Sample Chapter
Print View

In this section of part one, young biologist Guy Carson has been plucked from a position of obscurity in GeneDyne's New Jersey plant to the company's Mount Dragon research facility, located deep in the New Mexico desert. Great secrecy hangs over both Mount Dragon and the project that Carson has been asked to lead. Ian Singer, the director of Mount Dragon, gives Carson a first-hand tour of the complex, concluding with the much-feared "Fever Tank"--the high-security laboratory that houses the world's most dangerous pathogens .


Warning: This novel contains profanity and graphic violence.

 

CARSON LOOKED OUT across the motor pool toward a sweeping cluster of white buildings which rose abruptly from the desert sands: curves, planes and domes thrusting from the ground. The stark placement of the buildings among the desert terrain, along with a total absence of landscaping, gave the laboratory a Zen-like feeling of purity and emptiness. Covered, glassed-in walkways connected many of the buildings, forming crisscrossing patterns.

"It looks like an art museum," he said. "This place must have cost a fortune."

"Several fortunes," Singer said. "But back in '85, when construction began, money wasn't much of an issue." He ushered Carson towards the residency compound, a series of low curvilinear structures gathered together like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. "We'd obtained a $900 million contract through DATRADA."

"Who?"

"Defense Advanced Technology, Research and Development Administration."

"Never heard of it," said Carson.

"It was a secret Defense Department agency. Disbanded after the Reagan years."

Singer steered Carson through the smoked-glass door of a structure on the far side of the residency compound. A river of air-conditioning washed over them as the door hissed shut. Carson found himself in a vestibule, with slate floors, white walls, and taupe furniture. Singer led him toward another door.

"At first, we did strictly defense research. Our job was to look for vaccines, countermeasures, and anti-toxins to presumed Soviet biological weapons. When the Soviet Union fell apart, so did our brief. We lost the contract in 1990. We almost lost the lab, too, but Scopes did some quick lobbying behind closed doors. God knows how he did it, but we were able to get a thirty-year lease under the Defense Industry Conversion Act."

Singer opened a door into a long laboratory. A series of black tables gleamed under fluorescent lights. Bunsen burners, Erlenmeyer flasks, glass tubing, stereozoom microscopes and various other low-tech equipment sat in neat, spotless rows.

Carson had never seen a lab look so clean. "Is this the low-level facility?" he asked incredulously.

"Nope," Singer said. "Most of the real work is done on the inside, our next stop. This is just eye candy for congressmen and military brass. They expect to see an upscale version of their old university chem lab, and we give it to them."

They walked back into the baking heat. Singer licked a finger and held it up. "Wind's from the southeast," he said. "As always. That's why they picked this place--always blowing from the southeast. The first town downwind of us is Claunch, New Mexico, population 22. One hundred forty miles away. The Trinity Site, where they blew up the first A-bomb, is only thirty miles northwest of here. Good place to hide an atomic explosion. You couldn't find a more isolated place in the lower forty-eight."

"We called that wind the Mexican Zephyr," Carson said. "When I was a kid, I hated to go out in that wind more than anything."

"I see." Singer pointed over Carson's shoulder. "Over there are the recreational facilities--gymnasium, tennis courts, horse corral. I have a strong aversion to physical activity, so I'll let you explore those on your own." He patted his paunch affectionately and laughed. "And that awful-looking building is the air incinerator for the Fever Tank."

"Fever Tank?"

"Sorry," Singer said. "I mean the BioSafety Level-5 laboratory, where the really high-risk organisms are worked on. I'm sure you've heard of the BioSafety classification system. Level-1 is the safety standard for working with the least infectious, least dangerous microbes. Level-4 is for the most dangerous. There are two Level-4 laboratories in the country: the CDC has one in Atlanta, and the Army's got one at Fort Detrick. These Level-4 laboratories are designed to handle for the most dangerous viruses and bacteria that exist in nature."

"But what's this Level-5? I've never heard of it."

Singer grinned. "Brent's pride and joy. Mount Dragon has the only Level-5 laboratory in the world. It was designed for handling viruses and bacteria more dangerous than anything naturally existing in nature. In other words, microbes that have been genetically engineered. Somebody christened it the 'Fever Tank' years ago, and the name stuck. Anyway, all the air from the Level-5 facility is circulated through the incinerator and heated to one thousand degrees Celsius before being cooled and returned. Sterilized completely."

The alien-looking air incinerator was the only structure Carson had seen at Mount Dragon that was not pure white. "So you're working with an airborne pathogen?"

"Clever. Yes we are, and a very nasty one at that." Singer glanced around and wiped his forehead with the back of his hand. "Christ, it's hot. I just never get used to it. Let's go inside."

'Inside' meant the inner perimeter, a large chain-linked area at the heart of Mount Dragon. Carson could see only one break in the inner fence, a small gatehouse directly in front of them. Singer led the way through the gate and into a large building on the far side. The doors opened to a cool foyer. Through an open door, Carson could see a row of computer terminals on long white tables. Two workers, ID cards hung around their necks, jeans under white lab coats, were busily typing at terminals.

"This is the operations building," Singer said, gesturing into the mostly empty room. "Administration, data processing, you name it. Our staff is small. There were never more than thirty scientists here at one time, even in our military days. Now the number is half that, all focused on the project."

"That's pretty small," Carson said.

Singer shrugged. "The human wave approach just doesn't work in genetic engineering."

He gestured Carson out of the foyer into a large atrium paved in black granite and roofed with heavily-tinted glass. The strong desert sun, attenuated to a pale light, fell on a small grouping of palm trees in the center. "Our next stop's out there." He pointed at a window. Through it, Carson could make out a low, rhombus-like structure poking up from the desert.

"Level-5," Singer said unenthusiastically. "The Fever Tank."

"Looks pretty small," Carson said.

"Believe me, it feels small. But what you see is just the housing for the HEPA filters. The real lab's beneath that, underground. Added protection in case of an earthquake, fire, explosion." He hesitated. "Guess we might as well go in."

A long descent in a cramped elevator deposited them in a long, white-tiled corridor lit by orange lights. Video cameras hung from the ceiling, tracking their progress. At the end of the corridor, Singer stopped at a gray metal door, its edges curved to fit the doorframe and sealed with thick black rubber.

To the right was a small mechanical box. Bending over, Singer spoke his name into the box. A green light came on above the door, and a tone sounded.

"Voice recognition," said Singer, opening the door. "It's not as good as hand geometry readers or retinal scanners, but those don't work through biosuits. And this one, at least, can't be fooled by a tape recorder. You'll be coded this afternoon, as part of your entrance interview."

They moved into a large room, sparsely decorated with modern furniture. Along one wall was a series of large metal lockers. On the far side stood another steel door, polished to a high gloss, marked with a bright yellow-and-red symbol. Extreme biohazard, read a legend above the frame.

"This is the ready room," Singer said. "The bluesuits are in those lockers."

He moved toward one of the lockers, then paused. Suddenly he turned toward Carson. "Tell you what. Why don't I get someone who really knows the place to show you around?"

He went over to one the lockers and pressed a button. There was a hiss as the metal door slid up, revealing a bulky blue rubber suit, carefully packed into a molded container that resembled a small coffin.

"You've never entered a BSL-4 facility, right?" Singer asked. "Then listen closely. Level-5 is a lot like Level-4, only more so. Most people wear scrub under the full-body suits for comfort, but it's not a requirement. If you wear your street clothes, all pens, pencils, watches, knives, must come out of the pockets. Anything that could puncture the suit." Carson quickly turned his pockets inside out.

"No long fingernails?" Singer asked.

Carson looked at his hands. "Nope."

"That's good. You'll find a pair of rubber gloves in that lower left compartment. No rings, right? You'll have to take off your boots and put on those slippers. And no long toenails. You'll find toenail clippers in one of the locker compartments, if you need them."

Carson removed his boots.

"Now step into the suit, right leg first, then left leg, and draw it up. But not all the way. Leave the visor open for now so we can talk more easily."

Carson fumbled with the bulky suit, drawing it over his clothes with difficulty.

"This thing weighs a ton," he said.

"It's fully pressurized. See that metal valve at your waist? You'll be on oxygen the entire time you're inside. You'll be shown how to move from station to station. But the suit itself contains ten minutes' worth of air, in case of emergencies." He walked toward an intercom unit, pressed a series of buttons. "Rosalind?" he asked.

There was a short pause. "What?" came the buzzing response.

"Could I trouble you to give our new scientist, Guy Carson, a tour of BSL-5?"

There was a longer silence.

"I'm in the middle of something," the voice came back.

"It'll just take a few minutes."

"Aw, for Chrissakes." The voice cut off immediately.

Singer turned to Carson. "That's Rosalind Brandon-Smith. She's a little eccentric, I guess you could say." He leaned toward Carson's open visor conspiratorially. "Actually, she's extremely rude, but don't pay any attention. She did a lot of work with Frank Burt, and they were pretty close, so she may not be too friendly to his replacement. You'll be meeting her inside, no reason for her to go through decontam twice."

"Who's Frank Burt?" Carson asked.

"He was a true scientist. And a fine human being. But he found conditions here a little too stressful. Had something of a breakdown recently. It's not all that uncommon, you know. About a quarter of the people who come to Mount Dragon can't finish their tour."

"I didn't know I was replacing anyone," Carson frowned.

"You are. I'll tell you about it later. You'll be filling some large shoes." He stepped back. "OK, finish up the zippers. Make sure you close and secure all three. We've got a buddy system here. After you suit up, someone else has to check over everything."

He did a careful inspection of the bluesuit, then showed Carson how to use the visor intercom. "Unless you're standing next to somebody, it's very hard to hear anything. Press this button on your forearm to speak over the intercom."

He waved toward the door marked extreme biohazard. "On the far side of the airlock is a chemical shower. Once you're inside, it starts automatically. Get used to it, there'll be a much longer one coming out. When the inner door opens, go on through. Be especially careful until you're used to the suit. Rosalind will be waiting for you on the far side. I hope."

"Thanks," said Carson, raising his voice to make sure it carried through the thick rubber of the suit.

"No problem," came the muffled response. "Sorry I won't be going in with you. It's just. . . " He hesitated. "Nobody goes into the Fever Tank unless they have to. You'll see why."

As the door hissed shut behind him, Carson walked forward onto a metal grating. There was a sudden rumble, and a yellow chemical solution spurted from shower heads in the ceiling, walls, and floor. Carson could feel the solution drumming loudly on his suit. In a minute it was over; the next door opened, and he stepped into a small antechamber. A motor began to rumble, and he could feel the pressure of a powerful air machine blowing at him from all directions. Inside his suit, the drying mechanism felt like a strange distant wind: he was unable to tell whether the air was hot or cold. Then the inner door hissed opened, and Carson found himself facing an overweight woman who was staring at him impatiently through the clear faceplate of her visor.

"Follow me," a voice inside his helmet said brusquely, and the woman turned away, moving down a tiled corridor so narrow that her shoulders brushed against both walls. The walls were smooth and slick, with no corners or projecting apparatus that might tear a protective suit. Everything--floors, wall tiles, ceiling--was painted a brilliant white.

Carson pressed the left button on his forearm, activating the intercom. "I'm Guy Carson," he said.

"Glad to hear it," came the reply. "Now pay attention. See those air hoses overhead?"

Carson looked up. A number of blue hoses dangled from the ceiling, metal valves affixed to their ends.

"Grab one and plug it into your suit valve. Careful. Turn it to the left to lock it in. When you move from one station to the next, you'll have to detach it and plug into another hose. Your suit has a limited supply of air, so don't dawdle between hookups."

Carson followed her instructions, felt the snap as the valve seated itself and heard the reassuring hiss of airflow. Inside the suit, he felt a strange sense of detachment from the world. His movements seemed slow, clumsy. Because of the multiple pairs of gloves, he could barely feel the air hose as he guided it into the attachment.

"Keep in mind that this place is like a submarine," came the voice of Brandon-Smith. "Small, cramped, and dangerous. Everything and everyone has its place."

"I see," said Carson.

"Do you?"

"Yes."

"Good, because sloppiness is death down here in the Fever Tank. And not just for you. Got that?"

"Yes," Carson repeated. Bitch.

They continued down the narrow hall. As he followed Brandon-Smith, trying to acclimate himself to the pressure suit, Carson thought he could hear a strange noise in the background: a faint drumming, almost more sensation than sound. He decided it must be the Fever Tank's generator.

Brandon-Smith's great bulk eased sideways through a narrow hatch. In the lab beyond, suited figures were working in front of large Plexiglas-enclosed tables, their hands stretched through rubber holes bored into the cases. They were swabbing petri dishes. The light was painfully bright, throwing every object in the lab into sharp relief. Small waste receptacles with biohazard labels and flash-incineration attachments stood beside each worktable. More ceiling-mounted video cameras swiveled, monitoring the scientists.

"Everybody," Brandon-Smith's voice sounded in the intercom. "This is Guy Carson. Burt's replacement."

Visors angled upwards as people turned to get a look at him, and a chorus of greetings crackled in Carson's helmet.

"This is production," she said flatly. It wasn't a statement that invited questions, and Carson didn't ask any.

Brandon-Smith led Carson through a warren of other labs, narrow corridors, and airlocks, all starkly bathed in the same brilliant light. She's right, Carson thought, looking around. The place is like a submarine. All available floor space was packed with fabulously expensive equipment: transmission and scanning electron microscopes, autoclaves, incubators, mass spectrometers, even a small cyclotron, all re-engineered to allow the scientists to operate them through the bulky bluesuits. The ceilings were low, heavily veined with piping, and painted white like everything else in the Fever Tank. Every ten yards Brandon-Smith halted to hook up to a new air hose, then waited for Carson to do the same. The going was excruciatingly slow.

"My God," Carson said. "These safety measures are unbelievable. What have you got in here, anyway?"

"You name it," came the response. "Bubonic plague, pneumonic plague, Marburg virus, Hantavirus, Dengue, yellow fever, anthrax. Not to mention a few Soviet biological agents. All currently on ice, of course."

The cramped spaces, the bulky suit, the stuffy air, all had a disorienting effect on Carson. He found himself gulping in oxygen, fighting down an urge to unzip the suit, give himself breathing room.

At last they stopped in a small circular hub from which several narrow corridors branched out like the spokes of a wheel. "What's that?" Carson pointed to a huge manifold over their heads.

"The air uptake," Brandon-Smith said, attaching another new hose to her suit. "This is the center of the Fever Tank. The entire facility has negative air flow controls. The air pressure decreases the further in you go. Everything flows to this point, then it's taken up to the incinerator and recirculated." She gestured at one of the corridors. "Your lab's down there. You'll see it soon enough. I don't have time to show you everything."

"And down there?" Carson pointed to a narrow tube at their feet containing a shiny metal ladder.

"There are three levels beneath us. Backup labs, security substation, CRYLOX freezers, generators, the control center."

She stepped a few feet down one of the hallways, stopping in front of another door.

"Carson?" she said.

"Yes."

"Last stop. The Zoo. Keep the hell away from the cages. Don't let them grab you. If they rip a piece off your suit, you'll never see the light of day. You'll be locked up in here and left to die."

"The Zoo--?" Carson began, but Brandon-Smith was already opening the door. Suddenly the drumming was louder, and Carson realized it was not a generator, after all. Muffled screams and hoots filtered through his pressure suit. Turning a corner, Carson saw that one wall of the room's interior was lined floor to ceiling with cages. Black beady eyes peered out from between wire mesh. The new arrivals in the room caused the noise level to increase dramatically. Many of the prisoners were now pounding on the floors of the cages with their feet and hands.

"Chimpanzees?" asked Carson.

"Good for you."

A small bluesuited figure at the far end of the row of cages turned toward them.

"Carson, this is Bob Fillson. He takes care of the animals."

Fillson nodded curtly. Carson could see a heavy brow, bulbous nose, and wet pendulous lip behind the faceplate. The rest was in shadow. The man turned and went back to work.

"Why so many?" Carson asked.

She stopped and looked at him. "They're the only animal with the same immunological system as a human being. You should know that, Carson."

"Of course, but why exactly--"

But Brandon-Smith was peering intently into one of the cages.

"Aw, for Chrissakes," she said.

Carson came over, keeping a respectful distance from the countless fingers poking through the mesh. A chimpanzee was lying on its side, trembling, oblivious to the commotion surrounding it. There seemed to be something wrong with its facial features. Then Carson realized that the creature's eyeballs seemed abnormally enlarged. Looking closer, he could see that they were actually bulging from its head, the blood vessels rupturing and hemorrhaging in the sclera. The animal suddenly jerked, opened its hairy jaws, and screamed.

"Bob," Carson could hear Brandon-Smith saying through the intercom, "another of the chimps is about to go."

With a notable lack of haste, Fillson came shuffling over. He was a very small man, barely five feet, and he moved with a slow deliberation that reminded Carson of a diver underwater.

He turned to Carson, and spoke with a hoarse voice. "You'll have to go. You too, Rosalind. Can't open a cage when others are in the room."

Carson watched in horror as one of the eyeballs suddenly erupted from its socket, followed by a gush of bloody fluid. The chimp thrashed about silently, teeth snapping, arms flailing.

"What the hell?" Carson began, frozen in horror.

"Good-bye," Fillson said firmly, as he reached into a cabinet behind him.

"Bye, Bob," said Brandon-Smith. Carson had noticed a distinct change of tone in her voice when she spoke to the animal handler.

The last thing Carson saw as they sealed the door was the chimp, rigid with pain, pawing desperately at its ruined face, as Fillson sprayed something from an aerosol can into the cage.

Brandon-Smith made her ponderous way down another corridor, not speaking.

"Are you going to tell me what was wrong with that chimpanzee?" Carson said at last.

"I thought it was obvious," she snapped. "Cerebral edema."

"Caused by what?"

The woman turned to look at him. She seemed surprised. "You really don't know, Carson?"

"No, I don't. And from now on, the name is Guy. Or Dr. Carson, if you prefer. I don't appreciate being called by my last name."

There was a silence. "Fine, Guy," she replied. "Those chimps are all X-FLU positive. The one you saw is in the tertiary stage of the disease. The virus stimulates massive overproduction of cerebrospinal fluid. In time, the pressure herniates the brain down through the foramen magnum. That's when the lucky ones die. A few hang on until the eyeballs are forced from their sockets."

"X-FLU?" Carson asked. He could feel the sweat trickling down his forehead and under his arms, dampening the inside of his suit.

This time Brandon-Smith stopped dead. There was a buzz of static and he heard her voice: "Singer, can you enlighten me as to why this joker doesn't know about X-FLU?"

Singer's voice came back. "I haven't briefed him yet on the project. That comes next."

"Mr. Ass-backwards, as usual," she said, then turned to Carson. "Let's go, Guy, the tour's over."

She left Carson at the exit airlock. He stepped through the access chamber into another chemical shower, waiting the required seven minutes as the high-pressure solution doused his suit. A few minutes later he was back in the ready room. He was vaguely annoyed to see Singer, cool and relaxed, reading the funnies section of the local newspaper.

"Enjoy your tour?" Singer asked, looking up from the paper.

"No," said Carson, breathing deeply, trying to shake the oppressive feeling of the Fever Tank. "That Brandon-Smith is meaner than a sidewinder in a hot skillet."

Singer burst out laughing and shook his bald head. "A colorful way of putting it. She's the most brilliant scientist we've got at present. If we pull this project off, you know, we're all going to become rich. Yourself included. That's worth putting up with a Rosalind Brandon-Smith, don't you think? She's really just a frightened, insecure little girl underneath that adipose tissue."

He helped Carson out of his suit and showed him how to pack it back inside the locker.

"I think the time has come for me to hear about this mysterious project," Carson said, closing the locker.

"Absolutely. Shall we head back to my office for a cold drink?"

Carson nodded. "You know, there was a chimpanzee back there with its--"

Singer held up a hand. "I know what you saw."

"So what the hell was it?"

Singer paused. "Influenza."

"What?" Carson said. "The flu?"

Singer nodded.

"I don't know of any flu that pops your eyeballs out of your skull."

"Well," Singer said, "this is a very special kind of flu." Gripping Carson's elbow, he led him through the outer corridors of the maximum security lab and back up into the welcoming desert sunlight.

 


MOUNT DRAGON is copyright 1996 by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child. All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce this text, or any portion thereof, in any form.
MOUNT DRAGON is available in paperback in the United States from Tor Books, www.tor.com


2018 Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child