The Cobra Event is the story of a secret counterterror operation. The story begins one spring morning in New York City when a seventeen-year-old student wakes up feeling vaguely ill. She seems to be coming down with a cold. Hours later she is having violent seizures and has begun a hideous process of self-cannibalization. She is soon dead. When other gruesome deaths of a similar nature are discovered, the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta sends a pathologist, an expert in epidemiology, to investigate. What she finds precipitates a federal crisis.
The details of this story are fictional, but they are based on a scrupulously thorough inquiry into the history of biological weapons. Preston’s sources for this story include members of the FBI and the United States military, public health officials, intelligence officers in foreign governments, and scientists who have been involved in the development and testing of strategic bioweapons.
President Bill Clinton read The Cobra Event (which reportedly it kept him up all night), and was so alarmed that he ordered an intelligence analysis of the book. The book affected White House policy regarding bioterrorism, and helped encourage the president to order intensified spending and preparations for a bioterror event. It has been said that the government would not have been as prepared for the anthrax letter attacks in September and October, 2002, as it was, without the stimulus of The Cobra Event.
“This is truly scary stuff, and Preston has obviously done his homework. . . He’s one of the few voices in the wilderness about the threat of bioweapons and our vulnerability to them. If even part of what he describes in The Cobra Event is possible, and he swears it is, then he has done us all a favor.”
—The Denver Post
—The Miami Herald
Tom Cope moved along cautiously but quickly through the BJ 1 tunnel, carrying the black bag with its explosive assemblages of crystallized Cobra virus-dispersal bombs. The Delta elite handgun was also in his bag. The tunnel stretched out ahead, the single set of tracks gleaming in the occasional lights that burned in niches. He stopped every now and then to listen. At one point he thought he heard them coming behind him, but he wasn’t sure.
The tunnel went down a slope, turning south. It passed underneath a parking lot and then underneath Bowery Street, and headed downtown along the Sara Delano Roosevelt Parkway, a strip of greenery and playgrounds on the Lower East Side. It was 3:20 on a Sunday morning, and when police cars and F.B.I. cars suddenly began pouring into the neighborhood, and police teams began running down into subway entrances, there were not too many people around to notice, although patrons of nearby clubs were drawn to the activity and stood out in the street wondering what was going on. Since reporters listen to the police radio, television news trucks soon headed for the Lower East Side, tracking reports of a possible terror incident. The Cobra Event had been kept a secret, but the moment Cope slipped away, and the operation turned into a chase, it started to blow into the media.
The BJ 1 tunnel was going deeper underground, and Cope followed it. At first it headed south, but then it curved eastward, away from the Sara Delano Roosevelt Parkway, and it passed in a swooping curve under the old heart of the Lower East Side, under Forsyth Street, Eldridge Street, Allen Street, under Orchard Street, and then it headed due east under Delancey Street.
Cope knew where he was going, in a general sense. He had explored these tunnels on foot, and he had memorized a variety of routes of escape. This route was perhaps his best bet, he thought. He was heading for the Williamsburg Bridge, which rises from Delancey Street, connecting Manhattan with Brooklyn. He felt that he could hide his explosive devices either somewhere in a tunnel, or perhaps he could leave them in the open air where they would blow and plume into the city. He did not want his pursuers to find the devices. That was the problem. If he left them here in the tunnel, the devices would be found and perhaps disarmed. His leg hurt, and it was slowing him down. He had cut his knee while scrambling out of his building.
The tunnel began to rise, and it curved to the northeast. He saw lights ahead. It was the platform of the Essex-Delancey Street subway station, a complicated station at the foot of the Williamsburg Bridge.
I will get out here, where I don’t have to take the stairs up to the street.
The tunnel came out close to the Essex Street platform. A couple of hundred yards past the platform, the tracks headed up onto the Williamsburg bridge. The platform was deserted. In the distance Cope could see lights. That was his way out. They wouldn’t think to block this way.
Meanwhile, a group of New York City police officers were sweeping a set of stairs to the Essex Street platform.
Cope was hurrying along the tracks by the platform. He heard a sound of running footsteps, voices shouting; he saw movement on the stairs, and he turned around and retreated the way he had come. He faded into a niche in the wall back in the BJ 1 tunnel, listening to their radios crackling. They were searching the platform. It was certain that any moment they would come into the tunnel looking for him. What to do?
He knew that an F.B.I. team was coming down the BJ 1 tunnel behind him. He was trapped between the F.B.I. and the New York City Police Department.
I should do it here. Set it off. He hesitated. But the issue wasn’t so simple. He wasn’t absolutely certain he was infected with the virus. Maybe he wasn’t infected. It is hard to choose to die. It is easier to choose to be alive, as long as you have life left in you. There might be a way out.
He heard the rustling sound of the space suits, the pounding of their light rubber boots. They were coming fast.
He moved out of the niche and crept along the wall, and entered a dark area, some abandoned rooms. Ducking, moving fast, he hurried through the rooms. He was not more than forty feet from the police officers on the platform. He found some old air-blowing equipment, broken and unused machinery. A refrigerator. Where to go? For a moment he thought that he could climb inside the refrigerator. It had been painted blackæweird. But it was too small; he couldn’t fit in there. He got down on his knees and curled up against the wall, beside the black refrigerator.
He opened his bag and pulled out a bomb full of viral glass. He opened one end of the tube, and tugged out the detonator wires. If he crossed the wires, shorted them out, the bio-det would explode. He would die, but his life-form would live and go into the world.
Excerpted from The Cobra Event by Richard Preston. Copyright 2002 by Richard Preston. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.