Pox   An Al Hunter Thriller             By Gary O. Walker


July, 1791 – Coast of Equatorial West Africa

          The man cringing at his feet rolled his eyes in desperation as Francois Agbo kicked him with another vicious jolt to the face, followed swiftly with yet another sadistic blow to the neck just below his ear. Great drops of sweat seeped out of Agbo’s dark shaven head and trickled from his nose and chin, splattering on the suffering man as well as the others clustered on the ground around him. The humid hot air clung to their bodies so their perspiration ran down and puddled under them without any cooling evaporation.

“You filthy dungman!” Agbo cursed, then he spat and kicked the man again and again until he stopped writhing and lay in the muck with his head twisted at a dreadful angle. No one lifted a hand to try and stop the deadly beating nor even dared glance in their direction. When he finally tired of the kicking, Agbo squatted down and gripped the man’s face with both massive hands and spread the torn lips apart with his powerful fingers. Seeing several teeth jarred loose, hanging only by shreds of skin torn from the dead man’s gums, he plucked out the tooth that most caught his fancy and tucked it into the small leather pouch that dangled from his belt.

The heavy stench of humans groveling in their own filth forced its way into Agbo’s nose even through the thick sodden air. He stood quickly to get away from the stink and felt lightheaded for a moment as a wave of dizziness passed over him. A lethal fever grew in his body and in spite of the heat and his exertion, he shivered, but only for an instant.

He shoved his way roughly through the chained crowd. Several of the women sobbed softly; others curled their bodies protectively around their children. Agbo stopped suddenly and grabbed a woman by the chin and wrenched her head around, forcing her to look him in the face. He liked to see their eyes wide and white with fear; he fed on that fear and it gave him strength. After savoring the woman’s terror, he laughed loudly and let her head drop, but not before he delivered a powerful slap to her face, hard enough to stun but leaving no permanent mark. Agbo strutted away and left her whimpering in the dirt. After he turned his back, her children crept to her side and pawed helplessly at her like little forlorn animals. She no longer seemed to recognize them.

Agbo saw his prisoners as the lowest form of animal with no business behaving like humans. Slaves showing any lingering signs of dignity needed to be kicked into unconsciousness with his good foot. He thought the women too ugly and pitiful to be bothered with, though he let his henchmen have their way with them if it caused no permanent damage to the merchandise. It kept the boys out of other mischief. Agbo treated the children very carefully. A child could be trained properly for a lifetime of loyal service and the smarter slave traders paid very high prices for compliant children in good condition.

Agbo stood out conspicuously in the African throng as the only native wearing European clothing. The long barrel of the latest British flintlock pistol pushed down through the belt of his short leather breeches and his massive face often sported a tiny pair of gold rimmed spectacles. Even his French first name was nothing more than an affectation he had chosen in order to appear more sophisticated and Continental. At six and a half feet tall, Francois Agbo dominated every crowd he stood in, especially in that era of history. Naked men and women wearing nothing but chains and filth, once free and proud but now reeking with the smell of fear surrounded him. He refused to recognize the humanity of their tribe and cared nothing for their feelings or their honor. They existed merely as cattle to be rounded up and sold to the highest bidder.

Agbo blew his congested nose on the crusted remains of a lace trimmed linen pocket handkerchief. Enjoying the restored airflow to his nasal passages, he sniffed the air and immediately winced. Far worse than livestock, he thought, certainly no self-respecting goat stank like that. The gods had destined him, a proud Ashanti, descendant of noble warriors, as their master. His victims, the lowly Senufo, peasant migrant farmers or even beggars, were bred to be slaves by their own disgusting habits.

One Ashanti legend explained that the Senufo were not human at all but the result of a joke by a minor prankster deity who had molded lifelike images from mud and manure and animated them. In his foolish game he had neglected to give them souls. Dungmen. No worse insult could be spoken to an Ashanti and your life was instantly forfeit if you dared. Rooted in the dawn of time, the blood feud between his people and theirs fed his distorted belief that he behaved in a way both merciful and civilized. His father and grandfather killed them for sport and left them for the vultures and maggots. He at least turned bad rubbish into good gold.

Agbo wore an odd pair of boots. Several years before, a prisoner tried to fight back and defend himself while being kicked and sank his teeth into Agbo’s foot, severing the tendon and taking a toe. The ensuing infection had nearly killed Agbo and he had the boots made to protect his feet after that incident. Decorative inserts stitched from the skin of the man who bit him adorned the leather and heavy angular brass toe caps made the kicks even more destructive. Around his neck he wore a necklace displaying a tooth from each man he had killed. He had recently started a second strand. The killing cost him money, but it kept him in complete control. Most people submitted to a life of slavery rather than be kicked to death. The few who didn’t, provided an example for all the others.  Anyone who knew Agbo well had a deep faith in the existence of evil.

It never occurred to Agbo that the lucky ones died at his feet, that the life of an average slave consisted of nothing more than a slow torturous death. First the horrific ocean voyage cut short many of those lives. Nearly a quarter never reached their destinations. Indeed, Death often came aboard as the only truly welcome crewmember on the slave ships. If they survived the voyage they would only be worked to a slow and torturous death on the plantations or in the mines of the New World.         Late the previous evening Agbo had returned from the Mediterranean coast of France on a very fast ship manned by a wolfish crew often allied with the pirates of Barbary. In this, his first trip to France, he had successfully misrepresented himself as a tribal prince, legitimizing his claim by spreading around a great deal of gold, and patronizing those brothels more concerned with the quality of his coin than the color of his skin. The class of establishment that welcomed him could often be located by sniffing the air for the tell-tale reek of suppurating sores, the hallmark of such businesses being rampant disease. Agbo certainly didn’t discriminate. The concept that any human life had dignity did not exist in his frame of reference. People were tools for his anger or lust or profit, their suffering irrelevant as long as he found satisfaction. Agbo himself developed his fever some time on the return voyage and had just become aware of the nasty discharge from his eyes and nose. Yet the adventure of visiting a new land had filled him with arrogant courage, the belief that he really was a prince and invulnerable to the revenge of mere mortals.

As he wiped his face with the long tail of his ruffled white silk blouse a sudden commotion attracted his attention. The crew of a Portuguese slave ship, preparing for a voyage to Brazil, had entered the marketplace. Agbo knew their ship was in dock but hadn’t expected them to arrive so early. He needed to finish setting prices, and some of the younger females were still providing entertainment in his men’s huts. They would have to be cleaned up immediately. Agbo moved quickly through the confusion toward the approaching sailors with the natural grace of a large predatory cat in spite of his slight limp.

Captain Texeirra led the two dozen men who marched in a disciplined military formation. Agbo stood in their path facing them, blocking their advance, flashing his warmest smile. His large square white teeth gleamed in the sun against the dark skin of his face. He spread his powerful arms wide in a welcoming gesture.          “Captain! Gentlemen! Welcome to my humble market!” Agbo spoke in French, their common language, nearly shouting the words in his booming bass voice. He hoped some of his men were awake and sober enough to overhear him and understand that they needed to get themselves organized in a hurry. Agbo thought perhaps he could stall the sailors with an explicit account of his recent exploits in France. As regular trading partners, he didn’t see these Portuguese as an immediate threat, but in his line of work it often proved fatal to trust anybody or reveal any weakness. Treachery and betrayal defined the core values of the slave trade.

“Monsieur Agbo, well met.” Captain Texeirra answered him politely, speaking in a soft voice. He stretched out his hand in greeting. “I understand you have some fine merchandise for me today.” A tiny flicker of wariness in the Captain’s eyes set off a warning bell in Agbo’s mind, but his hand already reached out instinctively in response. Captain Texeirra grasped Agbo’s hand and he gripped it tightly, wrapped his other arm around Agbo’s elbow and took two quick steps forward, forcing the larger man to pivot awkwardly on his weak foot and turn his back to the rest of the Portuguese troops. If Agbo hadn’t been sick, if he had been more alert, perhaps he might have put up a decent fight. But with practiced timing another Portuguese sailor grappled onto Agbo’s other arm and a third started clubbing him on the back of his head with a truncheon. Agbo managed to rip his arm loose from Texeirra and toss him a dozen feet through the air, but a perfect blow from the heavy club connected to his head at the temple and the oversized man toppled senseless to the ground.

Agbo did not know that the Portuguese slavers had a special request for exceptionally large and powerfully built slaves, and that he and his Ashanti kinsmen fit the bill far better than the ragged Senufo sprawled at their feet. In five minute’s scuffle Agbo’s half dozen sleepy men were similarly subdued, locked in chains and loaded on the boat bound across the South Atlantic for Brazil along with all the others. The fall from the top of the food chain to its very bottom had come instantly and with no warning.

Francois Agbo woke up choking on slimy bilge water. His head throbbed with the worst headache he had ever suffered, and his nostrils were filled with the two odors most intolerable to the human nose, excrement and rotting flesh. He gagged and spat and tried to wipe his face but found that his hands were secured behind his back, trussed to his feet and lashed to solid lumber. With no leverage from his arms or legs, it took every ounce of strength he could muster to lift his head and shoulders up out of the vile ooze. He managed to rest the side of his face against a vertical plank. Pain shot through his head and neck from the strain and huge rough splinters sank into his cheek and scalp, but Agbo decided he preferred that to blowing bubbles in the bilge. He could still taste the putrid swill and the thought of drowning in it made him retch.

“There’s been a terrible mistake!” He tried to bellow out his outrage, but his voice seemed to be absorbed by the darkness, muffled as effectively as a moldy pillow pressed down on his face. Then he heard a soft curse, unmistakably a Senufo curse. From all around him he heard many voices in agreement, Senufo agreement. As he stared into the darkness of the ship’s hold he could barely make out a sea of faces, all looking at him, the eyes no longer white with fear, but dark and narrowed with hate. They too were tied or chained, but each one plotted how they would kill Agbo given even the slightest opportunity. As the slave ship began to slap across the waves, the only eyes wide and white with fear were those of a large sick man with a bad foot.

They would have done better if they had killed Agbo and left him behind. Before the smallpox weakened him to the point that he finally sagged down and drowned in the bilge water, he single-handedly introduced a virulent stew of European infections into the confined environment of the ship. Mostly these were diseases for which the Africans from isolated tribal villages had little or no immunity. By the time they were five days from the coast of Brazil, instead of the usual twenty percent casualty rate common to slave ships, three quarters of the cargo were dead of smallpox, and all the survivors exposed to tuberculosis. As much as he might have enjoyed it, Agbo was never given the opportunity to share his syphilis nor his gonorrhea.

With less than a week before they reached port, a cursory effort was made to clean up the cargo and prepare it for market. A small crew of slaves worked under the biting sting of whips all day to separate the dead from the living. The bodies of nearly two hundred men, women and children were unceremoniously dumped into the sea that day, bodies covered with the oozing sores of smallpox. The virus struggled to burst out of its dead and dying hosts to survive and find a new living victim who could feed its unrelenting eternal hunger. 

            Water pressure at the depth of ten thousand feet is unimaginable. Yet that is the average depth of the great oceans on our planet. In the South Atlantic Ocean, several hundred miles off the coast of Brazil it is no different. If you were standing on the bottom nearly two miles of water would be towering above your head. The weight of all that water would crumple almost anything from the surface world into an unrecognizable lump.

It is also a world of eternal cold and darkness far beyond the place where the sun’s rays can penetrate. Yet many things that die near the surface eventually drift to the bottom, and waiting deep in the shadows are things that feed on the dead and the waste of the surface world. This is the world of the benthos, the dwellers of the ocean floor. They are so conformed to their harsh environment that they could not survive on the surface any more than we could live in their depths. Hungrily they wait for the crumbs from our world to settle into their eternal midnight.

In this spot in the South Atlantic there is a volcanic rift zone, an area where red-hot magma occasionally spurts up out of unstable crevices as the huge tectonic plates of the Earth’s mantle crush together and then grind and slide and pull apart again. Water in this volcanic chamber heats up and expands and spreads a warm blanket over many acres of the ocean floor. This balmy bubble teems with bizarre life. Drawing energy from the warmth, these life forms grow rapidly to often massive proportions in their unique microenvironment.

The vents swarm with hideous caricatures of fish twisted into grotesque shapes by the pressure of the deep. Giant tubeworms, starfish, mussels, squid, eels and crabs each contribute to the nightmarish scene. They devour each other as well as the stream of algae and microbes that reproduce at the heart of the vent. These deep water algae are able to obtain energy from heat and chemical reactions rather than light. Many of the microbes at the vents are thermophilic, heat-loving organisms known as Archaea. Over the eons humankind has had little interaction with this branch of the tree of life.

            Observers in deep-water exploration vessels have described these hydrothermal vents as snow blowers. Great fluffy white globs of nutrients spew out of the vents and are blasted apart to resemble an intense snowstorm. In other locations, these vents are nicknamed black smokers, because the mineral brew in those places appears inky and dark. The water from these vents has been measured as hot as seven hundred degrees Fahrenheit. On the surface it would boil up and instantly vaporize from the temperature of its contact with molten magma, but the extreme pressure keeps it liquid and presses the super-heated brew down against the bottom of the seafloor.

The harshness and violence of the environment encourages mutations in the already strange creatures which live there. In this pressurized primordial bubbling stew, some living organisms had formed distorted genetic bonds with the organic particles that filtered down through the thousands of feet of seawater hundreds of years before. Some borrowed DNA from their meals, twisting their offspring into new and loathsome variations of their progenitors. Most mutations were short-lived, unsuited to the chain of life. But one colony, born among the virus-infested remains of a slave ship, borrowed genetic material from both an extraordinarily malevolent man and the potent smallpox virus that killed him. Its genetic memory incorporated a relentless hunger for human flesh. The great heat and pressure of its birthplace made it virtually indestructible, and its inadvertent human ancestor gave it an unspeakable capacity for evil. It lurked in the darkness of the deep and there it waited.

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