November 24—0930 Hours GMT+3
“You see it?” Peter Howell said.
They were on the crest of a tall butte, lying in the middle of the dirt road that they’d spent the last hour switchbacking up. Smith adjusted the focus on his binoculars, sweeping across verdant valley until he found the cause of the dust plume.
“Yeah. Open personnel carrier. Two men in front, another six in back. All armed.”
“And since that’s the only motorized vehicle we’ve seen for going on fourteen hours, I reckon it’s safe to say they’re following us.”
“President Sembutu told us to call him if we had any problems,” Sarie said. “Maybe he sent those men to make sure we don’t get in any trouble.”
They both looked back at her.
“Just a thought.”
“I agree that they’re probably Sembutu’s men,” Smith conceded. “But I’m not sure their intentions are so benign.”
“Well, one thing I can tell you for certain is that someone in his office has been calling ahead,” she said. “We’ve driven through three military checkpoints without so much as anyone even looking in the car. I’m guessing that’s a first in this part of Africa.”
Smith rolled onto his back and looked up into the unbroken blue of the sky. “I think you’re right about Sembutu greasing the skids for us…”
“The question is, why?” Howell said, finishing his thought.
Sarie pulled her new rifle from the backseat and sighted through the scope at the approaching truck. “I don’t think there’s much we can do at this point. There aren’t a lot of intersections and we’re leaving a pretty obvious trail.”
“Maybe I’m just being paranoid,” Smith said, putting a hand out and letting Howell pull him to his feet. “He might think we’ll find something he can use. And how does it hurt him if we find out that Bahame is using a biological weapon? I don’t think he’d object too much if the U.S. unloaded a few B-52s on Bahame’s camp.”
“Or maybe he believed the ant story,” Sarie said.
Smith shrugged. “Anything’s possible. And there’s no telling when you might need a little extra firepower.”
“Depending on who it’s aimed at,” Howell said, sliding back behind the wheel of their vehicle and slamming the door behind him.
“He doesn’t seem all that happy,” Sarie said, shouldering her rifle.
“No, he doesn’t, does he?”
“Something happened to him here,” Sarie said. “Something horrible.”
It was a reasonable hypothesis that he himself had considered. But it left the question of what exactly that thing was. He knew Howell and men like him — hell, he
“You should ask him about it,” Smith suggested.
“Me?” she said, lowering her voice to a harsh whisper. “Are you kidding? I mean, he’s an interesting guy to have dinner with, but have you noticed that he always looks like he’s about thirty seconds from killing you with a pocketknife?”
“I think that’s an exaggeration.”
“Yeah? Then why don’t
“Yeah, a long time,” Smith admitted. “But our relationship is…Well, it’s complicated.”
Sarie tilted her head a bit and concentrated on his face. “Why is it I get the impression that all your relationships are complicated?”
Howell started the engine and revved it loudly, giving Smith cover for a strategic retreat. “I have no idea. I’m just a simple country doctor.”
* * *
Okay, we’re looking for a turn,” Smith said, running a finger along the fuzzy satellite photo Star had printed for him. She’d marked distances on both axes, which was a testament to her thoroughness but completely useless in the real world of African roads. “I assume it will be an obvious left in the next twenty clicks or so, but it’s hard to be any more precise than that.”
They entered a small village and Smith waved through the open window at the children running alongside them. It was impossible not to be taken by the ease of their laughter in the midst of poverty unimaginable to most Americans.
“It’s incredible, isn’t it?” Sarie said from the backseat. “These people have nothing of value to anyone — no running water, no electricity, no money. But even that’s too much for people like Bahame. He can’t just leave them alone to enjoy the simple life they can carve out for themselves.”
She leaned through the window, briefly clasping the hand of the most persistent kid as they rolled out of the village.
“Any one of those children could end up being forced into Bahame’s army,” she continued. “Or worse, they could end up like the people who attacked those soldiers in the video you showed me. If we’re right and this is a parasite, Bahame’s eventually going to lose control of it. The more he uses it, the harder it’s going to be to contain.”
The apparent contradiction broke Howell from his trance. “It seems that the more practiced he becomes at using it, the less likely he is to lose control, no?”
Sarie stretched out on the seat, laying her rifle next to her and using her hat to block the sun streaming through the window. “Not exactly. What I’m worried about is that by using it like he is, he’s going to weaken it.”
Howell pondered that for a moment. “I’m still not following. Weaker is better.”
“The word ‘weak’ doesn’t mean what you’re thinking,” Smith said. “Right now the parasite — assuming it even exists — is fairly unsophisticated. Call it poorly evolved where humans are concerned. It infects people every few decades, those people infect a few others, and they all die within a time frame short enough that it never spreads very widely.”
Sarie picked up his thought. “But these types of infections can become more effective by getting weaker. Killing your host quick is a bad survival strategy — particularly when the population concentrations are well separated.”
“Exactly. The longer the host lives, the more copies the parasite can make of itself — both in the original victim and because it has more opportunity to jump to a new host.”
“And that’s only part of it,” Sarie said. “Other mutations could be beneficial too. If this infection was ever widespread enough for natural selection to really start working on it, you could see less-violent behavior.”
“Definitely,” Smith agreed. “All the parasite wants its host to do is open a few cuts in an uninfected person so it can find a new home. Better to attack and injure instead of attack and kill. A dead body is no good to it.”
“I’d also expect to see the onset of symptoms slow down,” Sarie said. “Which would allow the parasite to travel farther to find a new host. Right now, I’d hypothesize that fast onset is beneficial because a lot of the victims are so badly injured in the process of transmission, they don’t have much time left. Their strength and speed actually might not even be an adaptation to help them infect new victims — in a way it makes them too dangerous. That might just be a by-product of the parasite trying to animate a person who, under normal circumstances, would be too badly hurt to do much more than lie there.”
“Interesting. I hadn’t thought of that,” Smith said. “But what if—”
“You people spend a lot of time on mental masturbation, don’t you?” Howell interrupted.
“It’s more productive than the other kind,” Sarie said with a quiet chuckle.
“So what you’re telling me is that if we just sit back and do nothing, the parasite might eventually become harmless.”
“It’s not unprecedented,” Smith said. “There are some formerly nasty bugs out there that aren’t much worse than a cold now. The problem is the millions of people who would die while we sat around waiting for Mother Nature to help us out.”