Doctor Sam Enright and his geneticist wife, Dorinda, face turmoil in their small town when a dozen adolescent girls show up pregnant at Sam’s office—and they’re all virgins. When their own daughter falls victim to the same fate, the Enrights rush to Homeland Security for answers. As the questions multiply, they realize they’re at the vanguard of a worldwide epidemic. When events escalate, a disparate group of international doctors, scientists, and mothers-to-be are brought together at Dorinda’s genetics lab in Middle America. They race to find the cause and meaning of the mysterious pregnancies, but every discovery reveals a new, worse scenario, leaving humanity’s very existence in question.
* * * * *
“Men believe most what they least understand.”
Twelve-year-old Nura bint Zayed stepped off the repainted weathered chair that had been in her family for countless generations and into the arms of Allah. One hour before, she had fainted in the spartan two room neighborhood clinic a kilometer from her home. The bite of the smelling salts had brought her back from the black cloak of protection her numbed mind awarded her. The doctor looking down from above, his eyes holding the sadness of surrendered faith, and the dismayed nurse behind him, were now part of the nightmare she couldn’t shake off.
The first time she had vomited and fainted in the hallway outside the kitchen in her home her brothers, Afzal and Mis’id, chided her for eating too fast, although she had yet to eat a thing. Even though she felt weak, she went to school, but within an hour all queasiness had dissipated. She passed the episode from her mind until the following morning. This time the heat rose on her brow and her stomach danced as if filled with feathers reaching up into her throat. She barely made it to the toilet. Again, this condition passed within a few hours, but now she grew alarmed.
If something’s wrong with the food, Nura thought, why was she the only one getting sick? Maybe the rest of the family were hiding their distress. But why would they?
On the third day of nausea Nura went to her mother. With tenderness, her mother checked her tongue and throat for signs of infection, peered in her ears and beneath her eyelids. She inspected very inch of skin for possible wounds. Finding nothing to warrant ailment, she went to the kitchen to prepare ingredients for the time-honored family health remedy. Brewing this concoction was an objectionably odorous affair. But when finished, the auburn syrup had a rather sweet, if not spicy, flavor that tempted one to take more than was necessary.
Although this prescription helped a great deal, the nausea persisted. After the initial week, Nura hid her morning sickness from her family, her friends, and the world. The thought of going to a clinic and costing her family money for an insignificant ailment filled her with dread. So many around her had real problems to contend with every day and they never complained. Some of her friends came to school hungry, eyelids drooping. Her best friend, Soraya, had lost the tip of her little finger to an infection of the fingernail. After the bandage came off she held out her tiny work-battered hands, and shrugged. It was hard to tell any difference from before.
By two weeks, the nausea had subsided, but Nura’s stomach protruded more than she could hide. She brought down from her clothes cabinet the clay elephant she had made as a child to hold the money she was saving for her dowry. This funny-looking rotund beast had a slot on the back to accept her small donations but no opening to retrieve them. Outside, a few streets from her home, beyond the call of her mother, she broke open her animal bank. Picking the coins from the dirt, Nura dropped the uncounted money onto her handkerchief and gathered the corners up into a knot. Without a fleeting look back she stood and walked away, leaving the decimated elephant and her childhood behind.
Nura returned home from the clinic in a stupor of overwhelming shame. Her short path through life had been written and it was not her right to know the meaning, only the outcome. Her family honor had to be above reproach, and she was old enough to understand the consequences for not abiding by tradition. She wanted her memories of her father and brothers to be those of joyful faces, not furious expressions and screaming condemnation.
When Nura stepped off the chair, her only regret was never actually having known the touch of a man.
Ayira Akilah Mukendi slipped silently through the curtained doorway, away from the sleeping breath of her brothers and sisters. She crept along the edge of her family hut, staying within the full-moon shadow beneath the thatched roof overhang. Her neighbor’s two mixed-breed dogs, scampering playfully in the path that ran by their huts, rolled to their feet and froze, ears pricked, muzzles searching for a scent. The smaller mutt challenged her with a yelp. Ayira stepped from the safety of darkness and stooped to the ground, hushing the dogs with a gentle word. Their tails whirled as they pranced over to her, licked her outstretched hand, then trotted off as she stood and moved back into the shadows. With a sigh, she leaned against the wall to gather her courage and pressed her fingers to the still sun-warm dried mud knowing this was her last touch of home.
Looking out over the twisted branch fence she and her mother had laced together, Ayira strained her eyes to see down the rocky path that wound through the village. Frightful expectation hung in the air and clung to her like sweat. She listened intently above the incessant chirps and chatter of jungle nightlife, for not everyone was asleep. In the distance, the grumbling of the village elders came on the night air, rising and falling like angry cats. Soon, their words would cease and the decisions they made would force their actions.
Before this night, she’d never thought of choices, for her destiny, the same as everyone in her tribe through all generations, was determined by those who preceded her.
But now, in her thirteenth year, choice had come to Ayira unbidden the moment the elders had made their determination. She immediately set upon an act that would change the fate of the life growing within her and that of the mja, foreigner, who’d given her a glimpse of a reality beyond her own imaginings. Even as she grasped the small bundle of clothes and food tighter to her chest, forcing her legs to follow her will down the path, she didn’t consider the consequences to herself.
Her eyes brushed over each hut she passed, thatch or stone, grass or mud, not so much looking for danger as committing the huts to memory. The aroma of boiled and fried food, always in every breath, saturating the vapor-warm air during the day, was gone now from the cool night. When she reached the field where the path broke from the village, the insects that had retreated into the grass and trees to drone their mating calls went quiet. She leapt into a full sprint as if trying to outrun her own shadow stretching out before her, and left behind the only world she’d ever known.
Within a minute, she was at the mja hut, built away from the village. This hut, clinging to the edge of the jungle in seeming desperation to hold its place between nature and man, was a welcoming gesture, the elders had told him. It was to assure him privacy, to thank him for his helpful efforts with his Western knowledge of food production and clean water. But Ayira knew that although his knowledge was welcomed, he was not. A field’s distance from the village was but an invisible barrier to keep his strange odor and any unwanted influence at bay. His hut, built of stone, mud, and thatch was similar to others in the village but for the wood plank widows and doors that sealed him in at night. To the elders, those secured entries and the several hundred meters of dirt and brush, had not done the job, so it came to them to put their world back to order.
Ayira approached cautiously, for she’d never been to the outsider’s hut. The entire village was warned to keep safe distance, especially at night, for bad things can happen in the dark. She didn’t believe any of the children’s tales told about outsiders, but her heart seemed to pound as loud as her fist rapped upon his plank door.
“Bwana David, Bwana David! Nisaidie, tafadhali! Help me, please! They come.”
A voice from sleep called back. “Nini? What? Who’s out there?”
“It is I, Ayira Mukendi. Please, open door. You must come with me now.”
Angled shafts of light moving through cracks, scuffling feet, then the door pulled back. David, squinting and shirtless, peered down with his flashlight beam into Ayira’s frantic eyes. “What’s wrong, Ayira? Are you sick?”
She glanced at his concerned young face, then grabbed his hand and tugged. “We must go now, Bwana David. They come for you.”
He grasped her shoulder with his free hand, steadying her trembling body. “Hold on, Ayira. What are you talking about? Who’s coming for me?”
Tears came with her words. “Wazee, elders, believe you made me with child and come ninyiua, kill you.”
He jerked away from her, breaking their connection. “What?!”
Ayira reached out to him, but he stepped back. “They no believe me. I say not you.”
“Well—Well, you have to tell them who it was then. You did tell them, didn’t you?”
“I could not.” Ayira’s eyes fell to the ground. “I mean, I tell, but they no believe.”
“Well, why not, for Christ’s sake?”
Her eyes suddenly grew wide. “Usu! Quiet!”
Whipping around, Ayira scanned the open field, angling her head. She turned back, hands clasped together. “We must go now! They come.”
“Wait. I’ll get dressed and talk to them.”
“La! No!” She grabbed his hand again, pulling in desperation. “If find me here, kill us both.”
David wrenched away from her to stare back toward the village. Bobbing firelight flickered through the swaying brush, harried voices arrived sharply with the breeze. The sudden sweat surfacing on his skin was a prelude to his actions. He grabbed the small backpack off the end of the bed, and flung himself out the door pulling Ayira along by the wrist. When they reached the jungle, Ayira moved in front.
“You must follow me. We take path animal, not path people.”
They ran at a quick pace, Ayira scouting ahead, David continuously glancing back, panting with rising fear. Within the cover of the trees the spongy ground absorbed the shock of their heavy strides, but through the intermittent open spaces, sharp grasses sliced at their arms as their heels pounded against the hard, rutted path that twisted their toes. Several minutes in, Ayira veered off the main trail, pushing easily through bushes and branches clouding the way. Though the jungle floor was hidden beneath spidery branches and broad ferns, she read the way by following the line of sparser vegetation ahead of her. This path was soft but firm, for animal feet didn’t wear away the soil down to the roots and rock.
“Good you take our ways, Bwana David. Other waja, foreigners, cannot walk in bare feet.”
“Ayira, you have to tell me who did this to you.”
She glanced back as they crossed an open patch of brush and grass, moonlight glinting off teary eyes. “It was nobody, Bwana David.”
David’s eyes raked her with bewilderment. In other parts of the continent her protruding stomach might be from malnutrition, but not here. He knew his comment sounded ridiculous as it left his lips.
“Maybe you ate something bad.”
“No. I am with child.”
“But, Ayira, what you’re saying isn’t possible if you haven’t been with a man.”
“The elders do not care what possible. They know not the way of outsiders, so believe you made possible. They know I not lie with mawanaume kijiji, village man.”
“Well, how do they know that?”
“They have looked me and my kizinda is there, still.”
Roshonda Williams fainted, slipping off the massive log she was sitting on with her friends of Girl Scout Troop 333, folding to the earth alongside the snapping fire. The fifteen melodic voices staggered to a halt mid-song as Kimber and Maureen dropped their marshmallow-tipped sticks and slid down beside her.
“Shonda! You okay?” Kimber placed her palm on the girl’s clammy forehead.
The scout leader edged in behind the girls. “Shonda, honey, what’s wrong?”
Kimber looked up, fear cracking her voice. “She’s cold, Ms. Cutty.”
The rest of the girls crowded at Ms. Cutty’s back.
“Move back, girls. Let me see.” Shonda’s flawless twelve-year-old features glowed in the firelight like an ebony carving. “Someone bring a flashlight.”
Several lights came on at once, their shafts lancing across the clearing, finally focusing on the supine girl. Her eyelids quivered, a low moan came from parted lips. Ms. Cutty pulled the girl into her lap and stroked her hair with soothing fingers.
“Wet a towel and bring it quickly,” she commanded. A flurry of activity produced more towels than she needed.
Shonda fluttered her eyes open as the damp towel was laid across her forehead. Her questioning eyes focused first on Ms. Cutty, then across the other dozen faces peering from above. Her voice came, fear-tinged, barely audible. “What happened?”
”You’re all right, dear,” Ms. Cutty answered with calmness and confidence “You just fainted for a few seconds.”
Embarrassment replaced fear as Shonda struggled to sit up. “I think I’m okay now.” She pulled the wet towel from her head. “Really, I am.”
Kimber and Maureen helped her stand, holding on as she regained balance. Ms. Cutty shone the flashlight beam into Shonda’s face, peering into her eyes.
“How were you feeling before this, Shonda?”
“Mostly okay. A little queasy in the morning, sometimes.”
Ms. Cutty pulled the light from Shonda’s face, her own clouded expression hidden in shadow. “Have you fainted before, Shonda? Or thrown up?”
A giggling voice chirped from the darkness. “My girl’s preggie, I’ll bet’cha.”
Shonda’s eyes filled with quick tears, but sudden rage flashed through Kimber as she snapped back in her friend’s defense. “Screw you, Becky Chandler! Not everyone sneaks over to the boy’s cabin after lights out, like you.”
“That’s enough, you two,” Ms. Cutty broke in. “Quit with the cat fighting.” She threw Becky a pointed look. “You and I will be having a little chat later, missy.”
Distressed, Shonda grabbed Ms. Cutty’s hand and spoke low. “I’m not pregnant, Ms. Cutty. I’ve never let a boy touch me like that. I haven’t even had my…you know.”
Ms. Cutty pulled Shonda into a hug. “Don’t worry, Roshonda. It’s probably just that, your first period coming on.”
Doctor Dimitri Sergeyevich Andronnikov from the Ministry of Health had received the call at his home the previous evening. He snatched up the receiver before the clanging bell might wake his wife upstairs in their bedroom, already deep in a vodka-induced sleep. He’d taken to late night reading in his study, his large body pressed comfortably into his leather armchair, with the trivial fiction of American Science Fiction writers. These stories were far removed from his reality, giving him needed reprieve from his daily existence. At only forty-three years old, he was deathly tired.
His mind snapped back from outer space as he brought the receiver to his ear. Background giggles cut through the ever-present line static before the monotone voice of Gustov Yegorevich bored into his brain.
“Dimitri Sergeyevich, there’s an urgent matter for you to attend to first thing tomorrow morning.”
Gustov Yegorevich Borovsky never used common courtesies like salutations, but started right in with whatever was on his mind. The giggles rose in the background as he continued.
“It seems a bout of mass hysteria may be forming in a village some 200 kilometers north. Since airborne disease is your specialty, the Bureau chief thought it best for you to investigate. A folder will be on your desk at 6 AM.”
“What’s this all—”
Gustov Yegorevich ended conversations as he started them: abruptly. Before the phone on the other end clicked off, a burst of guffaws squawked from Dimitri’s earpiece. Dimitri replaced the receiver and stared down at the sci-fi book in his lap. Outer space wasn’t going to ease his mind now. With a sigh, he closed the book and trudged up to bed.
The black folder sat on the passenger seat, a secret document, an early-morning joke for Dimitri. Nothing inside had given a hint of what to expect upon his arrival. Even more confusing was the portable ultrasound device, now in his trunk, which had waited for him beneath the black folder.
He suspected he was on another time-wasting journey so the petty bureaucrats in his office could get another good laugh at his expense. These puerile jokes appeared to be all they needed to maintain their paltry existence until the weekend when, like his wife, they’d get falling down drunk. But she hardly ever waited until the weekend.
They all hated him because he was a dreamer. He hated himself because he was a dreamer who never did anything to make his dreams come true. His desires evaded him over the years. A courageous move to Moscow or Leningrad to join a university team exploring the cutting edge of medicine was nothing but a mirage lost in the malaise of his day to day life. Trying to acquire this knowledge piecemeal over the Internet was a fool’s errand. And, apparently, everyone else had caught on to this fact long before he did. The worst part of all the abuse he put up with was that he felt he deserved it.
He was so lost in miserable reverie he nearly missed the tiny sign for the village. With a sudden jerk of the wheel, he veered off the two-lane highway onto the old country road, skidding into a fishtail, invigorating every artery with fresh pounding blood. His twenty-year-old Volga didn’t mind hilly roads except when they’d break away into crumbly bits of asphalt, ash, and rock with an obstacle course of pot holes and water-sliced ruts. Unfortunately, this was the road he was now on.
The village center Dimitri rolled into appeared so much like a thousand others. Maybe a couple thousand people lived and worked here, growing and raising who-knows-what but, happy and content in their daily existence, so unlike himself. Few people were about, probably because they were out doing legitimate work in fields or shops. He stopped his Volga in front of the church in the town square and lumbered out. Immediately, a harried man in a worn suit much like his own clamored down the steps toward Dimitri. He was talking before he was within earshot.
“You from the Ministry of Health? I’m Peter Olegovich Komarov, the town mayor. Thank you for coming out. I called many times, but no one seemed to take our problem seriously. I’m happy you have chosen to investigate.”
Dimitri offered his hand to the man, who nervously rubbed his own palms against his tattered jacket before sliding his still damp hand into Dimitri’s grasp. Dimitri unconsciously wiped his hands on his pant legs when the man released his limp grip.
“Maybe you should tell me what the problem seems to be. My superiors weren’t specific in that regard.”
The man stared with cocked head as if Dimitri should be explaining to him about the peculiar ails of the village. He blinked a few times, then turned on his heels.
“Please, come with me.” He lumbered back up the steps to the church. Dimitri followed him inside the old musty building where electric light was obviously a second thought; it seemed the first lightbulbs ever invented were still in use there. More light glowed from the arched stained-glass windows to either side than from the string of dim shadeless bulbs hanging from wires down the center aisle.
The modest church was empty save for a priest and a dozen shabbily-dressed people grouped together in the front pews before the altar. Six were somber middle aged women, six were demure young girls. Dimitri thought about the rubber gloves and medical kit he had left in the car.
The mayor arced his hand toward the girls hunched together in the first pew as if this sweeping movement explained everything. Dimitri squinted at the assembled girls, his eyebrows drifting up.
“What seems to be the problem? Are the girls ill?”
“Are they ill?” The man’s face twisted with incredulity. “Stand up, girls.”
As a unit, they rose to their feet, shy eyes glued to the floor. The mayor stared at Dimitri, waiting for some kind of pronouncement.
“What?” Dimitri said.
“Their stomachs. See their stomachs?”
Dimitri moved closer. Yes, their stomachs were bulging somewhat. He peered into their adolescent faces, maybe twelve or thirteen years old. He pushed from his mind the first thought that jumped in, and instead said, “Do they all eat from the same table?”
The mayor, the priest and all the mothers gawked at him. The girls flicked their eyes from the floor to stare at him from beneath lowered brows. Sweat formed on Dimitri’s upper lip.
“You are from the Health Ministry? Are you a doctor?” the mayor asked again.
“Yes, yes, of course,” Dimitri stuttered.
“Do your eyes fail you? Do you not see what we see? These girls are pregnant.”
Dimitri pursed his lips as he looked over the innocent faces. This is a problem for the priest, not him, he thought, as his eyes came to rest on the mayor’s troubled face.
“I can understand the problem, sir, but what has this to do with the Health Ministry?”
Astounded, the mayor stuttered. “Didn’t those imbeciles tell you anything?” He pointed at the girls. “They’re virgins, every one!”
This was a declaration Dimitri hadn’t expected. In fact, by what authority could the mayor make such a statement? A sardonic laugh escaped him.
“Sir, do you mean to say all these girls are virgins, yet are pregnant?”
“Precisely what I’m saying. We’ve only found out this very week.”
A mother in the pew behind her daughter spoke up. “Our daughters are nearly all the girls of this village who are in their twelfth or thirteenth year.”
Another mother stood. “We didn’t know about each other, but when we sought help at church, Father Sergei convinced us to confide in one another.”
The first mother approached Dimitri, hands clasped as if about to pray. “At first, there were only two, then three and now six. Three more girls of this age live in our village.” The woman stopped before him, looking up with pleading eyes. “We are afraid, doctor.”
Dimitri skimmed all those eyes staring at him, all pleading, like the woman standing before him.
“I will have to confirm your assertions, you understand.” He was reticent to tell them this wasn’t his area of expertise. More than a few years had passed since he practiced general medicine. As he remembered the ultrasound machine in his trunk, he felt confident this situation would be cleared up in an afternoon.
Two hours later, Dimitri sat in the priest’s austere quarters on the humble bed he had used as an examination table, with his head in his hands. His original thought had been that an elaborate jest was being played upon him by his comrades, for their unconcealed laughter over the phone was testament to such a childish act. But now, his preliminary observations precluded the possibility of such a prank.
How could something as seemingly simple and innocuous as a teen pregnancy become so complicated? This happened every day in villages around the world. Although a persistent seed had been known to work its way inside without actual penetration, this scenario was most rare. But every one of these girls did still appear to be a virgin. This placed the odds of such an event happening in the same village in the astronomical range, even the impossibility range. Surely some form of artificial insemination had to be involved.
All Dimitri’s rational mind allowed him to believe was that a nefarious scheme was at hand implicating complicity among all the parties.
He stood, rubbed the life back into his face, pulled taut his suit coat, and opened the door to all the anxious faces.
“The girls must return with me to the clinic for further tests,” he stated.