She nodded. "I see Dr. Pollum is not here. Was he able to finish the protein assay on the viral shell?"
Lisa had ordered this test, too. It wasn't truly necessary, but it had promised a good couple hours of extra labor.
"One moment," Chenier said. "I have the results here." She turned to one of the monitors and began collapsing screens while narrating. "It might interest you to know that we were able to classify the virus from genetic assays into the Bunyavirus family."
Henri noted the pinch to Lisa's eyes and explained. "It was what we were discussing before you arrived. Bunyaviruses typically infect avian and mammalian species, causing hemorrhagic fevers, but the vector for transmission is usually arthropods. Biting flies, ticks, mosquitoes."
He slid over a notepad.
Lisa glanced to the open pages. Henri had diagrammed the pathway of infection.
Henri tapped the center. "Insects are necessary to spread the disease. Bunyaviruses themselves are seldom transmissible directly from human to human."
Lisa rubbed her temples. "Unlike the Judas Strain." She picked up a pencil and altered the diagram. "Instead of an insect to spread the disease, it takes a bacterial cell to pass the virus from one person to another."
Henri frowned. "Yes, but why did—?" Gunfire blasts cut off his words. All of them jumped. Even Devesh dropped his cane. With a muttered curse, he recovered it and headed to the door. "You all stay here."
More blasts followed, along with guttural cries. Lisa stood up. What was happening?
Devesh collected two guards stationed in the science wing and hurried over to the middeck security post by the elevators. Automatic gunfire erupted in sporadic bursts, as loud as detonations in the confined space.
Shouts rang out between the blasts.
Keeping his guards ahead of him, Devesh followed more cautiously as the post came into view. Six men manned the security detail. The leader, a tall African soldier from Somalia, noted Devesh and fell back to his position.
He spoke tersely in Malay. "Sir, a dozen of the afflicted broke out of one of the back wards. They rushed our line. Attacked."
The leader nodded to one of the guards, seated to the side, cradling a bloody arm. He had his sleeve rolled back, revealing a deep bite wound.
Devesh took a step forward and pointed absently to the wounded man. "Isolate him."
Beyond the security post, a hallway extended toward the stern. Some doors stood open, others closed. Down the passageway, a few bodies sprawled, riddled with bullets, blood soaking into the carpet. The closest two—a naked obese woman and a shirtless teenage boy—were tangled together. Devesh noted the bubbled rashes and the blackened boils on the corpses.
He fought to control his temper, breathing heavily through his nostrils. The stern section of this level housed the most debilitated patients, making them readily available to the research team. Devesh had outlined a firm protocol when dealing with patients on this level. Such lapses would not be tolerated. Not when he was this close to success.
"I've called in reinforcements," the sentry leader said. "When we started firing, some of the afflicted fled into open rooms. We'll have to flush them out."
A moan arose from farther down the hall.
A man rose up to an elbow. His other shoulder was a bloody ruin. He wore a medical smock. One of the doctors. Caught in the firefight.
"Help me," he croaked out.
From an open doorway at his shoulder, a hand lashed out and grabbed his jacket. Another tangled in his hair. He screamed as he was yanked halfway through the door. His legs still protruded into the passageway, his heels kicking and pounding.
The sentry leader glanced to Devesh, asking permission to proceed forward.
Devesh shook his head.
The doctor's screaming suddenly cut off—but his heels continued to beat a rhythm of agony.
Devesh felt no sympathy. Someone had been careless with a restraint or door lock. He heard the booted tread of reinforcements echoing up the stairwell.
Devesh turned away but waved an arm back to the hallway. "Exterminate them."
"The entire deck. Clear it all out. Cabin by cabin."
Still in the virology lab, Lisa listened to the spats of rifle fire.
Screams also reached her.
No one spoke.
Devesh finally returned. He seemed unfazed, only a little red in the face. He pointed his cane at Lisa. "Come with me. There is something 1 would like you to see." He turned on a heel and stepped briskly away.
Lisa stood and followed, hurrying to keep up.
Devesh led her past the security station and down the next hallway.
It was a slaughterhouse. Blood splashed walls. Bodies lay rolled up against the walls, macerated by automatic gunfire.
Lisa swallowed hard, choking on the stench in the confined passageway.
As they passed along the hallway, the cabin doors to either side all lay open. She glanced inside and spotted more bodies, lifeless, twisted, bloody. Some had been shot while still handcuffed to their beds.
More gunfire blasted—not scattered, purposeful.
Farther down, a pair of guards exited a cabin, rifles smoking—then moved to the next room.
"You . . . you're slaughtering the patients," Lisa said.
"We're winnowing the patient load, that's all." Devesh lifted an arm and vaguely motioned ahead. "This is the second breakout. An hour ago, a pair of patients escaped their restraints, biting off their own fingers in order to free themselves. They attacked their doctor, killing him before they could be stopped. In such a deranged state, these patients are strong, hyped on adrenaline, oblivious of pain."
Lisa remembered the video footage of Susan Tunis's husband, raving and attacking. It was starting here now, too.
Devesh glanced back to her. "From EEG studies, it seems you were right. The pathology appears to be some form of catatonic excitement, accompanied by deep psychotic breaks."
More gunfire chattered, causing her to jump.
Responding to her reaction, he sighed. "This is for everyone's safety. We're seeing a rapid decline in condition among patients. Shipwide. With medical supplies already running low, we must be efficient. Once a patient devolves to this level of debilitation, they pose a grave physical threat to all around them and serve no real purpose."
Lisa understood the sentiment behind his words. Devesh and the Guild were using the ship's patients as the equivalent of living culture media for the Judas Strain, harvesting the deadly pathogens and storing them as potential bioweapons. And like any field after it had been thoroughly reaped, Devesh was plowing it over.
"Why did you bring me out here?" she asked, aghast.
"To show you this."
Devesh stepped to the only cabin door that was still closed. He keyed it and held the door open for her.
A stronger stench struck her.
Lisa crossed the dark threshold, unsure what to expect. The hall lights revealed an inside cabin, similar to her own: a small bath, a couch, a television, and a small bed in back.
Behind her Devesh reached inside and flicked on the lights. The bulbs flickered, then steadied into a low thrum of fluorescents.
Lisa stumbled back, a hand at her throat.
A body lay draped across the bed, soaked into the bedding and cushions. His two bare legs were tied to the bedposts, arms to the headboard. But it appeared as if a bomb had gone off in his belly, hollowing out his abdomen. Gore splattered ceiling and walls.
A hand over her mouth, Lisa went cold, falling reflexively back to the clinical, her only safe haven.
Where were his internal organs?
"They were found feeding on him," Devesh explained. "Patients whose minds had rotted beyond restraint."
Lisa shivered once violently. She was suddenly too aware of her bare feet, her near-naked body under the robe.
"We've seen this before," Devesh continued. "In this state of catatonic excitement, the virus appears to stimulate a ravenous appetite. Insatiable, in fact. We've watched one of these victims gorge himself to the point his stomach exploded. And still he continued to eat."
Past the shock, Lisa needed another moment for the significance of his words to strike her. "You watched. .. where . .. ?"
"Dr. Cummings, you don't think we were just studying Susan Tunis. To be thorough, we must also understand every facet of the disease. Even this cannibalism. This insatiable hunger bears a striking similarity to Prader-Willi syndrome. Are you familiar with it?"
Numb, Lisa shook her head.
"It's a hypothalamic dysfunction, triggering an insatiable appetite that can never be quelled. An endless sense of starvation. A rare genetic defect. Many of the afflicted die at a young age of stomach ruptures from gorging."
Devesh's cold clinical assessment helped anchor her back inside her body, but her breathing remained heavy.
"Autopsy of one of the psychotics' brain showed toxic damage to the hypothalamus, similar to the pathology in Prader-Willi patients. And coupled with the catatonic excitement and adrenal stimulation. Well.. ." Devesh waved to the bed.
Lisa's stomach churned. As she turned away, she finally noted the victim's face: the agonized lips, the blank staring eyes, the corona of gray hair.
Her hand covered her mouth as she recognized the man. It was the John Doe patient, the one suffering from flesh-eating disease. From Susan's medical history, Lisa even knew the patient's name now.
To put a name to the cannibalism here, to personalize it...
Lisa hurried out of the room.
Devesh's eyes glinted with dark amusement. Lisa realized the bastard had brought her purposefully down here, half naked, unnerved, knowing she'd identify him. It was all some awful bit of sadism.
"So now you know what we truly face here," he said. "Imagine events magnified worldwide. That is the threat I'm trying to prevent."
Lisa held back a sharp retort. Trying to prevent, my ass.
"We are facing a pandemic," Devesh continued as he headed back down the hallway toward the scientific wing. "Before the World Health Organization had responded to Christmas Island, early patients had already been airlifted to Perth in Australia. Prior to that, tourists traveling through Christmas Island had spread to the four corners of the world. London, San Francisco, Berlin, Kuala Lumpur. We don't know how many, if any, were infected from early exposure, like Dr. Susan Tunis, but it would not take many. Without proper disinfection like we employ here, the virus may already be spreading."