“It is a cold night, my friend,” Khalib said as a greeting, his sandals scraping along the dusty path. “It is always cold at night in the desert.” He hefted his bulk onto a rock next to Ahmed’s. “Hot in the day and cold in the night,” he continued the mindless banter while securing his Kalashnikov rifle between them. Khalib spoke only Punjabi, which limited his overall utility and his conversation partners. “It is late, and you were not in your tent.”
“So you were sent to find me,” Ahmed said, staring at the cloudless night sky.
“They feel that it is important to know where everyone is, especially your kind.” Khalib wore a thick camouflage jacket and he pulled it tight around his huge frame. The Pakistani was close to 150 kilograms and more than two meters tall; in another world he would have been a star in American football. Despite his size, he was agile and quick, qualities that made him perfect for his sentry duties.
“You mean our kind,” Ahmed answered.
“Your kind, my kind, their kind; it’s all the same out here.”
“Is that what the Sheik believes, or just says?” Their isolation freed Ahmed’s tongue.
“Let the Arabs have their fantasies of superiority; in the end it will not matter. They will be rewarded or punished based upon what they have done, not on what they think they are entitled to.” Khalib ran his fingers through his thick black beard.
“Does your simple wisdom keep you comfortable at night sleeping in a fly infested tent while they sleep inside in warm beds?”
“One day the scales will be balanced, and that knowledge keeps me warm,” he said.
“I wish I had your faith,” Ahmed confessed.
“I am a simple man with only my heart to guide me. You are an educated man burdened with a mind that leads you astray.”
“You are not as simple as you pretend, Khalib.”
“How goes your work?”
“Are you testing me?” Ahmed asked, suddenly suspicious of the abrupt change in topic.
“What good are secrets so far out in the desert? You work underground, building your bombs and weapons, while we run around in the sun pretending to be simple terrorists for the American satellites. I wish only to know if we are actually accomplishing something worthy of the sacrifice.”
“I don’t think we will need to be here much longer,” Ahmed said, without offering anything more.
“That is good. I have been here nine months. That is a long time to be away from the mountains, and a longer time to be away from my wife and children. I will take the money that the Arabs give me, buy a farm, and never leave it again.” The Pakistani reached for his weapon and slowly climbed to his feet. “I will tell them that I found you up here praying. I believe that will give you a little more time for your heart and mind to wrestle.” The big man dipped his head in a pious gesture and trudged back down the dusty trail to the camp below.
Ahmed would need more than a little time to resolve the conflict between his heart and mind. Once again he found himself alone, not just physically but in every respect. All his life he had felt like an outsider. Growing up in the Ja’amal region of Turkmenistan he was the lesser of two sons born to the great-nephew of Ja’amal himself. Before deciding to settle down, Ja’amal and his ancestors had been nothing more than bandits. A lawless tribe that roamed the southern mountains of the former Soviet Union, robbing, killing, and raping at will. Fifty years earlier, the invading Russians had tried to secure their southern borders by attempting to subdue Ja’amal. Within six weeks, having lost more than a hundred men and more weapons than they could spare, the Russians limped home after making a deal with Ja’amal—on his terms. It was into this environment that the slightly built, cerebral Ahmed Ja’amal had been born. His older brother bore more resemblance to Khalib than to Ahmed and was received with great deference by their father and the rest of the clan. After winning a national tournament for memorization of the Qur’an, and a degree of acceptance previously unknown to him, Ahmed knew that his path in life would be in the greater world.
At the age of seventeen, Ahmed left for Oxford. England could very well have been on a different planet. It was loud and crowded; no one carried guns, and life was not dictated by violence or the local Imam. There were women everywhere in various stages of undress, and morality was just a word in the dictionary. It was both wonderful and terrifying at the same time. Despite the traditionally tolerant English society, his fellow classmates viewed him with a degree of suspicion, accepting him scholastically but not socially. He found a mosque in a working class suburb but was viewed with even more suspicion for existing beyond the world of Islam. After eight years of living in a no-man’s land, he returned home with a PhD in molecular biology and found that in his absence very little had changed. He was still an outsider in his own family. His brother, who was only marginally literate, was resentful that Ahmed got to come and go as he pleased without the responsibility of carrying on the family business of extortion, drugs, and prostitution. His father branded him a heretic after learning the aims of molecular biology, this despite the fact that the older Ja’amal was completely non-religious. Two weeks after returning home he accepted a university position in Paris and moved to France, intending never to return.
Six years later he sat on a rock in the cold Libyan Desert on the cusp of destroying the world. Two hundred meters from here are the bodies of seven men. Ahmed looked at his watch and corrected himself. Probably eight men now. They were once your colleagues, Khalib, your countrymen. Each had received a “vaccination” the day before; Ahmed himself had given each man the shot that he hoped would lead to a horrific death. It was the culmination of two years of round-the-clock work and was an achievement unmatched in the history of science. They had created a new life form. Technically still a virus, in reality it was so much more. They had merged the genetic material of Ebola, a primitive RNA virus, with the more complex Herpes Simplex virus, a double-stranded DNA virus, to form an entity that had all the properties of both. The greatest laboratories the world over had failed to achieve what they had accomplished in a poorly equipped underground lab in an empty desert. It was a scientific breakthrough worthy of the Nobel Prize, and a quantum leap in weapons technology. A leap that rivaled the creation of the nuclear bomb, and Ahmed sat on his rock wondering if Robert Oppenheimer had had similar emotions as he watched the mushroom cloud form over the New Mexican desert.
This new virus could be aerosolized or converted into a powder; even its mutations could be directed. It was, without question, the most lethal pathogen on Earth, and in the coming days he would direct the formation of nearly twenty-three pounds of it—more than enough to directly infect every person on earth.
Only Ahmed and his mentor, Jaime Avanti, understood what had been achieved. Others within their group of sixteen suspected that a breakthrough had occurred, but the work had been so compartmentalized that none of them had a working knowledge. Within a day, maybe two, all that would change. There would be no going back; the genie would be once and forever out of the bottle.
He would have to dissect the eight bodies to discover this new weapon’s true potential, and then they would have to safely dispose of them. After that they would need more, many more “volunteers.” The virus refused to infect anything other than living human tissue. In time a substitute might be found, but for now, more men like Khalib would have to die.
Even if he could live with the idea of sacrificing more volunteers, Ahmed wondered if he could live with the thought that his work would be directly responsible for the destruction of whole civilizations. Is this really what Allah wanted? He had been raised as a Muslim in name only, and perhaps that’s why—after finding himself alone in France, searching for an identity—he gravitated to the Islamists.
Ahmed’s mind drifted back three years to a particular sunny Paris afternoon. He and his cabal of academics were sipping tea in a bistro passionately debating how best to defend the purity of Islam against the creeping infestation of modernism. Was there a place for radio, television, or the internet for the average Muslim? Could they be trusted to see through the bright lights and commercialism to the corruption beneath? Ahmed listened quietly and realized that this little knot of intellectuals would never be moved to action. They were happy to define the eradication of Western influence on Muslim societies as a noble, holy mission, and the responsibility of every true Muslim, so long as someone else was doing the heavy lifting. Their hypocrisy offended him, and the long suppressed genes of his grandfather finally asserted themselves. He cursed their inaction; apostates, he called them. They had substituted intellectualism for true faith which required resolute action, and not fancy discussions in street side cafes. He punctuated his point by staining their snow-white thobes with his tea. The memory of their shocked and surprised faces had sustained and propelled him down the dark road of extremism.
What would they think of me now? he asked himself. Would they view his accomplishments as noble or holy? Could they justify genocide as a legitimate method in the defense of Islam during one of their Sunday afternoon debates? He doubted it. They would accuse him of hijacking their peaceful religion and label him an apostate for substituting true faith with his vision of hate and intolerance.
Years earlier, when the fires of religious fervor burned brightly in his soul he would view their label of heretic as a badge of honor. Any derision by such feckless men was surely something to be cherished. Except now, after the fires had long since burned themselves out and the reality of what he had done became manifest in the death throes of eight innocent men, with millions more to follow, he felt the weight of his mistake. Even at the height of his religious rapture his intent had never been genocide. His work was aimed at creating a weapon that leveled the playing field, offsetting the enormous military advantage of the non-believers. A modern version of mutual assured destruction.
“MAD,” he said in English and smiled. It had worked for the Soviets and Americans during the Cold War, but he knew the Arabs lacked similar restraint. Under the guise of religious righteousness, they would use the virus to spread their will and power just as the Crusaders had done. History had come full-circle.
He accepted the hypocrisy of his thoughts. When he began the work he knew that it would lead to the deaths of others, but rationalized it with the belief that in the end it would be for the benefit of infinitely more. Only now, at the completion of his work, the reality was something very different. This was not a weapon that could be controlled, or entrusted to man; their success had turned his initial intent on its head. A few would benefit and infinitely more would die. His virus was an abomination before Allah and he had a responsibility to destroy it.
“Khalib,” he called loudly, and the large man, backlit by the lights in the camp below, turned.
“So, you are done wrestling?” He slung the automatic weapon over his shoulder. “Come, I will protect you from the wild animals and the dark night.”
“A question first. I saw Dr. Avanti leave the laboratories earlier this evening. Do you happen to know where he went?”
“Not precisely. I do know that he took one of the Range Rovers and headed north, with his little Arab boy.” Khalib sneered the last part. He had no proof, but it was widely rumored that Avanti shared more than just a tent with the young man.
“Strange,” Ahmed said, thinking that Avanti was still somewhere in the camp. The nearest settlement to the north was almost a day’s drive, something that Avanti would never undertake at night. “Normally, if he was going to be gone for any length of time he would have told me. Did he say anything to anyone?”
Khalib stared at the smaller man, hesitating to answer.
“It’s all right, Khalib, I don’t want you to betray any confidences. We are at a critical point in our research, and it’s an odd time for the Director to disappear.” A sliver of fear stole through Ahmed. Avanti himself had told him that parts of the research were being stored offsite, and it was possible he was simply inspecting the secret cache, but instinct told Ahmed something else. “Come, my friend, I have to get back to work.” The pair hurried down the hill, stopping at the entrance to the underground facility.
“I am going to Tar’uq tomorrow, so don’t go wandering off. There will be no one to find you,” Khalib said as both a joke and a warning. Once again he gave a slight bow and shuffled off to the small city of dusty brown tents.
Ahmed typed in his pass code at the keypad, and the recessed glass door silently slid into the rock face that disguised the facility. He waited for the outer door to close and for the pressure to equilibrate before the inner door opened with a muted hiss. Two uniformed guards checked his ID before they allowed him to pass down the glistening stainless steel stairwell. It was a perfunctory step—Ahmed Ja’amal was the Assistant Director, and with Avanti gone he was in charge. His face was well known to everyone.
A minute later he reached his lab. For months it had been filled with screaming, stinking monkeys of every variety, until Avanti and Ahmed concluded that only the human primate could carry their new creation. He had become so frustrated with the monkeys that he couldn’t spare any emotion over their ultimate fates; he was simply grateful for the clean air and the quiet. He turned on his computer and his heart dropped as he checked the logs. Avanti had accessed the files three hours earlier—all the files. Ahmed randomly selected a folder and opened it.
“Folder Empty,” the computer returned. He sat straighter in his chair and selected a second file, then a third file. Each time, the computer beeped and informed him that the contents had been deleted. He worked his way down the directory and found his personal password-protected files. Hours before, they had contained the detailed observations of his eight volunteers and their agonizing last 24 hours. Only he and Avanti had access to these very special files.
“Folder Empty.” The screen blinked. Two years of work was gone; his boss and mentor had deleted everything. A thrill of hope rushed through Ahmed; perhaps Avanti had succumbed to the same reservations that assailed him, but Ahmed knew the man too well and his heart sank. Avanti had his own agenda, and morality.
He quickly stood; a sudden thought and fear propelled him towards the freezer. A thumb print was required for access, and only his thumb or Avanti’s would work. A moment later he found six empty slots in the orderly arrangement of twenty-four frozen vials. Avanti had it all—the research and the virus. The genie was out of the bottle.
He returned to his computer desk and slumped into his chair. Six vials were likely all Avanti could carry without raising suspicion, and by themselves posed little risk. Combined with the computer sabotage, however, it was clear what Avanti had intended. The virus and the computer files were all he needed to begin work elsewhere, away from the prying eyes and greedy hands of their Arab paymasters. Avanti’s resentment of the Saudis far exceeded Ahmed’s, and he had always suspected that the large, hirsute Ukrainian had ulterior motives. There was an airstrip, more just a straight strip of compressed sand, only a few miles from here, and it was likely that at this very moment Avanti was somewhere in the air, flying to freedom with their research and an insulated box that carried the six frozen vials.
The enormity of the situation paralyzed Ahmed. He knew that he should do something, tell someone that they had been betrayed, but to what end? Avanti was a clever and careful man; he would have planned his escape down to the final detail. The chances of him being caught, with the research and the vials being recovered, were nil, even with the long arms of the Arabs.
Still, I have to try, he told himself, and reached for the phone. The instant he touched the plastic he had a vision of his body, along with the remaining research team, being thrown into a shallow grave next to a pile of stinking monkeys. There was no way the Arabs would allow him or anyone else to live once they had learned of Avanti’s deception. Even if they believed that Avanti had acted alone, Ahmed and his team would still be viewed as unacceptable risks—risks that were easily eliminated. He pulled his arm back and stared at the phone. He was a dead man. Jaime Avanti, his friend, perhaps his best friend, had engineered his death. A few hours from now Avanti’s disappearance would be discovered, then the theft of the computer files, and finally the missing vials of Hybrid virus. He could disguise the theft of the vials, but he could never reconstruct the hundreds of missing computer files. Avanti’s final insult to the Arabs was to deprive them of not only their prize, but also of the data they had paid so much for, and in doing so had signed the death warrants of Ahmed and the rest of the research team.
His head dropped to the table and he began to weep. He didn’t want to die, especially a meaningless death. The bravado and conviction about stopping the Hybrid virus was suddenly lost in the fear of his own mortality. He accepted that he wasn’t a brave man, and hadn’t been born with physical courage, but he had always believed that he had the courage of his convictions. But at this moment, the only thing that was important was the desire to live. He was filled with an overwhelming imperative to run, and his head quickly came off of the desk. His pupils dilated and his heart raced.
Where? he asked himself.
Nowhere, his mind answered. They were a hundred miles from anything that resembled civilization and safety; the camp had been placed here for this very reason. He could steal a vehicle, but it would need fuel, and that was kept at the opposite end of the compound for security purposes. There was no way he could commandeer a vehicle without alerting the soldiers placed there to protect them, drive across the compound, fuel the vehicle after subduing or subverting those soldiers, drive through the compound’s main gate—once again through a phalanx of armed terrorists—and disappear into the desert.
“I see you have returned to work,” said a voice, in French.
Ahmed literally jumped in his chair, and wasn’t completely certain but thought that he may have let out a small cry as well. Turning, he found the last person in the world he wanted to see.
Klaus Reisch was tall, thin, and rather sinister looking. He had an aura perfect for the compound’s chief of security. “I see that Khalib reported back to you,” Ahmed said, after taking a moment to regain what little composure remained to him.
“Khalib reports to his superior, who reports to me.” Reisch walked arrogantly into the lab, pulled a nearby chair from beneath a table, and sat directly in front of Ahmed.
“You are not authorized to be in here,” Ahmed said, unconsciously leaning away from the German. Reisch looked like a lion studying a young gazelle, wondering if he should eat it now or later.
“Ordinarily that is true, but we have a problem, don’t we, Professor?” Reisch reached for the keyboard, and after a few moments of rapid typing he turned back to Ahmed. “Do you see what I mean?”
The screen had a title written in English that read “Culture Results: Day 23;” the page that should have been full was completely blank. “I’ve only just discovered this,” Ahmed confessed weakly.
“I believe you,” Reisch said unexpectedly. “Where did Dr. Avanti go?”
“I have no idea.” Ahmed felt a line of sweat roll down his back.
“Do you know if anything else is missing?” Reisch leaned in towards the small man and used his size and eyes to hold him in place.
Almost as if the German had willed it, Ahmed’s eyes darted to the freezer and back. He knew that the German had seen the unconscious admission and the only option open to him was the truth. “Six vials of the latest specimen are missing.”
“Is this the specimen that is responsible for the eight bodies downstairs?”
If Satan had a voice, it would be Reisch’s, Ahmed thought. “Yes.” His voice was becoming both softer and higher in pitch.
“Can you think of any legitimate reason why the Director of Research would copy all the computer files, delete them from the hard drive, and then leave the compound without permission with six vials of a lethal virus in his possession?” Reisch inched just a little closer. Ahmed tried to retreat but his chair hit the wall.
“None. If he were taking the samples and files for safekeeping he would not have deleted them here.”
“Those were my thoughts precisely.” Reisch slowly pushed back and then rose to his unnatural height. “I think it is best that you come with me. We need to keep you and the rest of your team safe.” He stepped aside and two men dressed all in black, from their berets to their combat fatigues and automatic weapons, advanced on Ahmed.
“What about the rest of the samples?” Ahmed’s voice was as high as a little girl’s.
“We will secure them,” Reisch said as both of his soldiers lightly steered Ahmed from the laboratory.
Brian O’Grady is April’s Story Plant Author of the Month, which means you can get the e-book versions of his novels Amanda’s Story and Hybrid for a great price all month. Read more about it here.