The author would like to thank the following people for giving generously of their time during the research and writing of Protocol Zero.
The police chief’s emergency call had to bounce off three satellites to reach me. The first—over Russia—was snapping photos of their paratroops by the North Pole, on maneuvers. The second—over Arctic Canada—watched a U.S. attack submarine testing weapons, surfacing in ice. The last one was directly overhead above northern Alaska. North Slope Police Chief Merlin Toovik’s voice came in loud and clear, from nine miles away.
“I need help, Colonel.”
I stood, breath frosting, at the end of North America on a twenty-foot-high grass bluff overlooking the Arctic Ocean, a Mossberg shotgun over my back, in case polar bears showed up. Fire in the air, they usually turn away. My best friend and partner Marine Major Eddie Nakamura and I were trying to figure out what had killed the emaciated male bear at our feet. It looked like death by starvation. I wondered if it had been caused by a new germ.
“You know the victims, Colonel.”
No other people were visible. No buildings or roads were here. The tundra stretched south for three hundred miles to the Brooks Range, in October, in a stark undulating beauty; an ocean of olive-brown high grass, filled with dips and hummocks, and spotted with the withered remains of summer flowers: once-yellow paintbrush, bright firewood, purple Siberian phlox, bell heather, and my true love Karen’s favorite, the white-flowered anemones, which I gathered in bunches like a lovesick teenager. But it was worth her smile. Just about anything was.
The sea, thirty yards off, was black as anthracite and dotted with an early pancake glaze of ice. Locals had told me that the big pack would come in soon, to extend all the way to the pole, eight hundred miles north. The sky was a thick gray, the temperature hovered at thirty-six degrees. The Arctic sun looked as tiny and distant as Pluto. It rotated elliptically, staying low to the horizon, lava-colored but weak, more glow than heat, as if shy, as if frightened. Soon this remote landscape would fade to black beneath three months of night.
“Four people in trouble, Joe,” Merlin said.
Ahead of us rose what looked like a mini Stonehenge; fantastic curving shapes rising up for fifteen feet; spaced as regularly as church organ pipes, and bleached gray by weather. They were bowhead whale ribs. Iñupiat hunters built the bone pile—bulldozing them there twice a year after the fall and spring hunts. The bones attracted hungry polar bears, who cracked the ribs and ate the marrow. The bone pile kept polar bears off of Barrow’s streets, its supermarket parking lot, its backyards, and away from America’s Arctic capital’s kids.
“Joe, they were your neighbors,” Merlin said.
No roads led in or out of Barrow. You arrived by snowmobile or four-wheelers, like we drove today, or you flew in or came by boat during the four months a year when sea ice was relatively clear. The nearest highway was three hundred miles away, at the oil fields of Prudhoe Bay.
The voice said, “Can you bring your medical gear?”
“Couple questions first, Merlin. How did you hear?”
I hit the intercom so that Eddie could listen. He was kneeling by the carcass, looking up, a small skull-saw in his gloved hands, and an unrolled scalpel kit in the grass. This bear had been sick, that much was evident from the fur patches stripped away. But what had killed it? Something usual and natural? Or the type of thing we secretly sought?
Merlin Toovik said, “The daughter called me, hysterical, screaming about sickness. She was crying too hard to make out words. But then I heard a shotgun. And the call went dead.”
“You called back?”
“Yeah, tried both parents, her, too. No one answers.”
“What sickness?” I felt a wave of fear hit my stomach.
“I don’t know. I could barely hear. It was a bad connection. And there were funny noises in the background.”
“Please describe them.”
Eddie was frozen now, frowning.
“Grunting. An animal, maybe, but not one that I know. Too high for a wolf. Too low for a bear. Plus, she was inside their hut, she said, not outside. So whatever made the sounds was in there with her. Right beside her, sounded like. Weirdest, spookiest sounds, Joe.”
Admiral Galli—who ran our small, secret unit—had been adamant when he’d ordered us not to get involved in local matters. Our mission had a public aspect, which Eddie and I had explained to Iñupiat leaders; but it also had a secret component, which we had reluctantly held back.
—For their own good, Joe, the admiral had said.
—Sir, I disagree and think I ought to tell them.
—Not a chance.
We were behind schedule with winter rapidly approaching. We needed to finish our study and go south.
Now, for a fraction of a second, the admiral’s orders warred with Merlin’s plea. I was seeing something in my head and it wasn’t anything my boss said about an upcoming Arctic war game, due to start in the spring, about billions of dollars in weapons appropriations at stake, about national security. Barrow will be flooded with VIPs, Joe: White House, State, Pentagon. We’re behind the Russians in the race for control. And the Russians are getting belligerent again in Europe. If we don’t get our act together, it will be too late. Something will happen up there, and we won’t be able to handle it.
What I saw in my head was a fifteen-year-old girl, and our neighbors for the last few weeks in the old World War Two–era air base where I’d been stationed with Eddie, where we’d lived in a Quonset hut among the university types who spent summers studying walruses, potential oil finds, ice melt, or, like our neighbors, nothing more threatening than seeds and moss. Our neighbors were a couple with whom we’d become friendly, two professors from a small New Jersey college, Ted and Cathy Harmon, and their daughter, Kelley. The parents were quiet academics who invited us over sometimes for poker games, cocktails, tirades on the warming Arctic, or rose hip tea.
The kid was smart and likable and wanted to be a scientist also. But she was also just a girl who liked normal teenage things. She’d sneak over to our Quonset hut at night—I had given her a key—to watch TV shows that her parents banned next door—American Idol, The Vampire Diaries—shows that Ted told me would “rot Kelley’s mind.” She also talked for hours with Karen Vleska, my fiancée, who’d flown in to visit a couple of weeks ago.
Cathy Harmon had taken me aside one day, squeezed my shoulder and said, “Thanks for giving Kelley a place to go. Every kid needs a friendly uncle. She doesn’t have real uncles, so you and Eddie seem to be her choice.”
“Colonel,” Merlin said now, urgently. “I’ve got deputies ready and a copter gearing up. I’ve got Dr. Ranjay Sengupta along from the hospital. But I’d appreciate having you and Major Nakamura along, too.”
I wanted to go. “Merlin, are you sure the noise you heard on the phone wasn’t just static?”
A pause. From the silence, I knew I’d insulted him. “I know the difference between static and grunting. Also,” Merlin said, “you and Major Nakamura have been visiting the villages all summer, asking about new diseases, rashes, hives, fevers, right?”
Eddie’s brows rose. Despite the danger, I broke out smiling. It was impossible to hide anything from people here. They were scattered throughout an area the size of Wyoming, a county comprising America’s northernmost outpost. America’s Arctic Serengeti, filled with hundreds of thousands of caribou, wolves, grizzlies, foxes. There were about twenty million birds. But the human population was only 7,500, concentrated in eight small villages, with the capital, Barrow, home to 4,500 Iñupiats and a smattering of whites, blacks, Samoans, and Asians. Although hundreds of miles separated villages somehow the Iñupiats seemed to know everything that outsiders did within days of their arrival. I’d told this to the admiral, advised him to let me speak plainly, warned him that lies backfire here.
Now I admitted, “We’ve asked a few questions about diseases, now and then.”
In his pause I heard desperation. “If you won’t do it for that reason, do it as a favor for me. Their bear guard is my cousin, Joe. Please.”
That did it. People here did not ask favors lightly. Favors were more important than money. Favors were contracts. Favors were life. I told Merlin, “We’re at the bone pile. Give me twenty minutes to get into town.”
“Go to the rescue squad,” Merlin Toovik said, and added, “I’m sure they told you not to do this.”
“I was told to give you every assistance,” I lied.
• • •
MY NAME IS JOE RUSH AND YOU WON’T FIND A DESCRIPTION OF MY REAL job in my files at the Marine Corps. When I was seconded to the unit, my records were sheep-dipped—altered—to contain enough truth to fool a casual observer, the rest lies to protect the Corps, unit, and country from learning things that my bosses in Washington believe you ought not to know. Sometimes I agree with them. But often we fight.
Forty years old, the file says, and that part is correct, at least. Marriage status single; which was true that day, but happily due to change in three months. Six foot two. The photo shows blue-black hair, dark as the coal veins mined by my Welsh great-great-grandfather, eyes as light blue as those of great-great-grandma, daughter of a Norwegian cod fisherman, who met Gramper Bowen on the foredeck of the rusting steamer that brought them into New York Harbor as immigrants, 131 years ago.
They settled in Massachusetts, as the stumpy green Berkshire Hills reminded my ancestor of Wales. I grew up in the dying textiles mill town of Smith Falls, population 250, nestled between a thin, rocky river and a granite quarry, ten miles south of the Vermont line, on a two-lane cracked rural road.
There, generations of Rushes manned the assembly line of Brady Textiles, making button-down shirts in peacetime, Army uniforms during World War Two and Korea and Vietnam, but when the Brady company fled Massachusetts for cheaper labor in Honduras, the Rushes became roofers and plumbers catering to summer-home owners from New York or Boston, who returned to their cities when the air turned chilly each autumn, and I climbed onto the creaky bus heading for my leaky country school.
I thrilled to TV commercials showing Marines—strong, confident men just a few years older than me—storming ashore on foreign beaches, rescuing hurricane victims, safeguarding the flag that we saluted every morning at Colonel David Harding High, named after the Massachusetts Civil War hero, killed during the Union’s failed amphibious landing attempt to capture Fort Sumter, South Carolina, on September 8, 1863.
I never traveled farther than forty miles from home. I had friends, and girlfriends, but their smiles and invitations were, to me, traps to keep me in town.
So I left Smith Falls, and the higher-education part of my file correctly indicates that I attended UMass on an ROTC scholarship. The early Marines history is right, too: Parris Island, Quantico, antiterrorist guerrilla action in the Philippines. All of it real until Iraq and the secret germ lab I stumbled on there with Eddie Nakamura, when we were both lieutenants. The sick monkeys we found there—intentionally infected with disease . . . convulsing, terrified, dying—changed our lives, sent us to medical school, and made us experts on a kind of danger that most people fear, but put in the backs of their minds, not wanting to think about it, not wanting to remember it exists, not wanting to know.
Our enemy became smaller and traveled in vials and hypodermics or on air currents, in subway vents, or in bombs.
Awards? The Silver Star is there for Iraq, and a Navy and Marine Corps medal for actions taken in combat during the global war on terror—although the exact actions I took part in are secret. Our director once said that I’d saved “Thousands of lives, in Afghanistan and in the Arctic. Too bad we can’t release either story, Joe. But we can promote you. You’re young for a full colonel. Congratulations.”
Under “skills” my file says that I can hit a running enemy at three hundred yards with an M4 carbine; and then, thanks to my M.D. degree, extract the bullet, clean the wound, administer antibiotics, and run any field hospital or bio lab in the world, to identify chemicals or germs.
I am also qualified to lead an assault on an enemy bioweapons facility, secure it, decontaminate it, and then interrogate its staffers, and kidnap them home to be tried and hung by military tribunal, under more obscure laws of the Republic. If my skill set seems contradictory to you, you’re getting an idea of why I have fewer friends than I used to, other than Eddie, and my fiancée, Karen. It’s also why my first marriage failed three years back, after I told my wife some things about my job. She’d been my college sweetheart and a loving, patient partner. But that disclosure—my attempt to save the marriage—came too late and put the last nail in a union that had been dissolving for some time.
That’s the problem with secrets. Keep them and you drive away loved ones. Share them and you might do the same. Still, these days I kept no secrets from Karen. The admiral—former Coast Guard commandant—didn’t like it. But I’d insisted when he asked me as a favor to stay in the unit, not retire, that I would only agree if Karen remained in the loop. The admiral had refused, argued, and then checked on Karen’s high-security clearance. He’d tried to talk me out of it one last time, and then he’d given in.
“Because we need you, Joe. But if either of you talk, I won’t be able to protect you.”
I liked the admiral. Unlike the former director, who came from Wall Street and was destroyed by a financial scandal, the admiral was a true public servant: hero of Hurricane Laticia, hero of Deepwater Horizon, he deserved to keep the unit intact and strong. So I stayed.
“Joe,” he’d said. “You’re the best I got.”
My memo to the secretary of defense six years ago—which brought me into the unit—suggested that the military should prepare for the possibility that the next big outbreak of human disease might come from a cold climate, not a hot one, not a jungle, as is usually assumed . . . but from a microorganism released by melting ice, after being encased in it for hundreds of thousands of years, or by an enemy who knew where to look for germs—new, terrible weapons—in cold latitudes.
On the day I received Merlin Toovik’s phone call I had two months remaining in my one-year extension. Then I planned to move east with Karen, and start a biotech company with Eddie, looking for cures in the wild: good germs, not bad.
That was the plan, at least. But you know what they say about plans. Or at least what smart Marines know. Once battle starts, plans fall apart.
Eddie and I sealed the dead bear’s brain and tissue samples into Ziplocs. The disease that had killed it was probably something normal, nothing new. We mounted our Honda four wheelers and turned south. We sped over the tundra, and ten minutes later I glimpsed the high cell-phone and radio towers and satellite farms ahead that constituted a first glimpse of town. Then would come the base, where Karen was waiting. She’d arrived two weeks back to train for her next polar trip, and she’d brought along a documentary filmmaker who looked at her in ways that annoyed me, trailed her around constantly, and gave Eddie and me the creeps.
I’d call her from the chopper. I’d say we’d be late. She’d be crazy with worry about the Harmons, but the filmmaker would probably be happy to have a few more hours with her, alone. The jerk.
I was thinking, Maybe they are okay. Maybe Merlin was wrong about hearing a shotgun. Maybe they’re too sick to answer their phones. Maybe, even if he did hear a shotgun, someone is still alive.
I needed to concentrate on driving or the Honda might turn over, but I kept seeing in my mind the fifteen-year-old high school girl, just a kid, who had adopted me as an uncle. I had no children of my own. You could say that I had adopted Kelley Harmon back.
The Honda skidded on slick tundra, began to go over, but the wheels caught and I righted it. I accelerated.
The biggest dangers start out small, one of my old instructors at Quantico used to say. Things sounded bad already. Four possible victims.
I had no idea how much worse things would get.
“Play Kelley’s call again,” I said.
The rescue squad’s big, twenty-year-old Bell 412 copter rose off the tarmac, spun southwest, and headed for the research camp. I was crammed with four others into the cab, and through the window had a last glimpse of Barrow. The triangular town hugging the last bit of coastline on the continent. The mass of one – and two-story wooden homes sat on concrete pilings to prevent them from heating up and melting the permafrost below. The dirt and gravel roads, at 5 P.M., were alive with taxicabs, kids on banana bikes, a truck hauling a big outboard boat toward the beach and lagoon. Probably whalers going out to scout for bowheads. The fall migration was due to start any day.
Then the city was gone. We raced over a sea of tundra, and through mist so thick that it felt like flying inside lungs . . . the land rolling out in glimpses, in patches; thousands of elliptically shaped freshwater lakes, there because permafrost kept what little precipitation falls here from draining. Wiley Post Airport was gone. It was named for the American humorist who crashed there a century ago. Barrow’s fame comes from death. The town was named for Sir John Barrow, English lord of the admiralty, who sent a thousand British explorer/sailors to their icy demise in a search for the Northwest Passage, Europe’s quick route to Asia, over a century ago. Some of them sank. Some abandoned ships trapped in ice, walked off in search of rescue, and disappeared. Others died of sickness or starvation or they ate each other.
“Okay, here goes,” Merlin said.
When I heard the terror in Kelley’s voice, a fist seemed to cut off the air in my throat.
“Oh, God, God, no one’s answering. I tried to reach Dr. Rush and Dr. Nakamura, and then your operator couldn’t hear me. Everyone is screaming! I’m scared.”
“Slow down, Kelley, okay? You’ve got all my attention. What’s wrong? S-l-o-w.”
We were dressed in zip-up float suits in case we ditched in water. We wore helmets equipped with mikes and earpieces and wore waterproof, calf-high Northern Outfitter boots. In the back we carried stretchers and medicines and sample bags and field surgical kits. Merlin was armed with a .45 Beretta, and he and his deputies wielded Mossberg shotguns. Eddie and I had our bear guns. Now there was a small clicking in my helmet, and over the rotor roar I heard the plaintive, terrified voice of the girl.
“We’re all sick! Daddy said not to call. Said I was wrong. He said it was just flu. But he can’t close his hand. He fell. He said a good scientist never jumps to conclusions, but I didn’t! I didn’t jump to conclusions! Oh, God! I wrote down the symptoms even before the sticking pains started. And Clay Qaqulik was babbling about little people. And Mom . . . I can’t believe she and Clay . . . And the water tastes bad and . . .”
My throat closed up. This frantic voice was not the one I usually heard from her when she came over to watch TV, or to ask Karen endless hero-worship questions about being an Arctic explorer. Aren’t you scared when you’re out in a blizzard? How did you get Coca-Cola to sponsor you? I was used to her saying things like, “Why can’t I spend summers like normal kids? The beach. Music. I’m, like, in prison. I mean, it’s not like I don’t like science, but my friends are at parties and I’m stuck here, looking at plants. I didn’t ask to be an intern. They said it would help me get into college. They don’t even pay me. I’m their little summertime SLAVE!”
My mouth was dry. My head was pounding with fear for the whole family, and I could feel my intestines clenching as the voices went on. It was Merlin now.
“Honey, slow, please, okay? Focus. What happened and when did it start?”
It was no use. Kelley was too scared.
“I saw that redheaded woman in the warehouse, bending over the water bottles! And then the water tasted funny and my throat hurt, but I thought it was just, you know, like when you wake up sometimes and it burns. And Daddy said the redheaded woman wouldn’t harm us, and Clay . . . (zzzzz) and Daddy screamed at Mommy because her underwear was (zzzzz) and I said, ‘What little people?’ And Mommy said (zzzzzzzzzzz)”
Eddie said, cocking his head, trying to hear, “The underwear was what?”
“Did she say bleeding?”
“I don’t think it was bleeding. It was something else.”
“Merlin, can you try that again?”
The voice had degenerated into a little girl’s, the use of the word Mommy, like she’d become five years old, like she was cowering under covers, afraid that the bogeyman in the closet was real. I felt trapped in the copter. My mouth was dry. I was filled with a sense of being too late. We still had a good fifty miles of tundra to go.
“And then I was looking in the shaving mirror and the glass bothered me, the sun was so bright on it, it hurt my eyes so I just . . . just BROKE IT . . .”
Dr. Sengupta, sitting opposite me, was a forty-two-year-old from Mumbai who’d taken a three-year contract at the hospital because he’d “Always dreamed of ice, since I was a little boy. So when I saw the job description, I felt I must come and see my dream.”
He said, “Hmm, extreme light sensitivity.”
Kelley babbling, jumping from one half thought to another, the words becoming run-on, loss of control.
“. . . And Mommy coming out of Clay’s tent and Daddy yelling, ‘How could you do that to me! You bitch!’”
Eddie’s eyes meeting mine across the four feet of cabin that separated the two rows of passengers. Eddie’s brown eyes baffled. I knew he was seeing the same thing I was in his head; the Harmons, two quiet, middle-class researchers who don’t use words like bitch in public, and don’t brazenly sleep with their bear guards, certainly not in a small research camp in front of a husband and daughter. But perhaps we were misinterpreting what we were hearing. Or maybe, as Eddie said, “Maybe they had a dark side, Uno. Virginia Woolf times nine.”
Merlin trying to slow her down. The girl talked over the police chief. Merlin trying to soothe her, trying to get information. The girl was out of reach, emotionally and physically.
“I’m in the hut. They’re screaming outside. Clay says Daddy is trying to kill him! This is crazy! This isn’t happening! Lalalalalalalala . . . I’m putting my hands over my ears. LALALALAAAAAA!”
I heard a clumping on the line, and thought she’d hurled away the phone, into a corner. The lalala sounded farther away. I wanted to shut off the sound. Something awful was building. Dr. Sengupta’s eyes were huge inside his glasses, the deputies were still and silent, and the whole copter wobbled, as if the engine drew in the raw tension coming in with the call.
Then quiet, and another voice, a new one, Clay Qaqulik’s, I guess, said, strangled, choking . . .
“I have to stop it.”
A pause. Then Clay again.
“I have to. I’m sorry, Miss K.”
And then I started in my seat because I heard a bark, or a grunt, close to the phone; a throaty animal sound . . . The girl had stopped talking, Clay also. Something else was in there, in that research hut with them, sniffing at the unit. A series of more grunts followed. A flow of unintelligible sound: low and urgent, angry and primitive. Barking almost. Impossible.
Kelley screamed, “Stop it! Why are you doing that?”
Followed by the unmistakable BOOM of a shotgun.
And then nothing . . . zzzzzzz . . .
Eddie and I and the police chief and deputies bounced in the copter, transported into our imaginations. What just happened? The earbuds emitted static. The mist ahead thickened, to obscure not only air ahead, but earth below. The sky gone. The truth gone. The only sound the steady groan of engines.
“Play it once more, Merlin,” I said.
The nightmare voices started up again. I thought back to Washington, to the admiral’s small office on C Street, to the story he told us, to the secret part of our job.
• • •
“YOU ARE TO LOOK FOR WHAT YOU PREDICTED, JOE. FOR SOMETHING NEW and potentially dangerous popping up as the region warms.”
Eddie, the admiral, and I had been sitting in a townhouse four blocks from the State Department in Foggy Bottom.
“Why send us now?” I’d said. “Did something happen?”
To answer, the admiral spread on his large desk a map of the North Slope of Alaska. Tinged brown for tundra, it formed the shape of a wild boar, the eastern side, or hindquarters, was the border with Canada.
“New fish species up there. New birds. Even a new kind of bear: half grizzly, half polar bear,” Admiral Galli had said.
The western side, or skull and snout shape, jutted west toward nearby Russia across the Chukchi Sea, ending at the Eskimo village of Point Hope.
“Question is, are there new, dangerous germs as well?” the admiral asked.
He sat back. “We’ve been assigned a delicate task, and you two have been up there before so you’re going. All this land here, vast space, hardly any people . . . that made it a natural lab for the white-coat guys, in the past, you see.”
Eddie said, “Weapons testing.”
“And designing. This started during World War Two, and went through the end of the last century. The bad guys looking for new ways to kill us. Our brightest minds trying to anticipate what might come at us from across the Bering Strait: chemicals, gasses, germs.”
“Meanwhile, we made some, too,” I said.
“You want them to be the only ones who have it?”
“Of course not. It was a race. A germ and chemical race. And then, gentlemen, a few accidents started to happen. Montana: Army nerve gas experiment goes wrong, and next thing you know, fifty thousand sheep are dead. Nevada nuclear tests: Twenty years pass and the soldiers who witnessed explosions start to die of cancers. Atomic soldiers, we called ’em. Also a few locals, who drove through clouds of radiation emitted by the tests. You know these stories. If you’re not familiar with all of them, surely you know some.”
“And in Alaska, sir?”
“First, by the late 1980s, Congress was pissed off over these accidents, and the public outcry. Plenty of people opposed testing by then. This is before the chemical test ban treaties, big nuclear test treaties.”
“So they passed a law,” I guessed.
“Yep. HR-932. An obscure provision in a military appropriations bill mandated a kind of germ and toxics census in areas that had been used for testing. Every five years the secretary of defense is required to send out teams to, quote: ‘Conduct a detailed examination of any general areas once used by the U.S. military for chemical or biological testing, in order to determine whether any lingering negative effects have harmed U.S. citizens, crops, or domestic livestock. If any such organism or public-health effect is found, the secretary of defense is directed to make full restitution for properties lost, both living and realty, and to assume responsibility for related medical costs.’”
I’d asked the admiral whether, over the twenty-five years of the bill’s life, so far, any of the secret surveys had located a new germ or toxic effect that had harmed U.S. citizens. Admiral Galli had sighed.
“Unsure, Joe. In 2005, surveyors found an accelerated strain of hantavirus, a potentially lethal disease transmitted by mice, in an area of New Mexico that had received large doses of radioactive fallout during a series of 1950s tests. Six, seven deaths among local Navaho.”
“Washington took responsibility?”
The admiral looked strained. “The bill doesn’t require anyone to do that. It only states that all costs are to be assumed. Remember, this sort of thing, once publicized, even a rumor, usually results in about twelve thousand people filing cases, lawsuits, studies, bills blocked in Congress, headlines all over the world. So the framers of the legislation wanted to alleviate any suffering caused by the initial testing, but also wanted to avoid opening a floodgate of lawsuits. Delicate situation.”
Eddie quipped, “Yeah, you kill people, tricky problems pop up.”
The admiral looked irritated. “These tests were conducted a long time ago. The people who carried them out were no more evil than you or I.”
“Colonel, this summer your job is to conduct the northern Alaskan survey. You’ll go out with the annual Coast Guard medical team visiting North Slope villages. Coast Guard has been getting ready for the place to open up. They use the visits to get their pilots familiarized, see if equipment works. Your job is to treat anyone with medical needs. There will be a dentist and optometrist along. Look at flus, colds, broken wrists, everything. But I want you to ask questions, especially of the elders. Any new sicknesses? Anything they’re seeing, even in animals? If you find something new, get samples. Those go straight to Fort Detrick. If the conclusion is that we’ve got a link, Uncle Sam sends the case to the green hats in the Treasury Department, and then lawyers, and they’ll start figuring out compensation.”
“How do you compensate someone for dying?” Eddie said.
The admiral said stiffly, “What are you suggesting? That we do nothing at all?”
It was one of the few times I’d seen Eddie blush.
“Sorry, sir, my mouth gets ahead of me sometimes.”
“Only sometimes?” the admiral said.
I said, “Sir, can you tell us exactly what happened in Alaska that may cause problems to pop up now?”
He sighed. “Oh, when it comes to the North Slope, that place was a biological dumping ground, and not just for us.”
• • •
SOMETIMES I THINK THAT THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN ALLEGED WESTERN civilization and others is that somehow, we got the idea that empty means useless. Silence? Fill it up with earbuds and loudspeakers and TV monitors in airports. Time? Pack every available second with multitasking, another word for attention deficit disorder, with iPhones and BlackBerrys and games where Angry Birds fly around on a screen. Wilderness? Intolerable! Fill it up with condos or tour buses or, if you can’t, drop in a golf course, at the very least flood the open space with experimental chemicals, bombs, drones, or man-made germs.
“Japan,” the admiral said, sliding his finger on that map across the Bering Strait and onto Asia, northern China to be exact, Manchuria. “In modern times, you’ve got the accident at their nuclear-power facility at Fukushima Daiichi, and winds capable of carrying fallout to northern Alaska. But previous to that, World War Two. Manchuria was where they had their germ facilities. Between 1932 until the end of that war, Japan had the most-aggressive biological-warfare program ever applied at the field level. They set up their infamous Unit 731 in their puppet state of Manchukeo. They called it a water-purification department. It was horrible and brutal; and in that 150-building complex, they amputated limbs of the living, to study blood loss. They infected patients with syphilis: men, women, and children. They designed plague fleas that were dropped on enemy soldiers. Their laboratory experiments alone, inoculating prisoners of war with disease, killed an estimated ten thousand. Their use of toxics in the field probably killed another two hundred thousand. They tried typhus, cholera, plague, anthrax, shigella, a kind of dysentery, and salmonella.”
“Christ,” said Eddie.
“As you know, Japan actually invaded Alaska during World War Two, and temporarily occupied part of the Aleutian Islands. So far there has been no evidence that they used biological weapons in that campaign. Nevertheless, you are to be aware of this history as you undertake the survey.”
“Next,” I said.
“Next! The Soviet Union. The Soviets captured Unit 731 after World War Two, and used the documents—Japanese formulas—to augment their own program,” the admiral said, as the big index finger pounded down again, this time in Siberia, western side of the Bering Strait.
“Sverdlovsk facility,” he said. “Between the 1950s until the ’90s, they weaponized and stockpiled over a dozen bio-agents including tularemia, plague, Venezuelan equine encephalitis, smallpox, and Marburg, a dirty little cousin of Ebola. Fifty-two sites. Fifty thousand workers scattered in an area where winds—on a fluky day—could take anything floating to Alaska. The Russians genetically altered some of these microbes to resist heat and antibiotics and, are you listening, resist extreme cold!”
“I think you should send us to Hawaii, not Alaska,” Eddie said.
The admiral wasn’t smiling. “We also know that there’s new interest in Russia in these programs. Their president may have restarted them. Status, unclear.”
“Yes, Hawaii,” Eddie said. “Beaches. Surfing, you know, Admiral, Colonel Rush’s fiancée is a surfer. Mai tais. Hawaii, sir. Definitely.”
The admiral’s brows rose. “Hawaii? Well, Major, our own Big Tom bioweapons tests were held in Hawaii.”
“Where the hell weren’t there tests, sir?”
“New York,” the admiral said.
“Yeah, but the traffic sucks there, sir.”
“Alaska,” I said.
The admiral frowned. “Alaska! Starting in the sixties and seventies we tested live nerve gasses, sarin, near Fort Greeley, and later, in the ‘Little Tom’ tests, bacillus globigii. But the big bad wolf was Project Chariot.”
“What was Project Chariot, sir?”
The admiral stood and walked to his top floor window, which provided a pretty nice view of the Kennedy Center. “This is all public record now. It was the intentional contamination of groundwater near a village called Point Hope, with radioactivity.”
“Why would you do that?”
“Because Edward Teller, revered father of the atom bomb, had an idea for peaceful use of atomics. Anyone can google this. Teller convinced D.C. that it was possible to create America’s first Arctic deepwater harbor at Point Hope by blowing up a few atomic bombs at the location.”
“Give me a break,” said Eddie.
“Yep,” said the admiral. “The Atomic Energy Commission approved it. It was one of those grandiose futuristic plans that looked good on paper. Re-engineer the planet! Project Plowshare, they called it . . . you know, like in the Bible . . . ‘they’ll beat their weapons into plowshares,’ or something like that. The planet was ‘slightly flawed,’ Teller said. The use of nuclear bombs would dig canals, get rid of obstacles like mountains, change the earth’s surface to suit us, he said.”
“So what happened at Point Hope?” I asked, finding the little village on the map on the admiral’s desk. It lay due southwest from Barrow, a few hundred miles off, the last tip of land before the Chukchi Sea on the west coast of the borough, the snout of the wild boar.
“What happened was that the plan was approved and engineers and Atomic Energy Commission people flew into Point Hope. They told the Iñupiats that the use of atomics in their area would be nothing more than a mild inconvenience. They said—while the locals secretly recorded them—that the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki had not really had such a terrible impact on people. The villagers would temporarily leave. The blast—it would be 150 times more powerful than the bomb dropped at Hiroshima—would equal 40 percent of all firepower expended during World War Two—and instantly create a harbor where before had been a small creek. Then the locals would come home. The new deepwater harbor would show the might of America. Everyone would benefit.”
“But it never happened, so what’s the problem?” I asked.
“It never happened because the Iñupiats fought it, and stopped it. But before they did, Atomic Energy Commission staff started work.They wanted to know how groundwater flowed in the area, and so . . .”
I closed my eyes. “And so they put radioactive material in it, to track the flow.”
“You got it.”
“Didn’t they clean it up, after?”
“They said they did. They got most of it. But as late as 2010, people were still finding traces in the soil.”
“Cancer rates in Point Hope?”
I thought about it. “Any other deposits of radioactivity in the North Slope, that maybe the locals don’t know about?”
“Not to my knowledge,” the admiral said, looking uncomfortable.
“But we don’t know for sure,” I said, envisioning those thousands of square miles of wilderness, tundra, mountains, beauty unparalleled, but also potentially a historic mix of poisons or chemicals deposited over the years by people regarding it as nothing more than a site for tests.
“Go north. Do the survey. We’ve done these surveys for twenty-five years now, without finding anything to worry about. It’s pro forma. It’s the law. It’s just a study.”
“Then why do you look worried?”
The admiral said, “Because when it comes to mutations, one never knows what is possible until it appears. And because your sworn enemy, Wayne Homza, is back. It’s backbiting time in D.C.!”
Eddie said, “Oh, shit.”
• • •
MAJOR GENERAL WAYNE HOMZA HATED ME. HIS OFFICE LAY IN THE WAR plans section of the Pentagon. He managed strategy scenarios relating to bioterror attacks on U.S. troops or towns. He was a formidable antagonist; an ex-street kid from Cicero, Illinois, who’d fought his way into West Point. He was blunt, powerful, and relentless—the kind of man who magnifies minor grudges. He was stuck planning for something that had not happened yet, so he was off the track for rapid promotion. He’d been trying to absorb into his command any Pentagon unit even remotely dealing with germs or toxics. The admiral believed that Homza wanted to become the biowarfare czar. Homza was politically adept, hungry for advancement, and constantly pushing for more responsibility.
“He’s out to get you,” the admiral told me.
The reason was, for the past two years, Homza had been converting research units into combat units. “We need fighters, not scientists,” he said. “Guns. Not studies.”
Homza had actually convinced the secretary of defense to switch our unit to his control a year ago, when I ruined it for him. Recalled to D.C. after my last Arctic mission, Eddie and I were summoned to the White House for a medal ceremony, the kind where the president thanks you personally, but where no one in the media knows, because what you did was secret. The kind where several VIPs are also in the room, since several people simultaneously receive awards.
The president had shaken my hand, showed me the medal—gold resting in blue velvet—explained that it would be kept in a safe, apologized for the secrecy, and said, “Colonel, this country owes you more than a secret ceremony. If there’s ever anything I can do for you, I hope you will just ask.”
I’d blurted out, “Sir, don’t close us down.”
And I’d seen the blocky-looking general across the room start, and stare, and then slowly smile at me. It was not a friendly expression. He smiled, I thought, like a shark.
“You’re an interesting fellow,” Homza told me that day, out in the hall. I knew then that he would keep watching.
• • •
NOW, IN THE COPTER, THE MEMORY DIED AWAY AND I GREW AWARE AGAIN of static in my earbuds. Perhaps the dead were trying to speak. Who could tell? Who can predict science? The pilot was pointing and we all craned to see through the thick white mist and light falling rain, an October drizzle mixing with a few flakes of confused snow.
Ahead I saw a small wooden shack with a long porch and a concave outhouse, both set inside a tramped down area of grass near a thin, long, elliptical lake, with ripples on the surface from the drizzle. I saw a parked ATV. I saw a pile of canvas-topped gear. I saw two bodies—lumps on the ground—growing clearer in the drizzle as we approached.
Eddie said, “This is bad.”
I saw a lone red fox trotting off in the distance, moving in a sideways gait, absorbed into mist.
My dread for the Harmons was a cold clenching, a grinding in the pit of my belly.
The copter circled first, in smaller and smaller circles, to check if someone with a gun was hiding in one of the low areas between hummocks.
Merlin’s voice was in my earbuds, quiet and serious.
“Those were the parents in the grass. Where are the other two, Kelley and Clay?”
“The cabin. Gotta be,” Eddie said, staring at the buildings.
“Unless they left,” said Merlin.
“Unless it’s an ambush,” I said, reaching for my gun.
“The shooter could still be here,” I said.
Look anywhere except at the bodies, and the tundra presented a subtle, sweeping beauty; lovely, quiet, but as mute and indifferent as the huge snowy owl peering at us from fifty yards away. The rotors stopped moving. I had the door open and my shotgun out in case we took fire. The bodies out there, close up, lay in the loose-limbed tangled attitude with which the dead announce themselves.
Maybe the other two are still alive.
“Merlin, Eddie, and I should go in first. We have some experience in . . . uh . . . this.”
Merlin nodded. “You Marines take the door. We’ll spread out, hit the back and side. Stay low,” he warned his deputies, two big, nervous men from Minnesota, cold-weather farm boys who’d found their birthplaces too boring, rule bound, or confining. One thickly dark haired, named Steve Rice; the other bald and bearded, Luther Oz.
All of us wore Kevlar vests. The deputies had their Mossbergs out. Dr. Sengupta hung back in the chopper, wanting to go but waiting for an all-clear. The pilot snapped off the safety on his sidearm, a Beretta .45, but I told him to stay put. We needed him to get home.
Eddie and I hit the ground fast, separated, and, communicating with hand signals, stayed low and quick-ran toward the cabin, just like we would have done in a potential enemy village back in Afghanistan, expecting fire. Anyone inside would have heard the chopper.
Did I feel someone watching from the cabin, or was it my imagination?
Fifty feet to go.
I’d not protested when Merlin made us sign some legal paper . . . “cooperation agreement between federal agency X and local law enforcement” . . . on the way here. The admiral would be angry, but I’d taken him at his word when he said, “I value your judgment.” Merlin needed us to have a legal, official role in case later on, he said, “The issue comes up in court, Joe.”
I was aware of Merlin bending quickly over the two bodies—man and woman—sprawled amid the heather and sedges. He sought a pulse and my heart plunged into my belly when he rose and kept going.
Ten feet to the cabin. Is Kelley in there? Is Clay with her?
Something just moved at the window.
I hit the ground, rolled sideways to avoid a direct shot, and wriggled forward. The ground smelled of rain, voided bowels, and sweetish blood. Cold drops ran off my scalp, into my eyes and off my chin.
Up to the porch now, slowly . . .
Fucking creaky porch . . .
• • •
THE CABIN—FRONT DOOR TILTED SLIGHTLY OPEN—LOOKED AS ACCESSIBLE as every trap in the world, with that black slit inviting us in. I judged the place an eight hundred square foot rectangle—I hope it’s only one room—built from a conglomeration of weathered wood jutting up like a beached ship on posts hammered into the tundra, to set it a foot above the grass.
It sat thirty yards from the glassy lake—natural water supply—and another hundred from the shallow creek that probably swelled to monumental proportions in the spring, emptied into the Arctic Ocean, and served as a minor tributary to the Porcupine River, a major Iñupiat hunting grounds.
The Harmons weren’t soldiers. They were gentle people who collected plants and oohed and aahed over seeds and algae. They fretted about genes, not germs.
We made it onto the porch. We stood on opposite sides of the slightly open door. I heard a low droning inside, and realized it was a mass of flies.
You go left, my eyes ordered Eddie. We’ve communicated in battle situations without talking since we were young lieutenants, in Iraq War One. And even before that, at ROTC, in Massachusetts, where we met.
Eddie’s quick glance said, If he’s in there, he left that front door open. Step in, Marines, and BOOM!
My hand signals told Eddie, Ready? One . . . two . . .
We burst in, me in the lead, Eddie taking the corners. Me processing the scene, thinking, Nothing moving yet . . . two rooms: the bunk room and the kitchen area. Corners clear. Body one in the lower bunk. Body two on the floor. Flies. Lots of flies. Clouds of flies. That was what I saw move by the window.
Eddie came out of the closet-sized, honey-bucket bathroom, and I smelled urine and shit from in there, unemptied buckets.
“All clear, Uno,” he said, lowering his Mossberg, leaning against the wall in momentary relief.
But then the flies moved again as a mass, rising off the form on the bunk, to cross the window, a fast-moving shadow, a hungry buzz, and the relief was over.
Oh man . . .
Eddie knelt at the lower bunk. A poster above the upper one pictured a smiling female researcher in a Woods Hole Institute sweatshirt, holding up tweezers and a Ziploc bag: REMEMBER TO FREEZE YOUR SAMPLES!!! A second poster showed a big polar bear, teeth bared, and the caption: LOOK BEFORE YOU STEP OUTSIDE!
“Oh, Christ, One. It’s Kelley.”
She lay—what remained of her—in a torn heap of bedding, and I had to force myself to look at the mass of muscle, liquid, and ligature where her head had been. A bare foot protruded from the shredded North Face sleeping bag. The flies were a tropism drawn to the worst kind of luck. The stuffing poked out, soaked with black blood. She’d been thrown into the wall by the blast, smearing the planking with grayish brain matter, a raisin-sized bit of discolored bone wedged between planks, and then she’d bounced off and settled. The limbs showed all the animation of a straw doll’s. A mass of strawberry-blond hair was pasted by blood to the wall. A single yellow strand glowed abruptly in a beam of sunlight coming through the window, flaring and dying as quickly as a soul departs a body.
That lone hair got to me more than the rest of the carnage. One hair. The strand you find in a teenage girl’s brush, and it went along with the innocent items on the milk crate night table, sitting an arm’s reach from the body; a Head & Shoulders shampoo bottle, a red-banded Mickey Mouse watch, a silvery palm-sized miniature digital recorder, a half-empty pack of Juicy Fruit gum.
“That mirror is busted over there,” I said, jerking my head toward a part of the cabin otherwise untouched by violence. Something about it stood out . . . a mirror . . . shattered . . . a mirror . . .
“Shot up?” Eddie said.
“No. No pellet marks. Someone must have just smashed it.”
“What are you thinking?”
“How the hell do I know?” I snapped.
I fought off a wave of sickness.
The upper bunk was untouched, a sleeping bag unrolled and zipped, just lying there. Mom’s probably. The women slept on one side of this cabin, guys on the other.
Eddie knelt in the center of the room, by the second body. The shooter, from the look of things. Merlin’s cousin Clay Qaqulik. Eddie going through the pockets. It’s funny how, even in the wild, some people carry a wallet.
“It’s Clay, all right.”
He lay by his shotgun, but only half of his face looked back, one pale brown eye gaping, slick cheekbones visible on the left side, as in a medical school display. The human male skull. The rest of what had once constituted a face was splattered across the thick planking, with more gray matter glommed onto the legs of a small splintery wooden table, below a tin of canned milk, a box of Trader Joe’s wheat bran flakes, a box of cracker-like Sailor Boy Pilot Bread, a half-played Monopoly game, with a plastic hotel sitting on Park Place, and a bagged half-loaf of Wonder bread—with a lone fly trapped inside, stuck to the condensation in the bag.
I also saw a pack of Zithromax, a five-day antibiotic, with three of the five pills missing. And an open bottle of Tylenol.
They were sick, sure, but with what?
The shooter’s trigger finger—left hand—was still snagged in the guard of the Remington pump action and the left arm was twisted, dislocated. When he’d blown off half his face, the recoil had snagged the finger, torn wrist tendons as the blast pulled the shotgun one way, the man the other.
Eddie flicked his head toward the door, referring to the bodies outside. “Mom and Dad were on their backs, so—”
“So Kelley’s still in her sleeping bag, which she would have tried to get out of if she heard shots. You think the first killing was here?”
“The shooting on the phone call was in here.”
“So Clay comes in here first, and the parents hear it and run toward the house to help. He steps out and shoots them, too. He comes back in. He shoots himself.”
In my head, I heard it: BOOM . . . BOOM . . .
Eddie said, “Or he shoots the parents first, Kelley’s too scared to move. Then he does her. But why?” Eddie said, pulling on rubber gloves.
I tried to remember the phone message. “Kelley said something about Clay seeing things. Hallucinating.”
Outside, Merlin and his deputies walked the perimeter of the camp, checking for people or evidence.
“I’m thinking Fort Hood,” Eddie mused as we got out the Ziploc bags and tie-on masks, forcing ourselves to start the awful collecting: fingernail clippings, blood samples, hair bits for a toxics test.
Eddie said, “He wouldn’t be the first vet who went around the bend. Kills three. Turns on himself. Alcohol . . . drugs . . . plenty of that up here . . . Or maybe being sick made everything worse.”
I thought about it. I shook my head. “It doesn’t explain the call. She said they were all sick. She was terrified because they were all sick. She didn’t even mention a shotgun. Don’t you think, if it was just about Clay, that the whole call would have been about him?”
Eddie sat back on his heels. He showed a lot of white in his eyes when he was concentrating. He shook his head. “This won’t have anything to do with us, or our mission. Don’t look at me like that! I’m just saying.”
“She called us, Eddie. She needed help. The mission? Who cares about the goddamn mission! What the hell happened here?”
“She’s scared. Disoriented. Babbling. I can think of drugs or chemicals that would make you paranoid as hell.”
“I want to test these bodies,” I said.
Despite the cold, I felt sweat in my eyes. There was a quick, small movement to my left, and I instinctively moved sideways, grabbed for my Mossberg, only to see a miniature mammal, a rodent-like vole, scamper from under the bunk and out the open doorway.
I said, rapid breathing subsiding, “She said she kept a diary of symptoms. Book diary? Or computer?”
“Laptop’s my guess. Or some new super mobile device that only kids and tech geniuses know about.”
“Take the laptop. And,” I said, eyeing two items on the night table, “that little voice recorder of hers.”
We forced ourselves to start looking for a diary, whatever form it took.
I knew that shock and grief would come later, when we got home—and later still, would be added to the roll call of Marine bad dreams.
Eddie found another busted mirror in the honey-bucket room. Just a little six by six thing that had been hanging on the wall, and was now shattered, its glazed pieces lying on the floor.
I stared at it. Mirrors . . .
Something about mirrors?
• • •
I’VE SEEN DEATH ON BATTLEFIELDS, AND EXPERIENCED THE VIOLENT deaths of friends, but even after many years of service I’d never witnessed anything up close approaching this level of violence on an American civilian family. The carnage mocked the normal setting: the set table, three places for dinner, plastic fiesta-style plates, three plastic tumblers with bowhead whale logos, the massive mammals etched in black on the sides.
I saw a four-burner stove in the corner, attached by hose to a propane canister on the floor. There was a larger tank outside for heat even in summers, when temperatures could drop into the twenties this far north. The cabin was not insulated enough to be used by researchers in winter. That was when most scientists, along with birds and whales, migrated south.
Gas leak? What are the symptoms of a gas leak? Light-headedness, yeah. Blurred vision. Paranoia? I don’t think so. Mold? Is there mold here?
“Four people. But only three settings,” Eddie said.
“Meaning, Dr. Holmes?”
“An argument? A grudge? Three against one over something that set Clay off.”
“She called before that. She never said Clay was the issue.”
The camp emitted the stillness of a battlefield when the death-dealing is done. Gradually normal sounds returned to the world. I heard the hiss of wind outside, and the vague attentive scratch of a hail pellet at the window. I heard the creak of Eddie, kneeling, Ziploc bag out, rubber gloves on, beside Clay Qaqulik. I heard a half dozen harsh, grating barks from that owl outside. One . . . two . . . three in a row . . . like it was counting bodies.
Four . . . Like the animal was mourning.
Six. Predicting more?
Deputy Luther Oz’s voice reached us from outside.
“Chief. Over here! Four-wheeler tracks! Someone else was here!”
• • •
LUTHER OZ STARTED UP AN ATV AND HEADED OUT ONTO THE TUNDRA TO try to follow the tracks. Deputy Steve Rice strung yellow crime-scene tape, pounded steel stakes into the ground, and wrapped the camp perimeter. It struck me as ridiculous. What would the tape keep away? Wolves?