William Frieden strides toward the only remaining conference room at the CDC that has not been converted into employee living quarters. Thomas Murphy, the epidemiologist who was on the front lines in Antarctica right after the virus’s initial discovery, lengthens his gate to stay by William’s side.
“How long has it been since you transferred back to Atlanta, Thomas?” William asks.
Thomas squints up toward the ceiling as he thinks about the question. “I guess it has been about six months now.”
“Wow, six months already?” Four months before the virus started on its path of destruction, William thinks.
Thomas chuckles weakly. William is sure that, like him, the researcher’s mind is already focused on their upcoming meeting, and the intelligence report they received from the Department of Defense.
Thomas clears his throat and replies, “Believe me, it’s great to be back. I’ve had enough freezing temperatures to last a lifetime.”
William smiles. Even feeble attempts at humor bring some normalcy back into his days, for which he is grateful. “Yes, but here in Atlanta you’re stuck indoors. You’re a prisoner, so to speak.”
The CDC may not have managed to manufacture a vaccine before the outbreak, but they were at least able to turn the Atlanta headquarters into a nearly impregnable fortress. The building is fully sealed, with a negative air flow and ventilation system. Solar-powered generators and an independent water supply and filtration system keep things running. At the building’s single entrance, a sanitization area keeps visitors from bringing the virus inside with them. The basement storeroom has enough supplies to keep hundreds fed for years.
At the first report of virus-related casualties, essential employees and their families were relocated inside the complex, along with the members of the military who patrol and protect the property. Quarters are cramped, but William knows he and his team are among the lucky ones. Outside this building, Atlanta is a ghost town.
No, it’s a graveyard.
“I was just as homebound in the Antarctic,” Thomas points out. “ It’s nice to look out the window and see green, rather than ice and snow.
William bobs his head as they turn the corner and walk into the conference room. Three executives are already seated around the oval table—Rodney McDade, the deputy director of microbiology; Lori Newman, the deputy director of immunology; and Christopher Smith, Lori’s assistant.
As William takes his seat at the head of the table, a hush falls over the room. William can practically hear his colleagues’ thoughts. He felt the same anxious eagerness when he first opened the top-secret DoD files he’d requested time and time again.
“So.” William looks around the table. “We finally have the DoD’s report.”
“They’ve had this report for how long?” Rodney mutters. His overworked, rundown appearance has been compounded threefold since the outbreak, leaving him downright disheveled. He frowns at the table, eyes bloodshot from lack of sleep, face sallow from undereating. He spends most of his day in the lab, not bothering to groom the patchy stubble on his face.
“I know it took a while,” William admits. “Too long, in my opinion. But we have the information now.” He takes a deep breath, reading from the document on his laptop. “As it turns out, the object carrying this deadly virus, the one our friend Thomas here studied back in Antarctica, was not biological in nature. It was a probe.”
Everyone sits arrow straight, exchanging shocked glances. Then a chorus of muttering erupts.
“So, who placed it in the ice shelf? Was it a terrorist group?” Rodney demands, louder than the rest.
William turns to him. “The DoD didn’t say who was responsible. I don’t believe they know. But whoever it was left a message in the probe.”
“Goddamn terrorists left a message,” Rodney spits with ferocious conviction.
“It’s doubtful they’re terrorists, based on the contents of the message,” says William carefully.
“What did the message actually say?” asks Lori, leveling a cool-headed, reprimanding eye on Rodney. Her signature braided updo is as pristine and put-together as every other aspect of her life
William scrolls through the DoD documents until he finds the message and begins to read.
“‘This capsule contains a deadly pathogen that is highly contagious. The only way to create a vaccine is with the blood from one of three individuals who are immune to this morphon.’”
The mutterings cease at once.
Rodney is the first to break the shocked silence.
“So, the terrorists don’t think we’re capable of developing our own vaccine. That’s how cocky they are.” Rodney sets his jaw angrily.
“Well, they’d happen to be correct,” Thomas says, raising a finger. He doesn’t look angry, like Rodney, just tired. “We haven’t made any progress with any of the various experiments we’ve tried.”
“How could whoever left this note know there are just three immune individuals in the world?” Lori asks. “And even if they’re right about this, why would they share that information with us? Is this some kind of a game to them? People are dying out there.” Her hand forms a fist on the table, as if trapping her fury.
Rodney interjects, “I’ll bet anything these so-called immune individuals are part of this terrorist group in the first place. We’ll never track them down, because they don’t want to be found.”
“First of all, we don’t know for certain if the people responsible for this virus are terrorists,” Christopher, Lori’s assistant, says softly. “Secondly, the three immune individuals may or may not exist. I have a feeling the DoD is not being completely forthcoming.”
“You think it’s all made up?” asks Lori.
Christopher shrugs one shoulder. “We have no way of knowing if anything that note says is true. Or why someone would go to all this trouble in the first place. Creating the virus, implanting it in the ice, leaving a message about a cure… it seems like either there’s something bigger than terrorism going on, or it’s a story to distract us.”
“Not to mention, how in the world could a terrorist organization get a probe so deep into the ice-shelf?” asks Thomas. “Our satellites would have detected an airborne missile.”
“It could have been launched from a submarine below the ice shelf,” Rodney practically shouts. “The Russians and the North Koreans have U-boats capable of that kind of maneuver.”
“It doesn’t make any sense for the Russians or the North Koreans to launch an attack that would kill millions of their own citizens,” Lori argues. “Why would they kill millions of their own people? Why would anyone kill millions of people, for that matter?”
Rodney is a hound on a scent, wrinkles deepening as his face turns red with bubbling, vehement rage. “Russia has faced fewer casualties than most countries, due to their climate. Maybe they viewed losing a couple million citizens as a small price to pay for the destruction of their enemies.”
William coughs to pull the group’s focus back to the head of the table. “It’s highly unlikely that this was state sponsored. Why would a terrorist group or a hostile regime go to the trouble of placing this probe so deeply into the ice shelf? If the intent was to kill everyone on this planet, then you would simply fire the probe into a populated city where temperatures are above freezing. In fact, you would make sure that the virus was first exposed during the months of July or August, when most populated areas of the planet are above freezing.”
“Then who did this?” asks Rodney, pounding a fist on the table in a futile attempt to unleash his frustration on an enemy they cannot pinpoint.
“I have no idea, but whoever it was, they clearly did not intend to kill oﬀ all of humanity,” William says decisively.
“What makes you think that?” Lori taps her pencil against the wood grain, fingers twitching with an anxiety she doesn’t let show on her face.
“This virus was very specifically designed. Not to mention this ominous message of theirs telling us to look for three immune people as our only means to develop a vaccine… I think they purposely fired that probe into the ice knowing that we would discover it in a dormant state. I, for one, am inclined to believe that these three immune individuals really do exist. I plan to send out an emergency alert message today.”
“William, the odds that one of the three will be listening to the message are astronomical,” says Rodney, scowling.
“We have to do something. Unless you have a better idea?” William waits, an eyebrow raised, but nobody makes a sound. He nods. “Thought so. I will put together a message and we will broadcast it this evening. Thanks for your time.”
As the meeting ends, William and Thomas remain in their seats while the others depart with solemn nods.
“Why three?” Thomas asks the moment the door closes behind Christopher’s retreating form. “Why not one or five?”
William shrugs. He finds himself shrugging more than talking these days, scraping the edges of his tapped-out mind for Band-Aid solutions.
“If these three immune people really do exist,” says Thomas, “then they would have to be directly linked to the person—or people—who placed the probe into the ice shelf.”
William nods. “True, I don’t think there is any doubt that they’re connected. If there are only three individuals on this entire planet who are immune, and the people responsible for this virus know who they are, then they must be connected somehow. But I don’t think these three individuals know they’re immune, or that they are connected to the outbreak in any way.”
Thomas sticks a finger in his greasy hair to scratch an itch. “What makes you say that?”
“If they know they’re immune and are the key to developing a vaccine, then they would simply come forward on their own. There would be no need for the message in the probe,” William says with more confidence than he feels.
“I guess that’s true, but how did they become immune in the first place?”
“Maybe someone injected them with something or performed a procedure…” William sighs. “I honestly don’t know.”
“Without their knowledge?” Thomas rubs his forehead. “But why leave it to chance? The odds that these three individuals will ever figure out that they’re immune are incredible. Not to mention how dangerous it is out there.” Thomas points to the window. “There are rabid animals. There are desperate people willing to kill for food and water. Even if our three mystery people somehow discover that they’re immune, they would have to survive out there.”
William peers over the top of his glasses. “Yes, there are so many variables. The people who left the message could have just as easily provided us with the vaccine after they accomplished their goal—whatever that is—eight billion dead, who knows? Instead, they created this mystery.”
“None of this makes any sense.” Thomas shuts his eyes against the agonizing reality, shaking his head as if he can banish it by force of will.
William nods. “On that note, I agree with Christopher that the DoD is likely still withholding vital intel. They haven’t divulged any information about the probe itself… We’re not getting the full picture.”
“I think it’s interesting that the message referred to the virus as a ‘morphon,’ don’t you?” asks Thomas.
“I don’t know what the hell a morphon is, but the way it survives outside a host… morphon is probably a more accurate term than virus.” William removes his glasses to give his aching ears a break.
Thomas leans across the conference table. “I know you said you’re putting out a broadcast, but what do you think the chances actually are of finding one of these people?”
William shakes his head. “Slim to none.” He throws up his arms in defeat, and the sorrow he tries so hard to keep at bay overwhelms him. “It’s my fault. We never should have waited to warn the public. I could have saved millions of lives.”
To his surprise, Thomas reaches over to squeeze his shoulder once in reassurance. “Sir, you had no choice. It was not your decision to make. You were under orders.”
William lifts his eyes to find Thomas’ face downturned in pity. He swallows hard. He wants to believe his friend, but he knows better. “Thomas, there is always a choice. I chose what I was ordered to do over what was right. I have to live with that.” He rises to leave, but Thomas follows and reaches out to hold the door.
“Respectfully, sir, I disagree,” Thomas says. “Assume you had warned the public. There would have been mass hysteria. Billions would have tried to move into countries that simply do not have the infrastructure to support that many people. Chaos and war would have followed.”
William sighs as he strides out of the meeting room. “Maybe you’re right, Thomas. It’s impossible to know now. We just have to face the world we’ve created.”
Thomas clears his throat as they turn down another hallway. “Have you heard from the ECDC?”
William struggles to make his vocal cords work. “Apparently, there are fewer than one hundred thousand people still alive in France, Italy, Spain, and the UK combined.”
“Oh, my God.” Thomas steadies himself against the wall.
“It’s much worse in South America and the African countries,” William calls over his shoulder.
“I can imagine.” Thomas jogs after him. “What’s our next step?”
“Keep looking for a vaccine. Let’s pray that one of those three individuals contacts us, and soon. Before temperatures start to warm up.”