Deb turned towards the sounds of commotion erupting from the far end of the camp. Her eyes met the young doctor’s and they exchanged a questioning expression. Angry shouts were punctuated by a pained shriek. Gale took a step in the direction of the scream, only to be stopped short by another, this second being much closer, emanating from within the hospital tent itself. Gale darted through the entrance flap. Her reporter’s instincts kicking in, Deb followed.
Gale fell back against her just within the entrance, almost knocking Deb over. An old native man with both legs missing lay atop the doctor, hissing, scratching at her face. Gale struggled to hold him off. All around them, human bodies, patients and caregivers, were locked in animalistic combat. Some, like Gale, struggled in a shocked effort at self-preservation while their maddened attackers tore at them. Others, no matter how grave their wounds, crawled from their beds to throw themselves, drooling and howling, on the nearest available target. Deb grabbed the old man, trying to pull him off Gale. He forced his head downward, his jaws gaping for Gale’s throat even as she fought to hold him back. Gale choked out a panicked cry as one of the man’s hands found her throat.
Tugging at the man, Deb realized she still held the bottle of vodka.
She didn’t hit him hard enough the first time to render him senseless, so Deb compensated with the second blow. The bottle shattered on the man’s bald head and he rolled lifeless to the side. Tossing away the jagged neck of the bottle, Deb stooped to help Gale up. The doctor rubbed vodka from her eyes.
“Thank you,” Gale coughed.
Deb opened her mouth to speak; then, on the edge of her vision, she saw another body fall. Lifting her eyes, Deb watched a young black woman, dressed in bloody scrubs and wearing a surgical mask, stumble forward as another woman, dressed in a similar fashion, plunged some weapon into the formers back.
“Sanura!” Gale screamed, leaping past Deb. She threw herself on the attacker, spearing her to the ground. Gale seized the woman’s wrist, holding back the hand that clasped the weapon. A scalpel, Deb realized. The woman rolled on top of Gale, seeking to bury the scalpel in the flesh of her new prey, bearing down with all her weight. The thin, triangular head of the scalpel sank nearer to Gale’s heaving chest. This time, Deb didn’t hesitate. She kicked the woman hard, the toe of Deb’s boot catching her below the chin, knocking her to the side. Scrambling over onto all fours, Gale crawled to Sanura.
“What the hell is going on here?!” Deb shouted.
Gale didn’t hear her. She rolled Sanura over, cradling her. “Oh, God!” Gale whispered.
“Ssshhh…” Sanura managed to speak. “…not so bad…little sister…it’s okay…”
The scent of smoke reached Deb as a black-edged wound opened in the canvas wall of the tent, flames darting through the hole like greedy fingers.
“Shit!” Deb said. “We’ve gotta get out of here!”
“She can’t be moved!” Gale said.
“We don’t have a choice.” Deb knelt down, helping Gale lift Sanura. “Come on.”
They passed through the others in the tent without being hindered further, supporting Sanura between them until out in the open, then lowering her gently to the ground. By now the chaos had spread throughout the camp. Other tents were ablaze. A man, engulfed from head to foot in flames, ran past them, blind, voiceless, his hands outstretched as though feeling his way along. Several yards away, Deb watched as a trio of men fought over a woman, pulling at her with such force that they tore off her arm. Only when she heard the pitiful scream did Deb realize the woman still lived.
“Hell!” Deb spun around. “The whole goddamn world’s gone crazy!”
“I can’t stop the bleeding!” Gale cried.
A man attired in the standard dress of the Bongavi military ran towards them. He shouted in his native dialect, then switched to English. “Evacuate the camp! Head for the main gate!”
“What’s happening?!” Deb demanded.
“Head for the main gate!” he repeated, then his eyes widened as, looking past Deb, he raised his AK-47. Deb jumped aside as the nurse, Nyati, the same one Deb had kicked, the one who had stabbed Sanura, threw herself on him, plunging the scalpel into his chest. He fell backwards, firing several rounds into the air.
Deb hesitated for an instant, scanning the ground for a weapon. Finding nothing, she leapt to the soldier’s side, jerking the gun from his hand. As Nyati turned on her, Deb
jammed the stock of the machine gun into the nurse’s face. Nyati toppled back, nose crushed, then tried to right herself. Deb swung the gun like a baseball bat, the stock caving in Nyati’s skull. Her body crumpled, limbs twitching, her hand still slashing with the scalpel.
Deb felt sick but pushed the feeling down. She felt cold and her legs threatened to give under her, but she tensed, held herself still by sheer force of concentration.
“You heard the man, Doc!” Deb turned, hissing through clenched teeth. “Let’s get the hell out of here!”
“We can’t carry her that far!” Gale said.
“Do you want to stay in one piece?!”
“I won’t leave her!” Through the tears, Deb saw the younger woman’s resolve, the flash of steel in her eyes.
“I…I can w-walk…” Sanura rolled onto her side, grimacing.
“No..!” Gale grabbed her gently.
“It’s…it’s okay…little sister…” Sanura managed. “…didn’t…hit anything vital…”
“Then we’d better get moving,” Deb said.
“Just…let me lean on you…little sister…” Sanura said.
Gunfire now echoed all around them, and much of the camp burned. Rounding one of the tents, Deb froze. A man knelt above a woman’s body. Stripped from the waist up, the woman’s wounds were sickeningly apparent. Deb could see pink, exposed ribs where chunks of flesh were missing. The man looked up, eyes dead; the blood trickling from his mouth told all too clearly the cause of those wounds. He lunged at them.
Gale, her arm around Sanura’s waist, screamed. Deb raised the AK-47 and fired. Lucky for them, the safety had already been disengaged and the weapon had been adjusted for automatic firing. The man performed a grotesque dance as the bullets struck him before finally going to his knees. Still alive, he wobbled, trying to rise, then fell forward on his face.
“Hurry!” Deb yelled over her shoulder.
Beyond them, they could see the perimeter fence. Fashioned of heavy lumber and barbed wire, the fifteen-foot structure now swayed beneath the force of countless bodies tearing at it, heedless of the barbs, climbing over one another in their frantic efforts at pulling it down. Whether they were affected by the madness spreading through the camp or were simply trying to escape from those who were, Deb couldn’t tell. Neither did it matter as, with a dry cracking sound, the fence collapsed before the efforts of the mob.
“To hell with the gate,” Deb said. “There’s our way out!”
“But that’s heading into the jungle,” Gale said.
“Well, we certainly can’t go backward!” Deb replied. As if to punctuate Deb’s statement, the deep thundering of a tank’s report sounded from somewhere behind them.
Deb looked at Gale, watched as Sanura struggled to keep her feet under her, her hot blood dribbling over her friend’s arm as Gale supported Sanura around the lower back. Deb looked ahead. The black wall of shadow that marked the limits of the jungle waited behind a shroud of silvery smoke. Sanura trembled so hard that Deb feared she would cause both Gale and herself to fall.
“Help me!” Gale said.
Deb came over, Sanura putting her other arm over Deb’s shoulder.
“Okay, ladies,” Deb said. “Let’s make tracks!”
Then Deb realized it hadn’t been Sanura who trembled with such violence. Not Sanura.
Gale was the one who trembled.