Jack and his Asian-American wife, anthropologist Marla Qui, lead a team from the CDC trying desperately to identify the malady-a suspected genetically-mutated virus created by the North Koreans-and find a cure before it decimates the Western Hemisphere. What they discover is more terrifying than any virus: a lethal genetic mutation present since the dawn of evolution that threatens all of civilization and leaves them racing against the clock to save their own lives.
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By MICHAEL WOODS
AuthorHouseCopyright © 2014 Michael Woods
All rights reserved.
08:00, March 9, Mto Wa Mbu, Tanzania (Midnight EST, March 9, U.S.)
Abasi's eyes popped open as if somehow controlled by the azimuth of the rising sun. He stretched and hopped out of bed quietly, so as not to wake the others in the two-room mud and thatch house. He loved mornings in Mto Wa Mbu.
He stuck his head out the door of the hut and watched a few villagers trudge by, making the daily trip to the well to replenish their drinking water and to catch up on local news. He liked to listen to the well talk—never real news like what was happening elsewhere in Tanzania—just little details important to the day, the here and now.
Abasi's mother was in the middle of preparing breakfast when he heard children laughing outside and the tale-tale scuffling sounds of feet kicking a ball. Some of his friends were already playing soccer in the cool of the morning to avoid the hot afternoon sun, burning up energy accumulated from a good night's rest. Without hesitation or asking for permission, he was out the door.
Abasi had to run hard just to keep up. He was the youngest in the soccer scrum. His twine belt, knotted in front, bunched the khaki shorts tightly around his bony hips, preventing them from falling down around his ankles. Both of his pencil-thin legs could have easily fit through one leg of the shorts; his torso was long, ribs were visible, accentuated with each deep breath, but not in an unhealthy way. His smile—the kind all children should have—seemed permanently fixed, and his eyes were wide, bright, smiling as wide as his mouth.
The other boys were already out of sight, having tumbled out of the alley and rounded the corner of the house at the end of the alleyway, plunging after the ball, their trail evident from the kicked-up dust hovering at eye-level. Running headlong into the cloud, Abasi's eyes filled with dirt and he began to violently tear. It slowed him, but he kept moving, eyes closed, toward the noise reverberating in the village center.
Another sweep of his hand and the watering cleared as he rejoined the group, playing more a game of keep-away than soccer. He charged into the middle, kicking furiously, laughing. One of the larger boys struck the ball hard and it careened off another's head, bouncing high in the air toward a side alley, a spoke off the wheel of the village center.
Abasi watched the ball descend from the sky and land between the dull clay walls of the houses forming the narrow byway. He stared down the alley for a moment, as if the ball's temporary disappearance had been an incomprehensible act of magic.
Abasi positioned himself to see down the alley and when the ball hit the ground, powder-dry dirt poofed-up, smoke-like. He watched the small cloud hang in the air for a few seconds until a gust of wind whipping through the alley spontaneously molded it into a dust devil, rising like a phoenix from nothing. It swept toward him between the short, story-high shacks, bouncing between the houses like a spinning top rebounds off whatever it hits. He watched as the brown, swirling vortex slowly moved closer, becoming denser as it sucked up more dirt with every foot of its advance. For a moment, he thought he should run, but his curiosity was greater than his fear.
He noticed two men at the well talking, oblivious to the boys and the slow moving brown funnel. The thinner of the two men had a full beard, was wearing a muted green tropical print shirt and was standing. The other was a shorter, plump, elderly gentleman, shoeless, toothless. They were chatting, their water containers full, neither apparently in a hurry to lug 50 sloshing pounds back home. The pudgy one was sitting cross-legged on the edge of the stone wall surrounding the hole that dropped 30 feet into the earth to water.
Abasi's grin widened even more than usual as it became apparent the men were completely unaware of what was about to happen. Seconds before they were engulfed by the mini-cyclone, one of the men saw the funnel, whites of his eyes gaping. He attempted to warn the other, but he closed his mouth to avoid spitting dirt all day.
It appeared as if the earth had consumed the men when the irregularity of the well disrupted the symmetry of the swirling wind and the dust devil exploded chaotically into a cloud. Abasi watched as some of the brown haze fell back to earth, the rest carried high into the sky, swept away to succumb to gravity beyond the confines of the town. He tilted his head in consideration, wondering where each particle had been before landing in the alleyway.
The other boys had disappeared down the alleyway to retrieve the ball, but Abasi stood watching the men, who had resumed their conversation. He thought it remarkable that they could resume talking so quickly following the mini-maelstrom.
He wasn't sure, but it seemed as if the man sitting on the well's edge was teetering back and forth ever so slightly—as if he were keeping rhythm to some inaudible musical score. He squinted. Yes, he's swaying. His smile faded for the first time that morning as the man slumped over, folding in half, the weight of his pelvis carrying him backward into the gapping crevice. The thin man shouted for help simultaneously with a reverberating splash.
The commotion raised the alarm of those within earshot and a small platoon of villagers arrived, surrounding the well, peering over the edge and calling to the man bobbing face down, motionless. Abasi fought his way out of the crush, pushing and wriggling through a forest of legs.
Retreating to the edge of the village center, Abasi had a panoramic view of the throng. A would-be rescuer, a man in his mid-30's, well-toned, muscular, visibly healthy in appearance, became unsteady on his feet and slumped to the ground, apparently fainting. An older man, shirtless and bald, and a middle-aged woman in a flowing red dress, her copious hair loosely confined by a bright yellow kerchief—perhaps relatives of the swooning man—turned him over and dragged him away from the crowd to prevent him from being trampled by other helpers descending in chaos. A man leaned over him and held his cheek next to the still man's nose.
"He's not breathing!" he shouted. A small group of folks close enough to hear the pronouncement rushed to the breathless body, standing over it in confusion and terror.
Abasi watched another man go down next to the well—and a woman. More people were congregating in the town center, trying to help but not knowing what to do. Abasi watched as potential rescuers bent over to help a victim, themselves crumpling over, breathless.
Abasi's head was swimming and he felt dizzy, confused. His legs wouldn't work, even though he wanted to run away. He watched as men and women fell to the ground as if the very hand of Hell had reached up out of the well and plucked their souls mid-stride.
The connection between his brain and legs sparked when he thought of his mother and he turned to run home. Bodies littered the alleyway.
He ran through the curtain hanging in the doorway into his house.
"Momma! Momma!" Abasi shouted.
He couldn't see inside, his eyes not adjusted to the dark from the bright morning sun. He squinted and then closed his eyes, slowly opening them to the dark room. He was able to make out the gross outline of things—the stove, the small table. He stepped forward into the room and tripped over something on the floor. He knew what it was without looking, as he crawled over to the corner of the room, sobbing.CHAPTER 2
03:00, March 10, 2015, USS Shilo, a Ticonderoga Class guided missile cruiser 150 miles off the coast of Tanzania (19:00 EST, March 9, U.S.)
The lieutenant commander read the incoming message twice, eyes widening and mouth agape. He turned to the ensign and said, "Get the captain on the horn, now, please."
The ensign, looking puzzled, stammered, "Sir, it is 03:12. Are you sure you want me to wake him—now?"
"Get ... him ... now!" the senior officer commanded in a low but deliberate voice, glaring at the young seaman.
The commander knew the young man must feel a huge amount of intimidation as he picked up the phone and dialed the captain's quarters knowing there would be an angry voice on the other end. He noticed a bead of sweat glistening on the ensign's forehead.
"Yes?" said the captain in a bleary, barely audible voice.
The commander could see the ensign gulp. "Captain, the commander would like to speak with you, sir."
"This damn well better be important. Last time I checked, seas were calm and we weren't at war, Ensign. What the hell time is it any how?" the captain said, now more wakeful.
"Uhh ... it's 03:13 Captain, sir."
The ensign handed the phone to the commander. "Captain, sir, I need to see you immediately. There is an—a—serious situation, sir."
"Well, spit it out, Commander!"
"Sir, I think this would best be delivered to you directly. May I come to your quarters?"
The commander could feel the captain's confusion in the silence. "Yes. Come on down."
Moments later, the commander walked into the captain's private quarters. "Sir, we just received a message from the Department of Defense. A small town in Tanzania named Mto Wa Mbu in the north appears to have been attacked with a chemical or biological agent. It's about 175 miles from the coastal town of Tanga. The Tanzanian president has requested U.S. assistance."
"What's the situation?"
"The details are sparse, sir. There are many dead. Some victims may still be alive, but it's too soon to tell how extensive the attack might have been, sir. Whatever happened, aerial reconnaissance by the Tanzanian Air Force indicates there are no signs of ongoing hostility. The perpetrators seem to have vanished. The Tanzanians are hoping we would help sort this out. Washington has directed us to support the effort immediately."
"What can we expect from the Tanzanians, Commander?" asked the captain. "I don't know a damn thing about 'em."
"They're definitely friendly to the U.S., sir. Pretty stable as African countries go. Democratic. They've been helpful to us in tracking down terrorist splinter groups in Eastern Africa. Generally, we're good to go with them. We have a green light to use their airspace, full stop."
"Well, get on with it then, Commander. And keep me updated," the captain said.
"Yes, sir," the commander replied as he closed the door.
The commander called his junior officers together to brief them and outline his plan.
"We'll put two Seahawks in the air in the next 30 minutes. They need a refueling stop at a Tanzanian military base 25 miles inland from Dar es Salaam—the largest Tanzanian city. They'll then head northwest to ... to ... How the hell do you pronounce this? Mto Wa Mbu? Make sure an NBC officer is on each bird," he said, referring to military personnel specially trained to investigate nuclear, biological, and chemical attacks. He paused and shuffled through some notes. "And one of 'em needs to be Marks." There were moans from a few of the juniors, which stopped immediately as the Commander peered over the top his horn-rimmed glasses.
He continued, "The military dress for this little jaunt is MOPP gear for everyone." More moans. "In case anyone missed it," the Commander continued, "I said MOPP gear—that's right girls—good 'ol Mission Oriented Protective Posture gear. You need to expect the worst."
A lieutenant in the back said, "Commander, there must be some shit goin' down if we need to wear MOPP."
"Yes, Lieutenant, there is. And I recognize that MOPP is the bane of NBC duty, but my job is to complete the mission and keep you alive in the process," the commander said.
"But, sir ..." The commander raised his hand, cutting him off.
"I understand that wearing charcoal-lined jackets and pants, boots and gloves made of Butyl rubber, and a large plastic hood and mask that covers the head and seals tightly around the face isn't exactly the type of thing you would willingly wear in the desert. Or anywhere, Lieutenant. But it is the greatest protection you will have in a situation that smells like nerve gas." There were no more questions.
08:00 March 10, Moshi, Tanzania, 200 kilometers east of Mto Wa Mbu (Midnight EST, March 10, U.S.)
A six-year-old Tanzanian boy walked to the kitchen and paused, confused. He looked around the room. Something was missing. The usual breakfast aromas of chapatti, fried flat bread, and ugali, a cornmeal mush, as predictable as the sun rising, were absent from the air. The boy, curious as to why he was the first one up, called out for his mother. No answer. His second call, too, was met with silence. A third call, more urgent, loud, scared. Nothing.
He ran to his mother's room to find her lying in bed. "Momma?" he said, as he gently touched her shoulder. She didn't stir. "Momma!" he shouted, as he tried arousing her, now with as forceful a shake as a six-year-old boy could muster. The entire body of the 30-year-old woman moved, stiff with rigor mortis. The little boy, realizing the truth, slumped to the floor. Soft crying grew into wailing sobs of grief—the kind of grief that shouldn't be known by a child.
10:00, March 10, Mto Wa Mbu (02:00 EST, U.S., March 10)
As the choppers circled above the village, Chief Petty Officer Marks, the NBC officer in charge of the mission, could see bodies strewn around a well in concentric rings, like the ripples caused by a stone thrown into a still pond. It was surreal—the well was an epicenter of death. Marks thought it looked like some bizarre, choreographed Broadway play from above. As they descended, he could see hundreds of Africa's carnivorous animals feasting on the dead.
He thought that whatever had killed the villagers had acted instantly, bodies having fallen as they were taking their last step. There were a few signs of life, a child here and there, as if planted for dramatic effect.
As the choppers swooped down into the village, the meat-eaters scattered, running for the outskirts of town, bellies full of human flesh.
Marks instructed the recon crew to put their NBC masks on, transforming them into alien-like beings. They landed in a large garden patch about 50 yards away from the well. Marks instructed the helicopter to remain ready to take off quickly if hostile agents forced an unanticipated retreat.
A lieutenant junior grade stepped from the deck of the helicopter. Marks thought he saw the junior officer shiver as he hit the ground. He frowned in disgust behind his mask. Jesus ...
The green lieutenant said, "It looks like a war zone—or at least what I think a war zone might look like." He had never been in combat. There were dead bodies everywhere. He shouldered his M-16, ready to cover his comrades.
Marks didn't hesitate hopping onto the ground. The CPO, unlike the wet-nosed young man, had been to hell and back, as he liked to say. He had been in every U.S. conflict since the late '70s. He strode quickly toward the center of the village, the lieutenant trotting along behind like a lost puppy, looking dazed.
"Relax," Marks quipped. "Whoever or whatever did this is long gone."
Marks headed for the epicenter of the dead zone—the greatest number of bodies. He stepped over bodies that were bloating in the considerable mid-morning African heat, flies swarming. Confused and scared, a few surviving children cried over bodies, presumably their parents. Reaching the city center, just yards away from the well, he knelt down and unzipped his NBC bag of tricks, pulled out a Geiger counter and flipped the switch. He knew without looking at the gauge that all he was getting was background radiation—the kind of radiation that exists naturally in the environment.
"Well, it ain't nuclear," the crusty CPO said. "Only radiation injury these folks could have is sunburn, and I don't think they much give a damn now."
He put the counter away and pulled out a pack of M-9 chemical detection paper. While the paper doesn't identify what kind of chemical agent was used, it does tell you if any of a variety of aerosolized compounds have been released, like mustard or nerve gas. Marks had put it to good use—and saved lives—in Iraq in the early '90s. He tore open the packet, took out a piece of the paper, and rubbed it on a corpse's skin. He expected it to turn pink, confirming a liquid nerve agent as the culprit. "White. Just plain 'ol goddam vanilla white." He scratched his masked head with his gloved hand. "What the hell is going on here?" he said.
Excerpted from Olduvai Countdown by MICHAEL WOODS. Copyright © 2014 Michael Woods. Excerpted by permission of AuthorHouse.
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