04 May 2009
It is Time
Vladimor stared at the schirm in front of him. Numbers raced across the schirm so fast, they were like one huge image, a morphing massive character with no definition. Yet Vladimor was unimpressed. In fact, he was rather bored.
Vladimor entered a few thousand variables. Finally, a result caught his eye and he pressed a Knopf, implementing the plan. “Ok,” he thought, “this will be just what we need.”
John Smith woke up, swatting sleepily at the angry alarm clock, whose small, gentle beeps had grown into a demanding, pounding noise. 5:30 AM. He had been dreaming again. “Man, I’ve got to get more sleep,” he groaned. He stumbled into the shower, turned it as hot as possible, and decided to take all of the allotted three minutes. “Nothing like a hot shower to loosen your muscles.” Now wide awake, John grabbed his toothbrush and got dressed for the day. He opened the closet door. “Not much of a selection,” he thought sarcastically. The projection on the wall informed him that it was 74 degrees, and sunny with a slight breeze. “Her favorite kind of weather” he thought. He selected a lighter gray from the closet in honor of the weather, grabbed a breakfast protein bar, and left for work.
The elevator whooshed closed behind him. John entered the main area with his assistant behind him, two steaming cups of coffee in hand. “You would think we have invented something better than coffee by now,” he wondered silently.
Just then the chief swung around in his office chair. The new assistant of the week, this time a platinum blonde, jumped up, laden with files and case studies marked: “Top Secret.” John brushed by her, following the chief into the briefing room. He didn’t bother to ask her name—she’d be gone by the end of the week.
The chief waited until everyone had assembled in the room. He motioned for the blinds to be closed. He cleared his throat, paused, and then said the words that shocked and thrilled John, gave him life and then slowly sucked it away.
“People, we have a problem. The biggest problem to date.”
John blinked. He opened the file, and gasped.
The chief’s assistant dimmed the lights. He used his laser pointer to elaborate. “Disease Z. What started as a small, minor outbreak, has become a threat to all of humanity. It began in Africa, in the usual places—small tribes. Or so we thought. But what is so interesting about this case is that it is anything but usual. New evidence has shown that this one started in Greenland. It appears to be spread by interaction, actual flesh contact. And yet other evidence now supports that the disease spreads through the air. Some researchers believe it is spread through sexual contact. No one knows for sure. This disease behaves in odd ways as well. It attacks the immune system—like HIV—only worse. It moves quickly, devouring its victims. Some die quickly, others live for longer. They are in extreme pain. One patient says that it was like each nerve was on fire, every bone splintering into a million pieces. There is no known cure. We hoped we could keep the disease contained in the areas of outbreak, but you know how that always goes. The United Nations of the Global Community has asked us to take over. It is out of their hands now, and the full pressure falls onto us.
“John, you know what to do.”
The chief paused for a second, time enough for John to blink his yes.
He continued: “We will be here, staying underground in the compound. We have intelligence which suggests that the disease will be in our city by 0800.”
The assistant passed out the color coded files to the remaining people in the room. John watched to see who would be assigned as his partner. Yet no black files were passed out. He was doing this mission alone.
John entered the Prep Room. He was dressed, given a new name—Bob Johnson—and sat quietly while the chip in his arm was scrambled, covering his true identity. He was ready. And so John stepped out of the Prep Room into a disguised vehicle. He boarded the jet ten minutes later.
While on the jet, John had time to contemplate everything that had happened. “What was this disease? How could it be contained? Would they repeat Project 666? Would they lock every infected carrier in an underground, compound? If they did, would it work? Mission CURE had been a success, at least in the Chief’s eyes and public’s eyes. The media had suppressed any public criticisms, and the Global Government took care of anyone who asked too many questions or protested. John recalled the signs, the riots, the tear gas and the machine guns. The city had been on lockdown, and world troops were flown in to “control” the masses. John wasn’t sure if he wanted to go through that again. She had been in charge of that mission. The day she left for the opening commencement was the last day he ever saw her.
John’s head began to nod sleepily. He had a long jet ride ahead of him. “May as well get some sleep,” he thought.
First was her smell. A sweet, gentle mixture, fresh rain, calming water. Spring flowers. Then her hands. So small and dainty. They fit interlocked his hands, a perfect fit. Her eyes, big, lovely. The twinkle of her laughter. Now she was laughing at him, snorting, the way she always did when something terribly funny happened. But then she stopped laughing and began screaming. This happened in the days before she left—more and more. She just sat and screamed, rocked back and forth, or cried, silent, ignoring his terrified requests to tell him what was wrong. Why was she crying? She was silent, standing in the doorway, tears running down her cheeks. John knew she didn’t agree with Mission CURE but this was her job. It was her assignment. Still, he couldn’t help but think that maybe she shouldn’t go to the opening commencement—maybe she was sick, or having a nervous breakdown, or…maybe she was pregnant!? All these things ran through John’s mind, his turning, twisted mind, yet he was paralyzed, nailed to the floor. His feet were blocks of lead. She kissed him, full on the lips, like she used to kiss him, before. Then she was gone. “Tell me,” he whispered to the dark, “Tell me.”
John awoke to turbulence. He shook the dreams from his mind: On a mission, he had to focus. He began to run all the facts and information about this case through his mind. His ears kept replaying what the chief had said, over and over: “Your mission: to find Patient 0.” And Patient 0 he would find. Without finding Patient 0, there could be no cure. Mankind would cease to exist.
John stepped into the security building with his fellow passengers and watched as the others were scanned by the computer. The officials received each passenger’s information—date and place of birth, home address, job, percentage of body fat, height, weight, name, any information from their permanent file, how many cavities they had filled—you name it, they knew it. Times like these made John glad he worked for the government. After a full body scan and thumb print analysis (of course the Prep Room had altered that as well) John was set to go. He took the papers from the security guard, carefully storing them inside his jacket pocket. John picked up his silver suitcase, shiny but not too shiny, giving it the “worn but I can afford a new one if I wanted” look. He walked outside, hailed a cab, and gave the driver the address the Chief had given him.
He would start at the very beginning—or as close to the beginning he could get. That meant flying to Greenland. Check. Go to the hotel and set up a surveillance area. Check. Never go anywhere without his full protective suit. Check.
After a night of tossing and turning, John decided it was time to begin his search for Patient 0. He would start at the hospital where the first case of Disease Z—named aptly for it being the probable end of humanity. Disease Z was spreading at an alarming rate. It would descend on a town and victimize anything in its path. He dressed in his biohazard suit, complete with a breathing mask and waste management capability, and got ready for the hardest day of his life.
This was an ordinary place. Who would have guessed that the worst disease in the history of mankind would have been first experienced here? John began by examining the patients. These people had been suffering for over two months now. Before he entered the quarantine wing, John could hear the moans and requests for someone to kill them. The head doctor, Dr. Fox, briefed him. “It began simply,” Dr. Fox explained. “One day, two patients came in complaining of the same symptoms. Fever, itchy, tingling nerves, coughing, upset stomach, the worst migraine headache they had ever experienced. They weren’t hungry. All they wanted was water, but their throats were so dry that they couldn’t swallow. Gradually they developed to seizures, swelling of the joints and muscles, and severe dehydration. If someone with an illness so much as looked at them, they instantly contracted that disease, as well. They grew thin, bony. Essentially, this Disease Z strikes their immune and nervous systems, making them susceptible to illness and putting them in extreme pain at all times. The ones who do not fight to live go first. The others battle the disease. Often, they suffer from seizures from the pain. Nothing can be done for the patients. The disease is also highly infectious. All the nurses and other patients who came in contact with—or near—any patient with Disease Z immediately contracted the disease themselves. Eventually, we invested in the biohazard suits you see me and all others working wearing. They are very similar to the one you have on, although yours might be of better technology.”
John did not reply. Instead, he was staring at the first person he had ever seen with Disease Z. The person was screaming, writhing in pain. The clipboard at the end of the man’s bed said 348—it was a man, John thought, although he wasn’t quite sure. Extreme starvation and pain strips people of everything—including gender.
John pointed to the clipboard. “What does that number mean?” The doctor responded, “He is the 348th person to have contracted this disease.” John turned away. He walked into the hallway. “Show me patient 0,” he said flatly.
Of course Patient 0 was dead. Two and a half months was too long.
John swallowed hard. He was worried that he would run out of time. Patients were dying fast. 10 days into the mission, and Dr. Fox had been infected by Disease Z and could no longer help. The team became infected one by one. The Chief had called him, saying the office was being moved to Location Omega. This was not a good sign—it meant that over half the office had been infected, killed, or compromised. John knew that everything depended on him. Disease Z had become a global issue, killing millions and infecting millions more.
He checked his phone—the information had finally been sent. Patient 0’s body had been moved in a covert mission to WHCORD, which was located about 50 miles from Ground Zero (the first outbreak site). John gathered his things and decided to get some rest before the Big Day. He allowed himself to partially relax, and laid down in his bed.
The smell came first, and then her wonderful hands. He dreamed of the vacation in Florida, then their ski trip in Colorado. Two precious years full of her. She was laughing at him, snorting, the way she always did. Then she stopped laughing and began screaming. She sat and screamed. His feet were too heavy. She kissed him, full on the lips, like she used to kiss him, before. Then she was gone. Now he was watching the riots on television. She stepped to the microphone, cleared her throat. He could tell she was nervous because she was fiddling with her fingers. The ceremony began. Her speech was typical, thanking the people who made Mission CURE possible. That’s when the shouts started. She pressed on, but the noise grew so loud that John could only see her lips moving and couldn’t hear her words. Then suddenly, in a split second, the troops descended upon the crowd. People screamed. The troops shot tear gas into the crowd. The scene in front of John’s eyes was petrifying but he couldn’t look away from the television screen. Just when he thought it couldn’t get any worse, it did. The troops opened fire, and the protesters shot back. The cameraman had kept the camera trained on the stage, so John could see her terror. He fell to his knees, imploring the heavens to keep her safe, never taking his eyes off of the television set. The noise rose to a climax, and then, right before his eyes, he watched a man break through the police force guarding the stage. John screamed. The man raised his gun, and John watched while his finger slowly pulled the trigger. She gasped in shock, eyes full of pain. She fell to her knees, gasping for air. John had his hands around the television set, crying because of his helplessness. She looked into the camera, right into John’s heart. He couldn’t breathe. She mouthed the words, “I’m sorry,” and sank to the stage. A cry tore through his body. He watched her on the stage as the fighting all around her continued. He couldn’t move, didn’t feel anything. He was numb. He should have been there. He should have made her stay home, and he should have been there instead.
John woke up covered in sweat, his pillow drenched with salty water. He slowly rose from bed, took his three minutes , and got dressed. He was going to examine Patient 0.
He arrived in about an hour. John knew the security would be intense, but he didn’t know it would take him nearly four hours to get through. Finally he was inside the Center.
This was no ordinary Center. This building, World Health Center of Research and Advancement, WHCORD, had been built in preparation for this. John nodded his approval at the cleanliness of the facility. Two men with guns escorted him through another series of security checkpoints. Finally, the gunmen escorted him into an examining room. There, Patient 0 lay on a steel table. The forensic pathologist stood beside the body with various instruments on a tray next to the table.
John and the pathologist traded nods. The guards left and the forensic pathologist began to speak. He told John the usual things—what happened to people who contracted the disease, how no one knew how the disease was spread—perhaps it was spread in multiple ways, and how infectious it was. John was “Mmm-hmm-ing” until the pathologist said something that piqued his interest. “We have been unable to categorize Disease Z. We have never seen anything like it, in the way it behaves, is spread, or in its make up. It may not be from here.”
John asked, “What do you mean, not from here?”
The pathologist paused, uncomfortable. He took a deep breath. “I mean, it doesn’t appear to be from Earth.”
John blinked. What could he possibly be suggesting? He examined the body with the help of the forensic pathologist. While the body was racked with Disease Z, it didn’t appear to be anything “otherworldly.” Yet when he examined the slides and photos of the disease under a microscope, he had to agree. There was nothing on Earth like it. He asked to see the actual sample of Disease Z. It was brought out in a Petri Dish and John looked at it under a microscope. Suddenly, he blinked. Disease Z appeared to be changing right be front of his eyes. “Focus, John,” he muttered to himself. The forensic pathologist took in a sharp breath. “Oh my God!” he cried. John tried to steady the fear in his voice. He swallowed, took a deep breath before he asked the question he already knew the answer to. “Is it mutating?” The forensic pathologist nodded his answer. With a tribal like scream, the pathologist ripped off his own biohazard suit, exposing himself to Disease Z. “Take me!” he thundered to the heavens. “I cannot take it anymore. I will not stand by and watch mankind disappear!” The pathologist grabbed a box locked in a file cabinet. He removed a gun, sobbing madly. John stepped forward, but it was too late. The pathologist shot himself in the head and fell to the floor in a bloody heap.
John stared at him. He couldn’t do anything. He wasn’t sure what he felt, because it felt like nothing. Was he numb? He felt almost the same as when he watched her last few moments on the television screen, the way the world slowed way down and everything happened in slow motion. Then the pain had hit. John waited for the pain this time, but it never came. Instead, he pulled the Code Red Lever, knowing it was futile. Disease Z had already been released to the building, and was more potent than ever. He began the slow walk back towards civilization, hoping for a miracle. As he pushed through the sets of security doors, his worst fears were confirmed. Everyone was moving through the stages of Disease Z at an accelerated rate. People all around him were seizing, having heart attacks, screaming and writhing in pain. Some were already dead. John didn’t turn his head to look. He focused on the security table at the end of the hall. If only he could get to the phone, to alert the media. Moaning people grabbed at his arms and legs, begging for help, trying to tear off his biohazard suit in an effort to save themselves. He shook them off.
John finally reached the phone. He dialed 911, making split-second decisions about where to go from here. But no one at 911 answered. There was only a dial tone. John knew what this meant. He took out his cell and dialed the Chief. Again, no answer. This was a terrible sign. John turned to the news station playing on the security desk. Disease Z had mutated all over the world. It was stronger than ever and killing people in a mere 20 minutes. The last thing the news station said was that recent information led scientists to believe that the virus was able to go through even biohazard suits. Then it went to static. John swallowed hard. He ran outside, struggling to breathe. He had such a terrible headache. His stomach was rolling. John didn’t know if he had contracted Disease Z or if he was simply reacting to the situation. He tried to swallow, but his mouth was too dry. He couldn’t think. The landscape began to swim before his eyes. He looked around him. Everyone was either dead or writhing in death’s bony grip. It wouldn’t be too long before they joined the rest of the dead. John sank to his knees. He couldn’t think, despite all his efforts. The area grew terribly silent. It was haunting. John forced his eyes to focus. No one else moved. There was no wind, no motion. All was still, and the air was heavy. His breath slowed, his heart raced faster, and he suddenly sank to the ground. His bones were splintering into a million pieces. No one could hear his cries. His body abruptly began to convulse. Everything went black as the last man on Earth took his last breath.
Meanwhile, Vladimor, pleased with himself, took a snack break. The numbers across the schirm had been declining at a pleasing rate; the population was returning to a healthy number. Then suddenly, in an instant, the numbers began to decline quicker and quicker. Vladimor became alarmed. Had he miscalculated? He tried to type in a solution, but to no avail. The numbers kept declining. A warning bell began to sound—angry and loud, becoming louder. The red light began blinking, and the word “WARNING!” pulsed across the schirm. Vladimor typed frantically, but nothing could be done. The numbers scrolled by faster and faster until they reached 0. Silence.
The schirm went black.
“Game over” flashed on the schirm. “Try again?”
Vladimor took a deep, resigned breath and reached for the “yes” Knopf. But the door to the room creaked open and shadow fell across the floor.
Vladimor turned and confirmed: It was his father. “It’s feeding time, Vlad. Now turn that off,” his father said.
Sighing, the young Aboranogatribe complied. “More worlds tomorrow,” he thought, pushed his limy body away from the desk and began his plodding locomotion down the labyrinth to dinner.