A message from John McCord
If you’re tired of watching the news—what I like to call misinformation—and you’re bored watching the same junk on TV—what I like to call reruns—then check out my new short story, entitled: Wuhan. It’ll only take about 15 or 20 minutes to read and it’s free!
A Mike Norris short story
This story is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, events, and situations are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, locales, or historical events is coincidental.
Copyright © 2020 by John McCord. All rights reserved.
Ready Room, USS Theodore Roosevelt, 11 p.m. local time, April 1, 2020
Sea of Japan, 50 miles south-southwest of the U.S. Naval base in Yokosuka
My team and I entered the aircraft carrier’s ready room only a few minutes before the newly appointed ship’s captain. We were completing our equipment checks. There were ten people in the room: nine team members—including yours truly, Mike Norris—plus the aforementioned commanding officer, who would be remaining on the ship. The room was lit very dimly, and all of the security cameras and microphones had been turned off.
I said to Captain James Stratton, USN, “How is your new assignment working out?”
He grinned and replied, “It’s very temporary.”
I already knew that.
He added, “Plus there isn’t much to do. The XO runs everything.”
I already knew that as well.
I pointed out, “The original skipper will be back in charge soon enough after he ‘recovers’ from the Wuhan Flu.” I used air quotes on the word “recovers.” Stratton smirked and I inquired, “What percentage of the crew ‘testing positive’ for coronavirus actually have it?”
“Can’t tell you,” Stratton replied. “It’s classified.”
Now I smirked. We were both well aware that the number of individuals aboard the ship who had tested positive had been greatly exaggerated to the media and that the carrier—carrier group, actually—was fully combat ready. This type of counterintelligence is why I rarely believe a cover story.
“Now to business,” Stratton said. “We will run our game shortly after your helicopters depart from the flight deck, transmitting on an encrypted frequency that we know the PLA monitors. We saw to it about a year ago that they would break the encryption. So we only use that freq. for information we want them to have.”
I commented, “Vessel in distress, I assume.”
“Correct.” Stratton went on, “The Chinese Third Carrier Group—currently readying itself for an operation to harass the Taiwanese—should take the bait, diverting them in our direction and—more importantly—away from your flight path.”
I said, “Let’s hope they believe the cover story.”
Stratton replied, “We expect that they will.”
My second for this mission, a young Navy SEAL, walked over to Stratton and me, informing us, “Captain Stratton, Mike: Xray One and Xray Two are fueled and ready to go.”
Jim Stratton said, “I’d shake your hands, but I don’t want to give you something that could make you sick on the way into China.”
“Good idea.” I pointed out, “But you might want to worry more about what we could catch while we’re in China…like a death sentence.”
Stratton said, “Godspeed, Xray.”
I turned toward my team and said, “Shipmates, time to go.”
Without speaking another word, we filed out of the ready room and onto the flight deck, making our way toward the end of the main runway. It was a chilly night with a light wind on our backs, which was mainly due to the relative wind produced by the forward movement of the ship. There was a light, misty fog over the water, reducing visibility to a few hundred feet, if that.
The helos’ rotors were idling in near silence when we arrived. Without hesitating we split into two squads: Four of us got on board the lead helicopter, Xray One, and the other five men boarded the second aircraft. By the time the doors closed, each man was strapped into his seat. The engine noise surged but was still quite hushed. I felt Xray One gently lift off from the deck. Looking out a window, I noticed the ship moving out from under us as we hovered. Then the pilots—Night Stalkers, as they are called—banked the aircraft to the right and proceeded on course.
Xray One—airborne—approaching the coast of mainland China
We hadn’t spoken much for the first leg of the trip. One of the men in the crew compartment—a Navy SEAL nicknamed Tiny—had slept most of the way to this point.
I turned to the man sitting to my right and advised him, “You know, your mom would kill me if she knew I’d selected you for this op.”
He commented, “I volunteered.”
“True.” I pointed out, “But she would probably kill you if she knew that.” The young man grinned and I inquired, “You’re not going to tell her, are you?”
He replied, “I can’t. This whole shindig is classified.”
He continued grinning.
Damn, he reminds me of his dad.
One of our squad mates was sitting at a small table that had been affixed to the port side wall of the compartment. There were two thirty-inch flatscreen monitors angled toward him, secured to the table using metal brackets. Other various and sundry digital components were encased and mounted on top of and below the table.
The man turned toward me and said, “Looks like the Chinese carrier group has taken the bait. They are headed at flank speed toward where they think the Roosevelt is positioned.”
I said to the man, “Way to go, John. You just woke up Tiny.”
Tiny opened his eyes and said, “I was awake.”
There were some chuckles around the compartment, after which I inquired, “Where is the Roosevelt?”
John replied, “She’s just about to dock at Yokosuka.”
I said to John, “After we return from the op, you’ll have to explain to us how you ‘ghost’ the position of a ninety-thousand-ton aircraft carrier.”
“Well, Mike,” John informed us, “since your last trip to this part of the world, we’ve gotten pretty good at this. Plus the fog helped us slip her into port.”
Our last trip here, I thought to myself. Don’t remind me.
A small window opened up behind and between my second-in-command and me. We were sitting with our backs to a barrier that separated the cockpit from the crew compartment. One of the pilots said to me, “Mister Norris, none of the ships or aircraft from the carrier group painted us. And our satellite evasion systems are active. The Chi-coms cannot see us.”
“Copy that.” I advised, “Let me know if anything changes.”
“Aye-aye.” The Night Stalker informed me, “Four hours to target.”
I informed my teammates, “We’ve got a few hours. If anyone needs some shuteye, now would be a good time.”
John was still very busy monitoring his computer screens, but I noticed Tiny close his eyes again. I looked to my right and saw the man next to me situating himself for a snooze. So I decided to close my eyes as well. It only took a few moments until I was asleep.
A cave in the northern foothills of Song Mountain near the Yellow River
April 2, 7 p.m. local time
We were all awake at this point, having spent the daylight hours taking turns between keeping watch at the entrance to the cavern and napping inside. I asked Tiny, “Does this place bring back any fond memories?”
He replied, “Memories, yes. Fond memories, not so much.”
“I’m with you,” I affirmed.
We were mainly killing time at the moment. Xray One had dropped my squad off this morning before dawn. Our heavily armed security squad aboard Xray Two covered our asses as we headed toward the cave, just in case there was any trouble. Then they reboarded Xray Two, and the helos departed for a remote refueling location. Hopefully there wouldn’t be any trouble there either.
But now it was almost time for my squad to take a few minutes, gather our things, exit our temporary dwelling, and do what we came here to do. We would wait until it was completely dark before we went outside, even though it was thoroughly creepy inside.
I inquired of my second-in-command, the young Navy SEAL, “What do you think about all this, Dave?”
As he leaned back on his tightly wrapped bedroll, the young man replied, “It’s comfy and cozy.” He grinned at me.
We continued our light banter for a while. I’ve always felt that nominal chitchat during down time right before the shit was about to hit the fan helps keep the adrenaline levels under control. And especially now—shortly before they were about to spike—I thought it was prudent.
At 7:30 p.m. Tiny spoke up. “Time for me to relieve John.”
Tiny exited the cavern, proceeding to the cave’s narrow entrance. A minute or two later, John returned from watch and gave us a SITREP: “Everything’s quiet outside. There’s no movement except for a few critters. Tiny recommends that we move out in ten minutes.”
I said, “Copy that.”
John—having already packed his gear—took a seat for a few minutes while the young LTJG and I packed ours. If anyone asked us, we would be posing as tourists, so we left behind any unnecessary items like sleeping gear, which we wouldn’t be coming back for. If someone was to stumble across it—probably not for at least several months—and reported to the Chi‑coms that they found American military-issued equipment in a cave in the middle of nowhere, that was fine by us.
At the agreed-upon time we met Tiny at the narrow entrance to the cave. I stood behind him and panned around with my night vision gear. I said to him, “Not much moving out there but little stuff, squirrels and so forth. But…wait a sec. Let me see your rifle.”
Tiny detached the single-point sling and handed me his MK18 CQBR. I didn’t need to shoot anyone yet, but I wanted to look through the 3X-power magnifier mounted in front of the rifle’s optic.
“Yeees.” I pointed out, “Look nearly straight ahead, about a hundred and fifty yards out. It appears to be a very large cat of some kind; could be a nocturnal hunter.”
I handed the rifle back and Tiny looked through the magnifier. “Yep, it sure is; shows up real nice on infrared. Can’t tell its color. Maybe a panther?”
I said over my shoulder to our other two teammates, “Either of you guys know if panthers are indigenous to this region?”
The two men laughed and John responded, “I don’t recall local wildlife familiarization being part of the prep for this op.”
It’s like I always say: Everyone’s a comedian.
So Tiny and I stepped out onto a path that would lead us around the side of the hill to our target. Tiny cleared our direction of travel down the path, and I cleared from our six o’clock position as far as I could see. Then the other two men exited the cave and took up the rear position. We traveled in two-man teams. Tiny had his rifle pointed in front. I had my left hand on his left shoulder. I was armed only with a SIG pistol, which I held at a 45-degree angle over Tiny’s shoulder. Since we were in close proximity, John had his pistol holstered—so as not to accidentally shoot me in the back, which I always prefer—and the young Navy SEAL had his MK18 slung from his shoulder, pointed at the ground and concealed underneath his light jacket. His left hand was on John’s left shoulder as well.
We moved swiftly and in about ten minutes we halted near our rendezvous point. Through the trees, fifty yards ahead of us, we could see the ominous, dark outline of the Temple of Flowers. The lights were off and nobody was home, since the place had closed to the public about two hours ago. The security guards were supposed to be gone by this point, but Tiny kept his weapon at the ready, just in case. I holstered my pistol and concealed it under my jacket. I tapped Tiny on the shoulder and pointed my left index finger to his left, indicating that we should begin moving through the woods toward the back of the temple.
The team continued on very slowly—and silently. As we turned right and began moving around the temple’s back wall, I called a halt by holding Tiny’s left shoulder firmly and holding my right fist up in the air.
I whispered to Tiny, “Straight ahead. A person sitting on a large rock.”
Tiny, viewing the man through his scope, whispered back, “Tallyho.”
That was my cue. I walked ahead of Tiny to his left while he kept the shadowy figure in the crosshairs. I was walking faster at this point. I had my hands in front of me, palms facing out. I didn’t want the person to draw a weapon when he noticed me. Tiny might blow him away, and it’s much more difficult to question a dead person.
As I approached the mystery man, he turned his head toward me but made no other moves. Good. He had earned the right to live…for now. Through my night vision headset I was able to make out his facial features. Even though his appearance had changed since the last time I’d seen him—probably through minor plastic surgery procedures—I still recognized him.
I removed my night vision goggles and said to the man, “So, Mister Cao, we meet again.”
“Hello, Mister Norris. You are punctual, as usual.”
I responded, “I never want to be late to a good party.” I put my night vision gear in my light backpack and motioned for my compatriots to join us.
Mr. Cao informed me, “There’s not much of a party going on here. Many areas in China are locked down, like Zhengzhou and this place. There were very few tourists here this afternoon, and they have all gone home.”
“So I’ve heard.” I added, “But there is someone here who wants to meet me, yes? Posing as a tourist.”
Mr. Cao replied, “That is correct. Shall we proceed?”
Tiny, now with his rifle slung and concealed underneath his touristy jacket, panned around with his infrared gear. He informed me, “The area is clear, Mike.”
Our other two teammates likewise called clear. Then Mr. Cao led us along a narrow path—about fifty or sixty yards—to a large, flat greenhouse building with glass panels along the sides and on the roof. He walked through a spring-loaded door that opened inward and held it for us as we filed into the structure. There were no lights on inside, so Cao pulled out a flashlight and illuminated our way down an aisle to the far wall, which had a door leading to an enclosed room within the facility. He knocked three times and the door opened. Cao shined his light inside and we could see two figures, one holding the door for us and one seated against the back wall of the small room. Tiny and John remained outside, and the man closed the door after Cao and the young Navy SEAL followed me inside. Mr. Cao flipped a switch next to the door, and the room was illuminated by two long fluorescent-tube lights affixed to the ceiling. I could tell, without looking around too much, that we were in a seed storage room.
I perked up a bit when I recognized the man who had held the door for us, but Mr. Cao reassured me, “Don’t worry, Mike. He is with us now.”
I advised him, “I’ll believe that when I see it.”
The man—an MSS officer named Loung Wang—had a couple of encounters with me years before that were quite unpleasant. He seemed as uneasy at seeing me as I was at the sight of him.
I said to Loung, “Take it easy, Mister Loung. For now I’ll have to take Mister Cao’s word for it.”
Even though the room was somewhat small, the five of us fit inside comfortably, maintaining the correct six-foot social distance required during the current global pandemic. We all knew why we were here, so I broke the ice with the man sitting in the chair against the far wall. “Sir, my name is Mike. I am an American and I’ve become aware that you have some information that might be of great interest to me and to my nation.”
Mr. Loung, obviously the man’s secret-police handler, nodded toward him, and he said to me, “It is better for you not to know my name, but I can assure you that I am an infectious disease specialist and that I work at the Wuhan Institute of Virology.”
I leaned back against the wall next to the door with my hands at my sides. I invited the virologist, “I’m all ears.”
The man paused a moment and Loung chimed in, “That means Mike is ready for you to tell him the facts that you know about the virus.”
The man said, “Yes, of course. So at the Institute we study various viruses, particularly coronaviruses. We collect virus samples from different regions—all around the world really. The reasons we study them are varied, but what might interest you is that we generally try to determine two things: how deadly they are and how infectious.”
The man paused again and looked at me inquisitively, as if I might want to ask a question. I suppose he was used to being interrogated by his government’s MSS. But I have found, over the years, that when I interview someone who may hold valuable intel, I want to get them talking freely, even if they meander and tend to babble. It was time for Show and Tell, not for raising your hand and having the teacher call on you, so I said to the man, “I’m finding this very interesting that you study these viruses with respect to how severe they are and how effectively they spread. Please continue.”
The man obliged me. “So when this latest respiratory virus arrived in our laboratory last fall, we immediately began finding out some very interesting things about it. First, it was found to be highly contagious—unlike anything we had ever seen before. That was when I was called in. It is my job to lead the investigation for a possible vaccine for any virus that could lead to a major outbreak. The first trigger is discovering high rates of infectibility. But that brings me to my next point. When our human trials began, we generally found only very minor symptoms, or in some cases no symptoms at all, except for those who were…”
I felt that the man was suggesting that I finish his sentence, so I took a stab at it. “…elderly, had chronic respiratory conditions like asthma, or were immuno-compromised.”
The man nodded and then went on, “That is correct, sir. The symptoms for those individuals ranged from high fever, difficulty breathing—or even contracting pneumonia—and even more severe, requiring intubation, ventilators and so forth. And of course death at much higher rates than younger, healthier test subjects.”
I inquired, “In terms of infectibility, how long ago did you determine that the virus was airborne?”
The man paused and squirmed a bit in his chair before responding, “In November.”
The man sat in silence for a few moments, but I wanted to keep his train of thought moving, so I probed further, “Okay, so you have this deadly, highly infectious disease, and you are diligently working on a vaccine—for obvious reasons. What happened next?”
“Oh, yes, of course, sir. So in a very short while after my team began studying the microbiological, structural characteristics of the virus, the director of the Institute approached me, along with some individuals called political administrators. These people asked me some very specific questions about the virus…”
Sensing he was again seeking my input, I interjected, “…questions, I presume, about gain of function.”
Apparently now being convinced that I had paid close attention during my briefing prior to embarking on this mission, the man quickly nodded his head and went on, “Yes, yes, Mike, that is correct. They wanted to see if we could engineer the virus to become even more effective and to develop a vaccine that would immunize against all forms, naturally occurring and enhanced.”
I stated, “And I assume these political administrators are from the Communist Party.” The man nodded his head and I inquired, “Did the administrators tell you why they wanted you to look into gain of function?”
“And did you do as they asked?”
“Well, you see, sir, when a political administrator asks you to look into something, it is not exactly a request.”
“Understood.” I asked, “Were you able to make the virus more effective, and if so, how much more?”
“So there wasn’t much gain available with regard to enhancement of symptoms. When high-risk patients are facing potential organ shutdown, intubation, coma, and death, those types of things are already severe. But on the ability of the virus to rapidly spread…”
I offered, “…you created a monster.”
The man hung his head and looked at the floor as he softly said, “I’m afraid you are correct, sir.”
I decided to let everything sink in for a moment before proceeding. After all, the man had just informed me of something nutty his government had instructed him to do, and he knew that I was going to go back home and tattle to my government.
I looked at my watch. I wanted to get my source talking again, and maybe set him off balance a bit, before we had to bug out. I said to the man, “So let me get this straight. You folks at the Institute discover the perfect virus for a communist.” The man looked at me inquisitively, and I went on, “You know, ‘from everyone according to their ability; to everyone according to their need.’ But the dirty little secret they left out is: kill the old and infirm, those who can no longer produce. They are too much of a burden on the system.” I could tell the man was a bit miffed at my tone. Nevertheless I continued, “And to top that, the Communist Party asked you to make it worse: more effective, more infectious.”
Clearly distressed, the man chimed in, “Mike! I am not a communist! I am a scientist! That is why we are here; I am admitting to you what happened!”
I inquired, “How did the virus get out? Did the political administrators have anything to do with that?”
“No, Mike. That was accidental. We nurtured the virus to be so infectious that…that it was inevitable. Even with our Institute’s safety protocols, it can exist in very low levels in the human body—mainly the sinuses—and it can incubate over days or even weeks without being detected. And it can be spread asymptomatically. Through antibody tests we have determined that nearly everyone at the Institute contracted the virus, but only a few people ever showed any symptoms. That is how it first spread into the Wuhan area.”
I commented, “And now it has been unleashed upon the world.”
I noticed the young Naval officer I was mentoring make subtle movements, indicating that he was receiving radio communications into his wired comms earpiece. He said, “Copy that,” into a handheld transmitter. Walking and standing close to me, he said quietly into my ear, “Tallyho seven mikes.” This meant that the refueling operation had been successful, and our ride home was seven minutes out.
The clock was about to run out on my interview, but I still needed to tie a few more things together. Show and Tell was over. It was time to raise my hand and begin asking questions. I pointed out, “Your English is excellent.” Then I inquired of my source, “Where did you do your undergraduate work and medical school?” When I’m about to press someone for information, I have found that it’s good to start out with a compliment. It tends to set them at ease.
The man responded, “I studied biology, specializing in microbiology, at Oxford. Then I went to Harvard Medical School, specializing in infectious diseases.”
No surprise there concerning both the English and the man’s medical credentials. And since his answer had come quickly and didn’t sound rehearsed, it moved the man’s believability up a couple of notches on my Truth Detector.
I turned up the heat a bit. “Why did the Chinese government allow people from Wuhan and the surrounding area to travel internationally after it became a known hotspot for the virus?”
“That I do not know, Mike.”
“Was it incompetence? I mean, surely they couldn’t have wanted to share it with the world, could they? Especially considering how contagious it is.”
My subject remained calm but I could tell he was ill at ease. He responded, “There are many things I do not understand about my government and things that I disagree with.”
“Was this an intentional attack by the CCP on the elderly, the weak, and the infirm throughout the world?”
Visibly trembling at this point, the man replied, “As I have told you, Mike, I am not a communist. I was educated in the West. I do not think like a communist. I think and act like a scientist.”
“A scientist under the thumb of communist political administrators.” The man did not respond to my evocative statement, so I went on, “And don’t think there aren’t communists in the West. I am continually fighting them, even in my country.”
“But Mike,” the man informed me, “I cannot fight the Party in China or else I will…”
“…disappear?” The man seemed to be quite dejected, so I consoled him, “Don’t worry, sir. By talking to me you are fighting the CCP.”
There was a knock on the door. Mr. Cao cracked it open and Tiny informed me, “Our ride is here. Time to move.”
I said to him, “Just another minute or so.”
Cao closed the door.
My source had responded to all of my believability metrics with high honors. But it was time for the ultimate test. I said to my source and his MSS handler, “We have to leave,” indicating Mr. Cao, my protégé, and me. The man I had been interviewing had a near panicked look on his face. But—since this was a counterintelligence operation—I advised him, “Look, sir, although I am grateful for all of the information you have shared with me, we need you to go back home, back to work, and pretend this meeting never happened. Follow Mister Loung’s instructions. He will provide a cover story about your little ‘vacation’ for his bosses.” Loung nodded and I went on, “You are going to have to try to sell that for now.” I paused and then drove home my point, “There may be a time when we will be able to return and get you out of China. But that time is not now.”
The man nodded in resignation. Mr. Cao opened the door. The young Navy SEAL, Cao, and I exited the room, closing the door behind us.
Author’s note: Although in “Wuhan” I have used characters and settings from other stories, including my latest thriller, Xray, coronavirus is not the subject of any of my books (including Xray).
© John McCord