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
“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
“Twenty-six degrees on
“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
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
“You’ve done your
homework, Agent Burns.”
“Thanks for meeting us on
“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
“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,”
“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
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 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
* * *
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
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
“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
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
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
“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
“We should hold our
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
“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
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
“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.