Canadian Science Centre for Human and Animal Health Winnipeg, Canada
Agent Burns stepped out of her taxi under overcast skies. A gust of icy wind stung her face and sapped the moisture from her contoured lips. She stomped her boots on the crunchy snow and blew warm air on her hands while Agent Parks looked on, his appearance indicating indifference to the bone-chilling cold. Whatever Kriegel had in store for her, she hoped it was worth it. McLeary needed her help, and given the choice, she’d rather put up with him than contend with the new gorilla Kriegel paired her with. In her heart, she knew her mission went beyond one man or woman, as the fate of thousands teetered on the successful delivery of nothing less than a miracle cure.
“Ten months of winter, two months of bad hockey,” said Parks. He carried a hard shell briefcase in his gloved hand and his loaded service pistol on his hip holster.
Burns watched a cloud of condensation form in front of her face with every breath. Already her face felt tight and dry from the limited exposure to the elements. Her frozen toes tingled inside her leather boots. It’s too early for frostbite and too late to put on thicker socks, she told herself. “How cold is it?”
“Twenty-six degrees on average—in July.”
“I wish it felt that warm,” said Burns. She followed Parks along the freshly-plowed path toward the six-story building connected to satellite offices through glass-enclosed walkways. The wind cut through her jacket like a razor, chilling her core before she reached the sheltered entrance. Surrounded by bomb-sniffing guard dogs, surveillance cameras, and hidden sensors, she felt more secure than she did at FBI headquarters.
From the lobby, she noticed the open space beyond the guard’s station and the X-ray machines, where a sign read “No Firearms Allowed.” A female scientist in a white lab coat and glasses acknowledged her from the lobby stairwell.
“Good morning,” the scientist spoke with a French accent. “We’ve been expecting your arrival.”
Burns flashed her badge. “I’m Special Agent Burns.”
Agent Parks extended a hand. “I’m Agent Parks with Homeland Security. Good to meet you.”
The woman shook hands with both agents. “I’m Doctor Allison, Head of the Medical Microbiology Department.” She gave each agent a temporary badge and watched them sign the visitor’s log.
Burns clipped her badge to her sweater and followed Doctor Allison. She surrendered her weapon to the guard on duty. “I understand you studied internal medicine and infectious diseases at Berkeley. Rhodes Scholar at Oxford in ’82. Candidate for the Nobel Prize in ’96.”
“You’ve done your homework, Agent Burns.”
“Thanks for meeting us on short notice.”
“I hope we can be of help,” Doctor Allison replied.
“That’s why we’re here,” said Parks. He retrieved his briefcase from the X-ray scanner.
Doctor Allison waited for the guard to secure the agents’ firearms. “If you’ll come this way.”
Parks followed Doctor Allison and Agent Burns. “Our government is grateful for your assistance.”
Doctor Allison punched a key pad on the wall and stared into a retinal scanner. “Mine is grateful to oblige.”
“Access granted,” a synthesized voice signaled from a speaker in the wall.
“You’ll have to bear with me,” Doctor Allison told her guests, “our security detail can be challenging at times. We have more than a dozen labs and two hundred senior scientists on staff.” She used a key on her wrist lanyard to unlock a small compartment in the wall. Then she handed Burns and Parks a pair of pathogen detection stickers. “Clip these to your visitor’s badge. Make sure they stay there at all times.”
“You’re scaring me,” said Parks.
“Merely precautionary, I assure you. We operate at the highest levels of bio containment. We work with everything from Ebola and Marburg virus to Lassa fever and anthrax.”
“What grows inside, stays inside,” Parks quipped. He noted the surveillance monitor in the ceiling corner and counted eight guards at the entrance, all armed with submachine guns. Intrusion detection devices embedded in smoke detectors lined the corridor leading away from the main entrance. To steal what he came for would require cunning, artifice, and strict adherence to a well-rehearsed plan.
Doctor Allison slid her smart card badge through the optical reader for access to the biomedical storage facility. “This way,” she urged, escorting her FBI visitors through another series of sliding doors activated by the coded signal from the RF chip implanted in her badge.
Burns walked with Agent Parks beside her and thought about McLeary and his sons. This is my redemption, she told herself, reflecting on her call to duty and the oath she took to serve and protect. For once, she saw herself beyond the bureau’s political machine. A strong American fighting to make a difference with the help of men like Jim McLeary and Agent Parks who would give their own lives to protect the freedoms and way of life their enemies fought to destroy. And now, deep within the catacombs of one of the world’s most sophisticated biomedical research facilities, the reality of the situation enveloped her. The bureau trusted her. Lives depended on her.
Escorted beyond the administrative offices, conference rooms, and medical equipment labs, Burns followed Parks and Doctor Allison through the last secured entrance beyond the stark white corridors with windows overlooking research labs occupied by technicians in white coats, purple gloves, and protective goggles. Once inside the airlocked perimeter, she followed Doctor Allison across a raised-floor, climate-controlled room with refrigeration units mounted in the center of the six-hundred square foot space. An eye-wash station with an overhead shower and a pull-down lever occupied the far corner.
Doctor Allison approached the computer terminal and typed her password at the screen prompt. She slid her badge through the smart card reader and placed her thumb on the fingerprint scanner. A green light illuminated above the red and white infectious substance placard on the refrigeration unit, followed by a mechanical crunch of gears releasing the locking mechanism.
Agent Parks rested his metal briefcase on an empty table. He took a pen from his shirt pocket and laid it alongside the biohazard container made to look like an ordinary briefcase.
“The storage unit is on a timer,” Doctor Allison explained, opening the lower cabinet to reveal the supply of experimental vaccine vials. “The world’s best and brightest have been working around the clock to develop this,” she said as she carefully withdrew two vials and handed them to Agent Parks. “The human body is a complex machine. No two systems are identical. There’s no guarantee the serum will work uniformly or yield the same effect on everyone once mass-produced, but it will give you a fighting chance.”
Burns helped Parks seat the vials in the molded foam rubber lining inside the bottom of the briefcase.
“Last two,” Doctor Allison announced as the light on the refrigeration unit turned yellow. She handed Agent Parks the remaining vials and slid the drawer closed. For a fleeting moment, she glanced at Agent Burns then back at Agent Parks, aware of something intangible she’d failed to notice before. The way Agent Parks studied her went beyond a natural curiosity about the opposite sex. She felt uneasy in his presence. More than a little uncomfortable. As if Agent Parks emitted a negative aura like a radioactive cloud discretely contaminating everything around him.
Don’t be ridiculous, she told herself, dismissing her unfounded reservations about a man she’d just met. A federal agent on a top secret mission. Was her bad vibe truly a cause for concern, or a warning, perhaps, from somewhere deep within her psyche? A sixth sense prompting her to avoid certain strangers on a subway or question the motive of a handsome stranger standing too close behind her at a bank’s ATM machine. These things she pondered without a shred of tangible evidence to support her unfounded concerns. “Be careful with those,” she told Agent Parks.
Agent Parks seated the last two vials in the briefcase and closed the lid. “We’ll take it from here,” he said bluntly and hustled toward the air-locked chamber ahead of Burns.
“Agent Parks,” Doctor Allison called out with a mild tremor in her voice as she noticed the sudden urgency in his movements. “You forgot your pen,” she said, a second before a powerful blast from the shaped explosive embedded in the pen’s composite frame blew off her left arm at the shoulder and hurled her against the refrigeration unit.
Carbon dioxide gas dispersed from the fire suppression system, dousing the laboratory in a smoky white cloud.
* * *
Momentarily blinded by the blast, a discombobulated Agent Burns staggered away from Agent Parks, her ears ringing, when she felt a fist pound her face and knock her against the wall. An arm around her neck choked her.
“In here!” a guard shouted above the pandemonium. Sirens wailed inside the secure facility. Flashing red lights illuminated the area outside the research lab.
Agent Parks let Burns slip through his arm and pressed his back to the wall for cover as the guard advanced. He touched his arm, where a portion of the synthesized transparent glove had torn away from his skin. Less than a quarter millimeter thick, the glove had remained nearly imperceptible to the untrained eye with Doctor Allison’s fabricated prints on each fingertip.
The guard spotted Burns first, pointing his weapon in her direction as he emerged from the sealed doorway and felt the brunt of Parks’ strike to his throat, crushing his larynx in a single blow.
Parks wrenched the gun away and shot the guard twice in the chest. He searched for Burns in the haze of white gas. When he failed to locate her, he took out his forged smart card with Doctor Allison’s fingerprint embedded in the microchip memory and proceeded outside the biocontainment lab.
* * *
Burns crouched behind a row of biohazard waste bins and pulled an emergency Draeger gas mask from the wall and slipped it over her face. She reached for her gun instinctively, touching the empty holster at her hip before she remembered surrendering her firearm when she’d entered the building.
“Are you all right?” she heard a voice call out. She stood up to see an armed guard check for Doctor Allison’s carotid pulse. “What happened?”
A bevy of security personnel swarmed the room perimeter. “Who are you?” a guard asked, the title “Chief of Security” imprinted on his badge.
Burns stood in silence for a moment until her short term memory came back. “FBI. I think my partner just tried to kill me.”
“We saw what happened on the monitor.”
“Where’d he go?”
“He entered another compartmented lab space. Biohazard four.” The Chief gave Burns a 9mm Beretta. “Don’t shoot unless you have to.”
Burns slipped the gun in her empty holster. She pulled on the straps securing the triple seal gas mask against her face. “What’s our move?”
“The facility’s in lockdown mode. All physical security devices will reject everyone but security personnel. He’s not going anywhere without an armed escort.”
Burns followed the team down a narrow hallway with biohazard placards on the walls. “Are you certain he can’t get out of the building?”
“He’ll never get off this floor.” The Chief of Security stopped Burns outside a secure hallway leading to a lab certified at biohazard four, a space allocated for the cultivation of viruses and bacterial elements capable of causing fatal disease in humans—for which vaccines are not available. “He’s in there.”
Burns grabbed at her lower back where a long sliver of broken glass had embedded itself. It was too painful to remove—she ignored it and pressed on.
The Chief swiped his badge at the smart card reader and pressed his thumb on the fingerprint scanner. Two shots rang out when he tried to enter. “Get down!”
Burns dropped onto her front and rolled beyond the security team. Three more shots punched through the secure door and slammed into the wall behind her.
The Chief took cover behind a water cooler. “He’s trapped in there.”
Burns weighed her options, her thoughts a jumbled mess. She knew what Jim McLeary would do. “Cover me!”
Burns crawled forward and rose to her knees, peering over a half-wall partition to see a row of positive pressure suits suspended in a biosafety cabinet. From her vantage point, she could see the hooded figure removing large vials from a round storage unit in the glass-enclosed lab at the end of the sterilized hallway.
The Chief squeezed along side her. “Can you see him?”
“He’s behind the glass.” Burns stared at the biohazard symbol on the window below the level four label. “What exactly do you grow in there?”
“A fate worse than death, I assure you.”
“We’ve got to stop him.”
“We’ll intercept him when he tries to leave. There’s no other way out.”
Burns pointed to the suits hanging in the open cabinet. “He stole the vaccine. We have to do something.”
“We should hold our position.”
Burns reached for the safety cabinet. “He could destroy everything!”
“If he sees you coming, you won’t stand a chance.” The Chief crawled backwards and motioned for Burns to follow. “Take this,” he said, handing her his smart card. “There’s another access point on the opposite side adjacent to the refrigeration units. I’ll distract him. Swipe my badge once and press two-two-seven-zero to override the fingerprint ID.”
“What if he shoots the glass?”
“The lab’s self-contained. The perimeter walls are bullet-proof from top to bottom. You could launch a bazooka without penetrating the safety zone.”
Burns left the group and moved swiftly toward the second entrance. She donned a positive pressure suit with boots, gloves, and a self-contained breathing apparatus. She curled her hand around the 9mm Beretta the Chief had given her, pushing her gloved finger through the trigger guard. She spied Agent Parks from outside the air lock entrance near the back of the research laboratory. To her right, her view was obstructed by the overhead ductwork and interlocking damper systems designed to maintain negative air pressure. On the opposite side, a bevy of beakers, vials, sinks, and microscopes occupied several workstations flanked with air filtration units, biohazard waste bins, and a five-foot diameter autoclave partially shielding her from view.
She waited for the Chief to give the “thumbs up” signal before his security team distracted Agent Parks toward the far end of the laboratory.
Inside the lab, Burns kept the gun at her side. She took baby steps, aware of the potential consequences should she miss her intended target and bounce a bullet through her protective suit. Nice and slow with short movements and a calm determination to do what needed to be done. She imagined herself an astronaut walking on the moon’s surface for the first time, her movements stifled by the confines of her bulky gear.
She stepped over the body of a lab assistant with a torn hood and knelt down to feel for a pulse. She observed the young man’s blistered face, the way his skin appeared to boil from the inside out, leaving welts the size of quarters. His swollen eyes appeared lifeless despite an involuntary twitch and the faint hiss of air escaping through his singed esophagus.
With Agent Parks less than ten feet away and his back turned toward her, she raised the gun and aimed the sights at his spinal column. The thought of shooting an unarmed man gave her pause, despite everything Parks had done to jeopardize the lives of fellow agents and the arsenal of biological weapons at his disposal.
Parks caught Burns’ reflection in a stainless steel cabinet and raised his hands slowly. “So here we are,” he said through the microphone device affixed inside the airtight helmet. He turned to face Burns. “Are you going to shoot me or not?” He reached for the open box of bioweapon vials and removed one with a red liquid content. “It’s natural to be scared of what we don’t understand.” He dropped the vial and watched it smash against the floor, releasing an invisible cloud of death in the recirculated air.
Burns stepped forward, her finger pressed on the trigger hard enough to register the familiar tactile sensation but soft enough to avoid an accidental discharge.
Parks tossed another vial on the floor and stepped toward his partner.
“Put it down!” Burns ordered him, projecting the deepest, coldest, and most commanding voice she could summon.
“You won’t shoot in here. It’s against your protocol.”
“Don’t try me.”
“I already have,” Parks whispered. He lunged at Burns with uncanny quickness and snatched the gun by the barrel. He jerked the muzzle sideways from his torso, catching Burns off balance with his seamless footwork.
Burns grappled for control of the weapon, bending and twisting at her waist with both hands on the gun. She kicked her knee at her assailant’s groin but failed to make contact through the billowing layers of protective garment. Smaller, faster, and better trained, she leveraged her ability to adjust her balance and took down Parks with a hip throw to send him crashing against the autoclave cabinet.
Parks responded with a whirling round kick to knock the gun away and keep himself in the fight.
Burns knocked him on his heels with a powerful side kick, sending him against the double door refrigerator. Closing the gap, she jabbed at his hooded face until he blocked her second punch and grabbed at her suit.
Burns jumped sideways, keeping her balance as she steadied her defenses against the larger, more powerful adversary. She could see the gun on the floor across the room but reached for a fire extinguisher on the wall instead, blinding Parks with a blast of carbon dioxide before swinging the metal cylinder at his head.
Parks ducked, lunging at Burns to tackle her against the viewing window overlooking the security force assembled outside the lab.
Burns dropped the extinguisher and absorbed a flurry of blows to her midsection and the self contained filter mechanism mounted in the front of her suit. Then her world flipped upside down as she felt herself thrown toward the autoclave machine and landed on the floor, gasping for breath from her damaged air supply.
Parks kicked her repeatedly in the back, pounding her kidneys. She spat blood inside her mask. With Burns at his mercy, he activated the autoclave and depressed the foot pedal to open the large-diameter lid, spewing a cloud of super-heated steam meant for decontamination of biological waste.
Burns curled herself in a fetal position, her body reflexively protecting her vital organs as Parks grabbed her suit by the shoulders and hoisted her toward the scalding steam. Through her foggy mask, she saw a broken syringe on the floor beside her. She stretched her hand out but couldn’t reach it.
She turned her body, extending every millimeter of her reach only to see Parks kick the needle away.
Parks reached for the gun.
Burns gasped through her mask as the pain in her side signaled a second chance at life. She bent her arm around to grab a shard of glass from one of the large broken vials and jabbed it at the base of Parks’ rubber boot.
“STUPID BITCH!” Parks cried inside his hood, kicking his foot away. Inhaling from his contaminated air supply, he grabbed at the pistol and scooped it from its hiding place beneath the centrifuge station. But the victory was short-lived, as his limbs shook uncontrollably with the rhythmic convulsions of a grand mal seizure, his organs dissolving like molten rubber before expelling through his colon tract as he turned the muzzle toward his head, screaming, and pulled the trigger.