The White House, Washington DC
“Please tell me we have nothing to do with this,” the president of the United States said.
“Actually sir,” Dan Mills, director of central intelligence, said, “we caused the incident in Nigeria.”
“You call this an incident?” POTUS bellowed. “This is a massacre! A genocide!”
None of the other twelve members of the president’s Security Council spoke. When their commander-in-chief got one of his rage fits, it was better not to be recognized. One could easily become the object of the president’s wrath.
“We’ve survived many scandals,” POTUS said in a low tone. “But this one we will not survive. It will destroy our nation. It will destroy our soul.”
Thomas Fletcher put forth his stubby fingers on the polished surface of the long table around which they all sat and said, “actually sir, we can avoid a scandal.”
The others looked at him with curious expressions, but the president had his eyes on the large view screens that paneled the round walls. The situation room was quite chilly though, no one caught stray drafts of machine conditioned air. Three uniformed technicians operated the bank of computers that provided the only sound in the room, except of course for the silent whir of the air conditioner.
“A well composed speech and a promise of aid cannot solve this problem, Tom,” the president replied, swiveling on his chair to face the assembly.
“I was actually thinking of a more proactive step, sir,” said Tom cautiously.
A glimmer of interest appeared in the president’s eye. “Go on,” he said.
“Our intelligence shows that much of the southern part of the country is devoid of life,” the chief of army staff said. “Nigeria is an underdeveloped nation. They will not be able to enter the infected zone without foreign aid in terms of equipment and bio-hazard suits. I propose a small expeditionary team. They go in, retrieve every evidence of our involvement in this crisis. That way, when things calm down, we’ll be in the clear.”
The president nodded once and mauled over the chief of army staff’s proposition. The fact that he hadn’t responded immediately was a sign that he would agree or at least give it a thought.
“Sir,” Donald Romero, director of the CDC, chirped in. “If we are sending soldiers to Nigeria, they’ll need Level 4 Hazmat suits.
“Why that high?” asked the president.
“Sir I’m only just going through some of the information we have on the virus that was released in Nigeria,” Donald replied. “It appears that it’s a weaponized strain of a hybrid of Small Pox, Virtusella, and Rickettsia. It was specifically engineered to mutate every twenty four hours to a more virulent strain. Each form of mutation is transmissible in an additional number of ways and it adds to itself some non-human characteristics.”
“What do you mean by non-human?”
“I am not certain, Mr. President. However, it appears that one of its mutant form can affect animals.”
The president became even more confused. “What kind of effects are we looking at?”
Donald Romero sighed grimly. “In short sir, it turns them into flesh eaters. It gives them an unbearable desire for human blood. Research data is inconclusive on this matter, but it seems that either the second or third mutation confers this character on the virus. Sir, the virus was designed to be utterly ruthless, to employ all kinds of devices to slaughter. Tested strains were so successful that the virus came to be called The Slaughterer by the researchers, in effect conferring upon it a personality. A mind.”
“Who the hell sanctioned this project?” the president exploded. Everyone cowered at the deep rumble.
“Well?” barked the president.
“The military, sir,” replied the director of the CDC.
The president swung his head and fixed his eyes on the chief of army staff. “Why was the military developing something like this?”
“It was an initiative for our MAD doctrine,” the burly man said. “Mutually assured destruction, sir?”
“I know what MAD is,” said the president. “Why was it sanctioned in the first place?”
“The project was sanctioned in the previous administration, sir,” the chief of army staff said.
POTUS slammed his hands on the table. “Damn it!”
General Thomas Fletcher continued. “The virus was designed as a response in the case of a nuclear strike from the Russians or the Chinese. One viral particle released in Moscow Metro, and Russia would be brought to its knees within two weeks. It wouldn’t matter if they had foreknowledge or not.”
“Nigeria is nowhere as developed as Russia,” the DCI continued seamlessly. “Their health care system does not have the capacity to contain this virus. For Moscow maybe it would take two weeks, but for Nigeria, that figure has been revised, taking into consideration what has been happening in the country and what is currently happening in the country.”
“Well?” The president faced away and stared into space.
The DCI spoke in a whisper as if his words were part of a sacred chant that needed only be heard by a select few. “Five days sir—that is four days from now—and Nigeria would be nothing more than a portion of land on the African continent.”
Whispers and soft gasps went round the table like a slow, deliberate wind.
“Which is the reason why we need to send in a team and distance ourselves from this crisis before the UN becomes involved,” said the chief of army staff.
“Is there a cure?” the president asked, slowly turning to face the assembly. He looked specifically at the director of the center for disease control.
“No sir,” Donald replied. “Not yet at least. But I have people working around the clock to develop a cure or a vaccine.”
The president straightened his back on the chair. Everyone knew he had made a decision. They expected their orders now.
“I want you to personally oversee the development process,” he said to Donald. Then he glanced at Col. Maddison, and said, “I trust you’ll be assisting him?”
“Yes, sir,” replied the commander of USAMRIID, Col. Joseph Maddison MD.
“Tom,” the president said. “You have my approval to send in a team.”
The chief of army staff nodded.
The secretary of state raised her head a notch and glanced at the president.
“Contact the UN,” he said. “We want to spearhead the relief efforts.”
She nodded and took notes with a pencil and a legal pad.
“All right people,” the president said, “get to work.”
* * *
December 21, 2015
Somewhere near Uyo, Akwa-Ibom State
“Try it again,” Ken said, hands on the wheels.
“I’ve tried over a hundred times,” Tom grumbled, as he dialed Emma’s number and put the phone to his ear. The now infuriating female voice of the call operator reported that the number he was trying to call was currently switched off—please try again later, thank you. Out of frustration, Tom threw the phone on the dashboard. “Not reachable,” he told Ken and looked out the window.
Ken nodded slightly and tried not to think too much on what the problem was with Emma’s phone. He found that it was easier not to think too much about anything related with this viral epidemic. Especially when he was in an infected area trying to rescue a girl that might have been dead and rotten for over a day. Things had gotten worse. Few minutes after they had left Umuahia, Gerald had called and told them that the electricity had gone out in the whole street. Ken and Tom had driven for miles and had not seen a single light bulb on. Something had gone wrong with power generation in the country.
Ken’s hands tightened on the wheels as they approached another web of car wrecks. They had survived countless of these car wrecks along the way; it slowed their progress. A journey that should have lasted for maybe three hours, had stretched to over nine hours. Ken slowed the vehicle and came to a halt three meters before the first charred car; it had the structure of an SUV. It could have been a 1992 Toyota Sequoia or a 2014 Cadillac Escalade; all Ken saw was the metal outline of an SUV. Ken looked out beyond the car. He had seen it several times since he set out from Umuahia, however, that didn’t stop the pain and grief from rising in his heart. The web of car wrecks spread before them, endless, until it met the horizon, and even then, it continued. It covered the two opposite lanes, and even the wide lane divide wasn’t spared the carnage. There was no fire, there was no smoke, still, the sight of ripped and scorched flesh, exposed organs, disfigured bodies spreading across the landscape repulsed and overwhelmed. No doubt, the virus was still active in the dead bodies, hastening the decaying process. Ken realized that they couldn’t maneuver through the wreck this time; it was just too dense. And the forest that bordered the lane didn’t give much space, though they could probably squeeze through.
“Can we leave?” Tom said, a hint of fear in his voice. “I don’t want this virus getting into this vehicle.”
Ken took a sudden look at the car’s AC setting and then relaxed. It was set to prevent external air from getting into the car unfiltered by a system of powerful particulate filters. Though he believed the virus was only transmissible by touch, he wasn’t sure. It wouldn’t hurt to take precautions, he thought.
Ken guided the car into the small space between the line of trees and the road. They squeezed along at a slow pace often flinching at the sharp sound of metal on metal whenever their vehicle scratched one of the numerous pointy metal remains of a car. Ken constantly searched the ground ahead for stray, sharp objects. It wouldn’t bode well if they had a flat tire here.
“My God,” Tom whispered, looking out his window. Ken followed his gaze for a moment. It was like a horror movie in slow motion. But alas, it was reality—those people rolling by them had suffered a horrible death. It was like a perfectly rehearsed play: the grotesque combination of metal and flesh, the reviling sight of internal organs spilled on the rough asphalt, the surreal crimson color of blood that coated everything, and most frightening, the expression of total terror splattered on the faces of every dead body that still had a head. They watched in silence, and grieved deeply.
Ken clenched his teeth to keep from vomiting. There was little he could do to keep from crying. Silently, the two occupants of the only moving vehicle in southeast Nigeria sobbed. Once they cleared the kaleidoscopic display of blood, bone, and metal, Ken gunned the vehicle down the highway with renewed resolution. He would find Emma even if it was the last thing he did.
“What if she’s dead like all these people?” Tom asked. His voice was distorted by tears. “What if all this had been for nothing?”
Ken ignored him for the umpteenth time and concentrated on driving. The sun was setting somewhere behind them, in the west, plunging the world around them into darkness. Few minutes before nightfall, they came to a fortified military road block.
Ken stomped the brakes, sending the car into a screechy rebellion as it painfully came to a halt. It was a barricade. There were military trucks of all shapes and sizes scattered in a loose formation across the roads, even the lane divide. A wall of sand bags had been set up to connect the cars on the road with the forest that had retreated a few meters away from the road. There was no place to squeeze through; they were effectively locked out of Uyo. The military men had suffered a similar fate as the rest of the populace, however, they had performed an impressive job, setting up a blockade.
Ken switched off the engine and sighed.
“I told you there was a blockade,” Tom said.
“How far away are we?” asked Ken. “We’ll have to walk the rest of the way or maybe steal a car.”
Tom looked at Ken, dubious. He brought out his map and studied it. Ken retrieved a self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) from the back seat and set it tightly on his head. As an operations member of NEMA, he had his gear in his trunk, ready to move at a moment’s notice. “Stay here,” he said, and opened the door. He jumped out of the car and slammed it shut immediately. He stretched his body to work out the kinks before walking towards the road block.
The road block was six layers thick and consisted of an assortment of vehicles: tanks, armored personnel carriers, Hilux vans, supply trucks, sedans, and the likes. Some vehicles were open, some were shut, but all uniformed men lay dead. This time Ken couldn’t help it; he vomited. He secured the SCBA on his head immediately afterwards. Just then, he heard a stifled whine. He jerked his head to the right where a green tent had been raised in the center of the wide lane divide. His heart leapt. There was someone alive in there.
Ken ran to the tent. He slowed down at the doorway and slipped in. At first he couldn’t see anything because of the low illumination, but his eyes adjusted. A large rust splattered table stood in the center of the space; there were sheets of paper and maps on it. Strewn around the table, on the earth, were people; people who had died in a horrible way. In the corner of the tent, Ken noticed a soldier propped up against the tent with his knees pulled up to his chin. His face was strangely covered in blood. Ken approached the man. He found it strange that on his face were huge claw marks, even on his chest; he clutched his bloody hands and whimpered softly. He didn’t seem to have noticed Ken’s presence.
The man flinched and looked at him, silent. On his face was a bewildered look, like he found a human presence odd. Ken didn’t blame the man.
“Are you alright?” Ken raised his hands in that I-mean-you-no-harm sort of way. The man cringed back, causing Ken to take a step back. “My name is Kennedy, sir,” he said, “I’m with NEMA. I want to help you.” Ken thought for another second and added, “do you understand what I’m saying? Do you speak English sir?” It wasn’t news that an unhealthy number of military personnel didn’t communicate well in the English language.
The man nodded. He then bent his head and continued to whimper. Ken knelt before the man. “What happened to you sir?” Ken said, observing the deep claw marks. They were deeper than he had first thought, like they had been gouged in, leaking blood and colorless liquid. The SCBA Ken wore cleansed the air he breathed, so he couldn’t perceive the air; he doubted he would have been able to stay level had he gotten a whiff of the air around the man.
“Hi don’t know,” the man replied in a thick Yoruba accent.
Ken studied the soldier’s epaulet and discovered he was just a sergeant.
“When we set hup the blockade,” the man continued, “hour men got hinfected.”
“Infected with what?”
“Hi don’t know,” replied the man with a pained expression. “We were supposed to contain the hinfection hin hUyo, but by the time we mobilized, the hinfection had already gotten through. Once we set hup, we started dying.”
Ken tried to touch the man, as if his touch would ease his pains, but retracted his hands on second thought. “Why is it that you aren’t dead like the rest?”
The man shrugged. It must have caused pain to shoot through him because he wailed and his face contorted.
“Sorry,” Ken said, wincing. When the man had calmed down, Ken said, “what gave you these injuries?” Before the man could reply, Tom rushed into the tent, his chest heaving and a fog developing on the view screen of his breathing apparatus.
“Are you alright?” he asked.
Ken nodded and returned his attention to the man.
“Dogs did this to you?” Ken asked incredulously, taking one more look at the claw marks across the man’s face and chest. They were too deep to have been caused by dogs. Maybe they had caused brain damage. The man could be delirious.
“Not hordinary dogs,” the man replied in a whisper. “Monsters!” he cried. “Hits the virus. Hit has changed them hinto monsters.”
There was a distant howl.
The man stiffened and grabbed Ken’s cloths at the chest. “They are coming!”