By Patrick Kapera A tale of World on Fire Part of Operation: Nightfall

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Tuesday, July 20, 2004
0758 hours GMT (3:58am local time)
Atlanta, Georgia

“Eighteen thousand. Not too shabby. I’ll have to congratulate Olivia the next time I’m in Madrid.” Jason Hellman tossed the Headlines section onto the floor of his pristine 1932 Auburn and picked up Business and Finance. “Huh. ‘World Governments to Computerize Health Records’… Little late. Oh, well. You snooze, you lose.”

Hellman tossed the last of the paper onto the floor and twisted around in his seat, toward his cohort, the mercenary called ‘Virus’. He leaned his head on his fist and casually glanced out of the parking structure, toward the world headquarters for the Center for Disease Control and Protection. The incomplete structure buzzed with activity, most of it around the Infectious Disease Laboratory. The Brazilian outbreak really had them hopping.

“I wonder what it’ll be like after. You know, without all the noise, all the voices. Can you imagine?”

Virus turned and leveled an icy stare at Hellman.

“I suppose you can,” Hellman said. “Have you received your gala invitation yet?”

Virus turned back to the CDC building, ignoring the question.

“Well, with that cheery demeanor of yours, I’m sure the ink’s drying on it as we speak.”

Except for the low-volume radio relay from the Clifton Road guard shack, where one of Hellman’s men stood in for the ‘recently departed’ regular man, the interior of the freshly detailed convertible fell silent. In front sat two unmoving men in environmentally sealed JSLIST suits, staring — by all appearances absently — through the windshield. Hellman shifted uncomfortably, his seat’s leather upholstery groaning beneath him.

“You really have to give it to the old boy, though, don’t you?” he continued. “If only for his sense of scale.”

Virus silently looked back to Hellman — or rather, past him, at a pair of interns passing the vehicle on their way across the parking structure. His right hand twitched, almost imperceptibly, ready to launch toward the dart gun holstered along his thigh.

“Relax, Wild Bill. This baby’s outfitted with the best cloaking system money can buy.” Hellman patted the back of the passenger-side seat. “No one’s going to notice us unless they trip over a fender.”

The interns’ car started up and trekked through the parking structure’s cavernous descending ramps. Moments later, it exited onto the facility’s main thoroughfare and disappeared toward Clifton Road.

“The history books might talk about those two as the ones that got away,” Hellman said, checking his watch, “assuming, of course, there’s anyone left to care.”

One of the headquarters’ wide, second-story windows exploded outward and two figures, locked in a mortal grapple, plummeted onto the building’s concrete pavilion. The impact split them apart, sending them tumbling in opposite directions. They quickly recovered, springing back to their feet with strength and agility beyond their meek appearances, and charged toward one another, a frenzy of irrational raking and pummeling.

The figures wore research jackets, long white emblems of their commitment to save people, liberally splattered with each other’s blood. Soon, their attacks slowed and their balance waned, and they collapsed into angry jerking puddles of their former selves, still vainly swiping at each other even as their glands and muscles expanded grotesquely beneath their skin. Like two insane balloon animals, they wrestled in place until they lost all momentum, the weight of their bloated limbs pinning them in place.

“That’s our cue,” Hellman said, donning the last piece of his JSLIST suit, a gas mask and protective hood. The others within the vehicle followed suit.

Below them, screams rose from the CDC building and victims of the viral attack flooded out the front doors. They made it less than 100 ft. before the first symptoms stymied their escape, and by the time Hellman, Virus, and their crew exited the parking structure, the victims were in the final stages of shredding each other, moments before merciful death.

Virus was stunned by this contagion’s gruesome effectiveness. Accelerated beyond its base model and stripped of the Nightfall trigger, it was the most virulent strain he’d ever encountered (and he’d spent his entire life investigating the limits and qualities of natural and chemical poisons). The ‘old boy’ had certainly outdone himself this time — even with his penchant for dramatic flourishes, this time he might actually achieve his ultimate aim.

All the noise, all the voices… might soon be history.

Virus followed the crew into the building’s lobby, where two afflicted guards huddled in opposite corners, each sizing up the other. Both were in the infection’s earliest stage, their minds consumed by senseless aggression. They leapt into motion, charging the gunmen, their own weapons still holstered, forgotten. Neither made it within five feet of the intruders, each felled by a lone bullet to the head and left to bleed out onto the polished floor.

Hellman flipped open his cell phone, speed-dialing as his crew swept out to clear the rest of the ground level. The phone rang three times, then cut to an international relay. On the fourth ring, a man answered, “Speak.” His voice was an uncomfortable crow, like nails across a chalkboard, fed through a sound filter to drop the pitch.

“We’re in,” Hellman said.

“Excellent,” the voice responded, against the sounds of quick movement. “Proceed,” the voice said to someone at the other end of the line.

“How’s Geneva?” Hellman asked.

“Hot. Pretty. Too many clocks. I can’t wait to get back up north.”

Hellman’s crew returned and signaled that the ground level was clear. The henchman headed for the security office, carefully stepping over several contagion and gunshot victims along the way, and sat down at the security camera controls. He kept the cell phone to his ear the entire time.

“Did the old boy saddle you with a talker or a watcher?”

“Talker,” the voice replied, exasperated. “I now know more than anyone should have to endure about ‘bubble-sorts’ and the healing properties of Red Bull. You?”

“Virus is quiet, but he’s a little high-strung, if you ask me.”

At Hellman’s feet, one of the security guards who’d managed to don a chemical defense suit came to, waving his arms around, trying to find purchase. One of Virus’ tiny knockout darts protruded from his shoulder, piercing through the suit’s thin protection. Without consideration, Hellman slammed his boot down onto the man’s chest, pinning him to the floor, and fired two 9mm rounds into his head.

Virus stepped in, alerted by the gunshots. He spotted the fresh corpse and his face twisted into a disgusted scowl.

“What?” Hellman challenged the mercenary.

Virus shook his head and disappeared deeper into the complex.

“You know,” Hellman called after him, “for a guy with, like, 14 ways a kill a man strapped to his belt, you’re pretty uptight about violence.”

Hellman finished disabling the building’s digital recorder and erasing the last hour, leaving the cameras live. He stepped out into the lobby, drew a tiny gadget pistol out of his breast pocket, and fired a specialty bullet into the wall adjacent to the security room entrance.

“I gotta go,” the voice said through the cell phone. “The police are here and I told Blitz not to toast them until I could enjoy the show.”

“Fry one for me,” Hellman said, flipping the cell phone closed. He strode down to the main computer room, where his crew was already set up, downloading and wiping the mainframe. Virus was nowhere to be seen — likely already on his way to the sample labs. “Strik-9 sends his love, everyone! Where are we?”

“I’ve got nothin’,” Sparks said through the helicopter’s radio. “Oscar’s choking every time I try to log in.”

“Do you have a back door?” Poole asked, observing the site from 500 ft.

Below, Atlanta’s CDC world headquarters was a total kill-zone, bloated, ravaged bodies everywhere, as if the building had gorged itself on the population of a small suburb, taken ill, and lost its cookies all over the grounds.

“What do you think I’ve been using?” Sparks replied. “We’ve got no intelligence, other than the fact that the U.S. military’s viewing this as a full-scale biological attack. ETA is about 20 minutes, BTW, and they’re pulling out all the stops. Mobilizing across three states. If you’re thinking of getting out under the radar, you better leave now.”

Poole regarded his pilot, Lynx. She was a recent recruit, but she had fire. She nodded quickly, once, ready to back Poole up, no matter what choice he made.

“I’m going in,” Poole said. “Get me floor plans.”

“On the way, Richard. You know what you’re doing?”

Poole ran through a mental checklist, making sure he hadn’t missed any important steps when applying his suit’s chemical seal. “I know that so far, whomever we’re dealing with is operating by the numbers,” he said. “I also know I’ve seen this before.”

The PDA standing in the dashboard’s communication cradle chimed. The blueprints. Poole grabbed the mini-computer, checked his H&K USP service pistol, and kicked the passenger’s ladder roll out the door.

In the CDC’s sample labs, Jason Hellman toppled a computer monitor off its desk. The monitor exploded into a satisfying shower of sparks as it smashed into the ground, but Hellman was too distracted to find pleasure in the destruction. He resisted the urge to check his pager again.

“You’re new,” Sir Richard Poole calmly declared. He strode into the room with one of Hellman’s flunkies in tow, holding his USP to the man’s skull. He knocked the flunky unconscious with the butt of his pistol and retrieved the man’s weapon, an unimpressive P9, chambered for the lighter 7.65mm ammunition. “The crazy old man’s choice of weapons hasn’t improved, though.”

“As I live and breathe,” Hellman said, holding his arms out wide in mock welcome, “Sir Richard Roswell Poole. Now it’s a party!”

Poole ignored the henchman’s banter, demanding, “Where is he?”

“Who?” Hellman asked.

“Roswell?!” Sparks blurted, through Poole’s headset radio. Poole didn’t like his tone, or his follow-through. “Find out who this guy is so I can send him a ‘Thank You’ card.”

Poole’s right eye twitched.

“You bloody wanker, I’ve been at this longer than you’ve been changing your own knickers,” Poole said. “I know one of Kholera’s operations when I see it.”

“Who, now?” Hellman asked, squinting to drive the joke home. He couldn’t keep it up, though, and his lips curled into a bemused grin.

“I see,” Poole said, stalking toward the henchman. “You’re not the helpful incarcerate, you’re the hospitalized vermin.”

Poole felt a sting at his ankle and something warm crawled up his leg, through his leg. His determined gait wavered and he reached for the dart protruding through his suit, but his vision suddenly twisted wrong side up and he toppled sideways onto the lab’s sterile floor.

“Meet Virus,” Hellman said, stepping up alongside Poole’s languid form.

“I’m new, too,” Virus said, reloading his dart gun. Something lethal this time. They’d be leaving soon…

“Kholera sends his regards.” Hellman squatted beside the former Majestic operative. “He regrets that he couldn’t be here to see you off personally, but he’s occupied with pressing matters of global devastation. He said you’d understand.”

“Poole?” Sparks tried in vain to hail him. “What’s happened? Poole…”

“It wouldn’t have mattered, by the way… if you’d managed to stop us. The damage is already long done, and as I’m sure you noticed on your way in, Kholera’s latest opus has much more personality than that petty bug we released in Brazil.”

The pager at Hellman’s waist vibrated. Someone had tripped the laser tripwire he’d shot into the security room wall. “All units withdraw,” he said into his encrypted radio, then turned back to Poole. “As for you, benighted hero, diligent dinosaur… I think it’s time for your twilight hour.”

Poole still couldn’t move. Sparkling needles coursed through his veins, but his limbs still felt detached, like mannequin parts left on for show. He was vaguely aware of klaxons flaring into life around him, of steel shutters crashing down in all directions, cutting him off from the rest of the building, from the villains’ escape route…

“Talk to me, Poole,” Sparks said.

Sparks’ voice echoed down the well of Poole’s conscious mind. Later, when Poole finally managed to drag himself to his feet and the triple-rooms in his vision slowly merged together again, he found himself entirely alone. He scanned the labs for a way out…

“This is Pitfall Commander Stephen Century,” came a voice through the labs’ intercom. “This facility is in lockdown. All intruders are ordered to remain at their present positions. Disarm yourselves or you will be shot on sight.”

“Fantastic,” Poole muttered. He radioed the helicopter. “Lynx?”

“Yeah, boss.”

“Where are you?”

“Ten miles out. I had to pull back when the Army showed up and we couldn’t raise you. Should I—”

“Sweep for a couple henchmen with big, bloody grins on their faces. Chances are they’re in some kind of camouflaged or cloaked vehicle. They’re dim, but their employer isn’t.”

“Got it. What about you?”

Stephen Century’s voice invaded the facility again. “Is that…? Richard Poole!” it exclaimed.

Poole didn’t like Century’s tone, either.

“We have control of the building’s security cameras, Poole. If you try anything, we’ll know. Drop your weapons and lay belly down. Please don’t give my men a reason to kill you.”

“You go ahead, Lynx,” Poole said. “It looks like I’m going to be tied up for a while.”

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