A study of Disease—of Pestilences methodically prepared and deliberately launched upon man and beast—is certainly being pursue in the laboratories of more than one great country. Blight to destroy crops, Anthrax to slay horses and cattle, Plague to poison not armies but whole districts—such are the lines along which military science is remorselessly advancing— Winston Churchill
At that point we must have been the only two persons in the place. A storm started to unleash outside. The wind hit against the windows and I noticed how very dark the room had gotten. The waitress switched on the light, made a few rude comments about the mud on the floor, bolted the main door and started to count the cash of the day.
From his black army suitcase, the officer took a small paper pad which he carefully placed on the table. He took a bite off the biscuit which had been served with the tea and slowly, almost lethargically started to talk.
He asked me if I was updated on the current progress of the plague globally. I quickly replied, not without a certain air of cynicism, that I didn’t quite believe everything that was aired on television but that I had witnessed a series of bizarre incidents myself and that for the time being, I remained neutral regarding the matter.
He looked at me and smiled almost maliciously as if ready to deliver a killer blow that you can only deliver when you wholeheartedly believe to have an advantage over your adversary. I felt he was holding back something that he wanted to prepare me for. He was taking his time.
He continued saying that the military was in need of dedicated, trustworthy personnel, the best of the lot, pilots ready to take orders around the clock and carry out any manner of missions for the good of the country. These were moments of peril like human kind had never experienced before. He paused. I noticed his eyes glowed in the overall dim atmosphere of that cafeteria. The rain had stopped leaving a thick humid chill in the air.
As he observed me through his mysterious glasses, his hands would continue to fill that pad with all manner of doodles, some quite beautiful in fact, which from time to time, would distract me from the conversation.
I took a small sip at my third cup of tea and, after a deep sigh, asked him to continue. He examined his shoes for a second, an impeccable pair of Italian leather moccasins which would have been surely destroyed in the rain outside in a matter of seconds. Then he looked at me again and proceeded to say that the mission I had trained for would now enter a second phase, one where, a deeper level of commitment, effort and dedication would be required, and told me that High Command was counting on me. I smiled and kindly informed him that my fiancee, soon to be wife, was expecting and that I would probably be counting on taking father leave around the time of the birth of the child.
He pulled backwards slightly in surprise, and congratulated me, quite emphatically. The country was in need of fresh blood, something he repeated a few times with a certain pride.
It was late, we probably had been talking for an hour and a half at that point. The tea kept me going and the the clouds had become dense with a dark blue hue, menacing a second downpour.
I looked at my watch. I wanted to be out of there and go back home to Janice. When he finally resumed the conversation, he looked me in the eyes with a much more melancholic tone this time. What surprised me was the directness of his following statement, if a man of his stature or importance wouldn’t need to embellish certain things in the way a lay person would. Straight people, straight talk.
The country, he explained, had become unruly. Government had lost almost all will to act and sadly also a lot of blood. Soon as it had been agreed between all power groups in the country, things would have to change, radically and this would affect all aspects of life, telecommunications, transport, defence and of course home and foreign affairs.
That took me slightly by surprise. What was he hinting at? I had, in all honestly I say this, come to suspect that a change of direction with regards to internal security had become inevitable, too many pickets, too many revolts. But somehow I had also imagined these changes unfolding in an orderly manner, from above, from government.
I did the good soldier thing and raised my cup for tea for a toast to the future of the country and the army, something, I say now with a bit of shame, I delivered with too much adulation and flattery. The officer was of course extremely pleased to see my reaction and instinctively responded with an arrogant grin.
He then took a sombre tone and delivered a rather chilling bit of information which to this day I have not quite understood fully. The pestilence, he continued, wasn’t totally a natural phenomenon. For years, most large laboratories around the world, had been in competition to develop better and more efficient germ strands. Some of these germs were used for insulin production or to produce artificial sweeteners, amongst many other things. Most of this research had always been conducted in an ethical and regulated manner, which means to say, with the interest of society at heart. However, other types of research had not been carried out that way.
He paused and just about touched my hand with his two fingers. He did so with the authoritative calm of a grandfather, sharing his knowledge and wisdom to a younger grandson. He proceeded. It was obvious that any genetic research on the most lethal of bacteria, would not be carried out with the intention to produce better bread or a new line of fresh fragrances, he explained sarcastically.
Two of the most lethal were the Smallpox, and the Yersina Pestis. Modified versions of these two types had already been caught in circulation, infecting small populations in certain remote areas of the world. In some cases, in the worst cases in fact, these populations had been wiped out but of course, these ‘unfortunate’ incidents usually took place in some remote island or amongst the few hundred members of a jungle tribe somewhere in the tropics. Then the bodies would disappear before the authorities would reach the site and all evidence was gone. News had nothing to cover for lack of information and so the world never knew of these incidents.
Until twenty years ago, a good course of Streptomycin would have cured a man sick with the bubonic plague in a matter of ten to fourteen days. A very efficient vaccine has been around for the Smallpox for example. Such drugs had been available to most since their appearance, a hundred years or so.
But now, things were very different, We didn’t have an antibiotic against this pestilence. We didn’t have effective palliative care medication either. We didn’t know if the germ was currently mutating or not since most laboratories had either shut down or had been destructed. It was too late to expect a turn of events from science.
We knew that Yersina had been modified and released to the public before because ten years ago, a powerful mutated form had been found in the body of rats in the sewage system of two Asian cities. Sewage systems are incidental monitored more regularly than other areas and most large cities have a wastewater surveillance system in place. Now, how those mutated germs had arrived in the sewage systems of two different cities at the same time, is still unclear but suffice to say that it is likely the germs arrived by mistake, either through an accidental leak or discharge from a laboratory or through animal chain which lead to the sewage rodent population in the sewers.
The officer stopped and I took time to think before I asked him why he thought an antigen hadn’t surfaced yet. Sometimes pathogens are released into the public to later monetise the medications that prevent them. This has been a profitable market for centuries in fact.
If the vaccine had indeed been created and withheld in secrecy by its creators to be traded for astronomical amounts at a later stage, this was all speculation.
The only thing we could be sure is that the pestilence was successfully tearing apart the structure of society, bringing governments to a standstill and putting law and order in jeopardy. before we could find a solution to the biological threat, and recover our ways of life, it was extremely important that the revolt be controlled. It was inadmissible that government was fighting against two problems, one of which could have been solved long time ago.
I realised what the officer was hinting at. I also sensed he was thoroughly excited by the prospect of what was coming. But what was coming? War? a new government? Both or…something else altogether? I took a moment to digest everything that had been discussed so far. It was late and the fierce downpour distracted me for a moment.
The street opposite us was flooded like a river. I saw a fellow pilot friend of mine running towards the hangar with a newspaper on his head and water up his calves. It was truly a magnificent monsoon.
At that point my thoughts meandered in all directions, uncontrollably. I was also concerned about Justine. Three cups of tea down the road and three hours in the meeting, I sensed I really needed a break after this. Luckily this came quickly.
The officer finished the last drops of tea and then took a deep breath looking at me with a conclusive gesture. He apologise if he had overloaded me with too much information. He was very happy to have me in the program and wished me all the best with the last phase.
With a brief movement of hands which could have belonged to an orchestra conductor, the officer announced that the meeting had come to an end and he would be in touch for the second phase of the program. Well, I thought, what an elegant and marvellous way of downplaying all the Armageddon stuff we had been talking about. Wonderfully effective and delivered in magnificent military style!
He shook my hand but didn’t quite let go off it. I felt pulled towards him as if he wanted to reach my ear to whisper yet another unspeakable secret. Things were going to change soon, he said, everything was going to change radically, and in no way life would be the same as before.
With this thought he left in the manner he had arrived, with the added benefit that the storm had, luckily for him and his moccasins, completely stopped by then. I saw him elegantly jumping between paddles before the man disappeared in an official jeep which awaited him across the road.
That evening I came to Janice, held her in my arms for as long as I can remember. I had an excessive amount of information in my head, rumbling like an angry bear ready to attack. I also had an unpleasant chill running down my veins, a feeling that things weren’t going to get any better.
That night I made love to her, sweet and tender and held her close to my chest the entire night. She would wiggle and toss in bed every now and then and kiss me in the lips from time to time. I didn’t sleep but kept my eyes closed, going over, time and time again, the images and events of the last twelve months.
The sun rose, morning came and with the first birds chipping away I fell asleep. I slept solid for a couple of hours then rose for a shower and drove back to air base.
Janice must have been turning four months pregnant then, maybe four and a half.
The program moved to stage two and our group started to train physically for assault. This involved building endurance in confined spaces, sleep depravation, building resilience against hunger, etc. A lot of it had nothing to do with flying but, as I have done too many times before and since, I didn’t ask any questions nor wanted to get any. Life moved on and all I wanted was to focus on Janice. Nothing else mattered much to me.
I realised my thoughts and memories had brought a sense of guilt to my heart. I shook my head just a bit, as if wanting to wake up from a perpetual dream, a spell. The mountain breeze was lovely, with touches of thyme and wild berries in the air.