The guards never got used to the frequent grunting and howling. It was a primitive form of speech, one which they did not yet understand. The linguists were studying these sounds and patterns, but since their subjects seemed to have lost most of their ability to communicate in their native language, progress was slow. The creatures’ appearance was no less unnerving than their speech: exaggerated eyebrows, heavy cheekbones, jutting jaw, and thickly muscled neck. Hideous abominations, the guards thought.
The brute strength of the creatures was also intimidating, and the guards always worked in pairs when socializing and training them. Armed with cattle prods, pistols, and clubs, the guards still felt uneasy. They relied heavily on the cattle prods to instill rudimentary obedience before the more sophisticated military training could commence.
It was like breaking a wild horse, one guard said. But once accomplished the results were impressive—an obedient soldier that possessed enormous strength and keen senses. Even more significantly, these soldiers did not fear battle, and they never questioned orders.
The compound housing the creatures had been built mostly in secret and had been completed only six months earlier. The Chinese government exercised complete authority over the camp and the 360-degree perimeter around the compound extending two kilometers beyond the outer fence. Roving patrols of heavily armed foot soldiers and mounted units ensured that no one accidentally, or intentionally, strayed too close.
It was no secret that China and Sudan had forged very close relations, but exactly how close was still a carefully guarded secret. The relationship was symbiotic—China needed oil, provided by Sudan. In return, Sudan needed—craved is really a better term—more money and military weaponry.
But President Hassan al-Bariqi was not about to spend his newfound wealth on his impoverished citizens. Rather, his money was spent on palaces, yachts, lavish aircraft, weapons, and other expensive toys of war and status.
The price for this one desert compound and associated real estate was the equivalent of 500 million U.S. dollars, paid to al-Bariqi’s government, and the People’s Republic of China didn’t hesitate to consummate the deal.
“Colonel Ming. Seven new subjects have been prepared for the treatment. Do you wish to examine them first?”
Ming was conducting his customary morning inspection of the holding cells, accompanied by two junior medical officers.
“Were the subjects recently captured? Where are they from?” Ming inquired.
“They are from the Masalit tribe. They were turned over yesterday by the Janjaweed militia under the command of Korlos. All are male, between the age of 16 and 30, and all are in satisfactory health. None were shot; they suffered only the usual beatings.”
“Very well. Instruct Doctor Hsu to continue using procedural modification 33vK. He can use a different test group for his experiments with the new viral infection procedure 26rh8.
“And make certain Doctor Hsu knows that I want a detailed report on the subjects’ initial physiological responses by 2200 hours today. Is that understood?”
Ming did not wait for a reply before walking away at his usual brisk pace.
“So, we would take the summer term off from the academic curriculum, but get credit for the volunteer work? Sort of like a short stint with the Peace Corp?” Ethan asked the speaker.
He was dressed in gym shorts and a yellow polo shirt, gym bag over his shoulder. Standing next to him, arms folded across his chest, was another young man, similarly dressed. Joe was Ethan’s best friend. They had just completed a session of racket ball and were on their way back to their dorm.
Of Scandinavian and Irish decent, Ethan had blue eyes, light brown hair, a moderately pale complexion and average build—very common by any measure. His personality, however, made him stand out from a crowd, or draw the attention of one. He was outgoing, engaging, both witty and humorous—at times overt and at other times very subtle. He was intelligent and focused; two attributes his professors especially valued. But he had yet to declare a major and he was halfway through his second year at the University of Oregon, his father’s Alma Mater.
Ethan’s grandfather was a Professor Emeritus at Oregon State University, and the rivalry between the two universities was as intense as any. Despite the fact that both schools were highly ranked and had good athletic programs, the family arguments were known to get somewhat heated during the Civil War basketball and football games, although always in good nature.
“Yes,” the speaker replied. “That’s basically the way the program works. We recognize that a multiyear commitment is difficult for many people, especially students. It’s understandable that recent graduates would want to start their career path right away, and they may be uncertain if serving with the Peace Corp is the right step to take. This program was designed to provide a hands-on introduction while earning college credits, so you can determine first-hand if volunteer work helping impoverished people is right for you.”
Ethan Savage nodded understanding. He had often thought that helping poor and under-educated children would make the world a better place for everyone. But how much difference can one person make? Or even a bunch of people? The problem is so enormous, and the gap between the wealthy and poor growing ever larger, he thought. Ethan found appalling the fact that nearly one-third of the world’s population—about two billion people—had no access to electricity.
Even as a young boy, Ethan remembered his father, Peter, talking about these issues. His father had explained that education was the key to improving, albeit slowly, global standards of living and improving ethnic and religious tolerance. Ethan believed this and wanted to do something meaningful, but he felt like he never could find the right opportunity.
Maybe it’s because opting out is easier than getting involved? Ethan shook his head; he wasn’t ready to truthfully answer that question.
Now he had an opportunity to travel with a student group—the Peace Corp Reserve—and spend three months working at an impoverished village in Darfur—literally meaning Land of the Fur—or maybe at an aid camp for refugees, victims of on-going persecution by the government of Sudan. He had read a bit about the political unrest and violence in the western region of Sudan. Although there appeared to be some abatement after the Republic of South Sudan seceded as a new nation, the region was still rife with ethnic violence on both sides of the new border. Still, that was half a world away, and it all felt so abstract and remote to Ethan.
It would be so easy to come up with an endless list of reasons why he couldn’t do this, but who was he kidding? Ethan was running the debate in his mind. I can keep telling myself I want to do something, but words are cheap. Action is what really counts.
Ethan leaned toward Joe and whispered so as not to disturb the surrounding students listening to the speaker. “What do you think?”
“I don’t know—sounds like its hard work and the living conditions look pretty rough. Did she really say that they sleep in tents? On canvas cots in sleeping bags?”
“Yeah, so what? It would be like camping. Besides, what if we could help put in a well, or a solar panel and some batteries at a village so they at least have some electricity.”
Joe was skeptical. “So what? What can they do with one PV panel and a car battery?” he scoffed.
Joe’s dismissiveness irritated Ethan. “Lots, that’s what. How about powering a PC and a radio, maybe a small refrigerator to store vaccines and other medicines.”
At that moment, Ethan made up his mind. He was young, healthy, smart, and strong. Would there ever be a better time than now? He would help… he wanted to help.
“I’m in,” he said aloud still looking at Joe. The speaker, hearing him, smiled enthusiastically. “Fantastic! You’re doing a good thing.”
Joe frowned. If Ethan was going he had to also, or he’d never hear the end of it. “All right… me too.” Although the words were there, the enthusiasm was plainly lacking from his voice.
Leaning toward his buddy, Joe mumbled, “Remind me again why you’re my friend?”
There was a growing murmur amongst the student audience as more and more spoke up. “I’ll go, too. I’m in.”
The line to sign the registration sheet was long. Twenty-three young men and women had followed Ethan’s lead and signed up to travel to North Africa.
Exactly what they would do was presently unknown, but that didn’t matter. Somehow, they’d be able to make a difference. At this moment they were all united in their belief that soon they would each trade a few months of their lives for the betterment of people they didn’t know and most likely would never see again after this short tour of duty.
“You did what!” Peter shouted into the phone.
“Calm down, Dad. This is what you always said people should do—what I should do. I’m going to Africa to help refugees in Darfur. It’s only for three months, and I get academic credit for the quarter I’m not at the university.”
“I understand, son. And this is a very good thing you’re planning to do. It really and truly is. But Darfur? Why couldn’t you go someplace else—someplace where there isn’t so much violence?”
“Yeah, someplace where they don’t need our help? Is that what you really think, Dad? By U.N. estimates there are between one and two million refugees along the border with Chad—and every one of them needs help. Did you know that the so-called developed countries can’t even agree that genocide is happening in Darfur?”
“Look… I understand your feelings. But that’s a dangerous place. Do you understand what’s happening there?”
“Duh… Of course I do. I’ve spent some time researching the conflict. I know that more than 300,000 civilians have been killed as a result of the fighting since it officially began in 2003. I also know that there’s been tension between the ethnic African farmers and the nomadic Arabs going back at least several decades, probably longer. The American media has over-simplified this as an ethnic struggle between black Africans and lighter-skinned Arabs. But that’s not what’s at the heart of the struggle.”
“Really?” Peter was surprised by the veracity and depth of his son’s explanation.
“Yes, really. It’s about resources—food, water, minerals, oil. That’s exactly why those people need my help—our help. They’ve been abandoned by everyone else.” Ethan paused for a moment before continuing.
“Dad, surely you realize this.”
Peter was silent. He had always been too busy to help others at the magnitude of commitment that his son had just made. The list of reasons—excuses really—was long and, at the time, compelling. First there was college and completing his degree while working full time. Then he was fully occupied starting his career and a family. Later, it was the time needed to get his business established. Sure, Peter had always preached to his children the need to help others, and he had always donated generously to many charities. But deep inside he knew that it was far easier to give money and material than it was to give time, sweat, and knowledge.
In the innocence and naïveté of youth, Ethan had taken his preaching to heart, which had genuinely surprised and moved Peter. As a child growing up, Ethan was never very serious. He was always having fun goofing off and doing only a little better than average in school. He made friends very easily but didn’t show much interest in organized sports or, for that matter, any organized activity.
With this one phone call Peter’s image of his son abruptly changed. The carefree boy had a serious and deeply caring side that had been previously masked, hidden from view even for those closest to him. And now Peter’s only son was about to travel halfway around the world to a very dangerous place to provide assistance to people who sorely needed it.
“Okay, okay. You win. It’s just that I’m worried about your safety. You know I always have been… you and your sister. If anything happened to either of you, I don’t know what I would do.”
“I’ll be fine, Dad. We’re part of a large group sponsored by Uncle Sam. And I’ve checked out the situation there. For the last couple years the violence has been way down, and the French military has helped to stabilize the borders Sudan shares with Chad and C.A.R.”
“The Central African Republic. There are lots of international aid groups on the ground and no one seems to be having any problems.”
“I hear you, son.” There was another pause as Peter choked back his emotion. His son had become a fine young man, and Peter was proud. “Your mother would be very proud of you; you know that.”
“Yeah, I know. Look, this is what you and Mom always said people should do. I want to do this; I’ll be fine.”
“I know you will. Now, tell me all about this expedition you’re about to embark upon.”
Although the sound of dread had vanished from Peter’s voice, he could not vanquish his anxiety. He had simply pushed his fears to a far corner of his consciousness. They would arise later, mostly in the dead of night, to haunt him. He knew that; he had experienced it when Maggie was in the hospital following the car accident.
For days the doctors had been brutally honest—his loving wife, the mother of their children, had suffered irreparable damage to her brain. There was no hope to be offered by modern medicine. Without sustaining life-support machines, her body would cease to function.
For five whole days, Peter refused to accept the truth. Every time he felt himself sliding into a restless sleep, he was haunted by Maggie’s image—laughing and running through the mountain meadows with Ethan and their daughter, Joanna. Peter hardly slept for those five days. He would will himself to put aside the fear that she was gone, to believe that there was hope she would recover. But each time he closed his eyes the logical portion of his mind told him that she was gone and that he needed to let go. After days of holding onto false hope, Peter had finally agreed to execute Maggie’s advance directive and instructed her physicians to terminate life support. Maggie perished that night, and with her so went part of Peter’s soul.
“Well, I don’t have all the details yet. I just signed up two days ago. But we’ll fly out a day or two after finals week. I think we’re flying from Portland to New York, and then on to Paris, then to… I’m not sure. But the final leg is by truck––that I do remember. We can bring one duffle bag and a back pack with personal gear, that’s all.”
“And I suspect that you will have far more in that one duffle bag than any of the refugees you’ll be helping.”
“You’re probably right. I’m going to load up with candy and chewing gum for the children. The aid groups are providing everything we need other than our personal gear.”
“Do you know what projects you and the others in the group will be taking on?”
“We talked a little bit about that during the orientation meeting yesterday. The group leader—her name is Samantha Ward, but she goes by Sam—said that we would do a lot of teaching, maybe help to install a water treatment system on at least one community well, and assist with medical checkups.” Ethan sounded very excited. There was no trace of fear or apprehension in his voice.
“I didn’t know you had any medical training,” Peter quipped, trying to inject some humor into the conversation.
“Oh, I know a little first aid. But we would only be assisting trained doctors. You know, Doctors Without Borders? I think our job will be to comfort the patients and try to teach them about preventive care. Sam said we would have to go through training on the local diseases and common injuries. Oh, and I’ll need to get a bunch of vaccinations before I go, for illnesses I’ve never heard of!”
“And make sure you do!” Peter replied in as stern a voice as he could muster.
“Trust me, Dad. I don’t want to get a rare illness and become the subject of a research article in some medical journal. I’ll get every vaccination they recommend.”
“And you’ll take your cell phone so we can talk periodically, right?” As soon as Peter asked the question he realized he was treating Ethan like a child rather than the man he had become.
“Of course I will! When have you ever known me to be without my phone? But, Sam says that electricity is scarce and you can’t count on having a socket to plug into. I think we’ll be out in the country somewhere near the border with Chad.”
“Well, that makes sense if you’re in a refugee camp. I would guess those camps are rather primitive, and they probably don’t all have diesel generators for electric power. I’d guess it’s like a primitive RV park.”
“That’s what it looked like in the slide show they showed us. We’ll wash our clothes by hand in a communal water trough. And sleep on cots in tents with kerosene lanterns for light. I’m planning to bring several paperbacks to pass the time when we aren’t working.”
“If you’re out in the country away from cities, will you even get cell coverage?” asked Peter.
“Sam says we will. I guess even the most distant locations in western Sudan are being connected. Anyway, I’ll bring spare batteries and a solar charger, and my camera too.”
“Why not just use your phone for pictures?”
“Not enough memory. I plan to take loads of photos to share with everyone when I come back home.”
“It sounds like you’re well on your way to getting it all figured out.”
Ethan laughed. He knew this was hard for his father.
Peter continued, “Promise me that you will come over to Bend for a family dinner before you leave. I’ll check with your sister; I’m sure she’ll want to see you off as well.”
“Only if you promise to barbeque steaks! Tell Sis I said hello.”
“I’ll let her know you said that. You take care now, okay? And do well on your finals—I want to see solid grades.”
“Sure, Dad. I’ll talk to you soon. Bye.” As Peter hung up the phone he could not dismiss the growing feeling of dread in the pit of his stomach.