CENTRAL ASIAN FEDERATION
VINCENTI ALLOWED KARYN WALDE TIME TO DIGEST WHAT HE'D said. He remembered the moment when he first realized that he'd discovered the cure for HIV.
"I told you about the old man in the mountains-"
"Is that where you found it?" she asked, anticipation in her voice.
"I think refound would be more accurate."
He'd never spoken of this to anyone. How could he have? So he found himself eager to explain. "It's ironic how the simplest things can solve the most complex problems. In the early 1900s, beriberi flourished all over China, killing hundreds of thousands. You know why? To make the rice more marketable, merchants started polishing the kernels, which removed thiamine-vitamin B1-from the hull. Without thiamine in their diet, beriberi passed unchecked through the population. When the polishing stopped, the thiamine took care of the disease.
"The bark from the Pacific yew tree is an effective cancer treatment. It's no cure, but it can slow down the disease. Simple bread mold led to highly effective antibiotics that kill bacterial infections. And something as basic as a high-fat, ketogenic diet can actually arrest epilepsy in some children. Simple stuff. I found that same principle true for AIDS."
"What was it in that plant you chewed that worked?" she asked.
"Not it. They."
He saw her fear subside, as what might have been a threat was rapidly changing into salvation.
"Thirty years ago, we spotted a virus in the bloodstream of green monkeys. Our knowledge of viruses at the time was rudimentary, considering what we know now. We actually thought it a form of rabies, but the shape, size, and biology of the organism was different.
"It eventually was labeled simian immunodeficiency virus-SIV. We now know SIV can live in monkeys indefinitely without harming the animal. We first thought the monkeys had some kind of resistance, but we later learned the resistance came from the virus, which chemically realized that it couldn't ravage every biological organism it contacted. The virus learned to exist within the monkeys, without the monkeys knowing they even carried it."
"I've heard this," she said. "And the AIDS epidemic started with a monkey bite."
He shrugged. "Who knows? Could have been a bite or a scratch, could have been ingested. Monkeys are a regular part of many diets. No matter how it happened, the virus left monkeys and found humans. I saw this firsthand with a man named Charlie Easton, where the virus changed inside him from SIV to HIV."
He told her more about what happened decades ago, not all that far from where he stood, when Easton died.
"HIV harbored no parental instinct for humans, the way SIV did for monkeys. It went to work, quickly cloning cells in lymph nodes into duplicates of itself. Charlie was dead in a matter of weeks.
"But he wasn't the first. The first case that can be definitively diagnosed was a man from England. In 1959. A frozen serum sample tested in the early nineteen-nineties showed HIV in his blood, and medical records confirmed the symptoms of AIDS. Most likely SIV and HIV have both been around for centuries. People dying in isolated villages, nobody noticing. Secondary infections like pneumonia actually killed the people, so doctors routinely mistook AIDS for other things. Originally, in the United States, it was labeled 'the gay pneumonia.' The best guess now is that in the nineteen-fifties and-sixties, when Africa started to modernize and people began congregating in cities, the disease spread. Eventually, an outsider carried the virus off the continent. By the nineteen-eighties, HIV had made it across the globe."
"One of your natural biological weapons made good."
"We actually thought it lousy for that purpose. Too hard to contract, too long to kill. Which isn't bad. Any easier and we'd have a modern-day black death."
"We do," she said. "It's just not killing the right people yet."
He knew what she meant. Presently, there were two main strains. HIV-1, prevalent in Africa, while HIV-2 remained strong within intravenous drug users and homosexuals. Lately, new variant strains had started appearing, like a nasty one in Southeast Asia, recently acquiring the label of number three.
"Easton," she said. "Did you think you'd been infected by him?"
"We knew so little about how the virus passed back then. Remember, any offensive biological weapon is useless without a cure. So when that old healer offered to take me up into the mountains, I went. He showed me the plant and told me the juice from its leaves could stop what he called the fever-disease. So I ate some."
"And didn't give Easton any? You let him die?"
"I gave him the juice from the plant. But it did nothing for him."
She looked puzzled and he allowed her question to hang.
"Once Charlie died, I cataloged the virus as an unacceptable specimen. The Iraqis only wanted to know about successes. We were told to leave the failures in the field. In the mid-nineteen-eighties, when HIV was finally isolated in France and the United States, I recognized the biology. Initially, I didn't give it much thought. Hell, nobody outside the gay community was all that concerned. But by 1985 I heard the talk among the pharmaceutical community. Whoever found the cure was going to make a lot of money. So I decided to start looking. By then I knew a lot more. So I went back to central Asia, hired a guide to take me up to the high ground, and found the plant again. I brought back samples and tested it and, sure enough, the damn thing wiped HIV out almost on contact."
"You said it didn't work on Easton."
"The plant's useless. By the time I gave it to Charlie, the leaves were dry. It's not the leaves. It's the water. That's where I found them."
He held up the syringe.
"EVER HEARD OF A SCYTALE?" MALONE ASKED.
None of them had.
"You get a stick, wrap a strip of leather around it, write your message on the leather, then unwrap the strip and add a bunch of other letters. The person who you intend to get the message has a similar stick, same diameter, so that when he wraps the strip around it the message is readable. Use a different size stick and all you get is jumbled letters. The ancient Greeks used the scytale all the time to communicate secretly."
"How in the world do you know these things?" Davis asked.
Malone shrugged. "The scytale was fast, effective, and not prone to mistakes-which was important on the battlefield. A great way to send a concealed message. And, to answer your question, I read."
"We don't have the right stick," Davis said. "How are we going to decipher the thing?"
"Remember the riddle. Life provides the measure of the grave." He held up the medallion. "ZH. Life. This coin is the measure."
"Be wary, for there is but one chance of success," Stephanie said. "That gold foil is thin. No way to unravel and wrap it again. Apparently, you get one shot."
Malone nodded. "That's my guess, too."
He led the search as they left the basilica and headed back to the diocese offices with the foil and the elephant medallion. He estimated the decadrachm to be about an inch in diameter, so they started looking for something that would work. A couple of broom handles found in a storage closet proved too large, a few other items too small.
"All the lights are on," Malone said. "But nobody's around."
"Michener cleared the building when Zovastina was left alone in the basilica," Davis said. "We needed as few witnesses as possible."
Near a copier, on a shelf, he spotted candles. Malone grabbed the box and noticed that their diameter was only slightly larger than the medallion. "We'll make our own scytale."
Stephanie instantly understood. "There's a kitchen down the hall. I'll get a knife."
He cradled the strip of gold in his palm, protected within a crumpled sheet of paper they'd found in the treasury ticket booth.
"Anybody here speak Old Greek?" he asked.
Davis and Thorvaldsen shook their heads.
"We're going to need a computer. Any word that comes off this strip will be in Old Greek."
"There's one in the office we were in before," Davis said. "Down the hall."
Stephanie returned with a peeling knife.
"You know, I'm concerned about Michener," Malone said. "What's to stop Viktor from killing him, regardless of Zovastina leaving safely?"
"Not going to be a problem," Davis said. "I wanted Michener to go with Viktor."
Malone was puzzled. "For what?"
Edwin Davis's eyes fixed on him, as if deciding if he was someone to be trusted.
Which irritated Malone. "What is it?"
Stephanie nodded and Davis said, "Viktor works for us."
VIKTOR WAS STUNNED. "WHO ARE YOU?"
"A priest with the Catholic Church, just like I said. But you're much more than you seem to be. The president of the United States wants me to talk to you."
The boat was still drifting toward the dock. In a few moments Michener would be gone. This priest had timed his revelation well.
"I was told Zovastina hired you from the Croatian security force, where you were first recruited by the Americans. You were helpful to them in Bosnia, and once they realized you were working for Zovastina, the Americans rekindled their relationship."
Viktor realized the proffered information, all true, was being offered to convince him that this envoy was real.
"Why do you do it?" Michener asked him. "Living a lie?"
He decided to be honest. "Let's say that I prefer not to be tried in a war-crimes court. I fought for the other side in Bosnia. We all did things we regret. I eased my conscience by changing sides and helping the Americans capture the worst offenders."
"Which means the other side would hate you, too, if they knew."
"Something like that."
"The Americans still hold that stick over you?"
"There's no statute of limitations on murder. I have family in Bosnia. Retaliation in that part of the world includes everyone close to you. I left there to get away from things. But when the Americans learned I was working for Zovastina, they gave me a choice. They'd sell me out either to the Bosnians or to her. I decided it was easier to join them."
"A dangerous game you're playing."
He shrugged. "Zovastina didn't know a thing about me. That's one of her weaknesses. She believes everyone around her is either too scared or too awed to challenge her." He needed to know. "The woman tonight, in the basilica, Cassiopeia Vitt, who left with Zovastina-"
"She's part of this."
Viktor now realized the gravity of the mistake he'd made. He truly could be compromised. So he needed to say, "She and I dealt with each other in Denmark. I tried to kill her, and the other two from the basilica. I had no idea. But once she tells Zovastina about what happened, I'll be dead."
"Cassiopeia won't do that. She was told about you before she came to the basilica tonight. She's counting on your help in Samarkand."
Now he understood her strange whispers in the transept gallery, and why no one who'd been in Denmark had said anything about that in front of Zovastina.
The boat eased to the dock. Michener hopped out. "Help her. I'm told she's resourceful."
And she killed with no emotion.
"May God be with you, Viktor. You seem like you're going to need him."
A smile came to the priest's face. "That's what I used to think." Michener shook his head. "But I was wrong."
Viktor was like Zovastina. A pagan. Though not for religious or moral reasons. Just simply because he could not care less about what happened after he died.
"One more thing," Michener said. "In the basilica, Cassiopeia mentioned a man named Ely Lund. The Americans want to know if he's alive."
The name again. First from the woman, now from Washington.
"He was. But I'm not sure anymore."
MALONE SHOOK HIS HEAD. "YOU'VE GOT SOMEBODY ON THE INSIDE? Then what do you need us for?"
"We can't compromise him," Davis said.
"Did you know this?" he asked Stephanie.
She shook her head. "Not until a short while ago."
"Michener became the perfect conduit," Davis said. "We weren't sure how things were going to drop here, but with Zovastina ordering Viktor to take him, it worked out perfectly. We need Viktor to help Cassiopeia."
"Who is Viktor?"
"Not one of ours, born and bred," Davis said. "The CIA adopted him years ago. A random asset."
"Friendly or unfriendly adoption?" He knew a lot of assets were forced into service.
Davis hesitated. "Unfriendly."
"That's a problem."
"Last year, we renewed contact. He's been quite helpful."
"He's so deep, there's no way he can be trusted. I can't tell you how many times I've been double-crossed by random assets. They're whores."
"Like I said, so far he's proven helpful."
He was not impressed. "You apparently haven't been at this game long."
"Long enough to know that you have to take risks."
"The distance between risk and foolishness isn't much."
"Cotton," Stephanie said, "I'm told that Viktor is the one who pointed us to Vincenti."
"Which is why Naomi is dead. All the more reason not to trust him."
He laid the ball of crumpled paper on top of the copier and grabbed the knife from Stephanie. He mated the elephant medallion to the end of one candle. The coin was misshapen, worn from the centuries, but the diameter was nearly right. Only a few strokes were needed to whittle off the excess wax.
He handed the candle to Stephanie and carefully unwrapped the paper. His palms were moist, which surprised him. He grasped the gold leaf by the edge, lightly gripping it between his index finger and thumb. He plucked the end of the coil free and wrapped the strip onto the candle, which Stephanie held steady.
Slowly, he unwound the crinkly foil.
The otherwise unconnected letters rearranged as the original spiral course was restored. He recalled something he read once about a scytale. That which follows is joined to that which precedes.
The message became clear.
Six Greek letters.
"A good way to send a cipher, then, and now. This one has been delivered twenty-three hundred years after the fact."
The gold conformed to the candle and he realized Ptolemy's warning to be wary, for there is but one chance of success had been good advice. No way to unwrap the foil, since the strip would break into pieces.
"Let's find that computer," he said.
VINCENTI LIKED THAT HE WAS IN CONTROL. "YOU'RE A SMART woman. And you clearly want to live. But how much do you know about life?"
He did not wait for Karyn Walde to answer.
"Science had always taught us that there are basically two kinds-bacteria and everything else. The difference? Bacteria have free-floating DNA, everything else has their DNA packed into a nucleus. Then in the nineteen-seventies, a microbiologist named Carl Woese found a third type of life. He called them archaea. A cross between bacteria and everything else. When first discovered, they seemed to live only in the harshest of environments-the Dead Sea, in the middle of hot springs, miles below the ocean, Antarctica, oxygen-starved swamps-and we thought that was the extent of their existence. But over the last twenty years archaea have been found everywhere."
"These bacteria you found destroy the virus?" she asked.
"With a vengeance. And I'm talking about HIV-1, HIV-2, SIV, and every hybrid strain I could find to test, including the newest from Southeast Asia. The bacteria have a protein lining that obliterate the proteins holding HIV together. They ravage the virus, just like the virus ravages host cells. And fast. The only trick is to keep the body's immune system from destroying the archaea before the bacteria can consume the virus." He pointed toward her. "In people like you, whose immune system is virtually gone, that isn't a problem, there just aren't enough white cells left to kill the invading bacteria. But where HIV has only recently taken a stand, where the immune system is still relatively strong, the white cells kill the bacteria before it gets to the virus."
"You found a way to prevent that?"
He nodded. "The bacteria actually survive digestion. That's how the old healer managed to get them into people, only he thought it was the plant. I not only chewed the plant, I drank the water, so if any of that virus was in me that day, they took care of it. I've since found it's better to administer a dose through injection. You can control the percentage. In early HIV infections, when the immune system is still strong, more bacteria are needed. In later stages, like you, when the white cell count is near zero, not as many are needed."
"That's why you wanted a varied infection rate in that clinical trial? You needed to know how strong a dose."
"So whoever wrote that report you read to me, and thought it strange you weren't concerned with toxicity, was wrong."
"I was obsessed with toxicity. I needed to know how much of the archaea would be needed to kill off various stages of an HIV infection. The great thing is that the bacteria, by themselves, are harmless. You could ingest billions and nothing would happen."
"So you used those Iraqis like research animals."
He shrugged. "Had to in order to know if the archaea worked. They didn't know. I eventually adapted a shell to preserve the bacteria's effectiveness, which gives them more time to devour the virus. The amazing thing is that the shell eventually sheds and the immune system absorbs the archaea, like any other circulatory invader. Cleans it right out. The virus is gone, and so are the archaea. You just don't want too many of the bacteria-overworks the immune system. But, overall, it's a simple, totally effective cure to one of the deadliest viruses in the world. And not one side effect that I've discovered."
He knew she'd experienced, firsthand, the havoc of the symptomatic HIV drugs. Rashes, ulcers, fever, fatigue, nausea, low blood pressure, headaches, vomiting, nerve damage, insomnia-all were common.
He again held up the syringe. "This will cure you."
"Give it to me." Desperation laced her plea.
"You know Zovastina could have done this." He saw the lie had the desired effect. "She knows."
"I knew she did. Her and those germs. She's been obsessed with them for years."
"She and I worked together. Yet she never offered a thing to you."
She shook her head. "Never. She'd just come and watch me die."
"She had total control. There was nothing you could do. I understand your breakup, years ago, was difficult. She felt cheated. When you returned, asking for help, you realize you gave her an opportunity to exact a measure of revenge. She would have let you die. Would you like to return the favor?"
He watched as the moment of truth weighed on her mind but, just as he'd suspected, her conscience had long since dissolved.
"I just want to breathe. If that's the price, I'll pay it."
"You're going to be the first person cured of AIDS-"
"Who gets to tell the tale."
He nodded. "That's right. We're going to make history."
She didn't seem impressed. "If your cure is so simple, why couldn't somebody just steal or copy it?"
"Only I know where this particular archaea can be found naturally. Believe me, there are many kinds, but only this one works."
Her oily eyes narrowed. "We know why I want to do this. What about you?"
"Lots of questions from a dying woman."
"You seem like a man who wants to provide answers."
"Zovastina is an impediment to my plans."
"Cure me, and I'll help you eliminate that problem."
He doubted her unconditional assurance, but keeping this woman alive made sense. Her anger could be channeled. He'd first thought assassinating Zovastina the answer, which was why he'd allowed the Florentine a free reign. But he'd changed his mind and ratted out his coconspirator. An assassination would only make her a martyr. Disgracing her-that was the better way. She had enemies. But they were all afraid. Maybe he could provide them with courage through the bitter soul staring up at him.
Neither the League nor he were interested in world conquest. Wars were expensive in a great many ways, the most critical of which was the depletion of wealth and national resources. The League wanted its new utopia just as it is, not as Zovastina envisioned it should be. For himself, he wanted billions in profits and to savor his status as the man who conquered HIV. Louis Pasteur, Linus Pauling, Jonas Salk, and, now, Enrico Vincenti.
So he emptied the contents of the hypodermic into the IV port.
"How long does it take?" she asked, her voice expectant, her tired face alive.
"In a few hours you'll feel much better."
MALONE SAT BEFORE THE COMPUTER AND FOUND GOOGLE. THERE, he located websites that dealt with Old Greek and eventually opened one that offered translations. He typed in the six letters- -and was surprised at both the pronunciation and the meaning.
"Klimax in Greek. Ladder in English," he said.
He found another site that also offered a conversion. He typed in the same letters from the alphabet supplied and received the same response.
Stephanie still held the candle wrapped with gold leaf.
"Ptolemy," Thorvaldsen said, "went to a lot of trouble to leave this. That word must have great relevance."
"And what happens when we figure it out?" Malone asked. "What's the big deal?"
"The big deal," a new voice said, "is that Zovastina is planning to kill millions of people."
They all turned and saw Michener standing in the doorway.
"I just left Viktor out in the lagoon. He was shocked that I knew about him."
"I imagine he was," Thorvaldsen said.
"Is Zovastina gone?" Malone asked.
Michener nodded. "I checked. Left the ground a little while ago."
Malone wanted to know, "How does Cassiopeia know about Viktor?" Then it hit him. He faced Thorvaldsen. "The call. Out at the dock when we first got here. You told her then."
The Dane nodded. "Information she needed. We're lucky she didn't kill him on Torcello. But, of course, I didn't know any of this then."
"More of that 'plan as you go,'" Malone said, directing his comment to Davis.
"I'll take the blame for that one. But it worked out."
"And three men are dead."
Davis said nothing.
He wanted to know, "And if Zovastina had not insisted on a hostage for safe passage to the airport?"
"Luckily, that didn't happen."
"You're too damn reckless for me." He was becoming irritated. "If you have Viktor on the inside, why don't you know if Ely Lund's alive?"
"That fact wasn't important, until yesterday, when you three became involved. Zovastina had a teacher, we just didn't know who. It makes sense it's Lund. Once we learned that, we needed Viktor contacted."
"Viktor said Ely Lund was alive. But probably not now," Michener told them.
"Cassiopeia has no idea what she's facing," Malone said. "She's in there blind."
"She set all that up herself," Stephanie said, "perhaps hoping that Ely might still be alive."
He didn't want to hear that. For a variety of reasons. None of which he needed to face at the moment.
"Cotton," Thorvaldsen said, "you asked why all this matters. Beyond the obvious disaster of a biological war, what if this draught is some sort of natural cure? The ancients thought it so. Alexander thought it so. The chroniclers who wrote those manuscripts thought it so. What if something is there? I don't know why, but Zovastina wants it. Ely wanted it. And Cassiopeia wants it."
He remained skeptical. "We don't know a damn thing."
Stephanie motioned with the candle. "We know this riddle is real."
She was right about that and, he had to admit, he was curious. That godforsaken curiosity which always seemed to keep him in trouble.
"And we know Naomi is dead," she said.
He'd not forgotten.
He stared again at the scytale. Ladder. A location? If so, it was a designation that would have made more sense in Ptolemy's time. He knew Alexander the Great had insisted that his empire be accurately mapped. Cartography was then an infant art, but he'd seen reproductions of those ancient charts. So he decided to see what was on the web. Twenty minutes of searching found nothing that indicated what -klimax, ladder-might be.
"There might be another source," Thorvaldsen said. "Ely had a place in the Pamirs. A cabin. He'd go there to work and think. Cassiopeia told me about it. He kept his books and papers there. Quite an array on Alexander. She said there were lots of maps from his time."
"That's in the Federation," Malone pointed out. "I doubt Zovastina is going to grant us a visa."
"How near is the border?" Davis asked.
"We can enter through China. They're cooperating with us on this."
"And what is this?" Malone asked. "Why are we even involved? Don't you have a CIA and a multitude of other intelligence agencies?"
"Actually, Mr. Malone, you involved yourself, as did Thorvaldsen and Stephanie. Zovastina, publicly, is the only ally we possess in that region, so politically we can't be seen challenging her. Using official assets comes with the risk of exposure. Since we had Viktor on the inside, keeping us informed, we knew most of her moves. But this is escalating. I understand the dilemma with Cassiopeia-"
"Actually, you don't. But that's why I'm staying in. I'm going after her."
"I'd prefer you go to the cabin and see what's there."
"That's the great thing about being retired. I can do what I please." He turned to Thorvaldsen. "You and Stephanie go to the cabin."
"I agree," his friend said. "See about her."
Malone stared at Thorvaldsen. The Dane had aided Cassiopeia and cooperated with the president, involving them all. But his friend didn't like the idea of Cassiopeia being there alone.
"You have a plan," Thorvaldsen said. "Don't you?"
"I think I do."
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