The man in charge of the spacemen signalled that they get out the vehicle. They complied and stood there feeling very vulnerable while the boxes that the men in suits had been carrying were opened up.

‘Looks like we’re getting suits too,’ said one of the soldiers as the contents of the box nearest them became apparent.

‘Difference is, they’re wearing them to keep things out, we’ll be wearing them to keep things in.’

‘Doesn’t do much for your self esteem, does it?’

The soldiers donned the orange suits they were given while the Iraqi was removed from the back of the Land-Rover and given a short medical check before being fed into another of the suits with some difficulty as he was unable to help himself. When everyone was suited up and all the seals had been checked by the men from the Chinook all those in orange suits were sprayed thoroughly with a disinfectant solution before being led over to the waiting helicopter. The soldiers turned as they reached it to see an incendiary device turn their Land-Rover into a blazing inferno.

‘I think it just failed its MOT,’ whispered one.

The inside of the Chinook had been partitioned to provide a plastic cocoon for the boarding men. It had its own air supply and filtration system and was hermetically separate from the rest of the aircraft. Food and bottled water had been left inside for them. Their quarantine had already begun.

No one could think of anything much to say on the flight. They fell to silence as each man faced his own thoughts.

An isolation suite had been readied for them at the base hospital in Dhahran, not that much preparation had been needed. It already existed for the purpose; it had been commissioned as a precaution in the war over Kuwait but as yet had not been used in earnest. This was its first real test.

For the soldiers it was a relief to get out of the cumbersome suits and have a long shower before dressing in fresh fatigues. When they were ready, their debriefing was carried out by closed-circuit television. ‘You’d think we’d just returned from Mars,’ said one of the men. ‘I’m expecting the US president at any minute.’

Their side of the story was straightforward. Two Iraqi vehicles had crossed the border into Saudi territory and they had intercepted. The Iraqis had failed to comply with a request to drop their weapons and had opened fire first. Three Iraqi soldiers had been killed, one sick man had been brought in with them for treatment. Both Iraqi vehicles had been destroyed by fire.

‘And the dead Iraqis?’

‘Cremated with the vehicles.’

The debriefing officer drew in breath through his teeth.

The group leader felt compelled to defend his action. ‘I thought in the circumstances and not knowing what the agent was, it would be best to burn everything,’ he said.

‘Well, so far the Iraqis haven’t made any noises at all,’ said the officer. ‘We haven’t heard a peep out of them.’

‘Is that good or bad sir?’

‘In my view, bad. Silence usually infers guilt. If this had been a case of a patrol innocently straying across the line they would have been screaming the place down and calling the UN into special session.’

‘How is the Iraqi we brought in, sir?’

‘Still alive, I hear. We’re waiting for the experts to arrive.’

‘So no one knows what’s wrong with him yet?’

”Fraid not. We’ll keep you posted. In the meantime I’ll have to ask you all to be patient.’

‘Yes sir.’

‘Still feeling all right?’

‘Yes sir, we’re fine.’

The four soldiers were encouraged to get some sleep but it proved difficult for all of them. Although well used to having to sleep where and when they could under operational conditions, lying on a clean comfortable bunk, alone with their thoughts in their present predicament was not something they had been trained for. The enemy this time was completely intangible; it was something they could not get to grips with. It was invisible and deadly and for all they knew, it was already inside them; chances were, it had already won the battle. They became hyper-aware of their own bodies When one of the soldiers sneezed the others froze in apprehension. Was it the first sign? The slightest twinge of pain in their limbs, any suggestion of stiffness took on a whole new significance.

‘This waiting is driving me mad,’ said one of the men as they started their third day drinking coffee and playing cards.

‘Surely they’ll figure out something today,’ said another. They had experts flying in all day yesterday. Porton Down, CDC Atlanta, a team from Sweden.’

‘Sweden?’ chorused the others.

‘Apparently they have a great deal of expertise in mobile isolation facilities for disease outbreaks. They set up a team after one of their cities was threatened with an outbreak of filo virus a few years ago. They’re top notch.’

‘So they think it’s a virus then?’

‘Seems to be, the way they’re moving,’ agreed the leader.

‘Christ, we must have it,’ said one of the soldiers, getting to his feet and starting to pace.

‘It’s been three days and we’re still all okay,’ countered one of the others.

‘I know but … Christ, we must have it. It wouldn’t be much of a biological warfare agent if we didn’t, would it?

‘So it’s a crap agent, I’ll settle for that,’ said the leader. It’ll be on a par with Saddam’s crap missiles. They would have been as well throwing rice pudding at the Israelis as these SCUDS as I remember.

‘Or maybe our shots are working against it. We could be immune. ‘

‘Yeah, let’s look on the bright side.’

This spawned a short chorus of ‘Always look on the bright side of life’ which had more bravado than humour about it. It prompted their Saudi monitors to ask if they were still feeling all right.

‘Never better,’ replied their leader, not bothering to explain any further.

At seven on the evening of their third day in quarantine the doors to the isolation unit were suddenly opened up and the four soldiers were joined by British and Saudi officers.

‘Your incarceration is over gentlemen,’ announced one. ‘You’re free to go.’

The men were taken aback. The Iraqi’s okay then?

‘No, unfortunately he’s dead but not from any dreadful new plague virus I’m delighted to say.’

‘Then what?’

‘Our international team of experts tell us he died from something called, disseminated vaccinia; he was just unlucky.’

‘I’m sorry sir, I don’t think I understand,’ said the group leader.

‘Apparently the chap suffered an adverse reaction to a vaccination against smallpox.’

A vaccination?’

‘I’m told that there are a certain percentage of people in any population who are hypersensitive to vaccinia virus which they use for giving protection against the disease. This poor chap was one of them.

‘So we are okay then?’

‘Indeed you are.’

‘Thank f….goodness sir.’

‘Amen to that sergeant.’


World Health Organisation

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