In Which Ebola Ravages America, and the Priest Travels to Khartoum in Search of the Immunity

The priest is huddled in the tall grass, beyond the tarmac. Waiting. Watching grasshoppers flick from stem to stem, in dissatisfaction.

After time, he notices a hum building in the air and crouches lower in the grass. Above him, a plane is bearing elegantly down to the runway. As it sweeps in, he can read the blue AEROLINEAS ARGENTINAS lettering across the side, and the roaring high-bypass turbofan engines press him to the ground, hands clapped over his ears.

The jet drags to a manageable pace by the end of the runway, where it turns westward. It taxis past the gutted carcasses of other aircraft. Their scattered remains. The quarantine canceled all outbound flights; fuel will be siphoned out soon after they land, and the wings and tail gradually torn away for scrap. Not this one –not if he can get to it in time.

The jumbo jet comes to a halt on the open concrete, about a hundred yards from the terminal. The priest checks his watch, and crawls in the grass to the edge of the runway. There, he settles down to wait again. The sun is high overhead, and far away to the south he can see gray smudges on the horizon. From here, barely visible. From the plane, as it circled before landing, the billowing plumes of smoke blotted the landscape like pinpricks, hemorrhaging the murky blood of America.

The priest checks his watch again, twenty minutes later. Gunshots, ringing from the plane, have begun to taper off like a bag of popcorn at the end of the microwave cycle. He stands, and checks the horizon, then moves fast and low across the broad hot expanse of tarmac toward a parked movable staircase.


Fourteen hours later, the jet tears across the sky with a roar that echoes away and dies on the vast African savanna below. The priest is sitting alone in the cockpit, idly attending to the dials and gauges. A smaller plane would be more efficient, but he prefers the 747 for simplicity. It more or less flies itself, holding steady on a high subsonic cruise velocity without much need for active piloting. When they designed the jet, they thought it would soon be rendered obsolete by the looming specter of supersonic air liners. They planned it for a smooth transition into future service as a shipping freighter. The entire nose cone actually folds down, for easy front loading, and the cockpit is in a bubble on top, a safe distance from the cargo hold below.

The Ebola outbreak awakened a morbid nationalism in Americans living abroad. Images of decay and death, broadcast around the world, inspired a dormant sense of kinship, rooted somewhere in the accumulated genetic memory of the American people. An urge to return home to die among their brethren. In this case, a group of expatriates living in Argentina had pooled together, hired a pilot, and commandeered a jet home.

It became a uniquely American endeavor, walking the tightrope of cognitive dissonance in arranging the logistics of mass suicide. They prepared fastidiously: settled any remaining financial obligations, placed their affairs in order, packed food and drink for the journey. Most importantly, their inalienable right, endowed by their creator – a firearm, primed and loaded, for every man, woman, and child. No other supplies; no intention of even disembarking. Enough to absorb the view of the dying country from above, steeling themselves for the final return to their native soil.

When the priest climbed aboard, the plane was a tomb. Upstairs, he unstrapped the pilot from his seat and pulled some papers from inside the flight jacket. Then he dragged the body out of the cockpit and shoved it down the staircase.

Now, approaching his destination, he eases the jet towards the dusty plains below, reddening as the sun dips below the horizon.


The plane wheels, and begins the approach for landing, ignoring the radio advances of Khartoum International Airport ground control all the way in. It touches down jarringly. By the time it comes to a stop the end of the runway and the entrance hatch swings open, a small band of Africans in fatigues are standing below. They keep their weapons trained on the priest as he drops a rope, and lowers himself to the ground. The nearest African steps forward.

“Point of origin?”

“Argentina,” he says. “Cordoba.”

“Not US?”

He produces a green and gold embossed passport and flashes it across.

The African nods. “And inside?”

“No people. Electronics.”

“What cargo?”

“Electronics. iPods.”

Eyes narrowed. “Real? From US?”

He nods.

“Could be infected.”

He shakes his head.

“Could be.”

He says nothing.

“Can't let in.”

“Destroy it,” he says. “I don't care. Burn them.” He turns and walks away. The guards watch him for a few paces, then lose interest and turn towards the jumbo jet.

The priest wanders until he reaches a road. It is poured black across a wide tract of pale dirt, stained with receding puddles from a late afternoon rainstorm. Now the light is fading. He is passed by few cars, which rush past in shimmering air. The road is lined by concrete apartment blocks, packed tightly along the sides of the road. The dwellings shoulder closer and closer, until the way is too narrow for a car to pass and the black road fades into a uniform dusty brown. By the time he enters the city, night has fallen. Food vendors line the roadside and crowds swarm between them, softly illuminated by bare light bulbs swaying overhead like fireflies.

Set back from the roadside, a painted sign reads ENGLISH WINE & BEER SHOP. He drags a rusted metal stool up to the counter, sits down, asks for a beer. The shopkeeper gestures at the stacked crates of bottles behind him. The priest frowns, looking back down the road, towards the airport. Vaguely, the dancing light of a bonfire glimmering in the distance.

He looks back to the shop. “Got anything American?” he asks.

The shopkeeper looks, and points to a faded case of Corona on the dirt floor. The priest sighs. There's another customer, sitting a few seats down the counter, who looks like a fellow compatriot. Thickset guy, wearing a rough gray shirt and blue jeans, and steel-toed work boots. He should have a cowboy hat to complete the look, but he's black, and a hint of irony may emerge. The cowboy finds irony unbearable.

“I'd go with bourbon,” he advises, indicating the bottle and tumbler set out before him, and the priest nods. The shopkeeper retrieves a bottle, drops broken chunks of ice into a glass and splashes some whiskey on them. The priest slips a large bill across the counter, and the man leaves the bottle.


“How long since you left home?” the priest asks.

“Less than a year,” says the cowboy. “Feels like longer.”

“Any family?”

“Not out here.”

“I don't suppose you're still in contact with them.”

“No. Power died in their area a few months back.”

The priest lets his gaze droop and stares at the ground, rubbing his earlobe between thumb and fingers. “I'm sorry to hear that.”

The cowboy shrugs, and takes a sip of bourbon.

“They seemed all right, last I spoke to them,” he says. “Told me Funkadelic was getting back together. Farewell tour.”

The priest leans his head back and breathes deeply. Overhead there is no sky, just the reaches of space, crossed by a starry lattice. “I think,” he says, “that George Clinton has passed away. The southeast was hit badly some weeks back, and Mississippi in particular.”

The cowboy swears, “Christ!” with surprising violence. Then he shudders, and breathes. “Should have expected it, I guess.” He reaches forward and drains his glass. Signals for another. “What about Sly Stone?” he asks. “Is he dead too?”

“I believe so.”



“Michael Jackson?”

“Yes,” the priest says. “But that was earlier. Not Ebola.”

“Oh, that's right.” The cowboy offers a faint, faraway grin that lingers as he drinks deeply and swallows hard.

The moment passes. Now the cowboy is all business. “Who are you looking for out here?”

“What makes you think I'm looking for anyone?”

“Everyone comes out here looking for someone. You know, Osama bin Laden used to hide in Khartoum at one point.”

“The Sudanese authorities are an optimistic lot.”

“Yeah. It's an Islamic state, right. But,” he says, looking up, “they have a cynical take on Islamic morality.”

The priest studies the cowboy, like a poker player reassessing the strength of the hand he's dealt. “From what I hear, there are still some pretty interesting characters hiding out.”

The cowboy waits.

“I'm looking for a kid with the immunity.”

The cowboy looks long and searchingly. “Why?”

“He's here?”



“The construction projects near the Nile Delta. North of here.”

“And you've met him?”

“Yes. He knows about the virus.” The cowboy eases forward on the bar, rubbing his shaved head. The priest leans in, to listen. “There were breakouts before, you know.”

“That's right,” says the priest. “But they never spread very far, because Ebola was so deadly. It killed everyone faster than they could spread it.”

“He told me that it burns too brightly. Devours its own fuel.”

“This time it's different,” says the priest. “People always died within a couple of weeks after the symptoms first appeared. Now, sometimes, we can last much longer. Three months. Three hellish months, to infect everyone we can breathe on. So what changed?”

The cowboy doesn't know. “Mutation?”

“No. Ebola stayed the same. We became stronger.”


“Americans, specifically. Our emphasis on medical technology. Advanced to the point that no matter what, our bodies can fight, and that's our mistake. If we went down easily, we'd be spared. By fighting, we doom ourselves to the truly evil virulencies of nature. Do you follow?”

The cowboy nods, slowly.

“Ebola was always there. It was always waiting. So long as men respected their place in the world, it posed no danger to us. Only at the vicarious heights of our society were we susceptible. We flew too close to the gleaming peak of immortality.”

The cowboy's eyes are wide. Then he blinks, and takes a sip of bourbon. “Sure, old man,” he says. “Whatever you say.” Each turns back to the bar, lost in thought.


The silence is broken when a skinny, floppy old man walks up. He looks Arab, but he sits at the bar between them and points fearlessly at a pile of cans on the floor. The shopkeeper snaps one open and clunks it down, and the old man takes a long, lithe pull. When he looks up, the shopkeeper is waiting expectantly. Delicately, he begins rummaging through the folds of his robe. After a time, he withdraws a wad of wet paper, from which he peels two notes, and places them on the bar.

“Will you take Euros?” he asks. “They are covered in vegetable oil.”

The shopkeeper looks down at the soaked bills. They glisten on the polished counter. He shakes his head with distaste, and the old man thrusts the bills back into his robe.

“Racist,” he hisses. He turns to the black cowboy. “So much for the first black president, huh?”

The cowboy sips his whiskey.

“Yeah, so much for post-racism.” He is rummaging around for more money, and he pauses, and exhorts the cowboy again. “Does it bother you,” he asks, grinning with maniac innocence, “if I refer to myself as colored?”

The priest takes a gulp from his drink and swallows a small chunk of ice. It slides frostily down his throat and he closes his eyes and shivers. He imagines the cowboy gripping a whiskey bottle by the neck and whirling it out in a tight arc. At the point of impact, the bottle shatters and the old man's neck snaps back and he slowly careens off the stool in a languid parabola, glittering amber whiskey and shattered fragments of glass spraying away.

The old man is still talking. “What do you mean, fifty dollars on my tab? At what interest rate? I don't have fifty dollars.” He takes another long swig of beer. “Where's my bailout?” The old man brays, head tossed back uproariously.

“That's enough,” says the priest. “Show some respect.”

The old man plows on. “For who? The bailout? The guys that ran the bailouts?”

“That's right.”

“Like who? Ben Bernanke. Is he dead?”

“He's dead.”

The cowboy interjects. “What about Barack Obama?”

A pause. Both looking at the priest, but the priest says nothing. His eyes are closed and he refuses to speak. The old man begins to laugh again. The harsh nasal tones ring in the priest's ears and he opens his eyes and leans across the bar, grabs a nice solid bottle and clocks the old man right under the nose. The shameless laughter cuts off sharply. There's a small chink as the glass impacts his front teeth, blasting them out of the bloody upper gum, and his nose crumples back. The bottle doesn't break, it just smacks in with a wet thunk. By the time the old man topples, the priest is up and walking away. To the north, towards the Nile Delta.


Khartoum is bordered to the north and west by two major tributaries, feeding the Nile River. The White Nile, which flows up from deep within the jungles of Uganda to the south, is traditionally thought to be tinged with some essence of the dark, mysterious soul of the African continent. The Blue Nile, which twists around from its sacred source at Lake Tana in Ethiopia, is purported by certain scholars of the Old Testament to be the actual Gahon, a river named in Genesis as one of the four ancient waters emerging from the Garden of Eden. It is at Khartoum that the two merge into the mighty Nile, vital current of civilization and fertility through the northern deserts. Post-colonially speaking, the delta at Khartoum is the confluence of African mythos: the primal, savage birthplace of humanity.

The priest slows his pace, drawing near to the river bank. Shrouded, the skeleton of an unfinished skyscraper towers above him in the dark, and beyond it the moonlight dances over the chaotic surfaces of water. His eyes travel briskly up the skyscraper, mentally numbering the stories, until he settles at the faint blue glow, spilling out from the seventeenth floor. He approaches cautiously, anticipating security around the construction site. But there is no personnel, nor equipment in sight. The skyscraper has been abandoned in its partially completed state. The priest stalks around the tower, guided by an entrenched instinct for reconnaissance. Halfway around, a rickety metal staircase runs up a scaffolding. He ducks under a chain draped across the stairs and begins climbing.

Seventeen stories up. He's not cut out for this sort of thing. By the time he stumbles out onto the occupied floor, he's gasping for air.

In the center of the floor is the source of the electric blue glow. Four plate glass walls enclose a small chamber. Inside, computer monitors shine, casting their faint aura on the floor. The priest moves forward, and inadvertently snaps a sheet of plywood, and it coughs up sawdust. He holds his breath. Through the dust, he sees the chair swivel around inside the glass room. The entire level is empty. Nowhere to hide. A silhouetted figure is fumbling around in the desk drawer. Then, he pushes open a panel of glass and steps out. Now, he is bathed in the bluish light, and the priest can see that his features are smooth and youthful.

“Who are you?” asks the kid.

“I'm Priest Macallan.”

“A priest?”

“No,” says the priest. “That's just my first name.”


“What is this place?”

“An abandoned construction project,” the kid says.

“Abandoned for what?”

The kid rolls his eyes, but actually he doesn't mind talking. “If you really want to know,” he launches in, “it goes back to Darfur. The genocide. You know what I'm talking about? Those celebrities used to campaign for it. George Clooney and Elie Wiesel. Bono. Are any of those guys still around?”

“Bono, probably,” says the priest. “Isn't he Irish?”

“Oh yeah. He's probably fine.” The kid drags up a stack of cinder blocks and leans on them, tentatively. Trying to look suave. “Anyway,” he says, “look. Darfur was a perfect storm, as far as charitable causes are concerned. Really terrible, and Sudanese government wasn't doing a damn thing to stop it.”

The priest shifts his weight, but he doesn't move his feet, and the boy seems not to notice.

“And the Janjaweed,” the kid continues, “were roaming around on camels, raping everything in sight. Gruesome stuff. The whole thing was begging the UN to get involved, whatever that means.”

“Send peacekeepers,” says the priest.

“Yeah, that. The other thing is, Africa is a big draw for charity types, you know? It's useful to have up your sleeve. You're at a dinner party, right, and you want to talk some shit about, say, the Iraq War. You say, what about Darfur? Morally upstanding Americans should want the US government involved in something like Darfur. Better than some over-hyped weapons of mass destruction bullshit that's really all about oil, anyway. So everyone got caught up in it, and the money came pouring in.”

“It helped?”

“Not really. Sometimes. A lot of it just went into the massive refugee camps. That's no good. No real authority. I mean, it's just not a permanent solution. And a bunch of Nigerians turn up and start selling guns and drugs. It gets pretty ugly.”

“You've been there?”

“Briefly. Only, look. Sometimes the money helped. When they put it into infrastructural things. That's what this building was. A lot of money was coming into Sudan for the genocide, and they'd send most of it south, but some stayed in Khartoum. At the same time, Dubai was going bankrupt. I don't know if you remember that. Some big developer bailed on a project over there, and started some major construction here. If the oil money is running out, might as well go for blood money.”

“But that ran out too,” says the priest.

“Pretty quickly. Something else happened. A coup in Thailand, I think. Thai kids are cuter than African kids. And Dylan even wrote a protest song about it, as some kind of throwback. Hey, is Bob Dylan still alive?”


“Jesus. But Bono is. Ain't that a bitch. Like Lennon and McCartney, it's always the wrong ones that die.”

“But the sickness will take us all, in the end.”

“Not all,” the kid says, smiling cherubically.


“You live up here?” the priest asks.


“And your family?”

The kid shrugs. “I get along without them.”

“Ah. Adolescent angst.”

“It's not like that,” says the boy. “It just isn't a phase, it turns out. I'm genuinely too cool to hang with my parents.”

“I see,” says the priest, barely amused. “How long have you been here?”

“Eight months.”

The priest frowns. “The quarantine was in effect by then. How did you go?”

“They just let me,” smiles the boy. “Everyone seems to have a pretty good protective instinct around me. It's something in the genetic memory, I think.”

“Genetic memory?”

“Like, subconscious memories passed from generation to generation. Living in society, people build up instinctive guidelines for how to behave. The way we venerate rock stars, for example. We've learned to protect them, because they're so valuable to society. They're the talented few that provide something beautiful. I think it's all stored in our glial cells, actually.”


“No, I mean, that's where we store genetic memory. Glial cells are these brain cells that aren't actually connective neurons. They're partly structural, to hold the neurons in place. You know how sometimes people used to say we only use ten percent of our brain? That's why, because by mass, most of the brain is glial cells.”

“Okay,” says the priest.

“So,” he says, “I mean, that statistic is bullshit. Glial cells are functionally important, probably. I think it's where we store our genetic memory.

“Think about whales,” he suggests. “Right? Their brains are almost human-sized, even though they're nowhere near as smart. They've got a ton of glial cells. That's why they're so, like, ancient. Timeless. Because they've got all this aggregated genetic memory of the whole species, going back millennia, probably.”

“You think we're smarter than whales?” asks the priest.

The kid's eyes bug out, and he splutters.

“Fine,” says the priest. “So you think you're some kind of rock star.”

Now the kid grins, despite himself. “I didn't say that.”

“You're not a rock star,” says the priest. “You're an aberration. A mistake.”

The grin fades. “That's a little harsh.”

“It's the truth. No one is meant to escape. America is dead.”

“Whoa, man. You've got it all wrong,” says the kid. “I'm the next step in human evolution. Sorry if that's hard to swallow. The fact is, you're outdated. You're last year's model.”

Now the priest is forceful. “Where did the sickness came from? Did it just come about by random chance? No. It's always been here, and now it has destroyed America. That's not random chance. Civilizations are not just wiped out at random. It is part of Divine Order.”

The kid steps back. He is frightened. “What about the dinosaurs? They were wiped out.”

“And none survived. His Will leaves no exceptions. Particularly not for arrogant children.” The priest takes a step. “You've put a lot of stock into genetic memory. But I feel no protective instinct. I am driven only by Divine right. What protection have you?”

The kid raises an arm, and in his hand is a revolver. “Look, man, I'm not stupid–”

The priest charges forward with astonishing ferocity. Too close, coming too quickly for the kid to aim or fire. He can only stumble back as the priest cannonballs in, low and fast. The kid loses his step, his arms swinging wildly forward to counter the momentum and regain balance, but he is falling, and his eyes are filled with terror. The point of impact crushes the air from his lungs. But the butt of his revolver, still swinging around, connects. A glancing strike to the back of the priest's neck, and the broad shoulders are no longer driving him back. His ears are suddenly filled with the sickening crack, and the priest goes limp under him. The kid looks down in surprise, and they collapse onto the concrete floor.


When the priest opens his eyes, he is flooded with light and the shocking intensity of sensory awareness knocks him back out of consciousness.


Later, he begins again, more carefully. The sunlight still, is bright and unrelenting. He is sprawled face-down on the dusty floor. He forces his leaden body over, and tries to sit up. A hot wind carries wisps of sand through the air, and he narrows his eyes and shields his face from the whirling grit and dirt. The kid is gone. The priest is alone on the seventeenth floor of the abandoned, skeletal skyscraper. It is the first time he has felt the breeze through Khartoum.

At the center of the floor is the small glassed-in room, sealed and sheltered from the sand. The priest begins crawling to it, stabs of pain shooting down his spine. His long, coarse hair is matted across his face and forehead, sweaty, dirty. When he reaches the room, he presses against the glass until a panel gives way and he slips through. The air inside is still and hot, but clean. He pulls himself into the soft leather chair, wincing as he straightens his back. On the desk, the computer is humming. The priest touches the keyboard and the monitors blink awake.

“The Book of Genesis,” they read, “tells of a great flood. At a time when the Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, He said, 'I will blot out man whom I have created from the face of the land, from man to animals to creeping things and to birds of the sky; for I am grieved that I have made them.' 

"And He selected Noah, whom He knew to be a righteous man, to build an ark to carry Noah and his family safely through the flood. He instructed Noah to take aboard the birds and animals of earth – seven pairs of the birds and clean animals, and two of the unclean animals. But what about the animals that live in water?

“We did not go aboard the ark with Noah. We remained on land as the fountains of the great deep were broken up, and the windows of heaven were opened, and the rain was upon the earth. And as the waters rose, we walked to shore and swam with the ebb tide until we came upon whales, who carried the ancient wisdom of the world. We spake, and the whales understood. We asked that they bear us, and riding out upon them, we traveled the land, now flooded with water. Even the highest mountains were covered, fifteen cubits deep. In this manner, we rode across the world during the Great Flood.”


Wind is whipping past the glass outside now, peppering the walls like a fine mist of rain. The priest rises shakily to his feet and pulls off his shirt, wrapping it over nose and mouth. Then he forges into the arid air, walking to the northern face of the building. Shimmering below him is the thin band, the Blue Nile, flowing over the dirt.

Beyond, the desert stretches interminably, and a dust storm is building in the distance. The haboob is a common phenomenon during summer in Khartoum – a massive wall of sand that builds from collapsed thunderstorms deep in the Sahara Desert and advances upon the city with terrifying speed. The priest can see nothing beyond the dust storm. The rolling wave of sand is fifty miles across and nearly a mile high.

The storm is approaching, churning violently through the desert like a plague. Somewhere out there is the kid with the immunity, and the priest is tingling at the prospect of the chase ahead. He steps forward to the edge of the building and stands with arms outstretched, held back by the buffeting wind. The lives of men, he feels, are brief, jarring and acute. Gazing out from the seventeenth story of the skyscraper, the priest considers the rise and decline of great civilizations.


  1. Wow, another stunner. This one will take its place as a single chapter of a broader work? Thank you, Ankur -- this is wonderful writing. I hope you keep going!

  2. Thanks Roger, I appreciate it. I don't plan to turn this into a larger piece anytime soon, but maybe sometime down the road.