On July 12, 2017, an iceberg the size of Delaware broke oﬀ from Antarctica’s fourth largest ice shelf, Larsen C, and began to drift through the Weddell Sea. At the time, it was the largest iceberg to ever break from the Antarctic Peninsula. When it cracked, it exposed a dormant ecosystem, hidden from the waking world for over 120,000 years.
One week later, NASA’s Aqua satellite identified an object embedded deep in the crack. The Department of Defense pulled this object from the ice shelf and transported it to the United States Amundsen-Scott South Pole research station in Antarctica, where scientists soon realized exactly what they had on their hands… and what the object’s release into the world meant for mankind.
Six months after the initial iceberg break, William Frieden strode through the bland hallways of the Center for Disease Control headquarters, lost in thought. He tried his best to respond to the various passersby along his route, who stopped to oﬀer various versions of “Good morning, sir” and “Any news, sir?” but his head, already high above the crowd at six-five, was focused elsewhere. The sharp mind his peers had always held in high regard was failing him. His synapses and cortex tried to run through all possible scenarios, offering up snippets of memorized text from the reports he’d already read, but it failed to reach any satisfactory presumptions about the briefing he was headed to receive.
His only viable prediction: escalation. It wasn’t the conclusion he wanted, especially with tensions already running high. Worse still, he had no solutions.
William entered the executive conference room, a beige-walled corporate cubbyhole he’d always despised, though he was too professional to say so. Rodney McDade, the deputy director of microbiology, and his assistant, were both already seated at the far end of the conference table.
Rodney looked up from his phone to acknowledge William as he took his seat at the slim, lengthy table. Rodney was only in his early sixties, but the stress of the job was reflected in his receding gray hair and in the frown lines etched between his bulging eyes.
Rodney’s assistant tapped on her tablet screen with long, clicking red nails. Rodney scrolled through his phone to check for new emails. William, on the other hand, looked expectantly at the flat screen mounted on the far wall. As he waited for the assistant to connect the feed, he ran a hand through his full head of gray hair. He’d neglected to trim his beard this morning, unusual for him. But he’d been neglecting a lot of things in recent weeks. He’d definitely been neglecting the people working under him at the CDC. Now, however, after the latest report out of the Antarctic, William was beginning to feel responsible for more than just his employees, as their director. He was starting to feel as though he held the fate of the entire world in his hands.
Suddenly, the blue screen, an old model they really ought to have retired, blinked and resolved into an image: the drawn, tired face of Thomas Murphy, the lead epidemiologist for the CDC, currently based out of their new and hastily thrown-together oﬃce in Antarctica.
Judging by the dark circles under his bloodshot eyes and the well-past-five o’clock stubble on his cheeks, his report wasn’t cheery.
William peered past him at the darkened lab in the background—the Amundsen-Scott research station. The pale light of the laptop illuminated a few shelves stocked with cardboard boxes, dusty books, and some keyboard cleaner. It looked deceptively normal. As though Thomas were perched in the back oﬃce of a hacker startup, and not one of the most heavily funded research laboratories in the world.
“Thomas.” William leaned forward to take over the meeting. “Have you been sleeping?”
“Not well, sir,” the epidemiologist croaked.
William checked the time zone clock he’d had installed on the meeting room wall. One a.m. at the South Pole right now. “We’ll try not to keep you long. Any good news for us today?”
Thomas cleared his throat, looking nervous. “I wish, sir. I am… I’m not sure where to begin.”
William cleared his throat and sat back, his cheery façade abandoned. No one was buying it anyway. Rodney caught his gaze and shrugged one shoulder, looking grim. “Just tell us what we’re dealing with, then,” William said.
Thomas shifted in his seat. “The virus appears to be a zoonotic pathogen. We’ve infected a series of lab rats, and the disease retains its molecular structure. It could cross-contaminate from the rats to humans, if one of the infected animals were to come into contact with human blood.”
William cursed under his breath. “Is it just rats, or—”
“Any animal, sir.”
William and Rodney exchanged another long look.
“And how long does the virus remain active in the infected animal? How long before it kills them?” says William, praying for a large number, something to work with.
Thomas winced. “It doesn’t, sir.”
William frowned. “I’m not sure I follow.”
“Animals carry the disease, but it aﬀects them diﬀerently than it would a human. It makes them extremely aggressive. Our lab rats exhibit similar characteristics to animals infected with rabies. It does make the infected animal extremely sensitive to light, specifically sunlight, and as a result any infected animal, even a diurnal one, will become nocturnal. The pain is just too intense for them to be out during the daylight.”
“That’s incredible. For a virus to cause such drastic behavioral changes…” William turned the information over in his head. But then another thought struck. “When you say aggressive, what exactly do you mean?”
“Aggressive to the point where they will attack with impunity.”
William took his glasses oﬀ and massaged the bridge of his nose. “And the eﬀect on humans…?”
Thomas cleared his throat. “Humans develop flu-like symptoms. Congestion and fever initially, and then over the course of around fourteen days, the infected person’s internal organs… liquefy. Toward the end they’ll cough up blood, see it leaking from any orifices.”
William pressed his glasses back onto his nose, and the fear on Thomas’ face came into stark focus. The earpieces dug uncomfortably into his skull. He’d been meaning to make an appointment to get them adjusted. Yet another task he’d been neglecting. “What’s the fatality rate?” he asked, not sure he wanted to hear the answer.
Thomas seemed equally reluctant to tell him. “As of our most recent tests, sir, it appears to be… well…” The epidemiologist’s voice quivered, and he cleared his throat yet again. “The fatality rate has been one hundred percent.”
“My God,” said William, just as Rodney spat a loud curse.
Even the assistant had stopped typing meeting notes, red talons hovering over the pad while she gaped at the screen.
“It gets worse,” Thomas said, sounding close to tears.
William stared over the top of his glasses at the screen, his expression deepening into sarcasm.
“How can it get any worse than a one hundred percent fatality rate?”
“Last time we spoke, I mentioned that the virus is airborne, correct?”
“Yes, of course.”
Thomas fidgeted in his chair. His long, lanky black hair fell into his eyes, and he brushed it back, impatient. “Well… the virus can actually continue to survive outside a host for some time. Meaning that, once airborne, it could travel great distances, infecting any living host in its path.”
William slammed his hand on the table to keep from crying out like a mourner. “What? That doesn’t make any sense.” His breathing shallowed, vision blurring as his brain scrambled to keep up with his ears. “Are you telling me it’s a separate living organism?”
“I’m afraid so, sir.”
William sat back in his chair, glaring at the screen. “Then this isn’t technically a virus. This is unlike anything we have ever seen before. What do we even call this thing?”
Thomas shrugged helplessly. “I agree with you, but I’m not sure what else to call it.”
Rodney drew their eyes with a soft cough, his expression deadly serious as he chimed in, “Whatever this thing is, if we can’t develop a vaccine, no one will survive.”
“That’s not necessarily true,” Thomas spoke up.
William and Rodney both turned. Against his better instincts, William’s heart began to lighten. “What do you mean? There’s a way to avoid this?”
“The virus has a glaring weakness. Although it is airborne and extremely lethal in warmer temperatures, it remains dormant in freezing temperatures. The only way to contract the virus in colder climates is to come in contact with an infected person or animal’s blood or saliva.”
Thomas leaned back in his chair, which aﬀorded William a better view of the lab. He could see coﬀee cups and old food strewn around—a sign of how hard the technicians had all been working since this wretched discovery.
“That’s why it remained frozen in the ice until now,” Thomas explained, “completely innocuous.”
William gritted his teeth. “But the virus wasn’t contained in the object we found, was it?”
Thomas grimaced. “No, sir. We found traces of the virus all throughout the glacial melt around the object, and in neighboring ice sheets.”
Rodney glanced between his colleagues’ stony stares. “So that means…”
Thomas nodded. “Whenever that ice reaches warmer climates and melts, it will release the virus into the air—where it will be free to propagate, infecting animals and eventually any humans it comes into contact with. The only beings that are remotely safe are those already living in freezing climates.”
William barked out a sour laugh. “Now if we could only figure out a way to transport eight billion people to Antarctica… and feed them, and clothe them, and house them….”
Thomas bobbed his head uneasily, like he was unsure whether to go along with his director’s dark joke. “Sir, I cannot stress enough how important it is that we learn more about the origin and nature of the object that was pulled from the ice shelf. After all, it’s the source of this virus. We don’t even know if it’s biological in nature.”
“Thomas…” William cut a sharp glance at Rodney and the assistant in the room. “You know I agree we should be focusing on this object as a top priority. But that object was retrieved by the Department of Defense, and the DoD has decided not to share any more details than they’ve already given us—information that was hard-won, I can tell you that. Believe me, I will keep pushing the DoD on this issue, but for now, all we can do is continue our research on the virus itself.”
“I understand, sir. I just don’t think the DoD comprehends how vital it is that we all work together on this. And we should be looping in other countries as well. This could become a world-wide issue—”
“Thomas, we know,” said William, softening his tone as he checked the clock. Thomas seemed ready to keel over in his chair. His entire body looked as limp and wrung-out as his dark hair. But William had one final inquiry. “The million-dollar question: Can a vaccine be developed?”
Thomas’ pupils bounced around the corners of the screen, never landing on William’s face. “It’s too early to tell,” Thomas said, in that careful, hesitant tone William was accustomed to hearing from his scientists. Ever meticulous, they didn’t want to give anyone false hope.
“But I can tell you this much,” Thomas continued, face drooping like an old hound. “I have never seen a pathogen as complex as this one. It’s almost as if this thing were… specifically designed to kill.”
William was struck dumb for a full ten seconds of weighted silence. “What do you mean, designed?” he said slowly, delaying the answer as long as possible.
“I mean built, like in a laboratory.”
Rodney’s sagging cheeks wobbled as he shook his head, eyes closed to shut out the possibility. “But wasn’t this virus found inside an object that had been buried in ice for the last 120,000 years?”
Thomas nodded, raising his eyebrows in a pointed look.
“Right. Thank you, Thomas,” William broke in before the epidemiologist could take them down a sci-fi rabbit hole. Speculation wasn’t useful right now. William needed cold, hard facts—no matter how devastating those facts might seem. “I have an update with the president in a few,” he said. “Let me know as soon as you find anything else.”
“Of course, sir.”
William nodded to the assistant, who ended the conference call with the tap of a button. For a moment, he and Rodney sat in utter silence.
The assistant cleared her throat. “So, er… is the president’s oﬃcial stance still that we cannot issue a public warning about this virus?”
“Not yet,” William confirmed. “He doesn’t want to cause any unnecessary mass hysteria, in case we’re able to contain this. But from the sound of it…”
“How long do you think we have?” Rodney asked. “Before that ice reaches warm enough climates and melts.”
“If we’re lucky?” William removed his pinching glasses to rub at his burning, screen-weary eyes. “I’d wager a decade, at the most.”
“But if the virus is as contagious as Thomas thinks…” Rodney looked ready to have a stroke, pale and sweating.
“Yes.” William flattened his mouth in grim agreement. “Unless we can develop a vaccine by then, we’re as good as dead.”