Fred Keegan bundled his pack, harness and parachute beneath the white-capped bushes. He raked clumps of snow over the kit and glanced at his watch: 12.05 am.
..... Time to move.
..... Beneath the light of the quarter moon, crisp snowdrifts billowed in all directions over the lightly wooded landscape. He waded away from the copse, closing in on the Sat-Nav signal.  It must have been a tight drop because he found three of them unslinging their Bergens by the side of a huge fallen pine. He was only slightly out of breath and warmed from the trek.
..... Donaldson, Matheson, Gilbert.
..... In their white combat suits, carrying winter-camouflaged packs and C8 Carbines, he'd almost walked past them at the base of the hill. 
..... Thank God for the tracker.
..... "Francois?" he asked. 
..... Captain Donaldson nodded towards a tree-lined fold in the land that could have been a river. The ex-Legionnaire hung motionless from a tree, a black icicle against the moonlit snow.
..... "We're two miles east of target," Donaldson said.  He perched on the pine trunk, the rest of them gathered around in a tight semi-circle. "If we crack on now, we'll make it - weather permitting."
..... A flash storm and they might miss the lab, thought Keegan, or stumble across the Russian divisional base south of Bakchar.  Worse, they'd miss the pick up at 4:00 am prompt.
..... "This is how it's going to happen," Donaldson said. 
..... Keegan noted the small variations from this briefing and his secret one a month ago. If all went well, he'd be the one who came out alive. Then no more dirty work. He'd promised Sally that.
..... "Whatever happens inside, keep cool," Donaldson said. "If the virus is released in the chamber, don't panic. You will live. The medic," he nodded at Keegan, "has booster jabs with him. "
..... Keegan's mouth was dry, but he met the glances of the men who would die with a firm look.
..... "And remember, the base is old, under-funded and security lax - that's why we're going in before the Chinese do.  We're a force for good in the biological arms race, right?"
..... There was muted laughter.
..... "And, here's the surprise package," Donaldson said, standing to his full six-foot four, "we have someone on the inside."
..... Keegan hoped that he looked as shocked as the others. 

They hit the minor road that cut through pines to the laboratory at just after 1:00 am.  The sky had become as opaque as fog, deepening the shadows under the forest and making visibility along the track poor.
..... Perfect place for an ambush. 
..... With Francois dead, Donaldson had pushed Keegan up front.  He knew it wasn't the right place for a medic, and the way he’d motioned with his C8 reminded Keegan of the first Iraqi prisoners he'd guarded.
..... Donaldson had organised the men efficiently, reminding Keegan of everything he hated about the military.  He's nothing more than a walking weapon, Keegan thought. But fit, healthy, strong and unthinking - the perfect carrier for the smallpox they planned to liberate. According to what they’d called the carrier plan, Keegan would be the only one who didn't have the disease by the time they left the installation.
..... As they trudged through the loose snow, the silence built, thicker than the drifts piled on either side of their path.  Fresh flakes slapped onto his goggles, jerking his head back.  He ploughed on, hoping it would stop.  But it kept falling, heavier and heavier, blotting out the woods, the contours of the road ahead.  With the gusts strengthening, he could scarcely make out Donaldson behind him. 
..... Just stick to the road.   
..... He tucked his head down, pumped his aching thighs, conjured up an image of Hanging-Gate Farm, himself at the Aga making fresh coffee for Sally, just as he had four weeks earlier.  She had her knees tucked into her jumper on the kitchen chair, brown eyes shining, hair catching the sunlight from the windows. 
..... ""Don't let them use you for their dirty work," she'd said.
..... "The cash'll set us up."
..... "As long as you're not the one who's being set up."
..... He'd laughed then, but it didn't seem so funny now. As a nurse, she never have approved of the carrier plan, but every trooper lived with risk.  Take Francois, he told himself.  He had to escape soldiering and the payout was enough to buy the farm outright. Nothing was going to steal that from him, not after all the service he'd put in in Afghanistan, all the missions he'd completed since he went freelance six years ago.
..... The wind broke his stride and he halted. 
..... Stray flakes drifted out of the sky.  The pines moaned, but the unbroken folds of snow on the empty path ahead were as pretty as a Christmas card.
..... For the first time that night, his mood lifted and he turned, smiling at their good luck. 
..... But there was nobody there. 
..... Donaldson, Matheson, Gilbert - all gone.  
..... As he scanned the swaying forest for signs of them, the vast weight of the Siberian winter seemed to creep into his stomach.

Beyond the barbed-wire fence, the sodium-lit compound glowed against the night.  Keegan inched the wheel on his night-vision binoculars to the left and the laboratory sprang into focus. 
..... It matched the pre-op photos exactly. 
..... The single-storey bunker looked like a slab of iced concrete, studded at regular intervals with windows. Five or six security cameras angled at the front door and at the single chain-link gate at the entrance.
..... He pictured someone inside the warm security room, surrounded by screen after screen of monitors, all displaying the same motionless images. If they were watching, doing their job, they would clock his approach immediately.
..... He shook his head.
..... It was only 2:17 am, but the plan was shot.  With no carrier, Keegan would have to infect himself with smallpox.  There was an antidote, yet without swift and intensive treatment the patient always died. Always. Even with rapid help, the risk was huge. But going back empty-handed would be suicide with what he knew. If they thought he'd told Sally...  
..... Crouching low, heart pounding, he covered the distance between the forest edge and the gates swiftly.  He unfastened the wire-cutters from his belt to force open the mortise lock.
..... The gate buzzed, trembled and with a click it sprang open.
..... The surprise package.
..... Keegan pushed the gap wider, struggling against the drifts.
..... "Get in, you prat."
..... He spun around, panic, relief, anger flushing through him.
..... Donaldson bundled him past the gates and up against the compound wall.
..... Bent over, hands on knees, Keegan struggled to get his breath back, stop his head spinning. 
..... Donaldson unwound a length of cable, swung the grab in a circle, three, four times, and let go as the head reached its upward trajectory.  He tugged, swung on the rope and disappeared into the night.
..... Hands shaking, Keegan reached into his collar and eased the valve on the tube that ran into his breathing apparatus.  Inhaling and exhaling deeply for three counts, he fastened his scarf securely over his mouth.  His mind cleared. He grasped the rope, a sudden lightness of spirit helping him scale the wall.

Apart from the low snore of the heating system, the corridor was silent. Donaldson yanked down his scarf and hand-signaled “move on” towards the lifts.  The other way led to the recreation centre, Keegan recalled from the layouts.
..... They crept down the passage, the squeak of their rubber soles stealing ahead of them.
..... Keegan edged towards the door of the service stairs that flanked the lift shaft, but Donaldson tugged him back, tapped his watch face, and jabbed the call button.
..... Deep within the building a motor whirred.  Cables rattled, stretched and the level indicator jumped from minus three to minus two.
..... Donaldson stalked over to the service door, jammed it open slightly with his foot, looked inside, then trained his carbine on the elevator.
..... Minus two. 
..... Minus one.
..... Keegan reversed into the corridor, pushed his back against the wall and switched his attention to the recreation centre. His finger curled around his trigger.
..... The Soviet lift crashed to a halt.
..... One.
..... The metal doors peeled apart.
..... Empty.
..... Keegan breathed out and hurried into the compartment after Donaldson, who turned and said: "I don't like this. It's like the Marie Celeste. There's no one around."
..... "Everyone's asleep."
..... "Not everyone.  The gate, remember?"
..... He frowned at Keegan and said, "You're inside now."
..... Keegan had forgotten to raise his goggles, which he did now, leaving his scarf securely in place. Donaldson glanced twice more, looked as though he were going to speak, but the lift jolted as it hit the bottom floor and he raised his rifle.
..... The doors opened onto the antechamber to the main lab. 
..... That was when they saw the first body.
..... The woman lay on her back halfway through the security door.  Her white coat was open, her skirt twisted.  Even from this distance, Keegan could tell there was something wrong.  Her complexion looked too livid.
..... The automatic doors closed against her hips, stopped, sprung back.
..... Keegan struggled to calm his breathing. Didn't want Donaldson to hear the oxygen tank. 
..... He'd seen his fair share of death, but there was something stomach churning about that blistered flesh. The way it looked as though he could just tug it away from her. A neat bullet wound split her forehead.
..... The doors part-closed, nudged her torso back and forth.
..... Donaldson looked at Keegan, lay his carbine down and strode over her into the lab beyond. Seconds later, he pulled the woman inside, her hands and hair trailing, leaving a smear of blood on the tiled floor. Keegan followed.
..... "What we looking for?" Donaldson asked, letting her legs drop.
..... "Smallpox."
..... "I could hear you better without that scarf." He pulled at his collar. "It's stifling in here."
..... All Keegan had to do now was get Donaldson back to the pickup without him suspecting that he'd been infected. Contamination was certain by now.
..... A central workbench dominated the lab space.  On top of it was a six-foot square tangle of pressure tanks, chromium piping and valves - an electron microscope designed to analyse viruses down to the nanoscale.  Along the back wall, the monitors to display its readouts flicked patterns of static into the room.
..... "Here's another," Donaldson said.
..... Keegan saw an elderly man beyond the table, sprawled out in a full pressure suit with no hood.  His skin was similarly discoloured and there were three or four body wounds.
..... Keegan fought the urge to leave, striding instead to the polished-steel refrigeration units on the far side of the room.  The lock hung by a few coloured threads of wire.  He dropped his Bergen, set his carbine down and unlatched the heavy door. The fridge's internal light revealed the racks of test tubes that lined the walls. He scanned the Latin nametags. There were hundreds, perhaps thousands of deadly viruses, antidotes and bacteria.
..... He felt as though the walls were closing on him – had to get out. He clattered around, gathered a few empty test tubes and stopped them with rubber bungs. He turned to go and ran straight into Donaldson.
..... "Imagine that, a fridge in the middle of Siberia," Keegan said.
..... Donaldson smiled, ramming his fist into Keegan's stomach, bending him double. The glass vials shattered over the floor.
..... “What’s going on?”
..... Keegan pulled away and Donaldson yanked the scarf from Keegan’s face. His eyes fixed onto the oxygen mask. His smile dropped.
..... "You…"
..... Keegan punched.  Missed.  Donaldson tugged at the airtube, snagged it and disconnected it from the tank. He staggered into the lab, fumbling with the mask until he'd got it in place.
..... "It's too late, Donaldson.  You've got smallpox. Just come back and they'll fix it." 
..... "I'll fix you."
..... Donaldson snatched at the mask, but Keegan sidestepped him, drawing the wire cutters out of his pocket.  He backed around the table, Donaldson following.  If he could get close enough to the door, he reckoned, he might be able to trap him inside. Then he could try reasoning.  Let the shock wear off.
..... He stumbled over the old man's body, reached out to steady himself and felt the elastic snap, his facemask slip. Donaldson's hand pulled away and Keegan lashed out with the blades. 
..... Donaldson screamed, grasped his wrist with his free hand.  The glove's little finger hung by a few bloody threads. Donaldson ripped it off, yelling, started ramming it in his pocket.
..... That's when Keegan dropped the shears, forced the mask over his face and ran. But Donaldson bolted like lightening, unbelievably fast for a man of his size, slamming around the other side to cut him off.  Keegan was almost through the door, when Donaldson's fist hammered the air out of him.  He gasped, unable to breathe, felt his chest crushing.  Sucked in deeply.  Saw Donaldson swinging the mask in his bloody hand.
..... "Shall we get moving?" he said.

Keegan opened his eyes, flinched from the light.
..... "Up you get," someone said.
..... The dimly lit room was small and cramped like an ambulance and smelt of anaesthetic.  The nurse in the oxygen mask helped him sit upright, and the bed rattled.
..... "Don't feel that good," he said.
..... "Just the effect of the drugs."
..... The room stopped spinning and the nurse helped him to his feet.  His legs buckled a couple of times on the way to the door.  Dank air swept into the compartment, and the nurse led him down two steps.
..... "Did Donaldson make it?" 
..... "Just stand there a minute, please."
..... That was a “no”.
..... The door slammed behind him, an engine choked to life and a moment later he was alone in the dark canyon of a street.  Wheelie bins overflowed with garbage, metal fire escapes twisted down the flanks of the tenement blocks on either side.  Cars, bicycles, people, flashed across the thin slither of light forty yards ahead. 
..... He hurried, the sweats coursing through him, his breath coming in short gasps. 
..... At the end of the alleyway, he emerged into a city - skyscrapers, taxis, great crowds flowing across busy streets.  The neon lights were just coming on. Chinese ideograms cascaded down the fronts of shops, cinemas, office blocks.
..... Keegan noticed his hand.  The skin was blistered, lifting away. His head hammered.
..... No more dirty work, he'd said to Sally, the sunlight hanging in her hair.
..... He'd been thinking of the words from his secret briefing then, and they came back now.
..... "We know the Chinese are going to make a grab for it. And we know that they'd use it as a dirty bomb - just one infected person wondering the streets of New York, London, Moscow and there would be a world epidemic. Completely untraceable."
..... He dropped to the pavement and the city roared around him. Hands tried to help him up, but it was already too late for them all.