Bundled in a wool sweater, scarf wrapped around his neck, and wearing fingerless knitted gloves, Ulan Bayzhanov prepared his workstation. The space was utilitarian with walls constructed of concrete blocks and painted a pale mint green. A few small square windows and one chart, listing the ampacity of copper and aluminum wire pasted to a wall, broke up the expanse of green. Scuffs and rub marks around the doorjambs hinted at the age of the facility. Natural light, forcing its way in through the small windows, was supplemented by overhead fluorescent fixtures that buzzed softly.
Ulan’s workbench was cluttered with pliers and wire cutters, screwdrivers, electrical test equipment including several hand-held multimeters and two oscilloscopes. Scraps of wire were scattered across the surface in no apparent order. Located in a stand above the workstation was a long, horizontal metal rod that held spools of electrical wire, the multicolored insulation offering welcome relief from the otherwise monotone environment.
Summer was still a month away, and without adequate heating the research facility would remain cool until the outside temperature warmed. The thick block walls and small windows helped against the bitterly cold winter weather and the furnace-like summer temperatures. For now, Ulan layered his clothing to stay warm. The fingerless gloves were the only compromise he made, dexterity a necessity for his work.
Ulan Bayzhanov was born in a small house not far from Sary-Shagan. The son of sheep ranchers, he was raised an only child, two other younger brothers having died in their first year. The arid land and sparse vegetation made for a hard life, with a small relief found in the ground water that allowed his mother to grow some vegetables during the hot summer months.
Driven by ambition, Ulan had no interest in following in the footsteps of his father. As a child, his schoolteacher recognized the drive and instinctive intellect behind Ulan’s sparkling brown eyes. He always had questions: how the machines worked; why the sun and stars moved as they did across the sky; why water existed as a solid, liquid, and a gas. But mostly, Ulan was fascinated by electricity.
One day, when Ulan was only seven years old, the schoolteacher brought a simple generator to share with the students. It was made using three large horseshoe magnets and a coil of copper wire that was turned within the magnetic field using a hand crank. A light bulb was connected to the generator, and then the children took turns cranking the handle to make the light bulb illuminate.
Ulan was immediately surprised by how hard it was to turn the crank to make the light bulb shine, but when the light bulb was disconnected from the generator, it was much easier to crank.
“I don’t understand. Why does this happen?” Ulan asked.
The teacher, who had been educated in Moscow, explained that when the light bulb completed the electric circuit, cranking the generator handle caused electricity to flow through the circuit. Since electricity is energy, it requires energy to make it. “That is you, turning the handle. You supply the energy. It is hard, because it is work.”
Ulan thought, allowing a few moments for understanding to take root. “Ah. So, if the light is not connected to the generator, there is no path for the electricity to flow. That’s why it is easier to turn the handle.” Ulan beamed with pride having learned this new lesson.
Whereas other classmates wished they could be doing almost anything other than school, Ulan looked forward to lessons every day. He read books borrowed from his teacher, and continued to excel in all his studies, but especially in science and mathematics.
The day Ulan completed school, his teacher met him with a rare opportunity. Facing no hope of further education, and desperate to pursue a path other than tending sheep, Ulan accepted an apprenticeship at the research facility in Sary-Shagan. He was only 14 years old.
That was the beginning of Ulan Bayzhanov’s career as an electrical technician at the Russian research complex not far from the shore of Lake Balkhash. For the first three years, Ulan walked to and from work six days of every week. Fortunately, his family home was not too far away, and in good weather Ulan could make the walk in about an hour. When he turned 17, the director of the electrical and electronics lab gave Ulan a car. It wasn’t much—with peeling paint, dented quarter panels, and torn and stained upholstery—but the engine ran, most of the time anyway. Still, it was the most beautiful gift Ulan had ever received.
Eight years later Ulan was still driving that same car. It required regular maintenance, but he learned to be a good mechanic and parts were always available, even if he did have to remove them from junked vehicles.
Today, Ulan was working alone to complete the quality assurance testing on two batteries, a test he’d started a week ago. Already he had completely discharged the batteries at the prescribed rate of five amps, and then fully charged the batteries to 13.2 volts. With the batteries fully charged, he carried out a series of tests to ensure they would provide more than the minimum rated power at three different discharge rates. Finally, the batteries had been left unattended for three days, and now he was about to measure the degree of self-discharge.
First, Ulan measured to voltage of the batteries and then he sampled the liquid acid electrolyte within the batteries and measured its density. Satisfied that the electrical and chemical characteristics of the batteries were correct, and passing all other minimum acceptance criteria, Ulan placed a self-adhesive seal on each battery housing with his initials and date.
Ulan slapped his hands together and rubbed them, the friction warming his fingers. He glanced out the window, and in the distance he saw a tan amorphous mass at what should have been the intersection of the ground and sky.
“Another dust storm,” he muttered. At age 25, Ulan had never traveled more than 150 kilometers from his family home, the place of his birth. His world was dirt and sand and dust—frigid winters and hot, dry summers. He’d never experienced a large, bustling city, although he had read about Moscow, Paris, New York, Berlin, and other popular metropolitan centers.
Someday he thought for the thousandth time.
With the two batteries tested, his next task was to complete the electrical assembly on the two black plastic cases. He moved to a second workstation on the opposite side of the small room. Here he had bright overhead lights and an illuminated magnifying lens mounted to an adjustable arm, especially handy for detailed soldering.
With one of the cases open, Ulan began to assemble the various electrical components. His job was to install the power supply and electrical system, plus an air blower and an electrically driven auger; a helical shaft that he thought served the purpose of moving a powder or granular material to the blower. For what purpose he had no idea; the work instruction did not identify the device by name or function, but this was not new to Ulan. Much of the work he performed was secretive.
Once the batteries were fixed within a mounting box, he installed the wiring harness and then inserted the three printed circuit boards—these were the brains of the device. Portions of the wire harness plugged into the circuit boards, as did several sensors that were already in place. Ulan firmly tugged the wires to ensure secure connection.
Finally, he referred to his work instructions on a sheet of white paper within a clear plastic cover. Along with the instruction was the quality assurance report for the three circuit boards, also manufactured at a neighboring location in the complex. It was the job of the design engineers to provide the assembly instructions Ulan was now reading.
With the various parts in place inside the black case, Ulan used special test equipment to ensure the electrical connections were correct. Then, using a signal generator and test leads that he pressed to small metal pads on the circuit boards, Ulan completed the final quality assurance tests.
Satisfied that all was correct, he signed off the work instruction sheet and inserted it along with the battery test report into the plastic sheet protector. Being a technician, Ulan did not have authority to pass the two cases on to the next department. In fact, the work instructions did not mention where the cases were to go next, presumably for final assembly. So, Ulan used the wall-mounted rotary phone to call his supervisor, Nartay Karimov.
“Doctor Karimov, I have completed my work on the two black cases, as you instructed.”
“Excellent, I will be there right away,” Karimov answered.
Two minutes later Karimov strode into the electrical lab. He was more than twice Ulan’s age, with gray hair and deep creases furrowing his face. Ulan was leaning over one of the cases with his hands folded behind his back, conducting a thorough visual inspection. His expression was studious and intense, eyebrows squeezed together creating a series of parallel wrinkles in his forehead.
“Is something wrong?” Doctor Karimov asked, startling Ulan.
“Uh, no,” he said, shaking his head as he stepped back. “I was just thinking. I installed a barometric pressure sensor, airflow sensor, and humidity meter. Plus, the air blower I installed there,” he pointed with his index finger, “will draw ambient air inside the case. I think this is an automatic air-sampling device. But I don’t understand what it does that common-place air sampling stations are not already doing?”
Nartay Karimov considered Ulan’s questions. His thin face was severe with a sharp angular nose, chiseled chin, and obvious cheekbones. He squinted his eyes and stared directly at Ulan for an uncomfortable minute.
“You have always been someone I can count on, Ulan.”
“Thank you sir.”
“You do good work, and you get your tasks done on time. You have a future here, provided you continue to do as you have done.”
“Yes sir.” Ulan dipped his head, uncomfortably holding Karimov’s gaze.
The mentor placed a hand on Ulan’s shoulder and spoke gently. “Do not let your curiosity get the better of you. Some questions are best left unspoken.”
Ulan nodded, and shifted his gaze to the floor.
“Now, I have a question for you. I have heard that you have affections for a certain young lady. Is this true?”
With a smile Ulan looked up, his eyes sparkling and his face slightly flushed. “Her name is Aida.”
“Ah, to be young again.” Karimov smiled. “You and Aida have so much to look forward to, and I wish you both a lifetime of happiness.” He paused momentarily. “Now, shall we return to the task at hand?”
“Of course, sir.” Ulan bowed his head slightly.
Doctor Karimov doubled checked the paperwork while Ulan watched in silence. He then used a digital multimeter to check a few voltages and resistance readings, and ensured a good ground had been established. This was normal, expected by Ulan, as Karimov had done this on a hundred other projects he had worked on.
After five minutes of double-checking and triple-checking Ulan’s work, Doctor Karimov grunted approval.
“Take these down the hall to the biochem laboratory. I will phone and have someone meet you there.”
Ulan followed the cart down the hallway. He had never been into the biochemistry lab and wondered why they needed these devices that were obviously meant to measure weather conditions. He stopped outside the door as instructed, and soon the door was opened by a middle-aged woman with platinum blond hair. It was cut short, making her look rather masculine. Beyond her frame, Ulan glimpsed an inner chamber and another glass partition. The inner chamber had several white suits hanging from hooks, and several hoods with large clear face shields. Ulan recognized these as full-body protective suits.
“Under the direction of Doctor Karimov, I’ll take these,” the woman said. Her voice was cold and detached. Ulan thought he knew everyone who worked at the facility, since the total number wasn’t more than about 100, but he didn’t recognize this woman. She wasn’t a native Kazakh, and he thought her accent to be Russian.
Ulan watched as she wheeled the cart into the inner chamber. Just before the door closed, Ulan saw her take one of the white suits from the hook. This is very odd, Ulan thought, but he knew better than to ask any questions.
* * *
With the door closed, Doctor Maria Lukin donned a biohazard suit and then wheeled the cart through an airlock and into the laboratory. “Take this to the assembly lab,” she instructed a technician. “You are to install a canister containing the new strain.”
“The hemorrhagic variation?” the technician asked.
“Yes. The experiments with our primates confirmed the high infection and mortality rates. And last night the autopsies of three human subjects was completed. The results confirmed internal bleeding and organ failure resulting in death 85 to 100 hours after infection. So we can conclude the cell culture-method was successful.”
The technician displayed a blank look, not comprehending the significance of the brief explanation. For a moment, Doctor Lukin considered explaining that growing the virus in a culture of human cells was a breakthrough in mass productivity over using chicken eggs as the growth medium. She quickly dismissed the thought—she was not here in this God-forsaken corner of the world to teach these ignorant fools.
“When you are done, make certain the case is thoroughly decontaminated. If you can’t perform the task correctly, maybe you will find yourself a subject of future experiments.”
With Jon Bon Jovi singing about life on tour, the classic rock radio station provided background music as Peter busied himself cooking breakfast. Bobbing his head to the guitar riff, he threw some diced ham into a hot skillet, already colored with red and green peppers as well as potatoes, when the phone rang.
“Hey buddy, how’s your Saturday morning?” Gary asked. Gary Porter and Peter began their friendship in high school—they had since grown as close as two brothers ever could be. Hearing his friend’s voice, Peter immediately conjured up his image; curly blond hair and infectious smile, cobalt blue eyes that were at home with his easy-going, gentle spirit. But Peter also knew Gary could be hard and unyielding if pushed too far.
“Not bad, Gary. Cooking up a breakfast skillet and then I’m going on a walk along the Deschutes River trail. What’s up?”
“Have you heard about the military action in Latvia? I looked at the map; that’s pretty close to Belarus.”
They had been planning a trip to Minsk for about three weeks. Gary was doing some cyber security consulting for the Belarusian State University, or BSU, and Peter wanted to visit his father who was presently collaborating with faculty in the chemistry department of BSU. He planned to bring along his children, Ethan and Joanna—Ethan wanted to apply as an exchange student and Joanna was interested in sightseeing and visiting her grandfather.
“No, I don’t pay much attention to the broadcast news. Seems I hear soon enough from my government contacts when things go bad. What type of military action?” Peter was already changing the radio station and landed on Oregon Public Broadcasting where a panel of journalists and commentators were discussing current events.
“Based on what I read in the newspaper, a bunch of pro-Russian militiamen took control over a railway station in a small town near the Russian border, then they moved on to another city and there they were met by the Latvian army. There was a big fight and the militia lost.”
“Who’s in control now?”
“According to the Latvian government, they are.”
“I’ll research what the wire services have reported, and I’ll also call Jim, but it sounds like the skirmish might be over.”
Jim Nicolaou, Commander of the Strategic Global Intervention Team, had been a friend of Peter’s ever since they were kids. Having followed separate careers, the paths of the two men crossed again a couple of years ago when Jim was working a case in which terrorists were systematically murdering petroleum scientists, a group that happened to include Peter’s father. Since then, Peter had occasionally worked with Jim and SGIT in an unofficial capacity.
“You don’t think Russia is planning to invade Eastern Europe, do you?” Gary asked.
Because of Peter’s work designing and manufacturing silent magnetic-impulse pistols, which his company EJ Enterprises sold to the U.S. military, he had regular communication with various colonels stationed at the Pentagon. Based on those conversations and other off-the-record statements he had overheard, he was somewhat familiar with the unofficial take on Russian ambitions as they related to the former Soviet Bloc countries. Few officers in the U.S. military believed Russia would risk a full-scale war to retake territories lost when the Iron Curtain fell, despite the invasion and annexation of Crimea.
“No, I don’t,” Peter answered without hesitation. “But let me check my sources and see what I can learn. The fact that I haven’t already heard about this is a good sign. But if I have any concerns the violence will spread to Belarus, you’ll be the third person I tell—right after I inform Ethan and Jo that the trip is cancelled.”
Peter placed his phone on the granite-surfaced cooking island just in time to stir the mix of potatoes, ham, and peppers before they burned. The moderator on the radio program introduced a story about a smallpox outbreak in Tbilisi, Georgia. Several dozen people had been stricken and were hospitalized; already 14 had died, including a two-year old child and her mother. The discussion from the panel’s members was brief; one journalist pointed out that smallpox had been declared eliminated in the 1970s and that the source of the virus responsible for this outbreak was under investigation, but so far the World Health Organization had not organized an investigative team.
“That’s what happens when you stop immunizing the population,” Peter said, carrying on a monolog with the voices on the radio, all the while knowing how irrational his behavior was. He stirred the skillet one more time and then turned off the burner and placed a large scoop in a bowl.
As Peter sat at the counter separating the kitchen from a spacious great room, the moderator moved to the next topic of discussion. “Now I’d like to shift our attention to the Baltic States, and Latvia in particular. Last week we witnessed a remarkable series of events as the Latvian government put down, swiftly and decisively, what appeared to be another civil uprising involving pro-Russian militias.”
“That’s correct,” said the liberal commentator, a reporter with the Washington Post. “This seems to be a recurring event in Eastern Europe, only this time the outcome was much different from what happened in Georgia and Ukraine.”
“And why is that?” the moderator asked, spurring the discussion along.
The conservative panelist jumped in. “Well, the most significant difference is that Latvia, like Estonia, is a member of NATO, whereas Ukraine and Georgia are not. Plus, the Latvian government must certainly have planned for this possibility having seen the protracted and savage fighting in Ukraine and the annexation of the Crimean Peninsula by the Russian Federation.”
Peter was still thinking about the defeat of the pro-Russian militia in Latvia as the talking heads moved on to national events. Hearing what he sought, Peter tuned out the conversation and fired up his tablet between bites of potatoes and peppers. He focused only on the wire reports.
Sophia Janicek, The Associated Press
ZILUPE, Latvia (AP) — Two days after the first gunshots were fired, pro-Russian militia have reportedly secured their occupation of the train station in this small town of a few hundred inhabitants close to the border with Russia.
Considered strategically important because of the major rail and road routes passing through Zilupe into Russia, armed militiamen claiming allegiance to the Russian Federation launched an assault on the railway station two days ago. The pro-Russian militia encountered very little resistance. The militia commander claims to have captured two Latvian soldiers, however that report is denied by a spokesman for the Minister of Defense.
The railway station in Zilupe is strategically located on the Riga-Zilupe train route, which is one of the longest passenger rail routes in Latvia. The town is also near the A12 road, which becomes the M9 highway after the border crossing into Russia.
Armed militiamen wearing black facemasks and carrying automatic rifles can be seen on the grounds surrounding the quaint timber-and-stone railway station. Sandbag bunkers have been erected as makeshift guard stations at the road leading to the station.
Local residents report that trains are arriving from Russia carrying male passengers with green duffel bags. The trains do not travel further west into Latvia. It is believed these male passengers are Russian soldiers.
However, a spokesman for President Vladimir Pushkin vehemently denies that any Russian military service members are in Latvia fighting on behalf of the militia. “This militia is comprised of local citizens,” said a spokesman for President Pushkin. “We have seen this before in Eastern Ukraine, South Ossetia, and Abkhazia. The people who live there are weary of their corrupt and weak governments, and seek repatriation with the Russian Federation.”
Subconsciously, Peter had stopped eating, even though the fork still rested in his hand. He moved to the next two hits.
Sophia Janicek, The Associated Press
RIGA, Latvia (AP) — The Minister of Defense announced today that seven Russian soldiers were captured near Zilupe in an overnight skirmish between government soldiers and pro-Russian militia. No casualties are reported on either side.
This news comes less than one week before scheduled talks between President Vladimir Pushkin and European and NATO leaders in Berlin.
Quoting an anonymous source in the Russian Defense Ministry, the Russian news agency Interfax reports that “the soldiers were on patrol near the border and apparently got lost. It was night and the forest is dense, it would be easy for anyone to lose their way.”
U.S. Secretary of State Paul Bryan has accused the Kremlin of stirring up violence in this peaceful Baltic nation. A former member of the Soviet Union, Latvia restated their independence on May 4, 1990, charging that the occupation by the former Soviet Union was illegal.
“Once again we see the Russian government initiating civil unrest and violence in an effort to gain influence and territory,” Bryan said. “It is becoming increasingly clear that Mister Pushkin covets a greater Russia, even if it means violation of international law.”
Karl Church, Global Times
RĒZEKNE, Latvia (GT) — In a daring night-time assault, government forces recaptured key buildings in this city of 36,000 residents. Approximately two dozen militiamen are reported killed and more than 150 captured. Most of the pro-Russian militia fled under cover of darkness.
Russian President Vladimir Pushkin, stressing that he supported an end to the bloodshed, urged the Latvian military to cease using force against its civilian population and threatened to withdraw from bilateral trade talks unless the violence ends.
Situated 39 miles west of the Russian border, Rēzekne is a major transportation hub for both highway and rail. The Moscow-Riga railway and the Warsaw-St. Petersburg railway intersect and pass through Rēzekne.
A spokesman for the Minister of Defense said that the assault commenced at 1 a.m. local time. “The raid was executed with professionalism by members of the Special Tasks Unit,” he said.
The Latvian Special Tasks Unit is the equivalent of Special Forces. The Ministry of Defense would not comment on the number of men participating in the nighttime raid. A member of NATO, Latvia has frequently participated in joint military exercises and is considered by military experts to have a skilled and professional force.
A Pentagon source, who asked not to be named, said that the Special Tasks Unit received support from the U.S. Army in the form of non-lethal material. When asked what type of non-lethal material, the source replied, “night vision goggles and advanced communication equipment, plus intelligence reports.”
At dawn this morning the main railway stations in Rēzekne were under control of Latvian soldiers, and regularly scheduled train travel is expected to resume by noon local time. Soldiers wearing Latvian uniforms were visible on the streets and in government buildings throughout Rēzekne as the government made a dramatic show of force.
No longer hungry, Peter pushed his bowl aside, staring at the tablet. Based on the news reports, the Latvian government was firmly in control and the violence had seemingly ended. There was no evidence to support fears that a Russian annexation was imminent, or anticipated.
Still, Peter called Jim Nicolaou, who answered on the second ring.
They efficiently passed through introductions and pleasantries before Peter got down to business.
“I’m not asking for any classified information, just your general take on the region,” Peter said.
“The Latvians slapped down the militia rather quickly, and that sends a message to other militia groups that might think they can actually win a civil war. These Baltic nations are very different from Ukraine, and we don’t expect a repeat of what happened there.”
“So you wouldn’t advise me to cancel my trip to Minsk?”
“No, I wouldn’t. Look, you know I can’t guarantee your safety. Who knows what might happen tomorrow, or in a week, or month… or never. All I can say is that the intelligence community does not predict further acts of violence by militia groups against any of the Eastern European countries. And if that changes, I’ll let you know.
“By the way, how is the Professor doing? Last time we spoke he was rather anxious to get his research back on track.”
“Still is,” Peter chuckled. “Dad was frustrated by his perceived lack of progress, and he felt it would be helpful to work with colleagues at the BSU campus. Sounds like he’s made some good friends. We’ve had a few phone conversations, and he sounds excited again about his research.”
“I’m glad to hear that. Tell Ian hello for me when you see him, okay?”
They ended the call, and then Peter phoned Gary to relay the news.
Shortly later, Peter was walking along the Deschutes River. The morning was comfortably warm and sunny, a beautiful spring day. The rhythm of the walk was like a moving meditation, and soon Peter was lost in his thoughts.
Although he had many friends plus colleagues from EJ Enterprises, Peter still felt alone. Ethan was attending the University of Oregon in Eugene, a two-and-a-half hour car trip to the west. Joanna, or Jo as she liked to be called, was building her own independent life even though she lived in the same city as her father.
It had been a difficult transition as the children left home, perhaps more so because he didn’t have his wife Maggie for support. The years since her death in an automobile accident had not softened the pain. Left brain-dead from her injuries, the hardest thing Peter ever had to do was instruct the doctors to remove her from life support. That was Maggie’s final wish, and it still haunted Peter. Mostly at night, when it was quiet and the solitude was overwhelming.
Yes, it will be good to be with Ethan and Jo, and to visit Dad, Peter thought as a smile crept across his face.
Commander James Nicolaou sat hunched over his desk studying the morning intelligence update. He paused when he reached the paragraphs describing the latest events in Eastern Europe and the DIA analyst’s interpretations. As commanding officer of the Strategic Global Intervention Team—SGIT—he led an exceptional team of intelligence analysts and military operatives. Given that the bloodshed over the past months had been limited to a few cities in Latvia and Ukraine, and no Americans had been killed, SGIT had not been called into service, but that didn’t mean that he wouldn’t stay abreast of all that was occurring in the region.
Although the pro-Russian militia, equipped with heavy weapons that could have only come from Russia, still occupied the city of Baltinava on the Ukrainian border with Russia, as long as talks were underway with Pushkin’s government Europe and the U.S. were not willing to use force. As distasteful as it was to accept small enclaves ripped from sovereign nations, the idea of risking war in Europe was even more distasteful.
Everyone in the intelligence community knew that Russia was behind the military actions, including using Russian special ops soldiers dressed as so-called pro-Russian militia, supposedly civilians rising against their central governments. With the aggression largely unchecked, civil unrest was spreading throughout Eastern Europe; pro-Russian civilians versus pro-independence nationalists.
For now at least, the conflict in Latvia had been quelled, but in private conversations, military analysts admitted that Georgia was likely to be annexed by Russia unless the U.S. and Europe forcefully intervened—not a political possibility for President Taylor. Memories of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars were still potent in the public’s mind.
For his part, President Vladimir Pushkin had played his hand brilliantly, correctly interpreting the vulnerability of Europe by virtue of dependence upon Russian energy supplies—which would serve to mitigate implementation of harsh economic sanctions—as well as U.S. reluctance to enter into yet another far-away conflict that would cost thousands of American lives and trillions of dollars.
As Commander Nicolaou read further, his ebony eyebrows pinched together. He pressed a button on his desk phone, and two seconds later the speaker came to life.
“Lacey,” the voice said.
“Lieutenant, gather up everything you have on this possible plague outbreak in Georgia. I want a detailed briefing in one hour, conference room A.”
“Yes, sir.” Lieutenant Ellen Lacey was a veteran of SGIT, a loyal team player who led the group of analysts, all recruited from the DIA, NSA and Office of Naval Intelligence—all extremely bright and accomplished.
Lacey was of Irish decent with red hair and a well-proportioned figure. In the civilian world she had many want-to-be suitors, but she had yet to find any man who held her intellectual interest for more than a couple weeks. With few outside distractions, Lacey dedicated her talents—brilliant logical reasoning and savvy reading of human and political behavior—to her work at SGIT.
Jim hunched over the report, rubbing his index fingers against his temples. He knew as well as anyone that President Taylor was unlikely to commit to military intervention unless a NATO country was overtly attacked by Russia. The problem was that Pushkin had been stirring up trouble under the guise of civilian Russian sympathizers. These civilians were usually armed with sophisticated weaponry, including advanced long-range guided missiles, and they wore Russian military uniforms lacking unit designation or nationality patches. It was a thin disguise, but the frequent media reports referring to the aggressors as civilian militia served to reinforce a reluctance of the American people to get involved.
He turned to his computer and entered a search phrase. The firewalls between SGIT’s super computer—named MOTHER—would ensure security even when using the most popular search engines.
Jim quickly scanned through the first five hits and followed the links. Scanning more than reading, he scrolled through the documents.
What he read worried him, and he absent-mindedly rubbed his chin in a gesture that had become his tell. Closing the file and moving back to the search hits, he clicked on a PDF document published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta. The document was ten years old, but the report was timeless. As he read the five pages and studied the color photos, he felt a wave of nausea. Pushing back from his desk, he rose and filled his mug from the carafe resting on the credenza at the side of his office. The hot coffee settled his stomach, if only a bit.
Jim Nicolaou, former SEAL and veteran of innumerable missions, nearly every one of them off the record, was no stranger to death and destruction. He was a warrior, an experienced killer.
Yet, the sight of children suffering from horrendous injuries and ailments—all the product of armed conflicts that were often rooted in power struggles or ideology, still bothered him deeply. It was one thing to take the life of another man doing his damnedest to end yours, but in Jim’s code of honor there was no room for harming innocents, especially children.
Jim looked across his office at the computer monitor and the printed intelligence report, his hand-written notes in the margins.
If Pushkin is behind this, perhaps he has finally gone too far, he thought. With coffee mug in hand, he left his office for Lacey’s briefing.
Lieutenant Ellen Lacey was already seated at the conference table when Jim walked through the door. She was flanked by two of her analysts, Mona Stephens and Beth Ross. Ross had provided pivotal insight into many SGIT assignments over the past five years, including the Venezuelan affair when civilian scientists were targeted by terrorists on U.S. soil.
Stephens was a relative newcomer, and Lacey appreciated her analytical reasoning skills fed by a voracious appetite for reading everything from major international newspapers to intelligence briefings. Her petite frame and blonde hair may have given the opposite sex the impression that she was all looks and no brains, but that could not have been further from the truth. She was intelligent, ambitious, and not about to sit by quietly if she wanted to make a point.
Jim nodded to Lacey. “Good morning.”
“Stephens and Ross have been following the events in the former Soviet Bloc countries of Eastern Europe. I asked them to participate, if you don’t mind, sir.”
“Of course.” Jim looked over the three faces. “What do you have?”
“Well, sir,” Lacey began, “in addition to the daily briefings you see, there have been three reports, all classified secret, from the DIA relating to disease victims in Georgia. I’ve uploaded the reports onto MOTHER. Over the past five days, hospitals in Tbilisi have been inundated—mostly civilians, but also Georgian military. Three hospitals ran out of rooms and have taken to parking patients on gurneys in the hallways. The first cases were reported twelve days ago, and the numbers have been steadily increasing. The reported symptoms include fever, headache, chills, nausea, vomiting, malaise and fatigue, and purple to red lesions over the patient’s body.”
“That’s what it says in the briefings,” Jim said, “and why I called this meeting. These symptoms are consistent with smallpox or Ebola.”
“Yes sir, that’s mostly correct. What was omitted from the general briefings, but captured in the classified reports, is that bleeding from the nose and mouth is also reported in later stages of the disease.”
“About 80 percent to 90 percent of the patients have died.”
“That was also omitted from the general briefing.”
“And so far the extraordinarily high death rate has not been reported by the major wire services either.”
“Okay, so someone is keeping a lid on this. Cause?” Jim asked.
Stephens replied without hesitation. “The symptoms are consistent with hemorrhagic smallpox, a rare form of the virus.”
“Are you sure?” Jim asked.
Stephens nodded. “The bleeding and high fatality rate differentiates hemorrhagic smallpox from the more common form known as variola major in the medical community. Cowpox is much less severe, typically with limited but painful rashes that fade after two to three weeks. Monkeypox causes swelling of the lymph nodes, so far that hasn’t been a reported symptom. Monkeypox and cowpox are seldom fatal.”
“How can you be confident it’s not Ebola or Marburg virus?”
“Without laboratory confirmation of cultures, I can’t be absolutely certain. However, we’ve been in contact with doctors at the CDC. They’ve explained that Ebola and Marburg result in rapid onset of severe flu-like symptoms, including diarrhea, which is absent in the outbreak victims. But more significant is that the victims suffer from bleeding under the skin that appears as a red or purplish rash beneath small lumps.”
“According to the experts, these are text-book symptoms of hemorrhagic smallpox,” Lacey added.
Stephens glanced at Lacey and Ross, before returning her attention to Jim. “It’s the most logical conclusion, the only one that fits the symptoms. A majority of analysts at DIA also concur…” her voice trailed off, and Jim sensed that there was more to it. But before he could ask, Lacey jumped in.
“There is an inconsistency.”
“Hemorrhagic smallpox was extremely rare prior to the eradication of the disease in the late 70s.”
“How rare?” Jim said.
“Only about 2% of smallpox cases were of the hemorrhagic variety. And since 1977 there have been no reported natural infections of smallpox of any variety.”
“It’s extremely unlikely that a smallpox outbreak of the magnitude reported in Tbilisi would be due to a naturally occurring infection,” Stephens offered.
“Probabilities can be misleading. Smallpox vaccination hasn’t been carried out for decades. Why wouldn’t we expect the disease to reappear?”
Ross nodded. “We’ve thought about that. There are other examples, such as measles and polio, diseases that are causing more infections annually as a result of lax immunization programs. But if that was the case here, regular smallpox—variola major and variola minor—should have been the strain to reappear.”
Lacey continued. “Hemorrhagic smallpox is rare, so rare that little is reported about the symptoms and progress of the disease.”
“Perhaps Ebola or Marburg has mutated, giving symptoms that are confused for this variety of smallpox?” Jim said.
“Without cultures and a full DNA sequencing, that remains a possibility.” Lacey said.
“There is one other possibility, sir.” Stephens spoke in a low, confident voice. Lacey glanced at her, and nodded subtly.
“I think I know what you are going to suggest, but go on.” Jim’s dark brown eyes were steady, his expression firm as he waited several seconds for Stephens’ reply. She took her time, collecting her thoughts, perhaps judging the possible reaction to the hypothesis she was determined to share.
And then she answered. “Weaponized virus—from U.S. or Russian stores.”
Jim eased back in his chair, his eyes shifting between Lacey, Stephens, and Ross. “A Russian release of the virus was my suspicion after reading the briefings, and you’ve independently confirmed that. But why do you suggest the source could be U.S. stores? Aren’t all smallpox cultures secured at the CDC?”
“We’re looking into that sir. So far, I’m not getting any useful information. The CDC simply repeats the standard policy that smallpox and other hazardous category A pathogens are stored safely and with limited access. They insist there has never been a breach in security.” Lacey said.
Jim leaned forward placing his fists against the conference table for support. He recalled the color photographs in the CDC report he read a short while earlier showing angry raised red lesions on arms and legs, patches of darkly colored skin, the surrounding tissue red and inflamed. The clinical description, virtually sterile and devoid of emotion, proclaimed how the infected persons suffered high fever, their bodies racked with pain and convulsions. And then he thought of the women and children causalities mentioned in the intelligence briefing, and the barbaric suffering they were subjected to. His stomach began to tighten again.
Pushing off the table, Jim straightened and focused on Lacey. “What is being done to contain the outbreak?”
“The Russian Ministry of Healthcare was quick to respond with vaccine and medical personnel to administer it. They’ve said they plan to vaccinate the entire population of Tbilisi. That, combined with a city-wide quarantine implemented by the Georgian government, is expected to contain the virus and stop the spread.”
“It sounds as if the Ministry of Healthcare was well prepared.”
“Like they knew it was coming,” Ross said.
Jim considered the comment. “Assuming for the moment that you are correct, what is the motive? What would Pushkin gain by releasing such a dangerous virus?”
“Demoralize the civilian population, kill Georgian soldiers, destabilize the government,” Ross replied without hesitation.
“Maybe, but we have to be certain. Could this be a natural outbreak? Contaminated water or something?”
Lieutenant Lacey pursed her lips. “Unlikely. Smallpox was eradicated globally by 1977. Vaccination has not been carried out in the U.S. since 1972.”
“The outbreak is localized and massive,” Ross added. “These facts are not at all consistent with a natural outbreak, and suggest a targeted release of weaponized smallpox. This conclusion is supported by the rarity of the virus strain based on reported symptoms. However, without samples for DNA testing, we have no proof, only speculation.”
Lacey drew in a breath and exhaled. “The World Health Organization has requested permission to enter Tbilisi and collect samples from patients, as well as environmental samples from around the capital. So far, the Georgian government has been very cooperative but President Pushkin’s government is objecting, accusing the U.S. and NATO of a plot to plant evidence and blame Russia. The situation is complicated by the fact that the Georgian military cannot guarantee protection to a WHO field team. Consequently, the WHO is backing down and suggesting a delay until the situation in Georgia stabilizes and the quarantine is lifted. The UN Secretary General is supporting their recommendation.”
“This all plays into Pushkin’s agenda,” Jim said. He frowned and began pacing back and forth, his frustration contributing to the tension in the conference room.
“Has President Taylor taken a position?” Jim said.
Lacey sighed. “No sir, not yet.”
“So that most likely means that neither the U.S. nor Europe are willing to put troops on the ground to secure the WHO team while they collect evidence of a possible biological weapon attack.” Jim continued his pacing.
Jim stopped, and turned to face his team. “If this is weaponized smallpox, how was it deployed?”
Lacey frowned. “The DIA isn’t speculating. But, despite the cease-fire, five artillery shells are reported to have been fired on Tbilisi 15 days ago by the pro-Russian militia. One or more of those shells could have contained the virus.”
“It’s also possible that a few dozen infected persons entered Tbilisi about that same time,” Ross observed. “Smallpox is highly contagious and is easily spread from person to person by inhalation, direct contact, or contact with clothing and linens that are contaminated.”
As Jim listened to the timeline, he felt something was missing. “You’re suggesting the initial infection occurred only a few days—three to be exact—before the first report of diseased victims. Isn’t that a bit fast even for smallpox?”
Lacey and Stephens exchanged a glance before Lacey cleared her throat. “No sir, not this strain. However, we must acknowledge that if this is a weaponized virus, it may have been genetically altered.”
Jim held Lacey’s stare while he absorbed the implications. “If our theories are correct, and there is another outbreak somewhere else, what’s to stop it?”
“Short of a mass vaccination program within the first three days of the virus being released, nothing. And if the disease spreads beyond a small geographical area…”
Jim finished her statement. “A global pandemic with a 90 percent fatality rate.”
“It would take too long to manufacture and administer sufficient vaccine to curb the spread,” Stephens said.
Jim considered the implications. Just one infected traveler on an international flight could spark a chain reaction. With the virus burning through an unprotected population at an exponential pace, how many would die before the disease extinguished itself? Hundreds of millions… maybe billions.
“Anything else to add?”
“No sir, that’s the extent of our briefing,” Lacey said.
“Have a summary report in my inbox by end of day. I’m going to forward it to Colonel Pierson. Maybe there’s a role for SGIT to play in getting those samples.”