Nathan Martin stared at the blinking words: Amanda has signed off.
He could have handled that better; he should have handled that better. Amanda Flynn was important. He thought of her often and remembered the entire Honduran affair clearly. Everything about it made him anxious. There had been other cases in his nine-year tenure as Director of Special Pathogens that he and his group hadn’t fully resolved, but none of them bothered him as much as the Honduran affair, as he had come to call it. So many unanswered questions.
He looked for the file on his cluttered desk. It had long ago been digitized and added to the CDC database, but Martin had kept the paper file for himself. About twice a year, he thumbed through it hoping to find something they had missed, or perhaps to trigger some new insight. He knew he had taken it out yesterday, after hearing from the long-lost Amanda, but now he couldn’t find it.
“Martha, are you in yet?” he called out. His obsessive-compulsive secretary had a knack for taking the very thing he needed most and “putting it away.”
“No, I’m not,” Martha Hays yelled back through the open door.
“Did you take the EDH1 file?”
“No, it’s on your back desk. I saw you put it there last night.” She appeared in his doorway, feigning frustration.
“Right, I’ve got it. Don’t take it again.”
His secretary flipped him off, making him laugh.
“I could fire you for that!”
“Fat chance. I’m a civil servant. I could set you on fire, and the most I’d get would be a reprimand.”
Martin opened the file and his handwritten notes spilled out. He picked up the nearest one. Origin? was written across the top. Where did this virus come from? It had always bothered him that nothing like EDH1 had ever been described before. He knew that the majority of viruses in the world had yet to be seen, much less described, but he had never come across one so radically different from everything else. There was no structural analogue or one that killed so efficiently; not even Ebola was this evil, and nowhere near as complex. They had been given a very limited sample to work with, barely enough to culture, but the virus mutated into unstable forms so rapidly that Martin couldn’t trust his own findings.
He shuffled through the notes and found the one labeled Bodies. If he could have examined one of the victims, he would know so much more. But all the U.S. military had been allowed to retrieve were tissue samples. The official story was that the Honduran military had orders to sterilize the entire area, including the corpses. A U.S. colonel had tried to convince a Honduran general that with minimal precautions the bodies posed no substantial risk, but he was overruled and sent packing with samples and the single survivor. Martin supposed it was understandable, considering the situation: the general’s nation had just been devastated by a hurricane. An entire town and nineteen of his soldiers had died of a mysterious illness. He could hardly fault him for not wanting to risk more lives recovering bodies for scientific reasons.
The last of Martin’s notes was labeled Survivor. These were the most detailed. More than three hundred people had died in this outbreak, including the thirty at the Red Cross camp. Only Amanda Flynn had survived. How? Why? Even after holding her for thirteen weeks, he couldn’t answer either of these questions. He had lied to her in his e-mail. When she had arrived in Oklahoma, she was dehydrated, in shock, and suffering the effects of exposure, but her life had never really been in danger. He had held her as long as the military would allow, and in the end he failed to find anything of significance. She had no signs of infection, either acute or remote. They couldn’t culture the virus from her blood or even her tissues, but the tissue samples from those that had died grew the virus readily. Martin finally concluded that Amanda had some type of immunity to EDH1. He toyed with the idea of purposefully exposing her to the virus to confirm it. Okay, he thought, maybe I did a little more than toy with the idea. This inexcusable breach of medical ethics and morality had finally caused Martin to realize that he had lost all perspective. Amanda had become a personal obsession, one that time had only managed to dull.
In the solitude of his office seven years later, Martin was embarrassed by his actions and shamed by his motivations. How could a man his age, and in his position— someone who had accomplished so much—still be motivated by petty jealousies and childhood insecurities? He had convinced himself, and told others, that they needed to know what made her so special for legitimate medical/scientific reasons. It was valid, cogent argument, but it in reality it was little more than subterfuge. He was driven by darker and far more personal motivations.
Amanda and her virus had shown up shortly after Martin had been appointed the Director of the Special Pathogens unit of the CDC. His predecessor was a living legend, having literally written the book on special pathogens. Most of their colleagues were polite enough to whisper that the department was euphemistically going through a transition period, while others were less discreet. And then Amanda appeared with her frustratingly obscure immunity to the most special of all special pathogens. For three months she became the focus of Martin’s entire section. They tested virtually every square inch of her, but she refused to give him the answers and the validation he needed. After spending over twenty million dollars, all he had learned was that she was a completely healthy twenty-four-year-old woman.
A beautiful twenty-four-year-old woman. He winced as he turned to her photograph. All his life he had known people like Amanda: the popular, the pretty, and the privileged. Why had God selected her above the other three hundred people? When she first arrived at Tellis he knew next to nothing about her, but her looks and the way she carried herself allowed Martin’s imagination to fill in all the gaps. She was the cheerleader surrounded by friends, floating down the high school hallway on the arm of the football captain. Which made Martin the slightly built Jewish kid from the shadows who both loved and hated her. Only later, after she had disappeared and everything had gone to hell, did he find out just how wrong he had been. She wasn’t the stereotype he needed her to be, far from it. Which made his offense all the more difficult to forget, or forgive.
Martin gathered the file and turned back to his computer. He scrolled up to Amanda’s first message and reread it. He’d often thought that the last chapter on EDH1 had yet to be written, but there was nothing to link this virus, or any virus, with the situation in Colorado, no matter how strange it was. He closed his e-mail file and opened a pathology file. The Colorado Springs medical examiner had asked for help identifying a potential viral encephalitis case two weeks before Amanda had contacted him. It was a routine request, no different from the dozen other requests his office received weekly, but he had never believed in coincidences. He reviewed the report again, and again found nothing suspicious. Both the local pathologist and Martin’s own section found all the requisite abnormalities associated with a viral infection of the brain: heavy lymphocytic infiltration of the gray matter, inflammatory cells around the blood vessels, and macrophages along the linings of the brain’s ventricles. Nothing very interesting. Viral encephalitis was usually caused by an arbovirus, which was carried by mosquitoes. Probably not a lot of mosquitoes in Colorado this time of year, but the victim could have been bitten elsewhere. Electron microscopy had confirmed inclusion bodies consistent with an arbovirus, so that pretty much closed the book.
He had taken an extra step by calling the Colorado Health Service and asking them to forward their report on this unusual blip in violence south of Denver. They had done a reasonably good, if somewhat bureaucratic, job of chasing this down to its logical dead end. He also asked if there had been any cases of hemorrhagic fever that had gone unreported to the CDC. Not surprisingly, there hadn’t been. An inordinate number of deaths from a particularly nasty flu, that was also giving them a little trouble in typing, he was told, but certainly nothing as exotic as hemorrhagic fever.
“Excellent, you’re already here,” said a voice, startling Martin. Adam Sabritas rushed into the room. Thirty-six, dark, and pudgy, Adam was constantly in motion. When he sat, one or both of his legs would bounce. When standing, he was constantly shifting his weight, giving everyone the impression of a six-year-old needing to pee. When he talked, it was in a torrent, a loud torrent. Martin had recognized the talent beneath the frenetic activity when Adam had taken three months off from his infectious disease fellowship at Johns Hopkins to intern at the CDC. That had been four years ago. Now Adam had his own research lab and a dozen journal articles to his credit, and was fast becoming the world expert on the Hanta virus.
“We finished the sequencing of the R2 serotype last night and found eleven base-pair changes.”
“That’s good news. So we don’t expect R2 to ever become a significant player.” Martin had always expected that the Hanta virus would develop less virulent subtypes, and it was Adam’s job to prove it.
“Nope. Whatcha got there?” Adam seemed to vibrate.
“Oh, you wouldn’t be interested in a case of encephalitis in Colorado.” Nathan dangled the word “Colorado” before the bouncing Adam. Hanta was especially active in neighboring New Mexico.
“In March?” Adam’s bouncing increased in frequency.
“No, February. Dick Fernung took a look at the case.” Martin enjoyed winding Adam a little tighter; only Adam stopped his incessant leg bouncing. “What’s wrong?”
“Dr. Martin, Dick Fernung is in Africa. He’s been there since January. Uganda, I think.”
“Damn, how did I forget that?” Martin said. He needed a break, or an assistant, probably both. He returned to his computer, but the report was unsigned. “Martha, can you get me file . . .” He donned bifocals to read the case number from the computer. “434-w90?”
“No,” she shouted back.
Both men were surprised by her response. “And why the hell not?” asked Martin.
“Because I got you that very file yesterday, and you haven’t returned it. Did you look on your desk, Oh organized one?” She didn’t even bother to get out of her chair.
Nathan began rustling around his desk, and just before he was going to shout that it wasn’t there, Adam found it on a chair next to him.
“Found it,” he said, handing over the thin manila folder. “Dr. Fernung has a post-doc working for him. It’s, ah . . . Larry Strickland,” he said sheepishly. His left leg began to bounce.
Martin sneered as he thumbed through the file, looking for the signature page.
“Great! Guess who signed it out?” he said sarcastically. Larry Strickland was a post-doc who would never rise above research assistant if Martin had anything to say about it. He was as much of a mistake as Adam had been a find. “He’s lazy, sloppy, and stupid.” The words slipped out, and immediately both were embarrassed, especially Adam, who was just two years older than Strickland. “I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have said that.”
“Said what?” Adam popped to his feet. “Well, I’ve got some time on my hands. I’ll be happy to review it.”
“I don’t know. How are you with arbovirus? They can be tricky,” Martin said with mock concern, handing him the file.
“Well, I do know that they’re not nearly as sexy as the Sin Nombre virus. If I need to know anything else about them, I can always look it up in a book.” Adam was back in full motion as he thumbed through the file. “This shouldn’t . . .” Adam stopped moving again.
“You were saying?” Nathan had turned back to his desk and waited for the younger man to finish his thought.
“Dr. Martin, I don’t think this is an arbovirus,” Adam said softly, staring at an electron micrograph. “This doesn’t look like anything I’ve ever seen. Definitely not an arbovirus. It’s too big and much too complex.” Adam awkwardly bent over Martin’s desk, pointing at a photograph.
“What? Just give me the file. I can’t see it from way over there.” Nathan was more annoyed than concerned. A six-sided wheel with what looked like arms at each corner stared back at him. It took about five seconds for his brain to process what he was seeing, but it took his stomach less than one. A wave of nausea hit him, and he dropped the file. It hit his knee and fell to the floor.
“Have you seen anything like . . . Are you okay?”
Martin was light-headed, and his mind was racing. “This has got to be a mistake,” he mumbled as he felt the wheel of karma turn. He reached for the file, but Adam had already scooped it up.
“I take it you know what this is,” Adam said.
“Let me see it again.” Martin’s heart was palpitating, but his mind was clearing.
Adam fumbled with the pages for a moment and handed his boss the electron micrograph. The picture hadn’t changed. There were four more pictures of the virus, and each showed the six-sided wheel with short arms. Martin checked the file numbers and found that they all matched. It was too much to hope that a clerical error had been made.
“Hold this for me,” said Martin, passing the file back to Adam. Martin retrieved the old EDH1 file, and after several minutes of rifling through its pages, he threw it back onto the desk. “No goddamn pictures,” he said, turning to his computer and pounding away at the keys.
Adam cautiously walked around the desk and watched with growing concern as his boss punished the keyboard.
Finally, Martin stopped; he had found another hexagon with six arms. A fist tightened in his chest, but the angina wasn’t what concerned him.
“They’re close, but not the same,” Adam said. Martin jumped a little, having for the moment forgotten his protégé. “Look, this Colorado virus has much smaller appendages.” Adam shoved the file in Martin’s face. “I’d guess that it has less nuclear material as well, but they’re definitely related. This one has to be a mutation of the one on the screen.” Adam made the obvious connection, but Martin had stopped listening. “We have a problem, don’t we?”
Martin didn’t answer. Instead, he picked up the phone. “Martha,” he said, his voice uncharacteristically controlled and business-like, “I need you to get me William Branch. He’s assistant director of the FBI in Washington. You should have his number. Tell him it’s an emergency.” Martin hung up the phone.
“She knew.” Martin said to himself.