2020, Thursday June 13,
St. Johns’ Hospital
The ICU waiting room was cold and impersonal. The walls were blank except for a plaque above the reception desk honoring an organ donor. Not exactly an uplifting environment to spend six hours waiting to see a critical friend. His broad hunched-over shoulders and folded-hand quiet demeanor didn’t give a hint to the turmoil within his head. Thoughts raced as Chance went over the past 12 hour nightmare he was trapped in. The more he thought, the more his head hurt, and he had more questions than answers.
His best friend and partner in the most worthwhile pharmaceutical research project he had ever known was down the hall behind a door fighting for his life with no clue as to what had happened or what was wrong. Eddie lay in a tangle of tubes and monitors staring at the ceiling unable to move. The machine next to his bed hissed oxygen into his lungs expanding with each compression of the bellows. The tube down his throat through his vocal cords prevented him from any communication. The last time Chance had been allowed at his bedside; Eddie was illuminated by the eerie green glow of numerous monitors above the bed and looked up at him with petrified eyes.
“Hey buddy,” Chance had said hesitantly.
“We’re going to take care of this, don’t you worry. Just a little setback. I talked to your brother and he’s called your family. I’m sending tickets to get them over here as soon as possible.”
Eddie stared back, with strange brown tinged tears running down his cheeks.
“Can you move at all?” Chance leaned over and looked at his friend’s limp non-responsive fingers. There was no movement, not even a twitch. He had been warned not to touch Eddie, and they had given him a yellow gown, gloves, N95 mask, and clear eye goggles to wear. He was only there for a few minutes when the neurologist came in to introduce himself and then asked him to leave. He had been in the waiting room ever since.
When Eddie didn’t show up to work or answer his cell on Wednesday, Chance figured he was just having a tantrum. But when he didn’t show up by late afternoon on Thursday, he was more than mad at his slacker friend and stormed out of the office, making the trip to Eddie’s condo complex in less than 10 minutes. After banging on the door for a while, he checked the under ground garage and found Eddies’ black Jeep in its usual place. He went back to the front of the apartment, working his way around to the side of the building and then hurdled over the low wall into the patio enclosure. The sliding door was unlocked and he called out as he crossed the sparsely decorated living room. The book case covered walls were loaded with botanical textbooks loose papers and an old microscope. The computer on the corner desk was blinking the alert that mail was waiting and he saw the bedroom door was open. Calling out again, Chance hoped Eddie was not hung over with some girl sharing his leaky old college waterbed.
Nothing could have prepared him for what he saw when he went through the door. Eddie was sprawled across blood covered sheets looking at him with watery dim eyes. His mouth chewed at the air and his breath came in intermittent gasps.
“Eddie what happened? Who did this to you?”
Chance’s first thought was that he had been attacked or robbed, or someone had tried to get him to tell about their research. He ran to the phone and called 911. He was worried Ed would stop breathing at any moment.
Eddie was not moving except, for a spasm in his finger and his barely blinking eyes releasing bloody brown fluid. The blankets seemed to be wrapped around his legs, but Chance was afraid to touch anything for fear of hurting him and kept saying so over and over.
“It’s okay, help is coming, it’s okay. We’ll find the bastard who did this to you.”
Chance’s mind raced, “What in the world had happened? Was there a break in? Did someone at one of the other labs hear about their research and try to beat it out of poor Eddie?” He knew research espionage was getting as common as carjacking, but this was over the line.
Chance raged inside. “Has Sutton, our other partner, told someone about their success with neuron-blockers for pain and cancer treatment? That guy has been a worry ever since we started the experiments. He has loose lips, the big slob, always bragging about something or other. What an idiot!”
Chance had gone over every possible scenario by the time the paramedics arrived which was in just under 5 minutes. After they moved Eddie onto the gurney, the paramedics asked Chance , “Does this guy have prosthetic legs, or a wheelchair we should take in the ambulance?”
“What are you talking about?”
“Well he’s an amputee, right?”
As they maneuvered Eddie through the door, Chance could now see that his legs weren’t there—they were just gone. What Chance thought were blankets wrapped around Eddie’s legs were just—blankets, and lots of bloody gunk, no legs at all.
Chance didn’t make it to the bathroom sink before he lost his lunch. He was only aware of the panic that squeezed his chest like a vice. When he finally found the hospital waiting room in the maze of halls, he slouched down in the nearest chair and stared at a blurry smudge on the wall. He was in shock.
2200, Thursday June 13,
NASA Research, Ames Center
George Meyers was at his desk, working late, going over reports and reviewing the data about mutated toads sent in by his three field researchers. The phone rang as he was gathering up for the weekend.
“Pick-up George,” the switch board operator said, “I know it’s after hours but this guy sounds panicked. He says he tried to call the Biohazard team at Fort Detrick but they’re not answering. They’re three hours ahead of us— they must be gone already.”
George made the call and the fear in the voice on the other end of the line was tangible, “We have a situation here at St. John’s Hospital in Phoenix. I’m Doctor Leonard Barnes from the emergency room. Let me give you a description of what we just got through our doors.” He took a deep breath and began his initial assessment details. “A young Asian male of about 26 years presented in critical condition. He was found by a friend who was concerned after he didn’t show up to work for two days. Look, to make it short, I think we may have a form of Ebola. We’re examining cultures, but so far there’s no evidence of bacteria, so we guess it’s a virus—maybe a toxin, or bio-weapon. Something’s invaded his body, gone systemic. We don’t know where or how. Whatever it is, has liquefied muscle and bone, leaving nothing but a pool of fluid tissue where his limbs were. This guy evidently went to bed fully intact and woke sometime the next day with no feeling in his body from the chest down. Difficulty breathing, fluid in his lungs and no movement in the upper body. Somehow his neuro-system shut down and blocked any sensation of pain. This guy is dissolving right before our eyes.”
George, listened and became increasingly alarmed, “Go on.”
“We questioned his friend who says the subject was on a camping trip last weekend someplace in Southern Utah. They both work at Alpha Sigma Pharmaceutical here in town. His friend saw him Tuesday night and says other than feeling tired from the trip, he looked fine.”
“How fast can you get a sample out here?”
“I can send an emergency over-night drop, and I’ll send one to Maryland too, even though I couldn’t get a hold of anyone from their bio-epartment. The bureaucracy there is thick!”
“Send the sample to Ft. Detrick, care of Admiral Bernie Albee, attention Bio-Contamination Department. He’s a long time friend from the academy and I’ll make sure he’s alerted to look for it. What other symptoms do you see?”
“We got him on a ventilator as soon as he arrived. He was close to respiratory arrest. His lungs are full of a brown liquid that has a musty fungus-like odor. I got a negative test for pseudomonas. He has congestive heart failure, is now paralyzed up to his nose. He can still blink, but his pupils are non reactive to light. No bowel sounds, I think the stuff is attacking the abdominal wall and may be into the chest cavity, but it’s hard to tell. The MRI is all blurry—as if he’s a giant marshmallow throwing the scan off. We’ve been pouring in blood and plasma through a peripheral jugular line, but it runs right out multiple open wounds we’ve tried to cauterize with no luck. He has 4+ edema and his skin is splitting open like he was boiled too long. He’s not maintaining blood pressure. Soon after he got here, he went non-responsive so he couldn’t tell us anything much.”
“Oh, I forgot to tell you, his friend said he had an itchy rash on his leg the other night. That’s it so far, but this guy is going to code blue any minute now and everyone is getting spooked. I don’t think one person will step up to do chest compressions. If this is communicable, we could be in real trouble. The paramedics are scared. We put them in full contact and air borne isolation.”
“Good, keep it contained, what ever ‘it’ is. Everyone who has been in any minor contact from lab personnel to custodial picking up the trash must be kept on site until I can get a team working on this. Where did you say he was camping? I’ll stay here until I get a look at that sample and have some sort of lead. Now, what did this guy do at Alpha Sigma? Was he a paper pusher, or on the research team? Find out if they’re doing anything in toxin studies at that lab. I know they use a lot of botanicals in their products. That may give us a clue.”
“I’ll see if I can find out, I think his friend is still here, but he hasn’t given us very much information. Let me give you my pager number so you can let me know if you get anything from that sample.”
George pulled out his cell phone and punched the number into the memory. “What’s the hospital number too? I’ll see what I can do about contacting Ft. Detrick; you have enough to do keeping everything contained. Try not to start a panic, but don’t let anyone who has had direct contact leave until we know what we’re dealing with. I’ll be in touch. Thanks for the heads-up Leonard.”
George sat back and took a deep breath, trying to recall the phone number of his old Annapolis friend. He hadn’t seen Bernie Albee in several years. George left the military after his first tour of service was up. It may have had something to do with his submarine assignment. His commanding officer tried to guilt him into signing up again, but the close quarters and loneliness of sub-duty didn’t fit his gregarious personality and by the end of his tour he was grumpy and claustrophobic.
Bernie received a much more desirable assignment and stayed in the military, eventually ending up in Maryland at Ft. Detrick. George remembered from their last contact, Bernie was doing some of the work with anthrax. He reached across his desk to the worn rolodex and found the section with his college buddies.
It was past midnight in Maryland and the initial response to the ringing phone was tired and impatient. Explaining quickly, without pleasantries, George launched into the litany of facts and concerns. By the time he stopped to take a gulp of air, his old friend on the other end was fully awake and planning a way to lock down the spread of what seemed to be a fast moving lethal organism.
Bernie was obviously worried. “Ever since the last incident of Ebola in South Africa, and then the similar one in Vietnam, I’ve been afraid something like this was coming our way. Not from terrorists, or even a natural spread, but someone fooling around with materials they don’t understand. Travel is so fast and easy these days, and our borders so porous they’re a joke.”
His voice rose in indignation, “Anyone can get anything in or out if they want. There’s anthrax missing from one of the military labs right now, and a lobby is under way by the World Health Organization to destroy the last small pox strains we have in the deep freeze. All we need is some idiot, who has a secret stash, to start an epidemic and then we’re in the middle of an unstoppable outbreak. Look at Mad Cow, the rise of unexplained encephalopathy and the travel of flu strains from Asia.”
“Yeah, I know Bernie.”
“Didn’t you say the patient was Asian? Has he been out of the country recently? Do you know if he’s native, or where he’s from?
“I don’t know, but I’ll try and find out. Keep in touch and call me when that specimen gets there or if you get any other ideas. The hospital has the communicable disease unit involved so they’re handling the Arizona end. Sorry to call you with this one, but I figured you’d have the resources to help me out.”
“Thanks …I think.”
George put back the receiver and knew all he could do now was wait for the delivery to arrive. Then he remembered he had one of his research team assistants doing work in Southern Utah and pulled up the information on the computer glowing on his desk. It was already past ten and with the hour time difference it was eleven in Utah; he stopped dialing and decided to wait and call Tory Hunt in the morning.