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The Lazarus Vendetta



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Saturday, September 25
Near the Tuli River Valley, Zimbabwe

The last rays of the sun were gone, and thousands of stars shimmered weakly against a dark sky high above a rugged, arid land. This region of Zimbabwe was dirt-poor, even by that troubled nation's rock-bottom standards. There were almost no electric lights to illuminate the night, and there were few paved roads connecting southern Matabeleland's isolated villages to the larger world beyond.

Twin headlights suddenly appeared in the darkness, briefly illuminating thickets of gnarled scrub trees and scattered patches of thorn bushes and sparse grass. A battered Toyota pickup truck swayed along a worn dirt track, gears grinding as it bounced in and out of a series of deep ruts. Drawn by the flickering beams of light, swarms of insects flitted toward the pickup and spattered against its dust-streaked windshield.

“Merde!” Gilles Ferrand swore softly, wrestling with the steering wheel. Frowning, the tall, bearded Frenchman leaned forward, trying to see past the swirling cloud of dust and flying bugs. His thick glasses slipped down his nose. He took one hand off the wheel to push them back up and then swore again as the pickup nearly veered off the winding track.

“We should have left Bulawayo sooner,” he grumbled to the slender gray-haired woman beside him. “This so-called road is bad enough in daylight. It is a nightmare now. I wish the plane had not been so late.”

Susan Kendall shrugged. “If wishes were fishes, Gilles, we'd all be dead of mercury poisoning. Our project requires the new seeds and tools we were sent, and when you serve the Mother, you must accept inconveniences.”

Ferrand grimaced, wishing for the thousandth time that his prim American colleague would stop lecturing him. Both of them were veteran activists in the worldwide Lazarus Movement, working to save the Earth from the insane greed of unchecked global capitalism. There was no need for her to treat him like a schoolboy.

The truck's high beams silhouetted a familiar rock outcropping next to the track. The Frenchman sighed in relief. They were close to their destination — a tiny settlement adopted three months ago by the Lazarus Movement. He didn't remember the village's original name. The first thing he and Kendall had done was rename it Kusasa, “Tomorrow” in the local Ndebele dialect. It was an apt name, or so they hoped. The people of Kusasa had agreed to the change and to accept the Movement's help in returning to a natural and eco-friendly method of farming. Both activists believed their work here would lead a rebirth of wholly organic African agriculture — a rebirth rooted in absolute opposition to the West's toxic pesticides, chemical fertilizers, and dangerous genetically modified crops. The American woman was certain that her impassioned speeches had won over the village elders. Ferrand, more cynical by nature, suspected that the generous cash grants the Movement offered had carried more weight. No matter, he thought, the ends in this case would amply justify the means.

He turned off the main track and drove slowly toward a little cluster of brightly painted huts, tin-roofed shacks, and ramshackle cattle pens. Surrounded by small fields, Kusasa lay in a shallow valley edged by boulder-strewn hills and tall brush. He brought the truck to a stop and lightly tapped the horn.

No one came out to meet them.

Ferrand killed the engine but left the headlights on. He sat still for a moment, listening. The village dogs were howling. He felt the hairs on the back of his neck rise.

Susan Kendall frowned. “Where is everyone?”

“I do not know.” Ferrand slid cautiously out from behind the wheel. By now dozens of excited men, women, and children should have been thronging around them — grinning and murmuring in glee at the sight of the bulging seed bags and brand-new shovels, rakes, and hoes piled high in the Toyota's cargo bed. But nothing stirred among Kusasa's darkened huts.

“Hello?” the Frenchman called. He tried out his limited Ndebele. “Litshone Njani? Good evening?”

The dogs only howled louder, baying at the night sky.

Ferrand shivered. He leaned back inside the pickup. “Something is very wrong here, Susan. You should make contact with our people. Now. As a precaution.”

The gray-haired American woman stared at him for a moment, her eyes suddenly wide. Then she nodded and climbed down out of the Toyota. Working swiftly, she set up the linked satellite phone/laptop computer they carried in the field. It allowed them to communicate with their home office in Paris, though it was mainly used to upload photos and progress reports to the main Lazarus Web site.

Ferrand watched her in silence. Most of the time he found Susan Kendall intensely annoying, but she had courage when it counted. Perhaps more courage than he himself possessed. He sighed and reached under the seat for the flashlight clipped there. After a moment's reflection, he slung their digital camera over his shoulder.

“What are you doing, Gilles?” she asked, already punching in the phone code for Paris.

“I am going to take a look around,” he said stiffly.

“All right. But you should wait until I have a connection,” Kendall told him. She held the satellite phone to her ear for a moment. Her thin-lipped mouth tightened. “They've already left the office. There's no answer.”

Ferrand checked his watch. France was only an hour behind them, but it was the weekend. They were on their own. “Try the Web site,” he suggested.

She nodded.

Ferrand forced himself to move. He squared his shoulders and walked slowly into the village. He swept his flashlight in a wide arc, probing the darkness ahead. A lizard scuttled away from the beam, startling him. He muttered a soft curse and kept going.

Sweating now despite the cool night breeze, he came to the open space at the center of Kusasa. There was the village well. It was a favorite gathering place for young and old alike at the end of the day. He swept the flashlight across the hard-packed earth… and froze.

The people of Kusasa would not rejoice over the seeds and farm equipment he had brought them. They would not lead the rebirth of African agriculture. They were dead. All of them were dead.

The Frenchman stood frozen, his mind reeling in horror. There were corpses everywhere he looked. Dead men, women, and children lay in heaps across the clearing. Most of the bodies were intact, though twisted and misshapen by some terrible agony. Others seemed eerily hollow, almost as though they had been partially eaten from the inside out. A few were reduced to nothing more than torn shreds of flesh and bone surrounded by congealed puddles of bloodred slime. Thousands of huge black flies swarmed over the mutilated corpses, lazily feasting on the remains. Near the well, a small dog nuzzled the contorted body of a young child, vainly trying to rouse its playmate.

Gilles Ferrand swallowed hard, fighting down a surge of bile and vomit. With trembling hands, he set down his flashlight, took the digital camera off his shoulder, and began taking pictures. Someone had to document this terrible slaughter. Someone had to warn the world of this massacre of the innocents — of people whose only crime had been to side with the Lazarus Movement.

* * *

Four men lay motionless on one of the hills overlooking the village. They wore desert camouflage fatigues and body armor. Night-vision goggles and binoculars gave them a clear view of every movement made below while audio pickups fed every sound into their headsets.

One of the observers studied a shielded monitor. He looked up. “They have a link to the satellite. And we're tapped in with them.”

His leader, a giant auburn-haired man with bright green eyes, smiled thinly. “Good.” He leaned closer to get a better view of the screen. It showed a series of gruesome images — the pictures taken only minutes before by Gilles Ferrand — slowly loading onto the Lazarus Web site.

The green-eyed man watched carefully. Then he nodded. “That's enough. Cut their link.”

The observer complied, rapidly entering commands on a portable keypad. He tapped the enter key, sending a set of coded instructions to the communications satellite high overhead. One second later, the digital pictures streaming up from Kusasa froze, flickered, and then vanished.

The green-eyed man glanced at the two men lying flat next to him. Both were armed with Heckler & Koch PSG-1 sniper rifles designed for covert operations use. “Now kill them.”

He focused his night-vision binoculars on the two Lazarus Movement activists. The bearded Frenchman and the slender American woman were staring down at their satellite hookup in disbelief.

“Target acquired,” one of the snipers murmured. He squeezed the trigger. The 7.62mm round hit Ferrand in the forehead. The Frenchman toppled backward and slid to the ground, smearing blood and brains down the side of the Toyota. “Target down.”

The second sniper fired an instant later. His bullet caught Susan Kendall high in the back. She fell in a heap next to her colleague.

The tall green-eyed leader rose to his feet. More of his men, these wearing hazardous materials suits, were already moving down the slope carrying an array of scientific equipment. He keyed his throat mike, reporting through an encrypted satellite link, “This is Prime. Field One is complete. Evaluation, collection, and analysis proceeding as planned.” He eyed the two dead Lazarus activists. “SPARK has also been initiated… as ordered.”


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