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This is a dangerous planet. Only a politician would try to tell you otherwise.
And I'm not talking about wars -- we're America, we win our wars. There are
earthquakes, storms, volcanos. Plagues can appear out of nowhere and slaughter
millions of people. Blights can wipe out our crops. A meteor the size of a bus
could hit the earth and send us back to the Stone Age. An extraordinary solar flare
could destroy our electronics or heat our atmosphere so much our crops all die and
And whom do we put in charge of helping us prepare to cope with such
disasters? People whose only talent is for getting elected, and whose entire future
consists of the runup to the next election. It's not their fault -- anybody who
doesn't think and act that way won't win. It's the fundamental problem with
democracy. No long-range thinking. So we're just sitting ducks, waiting for the
If you want to know what destroyed the Roman Empire, it was two plagues,
a century apart, that killed about thirty percent of the population each time. That's
why there weren't enough soldiers to keep the legions at full strength. That's why
the emperors had to invite in the barbarian tribes to farm the abandoned land and
fill the abandoned cities.
Only now we're talking about the whole world. Whom do we invite in to
settle the empty land when it's the whole world that's been depopulated?
Chinma was the fourth son of the third wife of the aging chief of his small
tribe in the Kwara state of Nigeria. There was no shortage of other sons, most of
them adult, and nothing much was expected of Chinma. People constantly told
him to shut up, even his mother, even when he wasn't saying anything.
He got the idea at a young age that his very presence was annoying to
The easiest way to avoid getting cuffed or shoved or slapped or yelled at was
to disappear. And the easiest way to disappear was to go up. People didn't look
up very much. He could go up into the trees and keep company with the monkeys.
They yelled at him, too, and threw things at him, but they were more afraid of him
than he was of them, so it was actually fun.
That's why by the time he was twelve years old Chinma could climb any
tree to the smallest branches that could bear his weight, and catch monkeys by
enticing them with fruit while holding very, very still and looking in another
direction until they were close enough for Chinma to make his grab.
All of this was useless to everyone until the happy day when Ire, the second
son of the first wife, came back to the village from the big city, Ilorin, with news.
"They're paying money for white-face monkeys, especially if you can get the
Ire sat there in the yard in front of the big house, telling Father and the
important brothers how much money, and who was paying, and how he found out
about it, and then they started arguing about how they could go about catching the
Meanwhile, Chinma ran to a good white-face monkey tree, climbed it,
caught the papa-monkey, scampered back down, and brought the monkey to Ire.
All the men fell silent.
"What's your name?" asked Father.
"Monkey-catcher," said Ire. And that became Chinma's new name.
Father was against paying Chinma anything for the monkeys he caught.
"We've been feeding him for all these years, it's about time he started earning his
way." But Ire said it was business, and in business you pay everybody something,
so they'll work harder.
So now Chinma was important and had money, a hundred naira for every
monkey, five hundred for the papa monkeys, two thousand if he brought in a whole
family. He almost always got the families -- once he got the papa monkey, it was
pretty easy to get the babies, and once he had the babies, he could use them as bait
to get the mamas.
Ire bought cages for the monkeys and it didn't take many weeks before all
the white-face monkeys in their neighborhood were gone or hiding.
So they got in the family truck and began to range far out into the country.
Father and Ire had bribed all the right people, so there was no trouble with police
-- or the roaming gangs of thugs and brigands who, as often as not, were the police
out of uniform, or their brothers-in-law. It seemed like a safe way to make money
-- and it all depended on Chinma's knack for climbing trees, winning the trust of
monkeys, and bringing them down in good condition, every member of the family.
Ire said that somewhere far away -- South Africa or Great Britain or
America -- scientists were studying the white-face monkey because its cries
seemed to be like language. "Not our language," said Father, and everyone
laughed. Only it wasn't really all that funny, since only about three thousand
people spoke their language, Ayere, and all of them lived right there in Kwara
They knew that other tribes had lost their language, for to survive in Nigeria
you had to know at least one of the major languages -- Ibo, Yoruba, Hausa -- and
if you had any hope of becoming educated, you had to learn English as well. How
many languages could one head hold?
"They ought to take us to America and study our language," said Ire.
"With our luck," said Father, "they'd take us to Liberia."
But the truth was they were very lucky. This white-face monkey trade was
bringing in cash, which there had never been very much of in their village of Oyi.
"Our oil well," Father called it. But he meant the monkeys -- not Chinma, even
though Chinma caught every single monkey they sold.
When he mentioned this thought to Mother, she slapped his shoulder, twice,
and very sternly told him, "And who drives the truck? And who found out that
these monkeys were worth something? And who fed you all your life till now?
You think you're so important."
He apologized. But he was important, and he knew it. Nobody told him to
shut up now, nobody in the family forgot his name. He was Monkey-catcher, and
when the family was making money, he was right there, up a tree, catching it and
bringing it down to them.
Until one day, in a remote stand of trees, not even large enough to call it a
woods, surrounded by grassland on all sides, Chinma climbed a tree and found a
troop of white-face monkeys that had no timidity at all. They did not scamper
away from him. He did not have to coax them. They just sat there, waiting for
him. The papa monkey hissed and showed his teeth. He snapped at Chinma, too.
But he did not run away.
Chinma avoided the teeth and carried him down the tree. "He's a biter," said
Chinma to Ire.
"So am I," said Ire, and laughed. Whereupon the papa monkey twisted
around in Ire's hand and bit him savagely on the thumb. Ire shouted and dropped
the monkey, but Chinma immediately caught it again -- it was easy, because the
monkey ran away so slowly.
"Are you all right?" Chinma asked Ire.
"Just put it in the cage," said Ire testily, and he resumed sucking on the
wound. "Get the rest of the family."
As Chinma brought down each of the babies, it was one of the other
brothers, not Ire, who put them in the cages. Ire sat in the cab of the truck sucking
on his wound and keeping up a low murmur of cursing.
There were only two females -- it was not a large troop, because it shared
the stand of trees with an aggressive troop of red-bellied guenon monkeys.
Chinma only recognized them because his family had brought him books about
monkeys after he became valuable to them. These guenons were very rare,
especially such a large group, and most people thought the only ones still alive
were in the West Africa Biodiversity Hot Spot. It was very important that these
monkeys were here.
Chinma decided not to tell the brothers about them. They would want to
catch them and sell them, too, and Chinma knew it would take a lot more bribes
because these monkeys were so endangered.
Instead, Chinma would tell a scientist about them, so they could get
protected. Of course, that would mean going in to Ilorin, where they turned in the
white-faces, which they had never let him do. But he had never asked, either.
Maybe he was valuable enough now that they would let him.
Up a tree, he went for the largest female. Like the papa monkey, she didn't
try to move away. As Chinma inched closer, she seemed to snarl and he expected
her to try to bite. But she didn't. Instead, just as he got hold of her by the back
and neck, she sneezed in his face.
Sneezed or gave him a raspberry -- he wasn't sure which -- but it amounted
to the same thing. Monkey spit and snot all over his face. And he couldn't even
wipe it off, because he needed one hand to hold her and the other hand to help him
climb. And by the time he got down the tree, the stuff had dried on his face.
"This one spits," he said. "Or sneezes."
And this time he was listened to -- they held the she-monkey away from
them as they took her to the cages in the back of the truck.
When all the white-face monkeys were in the back of the truck, Ire slid over
on the front seat. "I'm not driving," he said.
"I will!" said Ade, who was the firstborn son of Chinma's mother.
"I don't care," said Ire.
Ade was stunned. Ire never let a son of one of the other mothers drive the
truck. But when Ade climbed into the cab and turned the key to start the truck, Ire
just looked out the window.
"Don't go home," said Ire. "We're going straight to Ilorin."
"Why?" asked Ade.
"Shut up," said Ire. But then Ire looked at Chinma, who stood outside the
window of the driver's side. "How do you like this? I need a doctor. Your stupid
monkey poisoned me."
"I told you he bites," said Chinma.
"You didn't tell me it was poisoned!" said Ire fiercely. "You're not getting
paid for any of these monkeys."
Ade shook his head at Chinma, as if to say, Don't argue with him.
And Chinma realized that if they were going straight to Ilorin, they couldn't
drop him off at home and so he wouldn't even have to argue in order to get taken
there. He swung himself up into the back of the truck with the monkeys, and
cooed and talked to them all the way there.
They were the unhappiest, least excited, most tired monkeys Chinma had
ever seen. Ire was right. There was something wrong with them.
In Ilorin, Ire insisted they go to the clinic first, even before taking the
monkeys to the scientists. He got out of the truck and staggered toward the clinic
and Ade drove the truck off, as Ire had ordered. But Chinma was worried. What if
the clinic didn't have the right medicines? Most of the medicine that got into
Nigeria was intercepted by high officials and sold on the black market, so clinics
rarely had a good supply of anything.
They drove on down Highway A123 from the clinic and turned at a big
traffic circle. They crossed the railroad tracks and then turned right again on a
narrow paved road with warehouses and small factories. It was one of the
warehouses where Ade brought them and stopped the truck.
To Chinma's disappointment, there were no scientists here, just a couple of
Nigerian men without shirts. Scientists always wore shirts. Chinma's brothers off-loaded the cages -- they were still too big and heavy for Chinma to carry them --
and took them inside the warehouse. Chinma stopped and looked around. There
were lots of animal cages here, though most of them were empty.
The brothers started to carry empty cages back out to the truck.
"What are you looking at?" one of the warehouse men asked Chinma in
"I wanted to see a scientist," said Chinma, in English because he didn't
know the Yoruba word for "scientist."
The man laughed at him. "You think they come here? It's stinky here."
Chinma was disappointed, but then he thought: I can tell one of the doctors
at the clinic.
That was why he was the first one off the back of the truck when they got to
the clinic again -- he didn't want to give anybody a chance to tell him to wait out
in the parking lot. He ran inside and went right up to the lady in a white dress who
sat behind a table in the waiting room.
"I want to talk to a doctor," he said in English.
"What's your problem?" she asked.
"No problem, I have to tell something."
She pointed to the other people in the waiting room. "These people all have
problems. They need the doctor. If you don't have a problem, then go away, little
That was all right. People were always saying no, and if you waited long
enough sometimes you got a chance to do it anyway. Meanwhile, he had other
"How is my brother Ire?" asked Chinma.
"Your brother?" asked the lady.
"We leave him here. An hour ago," said Chinma. "Then we take the
monkeys and come back."
"Did your brother have a bite on his hand?" asked the lady.
"Monkey bite," said Chinma.
She stood right up and grabbed him by the wrist. "Come with me!"
One of the men waiting in a chair against the wall started to protest that he
had been waiting much longer.
"Sit down or go home," said the lady. And then they were through the door
into the treatment room.
Chinma could see five beds, and all of them had somebody lying or sitting
on them. Ire was not any of them. Then he realized that a curtained-off area must
have another bed in it. The lady went there and pulled him inside the curtain.
Ire was on the bed. His eyes were wide open and he was breathing very
thickly and heavily, his chest heaving. The doctor was on a cellphone, talking to
somebody. He waved the lady away.
"This is his brother," said the lady, ignoring the doctor's wave. "It's a
"Monkey bite," said the doctor into the phone. "Wait. Listen while I
question the brother." Then the doctor turned to Chinma. "What is this man's
"My brother Ire. He works here. In Ilorin. At the factory, an accountant."
"Where did he get this bite?"
"Long way down the highway," said Chinma. "Long dirt road. Trees ...
alone ..." He didn't have enough English to describe the large but isolated stand of
trees where the monkeys had been.
"We need to get someone out there to find the monkey that bit him," said the
doctor. "Can you lead us there?"
Chinma shrugged. "My brother Ade lead you. Why?"
"It's a scientific matter that you wouldn't understand," said the doctor.
"Why go to the trees? The monkeys --"
"Quiet, little boy, I'm on the telephone," said the doctor. Then he went back
to talking medical language that Chinma mostly didn't understand. After a while
he flipped the phone shut.
He told the lady in white to give Ire an injection. "We've got to get his
blood pressure down or ..."
Then the lady pointed to the corner of Ire's eye. Blood was seeping out
between the eyeball and the place where the eyelids joined, and dripping down his
cheekbone toward his ear.
"Oh Lord in heaven," said the doctor. "Give him the injection."
"Not me," she said, backing away.
"It's not -- what you think," said the doctor.
"It's close enough that you're thinking the same thing," said the lady in
The doctor took back the syringe and jammed it into Ire's upper arm and
pushed the plunger. Then he handed it to the nurse. "We can't use this again," he
"Of course not," she said.
The doctor went outside the curtain and Chinma followed. "All of you!" the
doctor said. The other patients looked at him. "You must get up and leave this
building right now."
"But I need ..." an old lady began to say.
"Leave this building," he said. His voice carried a lot of authority. But
Chinma could also hear that he was afraid. Maybe the others could tell that, too,
because they didn't argue. He made them go out the back way, so they wouldn't
pass near to the curtained bed where Ire lay.
That was when Chinma knew that Ire was dying.
"So the monkey was poison like Ire said," Chinma said.
"What?" asked the doctor. "Listen, boy. Some other doctors are going to be
here very soon, and I need you to take them out to where you found the monkey.
Do you know what kind?"
"White-face monkey. The papa monkey bit --"
"Just answer my questions, boy, there's no time for nonsense! You mean a
"Yes," said Chinma.
"And you say your other brother can drive them there?"
"Yes, but --"
"Then let's go get that brother."
Chinma headed for the back door, but the doctor grabbed him. "The front
way," he said. "I need to clear the waiting room."
As they walked toward the door to the waiting room, Chinma saw the nurse
lady finish rinsing out the syringe and put it with a stack of other syringes to dry.
She must have forgotten that they weren't supposed to use it again. Or maybe it
was a different syringe and she had thrown Ire's away.
"Ire will die?" asked Chinma.
"Shut up," said the doctor. "Do you want to start a panic?"
I think sending all the patients out of the clinic through the back door is
more likely to start a panic than anything I might say.
But Chinma kept his mouth shut and the doctor opened the door to the
waiting room. "We're closed now," he said. "Go home."
"But I'm very sick," said the man who had complained before.
A mother with a three-year-old pointed to the whimpering child's broken
"Do your best, do your best," said the doctor. "It's for your own good. This
clinic is not a safe place for anyone right now."
As they left, the smell of medicines finally got to Chinma and he sneezed on
the sick man, who glared at him. "Sorry," said Chinma, and he ducked to avoid the
When the people were gone, Chinma led the doctor out into the parking lot.
Ade strode up to them. "Where were you?" he demanded in Ayere. "I went in but
there was nobody at the table and a sick man told me to get out or he'd infect me."
The doctor gripped Ade by the upper arm. "I need you to take me and a
couple of other doctors out to where your brother got bitten."
"Why?" asked Ade.
"If you want your brother to live, you'll do it," said the doctor.
"I'll do it," said Ade, "but it's stupid. What does the place have to do with
"Because we have to find the monkey that bit him, that's why," said the
Ade looked at Chinma, and Chinma rolled his eyes. "I tried to tell him but
he told me to shut up," said Chinma in Ayere.
"What is he saying?" demanded the doctor. "Speak a language somebody
Ade answered him. "We take all the monkeys."
"All the putty-face monkeys," said Chinma, trying to be accurate.
"Took them? Where?"
"A warehouse, other side of the tracks," said Ade.
The doctor glared at Chinma. "Why didn't you make me --" But then he
caught himself and grimaced. "Yes, I should have listened. I've turned into one of
Five minutes later they were at the warehouse. The men were already
loading the monkey cages into a panel truck but they hadn't left yet.
The doctor told them to stop. "These monkeys cannot leave Ilorin," he said
The foreman laughed at him, hooking his fingers through the wires of the
cage. "We have the permits and unless you have an order from a judge and a
policeman to back it up --"
Then he screeched and snatched his hand back from the cage and brought
one finger into his mouth to suck on it. "Damn monkey."
Chinma looked into the cage. It wasn't the papa monkey, it was one of the
mamas. Not the one that sneezed on him.
The doctor leaned in close to the man. "You are now a dead man," he said,
"unless those monkeys stay right here."
The warehouse man looked puzzled but he had stopped laughing. "What do
"I have a man in my clinic with blood coming out of his eyes because that
monkey bit him."
Chinma thought of telling him it wasn't really the same monkey, but he
decided not to.
The warehouse man sat down on the ground and began to cry. "Ebola," he
"It's not ebola," said the doctor. "It's something else. That's why the
scientists have to look at these monkeys. Do you understand me? Maybe they'll
find out things that will let them save your life."
The warehouse man shouted at his coworker. "Get those cages out of the
Chinma's brothers helped the man take the cages back into the warehouse.
Now the doctor could squat down beside Chinma and talk to him. "In the
cab of the truck your brother Ade told me that you do the monkey-catching. He
said that you warned your brother that the monkey was a biter."
"Did it bite you?"
"No," said Chinma. "I was quick."
"And the man in my clinic --"
"Ire," said Chinma.
"He did the same thing I did, yes? He wouldn't listen to your warning."
"A monkey ... spit on me," said Chinma. He couldn't think of the English
word for sneeze. "Will I die?"
"Are you feeling sick?"
"No," said Chinma.
"You saw how sick your brother was. If you had the same thing, you'd be
even sicker, because your body is so much smaller."
The scientists came, not as soon as Chinma hoped, but perhaps soon enough.
Nor were they in a truck. They were in a helicopter, and the doctor waved them
down into the parking lot. The chopper belonged to the World Health
Organization and the scientists came out of it wearing suits that covered every inch
of their bodies. They breathed through filtration masks and peered out through
goggles. They looked like huge white insects.
The monkey cages were loaded on the chopper and one of the scientists left
with them. Then they all went back to the clinic.
Ire was dead when they got there. And the nurse was lying on the floor,
crying. "I'm sick," she said. "I caught it from him."
Chinma and his brothers and the truck and the unbitten warehouse man were
held in quarantine for twenty-four hours, but none of them showed any sign of
illness. By the time they were pronounced healthy and turned loose, the warehouse
man and the nurse and the doctor were all dead.
Their bodies were flown out in helicopters and then the army came in and
used flamethrowers to burn out the clinic. Then bulldozers knocked down the
walls and gravel and earth were brought in to cover the ruins.
Before he left, Chinma did have one chance to tell one of the scientists about
the red-bellied guenons. He was one of the Nigerians; Chinma was too scared of
the white scientists to talk to them.
"Will you take me out to where they live?" the Nigerian scientist asked in
"Are you sure?" said Chinma. "They were living right where the sick white-face monkeys were."
"I won't let any of them bite me," said the scientist.
So instead of going home with his brothers, Chinma went back out to the
stand of trees. He only got lost once when he missed the turn from the highway;
once they were on dirt roads his memory of the route was perfect.
The scientist looked up into the trees and swore softly. "They never live in
populations this size," he said. "The largest troop we ever found was thirty."
"I don't think they're sick."
"Oh, these guenons might have the same thing that killed your brother,
Chinma," said the scientist. "Only to them it's like a cold, they just cough and
sneeze and then they're fine. When the putty-faces caught it, though, it affected
them worse. Made them really sick and lethargic and weak. But they'll probably
"And when Ire got bit ..."
"It got past all the body's natural defenses. Straight into the blood. Fatal in
"I wish I'd never caught a monkey in my life," said Chinma.
"It's not your fault," said the scientist.
"I never thought it was my fault," said Chinma. "But if I hadn't been such a
good monkey-catcher, Ire wouldn't be dead now. And that would have been
better. The money we made wasn't worth Ire being dead. I'm going to bury all my
money with him."
"You can bury it if you want," said the scientist. "But you can't bury it with
him. His body will never be returned to you. You understand? You saw them
knocking down the clinic, didn't you?"
"Are they going to come out and knock down these trees and kill these
"I hope not," said the scientist. "But they do have to come out here and
determine whether the disease originated with the red-bellied guenons. It would be
a shame to have to destroy the largest free troop ever found of an endangered
"Will they wear those suits?"
"Of course," said the scientist. "We're extremely careful when we know
there's a new disease involved. No one knows what it might do."
Chinma refused to let the scientist take him all the way to the village -- he
knew that if he arrived in the scientist's truck, all his brothers and sisters would
hate him and the big ones might beat him because he thought he was better than
everyone else. They would say he thought he was a scientist now and taunt him, or
say he let the scientist do bad things to him so he was filthy now.
So the scientist dropped him off on the highway a half-mile from the dirt
road leading to the village. Before he drove away, the scientist gave him a
notebook and a pencil and told him to take notes, because that's what scientists did.
And after he had copied all the pictures from his cheap little digital camera to his
laptop, the scientist gave Chinma the cheap little digital camera he had been using.
"It runs on batteries and you have to have a computer to get the pictures out of it,"
said the scientist. "Do you have a computer?"
Chinma didn't know anyone with a computer, but he wanted the camera, so
he nodded and the scientist smiled and gave it to him. Then he drove away.
Chinma hid the notebook in a bush before he got to the village, and he kept
the camera in the deepest pocket of his pants. He would never show it to anyone or
they would take it away from him.
Back at the village, Father made the obvious decision. "No more monkeys,"
he said. He glared at Chinma.
For once, somebody spoke up for him. "Chinma warned Ire," said Ade. "It
wasn't his fault the monkey was sick."
"I know," said Father.
Chinma took the box where he kept all his money and handed it to Father.
"To make up for the monkeys we'll never catch now."
"No," said Father. "You earned this."
Several times over the next few days, Chinma smelled something that
triggered a sneezing fit. Not just one sneeze, but many in a row. "Get out of the
kitchen," said Father's second wife. "Nobody wants you sneezing on the food."
"I think it was the pepper that made me sneeze," said Chinma.
"Well, I have pepper in the kitchen, so get out," she said again.
But Chinma had what he wanted -- one of the plastic bags that the women
washed and reused again and again in the kitchen. Chinma went back to the
notebook and pencil and put them in the plastic bag and left them hidden because if
he started writing in a notebook they would say he thought he was a scientist now
and they'd beat him and steal the notebook. Later I'll come back and get it. Later
I'll take notes and be a scientist.
It wasn't until the fifth day that Chinma began to get really sick, with a fever
and vomiting. And by that time, three of the other children were having occasional
sneezing fits, too. So was Father.
And off in Lagos, where the Nigerian scientist lived and worked, he also had
sneezing fits, and so did his closest colleagues.
"Flu," said the scientist.
"Flu," said his colleagues.
But when the scientist ran a fever so hot that it made the nurse who
discovered it run screaming for a doctor, they stopped saying "flu" and the men in
suits from the World Health Organization came back. If the scientist had not been
so sick, he would have told them about Chinma and even where his village was,
because Chinma had told all about his home as they rode together in the car to see
the red-bellied guenons.
Instead, like Ire before him, the scientist lay on his bed, racked with fever,
blood seeping out of his eyes and then from his ears and nose and finally from
random breaks in the skin all over his body. His brain was bleeding, too, so even if
he could have talked, he would have had nothing to say; he didn't remember
anything except the pain and the fear. And then he felt nothing at all.
Here is the amazing thing: Chinma did not die.
Father died. Many of the other children died. The two wives ahead of
Mother died. But Mother and Chinma and Ade lived, and so did a scattering of
others in the village.
But when it was over, instead of 3,000 speakers of Ayere in the world, there
were only 1500.
And the neighboring villages were full of people having sneezing fits. So
were the streets of Ilorin and Lagos. And because it took days before people
infected through their lungs had any symptom worse than the sneezing fits, there
was plenty of time for such people to get on buses and ride to other cities, or get on
planes and fly to other countries.
It was a lucky thing that at first it was a disease of poor and uneducated
villagers, and of the shopkeepers in Lagos where the Nigerian scientist had sneezed
before he died. None of them were the kind of rich and educated people who flew
across the Atlantic or north across the Sahara. So far, at least, the airborne
epidemic was confined to West Africa.
But it was consistently killing between thirty and fifty percent of the people
who caught the infection. And all you had to do to catch the thing was be within
ten feet of someone who sneezed the virus into the air.
Copyright © 2009 Orson Scott Card