Lionel Nash's plea for help went unanswered because I could not reach my ringing satellite phone. My hands were occupied, gripping the steel fuselage in back of a C-130 Hercules, to keep me from sliding out of the plane. One engine had failed but the other three held altitude. I was strapped by bungee cord to the wall, six hundred feet above southern Sudan, as the big transport went semivertical, nose up, rear ramp open. I heard, over ringing, the high-pitched scream of wind, and the prop engines. Through that open door, I glimpsed six thousand starving Dinkas below, waiting for our life-giving cargo of Kansas-grown grain to fall.
There had been some mechanical problems over the last couple of weeks when it came time to release food. I'd insisted, against Eddie's objections, on riding in back today to see if I could find the snag. It had been small. I'd fixed it. Drop the food and let's go home, I'd told the three-man crew up front.
The ringing stopped as we hit drop-angle. Not many people had my number. That the phone was ringing meant there was an emergency. In this part of the world, that could mean any number of things.
It could be a government attack on rebels. Disease. Aid workers injured. The whole continent is a basket case.
I was the only person in back; no seats here, just the steel cave, and centering it, a track on which sat wooden pallets piled with 110-pound burlap sacks, filled with sorghum. From the outside, our blue UN markings were supposed to protect us if Sudanese MiGs showed up. Sometimes precautions worked. Sometimes rebels or government troops shot at relief planes. Sometimes planes-rattletrap workhorses to start with-failed and fell to the savannah below.
The phone began ringing again.
Below, men, women, and children had been waiting for food for days, sitting on their haunches, a silent crowd an eighth of a mile deep. Some had walked a hundred miles to reach the huge field, an arbitrary rectangle of grass. Looking up at us was a sea of hungry faces smeared with chalky dung powder, natural protection against sand flies. Twelve thousand eyes watched this afternoon's lone contribution to the bucket brigade of aid planes feeding four hundred thousand Africans at the junction of Kenya, Somalia, and Sudan, amid drought last year, flooding this year, and a thirty-year-old civil war.
Gravity did the job. The bags began to slide down the track, sluggish at first, then faster, food going down a gullet. The palettes and sacks tumbled out to separate and drop like bombs toward the veldt, where UN food monitors kept the crowd and a crew of TV journalists from running onto the drop zone, for a better shot, or for the food.
Last week a news show host from Copenhagen had done just that, stupidly had run onto the field to be on camera when the sacks hit the ground. Too late, she realized the bags were falling directly toward her. She tried to run, but her high heels snagged and a bag smashed her legs, and Eddie and I helped to amputate them back at the base.
She'd been airlifted home, a twenty-five-year-old blond beauty who had only weeks before appeared in Scandinavian magazine ads, and now would be fitted with artificial legs, who had considered Africa a form of entertainment or career advancement, and had come to see that it represented a more basic role than that.
What happens here threatens the world.
The ringing started up again as the plane stabilized and the remaining inboard port engine coughed. We limped toward home. I answered and went still, shocked when I heard who was calling. I'd thought today's mission was over. But what was starting would turn my world-the whole world-upside down.
My name is Joe Rush and I’m a medical doctor, all right, but also a retired Marine colonel who occasionally goes back on duty to do jobs for my old unit in D.C. My records have been sheep dipped, given selective truths. Kid from a Massachusetts town, that part is true, as is the ROTC training and Parris Island and later assignments in Indonesia, the Philippines, Iraq. Marksman, the file says, capable of running a field op. True. Forty-one years old. Divorced by a wife who got tired of secrecy. I live alone now in the town where I grew up and I advise the Wilderness Medicine group at Harvard two days a week on medical work in “difficult” areas of the world. The file looks complete, to an outsider.
But the death of my fiancée eighteen months ago isn't there, nor is the fact that, when summoned, I still run a two-man bioterror team comprised of myself and my best friend, Major Edward Nakamura. My secrets from even my bosses are certainly not there either. That I wake sometimes from dreams of strangling one man and watching another die, frothing at the mouth, in a foreign private hospital, run by a foreign security service. Sometimes when I open my eyes from those dreams, I feel a presence in the room. Not a consciousness. Not a ghost. I don't believe in that. So I'm unsure what is there, in the room with me. Memory? Blame? Rage? Regret?
My feeling when I lie awake those nights in my isolated home in Massachusetts, and wait for dawn, is complicated. It's not guilt. I did what had to be done. Not fear, because I don't care if something beyond our earthly comprehension is really there. "It's vigilance," Eddie once said. "You concentrate on what you need to do to protect others."
But Eddie is an optimist. He always thinks things will turn out right.
Once waking, I thought I saw a small green glow in the corner of my bedroom. But later I decided I probably didn't see it. Or it was the reflection of a headlight passing on the dirt road. Or an afterimage from rubbing my eyes. I'm a doctor. I'm a scientist. I hunt diseases and believe in facts. I don't believe in little glowing lights. Or in religion. Or certainly, anymore, in a benevolent God.
Wilderness Medicine is in the file, too, and it was the official reason that Eddie and I were in Africa, thanks to a secret agreement our director-back in Foggy Bottom-made with Harvard. Wilderness Medicine is a new field, the art of getting fast care to patients in remote parts of the earth. Sometimes they are explorers or adventurers who have been injured in the Amazon, or the Arctic, or the deep sandstone canyons of Utah. A sea snake-bitten National Geographic photographer in Micronesia. A farmer dying from a new, resistant malaria in Peru. WM patients tend to be the very rich, who use the wilderness as playgrounds, or the very poor, who lack even basic medical knowledge or care.
"But Wilderness Medicine also includes disaster relief, rapid response to hurricanes, cyclones, earthquakes, outbreaks," Admiral Galli, the director, had explained when the agreement was signed. "Officially, you're going to Africa as relief doctors. You'll work out of the giant aid base in northern Kenya. You'll treat locals and aid workers. Vaccinations. Health classes. Diet. You'll be based at the junction of three countries."
"And unofficially?" I'd asked as the three of us sat in Galli's townhouse office, walking distance from the White House, where we mapped outbreak games or war or terror scenarios like the one that had brought us to Africa.
The admiral frowned. He's a small man, sixtyish, a former Coast Guard hero. We've been through so much that we sometimes address each other more like friends. He's one of the few people left in Washington Eddie and I trust.
"Joe, there have been some disturbing reports coming out of East Africa."
"For two decades we've anticipated that if a bio-attack comes on U.S. soil, it will be in some recognizable form. Anthrax. Ricin. Bad stuff, but at least a form we know."
I felt a chill. "Something new has appeared?"
"Threats, Joe. CIA warning. That an Islamic splinter group is trying to develop a new kind of bioweapon, somewhere in that cesspool."
"Why go to the trouble to come up with something new, with so much other stuff out there?" Eddie asked. "Hell, someone must have stolen or bought half of those old Syrian germ stockpiles by now."
"Because, the rumor is, if this new thing hits, nobody will associate it with an attack. It will be considered a natural outbreak. So no reprisals. Rumor is, the perpetrator will not claim credit, just allow panic to spread. They'll step in later, after massive damage is done."
"Who started the rumor?"
"The origin is Nairobi."
"Who is the perpetrator supposed to be?"
A frown. The admiral went to his window, gazed out at happy, strolling American U students. State Department workers disappeared into the Metro. "That's the problem. ISIS? Al Qaeda? They've both expanded in Africa. Truth is, no clue."
Eddie said, "That's helpful."
"And the new bioagent? What are we looking for?" I asked.
Washington implies order: streets in a grid, stoplights that function, the Capitol dome that symbolizes-if not cooperation-at least some form of dominance over enemies. But our unit lived in the world of negative possibility. If the public knew what we'd stopped in the last two years, three hundred million Americans wouldn't sleep at night. The unit hunted down other people's nightmares. At night, we handled our own, and on our own.
Galli looked unhappy. "All we hear is, some group's scooping up diseases. Look, the newest splicing equipment is small and easily available. We face three generations of well-funded bad guys, trained in our own schools. Forget any technical gap. Science-wise, we're equal. The rumor is, they are close to coming up with something. So let's hope it's just one more false thread that won't pan out.
"But if they're there, find them," Admiral Galli said. "If they've come up with something, obtain it, destroy it."
"And the people?"
"Why even ask? Stop them. Kill them if you have to. Either way, get it done."
“Lieutenant Rush? It’s Lionel Nash. Remember me?”
I froze, hearing the name over the sat phone. I'd been wobbling down the empty fuselage toward the cockpit. I had not heard from Lionel Nash in years.
He's one of my old Marines.
The Hercules pitched and I grabbed the wall for balance. "Lionel? How are you?" But then something else hit me. The voice was too old to be him. My old Iraq crew would be in their late thirties or early forties now. But on my sat phone I heard an old voice, sick or half strangled with disease. A ninety-year-old throat cancer victim. A man with terminal emphysema; the wheezing of a smoker struggling to get words out, who would soon require an electronic voice box to aid plain speech.
"Remember . . . me, Lieutenant Rush? Well, you're a colonel now, I hear."
"Of course, Lionel."
How did he get this number? And do I remember him? I'll never forget him, or what we all found in Iraq.
The voice tried to be calm, but I heard panic beneath the surface. "We're sick, sir. Over half of us. Sixteen dead. Hassan won't let us bury them. He won't let us leave. He took our phones and then gave me this one back and said make one call. I'm sending you a picture. Hassan thinks we brought the disease here with us."
"How did you find me, Lionel?"
"I called your base from our field camp. I'm with the SUNY Albany East Africa project, sir. I'm an associate professor. I went back to school after the Marines. I'm a geologist now."
"You're out of the same base I am?" I was confused. Eddie and I bunked in an aid camp, not a science camp.
He coughed. The cough went on. "No, I'm at a satellite camp in the bush. We started out at your base."
"Is there a doctor with you?"
"She died two days ago."
"Do you recognize the illness?"
He wheezed out, "It's eating us away."
"Lionel, who is Hassan? Who won't let you leave?"
"He heads the clan fighters who surrounded us. They're afraid they'll get sick if they come close. They were arguing whether to kill us or let us call for help. Hassan told me two doctors can come. But only two. My feet . . . my face, sir! Oh God!"
He sounded like he was strangling. He got out, "We're just across the border from you. In Somalia, sir."
"Somalia?" This was getting worse by the second. Sudan was bad but at least only two sides were fighting there-rebels and government. In Somalia there had to be at least ten factions, all shifting allegiances almost weekly. Clan against clan. Muslim fundamentalists against seculars. Bandits against everyone. Pirates on the coast. There was no official government anymore. All forms of higher order had collapsed. To enter Somalia was to cross the line into a patchwork of fiefs where order came from AK-47s, allegiances shifted on an hourly basis, and wandering bands of refugees were followed by lions or hyenas who ate stragglers at night. It was the worst place on Earth-medieval Europe, back in century twelve.
"What are you doing in Somalia, for God's sake?"
He calmed a little. I'd diverted him from his symptoms. "First expedition allowed in, in a decade," he said with what might have been pride under other circumstances. "For fifteen years scientists have been afraid to come here. The work is important. We're dating sediments. We paid off the clan for safety . . ."
I thought, That didn't work so well.
Lionel said, "Our work will help determine the age of human remains found in East Africa."
"From wars, you mean?"
Lionel said, "No. Of the first humans. People who walked the earth a million years ago. If we can date the sediments, we can date the remains."
"Lionel, tell me your symptoms."
"Didn't you get the photo I sent, sir?"
"Send again. Meanwhile, list symptoms."
His voice was so broken up that I had to strain to hear. His gravelly babbling sounded as if his throat was closing up even as he spoke. "The tingling first. Redness."
"What kind of redness?"
"My feet. They don't work right anymore. My face. My fingers! Oh God!"
I was in the cockpit now and the three-man crew-private contractors from Dallas-stared at me, eyes wide.
"Lionel, do you have a fever?"
"I . . . I don't think so."
"No? No one? Everyone is sick but no fever?"
"Maybe a little. I'm not sure. My face, sir. In the mirror! I'm sending another photo now."