Somewhere in Madrid, Spain
Lately it was hard to see God’s love. So it was more habit than earnest hope that brought Ana María García to pray. Ana María's arthritic knees creaked as she knelt, feeling the hard linoleum of the gymnasium floor through her thin sleeping mat. The air was thick with the smells of crowded humanity, and the quiet shuffling of the other refugees blended into a low, continuous sigh. No one, except perhaps God, heard Ana María's muffled plea.
The opening phrases of the intercessory prayer felt as careworn as her rosary, and the words felt equally as hollow as its beads. When she finished with the fixed, familiar beginning, Ana María was, for the first time in her long life, completely without words to say. The truth of the situation in Madrid was too big to put in words. She tried to imagine Jesus peeking into her heart, getting a sense of the enormity, the utter inundation of her despair. But the image just made her feel tired.
A few meters behind her, the sobbing of a young refugee had risen to moaning, and now became a keening wail. Ana María began the uncomfortable process of rising to her feet, her heart compelling her to comfort the young man. But soon another refugee was at the young man's side, and Ana María could see she was not needed in that private moment.
The abuela turned back to her rosary. Rather than pray for those here in the makeshift shelter as Father Moreno had suggested, Ana María prayed for her family abroad. Tranquility for Paco. Strength for Guillermo and his sons. Safety for Bebé and little Bebita. And good health, good health for them all.
"...please, Lord," she finished with a sudden rush of desperation. "Please, grant them one quiet night."
State Research Center of Virology and Biotechnology, Koltsovo, Russia
"Fuckmother!" Sonja swore again, slamming a gloved fist on the countertop, sending her pen flying and making the test tubes jump in their rack. Francisco winced, imagining the gesture aerosolizing droplets on impact, spraying the deadly pathogen throughout the lab... if they'd had any samples.
Francisco didn't comment on the lapse in aseptic technique; he did not feel it was a translator's place to critique. The other lab technicians would have scolded Sonja, had the last of them not trudged home in the cold dark hours ago.
Francisco had been huddled in the opposite corner of the lab trying to appear small and nonthreatening, but he now jumped to his feet. He left the careworn Russian-Spanish dictionary beside his still-running tape recorder.
He raised his hands to emphasize calm as he rounded the lab bench. "Boss, I think it's time we took a break," he said in Russian.
Sonja glared at him, eyes glittering over blurry crescent moons of taut, darkened skin. Francisco met her stare, unmoving.
"I do not have time for this," she finally muttered. With a huff, she bent to retrieve her pen from the floor. "I do not have time for any of this."
When she righted herself, her brow was still furrowed but exhaustion had crept back into her eyes. "You mean to say I should be taking break."
Francisco used a bootied foot to hook the leg of an empty stool, sliding it next to Sonja's and sitting down. "I mean both of us. We're too tired to get further into this today."
"If I was having one more sample, work would be much faster." Sonja switched to English, bitter.
Francisco nodded slightly. "Perhaps," he conceded.
"Problem is incubation."
"Here facilities are good, but with no sample fresh I cannot being effective. How can I be doing good with nothing?"
"Here my hand is tied, Francisco. I must go get sample myself." She stood, moving for the door. That was Sonja: never passing work to the team that she wasn't willing to stay after hours to do herself. It didn't matter that no flights were scheduled into or out of the Middle East, Sonja looked ready to drive all night, and then through the many military blockades she would be sure to encounter.
"Wait!" Francisco called, scrambling to pack his laptop, recorder, and stack of medical and translation dictionaries. "I may know someone who can help."
Somewhere in São Paulo, Brasil
The bench outside the hospital entrance was an unpainted wooden plank propped up by six cinder blocks. As they approached, a nurse ushered a couple into the tiny, crowded hospital, leaving an empty space on the bench next to an old woman. Julia was glad to finally set Zack down. She rotated her shoulders, attempting to soothe the stiffness. Max sat on the ground on Zack's right.
Julia's hand was rubbing a small circle on Zack's back, but the nearly-unconscious boy was slumped into the lap of the boy on his right. Max sat rigidly upright, eyes locked on the hospital doors.
Julia surveyed her friend's condition. Zack was pale and shivering, his shirt soaked with sweat. His breathing was more even than it had been when Max shook her awake from the hostel bunk that morning. Zack's throat had been whistling, he said. The fever was worse. He needed a doctor, he said.
Her mind flashed with messy images of that morning, of Zack's cheeks too pale, too fevered to flush in embarrassment. She had sworn to herself she wouldn't tell Max about the blood in the diarrhea. It would break his heart. And if a scared and heart-broken Max was an unpredictable beast, well... best to avoid that as well.
The old Brazilian woman sitting on her left caught her eye, glancing between Julia and Zack. "Esposo?" she asked. When met with a confused look, she prodded, gently, "Marido?"
The girl froze, then swallowed. She shook her head once, then once again, more firmly. "No, no... Não." She struggled with the nasal, throaty sound of the language.
The old woman glanced again at her hand tracing circles on Zack's back, then nodded, smiling the knowing smile of a grandmother, or kind, older aunt. The lady turned the worn gold band on her own, wrinkled left hand, then patted the girl's knee. Julia stiffened at the touch, but did not withdraw.
The sun was low in the afternoon sky, and the faint chemical tinge in the air was a reminder that at least the flies and mosquitoes were gone. Eventually, a girl in nurse's scrubs, hardly a teenager, pushed out through the double glass doors. Scanning the small crowd, she came to the old woman, spoke to her in hushed Portuguese. The woman nodded slowly, but did not ask questions. She stood, grasping the nurse's upper arm for support. The nurse led the woman around to the side of the hospital. The orange sunlight struck their figures just before they disappeared down the wide alley together, and in the glow Julia saw the glint of tear tracks on both their cheeks.
She stood abruptly, pacing back and forth. She'd didn't have the energy to rant out loud, but the weariness in her face belied her racing mind. On the fourth pass in front of her friends, she made her way to the hospital doors, resolute.
As she reached forward an open palm, the door swung outward. She jumped to the side, narrowly avoiding a collision. This nurse, a man of about thirty with darkly tanned skin, continued forward oblivious, squinting at the clipboard raised to his face.
"García?" the nurse called, finally looking up as his shoes struck a crack in the sidewalk. "Zackary García!" His accent was thick, but there was no mistaking the name.
She walked forward, but Max sprung to attention, carefully supporting a dazed Zack. "Doctor!" He raised his hand, then motioned to Zack.
The nurse strode forward, Julia not far behind. He glanced at Zack, consulted his clipboard, then nodded and turned on his heel. This time, he did bump into her. With a glare he smoothed his scrubs and then turned back to Zack. "In!" the nurse barked. Max moved to help Zack in, but the nurse shook his head, "One."
Julia rushed forward, trying to compose an argument in Spanish, hoping it would be intelligible. Max was also protesting, in English.
The nurse was firm, but he did reach to shift Zack from Max to his shoulder. "One only."
"It's okay," Zack breathed. He reached a trembling hand for Max. "Just don't-"
"Don't tell your dad," Max nodded. Under his breath, he added, "I know. I won't."
Julia and Max held the doors, letting the nurse direct and half-carry their very sick friend into the mouth of the hospital.
Strategic Health Operations Centre, Geneva, Switzerland
"Kerri, we've got a Russian scientist from the Vector Institute who thinks she's close to a Black Virus treatment - a prototype anyhow. She's petitioning us to charter her a flight from Koltsovo to the latest breakout in Khartoum."
"How the feck does she expect to develop a treatment there? Forget proper safety for testing, I'd be surprised if they even have a BSL-3 center in the whole of Sudan."
John nodded curtly. "That's correct; they only have a handful of labs equipped to BSL-2. And the closest BSL-4 is in Gabon, ma'am."
"Sabine and her crew are swamped, can't send this Russian there."
Her assistant's response was prompt as always: "Regardless, the facility in Gabon is not prepared with the human tissue cultures needed for incubating virii."
Kerrigan narrowed her eyes. "Just what the hell is this Russian's angle? Can we get her on the phone?"
"Not her, but her interpreter, ma'am."
She cocked an eyebrow. "One of ours?"
"Yes. Wasn't originally trained for interpreting Russian, but he was working on a translation certification and we sent what we could. His interpretation'll be a bit slow."
"Nobody around here knows Russian? Can't we get Sergey or Tina to video conference from the hospital?"
"I already tried, ma'am. They're... they're not up to the task at this time."
"John..." she met his eye.
He sighed. "Sergey died two days ago and Tina fell into a coma, like the rest." So she was as good as dead if they didn't get to work.
"Well, we'll make due with what we've got."
John nodded. "We'll have to."
"Right you are. And stop chewing your lip. You're making your mustache lopsided."
An undisclosed location, very early morning
The diplomat's left hand fidgeted with the brass latch of his briefcase as the car pulled away from behind the hospital research complex. His plain gold ring flashed in the dusty amber light of the streetlamp. Up front, Raul was driving with characteristic caution. The ride was quiet apart from the occasional rumble-thud of the tires in a pothole too wide to steer around.
"I never thought they'd do it," the diplomat said baldly as they waited for a troop of street children to pass in front of the vehicle. "The General was reluctant, but couldn’t risk confrontation after last year’s debacle. He listened to the Prime Minister even knowing she was operating purely on fear. ”
Raul pressed his lips together in a thin line, alarmed at the usually calm diplomat’s fervent rambling.
"Damn that woman! I promised more aid than we can afford. I stalled, lied, pleaded, gambled... we all did." He grunted, "Never thought I'd be in bed with the Russians and the Chinese on something."
Raul's eyes never left the road. The diplomat toggled the briefcase latch again. "All the world's history, and it came down to an aggressive flu and the stubbornness of a few pansy bureaucrats with access to bioweapons."
The diplomat was often inclined to speak to his driver, though rarely about business or politics. Seeming to sense the weight of his transgression, he quieted, shifting his weight. The leather of the backseat creaked. As they reached the outskirts of town, he spoke again, this time in a quiet voice. "Raul, I trust you've spoken to your family recently?"
"The timezones make it difficult, sir, but I write them every week."
The gentleman nodded, toying with his garish green tie but not bothering to straighten it. "And, if you are a praying man," he began, but cut himself off with a bitter laugh. "Nevermind. I do not suppose God will listen when we are all sons of bitches."
Raul thought of his grandmother, and kept his own suppositions to himself.
"Dr. Tsukanova, I appreciate that your findings are promising and am grateful you brought them to our attention. However, while the field hospitals in Khartoum are the best the UN can muster given the state of things as they are in the world, a field hospital is not a lab. Ma'am, you won't be able to accomplish your goal."
Francisco turned to Sonja, beginning to stutter Russian, but Sonja interrupted him.
"It is enough better to be having me there!" In the pixelated image, the brunette threw up her hands and then switched back to Russian. Under the barrage Francisco leaned so far back the dispatcher expected him to fall out of sight. Instead, it was the scientist who left the webcam's field of view, stalking off to the right.
Francisco straightened. "Please forgive us, Dispatcher. Sonja and her lab are used to working with limited resources, but -"
"Can she do it?" Kerrigan cut in.
"Can she...? Yes, the group here is very confident. Given their collective expertise with smallpox and, as I'm told, the similarity of the Black Virus to smallpox, this seems to be a real chance."
"What will they need?" She glanced to her assistant. John flipped to a fresh sheet in his pad of notepaper.
Francisco stopped to consult a small, extremely thick book with a worn, white cover. He flipped several pages back and forth, his eyes scanning up and down the columns of text. Slowly, entry after entry, Francisco read off material names from the dictionary in a lilting Spanish accent. He occasionally consulted Sonja, looking offscreen and nodding as she clarified in short, rapid bursts of mixed English and Russian. John took brief notes, and they both asked questions about quantities and timelines.
Eight minutes later, the call was cut off. Kerrigan's connection was wired and her modem's line of LEDs was lit green, so she assumed it was on the Russian end. She sighed.
"It can't be done, John. We don't have that kind of operational expertise on the ground in North Africa."
John nodded. Partway through the conversation, he'd stopped taking notes and had begun composing a letter to his wife's mother. It was cowardly to not make the apology in person, but he figured it was better than leaving things left unsaid at all.
"John, you need to be with your family," Kerrigan was typing furiously. "I'll get you an overnight flight to Madrid. Well, to Barcelona, anyway."
The decade-old scars on the insides of John's wrists ached, but he resisted scratching them through his long-sleeved dress shirt. The discomfort was nothing new. Habitually, he dipped a hand into his front pant pocket to caress a worn pink fleece square tucked there. Between his thumb and forefinger he felt the baby's name, hand-embroidered in his wife's tiny, neat stitches.
"Don't. Please," he pleaded.
She stopped typing, her eyes a cold glare on his drawn face.
"Kerrigan - Kerri. We each grieve in our own way. I can't go to Madrid and sit in some cathedral, surrounded by other mourners in the shadows of sculptures of moldy saints. The death - their deaths," he swallowed, "- it has to mean something. Please let me make it mean something."
Kerrigan sighed. It was his choice to get lost in work, and she had plenty of tasks to give him. "Alright; I can use you as a local coordinator in the field. But you're working too hard, John."
The sentiment echoed in her head: You're the best man I've got, but you're working too hard.
Everyone looked exhausted these days. Kerrigan herself had stopped eating regularly a week ago. She vacillated between resigned exhaustion and snappy irritation, but she never traced the mood swings to her level of hunger; she was too distracted to feel hungry.
Somewhere in New York City, USA
Hiroaki sighed into his phone. “I’m an analyst, not a biologist. When I was fresh out of a Master's degree twenty years ago I might have been helpful, but...," Hiroaki shook his head slowly. "Look: I do behavioral epidemiology. I can talk all day about obesity rates, incidence of ADHD, gun crime, and why all three demand we fund better schools. But running serological assays? You need a nurse, or a microbiologist, or maybe a chemist... hell, you'd even be better off with a chef. They can follow recipes better than I can!"
He looked up, seeing the intern, Sarah, sidle into his office. "Look, I have to go. I'll be in Geneva by tomorrow morning, so you'll have to keep in touch with me by email. And good luck with those samples."
Sarah dropped a thick folder on Hiroaki's desk with a thud, disturbing whatever papers were underneath. "Latest report from the city morgue. Get this: half of yesterday's dead were cyanotic."
The fingers of Hiroaki's left hand flexed, compulsively tapping his keyboard to save his current document even as his right hand reached for the file. “What? Cyanosis doesn’t fit the progression at all!”
The intern held up her coffee mug in a defensive shrug: don't shoot the messenger. "Also, the boss wants to know why you think the Vietnamese thing is zoonotic." She pulled over a dilapidated chair and sat, slurping her coffee. "She read your memo but I don't think she'll be convinced until you name a specific reservoir."
He shrugged. "Bats, pigs, fish, frogs, poultry, primates. Hell, it could even be dogs. Who knows? More bushmeat passes through that city market in a week than science has names for, and I'm not exaggerating. One of the field grunts bought roast lizard on a bamboo skewer only to realize it was from an entirely new family."
She looked up at him, eyebrows raised.
He gave another shrug, tossing the file onto a teetering stack of papers at the opposite corner of his desk. "Turns out the guy's an amateur herpetologist. Undiscovered species get described from Southeast Asia all the time but he seemed to think a new family of lizard was a pretty big deal. Not that anybody has time for that sort of science right now," he amended.
He turned back to his laptop and resumed typing. She toed the dirty linoleum and slurped more coffee.
"Sarah, why are you still here?"
"I was thinking you could use a break." She gestured to his desk. "This can wait."
"It can't wait. Twelve different reports on three concurrent pandemics," he sighed, chair groaning as he leaned back, "and none of them can wait. And I have a flight in five hours..."
"Let's get out of here," she blurted. At his startled stare, she hesitated, looking down at her sneakers.
He waited. She took a deep breath, looked him in the eye, and said, "We could get coffee at Ami's, maybe?"
Hiroaki paused, very still, and she broke eye contact. "Coffee?" he asked. They both stared at the brown ceramic mug of coffee in her hands, and then he erupted in gentle laughter. She grinned, weakly.
He wiped a small tear from the corner of his eye. It felt good to laugh. "A date it is, Ms. Goldstein. We'll go in twenty minutes, but until then, scram. This report won't write itself."
She bobbed her head, cheeks red. "Yea, yea. See you in a bit."
When the call re-connected, Dr. Sonja Tsukanova was back. She was pacing directly behind Francisco, who winced slightly whenever he heard her footsteps draw near.
"We will not send you to Khartoum, ma'am."
A stream of Russian exploded, and this time Francisco did topple out of his chair, knocking his materials off the bench beside him as he went.
"Doctor!" Kerrigan yelled, Irish accent slipping through. Sonja had reached down and was grabbing her interpreter by the elbow and hauling him upright. He sorted his papers and books in a haze.
Kerrigan bit her lip until she had Sonja's eye and the harsh Russian syllables had died down to an under-the-breath mutter.
"Koltsovo has the facilities for your team to do this work. You're staying in Koltsovo." She stared unblinking at Sonja, waiting for a rebuttal.
Teetering on his stool, Francisco glanced between the two women. Sonja's hand was still clamped on his elbow.
After a long, tense stretch of silence, Sonja dropped his arm in disgust. "We will stay."
Kerrigan let out a breath she hadn't realized she been holding. "We'll get the samples to you, Doctor Tsukanova. We've got specialists for this." John was more a secretary than a field operative, but they had to make due with what they had.
Sonja glanced at Francisco, who spoke a short word or two.
Finally, the scientist nodded. "Then let us be saving world. You, at UN, with your talking and your airplanes; your people in Africa, with the sick; and us, far away in Russia."
"Here will do. You can stop the car, Raul."
They'd taken the long way home at the diplomat's request and were now on a bluff overlooking the capitol city. Raul guided the car onto the road's gravel shoulder. He set the parking brake, but left the engine idling, just in case. Something was amiss. The capitol's lights twinkled below them, past the river.
"I've always thought this spot particularly beautiful," the diplomat’s voice was hollow as he gazed out the rolled-down window. "Tonight we will finally pause to take in the view." He shrugged his suit jacket off his sweating shoulders and set it folded beside his briefcase.
Cars rarely passed on the hillside road at this pre-dawn hour, but two came rumbling by before the man spoke again.
"Raul, if you would kindly..?"
Raul straightened in his seat, smoothed the crease of his shirt, and exited the vehicle. His polished leather boots stirred the dust and gravel as he moved to the other side of the towncar.
Raul opened the car door for the diplomat and stood to one side. The diplomat stared into the open space. Where the door had been was a light shape of stars and city lights bordered by the dark silhouette of the car frame. The view reminded him of a place he used to visit as a teenager, young and naïve and so, so innocent. Thinking of how much that bright space was like a view back to home, the diplomat nearly cried. All those lights would soon be out.
He could barely see the fingers of Raul's hand outlined at the top of the doorframe. All those lives he might have saved...
Without a word, the diplomat flung himself into the star-bright space. In two long-legged bounds, he had rushed himself off the road, over the edge of the cliff.
Raul shouted, spinning on his heel.
A muffled thud overlaying a sharp crunch. The clatter of rocks tumbling down the cliff.
Raul reached the edge of the cliff in time to see a dark blotch - his master's limp body - splash into the muddy water of the river below. Straining his eyes, he scanned downstream, the current roiling through a narrows.
Raul stood in the chill wind, his body motionless but his eyes frantically searching. The body did not reappear in the froth, nor along the shoreline. He was alone in the dust of foreign soil.
"Damn. You're sure it's viral?"
Kerrigan's limp black hair rippled as she nodded. "Viral, and waterborne. According to the scientists over in Koltsovo, anyway," she said grimly, "and they're among the best in the world."
Charlena Jackson leaned forward, pinching the bridge of her nose. The distortion of her laptop's web camera lens made the crease in her brow a long, dark line. "Okay. Any desalination plants that use reverse osmosis or distillation will be the best bet for clean water production en masse, but you're going to have to take care with transfer. Wastewater treatment plants that use either technique are also an option, but riskier, for obvious reasons."
"You are the one going to take such care; we're sending you to Karachi, the site of the original outbreak."
Charlena's head snapped up, dark eyes wide. "What? You can't. With all due respect, ma'am, things here are teetering on a knife edge. There's a military coup brewing, and word of a follow-up revolt from a splinter group. And nobody else in the city is equipped to coordinate the anti-mosquito program I finally managed to win them over on. I was just about to start canvassing the hospitals and --"
"You have done marvelously at preventing spillover east of the Andes, Miss Jackson. That's why we need you in Pakistan."
"You can't--" Charlena began. Then, she exhaled, almost deflating. "Quarantines are not a 'one and done' mechanism. It takes tact and political maneuvering of exponentially increasing difficulty just to maintain effective isolation at this scale. I- I know nothing of the cultures or local politics of South Asia. And," she added, smiling slightly as she heard the ghost of her stepmother ranting about the Tower of Babel, "I definitely don't speak Urdu."
"I make this request only because the need is beyond critical. The outbreaks in India, Nepal, and Pakistan are on a scale rivaled only by the Bubonic Plague, and our epidemiologists are forecasting a turn for the worse now that it's spread to North Africa. We need to control this before it goes global like the other two." Her words were clipped, sharply articulate, but the staccato did little to hide her emotion.
Charlena held up a hand, placating. "I do want to help. Send me everything the Russians and anyone else have got. Connect me with your boots on the ground in Karachi and I'll advise in whatever way I can. But there are people dying here too, ma'am, and I won't let them die alone. Not after they trusted me."
Kerrigan sighed heavily, glancing across the dimly-lit room to John's empty chair. He would have told her to be more stubborn. He always supported her in making the hard decisions no one else could. But now he was off making a difference elsewhere, being, as Charlena called it, the "boots on the ground."
Kerri was so tired. She closed her eyes, trying to recall the way her father smiled as he called her "my stubborn lass." Tears welled in her eyes.
"Alright, Miss Jackson, we'll take you up on that counteroffer. I'll have my assistant --," she glanced at John's chair again, "...I'll send the information over as soon as I can. Good luck, and take care out there."
Charlena smiled warmly. "Thank you."
Kerrigan nodded curtly and cut the call before the tears could slip from her eyes. She shook her head sharply, and, as if to summon further resolve, shoved her chair back to stand.
It was too sudden a movement. Blood rushed from her head and she swayed, vision narrowing to a dark tunnel. Her knees gave out. The last thing she saw as she collapsed was a scrap of pink fabric at the base of John's chair.
It looks soft, Kerrigan thought. Then unconsciousness claimed her.
Max watched the bustle behind the hospital doors for several minutes after its newest admitted patient had disappeared from view. Then, not quite looking Julia in the eye, he said, "I'm going for a walk. Maybe I can find a place selling more underwear, or gym shorts."
Julia swallowed, though her mouth was too dry to lubricate her throat with any appreciable amount of spittle. So he'd known all along. "Fine," she conceded. "Keep your hand on your wallet in your pocket," she warned.
"Yes, mom." He paused, then his gaze finally met her face. "Thanks, Julia. For -- for everything."
"I'm doing it for him."
"I know." Max turned, walking down the wide boulevard the way they'd come from the hostel. From here, it looked that few, if any, more stores had opened since they'd slowly navigated the littered sidewalk at five thirty that morning.
She watched Max go, but he didn't turn back. Her spot on the bench was already claimed, so she sat with her back against the faded no-color wall of the hospital. After a moment, she began fiddling with her cell phone, even though the battery had long since died.
Within moments, a young black woman wearing fatigues crouched beside her. She handed the girl a forest green plastic box the size of a deck of cards. One side was covered in small solar panels. "Sucks being the third wheel, doesn't it?" The soldier said in a mild southeastern American accent.
Julia narrowed her eyes in suspicion. The device was heavy for its small size and, turning it over, she spotted a slim USB connector. With a quick squeak of delight, she used her thumbnail to prize off the tiny door on the side of her cell phone and jammed the portable charger into the slot. Instantly, the phone's screen powered on. The "LOW BATT" and "NO NET" symbols were flashing, but still a rushing sense of relief flooded over her. It triggered the tears she'd been holding back for days.
"I've got an adapter, if it's the wrong size." The soldier had turned to watch the nurses coming and going in the reception area, giving the girl a moment to collect herself.
Julia scrubbed her eyes with the palms of her hands. "Thanks," she sniffed. Looking over the woman's uniform, she noted the rectangle over the left breast pocket. "JACKSON" was stitched in black. The uniform was augmented with two separate respirators, a pair of thick rubber gloves, and a bulky plastic hood dangling from the webbing of the drab olive belt. "Are you an Army defector or something?"
"Hardly!" Jackson's teeth flashed as she laughed: crooked, but white. "Actually, I'm here with Homeland Security. The fatigues are from my time in the reserves. Make me look more... persuasive." She winked and the girl couldn't help but smile. "Why do you ask?"
"The American flag - it's backward on your shoulder."
The soldier smiled. "Keen observation! The stars and blue field are where the flag attaches to the pole. They always come first, signifying that I'm carrying the flag forward into battle," she thrust her left hand out as if carrying a pole and mocked a salute, "rather than retreating."
"We should be retreating. This place is a hell hole."
"You're still here," Jackson observed.
"My friend needs me."
Jackson nodded again. "I suppose that's why I'm here, too."
The girl continued. "His Spanish sucks. Mine does too, but at least I can hear the Spanish in the Portuguese, if that makes any sense."
A sidelong glance. "And the boyfriend?"
Julia startled, sitting upright. "He's not my boyfriend."
"Oh, I know, honey. Not the boy with the infection. His boyfriend."
She went very still. "...How?"
"I was watching you guys this morning. My step-brother was the same way with me and his boyfriend: right up until college he was always asking me to come along on their adventures - dates, really - so people wouldn't catch on to the two of them. They thought I wouldn't realize either."
"You were okay with that?" Julia's voice was filled with longing.
Charlena Jackson leaned back, tilting her head and squinting at the sky. Her curly black hair flattened, taking the shape of the wall. "I... I loved my brother. I guess I felt it was my duty to protect him. Mostly from his mother; that woman was so devout she thought ice cream was a sin. I used to wish, sometimes, that he had my momma. Momma would have said 'God loves all his creatures' and just carried on. And Daddy wouldn't have ever crossed Momma, not with something so important."
The girl ran her thumb along the edge of her phone. "Sounds familiar."
"I thought it might."
Twenty minutes later, Julia's phone vibrated, battery indicator full and green. The soldier pretended not to notice the renewed tears as the girl handed back the battery charger.
"You should probably call home," the soldier urged.
Julia nodded absently, but her eyes were on the hospital doors. "Yea, I will."
"You going to wait until they come to talk to you?"
The girl nodded again. Then, "I'm glad your brother - your step-brother, I mean - had you to protect him."
Jackson closed her eyes to the sky, frowning. "Not for long. He dropped out of college most of the way through. Daddy and his mother were furious. They stopped talking for years, even at Daddy's funeral. One day, he called from the hospital. Turned out he had a rare form of cancer. He was dying, but he'd been too scared to tell us. His mother was furious. Suddenly, GPA and diplomas and sexual orientation didn't seem so important any more."
"Did you get to say goodbye?"
She winced. "I almost didn't. The hospital clerk didn't believe I was related - he was half-black, but mostly got his mother's skin tone. But I did see him, and we made our peace. I think you should, too."
"Zack's not going to die!"
"I certainly hope not. But if he's been using you as cover for a relationship, he needs to recognize how good of a friend you've been, and how poorly he's treated you. Loving somebody but only getting the edges of their life... that's hard on a soul."
Julia paused in fiddling with her phone long enough to wipe sweat from her brow. "At this point, I just want to see him."
"I hope you do. But don't hold back from your own life. You're waiting for good news when you could be calling home, hearing the voices of your family."
Jackson's radio buzzed lightly, and she grunted. "Duty calls." She stood, dusting off her knees. "Take care."
Julia paused in scrolling through the contacts on her phone. "You too. And... thank you. Carry the flag forward into battle and all."
At that Charlena Jackson, quarantine specialist, smiled.
Sarah sat alone in the corner of Ami's coffee shop, fuming. When her cell phone rang, she startled and was halfway through the motion of throwing it across the room in frustration when she realized it was the ringtone for her sister. She stared at the phone in her hand. Typical of New Yorkers, everyone else in the coffeehouse ignored her.
After a pause, Sarah sat down and tapped the icon to receive the call. "Hey, Jules," she murmured, halfhearted.
Her sister's voice was tinny. "Hi, Sarah.”
“How is sunny Brazil?”
Julia seemed distracted, but quickly recovered. “Okay, I guess. Thanks for picking up. It's work hours still, isn't it?"
"Actually, I'm at Ami's right now. Believe it or not, I finally asked Hiroaki on a date."
Julia seemed to choke in surprise. "You didn't! Sarah, he's like twice your age!"
"Hiroaki's only forty-two..."
"He agreed to the date?"
"Sort of? I told him 'if it's the end of the world, we might as well get good coffee.' He laughed at that, the fucker."
Julia gasped, "Wait, what?"
"So, we walk to the coffee shop, the conversation's going great. I'm trying to assess if he wants to come over tonight, or, y'know, take it slow. So far, so good, then we order our coffees, and he turns to look at me and then just walks away."
"He goes 'I shouldn't be here,' and just leaves!" Sarah practically shouts. Then, quieter, "I fucked this up, Jules. I've been trying to get up the nerve to ask him out for months and then the world goes to shit and... Do you think I should call him? He's going to the airport and --"
Julia's response is sharp. "No. Not worth it."
"Zack’s practically your boyfriend. He runs away to South America somewhere and you follow him, but I can't go after the guy of my dreams? Even if he is an asshole, that's not cool, Jules."
Julia coughed. "Zack is not my boyfriend," she intoned, too tired to muster frustration. "And he never will be. My following him here is exactly why I'm telling you not to do the same."
"Damn. I guess we’re both the losers today. You going to be okay down there?"
"Yea... Yea, we're all good here. Coming home soon, though. Don't want to leave my older sister alone during the Apocalypse."
The airport was desolate. John's flight had been delayed three times, twice because of cancellations of flights later in his itinerary. He chewed his upper lip and told himself the rearrangements and consequent delay didn't matter, so long as he made it. Despite the early hour, he'd tried calling Kerrigan after the second cancellation, wanting to keep her informed and, admittedly, anxious about her health. He was relieved when Kerri didn't answer the phone; she must finally be getting some much-needed rest.
John was exhausted, but he'd just mailed the letter at the airport postbox and his heart was racing. Somehow, informing the next of kin of his wife's and child's deaths made it all real again.
He dipped his hand into his pant pocket, but it was empty. He'd lost Lily's handkerchief somewhere along the way.
He broke a promise to himself, and, rubbing his wrists, sought out a bar.
Twenty minutes later, he wandered into the only open establishment in the terminal. The restaurant's theme was a hodgepodge of tropical kitsch, walls painted bright yellow and covered in signs with hula dancers, rainbow-colored birds, and retirees in floral shirts under phrases like "It's five o'clock somewhere!" and "Lovely day for a Guinness." The bartender appeared to be the only employee present, waiting on a few customers scattered at separate tables.
John trudged to an empty stool at the far end of the bar, roller luggage in tow. He ordered a drink, sipping slowly and compulsively checking the time in the corner of the TV screen over the bar. The minutes stretched long as John's thoughts spiraled inward.
On the television, the newscaster was pale and his deep voice was subdued. "The Black Virus continues to spread from its epicenter in Karachi, southern Pakistan. Mongolia, China, and Kazakhstan closed their land borders on Tuesday, but this does not appear to have halted the expansion of the disease northward. The Russian government has announced a moratorium on inter-city travel west of the Ural Mountains, affecting roughly three quarters of the nation's area. A World Health Organization representative was not available for comment, but..."
"Good luck getting through to anybody in Geneva..." John muttered, swirling the ice in his glass. The traveler sitting two barstools down looked up sharply from his third beer.
"You're coming from Geneva? That's where I'm heading!" The man with the flushed cheeks was Asian, perhaps Japanese, but spoke with a New York City accent. His cheeks were flushed red.
John narrowed his eyes. "You're a reporter?"
The man snorted lightly. "Hardly. I do big data. Name's Hiroaki." Hiroaki extended his hand to shake, then retracted it quickly. “Uh… no offense or anything.”
John stared at the space where proffered hand had been. “Maybe skin-to-skin contact in an airport isn't such a good idea these days.”
Hiroaki nodded. "Agreed. I'm in public health. I work for the city of New York."
John tipped three fingers upward from the rim of his glass in a short wave. "I'm John. I assume you're traveling for business, rather than to be with family."
"Not much family left." Hiroaki's flinch mirrored John's. "Though, there was a girl," he began, glassy eyes unfocusing, "young and smart and convinced the world is ending. Practically threw herself at me."
"You should have stayed with her," John intoned, right hand encircling his left wrist.
Hiroaki shook his head sharply in dissent, black hair falling into his eyes. "I could've, but it would have been taking advantage of her. And... it wouldn't have been for the greater good, you know? All this disease and panic and war? It sucks, but I think I'm finally starting to have things in perspective. Sure, this girl would have been fun, a good lay in desperate times, whatever." He flapped his hand in a careless gesture, oily tines of his fork glinting in the fluorescent lights.
Hiroaki stared at the fork as if surprised to see it in his hand. He set it down and continued. "I could have even loved her, I think. But that's not the point. The point is that the fight is bigger than ourselves as individuals. The point is survival. As an analyst, I look for magnitude of effect, right? I was in this coffee shop with this girl and I realized 'This isn't where I should be. I should be applying my expertise to the biggest, most important problem out there.'"
John glanced at the TV. "It's a damn big problem."
Hiroaki's lips were set with grim determination. "Doesn't matter. Magnitude of effect: look for the place where the biggest impact can be had, attack there. Made coming to Europe for the first time a tad less daunting," he confessed.
"So you're going to Geneva to help out with the UN?"
Hiroaki nodded, counting out cash onto the bar. "That's the idea. The NYC headquarters thinks I'll do the most good directly at the WHO. I agree."
The bartender came by to clear the glassware, motioning to Hiroaki. "You asked me to notify you when your gate opened..." she began.
"Thanks," Hiroaki nodded at her, then at John. "Have a safe flight."
Hiroaki rose and made to leave the bar, luggage trundling behind him.
"Wait!" John called after him, fishing out a set of two business cards. He leaned forward, extending the cards to Hiroaki, who took them. "Here's my boss, and here's me. Show up in the morning in person. Give her my card so she knows we met. I think... I think you could do a lot of good."
Hiroaki's eyes widened slightly upon reading the Centre's name. He whistled low. "I'll be damned. I was probably going to get in touch with you guys some time later this week, but I wasn't expecting a personal introduction. Nice!" His grin fell as he looked to John, half-standing in front of him.
"Where did you say you were going again?"
John sighed, reaching again into his empty pant pocket as he sat. "I didn't."
Hiroaki narrowed his eyes, but ultimately decided not to pry. "So long as you are going where you can do the most good."
John nodded slowly. "I should think on that more.” Looking into the man’s eyes, he finished, “I hope to see you again, Hiroaki."
Hiroaki left, whistling.
John ordered another drink. Then another. He stopped after three, absent-mindedly swirling the melting ice.
Over the PA system, he heard that Hiroaki's flight was being delayed.
He was thinking of his three-year-old daughter.
He was thinking of his wife.
He was thinking of the coincidences and decisions and twists of fate that left them dead, that left him alive, that directed him to board a flight to a nation he'd never known to perform a potentially deadly task he'd never trained in.
He was thinking of the things he could do, and the things he couldn't.
The plane for Geneva would depart in forty-five minutes.
The briefcase was unlocked. Raul stared at it on the leather bench of the backseat. The brass clasps were open, the hinges slightly loose to accommodate the thickness of the corner of a manila envelope peaking out. Whatever was inside that envelope had killed the diplomat.
As the last person to be with the diplomat, he was likely to be interrogated, and harshly. To stay alive, the envelope and its contents would have to disappear.
Raul slid the envelope out of the briefcase. The diplomat's neatly folded suit jacket fell to the footwell in a crumpled pile.
His fingers clenched around the edges of the envelope. The stack of papers inside were the fruit of all the diplomat's labors. What was this knowledge, and was it worth dying for?
Like many a man before him, Raul's curiosity got the better of him. He bent the flanges of the envelope’s fastener and took a deep breath.
Out fell a printed list of probable target cities. Descriptions of three diseases, engineered to be deadly: modes of transmission, symptoms, infection rates. Raul's eyes flew over the words: the diseases were modifications of live reference strains from storage in Atlanta, USA and Koltsovo, Russia.
This was far outside the purview of a man ostensibly sent to build a research hospital with international collaboration. Any well-informed operations expert might have had educated guesses as to the spread of the diseases, but their origins were surely top secret military data. It would take more than extraordinary concessions, more than a pact with the Russians and the Chinese to access intelligence like this. But then, Raul had always suspected the medical research center to be a cover story. If his boss had been a glorified building contractor, they would have hired a local driver and not a European mercenary, after all.
Raul flipped to the last few pages, a stapled packet collating data on quarantine protocols, prophylaxis measures, and treatment programs. Each was signed off by his boss. Each was dated months before the first international outbreak. They knew what was coming.
Raul stepped back reflexively, dropping the papers in his surprise. He had been chauffeur to a bioterrorist.
If even half of this information were true, the world had to know.
His aunt's husband -- what was his name? John.
John worked for the United Nations in Geneva. He would call John.
The sun had not yet broken the horizon in Geneva, Switzerland. Hiroaki’s fingers were numb with cold as he stamped up the stairs of an unassuming office building. Fumbling, he reached into his pocket and brought out a business card, comparing the address printed there to the map on his phone. This was the right place.
He straightened the set of his shoulders, rehearsing what he would say as he met Kerrigan.
As he reached to put away his phone, he noticed there were three new messages from Sarah. She would want to talk. If he called now, he might be able to smooth things over with her. It hadn't been very kind to run out on her like he had. Hiroaki's finger hovered over the icon to open the messages as he debated: should he talk to her now, or should he wait until later?
Two floors above, behind a door labelled "Strategic Health Operations Centre," an unconscious body was slumped on the floor. On a nearby table, a phone began to ring.
- END -