No flag burners, no hotheads. No fringies.”
“Of course,” Dicken said. “But that would leave me out.”
“Boy genius.” Augustine wet his finger and made a mark in the air. “I’m allowed just one. Government issue. Be in my office at six. Bring some Pepsi and Dixie cups and a tub of ice from the labs, clean ice, okay?”
Long Island, New York
Three moving vans stood outside the front entrance of EcoBacter as Kaye parked her car. She walked past two men dollying a stainless-steel lab refrigerator past the reception desk. Another hefted a microplate counter, and behind him, a fourth carried the body of a PC. EcoBacter was being nibbled to death by ants.
Not that it mattered. It had no blood left anyway.
She went to her office, which had not been touched yet, and closed the door forcefully behind her. Sitting in the blue office chair — worth about two hundred bucks, very comfortable — she switched on her desktop computer and logged in to her account on the International Association of Biotech Firms job board. What her agent in Boston had told her was true. At least fourteen universities and seven companies were interested in her services. She scrolled through the offers. Tenure track, start and ran a small virology research lab in New Hampshire…professor of biological science at a private college in California, a Christian school, Southern Baptist…
She smiled. An offer from UCLA School of Medicine to work with an established professor of genetics — unnamed — in a research group focusing on inherited diseases and their connection with provirus activation. She marked that one.
After fifteen minutes, she leaned back and rubbed her forehead dramatically. She had always hated looking for work. But she could not let her momentum be diverted; she had not won any prizes yet, might not for years to come. It was time to take charge of her life and move out of the shallows.
She had marked three of the twenty-one offers as worth looking into, and already she was exhausted, her armpits wet with sweat.
With a sense of foreboding, she checked her e-mail. It was there that she found a curt message from Christopher Dicken at the NCID. His name sounded familiar; then she remembered, and swore at the monitor, the message it bore, the way her life was going, the whole ugly ball of wax.
Debra Kirn knocked on the transparent glass of the door to her office. Kaye swore again, very loudly, and Kim peeked in, eyebrows arched.
“You yelling at me?” she asked innocently.
“I’ve been asked to join a team at the CDC,” Kaye said, and slammed her hand on the desk.
“Government work. Great health plan. Freedom to do your own research on your own schedule.”
“Saul hated working in a government lab.”
“Saul was a rugged individualist,” Kim said, and sat on the edge of Kaye’s desk. “They’re cleaning out my equipment now. I figure there’s nothing left forme to do here. I’ve got my photos and disks and…Christ, Kaye.”
Kaye stood up and hugged her as Kim broke into sobs. “I don’t know what I’ll do with the mice. Ten thousand dollars worth of mice!”
“We’ll find a lab that will hold them for you.”
“How can we transport them? They’re full of Vibrio\ I’ll have to sacrifice them here before they take away the sterilization equipment and the incinerator.”
“What do the AKS people say?”
“They’re going to leave them in the containment room. They won’t do anything.”
“They say they’re my patents, they’re my problem.”
Kaye sat again, then thumbed through her Rolodex, hoping for inspiration, but it was a futile gesture. Kim had no doubt she would find work in a month or two, even be able to carry on with her research using SCID mice. But they would have to be new mice, and she might lose six months or a year of her time.
“I don’t know what to tell you,” Kaye said, her voice cracking. She held up her hands, helpless.
Kim thanked Kaye — though for what, Kaye hardly knew. They hugged again, and Kim left.
There was little or nothing she could do for Debra Kim or any of the other ex-employees of EcoBacter. Kaye knew she had been as much a part of this disaster as Saul, as responsible for it through her own ignorance. She hated fund-raising, hated finances, hated looking for jobs. Was there anything practical in this world that she did like to do?
She reread Dicken’s message. She had to find some way to get her wind back, get on her feet, join the race again. A short-term government job might be just what she needed. She could not imagine why Christopher Dicken would want her; she barely remembered the short, plumpish man in Georgia.
Using her cell phone — the lab phone lines had been disconnected — Kaye called Dicken’s number in Atlanta.
”We have test results from forty-two hospitals around the country,” Augustine said to the president of the United States. “All instances of mutation and subsequent rejection of fetuses, of the type we are studying, have been positively associated with the presence of Herod’s flu.”
The president sat at the head of the large polished maple table in the Situation Room in the White House. Tall and portly, his curly head of white hair stood out like a beacon. He had been affectionately dubbed “Q-Tip” during his campaign, converting a derogatory term used by younger women to describe older men into an expression of pride and affection. Flanking him were the vice president; the Speaker of the House, a Democrat; the Senate majority leader, a Republican; Dr. Kirby; Shawbeck; the secretary of Health and Human Services; Augustine; three presidential aides, including the chief of staff; the White House liaison for public health issues; and a number of people Dicken couldn’t identify. It was a very big table, and three hours had been set aside for their discussion.
Dicken had surrendered his cell phone, pager, and palmtop at the security check point before entering, as had all the others. An exploding “cell phone” on a tourist had caused considerable damage in the White House just two weeks before.
He was a little disappointed by the nature of the Situation Room — no state-of-the-art wall screens, computer consoles, threat boards. Just a large, ordinary room with a big table and lots of telephones. Still, the president was listening intently.
“SHEVA is the first confirmed instance of human-to-human transmission of endogenous retrpviruses,” Augustine continued. “Herod’s flu is caused by SHEVA, beyond any shadow of a doubt. In my career in medicine and science, I have never seen anything quite so virulent. If a woman is in the early stages of pregnancy and contracts Herod’s, her fetus — her baby — will eventually abort. Our statistics show a possibility of over ten thousand miscarriages that can already be attributed to this virus. According to our present information, men are the only source of Herod’s flu.”
“Horrible name, that,” the president said.
“An effective name, Mr. President,” Dr. Kirby said.
“Horrible and effective,” the president conceded.
“We do not know what causes expression in males,” Augustine said, “though we suspect some sort of pheromone triggering process, perhaps from female partners. We haven’t a clue how to stop it.” He handed sheets of paper around the table. “Our statisticians tell us that we could see more than two million cases of Herod’s flu in the next year. Two million possible miscarriages.”
The president absorbed this thoughtfully, having heard most of it from Frank Shawbeck and the secretary of Health and Human Services in earlier meetings. Repetition, Dicken thought, was necessary to help lay politicos understand just how much in the dark the scientists really were.
“I still do not understand how something from inside of us could cause so much harm,” the vice president said.
“The devil within,” said the Speaker.
“Similar genetic aberrations can cause cancer,” Augustine said. Dicken felt that was a little broad, and Shawbeck seemed to agree. Now was the moment to deliver his pep talk, as top candidate for the rank of surgeon general, to replace Kirby.
“We are facing a problem new to medicine, no doubt about it,” Shawbeck said. “But we’ve got HIV on the ropes. With that experience behind us, I have confidence that we can make some breakthroughs within six to eight months. We have major research centers all around the country, the world, poised to take on this problem. We have designed a national program that utilizes the resources of the NIH, CDC, and the National Center for Infectious and Allergic Diseases. We divide the pie to consume it more quickly. Never have we, as a nation, been more ready to tackle a problem of this magnitude. As soon as this program is in place, over five thousand researchers in twenty-eight centers will go to work. We will enlist the aid of private companies and researchers around the world. An international program is being planned right now. It all begins here. All we need is a quick and coordinated response from your respective branches, ladies and gentlemen.”
“I don’t see anybody on either side of the House who’ll stand in the way of an extraordinary funding appropriations bill,” the Speaker said.
“Or in the Senate,” added the majority leader. “I’m impressed by the work done so far, but gentlemen, I am not as enthusiastic about our scientific ability as I would like to be. Dr. Augustine, Dr. Shawbeck, it’s taken us over twenty years to even begin to get a handle on AIDS, despite pouring tens of billions of dollars into research. I know. I lost a daughter to AIDS five years ago.” He stared around the table. “If this Herod’s flu is so new to us, how can we expect miracles in six months?”
“Not miracles,” Shawbeck said. “A beginning to understanding.”
“Then how long before we have a treatment ? I ask not for a cure, gentlemen. But a treatment! A vaccine at the very least?”
Shawbeck admitted he did not know.
“We can only proceed as fast as we can harness the power of science,” the vice president said, and looked around the table a little blankly, wondering how this might go over.
“I will say again, I have my doubts,” the majority leader said. “I’m wondering if this is a sign. Maybe it’s time to get our house in order and look deep into our hearts, make peace with our Maker. Quite clearly, we’ve disturbed some powerful forces here.”
The president touched his nose with his finger, his expression serious. Shawbeck and Augustine knew enough to keep quiet.
“Senator,” the president said, “I pray you are wrong.”
As the meeting concluded, Augustine and Dicken followed Shawbeck down a side corridor past basement offices to a rear elevator. Shawbeck was clearly angry. “What hypocrisy,” he muttered. “I hate it when they invoke God.” He shook his arms to loosen the tension in his neck and gave a small, crackling chuckle. “I vote for aliens, myself. Call in theX-Files.”
“I wish I could laugh, Frank,” Augustine said, “but I’m scared out of my wits. We’re in uncharted territory. Half the proteins activated by SHEVA are new to us. We have no idea what they do. This could sink like a rock. I keep asking, Why me, Frank?”
“Because you’re so ambitious , Mark,” Shawbeck said. “You found this particular rock and looked under it.” Shawbeck smiled a little wolfishly. “Not that you had any choice…in the long run.”
Augustine cocked his head to one side. Dicken could smell Augustine’s nervousness. He felt a little numb, himself. Up the wrong creek , he thought, and paddling like sons-of-bitches.
Never one to sit still for long, Mitch spent a day with his parents on their small farm in Oregon, then took Amtrak to Seattle. He rented an apartment on Capitol Hill, dipping into a former retirement fund, and bought an old Buick Skylark for two thousand dollars from a friend in Kirkland.
Fortunately, this far from Innsbruck, the Neandertal mummies aroused only mild curiosity from the press. He gave one interview: to the science editor of the Seattle Times, who then turned around and labeled him a two-time offender against the sober, law-abiding world of archaeology.
A week after his return to Seattle, the Five Tribes Confederation in Kumash County reburied Pasco man in an elaborate ceremony on the banks of the Columbia River in eastern Washington. The Army Corps of Engineers capped the burial ground with concrete to prevent erosion. Scientists protested, but they did not invite Mitch to join the protest.
More than anything, he wanted time to be by himself and think. He could live on his savings for six months, but he doubted that would be anywhere near enough time for his reputation to cool, for him to land a new position.
Mitch sat with cast outstretched near the apartment’s prominent bay window, looking down on pedestrians on Broadway. He could not stop thinking about the mummified baby, the cave, the look on Franco’s face.
He had placed the small glass tubes containing tissue from the mummies in a cardboard box filled with old photographs and stashed the box in the back of a closet. Before he did something with that tissue, he had to be clear in his own mind about what had actually been discovered.
Self-righteous anger was not productive.
He had seen the association. The female’s wound matched the infant’s injury. The female had given birth to the infant, or perhaps aborted it. The male had stayed with them, had taken the newborn and wrapped it in furs even though it had likely been born dead. Had the male assaulted the female? Mitch did not think so. They were in love. He was devoted to her. They were escaping from something. And how did he know all this?
It had nothing to do with ESP or channeling spirits. A substantial part of Mitch’s career had been spent interpreting the ambiguities of archaeological sites. Sometimes the answers came to him in late night musings, or while sitting on rocks, staring up at the clouds or the starry night skies. Rarely the answers arrived in dreams. Interpretation was a science and an art.
Day in, day out, Mitch drew diagrams, wrote short notes, made entries in a small vinyl-bound diary. He pasted a piece of butcher paper on the wall of the small bedroom and drew a map of the cave as he remembered it. He placed paper cutouts of the mummies on the butcher paper. He sat and stared at the butcher paper and the cutouts. He bit his fingernails to the quick.
One day, he drank a six-pack of Coors in the afternoon — one of his favorite hydrators at the end of long days of digging, but this time, without digging, without purpose, just to try something different. He got sleepy and woke up at three in the morning and went for a walk on the street, past a Jack-in-the-Box, a Mexican restaurant, a bookstore, a magazine rack, a Starbuck’s coffee shop.
He returned to the apartment and remembered to check his mail. There was a cardboard box. He carried it up the stairs, shaking it gently.
From a bookstore in New York, he had ordered a back issue of National Geographic with an article on Otzi, the Iceman. The magazine had arrived packed with newspapers.
Devoted. Mitch knew they had been devoted to each other. The way they lay next to each other. The position of the male’s arms. The male had stayed with the female when he could have escaped. What the hell — use the words. The man had stayed with the woman. Neandertals were not subhuman; it was generally recognized now that they had had speech and complex social organizations. Tribes. Nomads, traders, tool-makers, hunters and gatherers.
Mitch tried to imagine what would have driven them to hide in the mountains, in a cave behind the sheets of ice, ten or eleven thousand years ago. Perhaps the last of their kind.
Having given birth to a baby indistinguishable in most respects from a modern infant.
He ripped newspaper wrappings from around the magazine, opened it, and flipped to the multipage spread showing the Alps, the green valleys, the glaciers, the spot where the Iceman had been crudely hacked and chipped from the ice.
The Iceman was now on display in Italy. There had been an international dispute as to where the five-thousand-year-old corpse had been found, and after major research had been completed in Innsbruck, it was Italy that had finally claimed him.
Austria had clear title to the Neandertals. They would be studied at the University of Innsbruck, perhaps in the same facility where they had studied Otzi; stored in deep cold, under controlled humidity, visible through a little window, lying near each other, as they had died.
Mitch closed the magazine and pressed his nose between two fingers, remembering the awful sense of entanglement after he had found Pasco man. I lost my temper. I nearly went to jail. I went to Europe to try something new. I found something new. I got trapped and screwed it up. I have no credibility whatsoever. If I believe these impossible things, what can I do? I am a tomb raider. I am a criminal, a rogue, twice over.
Idly, he smoothed out the crumpled wrappings, taken from the New York Times. His eye lit on an article at the bottom righthand corner of a torn sheet of newsprint. The headline read “Old Crimes, New Dawn in the Republic of Georgia.” Superstition and death in the shadows of the Caucasus. Pregnant women rounded up from three towns, with their husbands or partners, and taken by soldiers and police to dig their own graves outside a town named Gordi. Seven column inches next to an ad for stock trading on the Internet.
As he finished reading the piece, Mitch shook with anger and excitement.
The women had been shot in the stomach. The men had all been shot in the groin and clubbed. The scandal was rocking the Georgian government. The government claimed the murders had occurred under the regime of Gamsakhurdia, who had been ousted in the early nineties, but some of those alleged to have been involved were still in office.
Why the men and women had been murdered was not at all clear. Some residents of Gordi accused the dead women of having consorted with the devil, asserted that their murder was necessary; they were giving birth to children of the devil, and causing other mothers to miscarry.
There was some speculation these women had suffered from an early appearance of Herod’s flu.
Mitch hopped into the kitchen, catching the bare toe at the end of his cast on a chair leg. He swung back and swore, then reached down and pulled from a shallow stack of newspapers in one corner, near the gray, green, and blue plastic recycling bins, the A section of a two-day-old Seattle Times. Headline: an announcement about Herod’s from the president, the surgeon general, and the secretary of Health and Human Services. A sidebar — by the same science editor who had judged Mitch so severely — explained the connection between Herod’s flu and SHEVA. Illness. Miscarriages.
Mitch sat in the worn chair before the window looking out over Broadway and watched his hands tremble.
“I know something nobody else knows,” he said, and clamped his hands on the chair arms. “But I haven’t the slightest idea how I know it, or what in hell to do about it!”
If ever there was a wrong man to have such an incredible insight, to make such a huge and unsubstantiated leap of judgment, it was Mitch Rafelson. Better for all concerned if he started looking for faces on Mars.
It was time to either give up and lay in several dozen cases of Coors, settle for a slow and boring decline, or to hammer together a platform he could stand on, plank by carefully researched scientific plank.
“You asshole,” he said as he stood by the window, scrap of packing newspaper in one hand, front page headlines in the other. “You goddamned…immature…assholel”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Atlanta
Low lazy clouds, thin sunlight neutral through the windows of the office of the director. Mark Augustine stood back from the scrawl of crisscrossing lines and names on the whiteboard and clasped his elbow in his hand, rubbed his nose. At the bottom of the complex outline, below Shawbeck, the director of the NIH, and the as-yet unannounced replacement for Augustine at the CDC, lay the Taskforce for Human Provirus Research: THUPR, pronounced like “super” with a lisp. Augustine hated this name and referred to it always as the Task-force; just the Taskforce.
He swept his hand down the management staircases. “There it is, Frank. I leave here next week and hop on over to Bethesda, at the very bottom of the whiteboard jumble. Thirty-three steps down. This is what it’s come to. Bureaucracy at its finest.”
Frank Shawbeck leaned back in his chair. “It could have been worse. We spent most of the month trimming it down.”
“It could be less of a nightmare. It’s still a nightmare.”
“At least you know who your boss is. I’m answerable to both HHS and the president,” Shawbeck said. The news had arrived two days earlier. Shawbeck would remain atNIH, but was moving up to be director. “Right in the middle of the old cyclone. Frankly, I’m glad Maxine has decided not to step down. She’s a much better lightning rod than I am.”
“Don’t fool yourself,” Augustine said. “She’s a better politician than either of us. We’ll take the bolt when it comes.”
“If it comes,” Shawbeck said, but his face was sober.
“When, Frank,” Augustine repeated. He gave Shawbeck his characteristic grin-grimace. “WHO wants us to coordinate on all outside investigations — and they want to come into the U.S. and run their own tests. Commonwealth of Independent States is dead in the water…Russia lorded it over the republics for too long. No coordination possible there, and Dicken still hasn’t been able to get a peep out of Georgia and Azerbaijan. We won’t be allowed to investigate there until the political situation stabilizes, whatever that means.”
“How bad is it there?” Shawbeck asked.
“Bad, that’s all we know. They aren’t asking for help. They’ve had Herod’s for ten or twenty years, maybe longer…and they’ve been dealing with it in their own way, on a local level.”
Augustine nodded. “They don’t want that to come out, and they certainly don’t want us saying SHEVA originated with them. The pride of fresh nationalism. We’re going to keep it quiet as long as we can, just to have some leverage there.”
“Jesus. What about Turkey?”
“They’ve accepted our help, let our inspectors in, but they won’t let us look along the borders with either Iraq or Georgia.”
“Where’s Dicken now?”
“He’s keeping WHO in the loop?”
“Every step of the way,” Augustine said. “Carbon-copy reports to WHO and UNICEF. The Senate’s screaming again. They’re threatening to delay UN payments until we get a clear picture of who’s paying for what on the world scene. They don’t want us holding the tab on whatever treatment we come up with — and they can’t believe it won’t be us who comes up with a treatment.”
Shawbeck lifted his hand. “It probably will be us. I’ve got meetings scheduled with four CEOs tomorrow — Merck, Schering Plough, Lilly, Bristol-Myers,” he said. “Americol and Euricol next week. They want to talk sharing and subsidies. As if that isn’t enough, Dr. Gallo’s coming in this afternoon — he wants to have access to all of our research.”
“This has nothing to do with Hiy’ Augustine said.
“He claims there might be similar receptor activity. It’s a long shot, but he’s famous and he has a lot of clout on the Hill. And apparently he can help us with the French, now that they’re cooperating again.”
“How are we going to treat this, Frank? Hell, my people have found SHEVA in every ape from green monkeys to highland gorillas.”
“It’s too early for pessimism,” Shawbeck said. “It’s only been three months.”
“We have forty thousand confirmed cases of Herod’s on the Eastern Seaboard alone, Frank! There is nothing on the horizon!” Augustine pounded the whiteboard with his fist.
Shawbeck shook his head and held up both hands, making little shushing noises.
Augustine dropped his voice and let his shoulders slump. Then he picked up a cloth and meticulously wiped the edge of his hand where it had smeared across the ink on the board. “On the bright side, the message is getting out,” he said. “We’ve had two million hits on our Herod’s web site. But did you hear Audrey Korda on Larry King Live last night?”
“No,” Shawbeck said.
“She practically calls men devils incarnate. Says women could get along without us, that we should be put in quarantine… Pffi!”He shot out his hand. “No more sex, no more SHEVA.”
Shawbeck’s eyes glittered like little wet stones. “Maybe she’s right, Mark. Have you seen the surgeon general’s list of extreme measures?”
Augustine ran his hand back through his sandy hair. “I hope to hell it never leaks.”
Long Island, New York
Toothpaste dribbles lay like little blue tadpoles in the bottom of the sink. Kaye finished washing out her mouth, spat water in an arc to swirl the tadpoles down the drain, and wiped her face on a towel. She stood in the bathroom doorway and glanced down the long upstairs hall at the closed master bedroom door.
This was her last night in the house; she had slept in the guest bedroom. Another moving van — a small one — was arriving at eleven this morning to remove what few belongings she wanted to take with her. Caddy was adopting Crickson andTemin.
The house was up for sale. In a booming market, she would get top dollar. That at least was protected from their creditors. Saul had put the house in her name.
She chose her clothes for the day — plain white panties and bra, a blouse and cream sweater combination, pale blue slacks — and rolled the few items of wardrobe that hadn’t already been packed into a suitcase. She was weary of dealing with stuff, apportioning this and that to Saul’s sister, marking bags for Goodwill, other bags for trash.
It had taken Kaye almost a week to remove those marks of their life together that she did not want to take with her and that the real estate agent thought might “color” the place for potential buyers. She had gently explained about the detrimental effect of “All these science books, the journals…Too abstract. Too cold. Too much the wrong color.”
Kaye pictured snooty upper-class lookie-loos invading the house in critically mindless pairs, well-dressed in tweeds and penny loafers or draped silk and knee-length microfiber, shunning signs of true individuality or intellect, but finding hints of style from Sunday supplement magazines all too charming. Well, by itself, the house had plenty of that sort of charm. She and Saul had bought furniture and curtains and carpeting that did not overtly offend that sort of charm. Their own life, however, had to be expunged before the house could go on the market.
Their own life. Saul had ended his share of any more life. She was erasing the evidence of their time together; AKS was disbanding and scattering their professional life.
Mercifully, the agent had not mentioned Saul’s bloody incident.
How long would the guilt go on?She stopped herself going down the stairs and bit the ball of her thumb. No matter how many times she tired to jerk herself up short and get back on whatever track was left to her, she would wander off into a maze of associations, emotional paths to an even deeper un-happiness. The offer from the Herod’s Taskforce was a way back on a single track, her own new path, cool and solid. Nature’s oddities would help her heal the oddities of her own life, and that was bizarre, but it was also acceptable, believable; she could see her life working like that.
The doorbell chimed melodiously, “Eleanor Rigby.” Saul’s touch. Kaye finished the descent and opened the door. Judith Kushner stood on the porch, her face tight. “I came as soon as I saw a pattern,” Judith said. She wore a black wool skirt and black shoes and a white blouse, and her London Fog raincoat trailed its buckles on the step.
“Hello, Judith,” Kaye said, a little at a loss. Kushner grasped the door, glanced at her to ask a sort of permission to enter, and stepped into the house. She swung off her coat and draped it over a maple silent butler.
“By pattern, I mean that I called eight people I know, and Marge Cross has contacted all of them. She drove out personally to where they live, says she’s on her way to a business meeting somewhere — hell, five live around New York, so it’s a good excuse.”
“Marge Cross — of Americol?” Kaye asked.
“And Euricol, too. Don’t think she doesn’t pull all the strings overseas. Christ, Kaye, she’s a great big bull of a woman — she has Linda and Herb with her now! And they’re just the first.”
“Please, Judith, slow down.”
“Fiona was like a little mooncalf when I turned Cross down, I swear! But I hate this conglomerate shit. 1 hate it like fury. Call me a socialist — call me a child of the sixties—”
“Please,” Kaye said, holding up her hands to stem the torrent. “It’s going to take forever if you stay this angry.”
Kushner stopped and glared. “You’re smart, sweetie. You can figure it out.”
Kaye blinked for a second or two. “Marge Cross, Americol, wants a piece of SHEVA?”
“Not only can she fill her hospitals, she can supply directly with any drug ‘her’ team develops. Treatment programs exclusive to Americol-associated HMOs. Plus, she announces a blue-ribbon team, and her companies’ valuations go through the roof.”
“She wants me?”
“I got a call from Debra Kim. She said that Marge Cross was going to put her in a lab, house her SCID mice, buy out her patent rights on the cholera treatment — for a very fair figure, enough to make her wealthy. All before there is a treatment. Debra wanted to know what she should tell you.”
“Debra?” This was going much too fast for Kaye.
“Marge is a master at human psychology. I know. I went to medical school with her in the seventies. She took an MBA at the same time. Lots of energy, ugly as sin, no man trouble, extra time you and I might have wasted on dating…She jumped off the gurney in 1987, and now look at her.”
“What does she want with me?”
Kushner shrugged. “You’re a pioneer, you’re a celebrity — Hell, Saul’s made you a bit of a martyr, especially to women…Women who are going to come looking for treatment. You have great credentials, great publications, credibility just smeared all over you. I thought they might shoot the messenger, Kaye. Now I think they’re going to offer you the gold ring.”
“My God.” Kaye walked into the living room with the blank walls and sat on the freshly cleaned couch. The room smelled soapy, faintly piney, like a hospital.
Kushner sniffed and frowned. “Smells like robots live here.”
“The real estate agent said it should smell clean,” Kaye said, stalling to buy time enough to get her wits together. “And when they cleaned upstairs…after Saul…it left a smell. Pine-Sol. Lysol. Something.”
“Jesus,” Kushner said softly.
“You turned down Marge Cross?” Kaye said.
“I have enough work to keep me happy for the rest of my life, sweetie. I don’t need a driven money machine calling the shots. Have you seen her on TV?”
“Don’t believe her image.”
A car rumbled along the driveway. Kaye looked out the front bay window and saw a large hunter-green Chrysler sedan. A young man in a gray suit stepped out and opened the right rear door. Debra Kim emerged, looked around, shielded her face against a cool wind off the water. A few flakes of snow were starting to fall.
The young man in gray opened the left side door and Marge Cross unfolded, all six feet of her, wearing a dark blue wool overcoat, her graying black hair done up in a dignified bun. She said something to the young man and he nodded, returned to the driver’s side, leaned against the car as Cross and Debra Kim walked up to the porch.
“I’m flabbergasted,” Kushner said. “She works faster than the speed of thought.”
“You didn’t know she was coming?”
“Not this soon. Should I run out the back door?”
Kaye shook her head and for the first time in days she could not help laughing. “No. I’d like to see you two argue over my soul.”
“I love you, Kaye, but I know better than to argue with Marge.”
Kaye stepped quickly to the front door and opened it before Cross could ring the bell. Cross broke into a broad, friendly grin, her blocky face and small green eyes brimming with motherly cheer.
Kim smiled nervously. “Hello, Kaye,” she said, her face pinking.
“Kaye Lang? We haven’t been introduced,” Cross said.
My God, Kaye thought. She does sound like Julia Child !
Kaye made instant vanilla-flavored coffee from an old tin and poured it around in the china she was leaving with the house. Not for a moment did Cross make her feel as if she was serving something less than stylish and gourmet to a woman worth twenty billion dollars.
“I’m here to be up front with you. I was out seeing Debra’s lab at AKS,” Cross said. “She’s doing very intriguing work. We have a place for her. Debra mentioned your situation…”
Kushner glanced at Kaye, nodded ever so faintly.
“And frankly, I’ve wanted to meet you for months now. I have five young men who read the literature for me — all very handsome and very smart. One of the handsomest and the smartest told me, ‘Read this.’ Your piece predicting expression of ancient human provirus. Wow. Now — it’s more timely than ever. Kim says you’re fielding an offer to work for the CDC. For Christopher Dicken.”
“The Herod’s Taskforce and Mark Augustine, actually,” Kaye said.
“I know Mark. He delegates well. You’ll be working for Christopher. He’s a bright boy.” Cross plowed on as if discussing gardening. “We intend to set up a world-class investigation and research team to work on Herod’s. We are going to find a treatment, maybe even a cure. We’ll offer the specialized treatments at all Americol hospitals, but we’ll sell the kits to anybody. We have the infrastructure, my God, we have the finances…We partner with the CDC, and you can act as one of our reps inside HHS and NIH. It’ll be like the Apollo program, government and industry working together on a huge scale, but this time, wherever we land, we stay.” Cross shifted on the couch to face Kushner. “My offer to you still stands, Judith. I’d love to have you both working for us.”
Kushner gave a little laugh, almost girlish. “No thanks, Marge. I’m too old to put on a new harness.”
Cross shook her head. “No chafing, guaranteed.”
“I’m not at all clear about doing double duty,” Kaye said. “I haven’t even started work with the Taskforce.”
“I’m seeing Mark Augustine and Frank Shawbeck this afternoon. If you want, you can fly with me down to Washington. We can see them together. You’re invited, too, Judith.”
Kushner shook her head, but this time her laugh was forced.
Kaye sat silently for a few seconds, staring down at her clasped hands, the knuckles and nails alternating white and pink as she squeezed and relaxed her fingers. She knew what she was going to say, but she wanted to hear more from Cross.
“You will never have to worry about funding for anything you care to work on,” Cross said. “We’ll put it in your contract. I’m that confident in you.”
But do I want to be a jewel in your crown, my queen? Kaye asked herself.
“I work on my instincts, Kaye. I’ve already had you checked out by my human resources people. They think you’ll be doing your best work in the decades to come. Work with us, Kaye. Nothing you ever do will be ignored or trivialized.”
Kushner laughed again, and Cross smiled at them both.
“I want to get out of this house as soon as I can,” Kaye said. “I wasn’t going down to Atlanta until next week…I’m looking for an apartment down there now.”
“I’ll ask my people to take care of it. We’ll find you something nice in Atlanta or Baltimore, wherever you settle.”
“My God,” Kaye said with a small smile.
“Something else I know is important to you. You and Saul did a lot of work in the Republic of Georgia. I may have the contacts to salvage that. I’d like to do a lot more research on phage therapy. I think I can persuade Tbilisi to pull back on the political pressure. It’s all ridiculous anyway — a bunch of amateurs trying to run things.”
Cross put a hand on her arm and squeezed gently. “Come with me now, fly to Washington, let’s see Mark and Frank, meet with anybody else you might want to talk to, get a feel for things. Make your decision in a couple of days. Consult your attorney if you wish. We’ll even provide a draft contract. If it doesn’t work out, I leave you with the CDC, no gripes, no grudges.”
Kaye turned to Kushner and saw on her mentor’s face the same expression she had shown when Kaye had told her she was going to marry Saul. “What kind of restrictions are there, Marge?” Kushner asked quietly, folding her hands in her lap.
Cross sat back and pursed her lips. “Nothing out of the ordinary. Scientific credit goes to the team. The company PR office orchestrates all press releases and oversees all papers for timeliness of release of information. No prima donna tactics. Financial rewards are shared in a very generous royalties deal.” Cross folded her arms. “Kaye, your lawyer is a little old and not too well versed on these things. Surely Judith can recommend a better one.”
Kushner nodded. “I’ll recommend a very good one…If Kaye is seriously considering your offer.” Her voice was a little pinched, disappointed.
“I’m not used to being courted with so many boxes of Go-divas and bunches of roses, believe me,” Kaye said, staring off at the carpet corner beyond the coffee table. “I would like to know what the Taskforce expects of me before I make any decision.”
“If you march into Augustine’s office with me, he’ll know what I’m up to. I think he’ll go along.”
Kaye surprised herself by saying, “Then I would like to fly to Washington with you.”
“You deserve it, Kaye,” Cross said. “And I need you. We’re not walking into a funhouse here. I want the best researchers, the best armor I can get.”
Outside, the snow was falling much faster. Kaye could see that Cross’s chauffeur had moved inside the car and was talking on a cell phone. A different world, so fast, busy, connected, with so little time to actually think.
Maybe this was just what she needed.
“I’ll call that attorney,” Kushner said. Then, to Cross, she said, “I’d like to speak to Kaye alone for a few minutes.”
“Of course,” Cross said.
In the kitchen, Judith Kushner took Kaye by the arm and looked at her with a fixed fierceness Kaye had rarely seen in her.
“You realize what’s going to happen,” she said.
“You’re going to be a figurehead. You’ll spend half your time in big rooms talking to people with expectant smiles who’ll tell you to your face whatever you want to hear, and then gossip behind your back. You’ll be called one of Marge’s pets, one of her waifs.”
“Oh, really,” Kaye said.
“You’ll think you’re doing great work and then one day you’ll realize she’s had you doing what she wants, and nothing else, all along. She thinks this is her world, and it works by her rules. Then someone will have to come along and rescue you, Kaye Lang. I don’t know if it could ever be me. And I hope for your sake there will never be another Saul.”
“I appreciate your concern. Thank you,” Kaye said quietly, but with a touch of defiance. “I work by my instincts, too, Judith. And besides, I want to find out what Herod’s is all about. That won’t be cheap. I think she’s right about the CDC. And what if we can…finish our work with Eliava? For Saul. In his memory.”
Kushner’s intensity melted and she braced herself against the Wall, shaking her head. “All right.”
“You make Cross sound like the devil,” Kaye said.
Kushner laughed. “Not the devil. Not my cup of tea, either.”
The kitchen door swung open and Debra Kirn entered. She glanced between them nervously, then, pleading, said, “Kaye, it’s you she wants. Not me. If you don’t come on board, she’ll find some way to dump my work…”
“I’m doing it,” Kaye said, waving her hands. “But my God, I can’t leave right now. The house—”
“Marge will take care of that for you,” Kushner said, as if having to tutor a slow student on a subject she did not herself enjoy.
“She will,” Kirn affirmed quickly, her face lighting up. “She’s amazing.”
Taskforce Primate Lab, Baltimore
“Good morning, Christopher! How’s the continent?” Marian Freedman held open the back door at the top of the concrete steps. A very cold wind rushed down the alley. Dicken pulled up his knitted scarf and made a point of rubbing one bleary eye as he climbed the steps.
“I’m still on Geneva time. Ben Tice sends his regards.”
Freedman saluted briskly. “Europe on the case,” she called out dramatically. “How is Ben?”
“Dead tired. They did coat proteins last week. Tougher than they thought. SHEVA doesn’t crystallize.”
“He should have talked to me,” Marian said.
Dicken took off his scarf and coat. “Got some hot coffee?”
“In the lounge.” She guided him down a concrete corridor painted a bizarre orange and motioned him through a door on the left.
“How’s the building?”
“It sucks. Did you hear the inspectors found tritium in the plumbing? This was a medical waste processing facility last year, but somehow or other, they got tritium in their pipes. We didn’t have time to object and start looking again. What a market! So…It costs us ten grand to put in monitors and retrofit. Plus we have to guide a radiation inspector from the NRC through the building with his sniffer every other day.”
Dicken stood by a bulletin board in the lounge. The board was divided into two sections, one a large whiteboard, the smaller, on the left, a corkboard studded with notices. “Wanted to share: cheaper apartment!” “Can someone pick up my dogs in quarantine at Dulles next Wednesday? I’m on all day.” “Anyone know day care in Arlington?” “Need a ride to Bethesda Monday. Someone from metabolic or excretion preferred: we need to talk anyway.”
His eyes misted over. He was tired, but seeing the evidence of this thing coming alive, of people coming together, moving families and changing lives, traveling from around the world, deeply affected him.
Freedman handed him his coffee in a foam cup. “It’s fresh. We do good coffee.”
“Diuretic,” he said. “Should help you shed that tritium.”
Freedman made a face.
“Have you induced expression?” Dicken asked.
“No,” Freedman said. “But simian scattered ERV is so close to SHEVA in its genome that it’s scary. We’re just proving what we already assumed: this stuff is old. It entered the simian genome before we and the vervets parted ways.”
Dicken drank his coffee quickly and wiped his mouth. “Then it isn’t a disease,” he said.
“Whoa. I didn’t say that.” Freedman took his cup and disposed of it for him. “It expresses, it spreads, it infects. That’s a disease, wherever it comes from.”
“Ben Tice has analyzed two hundred rejected fetuses. Every single one of them contained a large follicular mass, similar to an ovary but containing only about twenty follicles. Every single one—”
“I know, Christopher. Three or fewer erupted follicles. He sent me his report last night.”
“Marian, the placentas are tiny, the amnion is just a thin little sack, and after the miscarriage, which is incredibly easy — many of the women don’t even feel pain — they don’t even shed their endometrium. It’s as if they’re still pregnant.”
Freedman was becoming very agitated. “Please, Christopher—”
Two other researchers, both young black men, came in, recognized Dicken, though they had not yet met, nodded greetings, then went to the refrigerator. Freedman lowered her voice.
“Christopher, I am not going to stand between you and Mark Augustine when the sparks fly. Yes, you’ve shown that the Georgian victims had SHEVA in their tissues. But their babies were not these misshapen egg-case things. They were normally developing fetuses.”
“I would love to get one of them for analysis.”
“Take it somewhere else, then. We are not a criminal lab, Christopher. I’ve got one hundred and twenty-three people here and thirty vervets and twelve chimpanzees and we are dedicated to a very focused mission. We are exploring endogenous virus expression in simian tissues. That’s it.” She spoke these last words in a low whisper to Dicken near the door. Then, more loudly, “So come and take a look at what we’ve done.”
She led Dicken through a small maze of cubicle offices, each with its own little flat-screen display. They passed several women in white lab coats and a technician in green overalls. The air smelled of antiseptic until Marian opened the steel door to the main animal lab. Then, Dicken smelled the old-bread smell of monkey chow, the tang of urine and feces, and again, the smells of soap and disinfectant.
She brought him into a large concrete-walled room with three female chimpanzees, each in separate sealed plastic and steel enclosures. Each enclosure was supplied with air by its own ventilation system. A lab worker had inserted a bar clamper into the nearest enclosure, and the chimp was busily trying to push past the restraining steel posts. Slowly, the clamper closed, ratcheted down by the worker, who waited, whistling tunelessly, as the chimp finally acquiesced. The clamper held her almost flat; she could no longer bite, and only one arm waved through the bars, away from where the lab technician was going to do her work.
Marian watched, face blank, as the restrained chimp was withdrawn from the enclosure. The clamper swung around on rubber wheels and a technician took blood and vaginal swabs. The chimp shrieked protests and grimaced. Both the worker and the technician ignored her shrieks.
Marian approached the clamper and touched the chimp’s extended hand. “There, Kiki. There, girl. That’s my girl. We’re sorry, sweety.”
The chimp’s fingers brushed Marian’s palm repeatedly. The chimp grimaced and squirmed but no longer shrieked. When she was returned to her enclosure, Marian swiveled to face the worker and the technician.
“I’ll can the next son of a bitch that treats these animals as if they’re machines,” she said in a low, harsh growl. “You understand? She’s socializing. She’s been violated and she wants to touch somebody to feel reassured. You’re the closest thing she’s got to friends and family. Understand me?”
The worker and technician sheepishly apologized.
Marian steamed past Dicken and jerked her head for him to follow.
“I’m sure it’s going great,” Dicken said, distressed by the scene. “I trust you implicitly, Marian.”
Marian sighed. “Then come back to my office and let’s talk some more there.”
The corridor back to the office was empty, doors closed at both ends. Dicken made broad gestures as he spoke. “I’ve got Ben on my side. He thinks this is a significant event, not just a disease.”
“So will he go up against Augustine? All our funding is predicated on finding a treatment, Christopher! If it isn’t a disease, why find a treatment? People are unhappy, sick, and they think they’re losing babies.”
“These rejected fetuses aren’t babies, Marian.”
“Then what in hell are they? I have to go with what I know, Christopher. If we get all theoretical—”
“I’m canvassing,” Dicken said. “I want to know what you think.”
Marian stood behind her desk, put her hands on the Formica top, tapped her short fingernails. She looked exasperated. “I am a geneticist and a molecular biologist. I don’t know shit about much else. It takes me five hours each night just to read a hundredth of what I need to keep up in my own field.”
“Have you logged on to MedWeb? Bionet? Virion?”
“I don’t get on the net much except to get my mail.”
“Virion is a little informal netzine out of Palo Alto. Private subscription only. It’s run by Kiril Maddox.”
“I know. I dated Kiril at Stanford.”
This brought Dicken up short. “I didn’t know that.”
“Don’t tell anybody, please! He was a brilliant and subversive little shmuck even then.”
“Scout’s honor. But you should check it out. There are thirty anonymous postings there. Kiril assures me they’re all legitimate researchers. The buzz is not about disease or treatment.”
“Yes, and when they go public, I’ll join you and march in to Augustine’s office.”
“Not on your life! I am not a brilliant researcher with an international reputation to protect. I’m an assembly-line kind of gal with split ends and a lousy sex life who loves her work and wants to keep her job.”
Dicken rubbed the back of his neck. “Something’s up. Something really big. I need a list of good people to back me when I tell Augustine.”
“Try and set him straight, you mean. He will kick your ass right out of CDC.”
“I don’t think so. I hope not.” Then, with a twinkle and a squint, Dicken asked, “How do you know? Did you date Augustine, too?”
“He was a medical student,” Freedman said. “I stayed the hell away from medical students.”
Jessie’s Cougar was half a flight down from the street, fronted by a small neon sign, a cast faux-wood plaque, and a polished brass handrail. Inside the long, narrow showroom, a burly man in a fake tux and black pants served beer and wine at tiny wooden tables, and seven or eight naked women, one after another, made generally unenthusiastic attempts to dance on a small stage.
A small hand-lettered sign on a music stand beside the empty cage said that the cougar was sick this week, so Jessie wouldn’t be performing. Pictures of the limp cat and its pumped-up, smiling blond mistress lined the wall behind the small bar.
The room was cramped, barely ten feet across, and smoky, and Dicken felt bad the moment he sat down. He looked around the gawker’s side of the floor and saw older men in business suits in groups of two or three, young men in denims, alone, all white, nursing beers in small glasses.
A man in his late forties approached a dancer just going off stage and whispered something to her and she nodded. He and his companions then filed off to a back room for some private entertainment.
Dicken had not had more than a couple of hours to himself in a month. By chance, he had this evening free, no social connections, nowhere to go but a small room at the Holiday Inn, so he had walked to the club district, past numerous police cars and a few beat cops on bike and on foot. He had spent a few minutes in a big chain bookstore, found the prospect of spending his free night just reading almost unbearable, and his feet had moved him automatically where he knew he had intended to go in the first place, if only to look upon a woman he was not connected with by business.
The dancers were attractive enough, in their early to late twenties, startling in their blunt nudity, breasts rarely natural, as far as he could judge, with pubic hair shaved to a universal small exclamation point. Not one of them looked at him as he entered. In a few minutes it would be money smiles and money eyes, but from the start, there was nothing.
He ordered a Budweiser — the choices were Coors or Bud or Bud Lite — and leaned back against the wall. The woman currently on stage was young, thin, with dramatically projecting breasts that did not match her narrow rib cage. He watched her with little interest, and when she was finished with her ten-minute gyration and a few marble-eyed glances around the room, she donned a rayon thigh-high robe and descended the ramp to mingle.
Dicken had never quite learned the ropes in these clubs. He knew about the private rooms, but not about what was allowed there. He found himself thinking less about the women and the smoke and his beer than about the Howard University Medical Center tour the next morning, and about the meeting with Augustine and the new team members in the late afternoon…Another very full day.
He looked at the next woman on stage, shorter and a little more filled out, with small breasts and a very narrow waist, and thought of Kaye Lang.
Dicken finished his beer and dropped a couple of quarters on the scuffed little table and pushed his chair back. A half-naked redheaded woman offered him her stocking for money, her robe draped over a lifted leg. Like a fool, he stuffed twenty into the garter belt and looked up at her with what he hoped was nonchalant command, and what he suspected was nothing more than a stiff little glance of uncertainty.
“That’s a start, honey,” she said, her voice small but assured. She looked around quickly. He was the biggest unaccompanied fish currently swimming in the pool. “You been working too hard, haven’t you?”
“I have,” he said.
“A little private dance is all you need, I think,” she added.
“That would be nice,” he said, his tongue dry.
“We got a place,” she said. “But you know the rules, honey? I do all the touching. Management wants you to stay in your seat. It’s fun.”
It sounded awful. He went with her anyway, into a small room near the back of the building, one of eight or ten on the second floor, each the size of a bedroom and empty of furniture except for a small stage and a folding chair or two. He sat in the folding chair as the woman let slip her robe. She wore a tiny thong.
“My name is Danielle,” she said. She put her finger to her lips when he started to speak. “Don’t tell me,” she said. “I like mystery.”
Then, from a small black purse on her arm, she withdrew a limp plastic package and unwrapped it with a practiced little sweep of her wrist. She slipped a surgical mask over her face. “Sorry,” she said, voice even smaller now. “You know how it is. The girls say this new flu cuts through everything — the pill, rubbers, you name it. You don’t even have to be, you know, nasty to get in trouble anymore. They say all the guys carry it. I got two kids already. I don’t need time off from work just to make a little freak.”
Dicken was so tired he could hardly move. She got up on stage and took a stance. “You like fast or slow?”
He stood, accidentally kicking the chair over with a loud clatter. She frowned at him, eyes narrowing and brows knitting over her mask. The mask was medicine green.
“Sorry,” he said, and handed her another twenty. Then he fled the room, stumbled through the smoke, tripped over a couple of legs near the stage, climbed up the steps, held on to the brass rail for a moment, taking deep breaths.
He wiped his hand vigorously on his pants, as if he were the one who could get infected.
The University of Washington, Seattle
Mitch sat on the bench and stretched his arms out in the watery sunshine. He wore a Pendleton wool shirt, faded jeans, scuffed hiking boots, and no coat.
The bare trees lifted gray limbs over a trampled field of snow. Student pathways had cleared the sidewalks and left crisscross trails over the snowy lawns. Flakes fell slowly from the broken gray masses of clouds hustling overhead.
Wendell Packer approached with a narrow smile and a wave. Packer was Mitch’s age, in his late thirties, tall and slender, with thinning hair and regular features marred only slightly by a bulbous nose. He wore a thick sweater and a dark blue down vest and carried a small leather satchel.
“I’ve always wanted to make a film about this quad,” Packer said. He clasped his hands nervously.
“What sort?” Mitch asked, his heart aching already. He had had to force himself to make the call and come to the campus. Mitch was trying to learn to ignore the nervousness of former colleagues and scientist friends.
“Just one scene. Snow covering the ground in January; plum blossoms in April. A pretty girl walking, right about there. Slow fade: she’s surrounded by falling flakes, and they turn to petals.” Packer pointed along the path where students slogged to their classes. He made a swipe at the slush on the bench and sat beside Mitch. “You could have come to my office. You’re not a pariah, Mitch. Nobody’s going to kick you off campus.”
Mitch shrugged. “I’ve become a wild man, Wendell. I don’t get much sleep. I have a stack of textbooks in my apartment…I read biology all day long. I don’t know where I need to catch up most.”
“Yeah, well, say good-bye to elan vital. We’re engineers now.”
“I want to buy you lunch and ask a few questions. And then I want to know if I can audit some classes in your department. The texts just aren’t cutting it for me.”
“I can ask the professors. Any classes in particular?”
“Embryology. Vertebrate development. Some obstetrics, but that’s outside your department.”
Mitch stared out over the quad at the surrounding walls of ochre brick buildings. “I need to learn a lot of things before I shoot my mouth off or make any more stupid moves.”
“If I told you, you’d know for sure that I was crazy.”
“Mitch, one of the best times I’ve had in years was when we went out to Gingko Tree with my kids. They loved it, marching all over, looking for fossils. I was staring down at the ground for hours. The back of my neck got sunburned. I realized that was why you wore a little flap on your hat.”
“I’m still a friend, Mitch.”
“That really means a lot to me, Wendell.”
“It’s cold out here,” Packer said. “Where are you taking me for lunch?”
“You like Asian?”
They sat in the Little China restaurant, in a booth by the window, waiting for their rice and noodles and curry to be brought out. Packer sipped a cup of hot tea; Mitch, perversely, drank cold lemonade. Steam clouded the window looking out on the gray Ave, so-called, not an avenue in actuality but University Street, flanking the campus. A few young kids in leather jackets and baggy pants smoked and stamped their feet around a chained newspaper rack. The snow had stopped and the streets were shiny black.
“So tell me why you need to audit classes,” Packer said.
Mitch spread out three newspaper clippings on Ukraine and the Republic of Georgia. Packer read them with a frown.
“Somebody tried to kill the mother in the cave. And thousands of years later, they’re killing mothers with Herod’s flu.”
“Ah. You think the Neandertals…The baby found outside the cave.” Packer tilted his head back. “I’m a little confused.”
“Christ, Wendell, I was there. I saw the baby inside the cave. I’m sure the researchers in Innsbruck have confirmed that by now, they just aren’t telling anybody. I’ve written letters, and they don’t even bother to respond.”
Packer thought this over, brow deeply wrinkled, trying to put together a complete picture. “You think you stumbled onto a little bit of punctuated equilibrium. In the Alps.”
A short woman with a round pretty face brought their food and laid chopsticks beside their plates. When she left, Packer continued, “You think they’ve done a tissue match in Innsbruck and just won’t release the results?”
Mitch nodded. “It’s so far out there, as an idea, that nobody is saying a thing. It’s an incredible long shot. Look, I don’t want to belabor…I don’t want to drag you down with all the details. Just give me a chance to find out whether I’m right or wrong. I’m probably so wrong I should start a new career in asphalt management. But…1was there, Wendell.”
Packer looked around the restaurant, pushed aside the chopsticks, ladled a few spoons of hot pepper sauce onto his plate, and stuck a fork into his curried pork and rice. Around a mouthful, he said, “If I let you audit some classes, will you sit way in the back?”
“I’ll stand outside the door,” Mitch said.
“I was joking,” Packer said. “I think.”
“I know you were,” Mitch said, smiling. “Now I’m going to ask just one more favor.”
Packer lifted his eyebrows. “You’re pushing it, Mitch.”
“Do you have any postdocs working on SHEVA?”
“You bet,” Packer said. “The CDC has a research coordination program and we’ve signed on. You see all the women wearing gauze masks on campus? We’d like to help shine a little reason on this whole thing. You know…Reason ?” He stared pointedly at Mitch.
Mitch pulled out his two glass vials. “These are very precious to me,” he said. “I do not want to lose them.” He held them out in his palm. They clinked softly together, their contents like two little snips of beef jerky.
Packer put down his fork. “What are they?”
“Neandertal tissue. One from the male, one from the female.”
Packer stopped chewing.
“How much of them would you need?” Mitch asked.
“Not much,” Packer said around his mouthful of rice. “If I was going to do anything.”
Mitch waggled his hand and the vials slowly back and forth.
“If I were to trust you,” Packer added.
“I have to trust your Mitch said.
Packer squinted at the fogged windows, the kids still milling outside, laughing and smoking their cigarettes.
“Test them for what…SHEVA?”
“Or something like SHEVA.”
“Why? What has SHEVA got to do with evolution?”
Mitch tapped the newspaper articles. “It would explain all this talk about the devil’s children. Something very unusual is happening. I think it’s happened before, and I found the evidence.”
Packer wiped his mouth thoughtfully. “I absolutely do not believe this.” He lifted the vials from Mitch’s hand, stared at them closely. “They’re so damned old. Three years ago, two of my postdocs did a research project on mitochondrial DNA sequences from Neandertal bone tissue. All that remained were fragments.”
“Then you can confirm these are the real thing,” Mitch said. “Dried out, degraded, but probably complete.”
Packer gently set the vials on the table. “Why should I do this? Just because we’re friends?”
“Because if I’m right, it’s going to be the biggest scientific discovery of our time. We may finally learn how evolution works.”
Packer removed his wallet and took out a twenty. “I’m paying,” he said. “Big discoveries make me very nervous.”
Mitch looked at him in dismay.
“Oh, I’ll do it,” Packer said grimly. “But only because I’m an idiot and a sucker. No more favors, please, Mitch.”
The National Institutes of Health, Bethesda
Cross and Dicken sat opposite each other at the broad table in a small executive conference room in the Matcher Building, and Kaye sat beside Cross. Dicken fiddled with a pen, staring down at the table like a nervous little boy.
“When’s Mark going to make his grand entrance?” Cross asked.
Dicken looked up and grinned. “I’d give him five minutes. Maybe less. He’s not very happy about this.”
Cross picked her teeth with a long chipped fingernail.
“The only thing you don’t have lots of is time, right?” Dicken asked.
Cross smiled politely.
“It doesn’t seem that long since Georgia,” Kaye said, just to make conversation.
“Not long at all,” Dicken said.
“You met in Georgia?” Cross asked.
“Just briefly,” Dicken said. Before the conversation could go any further, Augustine entered. He wore an expensive gray suit that was showing a little wrinkling at the back and around the knees. He had been in a good many conferences today, Kaye guessed.
Augustine shook hands with Cross and sat. He clasped his hands loosely in front of him. “So, Marge, this is a done deal? You’ve got Kaye and we have to share?”
“Nothing’s final yet,” Cross said cheerfully. “I wanted to talk to you first.”
Augustine was not convinced. “What do we get out of it?”
“Nothing you probably wouldn’t have gotten anyway, Mark,” Cross said. “We can work out the larger features of the picture now, and pencil in the details later.”
Augustine colored a little, clamped his jaw for a moment, then said, “I do love bargaining. What do we actually need from Americol?”
“This evening I’ll be having dinner with three Republican senators,” Cross said. “Bible Belt types. They don’t much care what I do, so long as I attend their little fund-raisers. I’ll explain to them why I think the Taskforce and the whole research establishment should get even more money, and why we should set up an intranet connection between Americol, Euricol, and selected researchers in the Taskforce and the CDC. Then I’ll explain the facts of life to them. About Herod’s, that is.”
“They’re going to shout ‘Act of God,’ “Augustine said.
“I don’t think so, actually,” Cross said. “They may be smarter than you think.”
“I’ve already explained this to every senator and most of the House of Representatives,” Augustine said.
“Then we’ll make a good tag team. I’ll make them feel sophisticated and in the loop, something I know you’re not good at, Mark. And what we share…will lead to a treatment, possibly even a cure, within a year. I guarantee it.”
“How can you guarantee anything like that?” Augustine asked.
“As I told Kaye on the flight down here, I took her papers seriously years ago. I set some of my key people in San Diego looking into the possibility. When the news about activation of SHEVA came down, and then Herod’s, I was ready. I handed it over to the good folks in our Sentinel program. They kind of parallel what you do, Christopher, but on a corporate level. We already know the structure of SHEVA’s capsid coat, how SHEVA crawls into human cells, which receptors it attaches to. The CDC and the Taskforce can take half the credit eventually, and we’ll take on the business of getting the treatment to everybody. We’ll do it for little or nothing, of course, maybe not even break even.”
Augustine looked at her with genuine surprise. Cross chuckled. She leaned over the table as if to throw a punch at him and said, “Gotcha, Mark.”
“I don’t believe it,” Augustine said.
“Mr. Dicken says he wants to work directly with Kaye. That’s fine,” Cross allowed.
Augustine folded his arms.
“But that intranet will really be something. Direct, fast, best we can put together. We’ll chart every damned HERV in the genome to make sure SHEVA is not duplicated somewhere, to catch us by surprise. Kaye can lead that project. The pharmaceutical applications could be wondrous, absolutely wondrous.” Her voice broke with enthusiasm.
Kaye found herself buzzing with her own enthusiasm. Cross was something else.
“What do your people tell you about these HERV, Mark?” Cross asked.
“A lot,” Augustine said. “We’ve concentrated on Herod’s, of course.”
“Do you know that the largest gene turned on by SHEVA, the polyprotein on chromosome 21, differs between simian expressions and human? That it’s one of only three genes in the whole SHEVA cascade that differ in apes and humans?”
Augustine shook his head.
“We’re close to knowing that,” Dicken said, then glanced around in some embarrassment. Cross ignored him.
“What we’re looking at is an archaeological catalog of human disease, going back millions of years,” Cross said. “At least one old damned visionary has seen this already and we’re going to beat CDC to the ultimate description…Leave government research out in the cold, Mark, unless we cooperate. Kaye can help keep the channels open. Together, we can do it a whole lot faster, of course.”
“You’re going to save the world, Marge?” Augustine asked softly.
“No, Mark. I doubt Herod’s is much more than a nasty inconvenience. But it gets us where we live. Down where we make babies. Everyone who watches TV or reads newspapers is scared. Kaye is famous, she’s female, and she’s presentable. She’s just what we both need. That’s why Mr. Dicken here and the surgeon general thought she might be useful, isn’t it? Besides her obvious expertise?”
Augustine aimed his next question at Kaye. “I assume you didn’t approach Ms. Cross yourself, after agreeing to go with us.”
“I didn’t,” Kaye said.
“What do you expect to get out of this arrangement?”
“I think Marge is right,” Kaye said, feeling an almost chilly self-confidence. “We need to cooperate and find out what this is and what we can do about it.” Kaye Lang the corporate item, cool and distanced, knowing no doubt. Saul, you would be proud of me.
“This is an international effort, Marge,” Augustine said. “We’re putting together a coalition of twenty different countries. WHO is a major player here. No prima donnas.”
“I’ve already set up a crack management team to deal with that. Robert Jackson is going to head our vaccine program. Our functions will be transparent. We’ve been doing this on the world scene for twenty-five years. We know how to play ball, Mark.”
Augustine looked at Cross, then at Kaye. He held out his hands as if to embrace Cross. “Darling,” he said, and stood to blow her a kiss.
Cross cackled like an old hen.
The University of Washington, Seattle
Wendell Packer told Mitch to meet him in his office in the Magnuson building. The room in the E wing was small and stuffy, windowless, packed with shelves of books and two computers, one of them connected to equipment in Packer’s laboratory. This screen showed a long series of proteins being sequenced, red and blue bands and green columns in pretty disarray, like a skewed staircase.
“I did this one myself,” Packer said, holding up a long folded printout for Mitch. “Not that I don’t trust my students, but I don’t want to ruin their careers, either. And I don’t want my department slammed.”
Mitch took the printout and thumbed through it.
“I doubt it makes a lot of sense at first glance,” Packer said. “The tissues are way too old to get complete sequences, so I looked for small genes unique to SHEVA, and then I looked for products created when SHEVA enters a cell.”
“You found them?” Mitch asked, feeling his throat constrict.
Packer nodded. “Your tissue samples have SHEVA. And they’re not just contaminants from you or the people you were with. But the virus is really degraded. I used antibody probes sent to us from Bethesda that bind to proteins associated with SHEVA. There’s a follicle stimulating hormone that’s unique to SHEVA infection. Sixty-seven percent match, not bad considering the age. Then I relied on a little information theory to design and fabricate better probes, in case SHEVA has mutated slightly, or differs for other reasons. Took me a couple of days, but I got an eighty percent match. To make doubly sure, I did a Southwestern blot test with Herod’s provirus DNA. There are definitely bits of activated SHEVA in your specimens. Tissue from the male is thick with it.”
“You’re sure it’s SHEVA? No doubt, even in a court of law?”
“Considering the source, it wouldn’t survive in a court of law. But is it SHEVA?” Packer smiled. “Yes. I’ve been in this department for seven years. We have some of the best equipment money can buy, and some of the best people that equipment can seduce to join us, thanks to three very rich young folks at Microsoft. But…Sit down, please, Mitch.”
Mitch looked up from the printout. “Why?”
“I have a bonus. Karel Petrovich in Anthropology asked Maria Konig, just down the hall, the best in our lab, to work on a very old tissue sample. Guess where he got the sample?”
Packer held out another sheet of paper. “They asked Karel specifically to go to us. Our reputation, what can I say? They wanted us to search for specific markers and combinations of alleles most often used to determine parental relationship. We were given one small tissue sample, about a gram. They wanted very precise work, and they wanted it quick. Mitch, you got to swear to absolute secrecy on this.”
“I swear,” Mitch said.
“Just out of curiosity, I asked one of the analysts about the results. I won’t go into boring details. The tissue comes from a newborn. It’s at least ten thousand years old. We looked for the markers and found them. And I compared several alleles with your tissue samples.”
“They match?” Mitch asked, his voice breaking.
“Yes…and no. I don’t think Innsbruck is going to agree with me, or with what you seem to be implying.”
“I don’t imply. I know .”
“Yes, well, I’m intrigued, but in a courtroom, I could wriggle your male out of responsibility. No prehistoric child support. The female, however, yes. The alleles match.”
“She’s the baby’s mother?”
“Beyond a doubt.”
“But he’s not the father?”
“I just said I could wriggle him out of it in a courtroom. There’s some weird genetics going on here. Real spooky stuff that I’ve never seen before.”
“But the baby is one of us.”
“Mitch, please don’t get me wrong. I’m not going to back you up, I’m not going to help you write any papers. I have a department to protect, and my own career. You of all people should understand that.”
“I know, I know,” Mitch said. “But I can’t go it alone.”
“Let me feed you a few clues. You know that Homo sapiens sapiens is remarkably uniform, genetically speaking.”
“Well, I don’t think Homo sapiens neandertalensis was all that uniform. It’s a real miracle that I can tell you that, Mitch, I hope you understand. Three years ago, it would have taken us eight months to do the analysis.”
Mitch frowned. “I’m losing you.”
“The infant’s genotype is a close match to you and me. She’s close to modern. Mitochondria! DNA in the tissue you gave me matches with samples we have from old Neandertal bone. But I’d say, if you did not look at me too critically, that the male and female that supplied your samples are her parents.”
Mitch felt dizzy. He bent over on the chair and rested his head between his knees. “Christ,” he said, his voice muffled.
“A very late contender to be Eve,” Packer said. He held up his hand. “Look at me. Now I’m trembling.”
“What can you do, Wendell?” Mitch asked, lifting his head to stare up at him. “I’m sitting on the biggest story in modern science. Innsbruck is going to stonewall, I can just smell it.
They’ll deny everything. It’s the easy way out. What do I do? Where do I go?”
Packer wiped his eyes and blew his nose into his handkerchief. “Find some folks who aren’t all that conservative,” he said. “People outside of academics. I know people at the CDC. I talk fairly often with a friend in the labs in Atlanta, a friend of an old girlfriend, actually. We stayed on good terms. She’s done some cadaver tissue analysis for a CDC virus hunter named Dicken, on the Herod’s Taskforce. Not surprisingly, he’s been looking for SHEVA in cadaver tissues.”
Packer did not connect this immediately. “Atlanta?”
“No, Republic of.”
“Ah…yes, as a matter of fact,” Packer said. “But he’s also been looking for evidence of Herod’s flu in historical records. Decades, even centuries.” Packer tapped Mitch’s hand pointedly. “Maybe he’d like to know what you know?”
Magnuson Clinical Center, The National Institutes of Health, Bethesda
Four women sat in the brightly lighted room. The room was equipped with two couches, two chairs, a television and video player, books, and magazines. Kaye wondered how hospital designers always managed to create an atmosphere of sterility: ash-colored wood, cool off-white walls, sanitary pastel art of beaches and forests and flowers. A bleached and calming world.
She watched the women briefly through the window of the side door as she waited for Dicken and the director of the clinical center project to catch up with her.
Two black women. One, in her late thirties and stout, sitting upright in a chair, inattentively watched something on the television, a copy ofElle draped across her lap. The other, in her early twenties, if that, very thin, with small pointy breasts and short cornrowed hair, sat with her cheek propped on her hand and her elbow on a couch arm, staring at nothing in particular. Two white women, both in their thirties, one bottle-blond and haggard and dazed-looking, the other neatly dressed, face expressionless, read battered copies of People and Time.
Dicken approached along the gray-carpeted hallway with Dr. Denise Lipton. Lipton was in her early forties, small, pretty in a sharp sort of way, with eyes that looked as if they could shoot sparks when she was angry. Dicken introduced them.
“Ready to see our volunteers, Ms. Lang?” Lipton asked.
“As ready as I’ll ever be,” Kaye said.
Lipton smiled bloodlessly. “They’re not very happy. They’ve undergone enough tests in the last few days to…Well, to make them not very happy.”
The women within the room looked up at the sound of voices. Lipton smoothed her lab coat and pushed the door open.
“Good afternoon, ladies,” she greeted them.
The meeting went well enough. Dr. Lipton escorted three of the women to their private rooms and left Dicken and Kaye to talk more extensively to the fourth, the older black woman, Mrs. Luella Hamilton, of Richmond, Virginia.
Mrs. Hamilton wondered if she could get some coffee. “I’ve been drained so many times. If it isn’t blood samples, it’s my kidneys acting cross.” Dicken said he would get them each a cup and left the room.
Mrs. Hamilton focused on Kaye and narrowed her eyes. “They told us you found this bug.”
“No,” Kaye said. “I wrote some papers, but I didn’t actually find it.”
“It’s just a little fever,” Mrs. Hamilton said. “I’ve had four children, and now they tell me this one won’t really be a baby. But they won’t take it out of me. They say, let the disease take its course. I’m just a big lab rat, aren’t I?”
“Seems like it. Are they treating you well?”
“I’m eating,” she said with a shrug. “The food’s good. I don’t like the books or the movies. The nurses are nice, but that Dr. Lipton — she’s a hard case. She acts nice, but I think she doesn’t like anybody very much.”
“I’m sure she’s doing a good job.”
“Yeah, well, lady, Miz Lang, you sit in my seat for a while and tell me you don’t want to bitch a little.”
“It pisses me off, there’s this black nurse, a man, he keeps treating me like some sort of example. He wants me to be strong like his mammy.” She regarded Kaye with steady wide eyes and shook her head. “I don’t want to be strong. I want to cry when they do their tests, when I think about this baby, Miz Lang. You understand?”
“Yes,” Kaye said.
“It feels like all my others did around this time. I say maybe it is a baby and they’re wrong. Does that make me a fool?”
“If they’ve done the tests, they know,” Kaye said.
“They won’t let me visit my husband. That’s part of the contract. He gave me the flu and he gave me this baby, but I miss him. It wasn’t his fault. I talk to him on the phone. He sounds all right, but I know he misses me. Makes me nervous, being away, you know?”
“Who’s taking care of your children?” Kaye said.
“My husband. They let the children come and see me. That’s okay. My husband brings them by and they come in and see me and he stays out in the car. Four months it will be, four months!” Mrs. Hamilton twisted the thin gold wedding band on her finger. “He says he gets so lonely, and the kids, they ain’t easy to be with sometimes.”
Kaye grasped Mrs. Hamilton’s hand. “I know how brave you are, Mrs. Hamilton.”
“Call me Luella,” she said. “I say it again, I ain’t brave. What’s your first name?”
“I am scared, Kaye. You find out what’s really going on, come and tell me first, all right?”
Kaye left Mrs. Hamilton. She felt dried out and cold. Dicken walked with her to the ground floor and outside the clinical center. He kept looking at her when he thought she would not notice.
She asked to stop for a minute. She crossed her arms and stared at a stand of trees across a short stretch of manicured lawn. The lawn was surrounded by trenches. Most of the NIH campus was a maze of detours and construction sites, holes filled with raw earth and concrete and jutting forests of rebar.
“Everything all right?” Dicken asked.
“No,” she said. “I feel scattered.”
“We have to get used to it. It’s happening all over,” Dicken said.
“All of the women volunteered?” Kaye said.
“Of course. We pay for all their medical expenses and a per diem. We can’t compel this sort of thing, even in a national emergency.”
“Why can’t they see their husbands?”
“Actually, that may be my fault,” Dicken said. “I presented some evidence at our last meeting that Herod’s will lead to a second pregnancy, without sexual activity. They’re going to hand the bulletin out this evening to all researchers.”
“What evidence? My God, are we talking immaculate conception here?” Kaye put her hands on her hips and swung around to face him. “You’ve been tracking this thing since we ran into each other in Georgia, haven’t you?”
“Since before Georgia. Ukraine, Russia, Turkey, Azerbaijan, Armenia. Herod’s started hitting those countries ten, twenty years ago, maybe even earlier.”
“Then you read my papers, and it all fell into place? You’re a kind of scientific stalker?”
Dicken made a face, shook his head. “Hardly.”
“Am I the catalyst?” Kaye asked in disbelief.
“It’s not simple, Kaye.”
“I wish they’d keep me in the loop, Chris!”
“Christopher, please.” He looked uncomfortable, apologetic.
“I wish you ‘d keep me in the loop. You act like a shadow around here, always following, so why do I think you may be one of the most important people in the Taskforce?”
“Thank you, it’s a common misperception,” he said with a wry smile. “I try to keep out of trouble, but I’m not sure I’m succeeding. They listen sometimes, when the evidence is strong — as it actually is in this case, reports from Armenian hospitals, even a couple of hospitals in Los Angeles and New York.”
“Christopher, we’ve got two hours before the next meeting,” Kaye said. “I’ve been stuck in SHEVA conferences for two weeks now. They think they’ve found my niche. A safe little cubbyhole, looking for other HERV Marge has put together a nice lab for me in Baltimore, but…I don’t think the Taskforce has much use for me.”
“Going with Americol really irritated Augustine,” Dicken said. “I could have warned you.”
“I’ll have to focus on doing work with Americol, then.”
“Not a bad idea. They have the resources. Marge seems to like you.”
“Let me know more of what it’s like…on the front? Is that what it’s called?”
“The front,” Dicken affirmed. “Sometimes we say we’re going to meet the real troops, the people who are getting sick. We’re just workers; they’re the soldiers. They do most of the suffering and the dying.”
“I feel like I’m on the sidelines here. Will you talk to an outsider?”
“Love to,” Dicken said. “You know what I’m up against here, don’t you?”
“A bureaucratic juggernaut. They think they know what Herod’s is. But…a second pregnancy, without sex!” Kaye felt a quick little chill.
“They’ve rationalized that,” Dicken said. “We’re going to discuss the possible mechanism this afternoon. They don’t think they’re hiding anything.” He screwed up his face like a boy with a dark secret. “If you ask questions I’m not prepared to answer…”
Kaye dropped her hands from her hips, exasperated. “What kind of questions is Augustine not asking? What if we’re getting this completely wrong?”
“Exactly,” Dicken said. His face reddened and he sliced the air with his hand. “ Exactly. Kaye, I knew you would understand. While we’re talking what ifs…would you mind if I spill my guts to you?”
Kaye leaned back at this prospect.
“I mean, I admire your work so much—”
“I was lucky, and I had Saul,” Kaye said stiffly. Dicken looked vulnerable and she did not like that. “Christopher, what in hell are you hiding?”
“I’d be surprised if you didn’t already know. We’re all just hanging back from the obvious — what is obvious to a few of us, at any rate.” He searched her face closely through squinted eyes. “I’ll tell you what I think, and if you agree that it’s possible — that it’s probable — you have to let me decide when to make the case. We wait until we have all the evidence we need. I’ve been living in a land of guesswork for a year, and I know for a fact neither Augustine nor Shawbeck want to hear me out. Sometimes I think I’m not much more than a glorified errand boy. So—” He shifted on one foot. “Our secret?”
“Of course,” Kaye said, leveling her gaze on him. “Tell me what you think is going to happen to Mrs. Hamilton.”
Mitch knew he was asleep, or rather, half-asleep. On rare occasions his mind would process the facts of his existence, his plans, his suppositions, separately and with stubborn independence, and always on the edge of sleep.
Many times he had dreamed of the site where he was currently digging, but with mixed frames of time. This morning, his body numb, his conscious mind an observer in a wraparound theater, he saw a young man and woman wrapped in light furs, wearing ragged reed and skin sandals laced up their ankles. The woman was pregnant. He saw them first in profile, as if in some rotating display, and amused himself for a while viewing them from different angles.
Gradually, this control came to an end, and the man and woman walked over fresh snow and windswept ice, in bright daylight, the brightest he had even seen in a dream. The ice glared and they shielded their eyes with their hands.
At first, he looked upon them as people just like himself. Soon, however, he realized these people were not like him. Their facial features were not what aroused this suspicion at first. It was the intricate patterns of beard and facial hair on the man, and a thick soft mane of hair circling the woman’s face, leaving her cheeks, receding chin, and low forehead clear, but drawing from temple to temple through her brows. Beneath the furred brow, her eyes were soft and deep brown, almost black, and her skin had a rich olive color. Her fingers were gray and pink, heavily callused. Both had broad heavy noses.
They are not my people, Mitch thought. But I know them .
The man and woman were smiling. The woman reached down to scoop up snow. Slyly, she started to nibble at it, then, when the man was not looking, she formed it into a quick hard ball and threw it at his head. It hit with a thwack and he reeled, yelped, his voice clear and bell-toned, almost like a beagle’s. The woman made as if to cower, then ran away, and the man chased her. He pulled her down despite her repeated grunts of supplication, then stood back and raised his arms to heaven and heaped loud words upon her. Despite the gravelly timbre of his voice, deep and rolling, she did not seem impressed. She flapped her hands at him and pouched out her lips, making loud smacking sounds.
With the lazy editing of a dream, he saw them walking single file down a muddy trail in drizzling rain and snow. Through slow cloud cover, he could see patches of forest and meadow in a valley below them, and a lake, upon which floated broad flat rafts of logs bearing reed huts.
They ‘re doing all right, a voice in his head told him. You look at them now and you don’t know them, but they ‘re doing all right.
Mitch heard a bird and realized this was no bird, but his cell phone. It took him some seconds to put away the paraphernalia of his dream. The clouds and valley floor broke like a soap bubble and he groaned as he lifted his head. His body was numb. He had been sleeping on his side with one arm curled under his head and his muscles were stiff.
The phone persisted. He answered on the sixth ring.
“I hope I’m speaking to Mitchell Rafelson, the anthropologist,” said a male voice with a British accent.
“One of them, anyway,” Mitch said. “Who’s this?”
“Merton, Oliver. I’m a science editor for the Economist. I’m doing a piece on the Innsbruck Neandertals. It’s been tough finding your phone number, Mr. Rafelson.”
“It’s unlisted. I’m getting tired of being chastised.”
“I can imagine. Listen, I think I can show that Innsbruck has bollixed up the whole case, but I need some details. Chance for you to explain things to a sympathetic ear. I’ll be out in Washington state day after tomorrow — to speak with Eileen Ripper.”
“Okay,” Mitch said. He considered simply closing the phone and trying to bring back the remarkable dream.
“She’s working on another dig in the gorge…Columbia Gorge? Do you know where Iron Cave is?”
Mitch stretched. “I’ve done some digs near there.”
“Yes, well, it hasn’t leaked to the press yet, but it will next week. She’s found three skeletons, very old, not nearly as remarkable as your mummies, but still quite interesting. Principally, my story is going to focus on her tactics. In an age of sympathy for indigenes, she’s put together a really canny consortium to protect science. Ms. Ripper solicited support from the Five Tribes Confederation. You know them, of course.”
“She’s got a team of pro bono lawyers and she’s kept some congressmen and senators in the loop as well. Not at all like your experience with Pasco man.”
“I’m glad to hear it,” Mitch said with a scowl. He picked a piece of sleep from his eye. “That’s a day’s drive from here.”
“Is it that far? I’m in Manchester now. England. Just packed my bags and drove over from Leeds. My plane goes out in an hour. I’d love to talk.”
“I’m probably the last person Eileen wants out there.”
“She was the one who gave me your phone number. You’re not the outcast you might think, Mr. Rafelson. She’d like to have you look at the dig. I gather she’s the motherly type.”
“She’s a whirlwind,” Mitch said.
“I’m very excited, really. I’ve seen digs in Ethiopia, South Africa, Tanzania. I’ve been to Innsbruck twice to see what they’d let me see, which isn’t much. Now—”
“Mr. Merton, I hate to disappoint you—”
“Yes, well, what about the baby, Mr. Rafelson? Can you tell me more about this remarkable infant the woman had in her backpack?”
“I had a blinding headache at the time.” Mitch was about to put down the phone, Eileen Ripper or not. He’d been through this too many times. He held the phone away from his ear. Merton’s voice sounded tinny and harsh.
“Do you know what’s going on in Innsbruck? Did you know they’ve actually had fistfights in the labs there?”
Mitch brought the phone back to his ear. “No.”
“Did you know they’ve sent tissue samples to other labs in other countries to try to build some sort of consensus?”
“No-oo,” Mitch said slowly.
“I’d love to bring you up to date. I think there’s a good chance you could come out of this smelling like a fresh apple tree or whatever it is that blooms in Washington state. If I ask Eileen to call you, invite you out, if I tell her you’re interested…Could we meet?”
“Why not just meet at SeaTac? That’s where you’re coming in, isn’t it?”
Merton made a small blat with his lips. “Mr. Rafelson. I can’t see you turning down the chance to sniff some dirt and sit under a canvas tent. A chance to talk about the biggest archaeological story of our time.”
Mitch found his watch and looked at the date. “All right,” he said. “If Eileen invites me.”
When he hung up the phone, he went to the bathroom, brushed his teeth, looked in the mirror.
He had spent several days moping around the apartment, unable to decide what to do next. He had obtained the e-mail address and a phone number for Christopher Dicken, but had not yet built up sufficient courage to call him. His money was running out faster than he had expected. He was putting off hitting up his parents for a loan.
As he fixed breakfast, the phone rang again. It was Eileen Ripper.
When Mitch finished speaking to her, he sat for a moment on the ragged chair in the living room, then stood and looked out the window at Broadway. It was getting light outside. He opened the window and leaned out. People were walking up and down the street, and cars were stopped at the red light on Denny.
He called home. His mother answered.
The National Institutes of Health, Bethesda
”It’s happened before,” Dicken said. He broke a sweet roll in half and dunked it into the foamy top of his latte. The huge modern cafeteria of the Natcher Building was nearly empty at this hour of the morning, and served better food than the cafeteria in Building 10. They sat near the tall tinted glass windows, well away from the few other employees. “Specifically, it happened in Georgia, in Gordi, or nearby.”
Kaye’s mouth made an O. “My God. The massacre…” Outside, sun broke through low morning clouds, sending shadows and bright patches over the campus and into the cafeteria.
“Their tissues all show SHEVA. I only got samples from three or four, but they all had it.”
“And you haven’t told Augustine?”
“I’ve been relying on clinical evidence, fresh reports from hospitals…What in hell difference would it make if I put SHEVA back a few years, a decade at most? But two days ago I got some files from a hospital in Tbilisi. I helped a young intern there make some contacts in Atlanta. He told me about some people in the mountains. Survivors of another massacre, this one almost sixty years ago. During the war.”
“Germans never got into Georgia,” Kaye said.
Dicken nodded. “Stalin’s troops. They wiped out most of an isolated village near Mount Kazbeg. Some survivors were found two years ago. The government in Tbilisi protected them. Maybe they were fed up with purges, maybe…Maybe they didn’t know anything about Gordi, or the other villages.”
“How many survivors?”
“A doctor named Leonid Sugashvili made it his own little crusade to investigate. It was his report the intern sent me — a report that was never published. But pretty thorough. Between 1943 and 1991, he estimated, about thirteen thousand men, women, and even children were killed in Georgia, Armenia, Abkhazi, Chechnya. They were killed because somebody thought they spread a disease that caused pregnant women to abort. Those who survived the first purges were hunted down later…because the women were giving birth to mutated children. Children with spots all over their faces, with weird eyes, children who could speak from the moment they were born. In some villages, the local police did the killing. Superstition dies hard. The men and women — mothers and fathers — they were accused of consorting with the devil. There weren’t that many of them, over four decades. But…Sugashvili estimates there might have been instances of this sort of thing going back hundreds of years. Tens of thousands of murders. Guilt, shame, ignorance, silence.”
“You think the children were mutated by SHEVA?”
“The doctor’s report says that many of the women who were killed pleaded that they had cut off sexual relations with their husbands, their boyfriends. They did not want to bear the devil’s offspring. They had heard about the mutated children in other villages, and once they had their fever, their miscarriage, they tried to avoid getting pregnant. Almost all the women who had the miscarriages were pregnant thirty days later, no matter what they did or did not do. Just as some of our hospitals are reporting now.”
Kaye shook her head. “That is so completely unbelievable!”
Dicken shrugged. “It’s not going to get any more believable, or any easier,” he said. “For some time now, I just haven’t been convinced that SHEVA is any known kind of disease.”
Kaye’s lips tightened. She put down her cup of coffee and folded her arms, remembering the conversation with Drew Miller in the Italian restaurant in Boston, and Saul saying it was time they tackle the problem of evolution. “Maybe it’s a signal,” she said.
“What sort of signal?”
“A code-key that opens up a genetic set-aside, instructions for a new phenotype.”
“I’m not sure I understand,” Dicken said, frowning.
“Something built up over thousands of years, tens of thousands of years. Guesses, hypotheses having to do with this or that trait, elaborations on a pretty rigid plan.”
“To what end?” Dicken asked.
“Evolution,” Kaye said.
Dicken backed his chair away and placed his hands on his legs. “Whoa.”
“You said it wasn’t a disease,” Kaye reminded him.
“I said it wasn’t like any disease I know. It’s still a retro-virus.”
“You read my papers, didn’t you?”
“I dropped a few hints.”
Dicken pondered this. “A catalyst.”
“You make it, we get it, we suffer,” Kaye said.
Dicken’s cheeks reddened. “I’m trying not to turn this into a man-woman thing,” he said. “There’s enough of that going on already.”
“Sorry,” Kaye said. “Maybe I just want to avoid the real issue.”
Dicken seemed to reach a decision. “I’m stepping out of line by showing this to you.” He dug into his valise and produced a printout of an e-mail message from Atlanta. Four small pictures had been pasted on the bottom of the message.
“A woman died in an automobile accident outside Atlanta. An autopsy was performed at Northside Hospital, and one of our pathologists found she was in her first trimester. He examined the fetus, clearly a Herod’s fetus. Then he examined the woman’s uterus. He found a second pregnancy, very early, at the base of the placenta, protected by a thin wall of laminar tissue. The placenta had already started to separate, but the second ovum was secure. It would have survived the miscarriage. A month later…”
“A grandchild,” Kaye said. “Released by the…”
“Intermediate daughter. Really just a specialized ovary. She creates a second ovum. That ovum attaches to the wall of the mother’s uterus.”
“What if her eggs, the daughter’s eggs, are different?”
Dicken’s throat had grown dry and he coughed. “Excuse me.” He got up to pour himself a cup of water, then walked back between the tables to sit beside Kaye.
He continued, speaking slowly. “SHEVA provokes the release of a complex of polyproteins. They break down in the cytosol outside the nucleus. LH, FSH, prostaglandins.”
“I know. Judith Kushner told me,” Kaye said, her voice little more than a squeak. “Some of them are responsible for causing the miscarriages. Others could change an ovum substantially.”
“Mutate it?” Dicken asked, still clinging to the tatters of an old paradigm.
“I’m not sure that’s the right word,” Kaye said. “It sounds kind of vicious and random. No. We may be talking about a different kind of reproduction here.”
Dicken finished his cup of water.
“This isn’t exactly new to me,” Kaye mused quietly. She clenched her fingers into fists, then lightly, nervously, rapped her knuckles on the table. “Are you willing to argue that SHEVA is part of human evolution? That we’re about to make a new kind of human?”
Dicken examined Kaye’s face, her mixed wonder and excitement, the peculiar terror of coming upon the intellectual equivalent of a raging tiger. “I wouldn’t dare to put it so bluntly. But maybe I’m a coward. Maybe it is something like that. I value your opinion. God knows I need an ally here.”
Kaye’s heart thudded in her chest. She lifted her cup of coffee and the cold liquid sloshed. “My God, Christopher.” She gave a small, helpless laugh. “What if it’s true? What if we’re all pregnant? The whole human race?”
Eastern Washington State
Wide and slow, the Columbia River glided like a plain of polished jade between black basalt walls.
Mitch pulled off state route 14, drove for half a mile on a dirt and gravel road through scrub trees and bushes, then turned at a bent and rusted sheet-metal sign that read IRON CAVE.
Two old Airstream trailers gleamed in the sun a few yards from the edge of the gorge. Wooden benches and tables heaped with burlap sacks and digging tools surrounded the trailers. He parked the car off the road.
A chill breeze picked at his felt Stetson. He gripped the hat with one hand as he walked from the car to the edge and stared down upon Eileen Ripper’s encampment, fifty feet below.
A short young blond woman in frayed and faded jeans and a brown leather jacket stepped down from the door of the nearest trailer. In the moist air off the river, he instantly picked up the young woman’s scent: Opium or Trouble or some such perfume. She looked remarkably like Tilde.
The woman paused under the outstretched awning, then stepped out and shaded her eyes against the sun. “Mitch Rafelson?” she asked.
“None other,” he said. “Is Eileen down there?”
“Yeah. It’s falling apart, you know.”
“Since three days ago. Eileen worked real hard to make her case. Didn’t make much difference in the long run.”
Mitch grinned sympathetically. “Been there,” he said.
“The woman from Five Tribes packed up two days ago. That’s why Eileen thought it would be okay for you to come out here. Nobody gets mad now if you show up.”
“Nice to be popular,” Mitch said, and tipped his hat.
The woman smiled. “Eileen is feeling low. Give her some encouragement. I think you’re a hero, myself. Except maybe for those mummies.”
“Where is she?”
“Just below the cave.”
Oliver Merton sat on a folding chair in the shadow of the largest canvas canopy. About thirty, with flaming red hair, a pale broad face and short pushed-up nose, he wore a look of utter and almost fierce concentration, his lips drawn back as he punched the keyboard of a laptop computer with his index fingers.
Hunt-and-peck, Mitch thought. A self-taught typist . He checked out the man’s clothes, distinctly out of place at a dig: tweed slacks, red suspenders, a white linen dress shirt with a banded collar.
Merton did not look up until Mitch was within touching distance of the canopy.
“Mitchell Rafelson! What a pleasure!” Merton shifted the computer to the table, jumped to his feet, and held out his hand. “It’s damned gloomy here. Eileen is up the slope by the dig. I’m sure she’s eager to see you. Shall we?”
The six other workers on the site, all young interns or graduate students, looked up in curiosity as the two men passed. Merton walked ahead of Mitch and climbed over natural shelves cut by centuries of river erosion. They paused twenty feet below the bluff where an old, rust-streaked cave dug into an outcrop of basalt. Above and east of the outcrop, part of an overlying ledge of weathered stone had collapsed, scattering large blocks down the gentle slope to the shore.
Eileen Ripper stood at the outside of a posted series of carefully excavated square pits marked with topometric grids — wire and string — on the western side of the slope. In her late forties, small and dark, with deep-set black eyes and a thin nose, Ripper’s most conspicuous beauty lay in her generous lips, which contrasted appealingly with a short, unruly cap of peppered black hair.
She turned at Merton’s hail. She did not smile or call out. Instead, she put on a determined face, walked gingerly down the talus, and held out her hand to Mitch. They shook firmly.
“We got radiocarbon figures back yesterday morning,” she said. “They’re thirteen thousand years old, plus or minus five hundred…and if they ate a lot of salmon, they’re twelve thousand five hundred years old. But the Five Tribes folks say that Western science is trying to strip them of the last of their dignity. I thought I could reason with them.”
“At least you made the effort,” Mitch said.
“I apologize for judging you so harshly, Mitch. I kept my cool for so long, despite little signs of trouble, and then this woman, Sue Champion…I thought we were friends. She advises the tribes. She comes back here yesterday with two men. The men were…so smug, Mitch. Like little boys who can piss higher up the barn door. They tell me I am fabricating evidence to support my lies. They say they have the government and the law on their side. Our old nemesis, NAGPRA.”
That stood for the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act. Mitch was very familiar with the details of this legislation.
Merton stood on the loose slope, trying to keep from slipping, and made little darting glances between them.
“What evidence did you fabricate?” Mitch asked lightly.
“Don’t joke.” But Ripper’s expression loosened and she held Mitch’s hand between hers. “We took collagen from the bones and sent it to Portland. They did a DNA analysis. Our bones are from a different population, not at all related to modern Indians, only loosely related to the Spirit Cave mummy. Caucasoid, if we can use that loose term. But hardly Nordic. More Ainu, I believe.”
“That’s historic, Eileen,” Mitch said. “That’s excellent. Congratulations.”
Once started, Ripper couldn’t seem to stop. They walked down the trail to the tents. “We can’t even begin to make modern racial comparisons. That is what is so infuriating! We let our screwball notions of race and identity cloud the truth. Populations were so different back then. But modern Indians did not come from the people our skeletons belonged to. They may have competed with the ancestors of modern Indians. And they lost.”
“The Indians won?” Merton said. “They should be glad to hear it.”
“They think I’m trying to divide their political unity. They don’t care about what really happened. They want their own little dream world and the hell with truth!”
“You’re telling me?” Mitch asked.
Ripper smiled through tears of discouragement and exhaustion. “The Five Tribes have got counsel petitioning in federal court in Seattle to take the skeletons.”
“Where are the bones now?”
“In Portland. We packed them up in situ and shipped them out yesterday.”
“Across state lines?” Mitch asked. “That’s kidnapping.”
“It’s better than waiting around for a bunch of lawyers.” She shook her head and Mitch put an arm around her shoulders. “I tried to do it right, Mitch.” She wiped at her cheeks with a dusty hand, leaving muddy streaks, and forced a laugh. “Now I’ve even got the Vikings mad at us!”
The Vikings — a small group of mostly middle-aged men calling themselves the Nordic Worshippers of Odin in the New World — had come to Mitch as well, years before, to conduct their ceremonies. They had hoped that Mitch could prove their claims that Nordic explorers had populated much of North America thousands of years ago. Mitch, ever the philosopher, had let them conduct a ritual over the bones of Pasco man, still in the ground, but ultimately he had had to disappoint them. Pasco man was in fact quite thoroughly Indian, closely related to the Southern Na-dene.
After Ripper’s tests on her skeletons, the Worshippers of Odin had once again left in disappointment. In a world of fragile self-justification, the truth made no one happy.
Merton brought out a bottle of champagne and vacuum packs of smoked salmon and fresh bread and cheese as the daylight waned. Several of Ripper’s students built a large fire that snapped and crackled on the shore as Mitch and Eileen toasted their mutual insanity.
“Where’d you get this feed?” Ripper asked Merton as he spread the camp’s battered Melmac plates on the bare pine table beneath the largest canopy.
“At the airport,” Merton said. “Only place I had time to stop. Bread, cheese, fish, wine — what more does one need? Though I could use a good pint of bitter.”
“I’ve got Coors in the trailer,” a burly, balding male intern said.
“Breakfast of diggers,” Mitch said approvingly.
“Spare me,” Merton said. “And pardon me if I tell everyone to dig in. Everyone has a story to tell.” He took a plastic cup of champagne from Ripper. “Of race and time and migration and what it means to be a human being. Who wants to be first?”
Mitch knew he had only to keep silent for a couple of seconds and Ripper would start in. Merton took notes as she talked about the three skeletons and local politics. An hour and a half later, it was getting bitterly cold and they moved closer to the fire.
“The Altai tribes resent having ethnic Russians dig up their dead,” Merton said. “It’s an indigenous revolt everywhere. A slap on the wrist to the colonial oppressors. Do you think the Neandertals have their spokespersons in Innsbruck picketing right now?”
“Nobody wants to be a Neandertal,” Mitch said dryly.
“Except me.” He turned to Eileen. “I’ve been dreaming about them. My little nuclear family.”
“Really?” Eileen leaned forward, intrigued.
“I dreamed their people lived on a big raft in a lake.”
“Fifteen thousand years ago?” Merton asked, raising an eyebrow.
Mitch caught something in the reporter’s tone and looked at him suspiciously. “Is that your guess?” he asked. “Or have they got a date?”
“None they’re releasing to the public,” Merton said with a sniff. “I have a contact at the university, however…and he tells me they’ve definitely settled on fifteen thousand years. If, that is,” and he smiled at Ripper, “they didn’t eat a lot of fish.”
Merton punched the air dramatically. “Pugilism,” he said. “Raging arguments in the back rooms. Your mummies violate everything known in anthropology and archaeology. They’re not strictly Neandertal, so claim a few in the main research team; they’re a new subspecies, Homo sapiens alpinensis, according to one scientist. Another is betting they’re late stage gracile Neandertals who lived in a large community, got less stocky and robust, looked more like you and me. They hope to explain away the infant.”
Mitch lowered his head. They don ‘tfeel this the way I do. They don’t know the way I know. Then he drew back and blanketed these emotions. He had to keep some level of objectivity.
Merton turned toward Mitch. “Did you see the baby?”
This made Mitch jerk upright in his folding chair. Merton’s eyes narrowed. “Not clearly,” Mitch said. “I just assumed, when they said it was a modern infant…”
“Could Neandertal traits be masked by infant features?” Merton asked.
“No,” Mitch said. Then, with a squint, “I don’t think so.”
“I don’t think so, either,” Ripper agreed. The students had gathered close around this discussion. The fire snapped and hissed and flung up tall yellow arms that grabbed at the cold, still sky. The river lapped the gravelly shore with a sound like a clockwork dog licking a hand. Mitch felt the champagne mellowing him after a long, tiring day of driving.
“Well, implausible as it might be, it’s easier than arguing against a genetic association,” Merton said. “The people in Innsbruck pretty much have to agree that the female and the infant are related. But there are anomalies, pretty serious ones, that no one can explain. I was hoping Mitchell might be able to enlighten me.”
Mitch was saved from having to feign ignorance when a woman’s strong voice called from the top of the bluff.
“Eileen? You there? It’s Sue Champion.”
“Hell,” Ripper said. “I thought she was back in Kumash by now.” She cupped her hands to her mouth and yelled upward, “We’re down here, Sue. We’re getting drunk. Want to join us?”
One of the male students ran up the trail to the top of the bluff with a flashlight. Sue Champion followed him back down to the tent.
“Nice fire,” she observed. Over six feet tall, slender to the point of thin, with long black hair arranged in a braid draped down the front shoulder of her brown corduroy jacket, Champion looked smart, classy, and a little stiff. She might have had a ready smile, but her face was lined with fatigue. Mitch glanced at Ripper, saw the fix in her expression.
“I’m here to say I’m sorry,” Champion said.
“We’re all sorry,” Ripper said.
“Have you been out here all night? It’s cold.”
Champion walked around the canopy to be near the fire. “My office got your call about the tests. The chair of the board of trustees doesn’t believe it.”
“I can’t help that,” Ripper said. “Why did you just pull out all of a sudden and sic your attorney on me? I thought we had an agreement, and if they turned out to be Indian, we’d do basic science, with minimum invasion, then turn them over to the Five Tribes.”
“We let our guard down. We were tired after the mess over Pasco man. It was wrong.” She looked again at Mitch. “I know you.”
“Mitch Rafelson,” he said, and held out his hand.
Champion did not accept it. “You ran us a merry chase, Mitch Rafelson.”
“I feel the same way,” Mitch said.
Champion shrugged. “Our people gave in against their deeper feelings. We felt sandbagged. We need the folks in Olympia and last time we upset them. The trustees sent me here because I’m trained in anthropology. I didn’t do such a good job. Now everybody’s angry.”
“Is there anything more that we can do, out of court?” Ripper asked.
“The chairman told me that knowledge isn’t worth disturbing the dead. You should have seen the pain in the board meeting when I described the tests.”
“I thought we explained the whole procedure,” Ripper said.
“You disturb the dead everywhere. We ask only that you leave our dead alone.”
The women stared at each other sadly.
“They aren’t your dead, Sue,” Ripper said, her eyes drooping. “They aren’t your people.”
“The council thinks NAGPRA still applies.”
Ripper lifted her hand; no use going over old battles. “Then there’s nothing we can do but spend more money on lawyers.”
“No. This time you are going to win,” Champion said. “We have other troubles now. Many of our young mothers are ill with Herod’s.” Champion brushed the edge of the canvas cover with one hand. “Some of us thought it was confined to the big cities, maybe to the whites, but we were wrong.”
Merton’s eyes gleamed like eager little lenses in the flickering firelight.
“I’m sorry to hear that, Sue,” Ripper said. “My sister has Herod’s, too.” She stood and put her hand on Champion’s shoulder. “Stay for a while. We have hot coffee and cocoa.”
“Thank you, no. It’s a long drive back. We will not bother with the dead for a while. We need to take care of the living.” A slight change came over Champion’s features. “Some who are ready to listen, like my father and my grandmother, say that what you have learned is interesting.”
“Bless them, Sue,” Ripper said.
Champion looked down at Mitch. “People come and go, all of us come and go. Anthropologists know that.”
“We do,” Mitch said.
“It will be hard to explain to others,” Champion said. “I will let you know what our people decide to do about the illness, if we know any medicine. Maybe we can help your sister.” . “Thank you,” Ripper said.
Champion looked around the group under the canvas canopy, nodded deeply, then gave several additional shallow nods, showing she had had her say and was prepared to leave. She climbed the trail to the lip of the bluff with the burly intern lighting the way.
“Extraordinary,” Merton said, eyes still gleaming. “Privileged insight. Maybe even native wisdom.”
“Don’t let it get to you,” Ripper said. “Sue’s good people, but she doesn’t know what’s happening any more than my sister does.” Ripper turned to Mitch. “God, you look ill,” she said.
Mitch did feel a little queasy.
“I’ve seen that look on cabinet ministers,” Merton observed quietly. “When they were stuffed full of too many secrets.”
Kaye swung her small bag out of the backseat of the cab and slipped her credit card through the driver’s-side reader. She craned her head to look at Baltimore’s newest tower condo development, Uptown Helix, thirty floors poised on two broad quadrangles of shops and theaters, all in the shadow of the Bromo-Seltzer Tower.
The remains of a dusting of snow from earlier in the morning lingered in slushy patches along the sidewalk. To Kaye, it seemed this winter was lasting forever.
Cross had told her that the condo on the twentieth floor would be fully furnished, that her belongings would be moved in and arranged, there would be food in the refrigerator and pantry, a running tab at several restaurants downstairs: everything she desired and needed, a home just three blocks from AmericoFs corporate headquarters.
Kaye presented herself to the doorman in the resident’s lobby. He smiled the way servants smile at rich people and gave her an envelope containing her key. “I don’t own this, you know,” she said.
“Doesn’t matter a bit to me, ma’am,” he replied with the same cheerful deference.
She rode the sleek steel and glass elevator through the atrium of the shopping arcade to the residential floors, tapping her fingers on the handrail. She was alone in the elevator . I am protected, provided for, kept busy going from meeting to meeting, no time to think. I wonder who I am anymore.
She doubted that any scientist had ever felt so rushed as she felt now. Her conversation with Christopher Dicken at the NIH had pushed her onto a sidetrack having little to do with the development of SHEVA therapies. A hundred different elements of her research since postgraduate days had suddenly floated to the surface of her mind, shuffled around like swimmers in a water ballet, arranged themselves in enchanting patterns. Those patterns had nothing to do with disease and death, everything to do with the cycles of human life — or every kind of life, for that matter.
She had less than two weeks before Cross’s scientists would present their first candidate vaccine, out of twelve — at last count — being developed around the country, at Americol and elsewhere. Kaye had underestimated the speed with which Americol could work — and had overestimated the extent to which they would keep her informed. I’m still just a figurehead , she thought.
In that time, she had to make up her mind about what was actually happening — what SHEVA actually represented. What would finally happen to Mrs. Hamilton and the other women at the NIH clinic.
She emerged on the twentieth floor, found her number, 2011, fitted the electronic key into the lock, and opened the heavy door. A rush of clean, cool air, smelling of new carpet and furniture, of something else rosy and sweet, wafted out to greet her. Soft music played: Debussy, she could not remember the name of the piece, but she liked it a lot.
A bouquet of several dozen yellow roses spilled over from a crystal vase on the top of the low etagere in the hall.
The condominium was bright and cheerful, with elegant wood accents, beautifully furnished with two couches and a chair in suede and sunset gold fabric. And Debussy. She dropped the bag onto a couch and walked into the kitchen. Stainless-steel refrigerator, stove, dishwasher, gray granite countertops edged with rose-colored marble, expensive jewel-like track lighting throwing little diamond glows around the room…
“Damn it, Marge,” Kaye said under her breath. She carried the bag into the bedroom, unzipped it on the bed, pulled out her skirts and blouses and one dress to be hung in the closet, opened the closet, and stared at the wardrobe. Had she not already met two of Cross’s handsome young male companions, she would have been sure, at this point, that Marge Cross had designs on her other than corporate. She quickly flicked through the dresses, suits, silk and linen blouses, looked down at shoe racks supporting at least eight pairs for all occasions — even hiking boots — and that was enough.
Kaye sat on the edge of the bed and let out a deep, quavering sigh. She was in way over her head socially as well as scientifically. She turned to look at the reproduction Whistler prints over the maple dresser, at the oriental scroll beautifully framed in ebony with brass finials that hung on the wall over the bed.
“Little hothouse posy in the big city.” She felt her face screwing up in anger.
The phone in her purse rang. She jumped, walked into the living room, opened the purse, answered.
“Kaye, this is Judith.”
“You were right,” Kaye said abruptly.
“You were right.”
“I’m always right, dear. You know that.” Judith paused for effect, and Kaye knew she had something important to say. “You asked about transposon activity in my SHEVA-infected hepatocytes.”
Kaye felt her spine stiffen. This was the stab in the not-so-dark she had made two days after speaking with Dicken. She had pored over the texts and refreshed herself with a dozen articles in six different journals. She had gone through her notebooks, where she had scribbled down mad little moments of extreme speculation.
She and Saul had counted themselves among the biologists who suspected that transposons — mobile lengths of DNA within the genome — were far more than just selfish genes.
Kaye had written a solid twelve pages in the notebook on the possibility that these were very important phenotype regulators, not selfish but selfless; they could, under certain circumstances, guide the way proteins became living tissue. Change the way proteins created a living plant or animal. Retrotrans-posons were very similar to retroviruses — and thus the genetic link with SHEVA.
All together, they could be the handmaids of evolution.
“Just a moment,” Kaye said. “Let me catch my breath.”
“Well you should, dear, dear former student Kaye Lang. Transposon activity in our SHEVA-infected hepatocytes is mildly enhanced. They shuffle around with no apparent effect. That’s interesting. But we’ve gone beyond the hepatocytes. We’ve been doing tests on embryonic stem cells for the Taskforce.”
Embryonic stem cells could become any sort of tissue, very much like early growth cells in fetuses.
“We’ve sort of encouraged them to behave like fertilized human ova,” Kushner said. “They can’t grow up to be fetuses, but please don’t tell the PDA. In these stem cells, the transposon activity is extraordinary. After SHEVA, the transposons jump around like bugs on a hot griddle. They’re active on at least twenty chromosomes. If this were random churning, the cell should die. The cell survives. It’s as healthy as ever.”
“It’s regulated activity?”
“It’s triggered by something in SHEVA. My guess is, something in the LPC — the large protein complex. The cell reacts as if it’s being subjected to extraordinary stress.”
“What do you think that means, Judith?”
“SHEVA has designs on us. It wants to change our genome, maybe radically.”
“Why?” Kaye grinned expectantly. She was sure Judith would see the inevitable connection.
“This kind of activity can’t be benign, Kaye.”
Kaye’s smile collapsed. “But the cell survives.”
“Yes,” Kushner said. “But as far as we know, the babies don’t. It’s too much change all at once. For years I’ve been waiting for nature to react to our environmental bullshit, tell us to stop overpopulating and depleting resources, to shut up and stop messing around and just die. Species-level apop-tosis. I think this could be the final warning — a real species killer.”
“You’re passing this on to Augustine?”
“Not directly, but he’ll see it.”
Kaye looked at the phone for a moment, stunned, then thanked Judith and told her she would call her later. Kaye’s hands tingled.
Not evolution, then. Perhaps Mother Nature had judged humans to be a malignant growth, a cancer.
For a horrible moment, that made more sense than what she and Dicken had talked about. Yet what about the new children, the ones born of the ova released by the intermediate daughters? Were they going to be genetically damaged, born apparently normal, but dying soon after? Or would they simply be rejected during the first trimester, like the interim daughters?
Kaye looked through the wide glass doors over the city of Baltimore, the late morning sun glittering on wet rooftops, asphalt streets. She imagined every pregnancy leading to another equally futile pregnancy, to wombs clogged with endless, horribly distorted first-trimester fetuses.
Shutting down human reproduction.
If Judith Kushner was correct, the bell had just tolled for the whole human race.
Americol Headquarters, Baltimore
Marge Cross stood at stage left of the auditorium as Kaye formed a line with six scientists, prepared to field questions on the announcement.
Four hundred and fifty reporters filled the auditorium to capacity. Americol’s public relations director for the eastern U.S., Laura Nilson, young, black, and very intent, tugged at the hem of the jacket of her trim olive wool suit, then took over the questions.
The health and science reporter for CNN was first in the queue. “I’d like to direct my question to Dr. Jackson.”
Robert Jackson, head of the Americol SHEVA vaccine project, lifted his hand.
“Dr. Jackson, if this virus has had so many millions of years to evolve, how is it possible that Americol can announce a trial vaccine after less than three months of research? Are you smarter than Mother Nature?”
The room buzzed for a moment with mixed laughter and whispered comment. The excitement was palpable. Most of the young women in the room wore gauze masks, though that precaution had been proven ineffective. Others sucked on special mint and garlic lozenges claimed to prevent SHEVA from gaining a hold. Kaye could smell this peculiar odor even on the stage.
Jackson came to the microphone. At fifty, he looked like a well-preserved rock musician, loosely handsome, with suits only barely pressed and unruly brown hair graying at the temples.
“We began our work years before Herod’s flu,” Jackson said. “We’ve always been interested in HERV sequences, because, as you imply, there’s a lot of cleverness hidden there.” He paused for effect, favoring the audience with a small smile, showing his strength by expressing admiration for the enemy. “But in truth, in the last twenty years, we’ve learned how most diseases do their dirty work, how the agents are constructed, how they are vulnerable. By creating empty SHEVA particles, increasing the retrovirus failure rate to one hundred percent, we make a harmless antigen. But the particles are not strictly empty. We load them with a ri-bozyme, a ribonucleic acid with enzymatic activity. The ribozyme locks on to, and cleaves, several fragments of SHEVA RNA not yet assembled in an infected cell. SHEVA becomes the delivery system for a molecule that blocks its own disease-causing activity.”
“Sir—” the CNN reporter tried to break in.
“I’m not done answering your question,” Jackson said. “It is such a good one!” The audience chuckled. “Our problem until now has been that humans do not react in any strong fashion to SHEVA antigen. So our breakthrough came when we learned how to emphasize the immune response by attaching glycoproteins associated with other pathogens for which the body automatically mounts a strong defense.”
The CNN reporter tried to ask another question, but Nilson had already moved on down the long list. Next up was Sci-Trax’s young on-line correspondent. “Again for Dr. Jackson. Do you know why we are so vulnerable to SHEVA?”
“Not all of us are vulnerable. Men demonstrate a strong immune response to SHEVA they do not themselves produce. This explains the course of Herod’s flu in men — a quick, forty-eight-hour sort of thing, when it happens at all. Women, however, are almost universally open to the infection.”
“Yes, but why are women so vulnerable?”
“We believe that SHEVA’s strategy is incredibly long-term, on the order of thousands of years. It may be the first virus we’ve seen that relies on the growth of populations rather than individuals for its own propagation. To provoke a strong immune response would be counterproductive, so SHEVA emerges only when it seems that populations are either under stress, or because of some other triggering event we don’t yet understand.”
The science correspondent for the New York Times was next. “Drs. Pong and Subramanian, you’ve specialized in understanding Herod’s flu in Southeast Asia, which is reporting over a hundred thousand cases so far. There has even been rioting in Indonesia. There were rumors last week that this was a different provirus—”
“Completely wrong,” Subramanian said, smiling politely. “SHEVA is remarkably uniform. May I make a slight correction? ‘Provirus’ refers to the viral DNA inserted into the human genetic material. Once expressed, it is simply a virus or a retrovirus, although in this case, a very interesting one.”
Kaye wondered how Subramanian could focus solely on the science, when her ears caught the singular and frightening word “riots.”
“Yes, but my next question is, why do human males mount a strong immune response to the viruses of other males, but not to their own, if the glycoproteins in the envelope, the antigens, according to your press announcement, are so simple and invariant?”
“A very good question,” Dr. Pong said. “Do we have time for a daylong seminar?”
Mild laughter. Pong continued, “We believe that male response begins after cell invasion, and that at least one gene within SHEVA contains subtle variations or mutations, which cause production of antigens on the surfaces of certain cells prior to a full-bore immune response, thereby acclimating the body to—”
Kaye listened with half her mind. She kept thinking of Mrs. Hamilton and the other women in the NIH clinic.
Human reproduction shutting down. There had to be extreme reactions to any failure; the burden on the scientists was going to be enormous.
“Oliver Merton, from the Economist. Question for Dr. Lang.” Kaye looked up and saw a young red-haired man in a tweed coat holding the remote microphone. “Now that the genes coding for SHEVA, on their different chromosomes, have all been patented by Mr. Richard Bragg…” Merton glanced at his notes. “Of Berkeley, California…Patent number 8,564,094, issued by the United States Patent and Trademark Office on February 27, just yesterday, how will any company hoping to create a vaccine proceed without licensing and paying royalties?”
Nilson leaned toward her podium microphone. “There is no such patent, Mr. Merton.”
“There is indeed,” Merton said with an irritated wrinkle of his nose, “and I was hoping Dr. Lang could explain her deceased husband’s involvement with Richard Bragg, and how that figures in her current association with Americol and the CDC?”
Kaye stood in dumfounded silence.
Merton grinned proudly at the confusion.
Kaye entered the green room after Jackson, followed by Pong, Subramanian, and the rest of the scientists. Cross sat in the middle of a large blue couch, her expression grave. Four of her top attorneys stood in a half circle around the couch.
“What in the hell was that all about?” Jackson demanded, swinging his arm out to poke in the general direction of the stage.
“The little rooster out there is right,” Cross said. “Richard Bragg convinced somebody at the PTO that he isolated and sequenced the SHEVA genes before anyone else. He started the patent process last year.”
Kaye took a faxed copy of the patent from Cross. Listed among the inventors was Saul Madsen; EcoBacter was on the list of assignees, along with AKS Industries — the company that had purchased and then liquidated EcoBacter.
“Kaye, tell me now, tell me straight,” Cross said, “did you know anything about this?”
“Nothing,” Kaye said. “I’m at a loss, Marge. I specified locations, but I did not sequence the genes. Saul never mentioned Richard Bragg.”
“What does it mean for our work?” Jackson stormed. “Lang, how could you not know?”
“We’re not done with this,” Cross said. “Harold?” She glanced at the nearest gray-haired man in his immaculate pinstripe suit.
“We’ll challenge with Genetmn v.Amgen, ‘Random patenting of retrogenes in mouse genome,’ “ the attorney said. “Give us a day and we’ll have a dozen more reasons to overturn.” He pointed to Kaye and asked her, “Does AKS or any subsidiary use federal funds?”
“EcoBacter applied for a small federal grant,” Kaye said. “It was approved, but never funded.”
“We could get NIH to invoke Bayh-Dole,” the attorney mused happily.
“What if it’s solid?” Cross interrupted, her voice low and dangerous.
“It’s possible we can get Ms. Lang an interest in the patent. Unlawful exclusion of primary inventor.”
Cross thumped the couch cushions with a fist. “Then we’ll think positive,” she said. “Kaye, honey, you look like a stunned ox.”
Kaye held up her hands in defense. “I swear, Marge, I didn’t—”
“Why my own people didn’t weed this out, I’d like to know. I want to talk with Shawbeck and Augustine right away.” She turned to the attorneys. “See where else Bragg has poked his finger. Where there’s scum, there’s bound to be a slipup.”
“It was a very short trip,” Dicken said as he dropped a paper report and a diskette on Augustine’s desk. “The WHO folks in Africa told me they were handling things their way, thank you. They said cooperation on past investigations could not be assumed here. They only have one hundred and fifty confirmed cases in all of Africa, so they say, and they don’t see any reason for panic. At least they were kind enough to give me some tissue samples. I shipped them out of Cape Town.”
“We got them,” Augustine said. “Odd. If we believe their figures, Africa’s being hit much more lightly than Asia or Europe or North America.” He looked troubled — not angry, but sad. Dicken had never seen Augustine look so down before. “Where are we going with this, Christopher?”
“The vaccine, right?” Christopher asked.
“I mean you, me, the Taskforce. We’re going to have over a million infected women by the end of May in North America alone. The national security advisor has called in sociologists to tell them how the public’s going to react. The pressure is increasing every week. I’ve just come from a meeting with the surgeon general and the vice president. Just the veep, Christopher. The president considers the Taskforce a liability. Kaye Lang’s little scandal was completely unexpected. The only joy I got out of that was watching Marge Cross chug around this room like a derailed freight train. We’re getting pasted in the press — ’Incompetent Bungling in an Age of Miracles.’That’s the general tone.”
“Not surprising,” Dicken said, and sat in the chair across from the desk.
“You know Lang better than I do, Christopher. How could she have let this happen?”
“I was under the impression that NIH was getting the patent reversed. Some technicality, inability to exploit a natural resource.”
“Yes — but in the meanwhile, this son of a bitch Bragg is making us look like donkeys. Was Lang so stupid as to sign every paper her husband thrust in front of her?”
“She signed,” Augustine said. “Plain as day. Handing over control of any discovery based on primordial human endogenous retrovirus to Saul Madsen and any partners.”
“Partners not specified?”
“Then she’s not really culpable, is she?” Dicken said.
“I don’t enjoy working with fools. She crossed me quite literally with Americol, and now she’s brought ridicule down on the Taskforce. Any wonder the president won’t meet with me?”
“It’s temporary.” Dicken bit at a fingernail but stopped when Augustine looked up.
“Cross says we go ahead with the trials and let Bragg sue us. I agree. But for the time being, I’m burying our relationship with Lang.”
“She could still be useful.”
“Then let her be anonymously useful.”
“Are you saying I should stay away from her?”
“No,” Augustine said. “Keep everything hunky-dory between you. Make her feel wanted and in the loop. I don’t want her going to the press — unless it’s to complain about Cross’s treatment. Now…for the next bit of unpleasantness.”
Augustine reached into his desk drawer and pulled out a glossy black-and-white photo. “I hate this, Christopher, but I see why it’s being done.”
“What?” Dicken felt like a little boy about to be scolded.
“Shawbeck asked the FBI to keep tabs on our key people.”
Dicken leaned forward. He had long since developed a civil servant’s instinct for keeping his reactions in check. “Why, Mark?”
“Because there’s talk about declaring a national emergency and invoking martial law. No decision has been made yet…it may be months away…But under the circumstances, we all need to be pure as the driven snow. We’re angels of healing, Christopher. The public is relying on us. No flaws allowed.”
Augustine handed him the photo. It showed him standing in front of Jessie’s Cougar in Washington, D.C. “It would have been very embarrassing if you had been recognized.”
Dicken’s face flushed with both guilt and anger. “I went there once, months ago,” he said. “I stayed fifteen minutes and left.”
“You went into a back room with a girl,” Augustine said.
“She wore a surgical mask and treated me like a leper!” Dicken said, showing more heat than he had intended. The instinct was wearing very thin. “I didn’t even want to touch her!”
“I hate this shit as much as anybody, Christopher,” Augustine said stonily, “but it’s just the beginning. We’re all of us facing pretty intense public scrutiny.”
“So I’m under probation and review, Mark? The FBI is going to ask for my little black book?”
Augustine did not feel the need to answer this.
Dicken stood and threw the photograph down on the desk. “What next? Shall I tell you the name of everyone I’m dating, and what we do together?”
“Yes,” Augustine said softly.
Dicken stopped in midtirade and felt his anger fly out of him like a loose burp. The implications were so broad and frightening that he suddenly felt nothing more than cold anxiety.
“The vaccine won’t be through clinical trials for at least four months, even on emergency fast track. Shawbeck and the VP are taking a new policy to the White House this evening. We’re recommending quarantine. It’s a good bet we’re going to need to invoke some sort of martial law to enforce it.”
Dicken sat down again. “Unbelievable,” he said.
“Don’t tell me you haven’t thought about this,” Augustine said. His face was gray with strain.
“I don’t have that kind of imagination,” Dicken said bitterly.
Augustine swiveled to look out the window. “Springtime soon. Young men’s fancy and all that. A really good time to announce segregation of the sexes. All women of child-bearing age, all men. OMB will have a ball figuring out how much this will slow down the GNP.”
They sat in silence for a long moment.
“Why did you lead with Kaye Lang?” Dicken asked.
“Because I know what to do with her,” Augustine said. “This other stuff…Don’t quote me, Christopher. I see the necessity, but I don’t know how in hell we can survive it, politically.” He pulled another print from the folder and held it up for Dicken to see. It showed a man and a woman on a porch in front of an old brownstone, illuminated by a single overhead light. They were kissing. Dicken could not see the man’s face, but he dressed like Augustine and had the same physique.
“Just so you don’t feel bad. She’s married to a freshman congressman,” Augustine said. “We’re finished. Time for all of us to grow up.”
Dicken stood outside the Taskforce center in Building 51, feeling a little ill. Martial law. Segregation of the sexes. He hunched his shoulders and walked to the parking lot, avoiding the cracks in the sidewalk.
In his car, he found a message on the cell phone. He dialed in and retrieved it. An unfamiliar voice tried to overcome a real antipathy toward leaving messages, and after a few false starts, suggested they had mutual acquaintances — two or three removed — and possibly some mutual interests.
“My name is Mitch Rafelson. I’m in Seattle now but I hope to fly East soon and meet with some people. If you’re interested…in historical incidents of SHEVA, ancient examples, please get in touch with me.”
Dicken closed his eyes and shook his head. Unbelievable. It seemed everyone knew about his crazy hypothesis. He took down the phone number on a small notepad, then stared at it quizzically. The man’s name sounded familiar. He marked it through once with his pen.
He rolled down the window and took a deep breath of air. The day was warming and the clouds over Bethesda were clearing. Winter would be over soon.
Against his better judgment, against any judgment worthy of the name, he punched in Kaye Lang’s number. She was not at home.
“I hope you’re good at dancing with the big girls,” Dicken murmured to himself, and started the car. “Cross is a very big girl indeed.”
The attorney’s name was Charles Wothering. He sounded pure Boston, dressed with rumpled flair, wore a rough-knit wool cap and a long purple muffler. Kaye offered him coffee and he accepted.
“Very nice,” he commented, looking around the apartment. “You have taste.”
“Marge set it up for me,” Kaye said.
Wothering smiled. “Marge has no taste in decoration at all. But money does wonderful things, doesn’t it?”
Kaye smiled. “No complaints,” she said. “Why did she send you here? To…amend our agreements?”
“Not at all,” Wothering said. “Your father and mother are dead, aren’t they?”
“Yes,” Kaye said.
“I’m a middling lawyer, Ms. Lang — may I call you Kaye?”
“Middling at law, but Marge values me as a judge of character. Believe it or not, Marge is not a very good judge of character. Lots of bravado, but a string of bad marriages, which I helped untangle and pack away into the distant past, never to be heard from again. She thinks you need my help.”
“How?” Kaye asked.
Wothering sat on the couch and took three spoons of sugar from the bowl on the serving tray. He stirred them deliberately into his cup. “Did you love Saul Madsen?”
“Yes,” Kaye said.
“And how do you feel now?”
Kaye thought this over, but did not look down from Wothering’s steady gaze. “I realize how much Saul was hiding things from me, just to keep our dream afloat.”
“How much did Saul contribute to your work, intellectually?”
“That depends which work.”
“Your endogenous virus work.”
“Only a little. Not his specialty.”
“What was his specialty?”
“He likened himself to yeast.”
“Beg your pardon?”
“He contributed to the ferment. I brought in the sugar.”
Wothering laughed. “Did he stimulate you, intellectually, I mean?”
“He challenged me.”
“Like a teacher, or a parent, or…a partner?”
“Partner,” Kaye said. “I don’t see where we’re going, Mr. Wothering.”
“You attached yourself to Marge because you did not feel yourself adequate to deal with Augustine and his people alone. Am I right?”
Kaye stared at him.
Wothering lifted a bushy eyebrow.
“Not exactly,” Kaye said. Her eyes stung from not blinking. Wothering blinked luxuriously and set down his cup.
“To be brief, Marge sent me here to separate you from Saul Madsen every way I can. I need your permission to conduct a thorough investigation of EcoBacter, AKS, and your contracts with the Taskforce.”
“Is that necessary? I’m sure there aren’t any more skeletons in my closet, Mr. Wothering.”
“We can never be too cautious, Kaye. You understand that things are getting very serious. Embarrassments of any sort can have a real impact on public policy.”
“I know,” Kaye said. “I’ve said I’m sorry.”
Wothering held out his hand and made a soothing face as he patted the air with his fingers. In a different age, he might have patted her knee in a fatherly fashion. “We’ll clean up the mess.” Wothering’s eyes took on a flinty look. “I don’t want to replace your own growing sense of individual responsibility with the automatic personal housekeeping of a good lawyer,” he said. “You’re a grown woman now, Kaye. But what I will do is untangle the strings, and then…I’ll cut them. You will owe nothing to anybody.”
Kaye bit her lip. “I’d like to make one thing clear, Mr. Wothering. My husband was sick. He was mentally ill. What Saul did or did not do is no reflection on me — nor on him. He was trying to keep his balance and get on with his life and work.”
“I understand, Ms. Lang.”
“Saul was very helpful to me, in his own way, but I resent any implication that I am not my own woman.”
“No such implication intended.”
“Good,” Kaye said, feeling her way through a subtle minefield of irritation, threatening to flare into anger. “What I need to know now is, does Marge Cross still find me useful?”
Wothering smiled and gave a tilt of his head in a way that expertly expressed acknowledgment of her irritation and the need to continue his task. “Marge never gives more than she takes, as I’m sure you will learn soon. Can you explain this vaccine to me, Kaye?”
“It’s a combination antigen coat carrying a tailored ri-bozyme. Ribonucleic acid with enzymelike properties. It attaches to part of the SHEVA code and splits it. Breaks its back. The virus can’t replicate.”
Wothering shook his head in amazement. “Technically wonderful,” he said. “For most of us, incomprehensible. Tell me, how do you think Marge will get women all over the world to consider using it?”
“Advertising and promotion, I suppose. She said she’d practically give it away.”
“Who will the patients trust , Kaye? You are a brilliant woman whose husband deceived her, kept her in the dark. Women can feel this unfairness in their very wombs. Believe me, Marge will go to great lengths to keep you on her team. Your story just gets better and better.”
Mitch pushed up in bed, in a sweat and shouting. The words leaped out in a guttural tumble even as he realized he was awake. He sat on one side of the bed, leg still tangled in the covers, and shivered. “Nuts,” he said. “I am nuts. Nuts to this”
He had dreamed of the Neandertals again. This time, he had flowed in and out of the male’s point of view, a fluid sort of freedom that had at once immersed him in a very clear and unpleasant set of emotions, and then lofted him away to observe a jumbled flow of events. Crowds had formed at the edge of the village — not on a lake this time, but in a clearing surrounded by deep and ancient woods. They had shaken sharpened, fire-hardened sticks at the female, whose name he could almost remember…Na-lee-ah or Ma-lee.
“Jean Auel, here I come,” he murmured as he extricated his foot from the covers. “Mowgli of the Stone Tribe saves his woman. Jesus.”
He walked into the kitchen to get a glass of water. He was fighting off some virus — a cold, he was sure, and not SHEVA, considering the state of his relationships with women. His mouth tasted dry and foul and his nose was dripping. He had caught the cold somewhere on his trip to Iron Cave the week before. Maybe Merton had given it to him. He had driven the British journalist to the airport for a flight to Maryland.
The water tasted terrible, but it cleaned out his mouth. He looked out over Broadway and the post office, nearly deserted now. A March snowstorm was throwing small crystal flakes down on the streets. The orange sodium vapor streetlights turned the accumulated snow into scattered piles of gold.
“They were kicking us off the lake, out of the village,” he murmured. “We were going to have to fend for ourselves. Some hotheads were getting ready to follow us, maybe try to kill us. We…”
He shuddered. The emotions had been so raw and so real he could not easily shake them. Fear, rage, something else…a helpless kind of love. He felt his face. They had been shedding some sort of skin from their faces, little masks. The mark of their crime.
“Dear Shirley MacLaine,” he said, pressing his forehead against the cold glass of the window. “I’m channeling cavemen who don’t live in caves. Any advice?”
He looked at the clock on the VCR perched precariously on top of the small TV. It was five in the morning. It would be eight o’clock in Atlanta. He would try that number again, and then try to log on with his repaired laptop and send an e-mail message.
In the bathroom, he stared at himself in the mirror. Hair awry, face sweaty and oily, two days’ growth of beard, wearing a ripped T-shirt and BVDs. “A regular Jeremiah,” he said.
Then he started another general cleanup by blowing his nose and brushing his teeth.
Christopher Dicken had returned to his small house on the outskirts of Atlanta at three in the morning. He had worked at his CDC office until two, preparing papers for Augustine on the spread of SHEVA in Africa. He had lain awake for an hour, wondering what the world was going to be like in the next six months. When he finally drifted off into sleep, he was awakened it seemed moments later by the buzzing of his cell phone. He sat up in the queen-size bed that had once belonged to his parents, wondered for a moment where he was, decided quickly he was not in the Cape Town Hilton, and switched on the light. Morning was already glowing through the window shutters. He managed to pull the phone out of his coat pocket in the closet by the fourth ring and answered it.
“Is this Dr. Chris Dicken?”
“Christopher. Yeah.” He looked at his watch. It was eight fifteen. He had managed to sleep a mere two hours, and he was sure he felt worse than if he had had no sleep at all.
“My name is Mitch Rafelson.”
This time, Dicken remembered the name and its association. “Really?” he said. “Where are you, Mr. Rafelson?”
“Then it’s even earlier where you are. I need to get back to sleep.”
“Wait, please,” Mitch said. “I’m sorry if I woke you up. Did you get my message?”
“I got a message,” Dicken said.
“We need to talk.”
“Listen, if you are Mitch Rafelson, the Mitch Rafelson, I need to talk to you…about as much as…” He tried to come up with a witty comparison, but his mind wouldn’t work. “I don’t need to talk with you.”
“Point made…but please listen anyway. You’ve been tracking SHEVA all over the world, right?”
“Yeah,” Dicken said. He yawned. “I get very little sleep thinking about it.”
“Me, too,” Mitch said. “Your bodies in the Caucasus tested positive for SHEVA. My mummies…in the Alps…the mummies at Innsbruck test positive for SHEVA.”
Dicken pressed the phone closer to his ear. “How do you know that?”
“I have the lab reports from the University of Washington. I need to show what I know to you and to whoever else is open-minded about this.”
“Nobody is open-minded about this,” Dicken said. “Who gave you my number?”
“Dr. Wendell Packer.”
“Do I know Packer?”
“You work with a friend of his. Renee Sondak.”
Dicken scratched at a front tooth with a fingernail. Thought very seriously about hanging up. His cell phone was digitally scrambled, but somebody could decode the conversation if they had a mind to. This made him flash hot with anger. Things were out of control. Everyone had lost perspective and it was not going to get better if he just played along.
“I’m pretty lonely,” Mitch said into the silence. “I need someone to tell me I’m not completely nuts.”
“Yeah,” Dicken said. “I know what that’s like.” Then, screwing up his face and stamping his foot on the floor, knowing this was going to give him far more trouble than any windmill he had ever tilted at before, he said, “Tell me more, Mitch.”
San Diego, California
The title of the international conference, arranged in black plastic letters on the convention center billboard, gave Dicken a brief thrill — brief and very necessary. Nothing much had thrilled him in the good old way of work satisfaction in the past couple of months, but the name of the conference was easily sufficient.
CONTROLLING THE EN-VIRON-MENT: NEW TECHNIQUES TOWARD THE CONQUEST OF VIRAL ILLNESS
The sign was not overly optimistic or off base. In a few more years, the world might not need Christopher Dicken to chase down viruses.
The problem they all faced was that in disease time, a few years could be very long indeed.
Dicken walked just outside the shadow of the center’s concrete overhang, near the main entrance, reveling in the bright sun on the sidewalk. He had not experienced this kind of heat since Cape Town, and it gave him a furnace boost of energy. Atlanta was finally warming, but the cold gripping the East had kept snow on the streets in Baltimore and Bethesda.
Mark Augustine was in town already, staying at the U.S. Grant, away from the majority of the five thousand predicted attendees, most of whom were filling the hotels along the waterfront. Dicken had picked up his convention package — a thick spiral-bound program book with a companion DVD-ROM disk — just this morning to get an early glimpse at the schedule.
Marge Cross would deliver a keynote address tomorrow morning. Dicken would sit on five panels, two of them dealing with SHEVA. Kaye Lang would be on one panel with Dicken, and on seven others beside, and she would deliver a talk before the plenary session of the World Retrovirus Eradication Research Group, held in conjunction with this conference.
The press was already hailing AmericoPs ribozyme vaccine as a major breakthrough. It looked good in a petri dish — very good indeed — but the human trials had not yet begun. Augustine was under considerable pressure from Shawbeck, and Shawbeck was under considerable pressure from the administration, and they were all using a very long spoon to sup with Cross.
Dicken could smell eight different kinds of disaster in the winds.
He had not heard from Mitch Rafelson for several days, but suspected the anthropologist was already in town. They had not yet met, but the conspiracy was on. Kaye had agreed to join them for a talk this evening or tomorrow, depending on when Cross’s people would let her loose from a round of public relations interviews.
They would have to find a place away from prying eyes. Dicken suspected the best place would be right in the middle of everything, and to that end, he carried a second bag with a blank convention badge — “Guest of CDC” — and program book.
Kaye walked through the crowded suite, eyes darting nervously from face to face. She felt like a spy in a bad movie, trying to hide her true emotions, certainly her opinions — though she, herself, hardly knew what to think now. She had spent much of the afternoon in Marge Cross’s suite — rather, her entire floor — upstairs, meeting with men and women representing wholly owned subsidiaries, professors from UCSD, the mayor of San Diego.
Marge had taken her aside and promised even more impressive VIPs near the end of the conference. “Keep bright and shiny,” Cross had told her. “Don’t let the conference wear you down.”
Kaye felt like a doll on display. She did not like the sensation.
She took the elevator to the ground floor at five-thirty and boarded a charter bus to the opener. The event was being held at the San Diego Zoo, hosted by Americol.
As she stepped down from the bus in front of the zoo, she breathed in a scent of jasmine and the soil-rich wetness of evening sprinklers. The line at the entrance booth was busy; she queued up at a side gate and showed the guard her invitation.
Four women dressed in black carried signs and marched solemnly in front of the zoo entrance. Kaye saw them just before she was allowed in; one of their signs read OUR BODIES, OUR DESTINY: SAVE OUR CHILDREN.
Inside, the warm twilight felt magical. She had not had anything like a vacation in over a year, the last time with Saul. Everything since had been work and grief, sometimes both together.
A zoo guide took charge of a group of AmericoFs guests and gave them a brief tour. Kaye spent a few seconds watching the pink flamingos in their wading pool. She admired four centenarian sulfur-crested cockatoos, including the zoo’s current mascot, Ramesses, who regarded the departing crowds of day visitors with sleepy indifference. The guide then showed them to a side pavilion and court surrounded by palm trees.
A mediocre band played forties’ favorites under the pavilion as men and women carried food on paper plates and found tables.
Kaye stopped by a buffet table laden with fruit and vegetables, picked up a generous helping of cheese, cherry tomatoes, cauliflower, and pickled mushrooms, then ordered a glass of white wine from the no-host bar.
As she was taking money from her purse to pay for the wine, she spotted Christopher Dicken out of the corner of her eye. He had in tow a tall, rugged-looking man dressed in a denim jacket and faded gray jeans and carrying a scuffed leather satchel under his arm. Kaye took a deep breath, fumbled her change back into her purse, and turned in time to meet Dicken’s stealthy glance, hi return, she gave him a surreptitious tilt of her head.
Kaye could not help giggling as Dicken pulled aside a canvas and they strolled casually away from the closed court. The zoo was nearly empty. “I feel so sneaky,” she said. She still carried her glass of wine, but had managed to ditch the plate of vegetables. “What in the world do we think we’re doing?”
There was little conviction in Mitch’s smile. She found his eyes disconcerting — at once boyish and sad. Dicken, shorter and plumper, seemed more immediate and accessible, so Kaye focused on him. He carried a gift-shop bag and with a flourish pulled from it a folding map of the world’s largest zoo.
“We may be here to save the human race,” Dicken said. “Subterfuge is justified.”
“Damn,” Kaye said. “I’d hoped it was something more sensible. I wonder if anyone’s listening?”
Dicken swept his hand toward the low arches of the Spanish-style reptile house as if waving a magic wand. Only a few straggling tourists remained on the zoo grounds. “All clear,” he said.
“I’m serious, Christopher,” Kaye said.
“If the FBI is bugging Komodo dragons or men in Hawaiian shirts, then we’re goners. This is the best I can do.”
Loud shrieks from howler monkeys greeted the last of the daylight. Mitch led them down a concrete path through a tropical rain forest. Footlights illuminated the pathway and misters sprayed the air over their heads. The charm of the setting held them all for the moment, and no one was willing to break the spell.
To Kaye, Mitch seemed all legs and arms, the kind of man who did not fit indoors. His silence bothered her. He turned, regarded her with his steady green eyes. Kaye noticed his shoes: hiking boots, the thick-treaded soles well-worn.
She smiled awkwardly and Mitch returned her smile.
“I’m out of my league,” he said. “If anybody’s going to start our conversation, it should be you, Ms. Lang.”
“But you’re the man with the revelation,” Dicken said.
“How much time do we have?” Mitch asked.
“I’m free for the rest of the evening,” Kaye said. “Marge wants us in tow by eight tomorrow morning. There’s going to be an Americol breakfast.”
They descended an escalator into a canyon and paused by a cage occupied by two Scottish wildcats. The domestic-looking brindled felines paced back and forth, grumbling softly in the dusk.
“I’m the odd man out here,” Mitch said. “I know very little microbiology, barely enough to get along. I stumbled onto something wonderful, and it almost ruined my life. I’m disreputable, known to be eccentric, a two-time loser in the science game. If you were smart, you wouldn’t even be seen with me.”
“Remarkably candid,” Dicken said. He raised his hand. “Next. I’ve chased diseases over half the Earth. I have a feel for how they spread, what they do, how they work. From almost the very beginning, I suspected I was tracking something new. Up until just recently, I’ve tried to lead a double life, tried to believe two contradictory things at once, and I can’t do it anymore.”
Kaye finished her glass of wine with one gulp. “We sound like we’re working through a twelve-step program,” she said. “All right. My turn. I’m an insecure female research scientist who wants to be kept out of all the dirty little details, so I cling to anybody who’ll give me a place to work and protect me…and now it’s time to be independent and make my own decisions. Time to grow up.”
“Hallelujah,” Mitch said.
“Go, sister,” Dicken said.
She looked up, ready to be angry, but they were both smiling in just the right way, and for the first time in many months — since the last good time with Saul — she felt she was among friends.
Dicken reached into the shopping bag and produced a bottle of merlot. “Zoo security could bust us,” he said, “but this is the least of our sins. Some of what needs to be said may only be said if we’re properly drunk.”
“I gather you two have shared ideas already,” Mitch said to Kaye as Dicken poured the wine. “I’ve tried to read everything I could just to get ready for this, but I’m still way behind.”
“I don’t know where to begin,” Kaye said. Now that they were more relaxed, the way Mitch Rafelson looked at her — direct, honest, assessing her without being obvious about it — stirred something she had thought almost dead.
“Begin with where you two met,” Mitch said.
“Georgia,” Kaye said.
“The birthplace of wine,” Dicken added.
“We visited a mass grave,” Kaye said. “Though not together. Pregnant women and their husbands.”
“Killing the children,” Mitch said, his eyes suddenly losing their focus. “Why?”
They sat at a plastic table near a closed refreshment stand, deep in the shadows of a canyon. Brown and red roosters pecked through the bushes beside the asphalt road and beige concrete walkways. A big cat coughed and snarled in its cage and the sound echoed eerily.
Mitch pulled a file folder from his small leather satchel and laid the papers neatly on the plastic table. “This is where it all comes together.” He laid his hand on two papers on the right. “These are analyses made at the University of Washington.
Wendell Packer gave me permission to show them to you. If somebody blabs, however, we could all be in deep zoo-doo.”
“Analyses of what?” Kaye asked.
“The genetics of the Innsbruck mummies. Two sets of tissue results from two different labs at the University of Washington. I gave tissue samples of the two adults to Wen-dell Packer. Innsbruck, as it turned out, sent a set of samples of all three mummies to Maria Konig in the same department. Wendell was able to make comparisons.”
“What did they find?” Kaye asked.
“That the three bodies were really a family. Mother, father, daughter. I knew that already — I saw them all together in the cave in the Alps.”
Kaye frowned in puzzlement. “I remember the story. You went to the cave at the request of two friends…Disturbed the site…And the woman with you took the infant in her backpack?”
Mitch looked away, jaw muscles tight. “I can tell you what actually happened,” he said.
“That’s all right,” Kaye said, suddenly wary.
“Just to straighten things out,” Mitch insisted. “We need to trust each other if we’re going to continue.”
“Then tell me more,” Kaye said.
Mitch went through the whole story in brief. “It was a mess,” he concluded.
Dicken watched them both intently, arms folded.
Kaye used the pause to look through the analyses spread on the plastic table top, making sure the papers did not get stained by leftover catsup. She studied the results of carbon 14 dating, the comparisons of genetic markers, and finally, Packer’s successful search for SHEVA.
“Packer says SHEVA hasn’t changed much in fifteen thousand years,” Mitch said. “He finds that astonishing, if they’re junk DNA.”
“They’re hardly junk,” Kaye said. “The genes have been conserved for as much as thirty million years. They’re constantly refreshed, tested, conserved…Locked up in tight-packed chromatin, protected by insulators…They have to be.”
“If you’ll indulge me, I’d like to tell you both what I think,” Mitch said, with a touch of boldness and shyness Kaye found both puzzling and appealing.
“Go ahead,” she said.
“This was an example of subspeciation,” he said. “Not extreme. A nudge to a new variety. A modern-type infant born to late-stage Neandertals.”
“More like us,” Kaye said.
“Right. There was a reporter named Oliver Merton in Washington state a few weeks ago. He’s investigating the mummies. He told me about fights breaking out at the University of Innsbruck—” Mitch looked up and saw Kaye’s surprise.
“Oliver Merton?” she asked, frowning. “Working for Nature?”
“For The Economist, at the time,” Mitch said.
Kaye turned to Dicken. “The same one?”
“Yeah,” Dicken said. “He does science journalism, some political reporting. Has one or two books published.” He explained to Mitch. “Merton started a big ruckus at a press conference in Baltimore. He’s dug pretty deeply into Americol’s relationship with the CDC and the SHEVA matter.”
“Maybe it’s two different stories,” Mitch said.
“It would have to be, wouldn’t it?” Kaye asked, looking between the two men. “We’re the only ones who have made a connection, aren’t we?”
“I wouldn’t be at all sure,” Dicken said. “Go on, Mitch. Let’s agree that there is a connection before we get fired up about interlopers. What were they arguing about in Innsbruck?”
“Merton says they’ve connected the infant to the adult mummies — which Packer confirms.”
“It’s ironic,” Dicken said. “The UN sent some of the samples from Gordi to Konig’s lab.”
“The anthropologists at Innsbruck are pretty conservative,” Mitch said. “To actually come across the first direct evidence of human speciation…” He shook his head in sympathy. “I’d be scared if I were them. The paradigm doesn’t just shift — it snaps in two. No gradualism, no modern Darwinian synthesis.”
“We don’t need to be so radical,” Dicken said. “First of all, there’s been a lot of talk about punctuations in the fossil record — millions of years of steady state, then sudden change.”
“Change over a million or a hundred thousand years, in some cases maybe as little as ten thousand years,” Mitch said. “Not overnight. The implications are damned scary to any scientist. But the markers don’t lie. And the baby’s parents had SHE VA in their tissues.”
“Urn,” Kaye said. Again, the howler monkeys let loose with continuous musical whoops, filling the night air.
“The female was injured by something sharp, perhaps a spear point,” Dicken said.
“Right,” Mitch said. “Causing the late-term infant to be born either dead or very near death. The mother died shortly after, and the father…” His voice hitched. “Sorry. I don’t find it easy to talk about.”
“You sympathize with them,” Kaye said.
Mitch nodded. “I’ve been having weird dreams about them.”
“ESP?” Kaye asked.
“I doubt it,” Mitch said. “It’s just the way tny mind works, putting things together.”
“You think they were pushed out of their tribe?” Dicken asked. “Persecuted?”
“Someone wanted to kill the woman,” Mitch said. “The man stayed with her, tried to save her. They were different. They had something wrong with their faces. Little flaps of skin around their eyes and nose, like masks.”
“They were shedding skin? I mean, when they were alive?” Kaye asked, and her shoulders shuddered.
“Around the eyes, the face.”
“The bodies near Gordi,” Kaye said.
“What about them?” Dicken asked.
“Some of them had little leathery masks. I thought it might have been…some bizarre product of decay. But I’ve never seen anything like it.”
“We’re getting ahead of ourselves,” Dicken said. “Let’s focus on Mitch’s evidence.”
“That’s all I have,” Mitch said. “Physiological changes substantial enough to place the infant in a different subspecies, all at once. In one generation.”
“This sort of thing had to have been going on for over a hundred thousand years before your mummies,” Dicken said. “So populations of Neandertals were living with or around populations of modern humans.”
“I think so,” Mitch said.
“Do you think the birth was an aberration?” Kaye asked.
Mitch regarded her for several seconds before saying “No.”
“It’s reasonable to conclude that you found something representative, not singular?”
Kaye lifted her hands in exasperation.
“Look,” Mitch said. “My instincts are conservative. I feel for the guys in Innsbruck, I really do! This is weird, totally unexpected.”
“Do we have a smooth, gradual fossil record leading from Neandertals to Cro-Magnons?” Dicken asked.
“No, but we do have different stages. The fossil record is usually far from smooth.”
“And…that’s blamed on the fact that we can’t find all the necessary specimens, right?”
“Right,” Mitch said. “But some paleontologists have been at loggerheads with the gradualists for a long time now.”
“Because they keep rinding leaps, not gradual progression,” Kaye said. “Even when the fossil record is better than it is for humans or other large animals.”
They sipped from their glasses reflectively.
“What are we going to do?” Mitch asked. “The mummies had SHEVA. We have SHEVA.”
“This is very complicated,” Kaye said. “Who’s going to go first?”
“Let’s all write down what we believe is actually happening.” Mitch reached into his satchel and brought out three legal pads and three ballpoint pens. He spread them out on the table.
“Like schoolkids?” Dicken asked.
“Mitch is right. Let’s do it,” Kaye said.
Dicken pulled a second bottle of wine from the gift shop bag and uncorked it.
Kaye held the cap of her pen between her lips. They had been writing for ten or fifteen minutes, switching pads and asking questions. The air was getting chilly.
“The party will be over soon,” she said.
“Don’t worry,” Mitch said. “We’ll protect you.”
She smiled ruefully. “Two half-drunk men dizzy with theories?”
“Exactly,” Mitch said.
Kaye had been trying to avoid looking at him. What she was feeling was hardly scientific or professional. Writing down her thoughts was not easy. She had never worked this way before, not even with Saul; they had shared notebooks, but had never looked at each other’s notes in progress, as they were being written.
The wine relaxed her, took away some of the tension, but did not clarify her thinking. She was hitting a block. She had written:
Populations as giant networks of units that both compete and cooperate, sometimes at the same time. Every evidence of communication between individuals in populations. Trees communicate with chemicals. Humans use pheromones. Bacteria exchange plasmids and lysogenic phages.
Kaye looked at Dicken, writing steadily, crossing out entire paragraphs. Plump, yes, but obviously strong and motivated, accomplished; attractive features.
She now wrote:
Ecosystems are networks of species cooperating and competing. Pheromones and other chemicals can cross species. Networks can have the same qualities as brains; human brains are networks of neurons. Creative thinking is possible in any sufficiently complicated functional neural network.
“Let’s take a look at what we’ve got,” Mitch suggested. They exchanged notebooks. Kaye read Mitch’s page:
Signaling molecules and viruses carry information between people. The information is gathered by the individual human in life experience; but is this Lamarckian evolution?
“I think this networking stuff confuses the issue,” Mitch said.
Kaye was reading Dicken’s paper. “It’s how all things in nature work,” she said. Dicken had scratched out most of his page. What remained was:
Chase disease all my life; SHEVA causes complex biological changes, unlike any disease ever seen. Why? What does it gain? What is it trying to do? What is the end result? If it pops up once every ten thousand or hundred thousand years, how can we defend that it is, in any sense, a separate organic concern, a purely pathogenic particle?
“Who’s going to buy that all things in nature function like neurons in a brain?” Mitch asked.
“It answers your question,” Kaye said. “Is this Lamarckian evolution, inheritance of traits acquired by an individual? No.
It’s the result of complex interactions of a network, with emergent thoughtlike properties.”
Mitch shook his head. “Emergent properties confuse me.”
Kaye glared at him for a moment, both challenged and exasperated. “We don’t have to posit self-awareness, conscious thought, to have an organized network that responds to its environment and issues judgments about what its individual nodes should look like,” Kaye said.
“Still sounds like the ghost in the machine to me,” Mitch said, making a sour face.
“Look, trees send out chemical signals when they’re attacked. The signals attract insects that prey on the bugs that attack them. Call the Orkin man. The concept works at all levels, in the ecosystem, in a species, even in a society. All individual creatures are networks of cells. All species are networks of individuals. All ecosystems are networks of species. All interact and communicate with one another to one degree or another, through competition, predation, cooperation. All these interactions are similar to neurotransmitters crossing synapses in the brain, or ants communicating in a colony. The colony changes its overall behavior based on ant interactions. So do we, based on how our neurons talk to each other. And so does all of nature, from top to bottom. It’s all connected.”
But she could see Mitch still wasn’t buying it.
“We have to describe a method,” Dicken said. He looked at Kaye with a small, knowing smile. “Make it simple. You’re the thinker on this one.”
“What packs the punch in punctuated equilibrium?” she asked, still irritated at Mitch’s density.
“All right. If there’s a mind of some sort, where’s the memory?” Mitch asked. “Something that stores up the information on the next model of human being, before it’s turned loose on the reproductive system.”
“Based on what stimulus?” Dicken asked. “Why acquire information at all? What starts it? What mechanism triggers it?”
“We’re getting ahead of ourselves,” Kaye said, sighing. “First, I don’t like the word mechanism.”
“All right, then…organ, organon, magic architect,” Mitch said. “We know what we’re talking about here. Some sort of memory storage in the genome. All the messages have to be kept there until they’re activated.”
“Would it be in the germ-line cells? The sex cells, sperm and egg?” Dicken asked.
“You tell me,” Mitch said.
“I don’t think so,” Kaye said. “Something modifies a single egg in each mother, so it produces an interim daughter, but it’s what’s in the daughter’s ovary that may produce a new phenotype. The other eggs in the mother are out of the loop. Protected, not modified.”
“In case the new design, the new phenotype is a bust,” Dicken said, nodding agreement. “Okay. A set-aside memory, updated over thousands of years by…hypothetical modifications, somehow tailored by…” He shook his head. “Now I’m confused.”
“Every individual organism is aware of its environment and reacts to it,” Kaye said. “The chemicals and other signals exchanged by individuals cause fluctuations in internal chemistry that affect the genome, specifically, movable elements in a genetic memory that stores and updates sets of hypothetical changes.” Her hands waved back and forth, as if they could clarify or persuade. “This is so clear to me, guys. Why can’t you see it? Here’s the complete feedback loop: the environment changes, causing stress on organisms — in this case, on humans. The types of stress alter balances of stress-related chemicals in our bodies. The set-aside memory reacts and movable elements shift based on an evolutionary algorithm established over millions, even billions of years. A genetic computer decides what might be the best phenotype for the new conditions that cause the stress. We see small changes in individuals as a result, prototypes, and if the stress levels are reduced, if the offspring are healthy and many, the changes are kept. But every now and then, when a problem in the environment is intractable…long-term social stress in humans, for example…there’s a major shift. Endogenous retroviruses express, carry a signal, coordinate the activation of specific elements in the genetic memory storage. Voila. Punctuation.”
Mitch pinched the bridge of his nose. “Lord,” he said.
Dicken frowned deeply. “That’s too radical for me to swallow all at once.”
“We have evidence for every step along the way,” Kaye said hoarsely. She took another long swallow of merlot.
“But how does it get passed along? It has to be in the sex cells. Something has to be passed along from parent to child for hundreds, thousands of generations before it gets activated.”
“Maybe it’s zipped, compacted, in shorthand code,” Mitch said.
Kaye was startled by this. She looked at Mitch with a little chill of wonder. “That’s so crazy it’s brilliant. Like overlapping genes, only more devious. Buried in the repeats.”
“It doesn’t have to carry the whole instruction set for the new phenotype…” Dicken said.
“Just the parts that are going to be changed,” Kaye said. “Look, we know that between a chimp and humans, there’s maybe a two percent difference in the genome.”
“And different numbers of chromosomes,” Mitch said. “That makes a big difference ultimately.”
Dicken frowned and held his head. “God, this is getting deep.”
“It’s ten o’clock,” Mitch said. He pointed to a security guard walking down the middle of the road through the canyon, clearly heading in their direction.
Dicken threw the empty bottles into a trash can and returned to the table. “We can’t afford to stop now. Who knows when we’ll be able to get together again?”
Mitch studied Kaye’s notes. “I see your point about change in the environment causing stress on individual humans.
Let’s get back to Christopher’s question. What triggers the signal, the change? Disease? Predators?”
“In our case, crowding,” Kaye said.
“Complex social conditions. Competition for jobs,” Dicken added.
“Folks,” the guard called out as he drew close. His voice echoed in the canyon. “Are you with the Americol party?”
“How’d you guess?” Dicken asked.
“You’re not supposed to be out here.”
As they walked back, Mitch shook his head dubiously. He wasn’t going to give either of them any breaks: a real hard case. “Change usually occurs at the edge of a population, where resources are scarce and competition is tough. Not in the center, where everything’s cushy.”
“There are no ‘edges,’ no boundaries for humans anymore,” Kaye said. “We cover the planet. But we’re under stress all the time just to keep up with the Joneses.”
“There’s always war,” Dicken said, suddenly thoughtful. “The early Herod’s outbreaks might have occurred just after World War II. Stress of a social cataclysm, society going horribly wrong. Humans must change or else.”
“Says who? Says what?” Mitch asked, slapping his hip with his hand.
“Our species-level biological computer,” Kaye said.
“There we go again — a computer network,” Mitch said dubiously.
“THE MIGHTY WIZARD IN OUR GENES,” Kaye intoned in a deep, fruity announcer’s voice. Then, marking the air with her finger, “The Master of the Genome.”
Mitch grinned and jabbed his finger back at her. “That’s what they’re going to say, and then they’ll laugh us out of town.”
“Out of the whole damned zoo,” Dicken said.
“That’ll cause stress,” Kaye said primly.
“Focus, focus,” Dicken insisted.
“Screw that,” Kaye said. “Let’s go back to the hotel and open the next bottle.” She swung her arms out and pirouetted. Damn, she thought. I’m showing off. Hey, guys, I’m available, look at me.
“Only as a reward,” Dicken said. “We’ll have to take a cab if the bus is gone. Kaye…what’s wrong with the center? What’s wrong with being in the middle of the human population?”
She dropped her arms. “Every year more and more people…” She stopped herself and her expression hardened. “The competition is so intense.” Saul’s face. Bad Saul, losing and not accepting it, and good Saul, enthusiastic as a child, but still painted with that indelible marker that said, You ‘re going to lose. There are tougher, smarter wolves than you.
The two men waited for her to finish.
They walked toward the gate. Kaye wiped her eyes quickly and said, in as steady a voice as she could manage, “Used to be one or two or three people would come up with a brilliant, world-shaking idea or invention.” Her voice grew stronger; now she felt resentment and even anger, on behalf of Saul. “Darwin and Wallace. Einstein. Now, there’s a hundred geniuses for every challenge, a thousand people competing to topple the castle walls. If it’s that bad in the sciences, up in the stratosphere, what’s it like down in the trenches? Endless nasty competition. Too much to learn. Too much bandwidth crowding the channels of communication. We can’t listen fast enough. We’re left standing on our tiptoes all the time.”
“How is that any different from fighting a cave bear or a mammoth?” Mitch asked. “Or from watching your kids die ofplague?”
“They result in different sorts of stress, affecting different chemicals, maybe. We’ve long since given up on growing new claws or fangs. We’re social. All our major changes are pointed in the direction of communication and social adaptation.”
“Too much change,” Mitch said thoughtfully. “Everyone hates it, but we have to compete or we end up out on the streets.”
They stood in front of the gate and listened to the crickets.
Back in the zoo, a macaw squawked. The sound carried all over Balboa Park.
“Diversity,” Kaye murmured. “Too much stress could be a sign of impending catastrophe. The twentieth century has been one long, frenetic, extended catastrophe. Let loose with a major change, something stored up in the genome, before the human race fails.”
“Not a disease, but an upgrade,” Mitch said.
Kaye looked at him again with the same brief chill. “Precisely,” she said. “Everyone travels everywhere in just hours or days. What gets triggered in a neighborhood is suddenly spread all over the world. The Wizard is overwhelmed with signals.” She stretched out her arms again, more restrained, but hardly sober. She knew Mitch was looking at her, and Dicken was watching them both.
Dicken peered up the drive beside the broad zoo parking lot, trying to find a cab. He saw one making a U-turn several hundred feet away and thrust out his hand. The cab pulled up at the loading zone.
They climbed in. Dicken took the front seat. As they drove, he turned to say, “All right, so some stretch of DNA in our genome is patiently building up a model of the next type of human. Where is it getting its ideas, its suggestions? Who’s whispering, ‘Longer legs, bigger brain case, brown eyes are best this year?’ Who’s telling us what’s handsome and what’s ugly?”
Kaye spoke rapidly. “The chromosomes use a biological grammar, built into the DNA, a kind of high-level species blueprint. The Wizard knows what it can say that will make sense for an organism’s phenotype. The Wizard includes a genetic editor, a grammar checker. It stops most nonsense mutations before they ever get included.”
“We’re off into the wild blue yonder here,” Mitch said, “and they’ll shoot us down in the first minute of any dogfight.” He whipped his hands through the air like two airplanes, making the cabby nervous, then dramatically plunged his left hand into his knee, crumpling his fingers. “Scrunch,” he said.
The cabby regarded them curiously. “You folks biologists?” he asked.
“Grad students in the university of life,” Dicken said.
“Got ya,” the cabby said solemnly.
“Now we’ve earned this.” Dicken took the third bottle of wine from the bag and pulled out his Swiss Army knife.
“Hey, not in the cab,” the cabby said sternly. “Not unless I go off duty and you share.”
They laughed. “In the hotel, then,” Dicken said.
“I’ll be drunk,” Kaye said, and shook her hair down around her eyes.
“We’ll have an orgy,” Dicken said, and then flushed bright pink. “An intellectual orgy,” he added sheepishly.
“I’m worn out,” Mitch said. “Kaye’s got laryngitis.”
She gave a small squeak and grinned.
The cab pulled up in front of the Serrano Hotel, just southwest of the convention center, and let them out.
“My treat,” Dicken said. He paid the fare. “Like the wine.”
“All right,” Mitch said. “Thanks.”
“We need some sort of conclusion,” Kaye said. “A prediction.”
Mitch yawned and stretched. “Sorry. Can’t think another thought.”
Kaye watched him through her bangs: the slim hips, the jeans tight around his thighs, the square rugged face with its single line of eyebrow. Not beautifully handsome, but she heard her own chemistry, a low breathy singing in her loins, and it cared little about that. The first sign of the end of winter.
“I’m serious,” she said. “Christopher?”
“It’s obvious, isn’t it?” Dicken said. “We’re saying the interim daughters are not diseased, they’re a stage of development we’ve never seen before.”
“And what does that mean?” Kaye asked.
“It means the second-stage babies will be healthy, viable. And different, maybe just a little,” Dicken said.
“That would be amazing,” Kaye said. “What else?”
“Enough, please. We can’t possibly finish it tonight,” Mitch said.
“Pity,” Kaye said.
Mitch smiled down on her. Kaye offered him her hand and they shook. Mitch’s palm was dry as leather and rough with calluses from long years of digging. His nostrils dilated as he was near her, and she could have sworn she saw his irises grow large, as well.
Dicken’s face was still pink. He slurred his words slightly. “We don’t have a game plan,” he said. “If there’s going to be a report, we have to get all our evidence together — and I mean all of it.”
“Count on it,” Mitch said. “You have my number.”
“I don’t,” Kaye said.
“Christopher will give it to you,” Mitch said. “I’ll be around for a few more days. Let me know when you’re available.”
“We will,” Dicken said.
“We’ll call,” Kaye said as she and Dicken walked toward the glass doors.
“Interesting fellow,” Dicken said on the elevator.
Kaye agreed with a small nod. Dicken was watching her with some concern.
“Seems bright,” he continued. “How in the world did he get in so much trouble?”
In her room, Kaye took a hot shower and crawled into bed, exhausted and more than a little drunk. Her body was happy. She twisted the sheets and blanket around her head and rolled on her side, and almost immediately, she was asleep.
San Diego, California
Kaye had just finished washing her face, whistling through the dripping water, when her room phone rang. She dabbed her face dry and answered it.
“Kaye? This is Mitch.”
“I remember you,” she said lightly, she hoped not too lightly.
“I’m flying north tomorrow. Hoped you might have some time this morning to get together.”
She had been so busy giving talks and serving on panels at the conference that there had been little time to even think about the evening at the zoo. Each night, she had fallen into bed, completely exhausted. Judith Kushner had been right; Marge Cross was absorbing every second of her life.
“That would be good,” she said cautiously. He was not mentioning Christopher. “Where?”
“I’m at the Holiday Inn. There’s a nice little coffee shop in the Serrano. I could walk over and meet you there.”
“I’ve got an hour before I have to be somewhere,” Kaye said. “Downstairs in ten minutes?”
“I’ll jog,” Mitch said. “See you in the lobby.”
She laid out her clothes for the day — a trim blue linen suit from the ever-tasteful Marge Cross collection — and was considering whether to block a small sinus headache with a couple of Tylenol when she heard muted yelling through the double-pane window. She ignored it for a moment and reached to the bed to flip a page on the convention program. As she carried the program to the table and fumbled for the badge in her purse, she grew tired of her tuneless whistling. She walked around the bed again to pick up the TV remote and pushed the power button.
The small hotel TV made the necessary background noise. Commercials for tampons, hair restorer. Her mind was full of other things; the closing ceremonies, her appearance on the podium with Marge Cross and Mark Augustine.
As she looked for a good pair of nylons, she heard the woman say, “…first full-term infant. To bring all our listeners up to date, this morning, an unidentified woman in Mexico City gave birth to the first scientifically recognized second-stage Herod’s baby. Reporting live from—”
Kaye flinched at the sound of metal crunching, glass breaking. She pulled back the window’s gauze curtain and looked north. West Harbor Drive outside the Serrano and the convention center was covered by a thick shag of people, a packed and streaming mass flowing over curbs and lawns and plazas, absorbing cars, hotel vans, shuttle buses. The sound they made was extraordinary, even through the double panes of glass: a low, grinding roar, like an earthquake. White squares flopped about over the mass, green ribbons flexed and rippled: placards and banners. From this angle, ten floors up, she could not read the messages.
“ — Apparently born dead,” the TV announcer continued. “We’re trying to get an update from—”
Her phone rang again. She pulled the receiver from its cradle and stretched the cord to reach the window. She could not stop watching the living river below her window. She saw cars being rocked, flipped on their backs as the crowd surged, heard more sounds of glass breaking.
“Ms. Lang, this is StanThorne, Marge Cross’s chief of security. We want you up here on the twentieth, in the penthouse.”
The writhing mass below cheered with one animal voice.
“Take the express elevator,” Thorne said. “If that’s blocked, take the stairs. Just get up here now.”
“I’ll be right there,” she said.
She put on her shoes.
“This morning, in Mexico City—”
Even before she boarded the elevator, the bottom seemed to fall out of Kaye’s stomach.
Mitch stood across the street from the convention center, shoulders hunched, hands in pockets, trying to look as unin-volved and anonymous as possible.
The crowd sought out scientists, official representatives, anyone involved in the convention, flowing toward them, waving signs, shouting at them.
He had removed the badge Dicken had provided him, and with his faded denims, suntanned face, and windblown, sandy hair, did not at all resemble the hapless pasty-skinned scientists and pharmaceutical representatives.
The demonstrators were mostly women, all colors, all sizes, but nearly all young, between the ages of eighteen and forty. They seemed to have lost all sense of discipline. Anger was quickly taking over.
Mitch was terrified, but for the moment, the crowd was moving south, and he was free. He walked with quick, stiff steps away from Harbor Drive and ran down a parking ramp, jumped a wall, and found himself in a planter strip between high-rise hotels.
Out of breath, more from alarm than exertion — he had always hated crowds — he trudged through the ice plant, climbed another wall, and lowered himself onto the concrete floor of a parking garage. A few women with stunned expressions ran awkwardly to their cars. One of them carried a drooping and battered placard. Mitch read the words as they swept by: OUR DESTINY OUR BODIES.
The aching sound of sirens echoed through the garage. Mitch pushed through a door to the elevator cubicle just as three uniformed security guards came thumping down the stairs. They rounded the corner, guns drawn, and glared at him.
Mitch held up his hands and hoped he looked innocent. They swore and locked the double glass doors. “Get up there!” one shouted at him.
He climbed the stairs with the guards close behind.
From the lobby, looking out upon West Harbor Drive, he saw small riot trucks skirt the crowd, pushing slowly and steadily into the women. The women cried out in chorus, compressed and angry voices like a crashing wave. Water cannons twisted on top of a truck like antennae on a bug’s head.
The lobby’s glass doors opened and closed as guests waggled keys at staff and were allowed in. Mitch walked to the middle of the lobby, standing in an atrium, feeling the air from outside brush past. A sharp tang caught his attention: odors of fear and rage and something else, acrid, like dog piss on a hot sidewalk.
It made his hair stand on end.
The smell of the mob.
Dicken met Kaye on the penthouse floor. A man in a dark blue suit held open the door to the penthouse level and checked their badges. Tiny voices chattered in his earplug.
“They’re already in the lobby downstairs,” Dicken told her. “They’re going nuts out there.”
“Why? “ Kaye asked, baffled.
“Mexico City,” Dicken said.
“But why riot?”
“Where’s Kaye Lang?” a man shouted.
“Here!” Kaye held up her hand.
They pushed through a line of confused and chattering men and women. Kaye saw a woman in a swimsuit laughing, shaking her head, clutching a large white terry cloth towel. A man in a hotel bathrobe sat in a chair with his legs drawn up, eyes wild. Behind them, the guard yelled, “Is she the last one?”
“Check,” another answered. Kaye had never known there were so many of Marge’s security people in the hotel — she guessed twenty. Some wore sidearms.
Then she heard Cross’s high-pitched bellow.
“For Christ’s sake, it’s just a bunch of women! Just a bunch of frightened women!”
Dicken took Kaye’s arm. Cross’s personal secretary, Bob Cavanaugh, a slender man of thirty-five or forty with thinning blond hair, grabbed both of them and ushered them through the last cordon into Cross’s bedroom. She was sprawled across a king-size bed, still in her silk pajamas, watching closed circuit television. Cavanaugh draped a fringed cotton wrap over her shoulders. The view on the screen swayed back and forth. Kaye guessed the camera was on the third or fourth floor.
Riot control vehicles sprayed selective shots from water cannons and forced the mass of women farther down the street, away from the convention center entrance. “They’re mowing ‘em down!” Cross shouted angrily.
“They trashed the convention floor,” the secretary said.
“We never expected this kind of reaction,” Stan Thorne said, thick arms folded across a substantial belly.
“No,” Cross said, her voice like a low flute. “And why in hell not? I always said it was a gut issue. Well, here’s the gut response! It’s a goddamned disaster!”
“They didn’t even present their demands,” said a slender woman in a green suit.
“What in hell do they hope to accomplish?” someone else said, not visible to Kaye.
“Dropping a big fat message on our doorstep,” Cross grumbled. “Something’s kicked the body politic in the groin. They want fast, fast relief, and screw the process.”
“This could be just what we needed,” said a small, thin man whom Kaye recognized: Lewis Jansen, the marketing director for Americol’s pharmaceutical division.
“The hell you say.” Cross cried out, “Kaye Lang, I want you!”
“Here,” Kaye said, stepping forward.
“Good! Frank, Sandra, get Kaye on the tube as soon as they clear the streets. Who’s the talent here?”
An older woman in a bathrobe, carrying an aluminum briefcase, named from memory the local television commentators and affiliates.
“Lewis, have your folks work up some talking points.”
“My folks are at another hotel.”
“Then call them! Tell the people we’re working as fast as we can, don’t want to move too fast on a vaccine or we’ll harm folks — shit, tell them all the stuff we were saying down on the convention floor. When in hell will people ever learn to sit back and listen? Are the phones out of order?”
Kaye wondered whether Mitch had been caught in the riot, if he was okay.
Mark Augustine entered the bedroom. It was getting crowded. The air was thick and hot. Augustine nodded to Dicken, smiled genially at Kaye. He seemed cool and collected, but there was something about his eyes that betrayed this camouflage.
“Good!” Cross roared. “The gang’s all here. Mark, what’s up?”
“Richard Bragg was shot to death in Berkeley two hours ago,” Augustine said. “He was out walking his dog.” Augustine tilted his head to one side and drew his lips together into a wry expression for Kaye’s benefit.
“Bragg?” someone asked.
“The patent asshole,” another answered.
Cross stood up from the bed. “Related to the news about the baby?” she asked Augustine.
“You might think so,” Augustine said. “Somebody at the hospital in Mexico City leaked the news. La Prensa reported the baby was severely malformed. It was on every channel by six A.M.”
Kaye turned to Dicken. “Born dead,” he said.
Augustine pointed to the window. “That might explain the mob. This was supposed to be a peaceful demonstration.”
“Let’s get to it, then,” Cross said, subdued. “We have work to do.”
Dicken looked downcast as they walked to the elevator. He spoke in an undertone to Kaye. “Let’s forget the zoo,” he said.
“It was premature,” he said. “Now is no time to stick our necks out.”
Mitch walked along the littered street, boots crunching through shards of glass. Police barricades marked by yellow ribbon closed off the convention center and the front entrances of three hotels. Overturned cars were wrapped in yellow ribbon like presents. Signs and banners littered the asphalt and sidewalks. The air still smelled of tear gas and smoke. Police in skintight dark green pants and khaki shirts and National Guard troops in camouflage stood with folded arms along the street while city officials disembarked from vans and were led off to tour the damage. The police watched the few unofficial bystanders through dark glasses, silently challenging.
Mitch had tried to get back to his hotel room at the Holiday Inn and had been turned away by unhappy clerks working with the police. His luggage — one bag — was still in his room, but he had the satchel with him, and that was all he really cared about. He had left messages for Kaye and Dicken, but there was no fixed place for them to return his calls.
The convention appeared to be finished. Cars were being released from hotel garages by the dozens, and long lines of taxis waited a few blocks south for passengers dragging wheeled suitcases.
Mitch could not pin down how he felt about all this. Anger, jerks of adrenaline, a bitter surge of animal exultation at the damage — typical residues of being so near mob violence. Shame, the single thin coating of social veneer; after hearing about the dead baby, guilt at perhaps being so wrong. In the middle of these flashing emotions, Mitch felt most acutely a wretched sense of displacement. Loneliness.
After this morning and afternoon, what he regretted most was missing his breakfast with Kaye Lang.
She had smelled so good to him in the night air. No perfume, hair freshly washed, richness of skin, breath smelling of wine, but flowery and hardly offensive. Her eyes a little drowsy, her parting warm and tired.
He could picture himself lying next to her on the bed in her hotel room with a clarity more like memory than imagination. Forward memory .
He reached into his jacket pocket for his airline tickets, which he always carried with him.
Dicken and Kaye made up a lifeline, an extended purpose in his life. Somehow, he doubted Dicken would encourage that continued connection. Not that he disliked Dicken; the virus hunter seemed straightforward and very sharp. Mitch would like to work with him and get to know him better. However, Mitch could not picture that at all. Call it instinct, more forward memory.
He sat on a low concrete wall across from the Serrano, gripping his satchel in two broad hands. He tried to summon the patience he had used to stay sane on long and laborious digs with contentious postdocs.
With a start, he saw a woman in a blue suit coming out of the Serrano lobby. The woman stood for a moment in the shade, speaking with two doormen and a police officer. It was Kaye. Mitch walked slowly across the street, around a Toyota with all its windows smashed. Kaye saw him and waved.
They met on the plaza in front of the hotel. Kaye had circles under her eyes.
“It’s been awful,” she said.
“I was out here, I saw it,” Mitch said.
“We’re going into high gear. I’m doing some TV interviews, then we’re flying back East, to Washington. There has to be an investigation.”
“This was all about the first baby?”
Kaye nodded. “We got some details an hour ago. NIH was tracking a woman who got Herod’s flu last year. She aborted an interim daughter, got pregnant a month later. She gave birth a month premature and the baby is dead. Severe defects. Cyclopia, apparently.”
“God,” Mitch said.
“Augustine and Cross…well, I can’t talk about that. But it looks as if we’re going to have to rework all the plans, maybe even conduct human tests on an accelerated schedule. Congress is screaming bloody murder, pointing fingers everywhere. It’s a mess, Mitch.”
“I see. What can we do?”
“We?” Kaye shook her head. “What we talked about at the zoo just doesn’t make sense now.”
“Why not?” Mitch asked, swallowing.
“Dicken has done a turnabout,” Kaye said.
“What kind of turnabout?”
“He feels miserable. He thinks we’ve been completely wrong.”
Mitch cocked his head to one side, frowning. “I don’t see that.”
“It’s more politics than science, maybe,” Kaye said.
“Then what about the science? Are we going to let one premature birth, one defective baby—”
“Steamroll us?” Kaye finished for him. “Probably. I don’t know.” She looked up and down the drive.
“Are any other full-term babies due?” Mitch asked.
“Not for several months,” Kaye said. “Most of the parents have been choosing abortion.”
“I didn’t know that.”
“It’s not been talked about much. The agencies involved aren’t releasing names. There’d be a lot of opposition, you can imagine.”
“How do you feel about it?”
Kaye touched her heart, then her stomach. “Like a punch in the gut. I need time to think things over, do some more work. I asked him, but Dicken never gave me your phone number.”
Mitch smiled knowingly.
“What?” Kaye asked, a little irritated.
“Here’s my home number in Baltimore,” she said, handing him a card. “Call me in a couple of days.”
She put her hand on his shoulder and squeezed gently, then turned and walked back into the hotel. Over her shoulder, she shouted, “I mean it! Call.”
The National Institutes of Health, Bethesda
Kaye was hustled out of the Baltimore airport in a nondescript brown Pontiac lacking government license plates. She had just spent three hours in TV studios and six hours on the plane and her skin felt as if it had been varnished.
Two Secret Service agents sat in polite silence, one in front and one in back. Kaye sat in the back. Between Kaye and the agent sat Farrah Tighe, her newly assigned aide. Tighe was a few years younger than Kaye, with pulled-back blond hair, a pleasant broad face, brilliant blue eyes, and broad hips that challenged her companions in these tight quarters.
“We have four hours before you meet with Mark Augustine,” Tighe said.
Kaye nodded. Her mind was not in the car.
“You requested a meeting with two of the NIH mothers-in-residence. I’m not sure we can fit that in today.”
“Fit it in,” Kaye said forcefully, and then added, “Please.”
Tighe looked at her solemnly.
“Take me to the clinic before we do anything else.”
“We have two TV interviews—”
“Skip them,” Kaye said. “I want to talk with Mrs. Hamilton.”
Kaye walked through the long corridors from the parking lot to the elevators of Building 10.
On the drive from the airport to the NIH campus, Tighe had briefed her on the events of the past day. Richard Bragg had been shot seven times in the torso and head while leaving his house in Berkeley and had been declared dead at the scene. Two suspects had been arrested, both male, both husbands of women carrying first-stage Herod’s babies. The men had been captured a few blocks away, drunk, their car packed with empty cans of beer.
The Secret Service, on orders from the president, had been assigned to protect key members of the Taskforce.
The mother of the first full-term, second-stage infant born in North America, known as Mrs. C., was still in a hospital in Mexico City. She had emigrated to Mexico from Lithuania in 1996; she had worked for a relief agency in Azerbaijan between 1990 and 1993. She was currently being treated for shock and what the first medical reports described as an acute case of seborrhea on her face.
The dead infant was being shipped from Mexico City to Atlanta and would arrive tomorrow morning.
Luella Hamilton had just finished a light lunch and was sitting in a chair by the window, looking out over a small garden and the windowless corner of another building. She shared a room with another mother who was down the hall in an examination room. There were now eight mothers in the Task-force study.
“I lost my baby,” Mrs. Hamilton told Kaye as she walked in. Kaye stepped around the bed and hugged her. She returned Kaye’s embrace with strong hands and arms and a little moan.
Tighe stood with arms folded near the door. “She just slipped out one night.” Mrs. Hamilton held her eyes steady on Kaye’s. “I hardly felt her. My legs were wet. Just a little blood. They had a monitor on my stomach and the little alarm started to beep. I woke up and the nurses were there and they put up a tent. They didn’t show her to me. A minister came in, Reverend Ackerley, from my church, she was right there for me, wasn’t that nice?” “I’m so sorry,” Kaye said.
“The reverend told me about that other woman, in Mexico, with her second baby…”
Kaye shook her head in sympathy. “I am so scared, Kaye.”
“I’m sorry I wasn’t here. I was in San Diego and I didn’t know you had rejected.”
“Well, it’s not like you’re my doctor, is it?” “I’ve been thinking about you a lot. And the others.” Kaye smiled. “But mostly you.”
“Yeah, well, I’m a strong black woman, and we make an impression.” Mrs. Hamilton did not smile as she said this. Her expression was drawn, her skin verging on olive. “I talked to my husband on the telephone. He’s coming by today and we’ll see each other, but we’ll be separated by glass. They told me they’d let me go after the baby was born. But now they say they want to keep me here. They tell me I’m going to be pregnant again. They know it’s coming. My own little baby Jesus. How can the world get along with millions of little baby Jesuses?” She started to cry. “I haven’t been with my husband or anyone else! I swear!”
Kaye held her hand tightly. “This is so difficult,” she said. “I want to help, but my family, they’re having a hard time.
My husband is half crazy, Kaye. They could run this damned railroad so much better.” She stared out the window, held on to Kaye’s hand tightly, then waved it gently back and forth, as if listening to some inner music. “You’ve had some time to think. Tell me what’s happening?”
Kaye fixed her eyes on Mrs. Hamilton and tried to think of something to say. “We’re still trying to figure that out,” she finally managed. “It’s a challenge.”
“From God?” Mrs. Hamilton asked.
“From inside,” Kaye said.
“If it’s from God, all the little Jesuses are going to die except one, then,” Mrs. Hamilton said. “That’s not good odds for me.”
“I hate myself,” Kaye said as Tighe escorted her to Dr. Lipton’s office.
“Why?” Tighe said.
“I wasn’t here.”
“You can’t be everywhere.”
Lipton was in a meeting, but interrupted it long enough to talk with Kaye. They went to a side office filled with filing cabinets and a computer.
“We did scans last night and checked out her hormone levels. She was almost hysterical. The miscarriage didn’t hurt much if at all. I think she wanted it to hurt more. She had a classic Herod’s fetus.”
Lipton held up a series of photographs. “If this is a disease, it’s a damned organized disease,” she said. “The pseudo-placenta is not very different from a normal placenta, except that it’s much reduced. The amnion is something else, however.” Lipton pointed to a process curled on one side of the shrunken shriveled amnion, which had been expelled with the placenta. “I don’t know what you’d call it, unless it’s a little fallopian tube.”
“And the other women in the study?”
“Two should reject within a few days, the rest over the next two weeks. I’ve brought in ministers, a rabbi, psychiatrists, even their friends — as long as they’re female. The mothers are deeply unhappy. No surprises there. But they’ve agreed to stay with the program.”
“No male contact?”
“Not from any male past puberty,” Lipton said. “By order of Mark Augustine, co-signed by Frank Shawbeck. Some of the families are sick of this treatment. I don’t blame them.”
“Any rich women staying here?” Kaye asked, deadpan.
“No,” Lipton said. She chuckled humorlessly. “Need you even ask?”
“Are you married, Dr. Lipton?” Kaye said.
“Divorced six months ago. And you?”
“A widow,” Kaye said.
“We’re the lucky ones, then,” Lipton said.
Tighe tapped her watch. Lipton glanced between them. “Sorry to be keeping you,” the doctor said sharply. “My people are waiting, too.”
Kaye held up the photographs of the pseudo-placenta and amniotic sac. “What do you mean when you say this is a terribly organized disease?”
Lipton leaned on the top of a filing cabinet. “I’ve dealt with rumors and lesions and buboes and warts and all the other little horrors diseases can build in our bodies. There’s organization, to be sure. Rearranging the blood flow, subverting cells. Sucking greed. But this amniotic sac is a highly specialized organ, different from any I’ve ever studied.”
“It’s not a product of disease, in your opinion?”
“I didn’t say that. The results are distortion, pain, suffering, and miscarriage. The infant in Mexico…” Lipton shook her head. “I won’t waste my time by characterizing this as anything else. It’s a new disease, a hideously inventive one, that’s all.”
Dicken climbed the gentle slope from the parking garage on Clifton Way, glancing up with a squint at clear skies with low fat-bellied puffs of cloud. He hoped the fresh cool air would clear his head.
Dicken had returned to Atlanta the night before and bought a bottle of Jack Daniels and holed up in his house, drinking until four in the morning. Walking from the living room to the bathroom, he had stumbled over a pile of textbooks, slammed his shoulder against a wall, and fallen to the floor. His shoulder and leg were bruised and sore, and his back felt as if he had been kicked, but he could walk and he was pretty sure he did not have to go to the hospital.
Still, his arm hung half-bent, and his face was ashen. His head hurt from the whiskey. His stomach hurt from not eating breakfast. And in his soul he felt like shit, confused and angry at just about everything, but mainly angry at himself.
The memory of the intellectual jam session at the San Diego Zoo felt like a burning brand. The presence of Mitch Rafelson, a loose cannon, saying little substantive but still seeming to guide the conversation, at once challenging their sophomoric theories and spurring them on; Kaye Lang, lovelier than he had ever seen her before, almost radiant, with her patented look of puzzled concentration and no goddamned interest in Dicken beyond the professional.
Rafelson clearly outclassed him. Once again, after having spent his entire adult life braving the worst that Earth could throw at a human male, he was coming up short in the eyes of a woman he thought he might care for.
And what the hell did it matter? What did his masculine ego, his sex life, matter in the face of Herod’s?
Dicken came around the corner onto Clifton Road and stopped, confused for a moment. The attendant at the garage booth had mentioned something about picketing, but had given no hint of the scale.
Demonstrators filled the street from the small plaza and tree planter fronting the redbrick entrance of Building 1 to the American Cancer Society headquarters and the Emory Hotel across Clifton Road. Some were standing in the beds of purple azaleas; they had left a path open to the main entrance but blocked the visitor center and the cafeteria. Dozens sat around the pillar that held the bust of Hygeia, their eyes closed, swaying gently from side to side as if in silent prayer.
Dicken estimated there were two thousand men, women, and children, in vigil, waiting for something; salvation or word at least that the world was not about to end. Many of the women and more than a few of the men still wore masks, colored orange or purple, guaranteed by half a dozen fly-by-night manufacturers to kill all viruses, including SHEVA.
The organizers of the vigil — it was not called a protest — walked among their people with water coolers and paper cups, leaflets, advice, and instructions, but those holding the vigil never spoke.
Dicken walked to the entrance of Building 1, through the crowd, attracted to them despite his sense of the danger in the situation. He wanted to see what the troops were thinking and feeling — the people on the front line.
Cameramen moved around and through the crowds slowly, or more deliberately along the pathways, cameras held at waist level to capture the immediacy, then being lifted to shoulders for the panorama, the scale.
* * *
“Jesus, what happened?” Jane Salter asked as Dicken passed her in the long hall to his office. She carried a briefcase and an armload of files in green folders.
“Just an accident,” Dicken said. “I fell. Did you see what’s going on outside?”
“I saw,” Salter said. “Creeps me out.” She followed him and stood in the open door. Dicken glanced over his shoulder at her, then pulled out the old rolling chair and sat down, his face like a disappointed little boy’s.
“Down about Mrs. C.?” Salter asked. She pushed back a wisp of brown hair with the corner of a folder. The wisp fell back and she ignored it.
“I suppose,” Dicken said.
Salter bent to set down the briefcase, then stepped forward and laid the files on his desk. “Tom Scarry has the baby,” she said. “It was autopsied in Mexico City. I guess they did a thorough job. He’ll do it all over again, just to be sure.”
“Have you seen it?” Dicken asked.
“Just a video feed when they took it from the ice chest in Building 15.”
“Major,” Salter said. “A real mess.”
“For whom the bell tolls,” Dicken said.
“I’ve never figured out your position on this, Christopher,” Salter said, leaning against the door jamb. “You seem surprised that this is a really nasty disease. We knew that going in, didn’t we?”
Dicken shook his head. “I’ve chased diseases so long…this one seemed different.”
“What, more sympathetic?”
“Jane, I got drunk last night. I fell in my house and cracked my shoulder. I feel like hell.”
“A bender? That sounds more appropriate to a bad love life, not a misdiagnosis.”
Dicken made a sour face. “Where are you going with all that?” he asked, and shoved his left forefinger at the files.
“I’m moving some stuff over to the new receiving lab. They’ve got four more tables. We’re putting together personnel and procedures for a round-the-clock autopsy mission, L3 conditions. Dr. Sharp is in charge. I’m helping the group doing neural and epithelial analysis. I’ll keep their records straight.”
“Keep me in the loop? If you find something?”
“I don’t even know why you’re here, Christopher. You flew way above us when you went with Augustine.”
“I miss the front lines. News always gets here first.” He sighed. “I’m still a virus hunter, Jane. I came back to look over some old papers. See if I forgot something crucial.”
Jane smiled. “Well, I did hear this morning that Mrs. C had genital herpes. Somehow it got to little Baby C early in its development. It was covered with lesions.”
Dicken looked up in surprise. “Herpes? They didn’t tell us that before.”
“I told you it was a mess,” Jane said.
Herpes could change the whole interpretation of what happened. How did the infant contract the genital herpes while still protected in the womb? Herpes was usually passed from mother to infant in the birth canal.
Dicken was severely distracted.
Dr. Denby passed by the office, smiled briefly, then doubled back and peered through the open door. Denby was a bacterial growth specialist, small and very bald, with a cherub’s face and a natty plum shirt and red tie. “Jane? Did you know they’ve blocked the cafeteria from outside? Hello, Christopher.”
“I heard. It’s impressive,” Jane said.
“Now they’re up to something else. Want to go look?”
“Not if it’s violent,” Salter said with a shudder.
“That’s what’s spooky. It’s peaceful and absolutely silent! Like a drill team without the band.”
Dicken walked with them and took the elevator and stairs to the front of the building. They followed other employees and doctors to the lobby beside the public display of CDC history. Outside, the crowd was milling in an orderly fashion. Leaders were using megaphones to shout orders.
A security guard stood with his hands on his hips, glaring at the crowd through the glass. “Will you look at that,” he said.
“What?” Jane asked.
“They’re breaking up, boy-girl. Segregating,” he said with a mystified look.
Banners stretched in plain view of the lobby and the dozens of cameras arrayed outside. A breeze rippled one banner. Dicken caught what it said in two sinuous flaps: VOLUNTEER. SEPARATE. SAVE A CHILD.
Within a few minutes, the crowd had parted before their leaders like the Red Sea before Moses, women and children on one side, men on the other. The women looked grimly determined. The men looked somber and shamefaced.
“Christ,” the guard muttered. “They’re telling me to leave my wife?”
Dicken felt as if he were being whipsawed. He returned to his office and called Bethesda. Augustine had not arrived yet. Kaye Lang was visiting the Magnuson Clinical Center.
Augustine’s secretary added that protesters were also on the NIH campus, several thousand of them. “Look on the TV,” she said. “They’re marching all over the country.”
The National Institutes of Health, Bethesda
Augustine drove around the campus on the Old Georgetown Road to Lincoln Street and made his way to a temporary employee parking lot near the Taskforce Center. The Taskforce had been assigned a new building at the surgeon general’s request just two weeks before. The protesters apparently did not know of this change, and were marching on the old headquarters, and on Building 10.
Augustine walked quickly in the warming sun to the ground floor entrance. NIH campus police and newly-hired private security guards stood outside the building, talking in low voices. They were eyeing knots of protesters a few hundred yards away.
“Don’t worry, Mr. Augustine,” the building’s chief of security told him as he carded himself in through the main entrance. “We’ve got the National Guard coming in this afternoon.”
“Oh, goodie.” Augustine drew in his chin and punched the elevator button. In the new office, three assistants and his personal secretary, Mrs. Florence Leighton, matronly and very efficient, were trying to reestablish a network link with the rest of the campus.
“What’s wrong, sabotage?” Augustine asked, a little savagely.
“No,” Mrs. Leighton said, handing him a sheaf of printouts. “Stupidity. The server decided not to recognize us.”
Augustine slammed the door to his office, pulled out his rolling chair, slapped the brief on the desktop. The phone cheeped. He reached over to punch the button.
“Five minutes uninterrupted, please, Florence, to put my thoughts in order?” he pleaded.
“It’s Kennealy for the vice president, Mark,” Mrs. Leigh-ton said.
“Double goodie. Put him on.”
Tom Kennealy, the vice president’s chief of technical communications — another new position, established the week before — was first on the line, and asked Augustine if he had been told about the scale of the protests.
“I’m seeing it through my window now,” he replied.
“They’re at four hundred and seventy hospitals at last count,” Kennealy said.
“God bless the Internet,” Augustine said.
“Four demonstrations have gotten out of hand — not including the riot in San Diego. The vice president is very concerned, Mark.”
“Tell him I’m more than concerned. It’s the worst news I could imagine — a dead full-term Herod’s baby.”
“What about the herpes angle?”
“Screw that. Herpes doesn’t infect an infant until it’s born. They must not have taken any precautions in Mexico City.”
“That’s not what we’re hearing. Maybe we can offer some reassurance on this? If it is a diseased infant?”
“Quite clearly it is diseased, Tom. It’s Herod’s we should be focusing on here.”
“All right. I’ve briefed the vice president. He’s here now, Mark.”
The vice president came on the line. Augustine composed his voice and greeted him calmly. The vice president told him that the NIH was being afforded military security, high-security protected status, as were the CDC and five Taskforce research centers around the country. Augustine could visualize the result now — razor wire, police dogs, concussion grenades, and tear gas. A fine atmosphere in which to conduct delicate research.
“Mr. Vice President, don’t push them off campus,” Augustine said. “Please. Let them stay and let them protest.”
“The president gave the order an hour ago. Why change it?”
“Because it looks like they’re venting steam. It’s not like San Diego. I want to meet with the leaders here on campus.”
“Mark, you aren’t a trained negotiator,” the VP argued.
“No, but I’d be a hell of a lot better than a phalanx of troops in camouflage.”
“That’s the jurisdiction of the director of NIH.”
“Who is negotiating, sir?”
“The director and chief of staff are meeting with the protest leaders. We shouldn’t divide our effort or our voice, Mark, so don’t even consider going out there to talk.”
“What if we have another dead baby, sir? This one came at us out of nowhere — we only knew it was on its way six days ago. We tried to send a team down to help, but the hospital refused.”
“They’ve sent you the body. That seems to show a spirit of cooperation. From what Tom tells me, nobody could have saved it.”
“No, but we could have known ahead of time and coordinated our media release.”
“No division on this, Mark.”
“Sir, with all due respect, the international bureaucracy is killing us. That’s why these protests are so dangerous. We’ll be blamed whether we’re culpable or not — and frankly, I feel pretty sick to my stomach right now. I can’t be responsible where I don’t have input!”
“We’re soliciting your input now, Mark.” The VP’s voice was measured.
“Sorry. I know that, sir. Our involvement with Americol is causing all sorts of problems. Announcing the vaccine…prematurely, in my opinion—”
“Tom shares that opinion, and so do I.”
What about the president? he thought. “I appreciate that, but the cat is out of the bag. My people tell me there’s a fifty-fifty chance the preclinical trials will fail. The ribozyme is depressingly versatile. It seems to have an affinity for thirteen or fourteen different messenger RNAs. So we stop SHEVA, but we end up with myelin degradation…multiple sclerosis, for God’s sake!”
“Ms. Cross reports that they’ve refined it and it’s more specific now. She personally assured me there was never any chance of MS. That was just a rumor.”
“Which version is PDA going to let them test, sir? The paperwork has to be refiled—”
“PDA is bending on this one.”
“I’d like to set up a separate evaluation team. NIH has the people, we have the facilities.”
“There’s no time, Mark.”
Augustine closed his eyes and rubbed his forehead. He could feel his face turning beet red. “I hope we draw a good hand,” he said quietly. His heart was hammering.
“The president is announcing speedier trials tonight,” the vice president said. “If the preclinical trials are successful, we’ll go to human trials within a month.”
“I wouldn’t approve that.”
“Robert Jackson says they can do it. The decision’s been made. It’s done.”
“Has the president talked to Frank about this? Or the surgeon general?”
“They’re in constant touch.”
“Please have the president call me, too, sir.” Augustine hated to be put in the position of having to ask, but a smarter president would not have needed the reminder.
“I will, Mark. As for your response…follow what the NIH brass says, no division, no separation, understood?”
“I’m not a rogue, Mr. Vice President,” Augustine said.
“Talk with you soon, Mark,” the VP said.
Kennealy came back on the line. He sounded miffed. “Troops are being trucked in now, Mark. Hold on a second.” His hand cupped over the receiver. “The VP is out of the room. Jesus, Mark, what did you do, chew him out?”
“I asked him to have the president call me,” Augustine said.
“That’s a hell of a note,” Kennealy said coldly.
“Will someone please tell me if we learn about another baby, out of the country?” Augustine said. “Or in? Could the State Department please coordinate with my office on a daily basis? I hope I am not treading water here, Tom!”
“Please don’t ever talk to the VP like that again, Mark,” Kennealy said, and hung up.
Augustine pressed the call button. “Florence, I need to write a cover letter and a memo. Is Dicken in town? Where’s Lang?”
“Dr. Dicken is in Atlanta and Kaye Lang is on campus. At the clinic, I believe. You’re supposed to meet with her in ten minutes.”
Augustine opened his desk drawer and took out a legal pad. On it he had sketched the thirty-one levels of command above him, thirty between him and the president — a bit of an obsession with him. He sharply slashed off five, then six, then worked his way up to ten names and offices, tearing the paper. If worst came to worst, he thought that with a little careful planning he could possibly eliminate ten of those levels, maybe twenty.
But first he had to stick out his neck and send them his report and a coverage memo, and make sure it was on everybody’s desk before the shit was airborne.
Not that he would be sticking his neck out very far. Before some White House lackey — maybe Kennealy, greasing for a promotion — whispered in the president’s ear that Augustine was not a team player, he strongly suspected there would be another incident.
A very bad incident.
The National Institutes of Health, Bethesda
Burying herself in work was the only thing Kaye could think of to do right now. Confusion blocked any other option. As she left the clinic, walking briskly past the outdoor tables full of Vietnamese and Korean vendors selling toiletries and knickknacks, she looked at the task list in her daybook and ticked off the meetings and calls — Augustine first, then ten minutes in Building 15 with Robert Jackson to ask about the ribozyme binding sites, a cross-check with two NIH researchers in Buildings 5 and 6 helping her in her search for additional SHEVA-like HERV; then to half a dozen other researchers in her backup list to solicit their opinions -
She was halfway between the clinic and the Taskforce center when her cell phone rang. She pulled it out of her purse.
“Kaye, this is Christopher.”
“I don’t have any time and I feel like shit, Christopher,” she snapped. “Tell me something that will make me feel good.”
“If it’s any consolation, I feel like shit, too. I got drunk last night and there are demonstrators out front.”
“They’re here, too.”
“But listen to this, Kaye. We have Infant C in pathology now. It was born at least a month premature.”
“It? Ithad a sex, didn’t it?”
“He. He’s riddled inside and out with herpes lesions. He had no protection against herpes in the womb — SHEVA induces some sort of opportunistic opening through the pla-cental barrier for herpes virus.”
“So they’re in league — all out to cause death and destruction. That’s cheerful.”
“No,” Dicken said. “I don’t want to talk about it on the phone. I’m coming up to NIH tomorrow.”
“Give me something to go on, Christopher. I don’t want another night like the last two.”
“Infant C might not have died if his mother hadn’t contracted herpes. They may be separate issues, Kaye.”
Kaye closed her eyes, stood still on the sidewalk. She looked around for Farrah Tighe; in her distraction, she had apparently walked out without her, against instructions. No doubt Tighe was frantically searching for her right now. “Even if they are, who will listen to us now?”
“None of the eight women at the clinic have any herpes or HIV I called Lipton and checked. They’re excellent test cases.”
“They aren’t due for ten months,” Kaye said. “If they follow the one-month rule.”
“I know. But I’m sure we’ll find others. We need to talk again — seriously.”
“I’ll be in meetings all day, then at the Americol labs in Baltimore tomorrow.”
“This evening, then. Or doesn’t the truth mean much now?”
“Don’t lecture me about truth, damn it,” Kaye said. She could see National Guard trucks moving in along