by Suzanne Conboy-Hill
Nick’s body convulsed in a cough that scorched his lungs and expelled a glob of bright, wet material onto the sweaty sheet he held under his chin. He tracked its progress. The group of people clustered in the doorway tracked it too and took an involuntary step backwards.
‘Shouldn’t we have special suits?’ one of them said.
‘It’s only blood and spit,’ someone else remarked, although his laugh was a little strained.
Shannon thought about it; the man looked red and hot but he was shivering. ‘Franklin, are you getting this?’ She angled her head-cam towards Nick and described his condition, ‘Looks flushed, as if he’s hot, but shivering like he’s cold.’
‘What do his remotes say?’
‘All over the place, never seen anything like it.’
‘Get a mini-lab into some of that mucus and patch it through; might give us some ideas.’ Franklin muted the feed at his end and looked at the faces around the table. Two wore expressions that concerned him, ‘Thoughts?’ he said.
Evelyn Holmes certainly had some, ‘First,’ she said, in a voice that could rattle crockery, ‘If we still have hazard suits stashed away somewhere, we need to dig them out immediately.’ She paused, dropped the volume a little, ‘Second, we might already be in serious trouble.’ Holmes was a retired chest physician in her late nineties who had seen the tail end of the ‘dirty’ era of doctoring. The unit’s Director thought Holmes and her ilk might be useful; Franklin thought they might be an impediment. However, he trod carefully, ‘Reason?’
‘I’ve seen infections and he’s showing all the signs of incubating one. If it’s spread by contact, you have to touch it to catch it, but if it’s airborne you only have to breathe the same air. I say suits and now.’
Franklin sighed, it was probably an overreaction but what if she was right? He swiped at the contacts Holmes rapidly pushed through to his screen, nodded, then re-opened the link to Shannon, ‘Hazard Units are on their way. Stay where you are, for now.’ Shannon looked at Nick, coughing and shivering in his bed, ‘Ok,’ she said and closed the uplink. She nodded then to the young bio-tech shifting his feet anxiously at her side, ‘I bet they issue special clothing to janitors for when there’s a mess to clean up, how about you see if you can track something down?’ Jim beamed, ‘On my way,’ he said. It might be fruitless but it at least gave him something more positive to do than stand around watching a man cough his guts out onto his bed. ‘Basement,’ he said, and hurried off to the elevator.
From the depths of a patched up leather chair that had an unsavoury but tolerable smell about it, the janitor was taking a break between jobs with his feet up on the table and a large sandwich in one hand. Releasing the suckers and blowers from their service hatches in the apartments was easy enough, but collecting and emptying them when they were done could be a messy business, especially with these old units. There was always some stinking thing jammed in their guts that need forcing out with a plunger. Maybe if he got properly messed up one day, there’d be compensation.
He was just getting going on his private rant about stupid councils and put-upon workers when the arrival of a medical type asking for ‘special suits’ interrupted his flow. It was an intrusion but a mildly interesting one because here was one of these uppity oy polloys wanting something and him knowing where to get it. That was power. He got up with ponderous effort, kicked on the door to a large metal cabinet where two boiler suits hung, and handed them over. Then he sat back down again to watch the young man struggle into a blue all-in-one. Watching was power too; waiting for them to ask. They weren’t so hi-falutin when the know-it-all tables were turned.
Jim didn’t disappoint. ‘I could do with a hand,’ he said. He was a bit too tall for the suit and it gave him a slight hunch. His hands protruded from the sleeves right up to the middle of his skinny forearms as he fiddled unsuccessfully with the face shield. The janitor heaved himself up again, like he’d just had to drag himself through seven miles of bog for something any idiot could do. He pulled at the elastic straps of the mask, tied a knot in the top one, and pinged it with a thwack onto the back of Jim’s head. ‘Tight enough?’ he said, and sat back down again.
‘Much better, thanks.’ Jim shrugged his shoulders up and down in an effort to settle the suit a bit more comfortably, then picked up the second suit and headed back upstairs. The janitor reacquainted his feet with the table and followed Jim’s departure over the crust of his sandwich. Not so fancy now, was he, that government kid? Most likely never even saw a boiler suit before, or got his hands dirty with proper work. He settled back and punched the vid display – a zombie shoot-em-up would pass the time until the next corridor inspection.
In the doorway of Nick’s apartment, Jim shook out the second suit and helped Shannon climb into it, adjusting her face shield the way the janitor had fixed his. This suit was a better fit and although not in perfect condition with its frayed wrist and ankle cuffs, it would keep the muck off until something better arrived.
Shannon approached Nick’s bedside, ‘Hi,’ she said, ‘I’m Dr Shannon Bradford; are you ok?’ Nick’s chest burned and ached, his limbs were sore and feeble. He was freezing cold and dripping sweat. He clutched the light bedding and bunched it up around his neck; how did you measure ok when no one knew what ill was supposed to feel like? Nick thought for a moment, ‘Yes,’ he said, and then, ‘No.’ Another cough exploded from him before he could add further ambiguity to his response, and Shannon jumped away from the bed.
‘Not overly reassuring!’ Nick tried for a stoical grin and Shannon moved back to the bedside. She was on the point of returning the grin when another fit of coughing shook Nick’s body and deposited more blood-stained sputum on the white bedding. This time she held her ground. ‘Hand me the mini-lab, please,’ she said, holding her hand out behind her so that Jim could drop the device into it. ‘Thanks.’
‘You’re a bit unusual,’ Shannon said, putting her hand out to Nick and then pulling it back again quickly. Nick noticed and tightened his own hand around the sheets under his chin, ‘That’s me, always out of step.’ Shannon showed him the miniature laboratory; it looked like a fat silver worm. ‘For samples,’ she said. Nick grimaced. ‘Of the stuff on the sheet,’ she added. ‘It’s designed to locate and analyse fluids, not take bits out of people.’ Shannon laughed, initiated the device and dropped it onto the bed. It sat a moment then rose up on the four articulated limbs that emerged from its sides and manoeuvred its way towards the bloody gunk on the sheet. There, it squatted over the patch, projected an array of a microfibrils into it, and hummed steadily until the three red lights on its upper surface turned blue. Then it retreated, emitted a fine spray to clean off the residue, withdrew its limbs, and became inert. Shannon handed it to Jim who put it back in their medkit.
There was a commotion at the door of the apartment as two people, shuffling and wheezing in plastic overalls and helmets, made a clumsy entrance.
‘Suits are here,’ Jim said. The breath of the occupants hissed in and out of tubes connected to a back-pack and their gloves looked like something an astronaut might wear. ‘From the medical museum,’ one slightly metallic voice said. ‘The Curator was the only one knew how to put the parts together.’ The figure indicated suits for Shannon and Jim. ‘I feel like an over-inflated balloon,’ he added, and flapped his arms slowly in emphasis. Shannon and Jim, aided by their colleagues and deterred less by the voluminous museum pieces than their current flimsy garb, peeled off the boiler suits and struggled into the layers of plastic and piping. When they were all wearing the new equipment, Shannon turned back to Nick, ‘We need to get you prepped and out of here,’ she said. ‘Can you get your clothes off for us, do you think, so we can apply the oxygen foam?’ She puffed a breath onto the inside of the helmet’s faceplate and fogged it up, ‘I won’t look!’
‘No problem,’ said Nick, although he thought it would be. Just pulling back the sheets turned his body to ice and set off a fit of shivering.
‘Ok,’ Shannon said to Jim, when Nick was lying naked and slick with cold sweat, ‘Let’s get him oxygen wrapped and ready for removal.’ Jim approached the bed with a pump attached to two bottles and a length of tubing, and Nick allowed him to spray the substance over his body. The foam resolved into a viscous liquid and, with its nanocites and pre-programmed haemato-units, sought out areas where the blood flow was close to the surface of Nick’s skin. It crept into his ears and slicked its way into his mouth, where it probed the soft moist mucosal lining of his gums and tongue. It slid without asking into his groin and anus where it settled, consolidated, and began retrieving carbon dioxide from tired blood cells and replacing it with oxygen. Nick’s physiology began rapidly to pick up as it worked. So too did that of the causal agent.
Franklin considered the images he had seen via the head-cam and shuddered. Since the advent of submolecular genetic manipulation in the twenty-first century and the remote scanning apps built into people’s web-alert implants, doctoring had been a very clean business, but now this. The group of nonagenarians around the table had all been in practise when people contracted conditions that could be passed on; they were suddenly the experts again.
Franklin drew in a deep breath and watched as data bubbled up on the table in front of them – a 3D representation of something isolated from Shannon’s probe.
‘I was right, that’s a virus,’ said Evelyn Holmes, standing and flapping at the image above their coffee cartons. She made a redundant trace of the outline, ‘Look, bigger than a bacterium, and there’s its internal power house. Damn thing is good to go wherever conditions permit.’
‘How is that possible?’ said Franklin. ‘We eliminated viruses, neutered them out of existence.’ The retirees exchanged uncomfortable glances.
‘I think Eve’s right,’ said somebody whose background in post-mortem examination was the closest they could get to a pathologist. ‘I think …’
The thought was interrupted by a call from the team at Nick’s apartment, and Shannon’s face appeared on the screen, ‘Patient is oxygen-wrapped and ready to go. Awaiting instructions,’ she said. ‘Any idea what this is yet?’
Franklin waved a channel open, ‘No, not yet. Stand by.’ He cut the audio with another wave, leaving Shannon’s image hanging mute above them as they turned back to the 3D data. Holmes quietly opened the channel again, ‘Think I know what this thing is,’ she whispered, ‘People got sick all the time back in my day.’ She appended a bedside smile to reassure and reduce the likelihood of anyone panicking, then she waved the link closed and turned back to the group. Another voice had joined the discussion.
‘So, it’s a virus and most likely a mutant we haven’t seen before. How’d he get it?’
Franklin furrowed his brow at the speaker, Hueng Dong Sing, and waited for a counter-argument. But none was forthcoming, which left Holmes’s hypothesis looking alarmingly viable.
‘Where did it come from?’ Hueng said again.
‘Who knows?’ Holmes was scathing, ‘Did anyone think to pull up data about our patient, by any chance?’
‘Coming through now.’ Franklin swiped a link and an automated admin assistant displayed the data.
Dr Nick Jessop, aged 49, Agricultural laboratory, avian disease specialist, principal grade. Married to Professor Suria Finch Jessop, aged 52, medical archaeologist.
‘Completely unrelated professions,’ Franklin said. ‘What about interests, travel, recent social contacts?’ The data assistant projected a list of people, places, images and key words, and cross-referenced them with known incidents of human bio-failure.
‘Not a thing. He’s barely been anywhere but his lab and home for months.’
‘Same with Suria; full-on researchers, the pair of them.’
Holmes brought her hand up towards her mouth, ‘Oh my goodness,’ she said, ‘I didn’t think this could get any worse. What’s bio-security like in those places nowadays?’
‘Minimal since the eradication – why?’
‘Bird flu,’ she said.
‘Bird flu? Poultry, migrating geese? But that’s been -‘
‘Eradicated; yes, you said. But what if a remnant of the last avian epidemic from an agricultural research facility came into contact with a remnant of the 1918 flu outbreak from an archaeological specimen?’ Holmes paused and looked around the table for signs of scepticism; there were none. ‘That pandemic killed millions; combined with bird flu, this would be the most deadly biological organism we’ve ever encountered. That would be eradication for certain, but of us.’
The room fell silent, everyone working to think of a flaw in Holmes’s thinking and coming up blank. Franklin kept his eyes focused on his hands, ‘Incubation period?’
‘Anybody’s guess – three, four days maybe.’
‘Options?’ If Franklin’s memory served him, he had half an idea what these might be, and their ramifications.
‘Isolation, disinfection, life support,’ Holmes said.
‘Seal off the area.’ Hueng suggested.
‘Never mind the area, close the borders – Heathrow, Gatwick, the tunnel – no movement in or out of the country until we have this contained.’ Holmes recalled long abandoned strategies, ‘We have to assume everyone involved is infected – patient, team, contacts. We’ll need an isolation unit with full barrier containment.’
Franklin drew a breath – contacts – and opened the link to Shannon and her team, ‘No one leaves,’ he said, ‘Help is on its way.’ He closed the link, opened another, ‘Locate Suria Jessop ASAP,’ and a third, ‘We have a state of emergency, a bio-Security breach. Repeat, state of emergency involving biological threat. I’m handing you over to Dr Evelyn Holmes who will lead on requirements.’ He lifted his head to look at his colleagues and for a moment there was silence as the significance of the task ahead sank in. The next few hours would be critical.
The janitor in his beat-up leather chair listened to the sirens wailing towards his building, then much later, wailing away again. Odds on there was a mess left behind and it would’ve been nice to be told but since when did people like them bother talking to people like him? He scratched his nose, got to his feet and checked his master console; sure enough, in a matrix of clean green and okay orange, number 211 pulsed an urgent red for attention.
The door to 211 was festooned with INCIDENT tape. He ignored it, ducked under to swipe his pass, and entered the room. There were the suits, just by the door; he bagged them. He bagged the filthy bedding too and put it down the chute. He released the service bots, selected a post-trauma deep clean sequence, and set them to work sucking and blowing over the floors, walls, and ceiling. They would be a good while; he could go back to his game and put his feet up again.
Suria Jessop couldn’t put her feet up because her seat was cramped in close to the one in front, but it wouldn’t be for much longer. She sent a holo, ‘About to land at Beijing and not a moment too soon – air’s so dry my throat’s itching. See you next week.’ She pressed her thumb to the Send icon; it left a damp mark and she smiled. After all this time together, thinking of Nick could still make her palms sweat.
(c) Suzanne Conboy-Hill 2016
You may share but not sell, alter, substantially extract, or claim as your own.
This story arose from a pre-publication scientific paper about the delivery of an ssRNA to inhibit viral replication:
Reference : Krishnan V. Chakravarthy, Adela C. Bonoiu, William G. Davis, Priya Ranjan, Hong Ding, Rui Hu, J. Bradford Bowzard, Earl J. Bergey, Jacqueline M. Katz, Paul R. Knight, Suryaprakash Sambhara, and Paras N. Prasad Gold nanorod delivery of an ssRNA immune activator inhibits pandemic H1N1 influenza viral replication. PNAS 2010 107 (22) 10172-10177; published ahead of print May 24, 2010, doi:10.1073/pnas.0914561107