Still leaden with grief over Monk, Lisa stared past the Sea Dart's windshield. While she waited, her thoughts slipped easily into recriminations. She could have done more. Moved faster. Thought of something clever at the last moment. Instead, Monk's prosthetic hand still hung from the wing's strut. Ryder hadn't been able to pry it off.
Lisa glanced to the hatch, wishing Ryder would get back soon. He had topped off his boat's petrol tank and gone in search of a telephone with a fistful of emergency cash he had stored here.
But his chances looked doubtful. The nearby village lay dark along the beach, storm-damaged with stripped roofs, downed palm trees, and beaches littered with overturned skiffs and debris. There had been no power at the dock's fuel pumps. Ryder had to hand-crank the petrol, passing a wadful of cash to a wet dog of a man in flip-flops and knee-length shorts. The man had left with Ryder on a motorcycle, assuring him they could find a phone near the island's small inland airport.
The tropical island of Natuna Besar served the tourist trade with its abundant snorkeling reefs and excellent sport fishing. But it had been evacuated with the threat of the typhoon. The place looked deserted.
Most of the islands they had flown over had been in a similar stack of shambles.
From the air, Ryder had spotted the airport on Natuna Besar. "Surely someone down there has a sat-phone we could borrow," he had said. "Or a way to repair our radio."
Needing to fuel anyway, they had made a landing in the sheltered bay. Lisa now waited with Susan.
Worried, Lisa placed a hand on the woman's damp brow. In the dimness of the cabin, Susan's face shone with a deeper glow, seeming to rise more out of her underlying bones than her skin. Lisa felt a burn under her palm as she rested it on Susan's forehead.
But it was not a fever.
Lisa lifted away her hand. It still continued to burn.
What the hell?
Lisa frantically rinsed her palm with water from a canteen and dried it on the fire blanket. The smolder subsided.
Lisa stared at the sheen of Susan's skin, rubbing the sting from her fingertips. This was new. The cyanobacteria must be producing a caustic chemical. And while it burned Lisa's skin, Susan remained resistant or protected.
What was happening?
As if reading her thoughts, Susan squirmed an arm out from under the blanket. Her hand stretched toward the square of weak sunlight flowing through the hatch window. The glow in her flesh vanished in the brighter light.
The contact seemed to settle Susan. She let out a long sigh.
Could it be?
Curious, Lisa reached to Susan's hand and brushed a fingertip across her sunlit skin. Lisa yanked her arm back, shaking her fingers. Like touching a hot iron. She again doused her skin with water, the fingertip already blistering.
"It's the sunlight," Lisa said aloud.
She pictured Susan's earlier outburst, when she'd first set eyes on the rising sun. Lisa also remembered one of the unique features of cyanobacteria. They were the precursors to modern plants. The bacteria contained rudimentary chloroplasts, microscopic engines to convert sunlight into energy. With the rise of the sun, the cyanobacteria were ramping up, energizing in some strange manner.
But to do what?
Lisa glanced to the navigation chart on the floor. She remembered Susan's earlier outburst, pointing down to a spot on the map.
"Angkor," Lisa mumbled.
Lisa had attempted to convince herself it was just a coincidence. But now she was less sure. She remembered eavesdropping on a conversation while strapped to a surgical table. Devesh had been on the phone, speaking in Arabic. She had made out only one word.
What if it wasn't a coincidence?
And if not, what else did Susan know?
Lisa suspected one way to find out. She shifted over and cradled Susan's shoulders in her arms, keeping the blanket between them. Lisa lifted Susan into the shaft of sunlight flowing through the front windshield.
Susan shuddered as soon as her face touched the brightness. Her eyes fluttered open, black pupils shifted toward the weak light. But rather than constricting in the brightness, Susan's pupils dilated, taking in more light.
Lisa remembered the bacterial invasion of the woman's retinas, centered around the optic nerve, direct conduits to the brain.
Susan stiffened under her. Her head lolled—then grew steadier.
"Lisa," she said, thick-tongued and slurred.
"I have to . . . must get me there .. . before it's too late."
"Where?" But Lisa knew where.
"No more time," Susan mumbled, and swung her face toward Lisa. Her eyes twitched from the sunlight, shying from it. Frightened. And not just because of the danger to come. Lisa saw it in her eyes. Susan was scared of what was happening to her body. She knew the truth, yet was unable to stop it.
Lisa lowered Susan out of the sunlight.
Susan's voice momentarily steadied. One hand clutched Lisa's wrist. Out of direct sunlight, the touch burned, but it was not blistering hot. "I'm . . . I'm not the cure," Susan said. "I know what you're all thinking. But I'm not. . . not yet."
Lisa frowned. "What do you mean?"
"I must get there. I can feel it, a pull at my bones. A certainty. Like a memory of something buried just beyond my ability to recall. I know I'm right. I just can't explain why."
Lisa recalled her discussion back aboard the ship. About junk DNA, about old viral sequences in our genes, collective genetic history in our code. Were the bacteria awakening something in Susan?
Lisa watched the woman withdraw her other hand from the square of sunlight and pull a corner of the blanket over her face. Did she know it, too?
As Susan burrowed into her blanket away from the sunlight, her voice grew fainter. "Not ready . .."
Still one hand remained clamped to Lisa's wrist.
"Get me there . .. somehow." Susan sagged, slipping away again. "Or the world will be lost."
A loud knock startled Lisa.
Ryder's scruffy face appeared in the hatch window. Lisa leaned forward and unbolted the lock. Ryder climbed in, sopping wet, but wearing a huge smile.
"I found a sat-phone! It's only quarter charged, and the bloody thing cost me the equivalent of a small beach house in Sydney Harbor."
Lisa accepted the large device. As Ryder returned to the pilot seat, Lisa joined him in front. Even soaked to the skin, he looked like he had just returned from a grand lark, eyes bright with the excitement of it all. But Lisa also noted a serious edge to the man, a hardness around the corner of his lips. Ryder might enjoy his wild adventures, but one didn't achieve his level of success without a steely core of practicality.
"Satellite signal will be stronger away from the cliffs," he said, and engaged the jet pumps. With a burbling of the engines, he idled them clear of the rocky heights.
As he did so, Lisa related what Susan had said.
I am not the cure.. . not yet.
The two came to a consensus together.
Ryder pulled the navigational chart and propped it open on the wheel of the craft. "Angkor lies four hundred and fifty miles due north. I can fly this little blowie there in about an hour and a half."
Lisa lifted the sat-phone and pinpointed a strong signal.
She had one last person to convince.
8:44 P.M. Washington, D.C.
"Lisa?" Painter shouted into his headpiece's receiver. The signal was faint, but most of his boisterousness had nothing to do with a weak connection. It was pure elation and heady relief. He stood behind his desk, back straight. "Are you okay?"
"Yes ... for now. I don't have much time, Painter. Not much charge left on the phone."
He heard the anxiousness in her voice. He kept his voice firm, pulling back from his elation. "Go ahead."
Lisa quickly related all that had happened, speaking tersely, as if reporting a terminal diagnosis to a patient, sticking to the facts. Still, Painter recognized a tremble behind her voice. He wanted to reach through the phone and hold her, to squeeze her fear away, to clutch her to him.
Still, as she related an account of disease, madness, and cannibalism, he sank into his seat. His back bowed. He asked questions, filled in some blanks. She gave coordinates to an island. Pusat. He slid the notes to his aide, to fax to his superior, Sean McKnight. A team of Aussie commandos from the Counterterrorism and Special Recovery Team were already awaiting a target, stationed in Darwin, ready to coordinate a rescue operation. Before Painter finished this conversation, jets would be in the air.
But the danger was larger than a single hijacked cruise ship.
"The Judas Strain?" Lisa asked. "Has the disease spread?"
Painter only had bad news there. Early word had cases already being reported in Perth, in London, in Bombay. More would surely come in.
"We need that woman," Painter finished. "Jennings in research believes such a survivor is the key to a cure."
Lisa agreed. "She is the key, but she's not the cure . . . not yet."
"What do you mean?"
Painter heard her sigh from halfway around the world.
"We're missing something. Something tied to a region in Cambodia."
Painter straightened again. "Are you talking about Angkor?"
A long pause followed. "Yes." He heard the surprise in her voice. "How did you—?
Painter told her all about the Guild's search along the historical trail and where it ended.
"And Gray is already there?" Lisa asked, sounding suddenly frantic. He heard her mumble, as if quoting someone. "They must not go there." Her voice grew firmer. "Painter, is there anyway to call Gray off?"
"I don't know." Her voice had begun to cut in and out. Her phone was losing power. "The bacteria are doing something to Susan's brain. Energizing it in some manner, using sunlight. She has this strong urge to get to Angkor."
Painter recognized what she was implying. "Like the crabs."