Click here to read the next episode: The Plague – Episode 1
Mmiri Village Forest, Uyo
Papa Akpan Uduak was a seventy year old man, and he had all the symptoms to go with it: a bent back that ached along his spine, weak bones and muscles that never ceased to rattle, a slow heart rate and a strangulating chest pain for which he took medications four times a day, a difficulty breathing that made it almost impossible for him to make a complete sentence without wheezing. As such, there was very little Pa Akpan was afraid of. He knew if the growth developing on top of his liver didn’t kill him soon, his heart failure would. And if that didn’t get him, old age would. And that’s not to mention his diabetes, cholestrolemia, and a whole litany of conditions that presently plagued his body—what people called old people’s disease.
This was why when Akpan saw the flare high up in the sky through his window and felt the near imperceptible earth tremor that followed briefly after, he decided to go into the rain and take a look. Though his young wife (fifty four next year June) had vehemently refused him going, he had insisted. What was she afraid of? he wondered as he had argued with the plump, short haired woman. They lived far out in the forest, far from the highway and anybody that would seek to do them harm. The nearest person was Mr. Johnson who lived alone in a hut. It was perfectly safe to go out.
But no, she wouldn’t see reason.
Of course, when he had insisted, she had stormed off into the back room. She wouldn’t be part of this madness she had said.
Now standing before the front door, wearing a yellow, hooded raincoat over his green sweater and worn brown pair of trousers, and hefting a boxy lantern in his hands, he began to entertain second thoughts. Maybe it really was madness. Only madness drove a diseased, old man into a thunderstorm in the night. He turned away from the door and made for the dining table when he stopped again to consider another thought. What if someone was out there and needed help? The only madness would be not to render help.
With renewed zeal, Pa Akpan pushed open the door.
Papa Akpan Uduak didn’t believe in omens, much less a bad one. But when heavy lightning and thunder attended his entrance into the rain, showing clearly for the space of a second his small compound and the forest that followed, he took it as a bad omen.
Well he was going to die someday, wasn’t he? Pa Akpan shrugged off the morbid feeling and trudged into the rain in the direction of the crash site.
The journey to the crash site should have been only for a few minutes. But naturally it took him more than a few minutes, especially because of his severely shaking bones and because he had to stop often to cough and catch his breath. The clouds cracked and thundered, washing him now and then in a sharp, white light. Tiny streams ran the grooves and crevices of his overcoat, falling down the hem to the puddles and marshy ground. Despite his thick clothing, which he wore to ward of the cold, he could feel the hammering rain like pinpricks all over his body. It weighed him down.
Pa Akpan heaved a deep breath, tightened his grip on the lantern, pushed away from the tree he had been resting on a moment ago, and made his way deeper into the dark forest—slowly.
The first thing Akpan saw of the crash site was the felled trees. They lay neatly in a radial pattern. Huge pieces of steel were arraigned in the center, though, less neatly as the felled trees, and at the center still were six expended canisters. Akpan stood at the edge of the site and observed quietly, straining in the poor light from his lantern and cursing the bad weather every time lightning struck—it only served to blind him. He didn’t live this old by rushing into situations without thinking, or at least understanding what he was rushing into.
Pa Akpan rounded the edge of the crash site, observing carefully what he saw. The huge fractures of metal, hot even from a distance, had razor sharp and jagged edges. Their thickness and complementary edges and shapes suggested to Akpan that they had once been part of a single unit and had somehow broken apart. Pa Akpan closed in on the crash site and studied more closely the edges of the metal pieces; slowly, he realized that not only had they once been part of a single unit, but that this single unit had been designed to contain something in its core. Something so important, Akpan surmised from the thickness of the metal.
Pa Akpan turned and raised his lantern over the center, throwing, there, more light. The caps of the canisters had been blown off, judging from their torn heads.
Akpan hunkered down and turned one of the canisters, face up. What he saw made his skin crawl.
Papa Akpan reared, tripped over a branch, and fell into the unearthed roots of a felled tree, the fresh smell of wet leaves assaulting his nose. He scrambled to his feet and backpedaled until he struck a tree. The lantern slipped out of his weak hands and struck the earth; it shattered and the light went out, plunging him into darkness.
The first symptom hit him; a massive wave of nausea.
Had he been younger—say thirty years old—he could have resisted the powerful wave of nausea. However, Akpan fell to his knees and let the whole content of his stomach flow out through his mouth onto the ground. He spat out the final taste of Edikaikong soup he had eaten that afternoon and stood up. He rubbed off the mud on his palm with his raincoat and flicked his legs to get them off his wet trousers. He felt better already, but his heart still pounded in his chest. The number he had seen on the canister—U-235—still haunted his mind. He had to get back to his wife. She was a nurse. She would know what to do.
Akpan made his way back to his house, letting his fretful hands lead the way through the dark forest. When his heart became heavier and a headache began to develop in his head, he began to call on his wife. He groped through the darkness, moving as fast as his weak legs could take him.
“Mary!” Akpan called for the umpteenth time. His voice was nothing less than a harsh shrill. The roar of the rain seemed to intensify, foreboding the horrible death that awaited him. His heart hammered. His breathing raced erratically. He was amazed at how one thought about death when it was merely a concept and not an immediate possible experience.
If you have never been in the shadows of death, then you cannot possible imagine how it feels.
Akpan knew what he had seen. The symbols, the signs, the canisters, even the huge chunks of steel; it all fit perfectly. There was no other explanation.
“Mary!” Akpan wheezed severely and struck barbed wire. The sharp spikes dug into his flesh. Akpan shrieked from the pain, then ignored it—even the thick liquid that flowed down his hands—and trudged along the fence towards the gate. The door to his house swung open. Mary stood in the doorway, holding up a lantern. The light cast on her face revealed stern features. She was clearly not happy. “Akpan, is that you?”
Akpan plodded through the murky compound into the light so his wife could see him. “It’s me, Mary. There’s something out there. Something very bad.” This was all he could get out before pain shot through his body. He hollered and collapsed on the mud, a coolness descending upon his frail body. He shivered, coiling into a fetal position, even as his wife ran, screaming his name repeatedly, to him.
“Akpan!” she screamed again. “What is it?” Her weathered hands caressed his face. “You are burning up. Come, let’s get you inside.”
Akpan’s mind whirred. His eyes felt heavy as if he hadn’t slept in days. His wife had said he was burning, but he felt so cold. He wanted to tell her this, but he had no strength—not even to speak. Mary hefted him onto her shoulder and half pulled, half dragged him into the house, shutting the door with a kick from her leg. First, she propped him up on the couch and removed his raincoat, his sweater, and his boots. He tried to tell her to keep them all on, that he felt so cold, but his body seemed to be under the control of another. All he could get out was an incoherent babble which she disregarded. She laid him gently on the couch.
When she looked at his face, shock flickered through her eyes. “My God, Akpan,” she gasped, “what happened to you out there?” Before he could think to reply, she marched off into the back room. They had only two rooms in their small, thatched house: a front room where their dining table was, and a back room where their bed was. It was all they did day after day, eat, sleep, eat some more, sleep some more.
Akpan tried to respond still, but he was just too damn weak. He was so weak, he felt his organs would fall off his body, that his stomach would roll off the intestines on which it stood. With great effort, Akpan pulled his hands closer to warm his body. His eyes hurt fire. A sudden urge to vomit washed over him again, and he obliged happily—anything to get the infection out of his body. The peristaltic wave was enough to nudge him to the edge of the couch; he threw up on the wooden floor board: green, warm substance. The taste stung his tongue. He fell back into the couch. What troubled Akpan most was his weakening state.
Mary came around, saw the vomit, and hissed. She stepped over it and sat on the table in front of the couch. She set the small plate and the aluminum basin beside her. The plate had in it a makeshift pestle and a number of differently sized, differently colored tablets, while the basin had in it water and a white cloth.
“I don’t know what you’ve ingested,” Mary said, not the least bit happy, pounding the tablets. “I told you not to go out there, but you wouldn’t listen.”
Akpan took in deep breaths and let them out. He needed to tell Mary what he had seen. She needed to know. He tried to speak and almost fainted. Pain assaulted his head as if he had had his head bludgeoned by a huge, iron mace. He cried out.
“Oh, will you shut up!” Mary responded harshly. She added a little water and stirred her concoction.
Akpan repeated his cycle again. This time he almost fainted from hyperventilation. “U … 2 …”
“U what?” Mary dropped the plate, picked up the soaked cloth, and started dabbing her husband’s forehead. She hadn’t told him, but his face was red and dry to the point of almost flaking off. She knew he was experiencing massive systemic necrosis. She dabbed faster at his forehead more out of fear than an actual need. He cringed with each contact, but she relented not.
Though she was putting up a face of anger and nonchalance, she was scared to her bones. In all her years as a nurse, she had never seen anything like this. What was causing it? If it had been an infection he had caught when he left the house, why was it manifesting so soon? Mary returned to her concoction and started stirring the milky paste. No infection—if this was in fact an infection—that had such a short incubation period ever let their host live.
“U … 2 … 3 … 5.” Her husband coughed terribly, spilling green vomit all over himself.
Mary froze for a while, unable to think. Ever since he had come into the house, he had tried to tell her something. U-235. Mary had not heard that in over thirty years. It was not something she hoped to retrieve from the lips of a dying man. Suddenly the urge came over her to scrub her body and run as far away from Akpan as possible.
In a moment of clarity, the wheezing and shivering and moaning of Akpan ceased, and he croaked, “Go Mary. It’s okay. Go.” He coughed afterwards, and this time, blood and tissue splattered all over the couch.
Fear struck Mary’s heart.
Strangely, the thought going through her mind was how did a biological weapon end up in their backyard? It didn’t make any sense. In fact it seemed so nonsensical that Mary began to sob. Then she cried. She turned to her husband of thirty years. He had grown silent and still, though he still breathed and lived. How had he come in contact with a bio weapon? She smirked and then let loose a laugh of sarcasm. She wiped her eyes with the back of her free hand and returned to dabbing his face. Even if she wasn’t already infected, she wouldn’t leave her husband. For better or for worse, she had sworn. For better or for worse, she would stay. However, she suspected she was already infected. If what Akpan had seen was a WMD (Weapon of Mass Destruction), then it would be transmissible by touch. There was no way out.
She looked at the thick, milky liquid in the plate. Not even the medicine she had prepared could save her husband. How could a mixture of antibiotics, anti-inflammatories, and pain killers even dent a weaponized virus? Akpan was a dead man when he set eyes on whatever he had seen in the forest. And she had become a dead woman when she had set eyes on Akpan thereafter.
Mary sighed. She set the plate on Akpna’s lips. Though it wouldn’t cure him, it could mitigate his suffering. She parted his lips with two fingers and let the liquid slide neatly down his throat. Mary could tell that he was in so much pain from the tightness of his face. Hopefully, the drugs would offer some relief. Hopefully.
For a moment, Mary desisted from picking up the wet cloth. She bent her head. They had lived a full and rich life. She may have dreamt of a better death, but she couldn’t be more grateful for the time she had spent with her husband. She was even more grateful that they had no children or grandchildren; they had no souls to live behind—to leave languishing in great sorrow when they died. Mary picked up the wet cloth once more. Faithfully—everly—she dabbed at her husband’s cheek, forehead, neck, and chest. This she did to bring down his fever.
Less than an hour later, she would experience symptoms of the infection, and slowly, the nurse would become the patient. Exactly three hours after seeing the canisters, Akpan would pass on. Later that night, millions across the city of Uyo and other cities in Akwa-Ibom would experience symptoms of the infection. Some would go on to pass it to their families and friends. Some would go on to transport the virus into other states. But as sure as the clouds are, before a new sun rises, before a new day dawns, everyone with the virus would be dead.