Authors: Mike Woodhams
Copyright Â© 2014 Mike Woodhams
The moral right of the author has been asserted.
Apart from any fair dealing for the purposes of research or private study,
or criticism or review, as permitted under the Copyright, Designs and Patents
Act 1988, this publication may only be reproduced, stored or transmitted, in
any form or by any means, with the prior permission in writing of the
publishers, or in the case of reprographic reproduction in accordance with
the terms of licences issued by the Copyright Licensing Agency. Enquiries
concerning reproduction outside those terms should be sent to the publishers.
9 Priory Business Park
Leicestershire LE8 0RX, UK
Tel: (+44) 116 279 2299
Fax: (+44) 116 279 2277
Email: [email protected]
ISBN 978 1783067 381
British Library Cataloguing in Publication Data.
A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library.
is an imprint of Troubador Publishing Ltd
Converted to eBook by
To my wife, Cindy, for her patience and understanding which enabled this book to be born
The man looked out at the calm sea spread before him from the bridge of the freighter as it ploughed through the green waves cleaving them cleanly, occasionally bobbing and rolling gently with each swell that passed under her keel. As it crossed the Tropic of Capricorn in the Indian Ocean, he heard the captain order the transponder, which informed the maritime authorities of the ship's whereabouts to be turned off, then order a new course that would take the freighter directly south instead of around Africa's Cape of Good Hope and up into the Atlantic to the Ivory Coast. The new course would now take it directly to an island deep in the southern Indian Ocean. The man stared at the sparkling waters with a mixture of apprehension, excitement and fear at what they were about to accomplish after so many months of planning and preparation.
The Maru Blue, a Libyan-registered freighter, was typical of her type with main superstructure situated well aft. The forward deck was dominated by three large cargo hatches and two V-shaped structures forming masts and boom cranes for lowering cargo into the holds. She had seen better days. The once black hull and white and green superstructure were streaked with brown rust.
Beside Ali bin Rashid stood the freighter's captain, Javad Moradi. He was checking instruments and quietly issuing orders to the helmsman. A few years older than Rashid, Moradi was tall for an Iranian, had weathered features, an aquiline nose and a thick head of dark, slightly greying hair. The vessel he was now master of had been leased from a Greek shipping company.
“So deep in thought, Major?”
Rashid stumbled from his reverie. “Please. Please, call me Ali.” Now that he was no longer in the army, he hated to be addressed in that way. But no matter where he went, somehow it seemed to follow him. He looked every inch a major with his slim, upright stature, clipped black moustache, dark close-cropped hair and sharp angular features.
“I was just thinking about how close we are now to fulfilling the downfall of the infidel. The day of judgement is within our sights and the victorious end to our Holy War has all but arrived.”
“Yes, it will be the beginning of a glorious Islamic Alliance never before seen.
” said the captain.
Rashid thought about the crate in the hold and its deadly contents. “Have you checked whether the crate is well stored?”
“It is safe. Do not worry, Ali.”
“How soon will we reach the island?”
“Depends on the weather, but I would say no more than a week.”
“Can we expect good weather?”
“Not at this time of year. It is winter in the south. The climate on the island is harsh and changes rapidly. It has a reputation of being one of the wildest places on earth. We can expect temperatures anywhere around minus one centigrade to plus five, depending how strong the wind is blowing in from the Antarctic. Fortunately, the seas around the island do not ice over during winter.”
Rashid fell silent for a moment, then asked, “Where exactly is it?”
“On the Kerguelen Plateau, some 2,500 miles southwest of Australia and 900 miles north of the Antarctic. It is uninhabited and very remote; ideal for the planned transfer. The nearest land is the Kerguelen Islands, 270 miles to the north.”
Rashid nodded thoughtfully. “Once we are there our mission to avenge Allah will truly begin.”
Captain Grace Seymour entered the small ante-room in Level 2 of the monkey room. She removed her uniform and underwear, slid on her sterile surgical scrub suit and covered her hair with a surgical cap. Nothing was allowed to be worn under the scrub suit. Barefooted, she passed through a small chamber bathed in ultra-violet light and on through a sliding door that led into Level 3. Here she put on a pair of white cotton socks and latex surgical gloves, tore off several strips of tape from a roll on the wall and hung them in a row on the side of the desk. She then proceeded to tape up her ankles and wrists to seal the joints. From a rack she took a blue plastic space suit and struggled into it until she was completely enclosed. After testing the in-built communication system, she put on the air regulator and plugged it into the suit. She was ready to enter the Level 4 air-lock. To her this was always the moment of truth. Invariably at this point a feeling of panic overcame her when she stepped into the stainless-steel decon chamber separating the normal world from a very dangerous one. The door behind her closed and, after a few moments, the one in front of her opened. For a few seconds she held her breath to let the feeling subside before she strode confidently into the hot zone.
The main lab of Porton Down's animal testing facility was big and L-shaped, and occupied with dozens of people in blue pressurized suits. All surfaces were painted white, while red air-hoses hung coiled from the ceiling. Along one wall stood several freezers containing the virus strains used in various experiments. At the far end of the room a metal door led to where the monkeys were kept. The captain plugged the air-hose into her regulator and felt the familiar blast of cool, dry air fill her suit. Then she headed for the door.
The monkey room contained four banks of cages, with two on each side separated by tent-like structures. The cages held various species of monkey, from marmosets and rhesus to spider and macaques. The cages on one side held healthy animals, whilst those on the other had been infected by an engineered monkeypox virus. The healthy ones leapt about the cages screaming and hooting, whilst those on the other side sat silent and withdrawn. Their eyes watching every move the humans made.
One of the infected monkeys, Monkey B220, a small male rhesus, was âgoing down' â the terminology used when an animal displayed the classic symptoms: weeping pustules thickly clustered on the face, hands and feet. This indicated he was ready for the latest test vaccine. Seeing this, Captain Seymour felt a pang of guilt at the suffering animal, but she reminded herself that it was for the sake of medical progress. So she took a deep breath and inwardly controlled her emotions. She ordered the removal of the monkey to the lab for detailed examination and injection of a prototype vaccine. The technicians took the monkey and laid the listless body out on a stainless-steel table in preparation for the experiment.
Moments later, as she was about to insert the needle into Monkey B220, a voice entered her earpiece informing her that she was needed in the director's office without delay.
Grace swept her long, dark hair away from soft, angular features as she entered the office complex of the Director of Porton Down's Defence Science Technology Laboratory (DSTL). Displaying her security pass to the guard at the desk, she headed her young, trim figure straight for Major Brian Stanhope's office, wondering what could be so important to interrupt one of her experiments. Reaching the office she was ushered in by his secretary and was somewhat surprised to see Brigadier John Spencer, Head of Porton's Weapons Research Establishment (PWRE), with him.
“You've met Brigadier Spencer, I understand?” asked the director as he stood to offer Grace a seat in front of his large mahogany desk. The director was a tall, grey-haired man in his late fifties.
“Yes, sir,” she replied, saluting both uniformed men.
“I apologize for having to take you away from your work, but an urgent matter has come to light,” he said, then looked at the brigadier to take over.
Intrigued at what that might be, she sat next to the brigadier. Her brown, almond-shaped eyes stared at him with growing apprehension.
“Brian tells me you are intensively involved in the weaponization of lethal viruses. Is that correct, Captain?”
“That is correct, sir.”
“What are you currently experimenting with?”
“Ebola and smallpox, sir.”
“How are they coming along?” His blue eyes fixed on Grace from under bushy black eyebrows that contrasted strongly with a mop of white hair.
“Which in particular, sir?” Grace wondered where all this was leading.
“Let's start with Ebola.”
“We've made good progress in breaking down and separating the main toxins into groups enabling them to be safely capsulized; we are also close to formulating a fast-acting vaccine. What is needed now is to establish a method of effective remote release. At the moment we are looking at low altitude capsule burst, which would allow the virus to spread evenly over the target area.”
The brigadier nodded and turned to the director. “Is delivery working with you?”
“Yes, we've given them test pouches, which they are now in the process of testing in a multi-release vehicle that can be fired from a shoulder harness.”
The brigadier returned to Grace. “And the smallpox experiments?”
“The monkeys are dying rapidly,” Grace answered. “So far our test drugs seem to have no effect. Animals injected with the tried and tested antiviral drugs survived natural monkey pox, but those given engineered monkeypox after administering the same antivirals fell like ninepins. The poxvirus is overwhelming the vaccine.”
“Engineered monkeypox is the nearest we can get to the human version,” Stanhope interjected. The brigadier gave him a glance that said, “Not necessary.”
Grace continued. “The Interleukin 4 gene is a cytokine, a protein that nullifies the immune system against the engineered pox. Smallpox is possibly the most virulent. However, as you know, this virus has been officially eradicated. It's possible to engineer a virus to become super lethal, but to my knowledge no one has successfully created, or weaponized, a super virus from smallpox, Ebola, typhoid or any other virus â not officially anyway. In attempting to splice a human IL-4 gene to a poxvirus, we are breaking the treaty.”
“Understood, Captain Seymour,” the brigadier said quietly, a cold smile creasing his features. “Regarding the treaty, we are assisting the Americans. We do not want to be caught with our pants down, do we? Imagine if Russia, China, Iran or even North Korea were able to create a super virus and we did not have a vaccine to protect ourselves.” He paused a few moments allowing what he had said to sink in. Then, “Regarding our own position: if we were successful in finding a vaccine for a so-called smallpox super virus, is there any guarantee it would work on humans?”
“Not unless humans were used as guinea-pigs,” Grace shot back. She had been surprised when ordered to undertake the IL-4 and monkeypox experiments, knowing full well that she was contravening the Biological Weapons and Toxin Convention Treaty signed by America and 140 other countries, including the UK, thus forbidding the development, possession and use of offensive biological weapons â in particular, the smallpox DNA. However, Grace was under no illusion that natural smallpox only existed in Atlanta and Siberia and she had little doubt that smallpox engineering was taking place in other parts of the world. “If anyone has managed to do so and has formulated a vaccine, then they must have tested it on humans,” she concluded.
“That brings me to the point why you are here, Captain Seymour,” said the brigadier, leaning forward in his chair for emphasis. “It has come to our attention that the North Koreans may be developing a super virus that is highly lethal to humans, including a vaccine to control it. Given the unstable nature of the regime, we are concerned they may use it against their enemies, in particular, us.”
“Do we know what type?” she asked, a little shocked.
“Could be any one of the deadlier virals; possibly a smallpox variant. That's about as near as we can establish.” The brigadier glanced at Stanhope. Grace held her breath. “We need to know what that super virus is and if a vaccine exists.”
“How?” she shot back, now knowing where this was heading, but not wanting to hear it.
“By going into North Korea.”
Grace stiffened. “I'm not trained for field work!” was all she could offer now fully shocked.
The brigadier opened a folder. “Captain, according to these training reports, your fitness levels, weapons handling and endurance tests are above average. We would not have considered you had they not been. No one else has your experience and army training.”
“No one from Medical Services?” she shot back, now almost in panic mode.
The brigadier answered smoothly, “No one with your experience of engineered viruses and, if I may say so, your ethnic background.”
So that was it: her South Korean heritage. She should have guessed. The army had paid for her education and now it was payback time.
He continued. “If we can locate the facility where this stuff is made, we will need someone who can understand what they might find. We believe that person is you.”
Grace's mind went into overdrive. She raised an eyebrow at her commanding officer. “Am I being ordered to do this, sir?”
The director threw a glance at the brigadier before responding. “This is a volunteer request, Captain. You have the right to refuse. It will not show up on your record,” he replied.
By the very tone of his voice she knew that refusal would have a detrimental effect on her career.
“Sir.” She looked hard at the brigadier. “Do I understand correctly that you do not have a location for this facility?” Grace was now becoming more uneasy about what she was being ordered to do. Christ, she was a virologist, not bloody Rambo.
“We believe the facility might be somewhere in the Hamgyong Mountains.”
“Somewhere on the northwestern side, near a town called Pyorha-ri, about twenty miles from the Chinese border.”
“Who would I go with?”
“A Special Forces team. They will be responsible for your safety, locating the facility if one exists and, if necessary, destroying that facility.”
Grace was appalled at that last bit. “Sir, with respect, you cannot just blow-up a facility like that; the risk is too great. Viruses could easily escape and if they are of the âsuper' variety without a vaccine, then God help us all. I would imagine any facility like this would be heavily guarded. To get in undetected would be a feat in itself before even reaching the hot zone, not to mention acquiring the appropriate bio protection. Anyone entering a hot zone without protection, as you well know, will undoubtedly end up experiencing a painful death.”
The brigadier stared at Grace for a few moments before answering with a hint of impatience. “The objective is to get into the facility without conflict; that's the SAS team's job. Once in, your job is to either confirm or deny the existence of any lethal super viruses. Only if it is necessary for your escape will destruct tactics be deployed. The whole idea is to be in and out without anyone knowing. Do I make myself clear, Captain Seymour?”
“Good. Now, tell me: are you prepared to volunteer?”
Grace sat silently for a moment. She looked at the two men and felt a knot of fear in the pit of her stomach. “I will do whatever I can to help.”