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The Pharaoh's Secret (NUMA Files 13) Clive Cussler 2022/7/22 13:55:04

“They’re in a type of coma,” she said, “a type we’ve never seen before. With a normal coma, certain parts of the brain are switched off. Only the deepest, most primitive sections continue functioning. It’s assumed that the body does this as a defense mechanism, allowing the brain or body to heal itself. But these patients show residual activity in all parts of their brains, yet they’re unresponsive to any drug or stimuli we’ve tried so far.”

“Can you give that to me in layman’s terms?”

“No damage has been done to their brains,” she said, “but they can’t wake up. If you imagine them to be computers, it’s as if someone put them on standby or sleep mode and no amount of pressing the on switch will get them functioning again.”

Kurt knew just enough human physiology to get himself in trouble, so he decided to ask rather than jump to conclusions. “If their hearts are pumping so softly and infrequently and pumping such little amounts of blood, and their breathing is so restrained, don’t they risk oxygen deprivation and brain damage?”

“Hard to say,” she replied. “But we think they’re existing in a state of suspended animation. Low body temperatures and low levels of cellular activity mean their organs are using very little oxygen. That could mean the shallow breathing and weak cardiovascular activity is enough to keep them healthy, enough to keep their brains intact. Have you ever seen someone pulled from frigid water after a near drowning?”

Kurt nodded. “Years back, I rescued a boy and his dog from a frozen lake. The dog had chased a squirrel onto the ice and got stuck when his hind legs broke through. The boy tried to help him, but the ice cracked and both of them plunged into the water. By the time we got them out, the poor child was blue, he’d been underwater for seven minutes or more. He should have been long dead. The dog should have died too, but the paramedics were able to bring them both back. The boy ended up being fine. No brain damage at all. Is that what we’re talking about here?”

“We hope so,” she said, “though it’s not exactly the same. In the boy’s case, the frigid water caused a spontaneous reaction in his body that could be reversed once he was brought back to a normal temperature. These people didn’t face such an instant temperature change; they were affected by some kind of toxin. And, at least so far, neither warming nor cooling nor electric shock nor direct injections of Adrenalin nor anything in our Frankenstein’s bag of tricks has been able to bring them out of it.”

“So what kind of toxin are we dealing with?” Kurt asked.

“It has to be the smoke from that freighter.”

“You would think,” she said, nodding, “but we’ve sampled the smoke. There’s nothing more than burned petroleum fumes in it, with a slight mix of lead and asbestos, no different than what you’d find from any shipboard fire.”

“So the fire and the cloud enveloping the island are just a coincidence? Somehow, I don’t buy that.”

“Neither do I,” she said. “But there’s nothing in that cloud to cause what we’ve seen. At worst, it could produce irritated eyes, wheezing and asthma attacks.”

“So if it’s not the smoke from the ship, then what?”

She paused, studying him for a second, before continuing. Kurt sensed she’d decided to speak more freely. “We believe it was nerve toxin, weaponized by the explosion, either deliberately or accidentally. Many nerve agents are short-lived. The fact that we find no trace of it in the soil, air or in blood and tissue samples from the victims tells us that whatever agent it might have been, biological or chemical, it lasts no more than a few hours.”

Kurt saw the logic, but still other things made no sense. “But why use something like that against a place like Lampedusa?”

a,” she said. “So we’re leaning toward accident.”

As Kurt considered that, he glanced around the room. There were medical terms scribbled on two whiteboards behind the desk. A list of various drugs they’d tried crossed through. He also spotted a map of the Mediterranean with several pins stuck in it. One marked a spot in Libya, another was pinned to a section of the northern Sudan. Several others were in the Middle East and sections of Eastern Europe.

“You called this an attack in your radio message,” he said, nodding toward the board. “I’m guessing you suspected it was an attack because this isn’t the first incident of its kind.”

She pursed her lips. “You’re too observant for your own good. The answer is yes. Six months ago, a group of radicals in Libya were found in this same state. No one knew what happened to them. They died eight days later. Because of Italy’s historic ties with Libya, my government agreed to look into it. We soon discovered similar incidents in various Libyan hospitals and then in all of the places you see marked on the map. In each case, radical groups or powerful figures slipping into unexplained comas and dying. We formed a task force, took this ship as our floating lab and began looking for answers.”

Kurt could appreciate that type of response. “What’s your part in all this?”

“I’m a doctor,” she replied with indignation. “A specialist in neurobiology. I work for the Italian government.”

“And you just happened to be on Lampedusa when the attack came?”

She sighed. “I was on Lampedusa watching the only suspect we’ve been able to link to the incidents. A doctor who worked at the hospital.”

“No wonder you knew how to protect yourself and the others,” Kurt noted.

She nodded. “When you’ve done the work I’ve done, seen the things I’ve seen, in Syria, Iraq and other places, you have nightmares of people falling dead in front of you, invisible gas poisoning your body and destroying your cells. You become very aware of your surroundings. Defensive. Almost paranoid. And, yes, when I saw that cloud and the people falling as it reached them, I knew instantly what was happening. I just knew.”

Kurt respected her history and her reflexes. “So the dead man,” he said. “The one who attacked us. Was he your suspect?”

“No,” she said. “We don’t know who he is. He obviously had no ID on him. He has no truly distinguishing marks and his fingerprints have been burned off—I would assume deliberately—nothing but scar tissue left there. We have no record of anyone matching his description arriving on the island. Normally, that wouldn’t tell you much, but with all the immigration and asylum seekers who come to Lampedusa, everyone gets documented thoroughly whether they land at the airport, come through the harbor or wash up onshore in a dilapidated raft.”