The Laptev Virus, my latest novel, will be coming out very shortly and I thought I would provide you with a tantalizing view of the first part of the book. If you like it, please stay tuned to my Facebook page. The book will be available in both Kindle and paperback formats. Please feel free to leave comments. Enjoy! (This preview is copyrighted by Christy Esmahan, 2015)
On March 3, 2014, Geoffrey Mohan from the Los Angeles Times reported:
A 30,000-year-old giant virus has been revived from the frozen Siberian tundra, sparking concern that increased mining and oil drilling in rapidly warming northern latitudes could disturb dormant microbial life that could one day prove harmful to man.
The latest find, described online Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, appears to belong to a new family of [giant viruses] that infect only amoeba. But its revival in a laboratory stands as “a proof of principle that we could eventually resurrect active infectious viruses from different periods,” said the study’s lead author, microbiologist Professor Jean-Michel Claverie of Aix-Marseille University in France.
“We know that those non-dangerous viruses are alive there, which is probably telling us that the dangerous kind that may infect humans and animals – that we think were eradicated from the surface of earth – are actually still present and [could be] eventually viable, in the [frozen] ground,” Claverie said.
With global warming making northern reaches more accessible, the chance of disturbing dormant human pathogens is increased, the researchers concluded.
Average surface temperatures in the area that contained the virus have increased more steeply than in more temperate latitudes, the researchers noted.
“People will go there; they will settle there, and they will start mining and drilling,” Claverie said. “Human activities are going to perturb layers that have been dormant for 3 million years and may contain viruses.”
[…] Claverie’s laboratory was behind the discovery in Chile, more than a decade ago, of the first giant DNA virus, dubbed [Megavirus chilensis]. They next identified a far larger virus of an entirely different family in 2011, dubbing it Pandoravirus salinus, in homage to the mythical Pandora’s box that first unleashed evil on the world.
This time, they used an amoeba common to soil and water as bait to draw out a virus from a Siberian permafrost core that had been dated to 30,000 years ago.
The finding described on Monday looked like another Pandora, but it was 50 percent larger.
“Your problem, Max, is that you take too many chances,” said Brian.
Max grunted and turned his lips down in a scowl.
“Betting a week’s wages when you only had a straight,” said Ted, chuckling. “Max, Max, we gotta teach you to hold back, think a bit, not just go for it with no fear!”
Max gave Ted a dirty look and set his jaw in grim determination, as if their little game was a very serious affair, one that his companions could never understand. “No guts, no glory,” he said.
“Well now, how about another round?” asked Brian, his tone chipper and light.
Brian and Max were bunk mates. This was the first time that either of them had lived in the Arctic. Where Max was large, broad of shoulder and belly, Brian was short, slight of build and he always wore a cap, even indoors. Over the weeks the two men had developed a friendship as Brian enjoyed listening to Max’s hunting stories and was good at explaining things about their work in a way that Max could easily understand.
Just then Evan walked in and everyone’s demeanor changed. “We need to get going,” he announced.
“Are you sure this is a good idea? I mean, do you think the weather will hold?” said Ted. Max didn’t like Ted very much as he thought that he was too full of himself, always bragging about all his experience. Asking this kind of question was just another way of showing off.
“I do,” said Evan, looking at his watch. “I think we’ve got a good four hours. Let’s suit up and get in the bird. I want to take off in the next fifteen minutes if possible.”
Max was already in his boots and warm jumpsuit, though he was wearing only a thermal shirt underneath. He reached for his thick pullover sweater, and then donned his heavy overcoat. It was bright red and had several thick bands of light-reflective material sewn into it. He didn’t zip it up yet—there would be time to do that while they were in the air. As Brian and Ted re-appeared, also suited up, Max grabbed his shotgun and the case of tranquilizer darts.
Soon all four were airborne, headed for the site where they would be taking yet another ice core sample. “There’s a storm on the way, but I’m confident we’ve got a few hours,” Evan repeated to the crew in a loud voice, speaking over the sound of the helicopter blades chopping through the frigid air. He was both the pilot and the team leader. “Riesig-Alaska identified another part of Laptev Bay, near the shore, and they want a few samples from the permafrost before they decide if they will want to poke any further holes.”
Before he got this job, Max had no idea how complicated oil exploration was. He had grown up in Texas, but somehow he had never thought much about what went on before gasoline magically showed up at the local gas station, all ready to be pumped into his big black pick-up truck. After being hired by Riesigoil, however, he had undergone some training and was learning a lot from the geoscientists with whom he lived for weeks at a time in a barracks up in the Arctic. They used sound wave equipment to explore the layers under the ground, took samples, and sent all of the information to the larger base in Alaska. Riesigoil geologists then employed 3D visualization techniques to identify areas that might harbor oil and natural gas underneath. Once potentially promising areas were identified, exploratory wells were dug, and later, if all went well, they would dig a bigger well. But even then, Max’s colleagues had explained, even after all the testing and modeling, the chances of hitting a good source of oil were still only about 1 in 5. It was a long, expensive pursuit, and one that took years before any profits could be made.
Max learned these things more out of idle curiosity than anything else. Unlike most of the people in his barracks, Max had not been recruited because of his years of schooling and experience, but rather because of his hunting skills. Growing up on a ranch in the Texas hill country, Max had gone hunting from the time he was quite young, maybe six or seven years old, and it was what he loved to do most in the world. His father had also been a big hunter, as had his uncle, and he had fond memories of the long road trips they would take down to South Texas, whenever they could snag a week or two of vacation, to hunt for turkeys, feral hogs (his uncle’s favorite) and deer. On the night stand by his bunk Max kept a small framed photograph that his father had taken of him with his boot propped on the hind quarters of the first buck he had ever shot, its full crown almost larger than he was. The rush of adrenaline he had felt when he first spotted the buck in his binoculars had made his hands tremble. On previous occasions, trembling hands had led to missed shots and his quarry, thus alerted, had fled. But this time he had managed to calm himself down, and his shot had been true. After that, there had been no stopping him.
Max’s friends from high school had teased him, saying that he would never get a good-paying job by pursuing his hobby. He had worked as a truck driver for a few years, but he tired of the road and longed for time off so he could get a chance to go hunting. Then one day he had seen an ad in the newspaper for an experienced hunter, and he had applied online that very evening, attaching dozens of photos of large prey that he had felled. It was the only way he could think of to impress the people who might otherwise frown at his meager work experience.
The job meant that he would have to live way up north in the Arctic for a few months of the year, but he would make enough money during that time that he could afford to take the rest of the year off and spend lots of time hunting. So far, to his dismay, being a bear hazer at Riesigoil had been much more boring than he had expected. Protecting the workers from polar bears had sounded like a lot of fun, but it had turned out to be more like just babysitting the workers while he held a toy shotgun in his hands. Still, whenever he got too frustrated by the tediousness of the endless expanse of ice, he reminded himself of the months of hunting that lay ahead, and that would generally cheer him.
“The machinery’s already set up there? Everything’s ready to go?” asked Brian, his voice cracking as he strained to be heard over the loud stuttering of the helicopter. He was referring to the drilling equipment they would need to use to be able to remove the ice core samples. Sometimes they were required to spend extra time setting up all of the equipment, but often it was another team that identified the area and prepared it for their team.
Since they wanted samples from depths greater than 30 meters, they would need to use specialized drills that hung on cables. The drills could be electromechanical, or electrothermal, Brian had explained to Max earlier that week. Thus Max now knew that, in Brian’s opinion, electrothermal drills were not as consistent and were to be avoided if possible.
“You bet,” said Evan, consulting his instruments. “They have it all set for us. We should be able to get in and out in about two hours.”
As they gained altitude, Max, who was sitting by a window, looked out and saw gray everywhere: the sky above, the ice below, and everything in between. The entire landscape, as far as the eye could see, was varying shades of unbroken gray. He was certain that whatever other faults it might have, Texas never had this much gray.
The ride was a short one, and within fifteen minutes, the four men had reached the site where the drilling equipment stood waiting for them. Evan put the helicopter down and soon they were outside, feeling the cold wind biting their exposed faces. Max walked over with Brian, who was wearing a bright red knit cap, and watched him as he inspected the long, cylindrical drill bit which was connected to a slender cable that would soon suspend the drill shaft as it made its way down into the hole. On the end of the drill bit Brian showed Max the four carbide teeth that would cut into the ice, shaving layer after layer as it penetrated downward.
“See these two barrels there?” Brian asked.
Max peered in and saw an inner one and an outer one.
“That motor you see there,” Brian said, indicating with his gloved finger, “is attached to the inner one and that’s what makes it rotate.”
Max peered at the inside of the barrel of the inner core and saw the threads which spiraled up and around the inside. “What are them stringy things there for?” he asked.
“Those are called ‘threads’ and they serve to remove the ice chips that get freed by the carbide teeth, you see. That helps to keep the chips from getting in the way of the tip of the drill,” explained Brian.
Max sauntered back toward the metallic bird, his shotgun slung carelessly over his shoulder and saw Evan cast another uneasy glance toward the west where an even darker patch of gray sky now loomed.
“Let’s try to finish this one quickly and get back out of here,” Evan said, his shoulders held stiffly against the wind which was beginning to pick up. The three men got busy with the equipment and began the procedure of extracting the ice core sample while Max loaded his shotgun and calmly began scanning the horizon.
“Aren’t you going to use binoculars?” asked Ted. In his late forties, Ted was the oldest of the bunch, and already graying at the temples. In Max’s opinion, besides being a know-it-all, Ted worried too much, especially about things which were none of his business.
“Nah,” said Max, not deigning to glance in Ted’s direction. “We ain’t seen a single one of them in all the times I’ve been out here. Don’t see why one of ’em would show up now.”
Ted and Evan exchanged uneasy looks, but neither said anything. Max was the one with the shotgun. Besides, they needed to concentrate on the task at hand.
As they worked, Max paced around the men, walking slowly in a circle and scanning the horizon. There was nothing but gray on all sides. Occasionally he would stop and watch the men for a while. The noisy drill was steadily spewing up tiny bits and chunks of shredded ice which formed a growing mound that would have been quite nice for snow cones. The drill shaft had disappeared fairly soon after drilling had begun, and now just the cable could be seen, snaking over and into the ever deepening hole. After a few minutes Max would begin pacing again, stopping every now and then to look at the storm and gauge its progression. Gusts of wind were increasing in frequency, but the menacing dark clouds looked like they would indeed not make their appearance until later in the afternoon.
After about an hour, Brian signaled that the drill had reached the location from which they wanted to extract the core sample, and they began the reverse drilling operations to bring it up to the surface. The first few times Max had seen an ice-core being extracted, he had been quite interested. They had removed the long pole-like structure, thinner than his wrist, and wrapped it carefully and quickly, hermetically sealing it in one single chunk for later analysis. Once it was sealed in plastic, they would pack it in Styrofoam and packing bubbles to protect it. This was the most precarious part of the entire operation. The sample needed to remain intact in order for the lab techs back at the barracks to be able to analyze it properly. It was a delicate operation, but the men made it seem fairly easy. Max wasn’t fooled, though. Hunting had taught him that it took many months of practice before things looked easy.
The men worked for another fifty minutes to bring the sample up. As the drill bore finally re-appeared, everyone, including Max, watched in fascination. They lowered the shaft slightly and began to gently eject the sample from the inner casing of the drill. First the tip, then very slowly, the rest of the crystalline core sample began to gently slide out as the men waited, plastic bag and Styrofoam at the ready. The roar came at the worst possible moment, just as the last part of the ice-core sample had emerged into the air.
Max’s heart raced as he cocked his shotgun and whirled toward the sound. He sighted his prey and immediately took aim, but he didn’t pull the trigger yet. He had hoped and dreamed of just such a moment for so many weeks. Now his pent-up adrenaline raced through his veins. He took a deep breath, steadying himself.
The bear stopped advancing and reared up on its hind legs. It was an enormous beast, all the more fearsome as it towered over them, its keen black eyes now more than twelve feet above the ice. Slowly swiveling its head, the bear surveyed the group, as if pondering which one of the men it should attack first. Honing in on Brian, clearly the smallest of the crew members, it flared its nostrils and opened its large mouth in a rumbling growl, revealing four long incisors, each capable of inflicting mortal wounds.
Max followed the bear’s gaze and saw Brian, who had been reaching for the fragile ice core sample to wrap it in the plastic bag, flinch violently at the sound of the menacing growl, and then completely lose his balance.
All of the Arctic workers had undergone long hours of safety training in case of bear attacks, which had included pictures of bears. But, from experience, Max knew there simply was no substitute for having the live, hulking animal, right there.
Trying to recover his balance, Brian staggered forward, flailing wildly with his arms. Both Evan and Ted tried to catch Brian as he tottered, but their thick suits and the slippery ice made them clumsy. Before they could catch him, Brian slammed into the ice core sample which had been hanging perilously on the edge of the drill shaft. The plug of ice broke free and clattered to the ground unceremoniously, fracturing and sending splinters of ice, like tiny darts, into the exposed faces of the men.
“What are you waiting for? Shoot it!” Ted yelled at Max.
Max, however, paused for another moment. It was one of the greatest moments of his life and he was relishing the inimitable experience. The bear got back down on all four legs and began loping toward the men. Max’s entire body tingled as he tracked it. Then, in one swift motion, he pulled the trigger and shot several times, sending four quivering darts into the flesh of the white bear. He felt a momentary pang of regret that he was not using real bullets, but he would still have a good story to tell his peers when he got back to Texas.
As he watched the big animal topple clumsily down onto the ice, the skin on the back of Max’s neck pricked up, a hunter’s sixth sense, and he whirled in time to see a second bear bounding toward the group of men. It was about forty five degrees to the right of the one that was still struggling, shaking its head as if bewildered.
“Get down,” Max barked at his companions, taking a few quick steps to position himself between the bear and the other men. He cocked his shotgun, more thrilled than afraid, and ignoring the frightened howls of his companions, he fired three times. The injections hit the big animal squarely on the shoulder, side and hip. The bear’s pace did not seem to slow. Max stood his ground, firing several more well-placed shots. He knew that the amount of tranquilizer in each dart was more than enough to kill a man, and that their combined force would soon immobilize the bear.
The colossal mass of white fur, saber claws and sharp teeth swerved and slipped as it finally went down, then skidded, reaching out its large paw to swipe at Max. The claws of the giant animal rasped against Max’s leg and tore at his suit, even as the bear’s eyes rolled skyward and its head struck the ice with a large thump. Thirty feet away, the first bear also lay unconscious.
Max quickly scanned the horizon, turning his head carefully to his left in a full circle to ascertain that were no other surprises lurking. All was clear.
He bent over and casually inspected his pants. They were torn in several places, but no further harm had been done. Then he turned and registered that his companions were cursing, and that the ice core sample lay shattered in six or seven large chunks.
“Let’s take it anyway,” shouted Evan. The winds were beginning to blow even harder, and white crystals, pieces of shattered core as well as blowing snow, covered all of the men, dusting their hair, faces and bright coats. With gloved hands and hunched backs they scooped up the lopsided cylindrical chunks of ice and placed them in the bag. They did not bother with the Styrofoam or packing bubbles as there was no longer any need to take precautions not to break it.
“Let’s get out of here,” yelled Evan and soon they had mounted the helicopter and were on their way back to the camp.
“What the hell happened?” demanded Ted as soon as they were in the air. The storm was definitely closer now, and everyone was obviously nervous to get back to the shelter of their barracks as soon as possible.
“What?” said Max, vexed that none of them, not even Brian, had thanked him for saving their lives. And now here was Ted interrogating him. Well, he certainly wasn’t going to let some old dude tell him how he should have handled the situation. He was the only one who had kept his cool in the face of danger instead of panicking like sissies.
Ted rolled his eyes. “The bears, man, what the hell was that about?”
Max shrugged. It was clear that Ted was just being a nervous worrywart again. Perhaps that was why he had so much gray hair even though he wasn’t fifty years old yet.
The adrenaline from Max’s encounter with the polar bears had dissipated quickly. That was the trouble with hunting. It used to be that a good kill would create a euphoria that would last for the rest of the day. Now he got about ten minutes of that high feeling, and soon he was completely back to normal. He wondered if it was because he had been hunting for so long, or if it was an age thing, yet one more trick his older body had learned to play on him. Or perhaps it was because, deep down, he knew he had not actually killed the bears, only immobilized them temporarily.
“Why did you take so long to shoot them?” snapped Ted, his jaw flexing.
Max gave him a dirty look. “I didn’t take that long. Y’all were never in any real danger. I wanted to be sure the big guy got close enough that I could get him good. And I did.”
“And the second bear?” asked Evan.
Great. They were ganging up on him now. Well, bring it on, thought Max. He could handle these wimps. He looked straight ahead and shrugged again. “What of it? I got him good too, didn’t I?” Then he turned back toward the window, angling his shoulder as a barrier against the other men.
Ted looked at Evan who, almost imperceptibly, shook his head. Then, after quickly glancing in his mirror to be sure that Max wasn’t looking, Evan held his hand slightly aloft, as if supporting an invisible pen. Ted gave a single nod. They would write up Max’s behavior when they returned to the barracks.
Brian flushed as he observed the interaction, feeling a pang of guilt for not intervening on behalf of his friend. After all, Max was doing his job as he understood it. And polar bears were incredibly difficult to spot since their fur was as translucent as ice. So it wasn’t that surprising that the bears had snuck up on them. Then the memory of the gargantuan bears, the first of which seemed to have locked eyes with him, came crashing back, paralyzing him once again with fear. Maybe it wasn’t Max’s fault for not descrying the bears sooner, but he really had erred in not shooting them earlier. Brian’s eyes drifted to the window where they became snagged in the ponderous clouds and escalating winds that blew away the last vestiges of his contrition.
Back in the barracks, the men doffed their outerwear and dried off. A few minutes later Evan radioed mission control to report the incident, as Riesigoil protocol dictated.
“Two bears? That’s highly unusual,” said the crackly voice of their supervisor.
She said something else after that, but after a few seconds of loud crackling sounds, the connection was lost. The storm that had been brewing on the horizon for the last several hours, growing ever larger and darker, now sank its fangs into the land. For two solid days the incessant winds howled and hail and snow pelted relentlessly on the tin roof of the small barracks, sounding as if the Arctic was waging a war with them, shelling their camp mercilessly.
No one could go outside. Communication satellites were blocked by the thick, impenetrable gray clouds. No one could reach the outside world. No one could hear their cries for help. No one would ever forget the horror of the events that occurred inside.