The white truck drove past the Carrefour supermarket in the Avenue de Fabron at about 10:30 pm and slowly turned onto the majestic Promenade des Anglais. The wide terrace bank was full of people who flocked to the street party west of the Castell Mountain on this starry July evening, hoping for a good view of the big fireworks display for Bastille Day. Many families with children were among them, as there were countless rides, cotton candy booths, balloon vendors, and clowns on stilts handing out sweets to the little ones. The air was filled with the delicious smell of crêpes and the smoke of nut roasting carts. The city breathed in with relief, freed from the stress of the day and the heat of summer. In short, it was one of those rare moments of general bliss--the joy of being here at this moment--in one of the most beautiful places in the world.
At the same moment that a policeman told the driver of the truck to stop by waving and gesticulating frantically, the door of the child's bedroom in an old, refurbished apartment building in Berlin-Charlottenburg opened a crack.
"I can't sleep, Mama."
Carolin's gaze wandered away from the article she was trying to read for the third time, with dwindling concentration. She raised her head and, squinting, struggled to make out the figure of her five-year-old daughter in the dark crack of the door against the blinding light of her laptop screen.
"Sweetie, I'll be right there. Do you want another milk?" she asked gently.
"Paul can't sleep either," Greta replied, opening the door a little further to slip quietly into the living room. She held her teddy bear tightly, as if she was afraid he might break free.
"If you squeeze Paul like that, it's no wonder he can't sleep." Carolin rose from her chair to turn to the kitchenette. A cup of milk with honey was ready and only needed to be put in the microwave for thirty seconds. It was a ritual that they both practiced. She knew it bothered Thomas, but he was not at home. Her husband's dominant and totally inconsistent parenting style upset her. One should not reward Greta's stubbornness, she heard him say so often. Except that this meant that she--Carolin--should not do it! Thomas made generous exceptions for himself. However, because her husband had been away on business a lot lately, she tried to avoid parenting quarrels on the increasingly rare days they spent together and let his inconsistencies--far too often--go.
"But Paul is very hungry. I must first cook for him," she heard her daughter say behind her back. Carolin rolled her eyes and took a clearly audible breath in and out before turning around and walking to the child's room, where her daughter had already disappeared again.
"Greta, it's very late." Carolin silently pulled the door shut behind her and turned on the light. The little girl crouched in front of her doll's kitchen and poured some rice into a tiny cooking pot.
"You have to go back to kindergarten tomorrow, and I want to go to bed too."
Greta stirred around in the cooking pot with a miniature wooden spoon.
"Dinner's almost ready, Paul. This is delicious semolina porridge. You like that, don't you?" she said in her childish voice.
"Greta!" Carolin's daughter flinched briefly. "Off to bed!"
"Will you read to me some more?"
Carolin smiled at her daughter with a furrowed brow. "All right, but then you keep quiet, darling, okay?"
The girl jumped up and hopped into bed. Carolin sat down next to her on the mattress at the headboard. She reached for the storybook on the bedside table. She didn't have to look for Greta's favorite story, because she had marked the place with a bookmark.
"Once upon a time, there was a man and a woman who had wanted a child for a long time in vain..." She began to read Rapunzel's fairy tale. Carolin's daughter had heard it dozens of times before and almost had to be able to recite it by heart, but that didn't seem to bother her. She smiled dreamily while listening to her mother's voice.
When Carolin read, "... and they lived happily ever after," and looked up from the book, several minutes had passed, but her daughter was still not asleep. Her eyes were closed, but her lips were silently repeating Carolin's last words.
"Can I have my milk now?" Greta asked.
"Yes, but then I'll turn off the light, and you try to sleep. And Paul too. Promise?" She rose gently to avoid the bed springs squeaking.
Greta nodded and yawned. Well, that looks pretty good, Carolin thought, satisfied; she stroked Greta's cheek and gave her a kiss on the forehead.
The beep of the microwave was in perfect synchronization with the loud bang of the last shot of a policeman at the driver's cab of the truck that ended the life of the Islamist assassin. But because this happened on the beach in Nice, about one thousand three hundred kilometers away, Carolin didn't hear anything of it, nor did she see the trail of devastation left by the heavy delivery vehicle. She was spared the sight of the many bodies lying on the road like overturned cones. Heard no one screaming or crying.
What had happened she learned, like most other people, from the news the next day.
When Thomas asked her days later if she had been afraid for him because he had been in Nice at that time, she said, “no.”
"Too bad. I'd hoped you'd say 'a little'."
Carolin later admitted to herself that her answer was honest but also wrong. She knew he had been in the south of France at the time of the attack. His secretary was reliable and always sent the travel plans to her by carbon copy. Yes, she could have made sure, could have calmed down, but she hadn't. Because she didn't care about him or she no longer felt anything for him? No, not at all. That wasn't true then nor was it now. Perhaps it had been the terrible pictures--the bodies lying around, the destroyed prams. So many dead. Maybe that's why she didn't think about him.
In retrospect, she was sorry and ashamed to have offended him in such a way. Because the “no” had been heartless, and it had felt so good--that triumphant feeling of satisfaction.
The question of whether something could have happened to him, or even to his lover, in France had not occurred to her. She didn't want to deny it. She had known that he travelled so much on business lately because of this woman. In the beginning, Thomas had tried hard to hide his affair from her, but their marriage was already beyond this stage. His indifference to the failure of their relationship had finally cooled her love for him.
That Thomas deluded himself into thinking for even a second that he was still more important to her than all the many innocent victims outraged Carolin deeply. How could he dare to demand concern for himself in spite of everything he had done to her? Something that, the other way around, he hadn’t felt for months. No! It was not him she would associate with that date for the rest of her life, for he no longer deserved her compassion.
It would be the picture of the destroyed prams.
Twenty-six months and an overdue divorce later, Carolin stood impatiently at the gangway of a Boeing 747 waiting for the flight attendant's boarding signal. Hopefully she would not have to wait as long as the others in the Frankfurt drizzle. After all, she was granted a quasi-diplomatic status for the duration of her trip, as she was travelling on official business for the World Health Organization. Premium Economy and Priority Boarding were definitely a new experience for Carolin. She had previously only ridden small, tight holiday planes and--of course--always applauded the successful landing dutifully, just as one would do when travelling with Neckermann Holiday-Airline. She would have preferred to fly with Lufthansa to Zimbabwe. Even the name “Ethiopian Airlines” scared her. It was probably the cheapest option and automatically the favorite of the Robert Koch Institute's accounting department. Therefore, it had not even been enough for real business class, but she didn't care. She wanted to arrive safely; that was the most important thing. Her fear was compounded by a certain concern for Greta, as Carolin's mother could only look after Carolin’s daughter for the next three days. After that, Thomas would have to take over. In Carolin's eyes, the latter was even below “Ethiopian Airlines” on the confidence scale. The slight discomfort she felt at the thought of her upcoming trip had several reasons.
The flight attendant released the gangway and Carolin was finally allowed to board. She stopped, took a deep breath and enjoyed the fleeting moment of standing in an almost empty plane. An unpleasant tingling sensation moved along her neck. Now there was no turning back. Carolin quickly stowed her carry-on luggage in the overhead compartment and made herself comfortable at the window. The legroom was not outstanding, but for an average-sized woman it was ample and no comparison to her Neckermann flight experience. The tingling sensation subsided; she leaned back and stretched out her legs. Everything would be fine. Ethiopian Airlines usually also brought their passengers safely and comfortably to their destination. She didn't expect an edible dinner, because taste buds go crazy in the vacuum of airplanes anyway. As a result, people drink tomato juice as if they were enjoying a 2006 Barolo. Tomato juice! Carolin shuddered at the thought of that red swill. She would watch a movie and then try to sleep sitting up. At home, she had often managed this trick (far too often to rub it in everyone's face), so it shouldn't be a problem on this flight. Raising a child, running a household, writing a habilitation thesis, and at the same time working full time was not for sissies. You had to put less important things like sleeping on the back burner.
As Carolin was unpacking her iPad, a very corpulent mid-fifties man squeezed into the seat to her right and greeted her with a deep grunt. She slid a little closer to the window, muttered a "Good evening" and occupied herself with her tablet, hoping not to be addressed. The space would be enough, but she couldn't use the right backrest anymore. Slightly annoyed, she moved a little closer to the side of the plane. Her position was not comfortable, but bearable: watching a film, sleeping, having breakfast, getting out. That was her plan, and she would implement it consistently. Now the man rummaged in his bag, which he had squeezed under the front seat, and took out a book, which he demonstratively placed on his lap.
Carolin groaned inwardly as she deciphered the title from the corners of her eyes. The Climate Lie.
I hope he remains as chatty as before, she thought. For a missionary lesson from a man who understands the world--one of those know-it-all people--she had no patience today. Microbiology and climate research didn't have too much in common, but attacks by these guys were also part of Carolin's everyday life. The current situation in Zimbabwe was still confusing, but that didn't stop the usual suspects from already taking a loud stand: Conspiracy theorists, trivializers, prophets of doom--all of them trumpeted their dangerous bullshit to the world. And then there were the locals, who often did not trust foreign doctors and scientists. If everything was to be confirmed, as NGOs on the ground claimed, then Zimbabwe had not gotten the Ebola outbreak under control. The country was chronically broke and had a desolate health system. How could it manage on its own? Once a critical mass was exceeded, it would no longer be Zimbabwe's problem alone. It would become a danger for the whole of Africa--perhaps even for the entire world.
"Did you know that the activity of the sun is the decisive factor for the Earth's temperature?" the man asked, leaning over to her and tapping his book with his index finger. "It's all in here. It's all proven. Says Stanford University. An elite university! They're not bullshitting me."
Carolin's fingers were cramping around her iPad. Calm down. Just relax. Don't answer that. It's not gonna help. Above all, do not argue against it! That would be the cardinal mistake. She had made it far too often.
"Mmm," she replied.
"Yes, I tell you! This whole swindle, about CO2 and industry, has only one purpose: They want to undermine democracy! Find some explanation why we have to take in all these refugees from Africa. They want us to feel guilty, that's the goal! Have you ever been to Harare?" The man was still looking at Carolin and leaning closer to her.
Carolin slid further to the side and replied, "No, never been to Africa."
"You haven't missed anything there either. Hot, dry, and full of creatures that want to kill you. No wonder the people there can't do anything right." The man started waving his book around. "It's always been that way and it always will be. You know? They starved to death down there a hundred years ago because they're too stupid to farm. It's not the climate. There's always been droughts in Africa. It's the sun. It's just too much sunshine on their heads." He sat up and offered Carolin his right hand. "Peter Stelzhammer, seed and fertilizer salesman."
Carolin was aware of her predicament. To stick to the truth and introduce herself as a scientist on a WHO mission would be something of a stepping stone for the racist sales rep. To say nothing would also be rude and would probably not silence him. So a white lie was needed. She had one prepared for such cases.
"I agree! Only it is not the sun, but God alone who determines the fate of people. The Lord punishes those who do not love him."
The salesman looked at her with an irritated expression and pulled his arm back carefully.
"What do you think this plague is that's raging down there now, sparing no one? It's all written in Revelation. God wants it to happen, and this is how it will happen. No one will be spared."
Caroline also leaned over to her neighbor. He backed away and blinked. "You mean the Ebola epidemic?" His voice had lost all its brisk tone.
"I mean the sixth plague! The blackspots. That's what the Bible calls them, and that's what I call them. Divine punishment! No matter what those scientists say."
Carolin gave the sales rep the best crazed smile she could produce--a kind of grin with bared teeth: "Carolin Falkenberg, Jehovah's Witness."
"Yes, um, pleased. I'm going to get myself a magazine," said the sales rep, "because they'll be gone in no time. Sorry." Then he scrambled out of his seat in a hurry.
Carolin closed her eyes. A smile curled her lips--a real one this time. On the way back from the pile of magazines, the sales rep traded a delayed passenger his premium seat--he preferred to sit near the bathroom, he told him.
While Carolin was sleeping somewhere above the Sahara after she had lively conversations with her new seat neighbor about contemporary German literature--he was a German studies student who had taken a semester off to explore Africa--a small plane from Atlanta landed in Washington D. C. It was boarded by a lean man with short, gray hair. He wore a dark suit, shiny black shoes, and his only luggage was a laptop bag. The man walked briskly toward the reception area of the arrivals hall, where he was already expected by two young soldiers wearing MP armbands and PFPA badges, which identified them as members of the Pentagon's own military police. The two accompanied the man to a black GMC Yukon parked in the no-parking zone in front of the arrivals lobby and had him sit in the back. As soon as the thudding sound of the door slamming shut from the outside faded away, the armored SUV set off and drove from Dulles Airport along the Curtis Memorial Parkway through midtown to the Department of Defense at significant speed.
Ninety minutes later, Professor Jaden C. Parker stood in front of three high-ranking government officials on the third floor of the Pentagon's south wing in the office of the director of the Pentagon Force Protection Agency. He was just explaining the genome of the Variola-Influenza-Marburg-virus chimera in his presentation when he was interrupted by one of those present.
"I do not understand a word! And the others in this room are probably feeling the same way I do. Professor, we are not scientists. Please come to the point. Do you think a virus thing like that--how did you say it? A chimera? Can also occur naturally?"
The man who addressed Parker was about fifty years old, wearing a white shirt and a dark tie. His sleeves were rolled up and on his left wrist there was an obscenely expensive wristwatch. His grey temples and elegant gold-rimmed glasses made him look like a politician. The man in question was Lyndon Browning, the director of the NSA.
"No. The virus families are not related," replied Professor Parker. "Variola, Influenza, and Filoviridae do not even have the same basic order. Smallpox and Influenza are DNA viruses, Marburg is related to Ebola and is therefore a ribovirus, or RNA. It doesn't match, only if you translate them, i.e. RNA into DNA, by reverse transcription, I mean."
"You' re doing it again!" Browning's voice was now loud and cutting. "Don't talk to us like you talk to your lab buddies."
"I'm sorry. I was just trying to be specific. A chimera like this could hardly ever develop naturally. It must be some kind of artificial virus. An extremely dangerous agent with the high lethality of Marburg, the easy transmission of smallpox, and the short incubation period of influenza. I suspect that it comes from a biological weapons program, because to develop such a viral neo-architecture, you need maximum know-how." He paused briefly and looked over the edge of his glasses. "And I want you to understand one thing: This virus has the potential to be the most infectious and deadly thing that has ever existed on this earth."
The NSA director was about to respond when Michael Kraus, Chief of Staff and Commander in Chief of Special Operations Command USSOCOM, stood up and said, "Thank you, Professor Parker. As you probably know, the United States' and the Soviet Union's bioweapon programs were discontinued at the end of the 1980s and, as far as we know, had not been taken up seriously anywhere. It is therefore absolutely impossible that a military bio-warfare agent could be detected on the other side of the world.” The General cleared his throat and glanced briefly at his wristwatch. "We thank you for travelling so far from Georgia to inform us of your concerns. However, the CDC should be more careful with its suspicions, especially in this day and age with a whistleblower lurking on every corner. Imagine if the press got wind of it." Kraus turned to the two people sitting there, "Browning, what do you say? Does the NSA have any other information?"
"No, we don't know anything. There's been no reported activity in this area for the last few years. Bioweapons are no longer an issue, except for the thing with Assad. You know what I mean." Browning smiled coldly, only to immediately revert to his blank expression. The general put his hands in his trouser pockets and turned to the professor again. "You said this sort of thing was practically never found in nature. But that means you're not ruling it out, right? The virus could be natural, couldn't it? When plague and cholera jump into bed together, something even more repulsive comes out. Unlikely, but possible."
"We should call it the Hillary Clinton virus," Browning interrupted him.
The room was filled with laughter. Professor Parker's face turned to stone.
"Anyway...the virus is natural. It must be, because there's no other explanation." The general tightened his upper body, then turned toward the professor. "I think we've heard enough. You will be escorted to the exit, and a taxi will be waiting to take you to your hotel. You'll stay in D. C., Jaden? Washington's not a bad city. Maybe a little cold compared to Atlanta, but the Smithsonian is nice. You science nerds like toy exhibits, don’t you? Air and Space is great. I love spaceships." He nodded at Parker, smiled. Then his face darkened. "Rest assured that the White House takes this whole matter very seriously. Public speculation must be avoided at all costs. We expect the CDC to maintain absolute secrecy."
After Parker left the room, the general turned his attention back to the NSA director. Browning had already stowed away his laptop and was about to put on his suit jacket.
"Not so fast, Lyndon." With a gesture, General Kraus told him to sit back down. "Our priority now is to make sure that no one else gets the same idea as the CDC. The press would be all over it like hungry piranhas. Anything that makes the president look bad will be chewed up with relish. And any speculation about a violation of the Geneva Convention will definitely damage his reputation." Kraus was now standing next to Browning, giving him a look of encouragement. "Who else is currently active down there?"
"Zimbabwe's CDC, a few humanitarian organizations, nobody else," he replied reluctantly. "And the WHO, but only on a low flame. We know of only one person who is, or will soon be, on site on their behalf. But that person is also only low-level. A female virologist from Germany. Robert Koch Institute. No one important."
"No matter how unimportant you think she is.” Kraus hit the table with his flat hand and bent over to Browning. "If she draws conclusions as wild as our own CDC, we have a massive problem. Something's gonna get out to the press. It'll be a shitstorm. I can already see the headline in front of me: ‘Pentagon can't watch its bio-weapons, which it shouldn't even have.’"
Browning's poker face twitched briefly before returning to its original indeterminacy. "She won't get far. We have already informed the Zimbabwean Minister of Health. He'll take care of it. There is no country on earth more corrupt."
General Kraus nodded at Browning, then shook his head and sat down on the chair beside him with a theatrical moan. "The whole damn thing is more than I needed right now. Can we trust that there won't be any leaks?"
"All I can do is make sure that nothing leaks out of the Pentagon," replied the third man in the room, George McConnel, the director of security for the Department of Defense. He had not yet actively participated in the conversation but had been taking notes continuously. "This is hard enough. As for Professor Parker..."
"We have the CDC under control. I don't see any problem with that," Browning said. "The new director, Greenfield or whatever his name is, was personally appointed by the president to muzzle the place. He's done an excellent job so far. Parker will keep his mouth shut, too." After a look at McConnel and then General Kraus, he added in a more subdued voice, "Only the WHO gives me a little stomach ache. They won't suspect us in the first place, but under no circumstances should they decode the genome of this virus. This must be prevented by all means."
Kraus nodded. "That's why we were sitting here together." Then he stood up, walked with a deliberate step toward the door, and turned back to the other two.
"This German will only find something familiar. This has already been taken care of. The WHO will then lose interest; if not, we'll cut off their funding until they give in, and then we'll clean up thoroughly down there. The Zimbabwean army has sealed off the epidemic area and is supported financially and logistically by us, unofficially of course. We expect the problem to resolve itself. In a natural way, so to speak. This virus will kill everyone within seventy-eight hours."
"Michael, how did we get into this damn mess?"
Kraus looked at Browning and raised an eyebrow. "I don't know. But if I knew, I couldn't tell you. Not your security clearance, Lyndon, sorry."
Browning frowned, "Come on, we both have the highest, you know that."
"But not if the Commander in Chief has personally restricted it."
"The President's involved?" Browning's face showed the amazement clearly.
"I didn't say that," Kraus replied, leaving the room with a vague nod of the head and a muttered "Gentlemen."
Ethiopian Airline Flight ET 703 prepared for landing at Robert Mugabe International Airport in Harare. Carolin had not touched her breakfast, but had already been to the toilet three times. Her stomach felt as queasy as it did after riding the giant roller coaster in Hansa Park with Greta, and the tingling in her neck was back again. It spread, took hold of her shoulders, reached her fingertips. The flight had been mostly quiet, and she had slept, even reasonably comfortably–that wasn't the reason. Did African airports look similar to European airports? Would she find her way around? She hoped that everything would work as perfectly as she had known it as a spoiled first-world passenger.
Thirty minutes later, against all expectations, Carolin was standing in the arrivals hall of the small but very modern airport with her entire luggage, looking for a sign with her name held up. She had been promised a chauffeur to take her first to the hotel and then to the Medical Faculty of the University of Zimbabwe.
Another twenty minutes later, Carolin spoke to a member of the airport information desk, who was very friendly but said she was not responsible and refused to call the university or the hotel for her. Carolin should sort out her transportation problem by herself. She could take a taxi and drive to her hotel--they would wait in front of the arrivals hall; it was impossible to miss them.
Frustrated and increasingly tense, Carolin pushed her wheeled suitcase to the revolving exit door. Once outside, she was immediately surrounded by several men who gestured wildly at her. She retreated, instinctively looking for a way to escape. Fortunately, it soon became clear that they all wanted only one thing: To convince her to get into their taxi to take her quickly and safely to her hotel.