Michael was avoiding the hotel room’s minibar when Anton called.
His Russian friend boomed through the shitty telephone connection: “Michael, you are hard to track down. Amy said you are in Bolivia?”
“Yes, La Paz,” Michael said, looking down at the phone blinking that he had messages. He hadn’t called his wife since arriving days ago. He hadn’t slept either. He looked at the picture of his wife on the desk next to his notebook and camera, the one he’d snapped right before she became pregnant. Amy was standing on the beach in Evanston while the sun rose over Lake Michigan. Half of her face was washed out by the light, half a smile shining at the camera.
“So tell me—what are you chasing now?” Anton asked.
“A meteorite fell in a village nearby in Peru. Villagers have been getting sick.”
“Oh, it’s probably just arsenic.”
“That’s what they think here at the university. I was thinking about leaving tomorrow.”
Michael opened his mouth, but stopped. Any excuse he’d give Anton wouldn’t stand up.
The Russian broke the silence. “Not yet. I understand. You should come out and see me. I’ve got something to show you here.”
“Where are you?” Michael asked. He could be on his way to the airport in minutes.
“Kazakhstan!” Anton shouted with joy.
“This is about Voz, isn’t it?”
“Yes. Let me know when you’re flight will be arriving.” Anton hung up.
The phone line buzzed in Michael’s ear for a couple of extra seconds before going silent.
He wondered if he was actually going to Voz Island.
He knew that he was skipping over the question of whether he should go.
Michael met Anton a decade before, working on a story about the last person in the world to die of small pox–a medical photographer at the University of Bingham, who’d contracted it in 1978 during a laboratory accident. When Michael was there, Anton was teaching a semester long class at the school on biological warfare. He had been a scientist for the Soviet Union before the government fell, at which point Anton headed west.
He’d corrected Michael when he said that small pox had been eradicated.
“We’ve only eradicated it in populations,” Anton said. “The virus still exists. The Americans have a lab in Antarctica with all kinds of viruses. Many people have remote places like that. We had Vozrozhdeniye Island in the Aral Sea, near Kazakhstan. Small Pox, anthrax, the plague—we tested it all in the open air on that island.
“Thirty-thousand people worked there before it shut down in 1992. I’d just transferred there. Like everyone else, I pretty much ran like hell out of there in the end. It was a flat desert of an island–a huge nothingness.
“When we closed, we buried anthrax in the soil and burned warehouses and labs. We killed animals–put cyanide with their feed–and then burned them all. Everything was set on fire, everything was buried. It’s all in the soil on that island. All you Americans like to call it Voz Island. You never appreciated its real name.
“Every now and then, someone near the Aral Sea comes down with the plague or anthrax, and they blame it on the island. Russia, Uzbekistan, Kazhakstan, and the US all say the same thing: ‘It’s not Vozrozhdeniye, we took care of it.’ Bullshit, I say.”
Somehow, sharing beers and discussing biological warfare made them close friends. Close enough that Anton would be a groomsman in Michael’s wedding years later.
On the last plane Michael had to take to get to Kazakhstan, he dreamt of Amy in the maternity ward. Their son was swaddled in yellow blankets and had a little knit cap on his head. His eyes were closed, his mouth partially open. The nurses asked Michael if he wanted to hold the body, and he shook his head. Just as she had done in the real hospital bed, Amy looked at him with sad eyes that wondered what had happened to him, why he wasn’t being emotionally supportive.
He woke during the plane’s descent, too late for him to get a drink. He needed to start again.
Anton had grown a beard since the last time they’d seen each other. The beard was thick, red and curly, contrasting the Russian’s dark brown hair.
“I’m sorry, Michael,” he said, embracing him tightly.
Michael said nothing.
“It’s hard to bury a child, even one you didn’t get the chance to know.”
Michael gave him enough of a hug that his friend would release him. Anton patted his arm and looked at him sadly for a moment. Then he clapped his hands and smiled.
“So my friends are waiting,” he said. “It is a very simple trip. We’ll go to the northern coast of the Aral Sea by truck, then we will take boats to the island.”
“Sounds fine,” Michael said. “So what is this about?”
“A new disease?”
“Yes!” Anton bellowed and pointed out an old surplus military truck. “My friend, he’s a profiteer in Kazakhstan, and it is his men who discovered it on the island. He told me I’d say he was a liar if I didn’t see it with my own eyes.”
“So you saw it?” Michael asked.
“Yesterday! It was monstrously horrible!” he beamed.
“The men taking us, they work for your friend?”
Anton nodded. “They’ll be taking more scrap from the island while I show you what’s there.” He climbed into the truck and offered Michael his hand.
As their boat approached Voz, rows of concrete pylons became visible on the flat land, silhouetted against the sky. Anton pointed out those were where they lashed the animals for testing. It was bleaker than Michael had expected. Yes, it was large and barren, as he’d heard, but that hadn’t prepared him for the nothingness. It was overwhelming.
The animal would stand lashed to the post, Anton explained, unaware that it was breathing in a cloud of disease. To prevent a chance outbreak, the testing areas were routinely sprayed to kill off native flaura and fauna. Scientists had considered the weather ideal for preventing diseases from reaching the mainland—hot, dry, no breeze—but if one errant bird or insect had carried disease to the mainland, it could have caused a pandemic, alerting the West to what the Soviets were doing on Voz.
“Should we be wearing anything?” Michael asked. “Masks?”
Anton lowered his voice and scooted closer to Michael. “We’ll put some gear on once we’re alone. The gear makes them nervous. They don’t believe that anything they can’t see here could kill them. A stupid point of Russian pride. ”
Michael wondered what curse Anton was bringing down on him by taking him to Voz. Was there a reward for going to an island that housed the worst diseases to ravage humanity, a reward that could out weight the risk?
He let it go. He was already on the boat. If he died on Voz, then he died.
“You remember what Vozrozhdeniye means, right?” Anton asked.
“Rebirth,” Michael said.
“More like renaissance, but correct. It’s like a cruel joke. Even before the Soviets what could be renewed from this?” He pointed to the desert island.
Once ashore, Anton led Michael down roads dotted with burnt warehouses and crumbled bunker entrances. They put on hazmat suits and masks once they were out of sight of the scavengers.
The complex at Voz was large, and the deeper they went into it the more apparent it became that whatever Anton had to show Michael was intentionally hard to find. The Russian stopped in front of a burnt out building and turned on an electric torch. He walked up to it, studying a dark hole, perhaps caused by explosion, and shimmied through it and into the building. He leaned out of the darkness.
“Come on in my friend.”
Michael followed, trying to remember when he had his last tetanus shot.
“Is this it?” Michael asked once inside, brushing off his hazmat suit.
“No.” Anton stopped and shone his torch on a metal plate in the concrete floor. “This is it,” he said, tapping it with his shoe.
The plate had turned black from fire and two curved, solid metal handles stuck out of it.
“Someone crawled into this building one day looking for scrap, he saw the hatch and decided to take it,” Anton said.
“So why’s it still here?”
“Because of what it hides.”
The cover came up easily, revealing a ladder that disappeared into darkness. Anton went first. The little blue light of his torch spread out below them as they descended
The stench hit him when he reached the bottom, even through the mask. Michael stopped and readjusted it, trying to make the seal tighter. Something had been rotting down here for decades.
Anton had already started down the poured cement hallway. Electrical conduit ran up and down the thick military grade walls. It reminded Michael of other military bunkers he’d been in, fortified to keep anything unwanted from getting in. Following Anton’s panning beam of light, Michael wished that they could just flip a switch and bathe the underground corridor in light.
A low and guttural sound became audible further in. It sounded as if someone had recorded the sounds of a cow, multiplied it hundreds of times, and then slowed that massive sound down to an unnerving crawl. It grew louder.
The corridor’s ceiling disappeared up into darkness as they came to a balcony. It hung at the edge of a large room, almost like a hall. Anton shone the light towards the ceiling but it did not reach. The stench and the sound were unbearable by then. Michael felt his throat burning. There was a gap where a ladder had once led down to the floor, the metal around it twisted and cut. The smell was definitely rotten meat. The sound had become like a ward of people in agony who were too weak to cry for help, only moan.
“This is what I brought you to see,” Anton said.
Then he shone the light to the floor of the room. There were livestock standing in a giant huddled mass, almost undulating from the way they shuffled about.
“How can they be alive?” Michael thought he was shouting, but the fouled air worked against his throat, barely allowing the words out.
Anton pointed again with the torch, urging him to look closer. Michael tentatively stepped up to the balcony’s railing and peered down.
The animals were all dead, rotting away. Skulls without flesh or eyes. Exposed ribcages of cows and horses, impossibly large. Chickens with bone wings.
“Luckily, there are no monkeys,” Anton laughed, and then grew serious. “The lack of a ladder might not have prevented them from escaping.”
The stench–the air–was burning too much. Michael pointed back to the hallway, to leave. He realized the reinforced walls were more like those in Supermax prisons than military bunkers.
“We’ll leave,” Anton said, “but you haven’t seen all that there is down here,”
His voice was beginning to sound tight and raspy. The torchlight moved through the rotting mass below.
The spotlight stopped, and Anton pointed.
Humans in tattered lab coats and uniforms. Dead and rotting. Shuffling in a tight circle.
Anton must’ve seen the realization in Michael’s eyes and put his hand on his shoulder.
“OK, my friend. Now we leave.”
When they crawled out of the warehouse, Michael ripped his mask off and took in the still desert air in large gasping breaths. The air at least seemed odorless and clean.
If he died on Voz, then he died.
“Did you notice that some of those missing pieces of flesh seemed to have been torn away, as if rendered by teeth?” Anton laughed and pulled out a flask, which he held out to Michael. “A better burn for you.”
Michael took the flask without hesitation and pulled a large swig. The vodka seemed to kill whatever was trying to take root in his throat and lungs.
Humans in tattered lab coats and uniforms. Dead and rotting. Slouching in a tight circle.
“I don’t know why the US didn’t do more to destroy this place,” Anton said. “I’m sure they don’t know about what we just saw, but they did such a shitty job cleaning up what they did know.” He began digging a pit where they could burn their suits as they waited for the others to finish their scavenging.
“Something needs to be done,” Michael said.
“Even if those things are destroyed,” Anton said, “we have no idea about what turned them into that. Remember, we’ve never eradicated anything. It could all come up again. Just like the arsenic in the soil and your meteorite.”
After the suits were burned and buried, they walked back to the boat, drinking more vodka and coughing out the burn. They’d seen their escorts climbing in and out of bombed out buildings. Michael tried not to think of the other horrors they may inadvertently bring back with them.
“What’s next for you, Michael? Are you going to go home?” Anton asked. They were sitting against a building, looking out over sea.
Michael hesitated and looked away.
“Where?” Anton asked.
For the first time since he’d called Michael in Bolivia, Anton wasn’t happy. Michael knew that if he met Anton’s gaze, he’d see disappointment and pain.
“Possibly the Philippines,” Michael began, “there’s some towns there that…”
He let the thought trail off. Anton wouldn’t really want to hear it.
“Healthy babies are dying in the womb without cause,” Michael said. “Some are saying they are being taken by a creature called an aswang.”
The words sounded absurd, even to him.
Anton shook his head. “You need to go home, my friend.”
Michael wanted to tell him about the dreams, about holding the lifeless body of his son, but he said nothing.
Front page image by Wikimedia Commons.