The Cessna 208 dropped like a stone and hit the runway in Abeche with a hard jolt that almost threw Dr. Elisa King into the back of the seat in front of her, despite the seatbelt. For a moment, she thought that something must have broken. The pilot immediately slammed on the brakes and reversed the props, further throwing her and everyone and everything in the cramped cabin forward as the engines howled, trying to slow the plane down.
She hadn’t thought that the runway at Abeche was so short that a relatively small plane like the Cessna would need to decelerate that hard, but given what she’d seen of the pilot, maybe she shouldn’t have been surprised.
It wasn’t her first time in Africa, but her first time in Chad. The World Health Organization had often sent observers to document the almost routine cholera outbreaks, but this was the first time someone with her specialty had been called for in the Sahel.
The plane having finally slowed to a reasonable pace, the pilot taxied toward the low, one-story terminal. King looked out the window, taking in a part of Africa she hadn’t seen yet.
It looked an awful lot like many other parts. The landscape was barren and dusty, obscured by heat waves and dotted with scrub. The flatness of the country was broken only by low, peaked hills that looked like pyramids in the distance.
There were three military jets lined up against the retaining wall to the south of the airport. Two had mechanics swarming over them, and the third didn’t look like it was in any shape to fly. Half of one engine appeared to be apart, and there was a dusty tarp draped over the canopy. King only spared them a brief glance; she wasn’t particularly interested in the Chadian military, or any military, for that matter, as long as they kept out of her way.
The WHO cavalcade didn’t really stand out from the other vehicles gathered at the terminal, because they were all Hiluxes and Land Rovers, just like almost every other vehicle in that part of Africa. But the tall, spare Frenchman standing next to one of the Land Rovers caught her eye, indicating where they were supposed to go. She’d recognize Flavien Paquet anywhere.
The plane stopped far short of the terminal, and the engines started to spool down. King was not amused; she had probably a hundred pounds of baggage, and wasn’t looking forward to lugging it the quarter mile to the rest of the vehicles. But the pilot, a local Chadian Sara, didn’t look remotely concerned, and showed no signs of starting the engines up to taxi any closer. He was comfortable where he was.
“Typical,” Gerhart Strasser muttered under his breath. The German epidemiologist usually spoke English, having spent most of the last ten years jetting between the US, Germany, Switzerland, and the UK. This was his first trip to Africa in quite some time, and he was already displaying his utter contempt for the Africans and their “dirty little countries.”
King was finding that she didn’t like Strasser very much. But he was, reportedly, a genius when it came to sorting out surprise epidemics, so she was going to have to deal with his prejudices and nasty temperament for a while.
Doctor Alessia Caro murmured something to her companion, Dr. Eguzki Zambrano, and the bearded young man shook his head, smiling a little. King ignored them; she probably would have agreed with whatever Caro had said, but the unprofessional working relationship between the two lovers, she being almost twenty years Zambrano’s elder, and married at that, bothered her. She knew it shouldn’t; she considered herself quite cosmopolitan and enlightened about such things. But it did, nevertheless.
Paquet had climbed into the Land Rover and was trundling over to the tarmac, with two Hiluxes in tow. King was glad of it; she hadn’t relished the several trips it would have taken to get all of their gear over to the vehicles. She seriously doubted that the pilot or any of the crew would have lifted a finger to help.
The hatch stayed closed for far longer than she felt it should have, and she was starting to get impatient as the Sahel heat started to cook them inside the plane. The bird hadn’t exactly had good air conditioning in flight, and now that they were on the ground and the engines were off, there was nothing keeping the fuselage from becoming an oven.
When it finally swung open and the crew chief started to lower the short stairs, the breath of wind, as hot as it was, almost felt like a cool breeze. King cleared her sweat-damp hair away from her neck, trying to get a little bit of relief, as she got in front of Strasser, who seemed about as happy about that as he was about being in Africa at all, and started down as Paquet got out of the Land Rover.
“Eliza!” he said, holding out his arms. She embraced him and they kissed on both cheeks. “It’s so good to see you.”
“It’s been too long, Flavien,” she said. She sobered, looking at the desert around them. “It’s unfortunate that this is where and why we’re meeting again.”
Paquet sobered. “Yes,” he said quietly. “You’re just in time, as it were.”
“Another one?” she asked.
He nodded as he took one of the heavy duffel bags and heaved it toward the nearest Hilux. A young Chadian man reached forward to get it, struggling a little with the weight. “Yes,” he said. “The fourth this month. In the Kounoungo refugee camp, this time.”
“This doesn’t make any sense,” King said, as she helped Paquet with the bags. His local helpers were less and less helpful as they discovered just how heavy the gear was. “The climate’s not right for hemorrhagic fever.”
“It gets weirder,” Paquet said. “It’s not Ebola. The tests we’ve run—well, the tests that the Mèdicins Sans Fròntieres doctors have run—can’t definitively identify it, but it appears to be closest genetically to Crimean-Congo Hemorrhagic Fever.”
“Well, I suppose that makes more sense,” King said, as she shoved the last bag into the pile in the bed of the Hilux, struggling to get the tailgate closed. “I’ve long suspected that the only reason it wasn’t reported in Chad is that there just hasn’t been the medical eyes on this place, compared to Sudan, the CAR, and Nigeria.”
“Except it’s not that simple,” Paquet said a moment later, as they both got into the Land Rover, with Caro and Zambrano in the back seat. “I said it’s closest to CCHR. But it’s not actually CCHR. It’s something else, something far more virulent.” He started the vehicle and began pulling away from the plane. “It’s killing about seventy percent of its victims, and its incubation period isn’t right.”
King looked out the window as they drove, pondering. It had been a while since a new strain of hemorrhagic fever had appeared, all of the public fears of mutant Ebola notwithstanding. That it was appearing in the refugee camps from the continuing slaughter in Darfur was another odd detail, but not entirely out of the realm of possibility. Let one vector in, and with people crammed together with minimal sanitation, diseases were sure to spread quickly.
As they left the airport, something caught her eye, a stylized emblem of a Greek statue against a winged globe. “The Humanity Front has people here, too?” she asked.
“Oh, yes,” Paquet replied dryly. “They’ve been busy, too, with doctors running around from refugee camp to refugee camp for the last three weeks. Typical of them, however, they haven’t been too keen on sharing information or effort. And their security men are the most overbearing apes I’ve ever seen.”
King stifled a smile. Paquet didn’t like soldiers, and he liked private soldiers even less. She couldn’t say she disagreed with him, but sometimes his prejudices got almost as overbearing as Strasser’s. They were just far more acceptable.
“Well, the Humanity Front isn’t exactly known for playing well with others,” she said. She’d run into the newest and richest NGO in the business in the Caribbean, working on disaster relief, and she’d discovered the same attitude. She liked their mission and their philosophy of improving humanity’s ways of thinking along with their material lot, but found that they tended to be extremely exclusive, as if the rest of the international NGO community wasn’t quite worthy of working with them.
They were soon past the airport perimeter and heading into Abeche itself. It looked like just about any other desert town anywhere in Africa or the Middle East. Blocky, flat-roofed houses crouched inside walled compounds, the bricks and cinder blocks all looking dusty and dingy. Various scrub trees grew inside the compounds and in the streets between them, but none of them looked particularly healthy, and wore a thin patina of dust.
Thin people watched them go by. Despite the number of Westerners who had descended on Abeche lately, given the crisis going on—that had been going on for years—in neighboring Darfur, the locals were still dirt poor and likely to stay that way. Chad was as dysfunctional as states got, without ever quite getting the “failed state” attention that some other nations did. Continual ethnic strife, revolutions, sectarian violence spilling over from Sudan and Nigeria; all of it conspired to keep these people from ever getting much of anywhere.
The Western enclaves were visible enough, if only from the clusters of people looking for work, or, if they could get them, handouts. Not all of those handouts were necessarily intentional, either. Trucks packed with slovenly-clad Chadian soldiers “guarded” most of those enclaves, but they seemed to be mostly there for the same reason the civilians were.
Finally, after having slowed down several times for Paquet to shoo away the clusters of dirty, barefoot children begging for food, water, candy, or money, they were out of the town and heading east along the one major road that cut through the Sahel toward the Sudanese border and the refugee camps. It was still stiflingly hot, even with the air conditioning running full blast. Dust billowed up from the wheels, despite the fact that the road was nominally paved.
King just watched the landscape roll past. She’d eventually continue her conversation with Paquet, but she didn’t want to encourage Caro and Zambrano to participate. So, she rode in silence, her cheek pillowed on her hand, her elbow against the window.
That was why she was the first one to spot the helicopter.
She didn’t pay it much mind at first. She was still thinking about the epidemic she was there to investigate. But as the dark-colored aircraft banked sharply toward the road and roared overhead, she looked up, startled. Only then did she see that the back doors of the ovoid craft were open, and that men were hanging half out, with stubby, streamlined rifles in their hands.
“What?” was about all she was able to get out before one of those rifles spat, and a hole sprouted in the Land Rover’s hood with a loud bang.
Paquet almost drove off the road, swearing fluently in French. “Those damned bloodthirsty cochons must have lost their minds, looking for ‘terrorists!’” he snapped. He stomped on the brake, bringing the Land Rover to a halt, half-slewing it around. As the helicopter came around, flared, and set down on the road, he threw himself out and started storming toward the figures coming out of the cloud of dust kicked up by the aircraft’s rotors, already waving his arms and yelling in French.
King felt that time seemed to stop when one of the burly men lifted his rifle and shot Paquet through the chest. She saw the puff of the muzzle blast, faint in the midday sun, and the sudden, violent blossom of red across Paquet’s back. Her heart stopped. Her mouth fell open, but for a brief moment, she had no breath to scream.
Then Paquet crumpled to the roadway, falling limply on his face. And the soldiers were suddenly surrounding the Land Rover, their rifles leveled.
Zambrano was jabbering in Basque, completely lost to terror. Caro was screaming incoherently. King could only stare as one of the advancing figures lowered the muzzle of his weapon and shot Paquet’s still form through the head.
King stared. The men weren’t Chadians. They weren’t Sudanese, either. The one standing by her door, his strangely rounded weapon pointed at her window, was wearing a skull balaclava, but his wrists were white between his green flight gloves and his half-rolled tan sleeves. The black man who was wrenching Zambrano’s door open and throwing the junior doctor into the dirt was simply too massive to be an actual African; he had to be a Westerner, as well.
King wasn’t any expert in military equipment, but she knew that these had to be Americans. Their equipment was simply not shabby enough for Africans. They were wearing modern camouflage uniforms and equipment, and their guns looked like something out of a science fiction movie.
“What do you think you are doing?” she said, momentarily astonished that she had the audacity to get outraged when a rifle was being pointed at her face. “We are an official investigatory team of the World Health Organization! You just murdered a WHO doctor! You’ll all be spending a very long time in prison, if you’re lucky! And don’t think that that ‘terrorist’ excuse is going to fly, either! I’m going to write a detailed report about this entire incident, and…”
She didn’t get any more out. The man with the skull balaclava, moving as if he really didn’t care about her outrage, stepped forward, ripped her door open—she had never really thought to lock it—and punched her in the face with his off hand.
Pain hammered through her skull as her head snapped back and bounced off the seat back. She was almost too dazed to notice when he reached in, grabbed her by the hair, and dragged her out of the vehicle.
“Well, well,” one of them said. King was in too much pain, and down on her hands and knees on the dusty pavement to see who had spoken, even if their faces hadn’t been covered. “This one’s hot enough. Too bad we can’t take her with us, eh?”
“You’d get all attached and get sloppy,” a harder voice said from above her. “Clean sweep. That’s the plan.”
She rolled over, getting one final look at the masked soldier standing over her. She could have sworn he was grinning, even though that might only have been the skull iconography on his balaclava; his eyes were hidden by sunglasses.
Then his rifle came up, and the last thing she saw was his finger tightening on the trigger.