Sanura Orva finished a hasty prayer, crossing herself with one latex-gloved hand even as she lifted a scalpel with the other. Her conversion to Roman Catholicism had occurred early in life, when her entire village had taken part in a mass baptism that Sanura could scarce remember. Despite her youth at the time, or perhaps as a result thereof, she had kept in practice the faith to which so many of her kin had only rendered a token service. Now, Sanura called upon the intercession of the Holy Virgin for the man lying before her, led the others in a prayer that they would all be granted the necessary calm to remove the bullet buried in the man’s chest, nestled between the two major arteries. The preliminary incision to open his chest now completed, Sanura prepared to saw through the man’s ribcage.
The operating room consisted of a smaller section in the tent. A tarpaulin covering the bare earth, the canvas walls and steel table had been scrubbed down with bleach; the stifling air smelled corrosive. One of Sanura’s three assistants stood to the side, on guard duty against flies or ants. Through the flapping doorway came the myriad sounds of the hospital, familiar groans and voices, someone humming.
Sanura flinched. Cries of pain were commonplace here, but this sounded different somehow. She turned to one of the assistants. “What’s going on out there?”
With a jerk, the man on the table, his chest splayed open to reveal his ribcage, his eyes rolled back and lifeless, sat bolt upright. His hands closed around Sanura’s throat with crushing strength. She struggled in uncomprehending horror.
An instant later, the others had regained enough of their composure to come to her aid. Two of the nurses grasped the patient’s arms, trying to pull him off Sanura. The third, the man who had stood back from the rest, clamped a forearm round the attacker’s neck. Sanura watched, even as her vision grew dim from lack of oxygen, the exposed heart behind the ribs swell and constrict one final time. His hands slipped from her throat and he collapsed back onto the operating table.
Sanura coughed, rubbing her throat. Her mind fought to process what had just happened. A sedated patient, cut open for surgery, could not regain consciousness, of a certainty could not be capable of movement. Yet had it not happened?
All such half-formed thoughts fled from her mind as her rescuer, the sentry against insects, threw himself on one of the nurses, his own hands seeking her throat. Before the woman could even scream, he sank his teeth into the soft flesh of her face. Her surgical mask came away in a bloody mouthful. The other nurse, also a male, began to grapple with him. The woman, oblivious to her torn cheek, picked up the scalpel from where Sanura had dropped it. She leapt onto her assailant’s back, driving the blade deep again and again. The man toppled to a knee.
The male orderly released his grip on the dying man, letting the limp form drop to the floor. The nurse then turned her attentions to him, slashing his abdomen with the scalpel. The man doubled over, clutching the wound that threatened to spill the contents of his belly, and the woman plunged the scalpel into his jugular vein. She turned, her eyes falling on Sanura.
Sanura froze, transfixed by the gaze. The woman, Nyati, was her friend. But Sanura saw nothing of her friend in those eyes. All recognition, all rational thought had abandoned her. What glared out at Sanura could be nothing more than insensate, bestial hatred. The intensity of it struck Sanura like a fist.
She jumped aside, regaining use of her limbs just in time to avoid a slash of the scalpel. Nyati slipped on the bloody tarpaulin, hitting the ground hard, and Sanura turned and ran. She thrust through the makeshift door, only to draw back once more in flabbergasted terror.
The world had gone mad. The patients were throwing themselves on one another, rolling around on the floor like fighting dogs, teeth seeking throats, hands tearing like claws, fingers gouging at eyes. Sanura saw Gale over by the entrance, struggling under an old man with two seeping, bandaged stumps where his legs once were. Another white woman, one Sanura did not recognize, fought to pull the amputee off Gale. Sanura opened her mouth to call out to Gale. Before she could speak, the air was driven from her lungs by a blow from behind. Sanura felt keen steel biting deep into her back.
She had given Nyati time to regain her footing.