Story art by Premee Mohamed.
From the editor:
A young journalist is far out of his depth reporting on a mysterious disease in a place he knows nothing about. But he soon learns even the seasoned medical investigation team is facing something unheard of—and maybe even otherworldly.
Premee Mohamed is an Indo-Caribbean scientist and spec fic writer based in Alberta, Canada. Don’t miss this page-turning companion piece to her new novel, BENEATH THE RISING, available now from Solaris Books.
From the author: An inexperienced journalist buys his way into covering the story of the year--a mysterious plague being tracked by a famous medical team. But there's embedded, and then there's embedded...
December 19, 2003
It's the crows you notice first, fat and glossy, so sated from the dead that they don't even look as I toss them a piece of energy bar. They're not like the crows at home. Bigger. Surlier. Randomly pied, like camo fatigues. Eventually, one stalks over and deigns to retrieve my scrap from beneath the hospital bench.
“You can come in now,” Dr. Ramnaraine says; I turn away from the dust and constant low-level shriek of car horns and follow her inside, clipping my recorder to my pocket.
Mercy General is encouragingly bright, despite the constant rolling blackouts. The ceilings boast clean new fluorescents in flyspecked cages, casting crisp shadows on patients curled three and four to a bed, slumped in the hallways, blocking doors. The predominant sound is a keening wail so intense that I pause, looking for the piece of malfunctioning machinery that must be causing it. But it's wholly human, a composite cry of the sick and their grieving kin. Outside, a surging crowd demands entry—not to be healed, Dr.Ramnaraine explains, but to see their fallen.
“Why?” I say. “They might carry whatever this is back to their homes.”
“They know,” Ramnaraine tells me, not looking back as we pick our way to the pediatric ward, nudging aside weary nurses, pallid doctors about to drop on their feet. They barely notice me, a welcome change from the stares I've gotten since I landed yesterday. White faces were growing common here, as foreign aid, charity, and investors trickled into the cities; but they are becoming a rarity again, fleeing a disease so new no one has even named it. “You don't know much about family bonds here.”
“Well, they're the same anywhere you go, aren't they?” I say, stepping carefully over a milky pool whose composition I don't want to know. The stench is overpowering—cheap disinfectant, blood, feces, mould. Curiously, mould overpowers all of these—not the solvent odour of a dead deer in the woods, but the familiar, greenish smell of food gone fuzzy in a warm fridge. Ramnaraine is unfazed by the smell, just as she is unfazed by the pediatric ward. Me, I'm fazed.
Born in Trinidad, Vera Ramnaraine was raised in Toronto, Canada, and has lived and worked in—by her best estimate—thirty-three countries since. She is reticent about her past, growing animated only to speak of the last few years here in Uganda. “Yes, I trained as a general practitioner initially,” she said last night as we gingerly sipped strong coffee in the airport lounge, waiting for our ride. “I didn't train as a surgeon until I was in my mid-forties, when the need became too obvious to ignore. Lots of surgery before that, of course. Flying by the seat of your pants stuff, especially in Romania and Haiti.”
“And now it's, what... mostly commonplace stuff?”
“Mostly. A lot of tuberculosis, malaria, Dengue, sleeping sickness, kids with diarrhea, women with childbirth fever... the usual. But this disease, this is new. Our team needed to investigate the cause, or we'd never be able to stop the spread.”
Her accent was soft, blurred, the voice of a polymath. I risked the Highlander reference and said, “You talk funny, doctor. Where you from?”
She smiled. “A lot of different places.”
This hospital is proximal to ground zero, she said. She's moving smoothly between aisles now, nudging people aside. Like yesterday, I am struck by her grace and balance; if you didn't know she was a doctor, you might guess retired dancer. Her small form swims in the baggy khakis her team has taken to wearing; her iron- grey hair is bunned off her neck in the heat. Young skin for sixty-one, scarcely seamed in the sun of many countries, black marks on her cheeks like Braille. She has a surgeon's delicate, powerful hands, the ochre skin perpetually stained with iodine and gentian violet.
I look down at the patients we’re passing, motionless except for the tears running down their faces, the occasional lifted lip. They don't rock, writhe, arch, so it is hard to tell how much pain they are in, except for the knowledge that no human is even capable of making a sound like that unless there is pain. Ramnaraine is impassive, taking blood and saliva samples, swabbing open wounds. There is an awful duskiness under their feverish skin.
“You should see her at births,” another team member, Orah Anderson, mentioned offhandedly this morning. Pretty, with immaculately braided blonde hair, I wondered briefly how much unwanted attention she got from the local men. “The mother can be thrashing around and hitting her, and she doesn't even seem to notice. It's as if all she can see is a pair of hands and a baby. She's so calm.”
“Not just stoic,” Dr. Chan agreed. “Legendary. Like Seneca.” Elena Chan is second in seniority, a epidemiologist and surgeon, rangy and muscular, black hair brightly streaked with silver. “Notice her accent? Everywhere she goes she tries to learn the language. It must be exhausting.”
“What do they speak here, Swahili?” I asked. “Does she speak that?”
“Enough to get by. And Bantu, of course, and French. She picks it up quickly. A good head for languages. And lots of other stuff. You'll see.”
Back outside Mercy General, Ramnaraine swiftly stows slides and samples in her little cooler, destined for delivery to the courier counter at the airport. The last team member, Jasiri Waverly, has their Jeep today and will do the dropoff—a local doctor, he is also driver, ears and eyes, supply chain management.
“We have trouble,” Ramnaraine says; Anderson and I edge closer. “Mary Udoma.”
“What now?” says Anderson. Clearly this is someone known; I worry about the clipped tone, the tenseness in their faces. Anderson is infectious diseases, dermatology, surgery, a prodigy accepted to Oxford aged fifteen. Now, in her late twenties, she is as generalist and unflappable as her brilliant mentor.
“Mary went AWOL last night,” Ramnaraine says, checking her notebook. “They don't know when, or won't say. But her family came during night shift and took her.”
“I know.” Ramnaraine is grim, not defeated in the least—more pugnacious, if anything. “Dr. Jones hinted there was a security problem. Wouldn’t say it flat-out. The guards 'weren't available' to interview.”
“Well, shit,” Anderson says, and slumps onto the tailgate, jostling the cooler. I put a hand on it to keep the lid down. Ice is precious here, with the blackouts. “Shit. Shit. And after we told them to lock her down. In writing. After we wrote it down. After we told them.”
“They're doing their best,” Chan says. “Now what, boss?”
“They wouldn't have gone back to Tororo,” Ramnaraine says, chewing her lip. “Too easy to track her down. Maybe her mother's village.”
With nothing to do but wait, I check the tape and battery level on my recorder—I brought two dozen miniature cassettes in my luggage, hidden in the linings in case they were confiscated at the airport, but I only have three on me now, and no spare batteries. I will have to transcribe my notes when we stop. “Who's Mary?”
“Patient zero,” Ramnaraine says. “We tried to treat her in her hometown before transferring her here three months ago. We don't know what this thing is, but she's our best bet, chronologically and causationally speaking.”
“Why did her family take her out of hospital then?”
“Oh, come on,” Chan says, in a tone heavy with both weariness and, it seems, disdain. For me? For the families? “Didn't you read about it back home? You should have seen the last Ebola outbreak, they had to put barbed wire up on the walls.”
“Barely worked, though,” Anderson says, turning to me. “Obviously you have to perform proper funeral rites for your family, which involves,” she begins.
“I think this is one case where you can obviously tell them not to,” I correct her. “I mean, you're the doctors. They'd have to listen to you about a public health menace of this scale.”
Ramnaraine draws herself up, face serene, only the voice taut as a bowstring. “Later, when you listen to this, you'll be ashamed of yourself,” she says. “At least, that's what I hope. That you'll replay your tapes and realize that you've come to a place you didn't even research except to find the cheapest airfare. That you've come to a place you don't respect and you'll never learn to respect, or try. You'll be ashamed that all you want is to wring us dry and write your, you assume, Pulitzer- prize winning article. You'll send it to—who bought it? The Atlantic? The New York Times? And it'll say 'Josh Severs—Unknown Disease Ravages Africa,' because you, both you and your readers, you think the continent is a monolith whose monolithic people are savages who could be awed into silence by the sight of a cell phone.
"You won't record what city we're in because you don't know. You won't learn how to thank the locals in their language. You're worse than the Bible college kids who flood down here to cuddle orphans for two weeks and vanish into the ether, worse than the missionaries who tell families not to use condoms. This is...this isn’t journalism. This is pain tourism.”
“All right, I can see that my qualifications are in doubt,” I tell her, trying to keep my voice even. “Fine. We both know the reason I was allowed to be embedded here for the week was a substantial donation to your foundation, which could fund your team for a year. Is that fair?”
“It's true. It's not what I'd call fair.”
“But I'm not inexperienced. I'll write a good piece. I was the one who broke the story on the DA last year. Yes, for the New York Times. And then I did the in-depth series for The Guardian, all the pictures, all the charts. I may not be a scientist like you, but I can put things together.”
There is a heavy, dusty silence, as if we are both looking at my trump card, gleaming on a gambler's green baize. I wonder if it is really a trump card. I hope so.
“I read that series,” Anderson says slowly. “About the Dimensional Anomaly. I printed it out and read that whole thing. But the author...”
“I published under my mother's maiden name back then. I'm back to using Severs now.”
“You misunderstand,” says Ramnaraine, whose face I had been expecting to light up with interest; it remains stony. “It's not your qualifications I doubt— though yes, I did question the wisdom of sending a twenty-six-year-old white boy who's never been farther from home than an all-inclusive resort in Puerto Vallarta. It's you. It's the world we inhabit. I want you to prove, somehow, over the next six days, that you deserve to be in my team, taking up valuable space, and that you won't get us or yourself killed.”
“I can prove it.”
Waverly appears out of nowhere. Before I can reintroduce myself, he's whistling at a black Range Rover across the street, and in a matter of seconds it's pulled up, he's transferred the cooler and files, and it's blown away like a ghost.
“Joseph agreed to take the samples,” Waverly says, dusting his hands and perching on the tailgate with the other two. “For future considerations.”
“Of course,” Ramnaraine says. They laugh; I feel left out of an inside joke, though it makes perfect sense. Most people, officially or unofficially, are on a barter economy here; investment is iffy, banks shut down every day; little local warlords are carving up territory as fastidiously as a chef butchering a pigeon. Everything seems unbalanced, restless, after the Anomaly. Our place in the world was shaken, and the shaking continues, a fine tremble throughout all the world's foundations— economies, art, religion, education, science.
Logistics are determined, a dusty paper map is consulted, and Waverly—a dark, fine-boned statue of a man somewhere between the ages of twelve and seventy—swings us into the noonday traffic, heading for the main road out of town.
When the road empties out, I squeeze into the gap between the front seats, where I learn immediately that when people say they've been shaken hard enough to knock their fillings loose, they may not be exaggerating. Unable to tell if my mouth is filling with enamel- coloured porcelain bits or just dirt, I spit off the side of the Jeep and push the recorder up under my chin so I can hang onto the grab bar with both hands.
“So tell me about this disease,” I shout. “Who is it affecting? Is the government getting involved? What's treatment like?”
Ramnaraine says, “Everybody, no, and rehydration and time.”
Waverly expounds, glancing back more often than I'm comfortable on a road this rough. Before he begins, a rock the size of a tennis ball flies into the windshield, leaving a crack; he doesn't even flinch. “It's cross-demographic, affecting young, old, male, female, rural, urban,” he shouts. “We were looking at vector carriers initially—bats, mosquitos, parasitic worms, bushmeat, midges, flies, drinking water, dogs, cattle, mice. Could be any one or all of 'em. Could be airborne.”
I think of the hospital and the close, rotten air, the almost palpable fug of viruses, bacteria, germs. “Oh?”
“Could be,” Ramnaraine adds. “Or could be like Marburg or Ebola. We're not sick yet, you'll notice.”
“You said yet,” I point out. “Do you have a contingency plan in place if the team gets sick?”
“Roll with the punches,” Ramnaraine says distantly. “Hydrate. Isolate. Report.”
“Don't worry, baby,” Waverly laughs. “We'll take care of you.”
Waverly whistles as he drives, swerving around perfectly round potholes. They resemble munition craters but deeper, many with crows bathing in the gathered dust.
“Is there a lot of violence around here?” I ask.
Ramnaraine snorts, and I know she's pointing out, again, that I haven't done my research; but I know of the warlords and their scuffles, the weapons trickling in from places their language barely has phonemes for, Azerbaijan and Vladivostok and Uzbekistan. Or England, France, the good old US of A. My query was more immediate, looking at those regularly spaced craters, which look worryingly like target practice.
Waverly answers the question I had implied: “We're safe enough. Most folks know the Jeep and the team. If anyone hits us it'll be by accident.”
“We'll still be hit.”
“But they won't mean it,” he says, soothingly, as if that makes a difference. I settle back between Chan and Anderson—I can't take much more of the bumping—and gulp from my water bottle, counting down the minutes till we stop.
The air out here is worse than the city's, if anything—stinking of decay, busy with flaky grit. It sticks to the face in scales; my shirt-sleeve is instantly muddied as I wipe away sweat and dust. Not the golden vistas I was promised when I pitched this article.
“It smells like there's some kind of algal bloom or something,” I tell Anderson. “Have you been checking local lakes? Maybe it's related to—”
“It's not. No one here has smelled anything like this before.”
“Are you sure? Because I think if—” “Look, just trust the people on this one,” she says, rolling her eyes. All the same, I keep an eye out for a dried-up slough, a telltale red or pink. Maybe they just don't know where the smell is coming from.
The trees flanking the road are yellow-grey, dying or dead, listing dramatically. The eye is forced to travel miles before it sees hints of green. And heaps that I assume are chopped firewood or shrubbery turn out to be livestock carcasses as we get closer—slate-gray and bloated, or partly burned, exposing gleaming bone. The bones are the only clean thing in the landscape except dozens of whitewashed crosses planted in newly-filled graves, bright against the sere dust.
Kids holding sticks twice their height track us as we bump past, sometimes lifting a hand in response to Ramnaraine's waving. The hot breeze smells of our oniony sweat, with a sickly undertone of burned hair and rot, slightly acid, like a corroded car battery.
“Why aren't they eating them?” I ask Anderson, pointing at a huge, perfect bull at the side of the road. It must have gone down minutes ago; its eyes are still wet, even weeping. The vultures and crows haven't clocked it yet.
Anderson shrugs, resigned. “Not enough people left. ”
Chan says, “It's been like this for months. The rains failed this fall, so the spring runoff was all gone and didn't get topped up.”
“So there are monsoons here? The monsoon didn't happen?”
“I said rains. Not monsoons.”
Anderson snickers under her breath. “You're thinking Asia, Josh.”
“We get rain year-round,” Chan says, relenting. “But there are rains, too. The locals count on it. Time their planting and harvesting to it, their weddings to it, travel, major purchases, cattle roundups...”
“Not the goats. The goats don't belong here,” Anderson adds.
“Invasive goats. And on top of all this,” I say, “we get this...this new plague.”
“It's bizarre, actually, even as plagues go,” Chan says. “I mean, what the locals are saying. Ask Dr. R about it when we stop.”
“Or you could explain it to me,” I say hopefully.
They shake their heads. I wonder, idly, what the locals thought about the DA, if anything—whether they saw, as we did in the Northern hemisphere, the crack in the sky, the spirals of darkness reaching down, if they heard the sounds we heard, in a language no one knew. I wondered if they too had worried about aliens or the furious proof of gods, or had just assumed witchcraft and wizardry, and had bolstered their good luck charms, hoisted their crosses, gotten the hell out of Dodge. Back home, everybody fled in the direction they thought put their back to the rupture. But it seemed as if here, they had hunkered down to fight where they lived.
We slow to a trundle. In the relative lull, I run my tongue along my teeth, seeking broken places. “Get your papers out,” Ramnaraine says. The road is blocked with several skinny, casual men and a few women, leaning on AK-47s, like in a movie. Sweat breaks out on my forehead, a combination of the reduced speed and sheer gun-terror—for Ramnaraine is right, I have been sheltered, and this is the biggest gun I have ever seen in person. And I don't have papers. I was told never to travel with my passport, lest someone steal it and sell it on the black market to a terrorist who looked vaguely like me, any generic white villain with dark hair and hazel eyes, any...
I freeze while the others dig out crumpled wads of identification and hand them to this big, scarred whale of a man, all baleen and wall-eye. He pauses meaningfully as he reaches me.
He asks Ramnaraine something interrogatory but not particularly angry—and through my panic, I think that's interesting in and of itself, that he went past Waverly and spoke to the person in charge. I think I know what attitudes are like towards women doctors out here, for which she is apparently the exception. She is a force of nature; I wonder if that force will save me now.
She answers, hoiks a thumb back at me as if for emphasis; I meet her unafraid, unamused gaze in the rearview mirror. They chuckle, but whatever she said worked; the gunmen step aside and we roll at a stately walking pace to the edge of the village. We park near a field of stunted, mottled stalks, maybe millet. Tiny grains crunch under my boots as I follow Ramnaraine and Chan to the chief's hut. The breeze kicks up foot-high dust devils as we walk, passing empty hut after empty hut, looking into doorless doorways to see rotting beds and dead dogs, overturned pots. Signs of habitation remain in only a few.
The round munitions craters are everywhere—deeper here, if anything. I veer off from the two doctors and stoop to examine one. It's impossibly round, barely concave at the bottom—it's as if some huge hand had come down from the sky and poked its blunt fingers straight into the dirt.
Down from the sky.
I run my penlight over it. No shrapnel, no cordite scent, no char, nothing to indicate a blast. Only a peculiar stench, wetter and deeper than the smell in the hospital. Something sticky is caked around the edges, becoming matte with blown dust. Killer fungus? Tunneling ants?
Naked mole rats? Local elephants? But nothing in nature could make a hole so perfectly round. Could it?
My skin crawls, as if trying to shake off the day's dust. I allow myself one enormous shudder, then rejoin the doctors at the chief's hut, spacious and cool, and also empty. Ramnaraine sits on the floor and gets her water bottle from her pack.
“What do the locals say about this disease?” I ask, sitting clumsily next to her.
She's looking at the chief's intricately carved chair, next to which is a ceramic coffee cup and a pair of blue rubber flipflops. The cup boasts a Sydney Olympics 2000 logo. “Whenever someone publishes a headline saying 'NEW SPECIES DISCOVERED,' what they mean is that a team of scientists has been studying it for a decade and has finally, cautiously, gathered enough evidence to admit to other scientists that they believe it to be a new species,” she says, apparently a propos of nothing. “What's left out of the press release is that the species is merely unknown to them. The local population have known about it since the moment they got there.
“It's never a truly new species; it's only that outsiders have finally discovered it. When the Greeks came to Africa, they 'discovered' a new disease that everyone already knew about, that had been endemic since memory began: malaria. So it is not just the things that can be seen. It is everything in the environment.”
Outside, the wind picks up. Shadows scud across the square of light on the floor. I risk saying, “So the locals did know about this, when it started happening.”
“But you just said—” I begin.
“When we started investigating, everyone we interviewed said: This is sorcery, a curse from a neighbouring village. But all the villages were affected so quickly that the answers soon became: This is sorcery, from a single powerful individual. Finally it switched again, and most people are saying the individual is so powerful that it is clearly not, in fact, a sorcerer, but a god. Meanwhile there are others, the converts, saying it’s the devil's work.”
“Because it's new. Because otherwise they would have a name for it. A known thing.”
“Yes.” She looks out the door for the chief, a casual motion belying how nervous we all are. I would feel better if I could hear one sound in this village, I think. One goat bleating. One baby crying. She says, “The elders, taken as an aggregate, a scientific entity, know virtually everything that's happened in this area for thousands of years. But they have no record of this plague. Only something from years ago, that they all agree is a myth, not a story...”
“What's the difference?”
She ignores me. “The myth says, thousands of years ago some clever men—or smart alecks, if you will—went on a journey intending to awaken and place a harness on a very, very ancient god, and so put it to work for them. They succeeded in waking it from its long sleep, but discovered that their magics weren't strong enough to control it. So it became enraged and along with its servants—powerful, invisible monsters—it subjugated these men's people for a thousand years.
“Eventually they learned how to send it back to sleep, and they were forced to rebuild everything it had destroyed.”
“What's that got to do with this?”
“Only that the servants made people ill,” Ramnaraine says. “Because they carried bad air from the place they came, which was not the air from here. Ah, sir.”
As the chief enters, I stand hastily, extend a hand to help Ramnaraine up; her fingers are freezing despite the heat of the overcast day. They shake hands for a long time. The chief is lightly built, handsome, sporting a white-streaked rectangular beard; he has no tokens of status that I was expecting, save for a digital watch similar to mine. He slumps in the chair when they have exchanged their pleasantries.
I whisper to Chan as they talk, “Is she asking for Mary... the patient?”
The discussion ends abruptly; Chan and Ramnaraine nearly bolt from the hut. I nod at the chief before trotting after them.
“What happened? What did he say?”
“Get in,” Ramnaraine says. We swing in, clutch the rollbars as Waverly peels off. A lone roll of white gauze bumps off the back and unravels in the freshening breeze, catching on the millet field which, I now see, is marred with huge swathes of blackened and smashed vegetation. I realize that the sun is setting. It's barely perceptible through the gloom, not the flaming orange of Serengeti photographs, just a dimming, the light turning from yellow to deep green. In Oklahoma they would call it a tornado sky, but the wind, though picking up, is barely enough to stir the leaves on the dying trees.
Waverly slews the Jeep into a cutout, and we all turn to stare at each other, as if forming a defensive circle with our backs out.
“The chief says Mary was here a few hours before us, but they kicked her out,” Ramnaraine says, her voice quite changed from the dreamy tones in which she relayed the myth. “Not him. The church people, you know the ones.”
“Yes,” says Anderson, grimly. “Where did they go after that, does anyone know?”
“Back to her husband's village. Back to Sikweli,” Ramnaraine says. They all laugh, weakly. Again, I don't see what's so funny.
“Where's that?” I ask.
“About four hours away. We're not going in the dark.”
“But what if they move her again?”
“They won’t,” Ramnaraine says. “It's the end of the line.”
There are only four sleeping rolls. I packed one, as instructed in Ramnaraine's terse pre-trip email, but it's back at my hotel. I explain this sheepishly, and ask if I can sleep in the Jeep—a preposterous notion, even as I hear the words coming out of my mouth. There's barely room for five people to sit, it's so crammed with supplies. Eventually Waverly generously gives up his bag, and digs a scrape for himself. The look Ramnaraine gives me is inscrutable.
We build a fire from the yellowish wood, which is so dry it burns with a clean, smokeless flame. Tins of SPAM and beans are unearthed and admired, like service medals. “For the new boy,” Waverly explains, dishing my portion onto a plastic lid marked 'PURE LARD' on the far side. “We usually don't take cans. Too heavy to pack.”
“I'm very flattered. Thank you.” We eat in silence; I watch the others and soon figure out how to nibble my fried SPAM fingers into spoons to scoop up the hot beans. I am truly grateful—I hope I didn't come across as sarcastic. I must have lost a lot of salt sweating today, and what better to replace it than everyone's favourite compressed meat?
After a protracted and extraordinarily humiliating adventure in the bush, I return to the fire and pull my sleeping roll around me. Waverly is walking the perimeter; Chan and Anderson are, by all appearances, already asleep. Anderson's blonde hair gleams in the firelight. I wonder fleetingly if she is seeing anyone Stateside, then shake my head to clear the thought. Maybe on my last day, not my first.
“No,” says Ramnaraine, quietly but distinctly.
I jump. “Uh, no what?”
“And stop staring at her,” she continues. “You think that's okay back home? Think it means you like her, that's all? That's not what it means. So don't do it back home. And don't do it here. And don't make me mention it again.”
I swallow. I am acutely aware that I haven't brushed my teeth; they feel fuzzy, coated in salty dust. “Um, goodnight.”
“Just a minute,” she says. “Yes?”
“Maybe you're not a scientist,” she says. “But you're only about half as dumb as you look. I read that DA series too. You been keeping up on all that?”
“And what are they saying now? Aliens?”
“No.” I breathe deep, gathering oxygen and energy to cohere a sentence that won't make me sound like a madman. “People's best guess—and there isn't a consensus by any means—but I mean, the best guess, guess, is that the Dimensional Anomaly was correctly named the first time, and the...things that were seen were...real things. But from an alternate dimension. Not parallel, they think. Closer than parallel. Alternate, like the blink in electrical signals.”
In the firelight, her face is a mask. I think of the awards she's won, the magazine covers she reluctantly posed for. Interviewers always ask her about a husband, kids. “I don't have time for any of that,” she says. National Geographic ran a photo essay when she started that maternity clinic in the Mumbai slums. Her tough, beautifully shaped hands cradling bloody babies, her face just like this, no expression. I wonder if she has learned to push her emotions down, or whether she has simply stopped acknowledging them.
“I was here when it happened,” she says. “I didn't know what I was seeing, I thought maybe a bomb, some kind of new weapon...”
“You think the plague is related to it,” I reply, edging out on a limb; her face tells me I am right. I plunge on. “So do I. The samples you're sending back, I could get someone in Washington to look at them, but that's not even all the evidence. I have notes and data back home showing that the DA might have happened before. And then that story you told... it would have been a long, long time ago. And maybe something...came through. Then or now. Or both. I don't know.”
She is silent. We both think: I don't want to believe that. No one wants to believe that.
She says, after a long time, “Are you going to put this in your article?”
The real answer is 'My editor will take it out,' but I tell her, “Yes. It's all going in the article.”
After a while, I rearrange my roll and close my eyes. Sleep follows in seconds.
A broken necklace of loosely connected bad dreams ends abruptly—someone is screaming, other voices in the darkness are groaning, calling out. I see nothing, not even the embers of the fire. Something big collides with me from behind. I feel the flesh of my calf roll under its impact and then I am screaming too, scrambling to my feet, about to bolt before something holds me in place—terror, old Eagle Scout training, too many Jurassic Park viewings, something.
I look at the sky, seeing a cut-out of blackness where no stars shine. Then something else crashes into me, a glancing blow, and the ground slams into my chest. I had not been aware of falling.
Someone has reached the Jeep; the sudden glare of its headlights reveals that we are in a stampede, a slow, terrified avalanche of sick cows, grey and covered with livid spots, their eyes and mouths drooling a thick, opaque stream, as if it is their fear physically spilling out. I run for the Jeep and climb up, feeling hands scrabble for mine. We are one short.
“Where's Orah?” I yell.
Waverly shakes his head, points. I follow the arrow of his arm to her sleeping roll, trampled, bloody, and empty. She must have taken off, just as I nearly did. Ramnaraine runs her hands along my arms, frisking me for broken bones. We both gasp when we reach my leg, bloody and gouged. The screaming has not stopped. I look questioningly at Waverly. “Lion,” he says. “Hurt.”
The ground shakes under the massed panic of the cows, as well as something else, a disquieting throb, like faraway thunder. I look instinctively into the darkness, expecting lightning.
Ramnaraine says, “It's a couple hours till dawn. We should go.”
“What about Orah?” says Chan.
“She's not coming back.”
“Are you—? She can't have gotten far, we—”
“You can stay if you want,” Ramnaraine says. “We're leaving.”
No one protests. I suspect Ramnaraine was the only one who saw what happened to her. Staying to find Anderson hadn't even occurred to me; I wonder dimly whether I am in shock. We wait out the cows, unsurprised when the final stragglers simply lie down and die at our feet.
I'm limping as we retrieve our sleeping rolls, my leg a relentless howl, as if it's been doused in boiling oil. Ramnaraine has me stand in front of the Jeep's headlights while she disinfects and bandages it, and then we set off. I find my hand coming up again and again to touch my tape recorder, miraculously intact in my shirt pocket.
Ramnaraine stands on the shotgun seat to scout our path. Grit swirls around our tires as if we are driving through a blizzard, and the holes—fresh, not here yesterday night—are so close-packed, the ground between them is crumbling. The Jeep's transmission cries out as we fight the slopes.
“Slow down,” Ramnaraine says. “If we crack the drive shaft, we're stuck out here.” Being stuck out here now seems inexpressibly terrifying. Yesterday, I would have asked about their satellite phone, finding someone else in her team to pick us up or calling in a favour from a local ambulance or a friend with a truck. Today, I think: No one will come back for us.
Dawn is as thin and listless as yesterday's sunset. We are moving steadily now, but at a crawl; I tap Waverly on the shoulder and point at the sparse trees. “We could go faster in there.”
“We're not leaving the road,” Ramnaraine says.
I glance into the trees, and through their bare trunks notice cows not merely dead but torn open, flies roaring over huge pools of blood and other, more viscous fluids. Dead goats. A dingy pile of golden fur that might have once been a lion or a hyena. A bird is calling, tentatively, its song faint and faltering, the same ten or twelve notes repeated and bounced back by the thick air. My chest hurts; I force myself to cough, clear the congestion, but nothing happens.
The village, Sikweli, doesn't look abandoned; we crest the hill, our shadow long ahead of us. People and their own long shadows move between the huts as a rooster crows its defiance.
Around the village the trees remain green, but they've been knocked over recently enough that the earth at their feet is still wet; white grubs glimmer as we drive past. I resist an urge to reach out and put one in my mouth. I imagine the pop as my teeth enter it, the taste like the slime streaming from the eyes of the panicked cattle.
“Stay in the vehicle,” Ramnaraine tells Waverly as we stop, then squeezes Chan's arm. “You too. Don't leave him.” The three touch their heads together, gently, like a salute, a sign of duty that I do not know.
She didn’t have instructions for me, so I follow her as she checks the huts, looking for her Patient Zero. The few occupants are very sick, unmoving, like the patients at the hospital. Some have died in their homes— the bodies are leaden in hue, the sheets moving from what I can only assume is a huge population of maggots. My stomach churns, hunger gone.
I think of the families breaking into hospitals to get their wives, husbands, daughters, sons, to bring them home to their village to die and be properly washed and buried. I think of families touching these bluish bodies, faces unrecognizable, teeth exposed. And then I remember the dead bull on the roadside and think: There aren't enough living left to bury the dead.
“Steven?” Ramnaraine is calling; a man waves.
We pause at a hut with blue and white doorcurtains billowing cheerfully in the breeze. She darts forward like a cat to catch the man under his armpits as he staggers towards her, blocking the doorway with his skinny body. Steven is obviously ill too, sweating profusely, his skin silvered with it.
“Steven, where's Mary?”
“Don't,” he says in English, slurred but recognizable. “Doctor, go. Go. Leave us. Go. Quickly.”
She hauls him upright; with my help we pry his arms off the doorway and prop him on the wall, our faces brushed intermittently by the curtain. A hideous breath stirs with every flap of the bright fabric, vomit and old blood, wet ashes, the dank green smell of swamp rot.
“Is Mary dead?”
“Is she dead,” Ramnaraine says, not a question. She grips Steven's jaw, fingers probing beneath it for the lymph nodes. A sudden noise erupts from the hut, a hissing slither, a groan, a roar, as if she is in there with animals. I turn to see the other villagers—gray, faltering—surrounding us, falling to their knees. The ground trembles again. Without warning, a hut at the end of the road collapses, clay dust mushrooming into the air.
Ramnaraine pushes Steven away, letting him fall heavily to the ground, and thrusts the curtain aside. I do not cross the threshold, but look over her shoulder at the... thing on the pallet. My first thought is: What did they do to her? This cannot be their burial custom. For it seems that they have cut her in half at the waist and pushed something else onto her torso, something both reptilian and elephantine, sheets plastered to what are no longer feet but segments of pointed flesh.
My second thought is: She is not alive.
My third is: She is not dead. For the tentacles shrug off the sheets, erect themselves like periscopes, scarlet suckers staring at us.
My final thought is: The Anomaly.
Ramnaraine is transfixed, perhaps in shock, perhaps in rage, but I find I can still move; I did not look into the tentacled eyes long enough. It is enough to know that Patient Zero is transforming into something else, and the others will too, and soon we will not be able to see the things they have become. I lock a hand around the doctor's thin upper arm and drag her back to the Jeep.
Waverly and Chan stare at us, slack-jawed, then beyond us to where the villagers are beginning, slowly, as if they have forgotten how to use their legs, to converge on us.
“Go,” I tell Waverly, unnecessarily. We circle the village, find a small gravel path away from the main road, protected by the remains of the canopy. Finally, somewhere, thunder breaks. We smell both ozone and rain before we see the lightning, and then, in the distance, what looks like a thunderhead come to earth roaming in the trees, its head just visible above the trembling leaves.
I flew home the next day, unplugged my phone, and slept for eighteen hours after a shower so long and hot that not only my toes and fingers but lips and eyelids wrinkled. My leg was cleaned again and carefully sutured at a local clinic; I didn't think it was serious enough to call for an ER. They prescribed prophylactic antibiotics. I haven't filled the prescription, but I will soon; the skin around the wound is hot, and I'm running a fever.
It took me almost as long to transcribe all my recordings and notes as I spent in Africa. I'm not sure what to make of this article. There won't be a Pulitzer, I know that—Ramnaraine's justified dig. It's not the scientific investigation I promised. It's not the backup plan, either—an insightful profile of the good doctor. I continue to wait on answers from the CDC about the slides and samples I asked to be rerouted before I left— but everyone's on Christmas break. I was interviewed by the FBI, regarding the disappearance of Orah Anderson. I was interviewed by her parents too. I'm sorry I had no answers for any of them.
It's possible that I have accomplished nothing with this piece except to destroy my career. I can only say that mistakes were made—by the hospitals, the villagers, the government, Dr. Ramnaraine. Steven. Mary. Me.
I call the team clinic and satellite phone twice a day, and no one picks up. I fear the worst.
And yet, it is a comfort to think that if anyone might survive the coming cataclysm, it will be her. So it will be up to her to tell the rest of the story—I have nothing more to add.
This story originally appeared in Pantheon Magazine, Typhon, Volume 2.
All the Birds in the Sky meets Lovecraft Country in this whimsical coming-of-age story about two kids in the middle of a war of eldritch horrors from outside spacetime…
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