Avian (bird) viruses and a chance leap across to humans
Copyright © 2022, Neal McChristy dba Postemailonline/WFP LLC. The right of Neal McChristy to be identified as author of this work has been asserted by him in accordance with Sections 77 and 78 of the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act of 1988. All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, copied in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise transmitted without written permission from the author and publisher. You must not circulate this work in any format.
By Neal McChristy
Jeff Uberhaus walked to his new Audi A7 with his iPhone ringing out a warbling tone. It was his wife. He forgot something – again.
"Could you take Kylie to school?" his wife, Gwen, asked. "I have an early meeting."
Yes, he had flexible hours at the insurance agency where he "took care of their books." He told everyone that. But he had other plans beside taking a 15-year-old to her school and dodging other cars as he left her off.
"OK, I guess," he said. He needed some "blue chips" to cash in with his wife. This would be a good one. "She ready?"
"Yep," Gwen said. "In five."
His wife ended the conversation abruptly.
Five minutes would give him time to back the car out of the garage, plug in the iPhone for his music and otherwise prepare for their teen-ager.
Kylie, sporting a lavender backpack and her well-selected attire, including footwear that Jeff Uberhaus considered stratospheric in price, got into the passenger's side of the car.
"Here we go," Jeff said, pushing the green button to start the Audi.
Jeff Uberhaus always enjoyed driving his prize car. It swept into traffic, accelerated faster than most other vehicles on the Atlanta metro as they did the start-stop driving that was inevitable on the loop. If there was one thing Jeff would like more than anything else, it was to be closer to Kylie's school and his work. But driving the Audi made the commute more enjoyable.
As Kylie left for school and said sleepy-eyed good-byes, Jeff plunged into his music by piping it from his iPhone. He picked a route with a 20-minute commute to get to the Ablet Insurance Agency. While enroute, he would enjoy the most soothing easy-listening music his iPhone could provide.
As he pulled into the parking space, a discolored white blob appeared on his windshield. "Shit," he said, turning off his music and reaching for wipes in the back seat. He grabbed a few and exited his car, just in time to see a flock of geese flying high above Atlanta. He wondered why they didn't choose a rural route before trying to remove the bird poop from the windshield.
As the day progressed, Jeff Uberhaus became more annoyed. Getting agents to turn in expenses was a monthly chore he hated. He called the manager of the six agents again, who would send a note to each one. But it would still be another day before Jeff could turn in his report.
Jeff Uberhaus turned to his email, the virus had moved from his unwashed hands (he thought the wet wipe took care of it, but it didn't) to the latte he was drinking. It had now successfully moved to the next step on the chain, soon to be ingested and absorbed.
The DNA of the virus, ancient and unaltered, would soon begin its work.
* * *
The virus infecting Uberhaus evolved millions of years ago as vengeance on the surviving species who hunted it, killed it and destroyed its habitat without a thought.
Pigs from Cambodia were a perfect mixing vessel. The later plague would first be mixed in pigs to become communicable between humans, then transmitted back to geese and ducks and other migratory birds to annihilate the human population completely. The small spheres of the virus began its infection process by genetically altering itself for transmission to humans, as the Avian Flu virus soon would be when ready. So far, there had only been sparse infections as the virus searched the best way to infect a human host.
Winged creatures carried the first avian virus to infect man. The first one was the fastest, but the second one, Avian flu, would assure his destruction. The winged creatures that bore Avian Flu had both patience and permeability. In time, it would be unleashed. For now, the flu virus was only transmitted occasionally among migratory birds to humans. But it would eventually be transmitted in the air and it's true power would be unleashed.
Millions of years had mutated the other virus – also a killer – transmitted in the most selective manner to certain humans. The cluster of events leading up to each infection unfolded in myriads of ways, but the birds seemed to know their mission.
The avian descendants of the dinosaurs only knew that they were chosen in some way and that humans were selected. Their droppings were to be left in a human path. If they shed feathers, it was to be at his or her doorstep. The virus would not survive cooking. Its method was selective and targeted.
But if they had openings in the house, such as attic fans, the migratory birds would infect pigeons in the eaves to leave the virus. The virus would be borne in tiny swarms of bird mites in the house to infect him or her as the human slept.
This strain of the H5N9 virus was older than mankind and traced back to the dinosaur ancestry of its avian offspring. Like the 2020 pandemic, its symptoms were flu-like, but this particular orthomyxovirus virus was designed to unleash a more immediate plague on its enemy. The killer virus was patient and would wait for the drift of the other Type A avian flu for the two plagues to complete.
Now the ducks and geese were migrating again in the spring of this year. They had several to infect, and Uberhaus happened to be a vulnerable host.
The birds who were chosen knew their mission as sure as where they would emigrate. The virus was not kind to them. Its infection would soon kill them, too. They had to act precisely and quickly.
* * *
John Litchfield enjoyed poking around parts of non-traditional biology such as viruses. While other researchers liked to explore genomes and molecular science, Litchfield was hooked on the DNA of the virus and how it could attach itself to cells.
The virologist’s work had moved from researching the common cold to some of the more uncommon viruses, like H1N5, the virus that caused the outbreak of avian flu in China. He corresponded with his brethren in China on a daily basis as they detailed how the virus spread from the geese and ducks to humans.
Because of interest, Litchfield had moved from biologist to epidemiologist in his work. While ordinarily MIT-based, he was now on his way to eastern Turkey. His most important findings had been copied on to three thumb drives. The DNA "fingerprint," if duplicated in the ancient discoveries of the Indo-European ancestry he was about to research, would give him his next link. For that, he had to go to the foothills of the Turkish Caucasus Mountains.
Unsure they could find anything but mitochondrial DNA in the bones unearthed from over 19,000 years ago, Litchfield considered his travel exploratory. He doubted he could even get reimbursement from the university research coffers.
The Lufthansa flight from his transfer at Heathrow was long, bumpy and he was hungry as he arrived at the Ankara airport where Anthony Smierowsky greeted him. After moving through customs with his unusual briefcase that always required explanation, Litchfield was famished. They quickly moved to a small restaurant beneath a fringed, canvas outside dining area that served Döner - meat and cabbage inside a roll, with some light chicken soup that Litchfield ate heartily, downed with enough Karasi wine to cause a little light-headedness. He likened the Karasi to a burgundy.
Anthony Smierowsky, Ankara University virologist and the closest counterpart to Litchfield in Turkey, his native land, said, "I was looking forward to sharing findings," in impeccable English as they were eating and explained he had mixed Turk-Russian heritage.
"What? DNA I’m working on – colds, flu viruses – things like that?” Litchfield said.
“No,” Smierowsky said, then hurriedly, “although that’s important. Why do you want to see this dig so bad?”
“A 19,000-year-old man? Your university told me I could check out his frozen carcass and even extract DNA.”
“Even if it’s just from the bones?” Anthony asked.
“Yeah,” Litchfield said off-handedly.
He added, “Mitochondrial DNA might help find evidence of a virus.”
“Well, the Ararat Mountains should have refrigerated it enough,” Smierowsky said. “I just can’t believe it’s fairly intact.”
A few hours later, they were outfitting themselves for the bus trip to Dogubayazit from a general merchandise store. They both knew it would be at least three days to their target – the foothills of Ararat. Smierowsky knew the roads and traffic – or the dreaded bus breakdown - might delay them longer than that. They went to the Otogar (bus station) and waited in the queue.
Litchfield didn't even try to speak Turk. That was Anthony's job, who at the moment, was engaged in conversation with an elderly man, speaking in the flowing, multi-syllable language with a middle-aged man in a turban. Their gestures pulled him in - one was obviously a tall mountain by the stranger and Litchfield distinguished the name Ağrı Dağı in Turk, the name for Mount Ararat.
"He's a caretaker at the monastery at the base of the mountain," Smierowsky explained as he sat down by Litchfield again. "He's going from Ankara to Dogubayazit. He knows the dig we're talking about and wants to help."
Litchfield had researched the country enough to realize the helpfulness of many Turk people, so he welcomed the native helping them. After Smierowsky put the number in his Turkcell cell phone, and then Litchfield's, the USA scientist waved at the smiling man in the turban. He stayed nearby them throughout the trip. While Smierowsky was a native of Turkey, he had not ventured into the Anatolian Highlands, so the man, named Altan, became a tour guide. Litchfield liked the name, which Smierowsky said meant "dawn."
The bus stopped at only major cities along the way, but three days of sleeping on the bus with an array of people left Litchfield tired. Smierowsky and Litchfield were waiting as the bus was in a small traffic jam when Smierowsky admitted the same fatigue.
"I wonder what I got us into," Litchfield said.
"Turk buses are the best," Smierowsky said. "I just never went this far in them before."
"Hope it's worth it."
Smierowsky put his index fingers to his lips thoughtfully. "Why are you looking for this virus or whatever?" he asked.
Litchfield extracted his iPad and the two looked at the map with a series of arrows on it, headlined "Indo-European migration."
"I'm not looking at the Noah's Ark fable, if that's what you mean," Litchfield smiled. "I’m interested in human relics in the area, though."
"This man was frozen in the snowmass for 19,000 years," Litchfield continued with Smierowsky nodding. "That's remarkable in itself since there was a flood that created the Mesopotamian Plain about 12,000 years ago, washing away many artifacts from the region around Ararat."
"The Black Sea-Mediterranean- Persian Gulf wash," Smierowsky said. "Apparently, though, the migrations had already occurred, right?"
"Yes," Litchfield said. "See how Indo-Europeans originated from this area at the Caucasus? These are the best maps from the genetic mapping."
"So the prospect of a frozen man, intact, before the Persian Gulf 'flood' would give you -"
"Would give me access to enough information that might show how he died," Litchfield said. "Now let me go to another map."
Litchfield superimposed another map on the first one. Arrows intersected amazingly well.
"Avian migration," he said. "Patterns much older than any Palaeolithic man, but see how they intersect?"
"Not surprisingly, since they were what we ate," Smierowsky said.
Litchfield shook his head.
"You will not believe what I say next," Litchfield said. "I think the birds have always watched us."
* * *
After a frustrating day, Jeff Uberhaus returned home, gave a final polish to his Audi where the bird manure had dropped and dragged himself into his chair.
Uberhaus; wife, Samantha, arrived home shortly after Kylie, began putting together some dinner after a trip to the freezer. He fetched a soda from the refrigerator and sunk into his easy chair to answer e-mails on his iPad.
The H5N9 killer virus was moving from his intestinal walls to other cells now. The Orthomyxovirus DNA easily duplicated the DNA of his cells, choosing a point near the artery from his leg to his heart as a vulnerable point for fusion.
After attachment, the viruses uncoated and injected its viral nucleic acid into the cells. The many other virus cells did the same, now becoming master of the cells and releasing virions as infection particles for other cells.
Uberhaus' system was not totally defenseless, with various munitions of white blood cells and others at its disposal. But the "fighting" mechanism in his body recognized the invaders as his own cells, manufacturing as they always did, so left them alone.
Virions would move into his aorta and then into the pulmonary artery next to his brain. It would be days before Jeff Uberhaus would feel symptoms. By then, viral cells infecting the reticular formation - an area right below the hypothalamus "pleasure center" of the brain - would have become hopelessly infected.
Within weeks, Jeff Uberhaus became an unforgettable name to many.
* * *
The ancient man was preserved as they said he would be. The newer DNA extraction procedure caused Litchfield to pulverize the bone in the specimen.
The process involved preparing the hip bone by sanding it, then cutting a sample, bleaching, then checking it. They would not sequence it and the DNA sample from the small splinter of tooth bone found for another day.
That left time for drinks and speculation at the Imparator hotel in Dogubayazit. Their room had an overhanging patio to view the garden and pool. The garden flowers interested Litchfield. Some looked like drooping ears of corn, but some looked like four o’clocks similar to that found in the USA. The hotel had unusual lime green and yellow outside walls. Litchfield and Smierowsky opted to get a drink at a small café bar in the hotel that had native stone on the exterior of the bar with rubbed wooden vaulted ceiling above. Mount Ararat, or Ağrı Daği, was prominent everywhere around Dogubayazit, looming upward with a snowcap - even in the summer.
The small man in traditional Muslim Turk clothing moved quickly across the café toward them.
“Altan,” Litchfield said. “Glad you could join us, even though you don’t drink.”
Smierowsky interjected, “But they have some nice fruit concoctions here. Want to try?”
Altan chose a fig, melon and grape cup. “So,” he said, smacking his lips slightly after taking a bite, “how did you come out with the 19,000-year old man?”
Litchfield spoke first. “We’ll see, Altan. We hope the DNA helps point to how he died-”
“Which might be…?” Altan probed.
“Any number of reasons,” Litchfield gave a “don’t know” hand gesture to Altan. “I think an avian-borne virus, but I could be wrong.”
“The body was in repose,” Smierowsky said. “The stomach contents showed grains native to this area at the time. He could have had some liver damage, but the internal cavity was rotted. He may have had signs of distress like from a virus.”
“Yeah,” Litchfield said, “but we don’t know what was from a virus and what might just be from freezing to death.”
“I think we’ll find he matches the Indo-European DNA,” Litchfield said. “If that’s so, then we can dig deeper for a cause of death.”
“And if you’re right,” Smierowsky said, “the birds killed him.”
Litchfield was embarrassed about this revelation in front of Altan. He laughed in embarrassed, then said loudly, “Yeah, we’ll see about that. That’s just a theory.”
“A theory you came all this way to verify,” an unsmiling Altan said.
“Very well,” Litchfield said, extracting his iPad. “I’ll lay it out for you.”
“Please do,” Altan said.
Litchfield showed the same maps he had shown Smierowsky, explaining that either the Indo-Europeans were pursuing the birds or vice versa.
“The correlation is not a chance one,” Litchfield said. “And the Indo-Europeans, as they spread from the Caucasus to India and the rest of Asia, in addition to Europe, brought a mysterious disease with them. I think it was H5N9 – avian flu. But there is evidence of another disease that is more sinister –”
“The killer virus,” Smierowsky said. “The one you outlined in the Harvard paper.”
“Yeah, and that caused me some sneers in the scientific community, too,” Litchfield said.
“What is it?” Altan said. “I’m listening.” He was attentive, his fruit dessert finished and at the edge of the table. A waiter whisked it away and asked if they wanted more drinks. Smierowsky was drinking Pepsi, but Litchfield unabashedly chose another gin and tonic with a twist of lime.
Litchfield drank about half of it before continuing. “Birds have long infected man, but I started finding evidence that they may be doing so in surreptitious ways. What if – What if a virus affected the brain – the thought processes?”
“Sort of like Alzheimer’s or Guillain-Barre syndrome – something like that?” Altan said, and then explained. “My family is a medical family.”
“Yeah, you have the idea,” Litchfield said. “What if an avian-transmitted virus would affect behavior. What if it invaded the brain?”
“As evidenced how?” Altan said, and Smierowsky said, “Yeah, how do you know?”
“We still know so little about the brain,” Litchfield said, showing a diagram of a halved brain, “but what we do know is that the Reticular Formation at the base of the brain moves all information in and out – afferent and efferent. The hypothalamus sits at the top of it and is the master of all emotion.”
“I get it,” Smierowsky said and Altan nodded his head. “So what if the virus was somehow influencing behavior. What if the brain was diseased from the virus some way–?”
“What if at least some avian-borne viruses caused actual diseases of the brain?” Litchfield said. “Still trying to prove that leg of the argument.”
“How do you prove it?” Altan asked. “I came from a family of skeptical people.. They wouldn’t believe this at all.”
“Wondering something else,” Smierowsky said. “Is there an innate intelligence in viruses? Is this innocent placement or not by the birds?”
“Funny you should bring that up,” Litchfield said. “I think it is on purpose. Birds are descendants of dinosaurs. We’ve hunted them, killed them, destroyed their habitat. What if they are unleashing something on Man in a controlled, sinister way?”
“Birds?” Altan laughed. “Oh, that’s just a theory.” .
“Yeah,” Litchfield said, “but an interesting one.”
“So where does this man fit in?” Altan asked.
“Tradition,” Litchfield said. “Oral tradition brought down by Sumerians and some of the most ancient tribes about such bird-plague deaths. And the Sumerian bird goddess Siris and some of the Egyptian bird gods like Thoth were worshipped, so they would not wreak havoc on them. For sure, it’s not because the people revered them.”
“You can’t document it,” Altan said, “but it sure is an interesting theory.”
“Killer birds,” Smierowsky said. “We’ll see…”
“Yeah,” Litchfield finished his gin and tonic. “We’ll see.”
Six thousand miles away, Jeff Uberhaus was beginning to show walking verification of the theory.
* * *
To the brain
The DNA of the virus had infected Jeff Uberhaus’ reticular formation at the base of the brain. All emotions are processed through this formation attached to the mid-brain. If Jeff Uberhaus had an instant flash of anger, the formation would pass it to the hypothalamus to process a response. If he saw something sexually arousing – a pretty woman barely clad, for instance – any sexual arousal would begin in the mid-brain.
But the Orthomyxovirus virus, with virions designed to attach the mid-brain’s hypothalamus, were now securely “in.”
Uberhaus, working on the final report of the agents in his office about a mile from the agency’s office, found one of them seemed to have doctored their report. It was not uncommon, but Uberhaus threw the report across the room with a shout. His hands were shaking. He was surprised at his anger.
He called the agent, who was matter-of-fact. “Just put the figures in,” he told Uberhaus. “I’ll match them with sales later. You’ll see.”
“We don’t do that,” Uberhaus said. “It’s wrong.” His hands were shaking so hard it was hard to hold the iPhone.
“Look, man,” the agent said. “You asked for figures. That’s what you got. I’ll make it all right next week. Just give me a break.”
“No!” Uberhaus said and terminated the call.
Uberhaus left the office started his vehicle and the music that usually calmed him. It did not. What that agent is doing is wrong, he thought. He will pay. They all will.
When he reached home, he went into his shop. There, in a locked cabinet, was a mini-Uzi submachine gun. He had kept it there for years for personal protection in case of a world disaster. He took the 32-round clip, loaded it with nine-millimeter bullets and closed the 14-inch gun into his briefcase.
His daughter was on the phone. She must not know –
But then he thought of Kylie, how she would soon leave her sophomore year in high school and her jumping up and down when her boyfriend made a shot at a basketball game.
Wait a minute, he thought, I’m not thinking clearly. An Uzi? On whom?
He thought of the agent’s call.
I’m really sick, he thought, and realized he was also sweating profusely. His stomach hurt and he was shaking. Not just hands, but all over.
Kylie called again.
“Dad?” she said. “Could you come get me? Out of cheerleading practice.”
“Yeah,” he said. “Kylie, when I do that, you need to get me to a hospital.”
“Dad, what’s wrong?”
“I’m really sick,” he said. “I’ll be in front of your school in about 20 minutes.” He had to tell her. She was the only one he could think who could drive him there.
He took the mini-Uzi out of his briefcase and put it back into the cabinet and locked it and readied to drive the Audi to get Kylie.
He hoped no one would make him angry. Then he remembered the Incredible Hulk’s mantra: ‘Don’t make me angry. You won’t like it when I’m angry.’
He called his wife on the way to get Kylie.
“I’m sick in the head,” he said. He told her he almost wanted to knock off an insurance agent over a report.
“Go to the hospital, then,” she said. “I’ll be there soon to wait with you.”
Gwen Uberhaus’ nursing shift at the same hospital, medical floor, was ending at 4 p.m. She could easily walk over to the emergency room. But as she did, she was troubled. She knew for Jeff to have such thoughts. Emotionally disturbed? she thought. Jeff? Always the calm one.
She thought of his recent behavior and could not pinpoint anything aberrant.
An extremely distraught Jeff Uberhaus met his wife in the ER.
"You have to get me admitted to the most secure mental health place ever," he said. "I wanted to kill an agent over a faked report." He was crying.
Gwen Uberhaus knew this was not like her husband. Had he taken anything? she asked. He denied it. She checkmarked the pathology questions. He denied them all.
When they admitted her husband to the Three Springs Psychiatric Hospital, she still had unanswered questions. On a hunch, she called her brother, a forensic pathologist. He said he would come over and check. * * *
Litchfield was puzzled.
"These show markers for a 30-year-old Indo-European who died from freezing," he said. "That's not an unusual means of death up here."
Smierowsky looked at the data from the DNA. "You're looking for something showing a virus marker?" he asked. "How?"
Litchfield pointed to some of the genome tracers in the report in front of Smierowsky. "Even in mitochondria from bones and teeth, dead as they are, there would be evidence of viral invasion," Litchfield said. "Viruses leave their own imprint on that DNA. Especially when a body is so well-preserver. But what I'm finding doesn't support that. Damn!"
He flung the sheaf of paper hard onto the table.
"Okay," said Smierowsky, still looking at the report in spite of his colleague's outburst. "What do you have that's more contemporary?"
"Accounts exist of people who have apparently encountered the virus, gone nuts and kill a few people, then usually themselves. An occasional survivor."
"But you wanted to establish a pattern back to the ancients."
"Exactly, Smierowsky,” Litchfield was incredulous. “This was a wasted trip."
"This man is frozen," Smierowsky said. "How about taking some tissue samples… "
Litchfield looked at his colleague. "I did," he said. "Massively degraded from damage."
"Almost totally a void."
Smierowsky looked at him. "Is there any mid-brain tissue intact?"
Litchfield looked thoughtful. "We could try. The frozen man is 10 minutes away."
The two virologists simultaneously headed for their SUV.
"Damn good idea, Smierowsky," Litchfield said. * * *
Joe Cummings heard his sister's tale about her husband while trying to locate a causative factor. "Go through what happened the last three days step by step," Cummings told Gwen Uberhaus.
It gave Cummings a framework to check.
"Joe, this is not like Jeff," his sister, Gwen, said. "Either he took something or somehow something made him do this. You've got to find out."
Frequently in pathology work, the trail leads to the trash. He donned a hazmat suit and grabbed the trash sack in the garage, placing all of it on a sterile canvas where the Audi usually lived.
Lettuce, Kleene, vegetable peels, paper, cardboard boxes....He spied a Wal Mart sack with a wad of Wet Wipes with some residue – what? Bird poo? He placed the Wet Wipes in a bag to study further. Jeff Uberhaus' trash showed little else unusual. * * *
Joe Cummings was not even sure why he thought the cleanup of bird manure unusual. But it was the only thing that seemed out of place.
His old professor who mentored him in the science of pathology had said to look for something that didn't fit the suspect's - in this case, his brother-in-law - usual pattern. Jeff Uberhaus was, his brother-in-law said, just a little OCD. He would not have cleaned up bird manure unless it impeded his life - or maybe his precious car - to a large degree.
Joe Cummings went to the Three Springs Psychiatric Facility to see his brother-in-law after talking to Gwen. Jeff was extremely frustrated, but able to listen as Joe asked him some questions.
“Has anything unusual happened to you in the last three to five days?” Joe asked.
“Like – “
“Ingesting anything. Coming in contact with anything unusual. Anything – an animal’s remains or droppings –“
Jeff Uberhaus, though very ill now, thought of the bird droppings. “Yeah, some birds pooped on my windshield. I used Wet Wipes to wipe it off.”
“So that’s what’s in the trash,” Joe nodded. “I sent those to the lab.”
“Your wife and my sister, Gwen, doesn’t think this is an ordinary psychiatric illness. We think you may have a physical illness. The clue was the way you looked in the ER.”
“What?” Jeff was becoming agitated. “Am I gonna die?”
“Not if we can help it,” Joe Cummings said, “but we have to have an analysis first. I’ll get back to you asap.”
A puzzled Jeff Uberhaus was shuttled back inside the facility. It didn’t look like a bad place to stay, Joe Cummings noted, and the staff were helpful. But Jeff Uberhaus had chills, a sore throat, a headache, stomach cramps plus a fever and other signs of an infection, too. Joe Cummings felt sorry for his brother-in-law.
Joe Cummings’ experience told him that Gwen, thinking “outside the box” of mental illness, may have stumbled onto something that could be big. Then Cummings remembered a lecture given by a virologist talking about bird-borne diseases such as the avian flu – H5N9 and others.
What was his name? Cummins went through his mind’s Rolodex and couldn’t come up with it. He was sure it was in some of his notes from that conference. He would look it up tonight.
* * *
John Litchfield and Anthony Smierowsky, in surgical garb, cut into the mid-brain, hoping they might find some intact tissue. It was badly deteriorated.
“That little nodule there may be the hypothalamus,” Litchfield said. “Let’s get a punch sample and put it under an electron microscope...”
“Ankara’s the nearest one,” Smierowsky said, “but maybe you can keep a frozen sample intact that far with ice.” He pointed toward Mt. Ararat, but there were other sources of ice here. “We’ll see, my friend.”
The sample was placed in a refrigerator first. “I want to take it there myself,” Litchfield said, so they spent the three-day trek across Turkey baby-sitting the frozen contents, refrigerating it when possible and using ice the rest of the time.
It was worth the trouble. “It’s showing evidence of some type of viral infection,” the pathologist said. “Come take a look.”
When Smierowsky and Litchfield arrived for a look at the sample, the pathologist showed the tissue as a pinkish-reddish-brown enlargement.
“I can’t identify them specifically,” the pathologist said, “but you might be able to do some tests with the remainder of the sample and see what type of infection it is.
The spherical-shaped viruses stood out. “Yep,” Litchfield said. “Orthomyxoviruses.”
“Let’s check for the surface proteins and see what we find.” A hemagglutinin analysis found clumping of the red blood cells. This showed HA antigens present as in H5N9-related viruses. But Litchfield couldn’t determine if this evidence was from the freezing trauma or the virus.
“We need a comparison,” Litchfield said.
“Someone who has the virus now,” Smierowsky said.
“Where are we going to get that?” Litchfield said. “All we have is anecdotal evidence of such a virus.”
It was about 2 am when they went back to their hotel in Ankara. Litchfield said a very dogged “good night” to his Turk friend.
“Only a miracle,” he said to himself.
* * *
Sometimes miracles happen
Litchfield’s “urgent” iPhone setting woke him about 8 am. It was from his assistant. Litchfield was groggy and not in the mood to talk. He had one too many gin and tonics after he came back. He figured he had about four hours sleep now.
She said someone in Atlanta - number. He called his Cambridge, Massachusetts, assistant on his Travelcell. She said, “A medical professional called. Remembered a lecture you gave on bird-borne human diseases to pathologists some time ago.”
“And–what? Another scientific groupie that wants to talk ad infinitum?
“His brother-in-law may have been infected by birds.”
“Get hold of him,” Litchfield said, “and tell him I will be there in two days. Give me his cell number and I’ll make arrangements to meet him at Hartsfield–Jackson Atlanta International Airport.”
“Tell the university bigwigs there I’m going to be in Atlanta on research,” Litchfield added.
Litchfield knew the cost would be painful, but worth it if he could arrange it. He bade good-bye to Anthony Smierowsky, said he would stay in touch about the case, and asked Smierowsky to continue to research the protein patterns on the sample from the frozen man’s mid-brain.
* * *
Litchfield arrived at Hartsfield–Jackson Atlanta International Airport about three days later. It was the best connection he could make from Heathrow on short notice. John Cummings asked him to meet him downtown at his pathology office, so Litchfield rented a mid-sized car with a Garmin GPS included and drove to the address.
The Pathology Associates was a brick and sandstone building with burnished wooden highlights, thankfully ample parking and circling it, low-hanging oak trees mixed with a few saw palmetto. Litchfield did not sleep well on international flights, especially those going west, so would welcome the stay at the hotel tonight. But business demanded he stay alert.
He took his briefcase and laptop with him, moved through the automatic doors with the two swinging from his shoulders, found his business cards and went to the “information” area, seeking Joe Cummings’ office.
Cummings was nice-looking for a short man, with black bangs swept across his forehead and brown, intelligent eyes. Gwen Uberhaus, who came a few minutes later to see Litchfield, was likewise mid-sized, compared to Litchfield’s height, but a very pleasantly attractive brunette who had a smile constantly on her face. She apologized for being in scrubs since she had been working, but Litchfield assured her that such dress was common in the medical areas of MIT.
"Tell me what happened," Litchfield said, "because Joe knows I specialize in ornithologically-borne viruses."
Gwen looked blank, then recognized the term. "Viruses from birds," she said.
"I'm sorry," Litchfield said. "A rough flight made me lapse into techno-speak."
He heard the reconstructed story from Joe and Gwen about the encounter with the bird manure.
“Jeff is an extremely stable man, mentally," Gwen said and Joe Cummings nodded.
"Calm," Joe said. "Last person you would consider as emotionally disturbed."
"Now he has fever, chills, a temperature, stomach ache and he's fatigued," Gwen said, "but the most troubling thing of all is that he had these thoughts of homicide...."
She shook her head, continuing, "...over some insurance report. Yes, he's a CPA, so he's a little OCD, but never, never would he kill someone over a report. He knew it, too, and that's why he wanted to get help.
Litchfield launched into an explanation of his theory – that avian-borne viruses did not stop with avian flu, but that maybe some other virus or viruses were at work. These might cause emotional disturbances. Litchfield was convinced they were at work on Jeff Uberhaus.
"Look," Litchfield said, "medical privacy laws require consent for me to interview him. Help me gain access and we'll go from there."
"Okay," Gwen said. "Thanks, Dr. Litchfield." And Joe Cummings shook his hand - warmly. "Glad we got hold of you." * * *
Jeff Uberhaus sat at the table in the conference room. He had an unkempt, ill look when John Litchfield entered the room. His obviously feverish body wept a slick of sweat on his brow and neck.
“I’ve had tons of times when reports were late,” he said, eyes wet, “and never, ever have I wanted to kill anyone….”
“Anyone!” he shouted. Litchfield started at the force of the statement.
“Okay, Jeff,” Litchfield moved his hands to calm him. “We think this could be a virus.”
“Virus?” Uberhaus’ eyes were inquisitive through the fever. “How?”
“Birds.” Litchfield let it soak in.
Uberhaus stood and stroked his chin. “Those birds – that morning – they crapped on my windshield and I wiped it off.”
Litchfield nodded. “Your brother-in-law found the wiping cloths. We think they have the virus on them.”
“Viruses going to the brain?” Uberhaus said. “How?”
Litchfield went into a lengthy explanation. How the viruses enter the body, move to the reticular formation of the brain, then into the hypothalamus, the epicenter of emotion.
“To do what?” Uberhaus said. “Mass killings?”
Litchfield paused. “We haven’t verified that yet. You’re our first.”
Uberhaus moved his face toward Litchfield. “Yes,” he said. “Run tests on me. We’ve got to find out.”
“Very generous, Jeff,” Litchfield said. “We were going to ask that.”
Litchfield told Gwen and Joe Cummins that they would be testing Jeff with exhaustive tests. He surmised most others had committed suicide or been shot after mass killings. Jeff Uberhaus was the first live specimen who could help isolate the virus and determine its fingerprint. And maybe – just maybe – develop a vaccine.
* * *
John Litchfield peered at the images from the electron microscope. He knew there would be doubters, but the results from Uberhaus' body spoke strongly that he was suffering from a raging viral infection. A biopsy sample from the spinal fluid showed orthomyxovirus evidence. He was conducting a final test on the proteins to verify.
The cell phone rang. It was Anthony Smierowsky.
"We can only prove that this man had some virus," Smierowsky said.
“Scientifically, yes,” Litchfield said.
"We can go no further,” Smierowsky said, “than say he died prematurely from some virus."
"And it affected his mid-brain," Litchfield said.
They exchanged good-byes. His test results scrolled on the computer. Uberhaus was walking testimony to an avian-borne virus that infected the mid-brain.
Litchfield's next move would be to contact the Atlanta-based Center for Disease Control with his findings.
He went outside and paused as he heard the honk of geese overhead. They flew over low.
Litchfield knew there would be attempts at mass extermination of birds, but hoped that would be tempered by sanity. There was no way to kill all of them.
So you had your revenge, he thought. The mammals survived, but you kept a vengeful watch to inflict damage. Someday, you thought you would triumph and become the supreme species again.
Then he thought of the many wars - how humans were polluting the planet mercilessly, warming it and inflicting a heavy toll.
Litchfield hoped his fellow humans would pay some attention to how to prop up its own species.
He looked at the geese as they winged into the distance and thought: You may win yet. -THE END-