Authors: Nathan M Farrugia
Sophia: former black operative, current enemy of the state.
Moments before a catastrophic hurricane hits New York City, a terrorist attack vaporizes a museum and a large chunk of the Upper West Side. Almost caught in the explosion, Sophia gives chase to a suspicious figure running from the blast zone.
Amid the chaos, Sophia recovers a rare meteorite from a black operative and is quickly ensnared in a hunt between clashing factions of a labyrinthine covert government known as the Fifth Column.
The meteorite contains traces of the ancient Phoenix virus. The effects of the virus are unknown to Sophia, but she soon discovers it is more powerful than she dared imagine – and that the Fifth Column will stop at nothing to get it.
Unarmed and outnumbered, Sophia and her allies hurtle towards a confrontation that will determine not only their fate but that of all humanity.
Comets are an ideal vehicle for sustaining and transporting a variety of microbes, including viruses, from planet to planet and even from solar system to solar system. In consequence, when these organisms are deposited on a world already thriving with life, genes may be exchanged, the evolution of new species may ensue, or conversely contagion may be unleashed, and disease, death, and plague may spread throughout the land.
Comets and Contagion: Evolution and Diseases From Space,
by Rhawn Joseph, neuropsychologist
and Chandra Wickramasinghe, astrobiologist
The moment Denton sat down, he identified the most dangerous man in the room.
‘We’ve reviewed your request for the transfer of Victor,’ the Colonel said.
Denton had noticed poor Victor, the German mineralogist, on his way in. He was a prisoner at the camp, but they seemed to treat him well in exchange for his specialized work.
‘That’s why I’m here,’ Denton said. ‘Victor will be very useful for our team.’
When Denton arrived at the Norwegian boarding school turned Nazi prison camp, he’d been asked to hand over his Polish Viz pistol for the duration of his visit. It put him on edge, and he enjoyed it.
Denton smoothed the lapels of his SS coat. He had to give it to the Nazis, they sure knew how to make a uniform. Turning slightly in the metal chair, he checked the edge of his vision and observed the posture of the guards standing by the door. His threat assessment was complete.
‘I’ve noticed an irregularity in your records, which complicates things,’ the Colonel said, taking a seat at his desk in front of an ornate marble fireplace. The Colonel’s head was shaped like a watermelon. He had a receding hairline and a smirk that irritated Denton.
‘Irregularity?’ Denton asked.
‘You’re an American spy.’
Denton kept his breathing slow. ‘I can see how that might complicate things.’
Standing by the Colonel’s shoulder: Greyleg, the chief prison guard. His eyes gleamed at Denton. Watching.
The true influencer in any group was not always the person with the highest rank.
The Colonel cleared his throat and leaned forward. His stomach pressed his uniform taut.
‘Here is what will happen, Lieutenant Denton, Office of Strategic Services,’ the Colonel said, pushing his chest forward in small increments. ‘I’m short on test subjects for our experiments. You’re going to fill that. A strictly short term arrangement.’
There was that smirk again. Denton ignored it.
Greyleg was circling. He knew why.
‘If it’s all the same with you, I prefer the spy thing,’ Denton said, grasping his armrest. ‘Plus, your uniforms are fantastic. It’s a shame this Hugo Boss fellow doesn’t make suits.’
The Colonel touched the oak leaf on his collar. ‘One of many shames.’
While Denton might’ve looked like his focus was on the Colonel, his attention was riveted to Greyleg.
One look at the man and Denton recognized someone unburdened by humanity’s weaker emotions. He was free to operate at his full potential. And that involved shooting Denton, shooting the guards, and shooting the Colonel. Greyleg would blame it on Denton and receive his promotion.
Denton knew this because that’s what he would do.
Greyleg approached Denton’s nine o’clock, where the guards couldn’t see him draw. The Colonel was busy showing Denton how deep his voice could go, and hadn’t noticed Greyleg’s movements.
Denton stood. Greyleg went for his Luger P08 pistol. Chair in hand, Denton slung it into Greyleg’s midsection. The chair’s leg knocked air from his lungs and dropped him to his knees.
Denton closed on the Colonel.
The smirk was gone, but there was a glint of oxide steel. A Luger, identical to Greyleg’s. The Colonel drew his Luger. He should have drawn the pistol close to his chest, punching out and firing. But like many soldiers Denton had killed this year, the Colonel tried to swing the pistol from his hip. The barrel struck the edge of the desk, slowing his draw.
Denton reached the desk and slid under it. The Colonel brought the pistol across his body, hunting for a target. Denton emerged beside the Colonel, deflected the arm as the trigger squeezed.
The round discharged, clipped Greyleg in the arm. Much to Denton’s amusement.
Greyleg’s firing hand fell limp, his pistol skittering towards the slowly reacting guards. Denton twisted the Luger from the Colonel’s bulging fingers and used the Colonel’s body as a shield against the guards.
The guards advanced, trying to move wide enough for a shot around the Colonel. Denton applied trigger pressure to the base of the Colonel’s skull and they hesitated. The round would not only punch through the Colonel’s brain but, if he was lucky, strike one of the guards.
From the edge of his vision, he saw Greyleg recover.
Denton took aim over the Colonel’s shoulder and killed one guard. The second guard aimed, unsteady finger moving over the trigger. Denton dropped to the floor. Shots punched above him, through the marble fireplace. Denton lay under the desk, watching from an upside-down perspective as the guard’s legs moved closer. He fired a round through each leg, waited for the guard to drop, then continued firing as he collapsed. Through his chest, through his neck, through his nose.
At the same time, the Colonel slumped beside Denton, catching the poorly aimed rounds from the guard.
Greyleg’s boot crushed Denton’s pistol-wielding hand, pinning it to the floor. Denton was about to move in closer but he saw the knife early, just as Greyleg kicked the pistol across the floor. Denton pulled back, flipped the desk onto him. It glanced off Greyleg’s head, but didn’t slow the man down.
Denton appreciated the challenge. Engaging with Greyleg made the adrenalin burn sweeter. He brought his hands up, ready. Let’s see how Greyleg does without a firearm, he thought.
Greyleg leaped over the table in one stride, but then tripped on the Colonel’s body. Denton sidestepped as the man stumbled into the fractured marble shelf. A sharp edge tore Greyleg’s neck as he fell. He shuddered, hands clutched over scarlet.
Greyleg collapsed on top of the Colonel and bled out.
Denton lowered his hands.
‘That was disappointing.’
Denton’s foot plunged into the snow. It struck something slippery and he fell on his back.
For a while he tried to decide whether he’d bother getting back up. This was more interesting than what he was supposed to be doing.
The sky was as white as, well, everything. The ground was white, the pine and fir trees were white, the Bavarian rooftops of the town below were white. Even the turrets of the ancient keep before him.
He pulled himself to his feet, brushed snow from his woolen greatcoat and started back to the castle.
New York mightn’t be much warmer, but at least it had sidewalks and toasted three-deckers with roast beef and ham. The Americans might be fighting too, but they still had a homefront. The idea of being at the heart of the war excited him, but this backwater village was much less exciting. The biggest thrill so far had been his encounter with the Colonel and Greyleg in Norway.
The castle did offer a pleasant view, he admitted. Rocky cliffs and winding valleys parted below. They revealed a village of half-timbered cottages and roads dusted in snow.
The gate sentry was dressed like him in a greatcoat and all-black uniform. Denton gave him a nod and he parted the gate with matching enthusiasm.
The snow over the garrison lawn looked like frosting on cake. He stomped through the white to an inner courtyard laced with hemlock. Once he reached the Hall of the Knights, he hung his greatcoat on an iron rack and stamped leftover snow from his boots.
His father, Alastair Denton, glared from over the grand dining table, now used as a workbench for the Ahnenerbe institute. Alastair was a virologist, although he often referred to himself as more of a paleontologist. He spent all his time searching for fossils. Of course these particular fossils were in rocks from outer space or something.
Alastair was there because he’d found strong links between the Tunguska impactor in 1908 and the Spanish flu in 1918. He had proven to the Führer’s men that the influenza virus originated from the sky. A comet called Encke sprinkled the virus into the atmosphere, where it had infected birds, which had in turn infected humans. The Nazis were searching the world afar for evidence of Aryan purity. In doing so, they uncovered a few things of interest to Denton’s father. For one, not all viruses clogged you with mucus.
‘I hear the institute in Ulm discovered the fountain of youth serum,’ Denton said. ‘Now that’s something useful. Why don’t we do something like that?’
‘Because,’ Alastair said, ‘there are several versions of the serum, not all of them were improvements.’
‘All you need is one.’
Alastair ignored him.
‘Give it one tooth more,’ he said in German.
He was instructing Victor, the German mineralogist Denton had plucked from Norway.
Denton walked the length of the table. Alastair had acknowledged his presence and wouldn’t do so again. He was busy with Victor and Victor was busy mixing fragments of the rock with liquids. Victor seemed surprised when nothing happened. Denton wasn’t.
For a moment, Denton thought he might go back out and lie in the snow. Instead he strode past them, boots echoing off the stone floor.
‘If you’re thinking of visiting the wine cellar, you needn’t bother,’ Alastair said, still in German. ‘I’ve had the wine moved.’
Denton turned just enough to talk over his shoulder to his father. ‘I wouldn’t think of it,’ he said. ‘Although wine is of course how knights maintained their daily fluids.’
‘Fortunate then that you’re an OSS officer,’ Alastair said in English.
Not that English mattered. Everyone here knew who they were.
‘My apologies,’ Denton said. ‘Your list of housekeeping duties had me thinking otherwise.’
‘Just because you graduated from the school of mayhem and murder doesn’t mean you’re above making your own bed.’
‘Assassination and elimination program,’ Denton said. ‘And I sleep in a hammock.’
‘Of course,’ Alastair said. ‘Well, I cannot have you intoxicated when the director visits today.’
Denton raised an eyebrow. ‘I thought that would be advisable.’
Both his father and Victor stared at him.
Denton felt his stomach knot. ‘He’s standing right behind me, isn’t he?’
‘Yes,’ Alastair said.
Stepping to one side, Denton locked gazes with the director. ‘Standartenführer,’ he said. ‘Your mustache is especially waxed today. Is this a special occasion?’
Sievers, the Director of the Ahnenerbe, stared down his nose at Denton, which was difficult since Denton was the same height. Colonel Wolfram Sievers was wearing his white uniform today, contrasting against the coal black of his two SS bodyguards. He still maintained a beard, his hair carefully combed with Brylcreem. Sievers had fewer wrinkles today and Denton wondered if he was wearing makeup.
‘You tell me,’ Sievers said, also in English.
Sievers and his bodyguards migrated past him to the long table. Denton decided to remain where he was, on their periphery, so he could leave later without anyone noticing.
‘We’ve found something,’ Alastair said.
Sievers seemed as unimpressed as Denton, but that didn’t deter Alastair.
‘We’ve identified and tested the virus,’ he said. ‘The prisoners are alive and in good health.’
Sievers clasped his hands at the small of his back. ‘Were they sufficiently exposed?’
‘Twice,’ his father said. ‘And this was from the mountains in Tibet, correct?’
Sievers didn’t respond. Denton inched closer, admittedly a bit curious. He watched Sievers leaf through the ancient Chinese textbook, kept as usual at his father’s elbow. The silk pages and matching German translations lived in rigid plastic sleeves. Sievers’s expedition team had discovered the cache of texts two years earlier. They’d since translated the lot into German. The books were two thousand years old. They covered everything from military strategy to mathematics, archery to music, ritual to meteors. The meteor textbook in particular was the reason they were here. Although twice Denton had caught his father reading the translations on military strategy. Perhaps he’d regretted his career choice as an expert on the sniffles.
‘What makes you so sure?’ Sievers said. ‘There are twenty-nine different types of meteorites in this book. Twenty-six of them bring plague and disaster.’
‘And three don’t,’ Denton’s father said.
‘Der Phönix,’ Victor said.
‘Those three were observed at pivotal points in history,’ Alastair said.
‘We are at a pivotal point in history now,’ Sievers said.
‘This rock you found in Tibet, I’m certain it has what I’m looking for,’ Alastair said.
‘Have you observed any promising behavior from the prisoners?’Sievers said.
‘Not yet, Colonel.’
‘Then why are you so sure this is your rock?’ Sievers asked. ‘You said this about the previous five samples I gave you.’
‘This rock,’ Alastair said, gesturing to the pieces of dissected rock and the equipment they were using to analyze it, ‘has a dangerous history.’
‘I need specifics,’ Sievers said. ‘Why is this rock so dangerous?’
‘In the thirteenth century, a Mongol General conquered more countries than anyone else in history,’ Alastair said. ‘He coordinated armies hundreds of miles apart. He took Hungary and Poland in forty-eight hours. He conquered China. And he did all of this after narrowly missing a meteor fragment that fell from the sky. He wrote about this and it’s on record. He considered it an omen.’
‘Centuries ago, a large comet burned through the sky,’ Sievers said. ‘It was seen by many people and later inspired the swastika symbol. But that does not make the comet or meteor itself special.’
‘But it does,’ Alastair said. ‘Another man. An alchemist from China, hired by the Emperor to make him immortal. The alchemist was studying a
when the Mongol General invaded the capital and found him. The alchemist had no combat experience and possessed nothing that might injure a man, let alone kill him. And yet, he alone killed the most dangerous General in the world. With an axe through his back. Well, almost.’
‘A master tactician killed by a wizard?’ Denton raised an eyebrow.
‘An inch deeper and he might’ve died. Some accounts tell of the alchemist using his mind to control the General’s soldiers. One of the soldiers attacked the General with his axe. They were all found dead. The alchemist went missing.’
Denton suppressed the urge to smile. ‘Mind control?’ he said. ‘Sounds like some crazy Nazi experi—never mind.’
‘The alchemist escaped to Tibet, where he continued to study his skystone. The General came for him years later, invading the country to kill him. But he never found the alchemist. Or the skystone.’
‘The alchemist died?’ Sievers said. ‘I don’t understand the point of your ramblings—’
‘The alchemist survived. He joined an insurgent force rebelling against the Mongol-ruled dynasty. He rose through the ranks rapidly and became a commander, fusing with the Red Turbans and allying with the White Lotus. Soon, he became a General. He drew a staggering amount of followers and specialists who helped him reunite China and overthrow the dynasty.’
Sievers gave Denton’s father a slow, measured nod. ‘You believe he was the first Phoenix?’
‘He declared himself the new Emperor of China. The skystone he was studying—’ Alastair turned to the pieces of rock on the table ‘—I think this is it.’
Sievers turned on one heel, his gaze falling on Denton.
‘Agent Denton.’ His tongue lingered on each word. ‘What do you make of this?’
‘Not much, to be honest,’ Denton said.
He kept his hands behind his back. ‘You are not like these people here. What makes you different?’
The question caught him off-guard. ‘It’s hard to pinpoint but I’d say it’s my charisma and appreciation of wine.’
‘And why did you come here?’
‘I was assigned—’
‘That is not my question. Why did you accept this assignment?’ Sievers said. ‘What took your interest?’
‘Right now, this country is the center of the universe.’ Denton ran a tongue across cracked lips. ‘I wanted part of the action.’
Sievers almost smiled.
‘I had quite the mess to clean up in Norway after your visit.’
Denton shrugged. ‘It’s what I know. And I enjoy it.’
‘That is what makes you different.’ He turned to the others. ‘The people at our institutes are here for one reason. They go out of their way to avoid military service. Everyone who works for me is an intellectual criminal.’
Denton watched his father’s face curl with frustration.
Sievers strode toward Denton. The gray edge around Sievers’s eyes had disappeared. They seemed a lighter brown. Perhaps he’d stopped drinking so heavily.
‘You’re different,’ Sievers said. ‘Like I was, once.’
‘Well,’ Denton said, ‘at least let me buy you a drink first.’
‘What do you think of this meteorite?’ Sievers said.
‘I think it’s a waste of time,’ Denton said.
Sievers picked up the largest chunk of the meteorite, inside its container, and tossed it to Denton. He caught it in both hands.
‘Then you decide,’ Sievers said. ‘Do you disrupt the schedule and continue to pry at its secrets? Or do you look for our Phoenix viruses in the next rock, which arrives tomorrow?’
Denton watched a vein quiver under his father’s neck. He smiled, hurled the container across the hall. It smashed into a wall near an archway. The meteorite cracked into smaller chunks, skittering across the stone floor.
Alastair exploded with anger. ‘What about the Phoenix viruses?’
Sievers glared and Denton watched his anger mellow.
‘I don’t believe they are in this rock,’ Sievers said. ‘We have an expedition returning from Iceland. They are bringing meteorite samples from several recent impacts. If one of those rocks carries any of the viruses in this book—’ he gestured to the silk text ‘—you will find it.’
Alastair opened his mouth to speak but decided on nodding instead.
Sievers turned to Denton. ‘Life is just a dream,’ he said. ‘Only the eternal life is the true life.’
With that, he left.
Denton met his father’s glowering stare. ‘Should have left the cellar door open,’ he said.