Authors: Chris Pauls
To our wives Heather and Katy for encouraging us to go write.
And to Sarah Malarkey for trusting us to do this.
Collectively, Chris and Matt wish to thank
Victoria Skurnick, Daniel Greenberg, and Lindsay Edgecombe at the Levine Greenberg Literary Agency, Chronicle Books, Jeff Campbell, Emily Dubin, the good folks at Encyclopedia Titanica, Drew Niles for handing us the vector, The Onion, Amanda Veith, John and Jimmy Roach, Joe Garden, Jeff Perry, John Urban, Ron Dentinger, and Barriques (Fitchburg and Middleton).
Chris would like to thank
Heather Sabin, Dale, Susan, Todd, Heather, Carter, Jackson, Kenny & Dorothy Pauls, Camilla, Don, Dennis, Linda, Andy, Megan, Doug & Kathy Smith, Joe, Jan & Kira Sabin, Matt, Shandra, Ed & Diane Fink, Alex & Kyonghui Wilson, Jerard Adler, Blake Engeldorf, Tom & Meghan Hendricks, Chris & Kathy Briquelet, Ryan & Katy Pettersen, Mark & Keri Braithwaite, Rich & Keri Modjeski, Dan & Amy Turner, Marc Schwarting, Rob & Max Wheat, Angela Keelan Martinez & Jesus, Jon McCorkle, Brooke Dobbs, Adam Goodberg, Chris & Becky Henkel, Debra Spector, Mark Murray, Mark and Karen Kampa, Shawn Quinn, John Hageman, Scott Sherman, Janet Ginsburg, Anita Serwacki, Dan Guterman, Joe Nosek, Doug Moe, Jim Johnson, Neil Spath, Scott Neu, Tom Oberwetter, Rich Hamby, Kirk Bosben, Bill Jackson, The Three Kings, The Cash Box Kings, Knuckeldrager, Karma to Burn for “Twenty,” and as always, everybody at The Village Bar.
Matt wishes to thank
Jake, Ben, and Sammi for giving me a reason to get up in the morning, Jerry and Connie for teaching me to work hard and love books, and Joe and Greeg for staying out of my room. Extra-monster thanks to those of you who pushed me forward: Judy Santacaterina and Matt Swan, the Prom Committee and Madison CSz, Jay, Yi and Tha, Ken and Jill, Julie, Ted, and Jack, Colleen, Maddie, and Emma, Michele Laux, the Nygores, the Kollmans, Patricia Ohanian Lundstrom, Halsted Mencotti Bernard, the freaks in San Diego, and the Mothership Connection.
“Where men are the most sure and arrogant, they are commonly the most mistaken, and have there given reins to passion, without that proper deliberation and suspense, which can alone secure them from the grossest absurdities.”
AN ENQUIRY CONCERNING THE PRINCIPLES OF MORALS
DEBRIS FIELD, ATLANTIC OCEAN
18, 2012. 12:12
A man in a stylish red jacket pointed to the right side of the convex window in the MIR deep-sea submersible as it hovered over the ocean floor, two and a half miles below the surface.
“Those boots,” the Man in Red said, pointing to a half-buried pair at the edge of the sub’s halogen lights. “Right there. I need those. Grab them for me.”
“We need to be on our way,” said the sub pilot. “My next group is waiting topside.”
For two hours and twelve minutes, the submersible had passed alongside the forlorn, broken corpse of the
and over its massive debris field, and that was exactly twelve minutes longer than had been paid for.
“This will be the last thing. Besides,” the Man in Red protested, “this is important historical work.”
A third man wearing a blue fleece shifted uncomfortably, coughed, and addressed the Man in Red. “I’ll say it again: when I agreed to share this sub with you, I didn’t expect to join a salvage mission. There’s no scientific value in plundering
for china and old bottles of champagne. This is show business, what you’re doing.”
“Just the boots, please,” insisted the Man in Red to the sub pilot.
The pilot sighed and guided the sub to the right, extending the submersible’s arm as he went.
should be studied, not disturbed,” grumbled the Man in Blue.
“No,” the Man in Red argued. “History should be shared with the living.”
The sub glided to a halt in front of the boots, and the pilot manipulated the crane arm. The deft metal fingers closed on a heel and pulled it from the silt: it was a woman’s boot, tall, made to lace up over the calf, though the laces were long gone.
The Man in Blue felt his stomach turn. Even though he knew better, he half-expected to see the remains of a leg inside. But as the shoe was raised, only sand emptied out in a billowing cloud. “Those boots you’re taking,” the Man in Blue said. “They belonged to a real woman, you know. A real flesh-and-blood human being who died tragically. How is this any different than digging up a grave?”
“Whoever died in those boots is long gone.” The Man in Red’s voice was even, indifferent. “The boots are artifacts now. People can learn from them.”
“Couldn’t you photograph or videotape these
in their natural environment?”
“I could, but what’s more powerful than holding the past in your hand?” The Man in Red smirked: in fact, the boots were worth their weight in gold, perhaps more than all the cutlery and dinnerware he’d gathered so far. The boots conjured the lady who once wore them, and that’s what drew exhibit audiences.
“This is stealing, plain and simple. You’re a profiteer. You and your whole traveling road show. I’m here to expand scientific knowledge by studying new forms of life.”
“You mean those rusticles, or whatever you call them? That’s life, I suppose.” The Man in Red waved his hand. “And you’ll no doubt profit from your discoveries, too, as much as you can. But is there nothing to learn from history? This recovery of artifacts is called ‘historical preservation.’ The federal courts agree, in case you’d care to take it up with them.”
For the second time, the crane arm disappeared from sight beneath the window, inserting the mate of the first boot into a holding compartment in the belly of the submersible.
“Done,” the sub pilot grunted. “Now we surface.”
“Wait!” exclaimed the Man in Red.
“We’re finished!” the sub pilot growled back. “You’ve got your boots.”
“No,” the Man in Red commanded. He pointed to a metallic tube just beyond where the boots had lain. The cylinder, half-buried and sticking up at an angle, glinted in the halogen lamp’s bright light. It was odd, unusual; to his practiced eyes, the Man in Red could tell this wasn’t some casual everyday item. The tube held, or once held, something important—and good mysteries sold even more tickets. “We’re not leaving without that. I’ll pay another ten thousand.”
The pilot hesitated. His daughter, a senior in high school, was starting college that fall. “Fifteen.”
“Done. I’ll wire the money after we surface.”
“This is wrong!” exclaimed the Man in Blue, as the brooding presence of the ghostly ship loomed. “You don’t even know what that is!”
Neither the sub pilot nor the Man in Red responded. The crane arm extended and pinched the tube successfully between its stiff, gray fingers, then retracted slowly, drawing the tube from its century-old resting place. Only once his prize was aboard did the Man in Red turn to speak.
“Solving mysteries like this tube is how we learn from the past. It could be anything. The deed to an old English estate. A treasure map. Perhaps only a giant cigar. It doesn’t really matter. Each item is a window into another time. It’s how we keep the dead alive.”
CABIN. HARZ MOUNTAINS, GERMANY
7, 1912. 4:35
Theodor Weiss rose from a finely crafted oak rocking chair to retrieve the remaining hunk of spruce from the room’s wood box and place it in the cast-iron Franklin heating stove. Shafts of light from the setting sun beamed through the chalet’s window as particles of dust swirled through the golden air in his wake. A fresh supply of logs was stacked outside, but he wouldn’t need them. He opened the stove door. A comforting wave of heat blew forth. After the events of the past year, he would always be grateful for warmth.
During the previous winter of 1910-11, a plague epidemic in Manchuria had overwhelmed Chinese authorities, forcing them to send out a worldwide plea for help. Eleven nations dispatched their top bacteriologists; Germany had sent Weiss. Upon arrival in Mukden, a city devastated by the epidemic, he suffered the bitter, minus-thirty-degree-Fahrenheit cold, and he witnessed the death. Both were inescapable.
Weiss and the other international experts did what they could for the sick, but none of the infected survived. Efforts turned to understanding the plague’s nature, and Weiss was hailed by the Chinese government for determining the plague to be pneumonic, rather than the typical bubonic variety that was spread by rat fleas. It was a form of pestilence not seen since antiquity.
The epidemic was largely over by spring thanks to strict quarantine measures, but the outbreak had killed nearly fifty thousand people. Afterward, Weiss remained in Manchuria to research the plague’s origin, and in late January of 1912, he received a cable from Kaiser Wilhelm II himself:
Chinese government has requested your assistance investigating potential outbreak of new plague. I have agreed. Two officials from our Interior Department already in Manchuria to study anti-plague measures. They will join you.
The Chinese were very concerned about a report from a fur trader in Manzhouli, who had encountered a primitive tribe of reindeer herders called the Evenki. Until then they had only been known to be peaceful. Two of the nomads had attacked the trader, or so he claimed, and tried to tear into his flesh with their teeth. As far-fetched as it sounded, he said only the tough hide of his jacket and a fast horse saved him. The herders appeared very ill, with darkened blood running from their mouths, noses, and most disturbing of all, eyes. The fur trader felt lucky to escape with his life.
Having seen firsthand what Manchuria endured only months earlier, Theodor Weiss would have felt obligated to do what he could even without an order from the Kaiser.
Six men set out into the western Manchurian wilderness in search of the Evenki. Weiss, two Chinese medical officials, and a guide sat substantially lower in their saddles than the strapping Germans from the Interior Department. The junior and senior German officials, both straight-backed, no-nonsense types, took turns riding ahead of the pack with the guide.
Eventually, they found a small Evenki encampment with only a dozen dwellings circled in a forest clearing. A herd of reindeer paced
nervously in a makeshift pen. A village elder appeared and warned them away. Speaking with the elder in his native tongue, the guide explained that the strangers were there to help. He indicated that Weiss was a powerful healer. The weathered elder consented and led the party into the village.
One hut stuck out among the others, surrounded by tall pikes adorned with carvings of birds. Muted drumming wafted with smoke from the hut’s conical top. The guide said the hut was home to the tribe’s female shaman.
As in Mukden, Weiss changed into a one-piece gown, with goggles, gloves, and a special mask that allowed him to safely examine plague victims. It was his own design. The elder held back the hut’s tanned flap for Weiss to enter. The others waited outside.
Inside the hut’s dim firelight, the shaman huddled on the ground over a drum, pounding a hypnotic rhythm. A central fire crackled with iridescent colors and filled the air with aromatic smoke. The shaman stopped playing and rose. She was dressed in a fur cloak, a menacing white mask, and gloves. The mask’s dark, recessed eyes hovered above a gaping red mouth, and lengthy feathers stuck out from the top. The shaman gestured Weiss closer. The impossibly long fingers of her white gloves seemed to grow like talons in the flicker of the fire.
Stepping aside, she revealed two men kneeling with their arms and ankles bound. They appeared young, in their early twenties, perhaps brothers, with strong bodies forged from their hard lives in the frigid wilderness. It was their faces that made Weiss’s breathing apparatus pulse faster. A reddish, bleak fluid streamed from their mouths, noses, and eyes, just as the fur trader described. The men moaned continually, eyes focused in a catatonic state on the snapping fire.
Weiss recognized the dark sores and flushed skin he’d witnessed in Mukden, but this appeared to be a variation of the pneumonic and bubonic plagues. The men had progressed to such an extreme state
it was a wonder they were still alive. From a pocket, Weiss removed a glass tube containing a sterile swab and uncorked it. He needed to collect a sample of that discharge.
Cautiously, Weiss edged closer, extending the swab. It broke the first man’s focus. His eyes locked on Weiss, and the infected man lunged. His mouth opened wider than should have been possible, and he bit down on Weiss’s shoulder before the German could react. Thankfully, the suit’s tough material prevented the bite from breaking through.
Weiss desperately tried to push off the crazed villager, but his two front teeth were hooked over the top of Weiss’s collarbone. The shaman jumped up to help Weiss and pulled him free with surprising strength. As she did, the second infected villager dove and sank his teeth into the base of her neck. It was the only exposed spot on the shaman’s body, where her cloak ended and her mask began. Weiss kicked the attacker hard in the head, breaking his grip on the shaman. The two infected men writhed on their bellies, unable to rise because of the bindings, moaning and snapping wildly at the air.
The shaman slumped over. Her cloak hung to the side; a ragged wound marked her mauled neck. Weiss approached to inspect the injury, but the shaman waved him off. She reached for a leather pouch and pointed for Weiss to leave. As he crawled through the hut’s opening, he watched her apply a thick salve to the wound.
Through the guide, Weiss explained to the Chinese authorities what had just happened: The two men inside the hut appeared to be infected with some variation of the plague, a strain completely unfamiliar to him. The sickness made them violent. Certainly, the fur trader’s tale was confirmed. Weiss asked the village elder if he knew of any other Evenki so diseased. He said no.
The elder German official nodded thoughtfully. “Perhaps we have contained this disease just in time. Still, if it ever reached a populated
area there would be mass chaos and destruction. We should study the infection, to learn everything possible in case of another outbreak.”
“That would be too dangerous. We cannot allow such a thing,” the Chinese official responded.
Weiss added, “I agree. And frankly, Manchuria’s facilities aren’t up to the task.”
“We will protect the Fatherland and the world from this plague,” said the German official. “We cannot walk away. I have the authority to commit German resources for such study. I will arrange transportation by rail so Professor Weiss can safely examine a subject in Germany’s best laboratories.”
Weiss considered the situation. The two men were beyond saving, but perhaps not the shaman if they could act quickly enough. The infected man’s black mucus had stained her wound, and she would soon fall ill. However, the shaman was now the ideal test subject to study the course of this plague, even if she didn’t live. What sort of mutation was this, and why had the men survived past the point when all other Manchurian plague victims were killed? Studying its effects in a living person could be the key to an effective treatment, if not a cure, perhaps one that could work for all strains.
The shaman emerged from the hut. Weiss addressed the guide: “Please tell her the bite may make her sick soon. If she comes with us, I can try to help her.”
She nodded as the German’s plan was conferred, then turned toward the group.
“She sees you as a powerful shaman,” the guide said to Weiss. “The evil spirits were powerless against your costume. She will do as you say.”
Weiss admired the shaman’s bravery, though he wasn’t certain she understood the gravity of her situation. He addressed the Chinese officials. “The men inside are beyond help. I recommend the two
victims be dispatched. Burn their bodies, this tent, and everything in it. When that is done, the Evenki must move their camp. That should take care of the immediate threat here. The shaman will come with us by rail to Germany. I’ll do all I can to help her.”
The Chinese officials huddled, then gravely nodded their acceptance.
A plume of coniferous smoke escaped from the briefly open stove door and mingled with the aroma of coffee percolating on the stovetop. Anticipating a long night, Weiss poured himself another cup from the pot. His hands were perfectly steady, as they always were, no matter how much coffee he drank. Then he headed out the door into the cabin’s one and only other room.
The long, narrow space was dark, and he quickly shut the door to keep it that way. A small amount of light snuck beneath the room’s thick curtains, but until his eyes adjusted, the room seemed pitch black. He paused and blew across his coffee, standing next to a steel desk covered with papers. Past that were several laboratory-grade stainless-steel tables covered with beakers, test tubes, and burners, which stood next to three large gas tanks. A stench of rot and formaldehyde stung the inside of his nostrils. Like the wood box near the stove, the formaldehyde tanks were nearly empty and would not need replenishing. He took a cautious sip of hot coffee, then set the cup down gingerly on the ghostly outline of the desk and walked deeper into the room.
Weiss didn’t need light to find his way. He’d long ago counted the steps: twenty-three past his equipment, turn right for two steps, left for five steps, and then stop in front of the custom-made, six-foot-tall, thick-walled glass enclosure that anchored the end of the room. As he
walked, he reached into his pocket and fingered his lighter, flicking open the top so it would be ready to go.
He walked slowly and silently; it was not yet time for haste. When he arrived in front of the glass cage, he paused to listen. No sound but the ticking of gauges.
With his left hand, he brought forth his lighter, and with his right hand, he lifted his sweater as if to guard the flame from a breeze. With calm deliberation, his thumb spun the abraded wheel across the flint and a single spark leapt onto the carefully trimmed wick. A thin, blue flame jumped forth.
He quickly began his work. On top of the enclosure, a galaxy of tubing emanated and flowed down the outside, its meandering course ending in a single 16mm by 150mm vial. A drop of jet-black fluid fell into the tube. It was nearly full, but he was determined to get every drop possible. The sound of movement from inside the glass, like cloth on cement, caused Weiss to smother the flame by snapping shut the lighter top with a practiced flip of his thumb. He thought he saw the figure inside turn toward him, but it made no more sound.
As Weiss silently retraced his steps, gathering his coffee and returning to his living room and the warmth of the stove, he thought:
The vial is ready. Now I wait only for darkness. It’s time.