The Embudo Virus
About the Book
For computer scientist Rob Clarke, the days are becoming increasingly uneasy at the Embudo Population Institute as its recently hired director pushes forward on a new contraceptive virus designed to limit human reproduction. But with the hiring of Melinda Lanier, a beautiful new researcher who seems able to manipulate both his body and his mind, his troubles suddenly turn physical as well.
As they work together, Melinda steers Rob’s attention toward the thin dividing line between science and magic, and urges him to embrace the godlike powers that come from crossing it. With their relationship growing closer, he becomes increasingly isolated—first gradually, and then suddenly—from everything in his world but work and Melinda.
Her control over him continues to grow, her power undeniable, culminating in a magical flight through the night sky to a strange and terrifying ritual in a mysterious mountain cavern. Afterward, the scientist in Rob seeks out answers, slowly uncovering the reality of his experience and realizing the age-old sexual powers that have made him a victim of Melinda and her world.
But then. . . .
The Embudo Institute remains. Its dark work of reducing population for the good of humanity goes on. Just keep doing your job, Rob is told. But knowing what he does now, what future can he choose?
From Chapter 1
embudo [em bu´do] masculine noun 1. funnel. 2. trick.
How can Rob, a man of science, know what she is when he first sees her?
He’s at a table in the lunchroom, drinking coffee with Sarah, his research assistant, on Monday morning. They’re discussing Sarah’s schedule for the week, and just as he notices that Sarah’s face is already fuller in only her third month of pregnancy, over her shoulder, down the hallway at the far end of the room, a movement catches his eye. He recognizes Bellman immediately but not his companion. She’s thin, about the height of Bellman’s shoulder, and dressed entirely in black: a long black skirt, black boots nearly hidden by the skirt, and a black jacket buttoned to her throat.
They enter the lunchroom and turn toward the stairs in the opposite corner. Bellman gestures, lifting his palm upward, and she laughs. Neither of them looks in Rob’s direction, but he can tell from her face that she knows he’s watching.
Sarah turns to see what attracted his attention.
“That’s the new statistician,” she says. “Bellman’s squiring her around.”
An hour later, weary after last night’s late flight back from his father-in-law’s funeral, Rob stares out his third-floor office window and notices that the trees are leafing out. A green mist now fills in the grid of streets, and miles away, beyond the cluster of tall downtown buildings, a thicker mist traces the Rio Grande. His gaze drifts westward to the black line of the lava escarpment, topped by its five cinder cones, and then to snow-capped Mount Taylor on the horizon. He hears conversation in the lab, between his office and the hallway, and recognizes Bellman’s voice.
When he goes out, Bellman and the statistician are with Sarah at her workstation. The room hums with computer noise, lists and diagrams cover a long whiteboard, and metal shelves are crammed with manuals, journals, and books. Bellman, clearly in a jovial mood, turns from Sarah toward Rob. His suit is a brown pinstripe and his tie is red. His shaved head shines under the fluorescent lights, and he gestures toward his companion as if introducing an act on stage.
“Rob,” he says. “This is Dr. Melinda Lanier. Melinda, Dr. Rob Clarke. The two of you will be working closely together.”
Her eyes are large and dark—almost as dark as her straight black hair—and her hand is cool when he shakes it. She gives him a brief quizzical smile, which he’s not sure how to take, and with the other hand brushes some hair behind her ear.
>< >< ><
Their schedules don’t bring them together again until Friday afternoon, when they ride out to BSF with Rick Dirvik and Jerry Foster to attend a lecture for the virus project. At two-thirty, the four of them cross the institute parking lot, and when they reach Rick’s hybrid SUV, Jerry offers the front seat to Melinda. She declines, saying Jerry needs the legroom more, and Jerry, apparently deciding the same logic applies to Rob, gets in.
As Rick pulls out of the lot, Jerry turns, putting his prominent forehead and fringe of beard into profile against the windshield, and asks Melinda how she likes her new office. Melinda tells him she’s quite happy with it, to which Jerry nods and turns to face forward again, having either fulfilled his need or exhausted his capacity for small talk. On the left, Rick’s tanned dome is fringed by graying hair pulled back into a ponytail. On the right, Jerry’s head nearly touches the roof, and Rob notices that his much shorter hair is also thinning noticeably at the crown.
They ride west on Central Avenue, past the dealer lots of recreational vehicles and mobile homes, and turn south. At Kirtland Air Force Base, a guardhouse stands in the middle of the road, and chain-link fence topped by barbed wire stretches to both sides. The guard checks Rick’s pass and waves them through.
“I’m still not used to all the security,” Rick says.
“You’ll get there,” Jerry tells him.
They drive past the brick buildings of the research labs, then take a two-lane road into an expanse of eroding sand and dry arroyos dotted by cactus and tufts of grass. As they pass two huge wooden structures several hundred feet off the road, Melinda looks questioningly at Rob. One is open scaffolding that arches higher at one end. The other is circular with cables running from its rim down to a point in its center, like a giant carousel with an inverted top.
“Electromagnetic pulse generators,” he says. “They use them to test hardened equipment.”
The empty desert falls away to the Rio Grande on their right; to the left, the Manzano Mountains rise steeply. A few buildings surrounded by large patches of green grass come into view between the road and the mountains.
“A golf course?” Melinda asks, and Rob nods.
A bunker flashes by—concrete walls and a steel door built into a hump of earth—and Rick turns left. The road climbs into a wide canyon for a couple of miles, then ends at a Y-shaped cluster of six white buildings. Closed passageways connect the buildings, and the ones at the top of the Y are built right into the mountain.
They park in a concrete lot. The car doors slam, the foothills loom over them, and they follow a walkway to the building at the base of the Y. A metal sign by its entrance says “Biological Security Facility.”
The receptionist buzzes them in and enters their names in a black binder. She calls to tell their escort, Frank Delanti, that they’ve arrived, and goes back to her typing. Behind her, beyond a wall of thick glass, a security guard talks on the phone.
Delanti appears through the inner metal doors. He’s a slight man with wavy dark hair, glasses, and a perpetually sour expression. Jerry introduces Melinda, and Delanti leads them down a long hallway. They pass an auditorium on the left and a cafeteria on the right, then enter a large windowless conference room where tables arranged in a U face a large display screen on the wall.
Jerry and Delanti stand in the back of the room talking. Rick takes a chair halfway to the front of the room, and Melinda and Rob sit to either side of him. Over the next ten minutes, a dozen or more BSF researchers show up, as do Floyd Benning and Neil Sanders, two more Embudo scientists. Then Bill Manning, the head of BSF, appears at the door with Bellman.
Bellman stays in the back, leaning against the wall, and Manning walks to the front. He welcomes them to this, their third project colloquium. Today, he says, Anna Dahlner will report on her recent trip to Canberra and the latest work there on viral control of animal populations.
Like everyone else at BSF, Anna wears a white lab coat with her name stitched over her heart. She wears rimless glasses and has straight brown hair chopped off uniformly at chin level. Rob has heard she’s temperamental and difficult to work with but an excellent immunogeneticist. She’s also, he discovers, a no-nonsense lecturer. Instead of starting them off with a story about her trip Down Under, she plunges right in.
Anna touches first on the initial use of viral methods to control overbreeding non-native species in Australia: the 1950s program that infected wild rabbits with the lethal myxomatosis virus, a project that ended when 40 percent of the population became resistant. She then moves on to more recent and humane work with engineered sterilization viruses. Such genetically modified viruses, she reminds her listeners, prevent conception by fooling the target’s immune system into attacking its own reproductive tissues, and she briefly discusses their dangers. The first is exemplified by the IL-4 modification of the mouse pox virus which unexpectedly killed 100 percent of the infected laboratory animals. The second is that a virus released in Australia might escape to other ecosystems where the target is part of the native fauna. The latest strategy in Canberra, she says, is to address both dangers by creating a series of related viruses, each of which initially induces a high rate of sterility but rapidly loses effectiveness in succeeding generations. The first in a family of mouse viruses with the needed characteristics, she says, is being considered for release in the coming year.
Anna displays her first image on the wall screen, a table showing test results for the new mouse virus. Looking around, Rob notices the preponderance of white BSF lab coats in the room, and that Bellman is already gone, an early exit even by his standards. Two seats in front of him, Melinda’s hair is parted just right of center and tucked behind her left ear.
The same techniques that created the new mouse virus, Anna continues, can be applied to viral agents for primates. And then, for the next half hour, she discusses the techniques at a level that Rob, untrained in genetics, can’t really follow, but which fortunately is well beyond the statistical understanding he needs to create his computer models.
As they descend the canyon road, Melinda turns to look back at the Y-shaped complex.
“What’s in the other buildings?” she asks.
“Offices in the second one,” Rob says. “Then in the back, the two on the right are Level 4 labs, and the two on the left are animal facilities. Or so I’m told.”
“You haven’t been in them?”
Melinda turns for a final look at the receding complex.
“Things are certainly different out here,” she says.
“Access is restricted to need,” Jerry says gruffly over his shoulder.
Melinda’s eyes open a little wider, and Rob can tell she’s about to say more. Before she does, he gestures quickly with his hand and warns her off with a shake of his head.
About the Author
Richard Heady is a retired computer scientist whose experience includes many years’ work in software engineering, systems analysis, and computer management for biomedical research.
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