GIFTS FROM A DEAD RACE
Part 2 of 2
An arm round the old woman's throat, folds of wobbling flesh overlapping his hand, her breath foul in his nostrils, cloying, mixing with body odour. Her damned terrier snarled and snapped at his heels. And she was very much alive, struggling with verve. 'Come on, Paula! For God's sake, where's-?'
Paula clamped the anaesthetic over nose and mouth and the wrestling slackened then stopped. The woman was now a dead weight in his arms. The dog sensed the change and backed off, mewling, confused, and suddenly afraid.
They glanced up and down the street. Ill-lit and deserted. They dragged their unwilling patient across the pavement to the waiting ambulance. They all shuffled up the steps and into the back. Paula shut the doors and Rawlings shouted, 'Right, Lindman, get moving!' And he knelt down to check the old woman's breathing and blood-pressure. They christened her Old Minerva, in the superstitious hope that that goddess of the arts and sciences was looking favourably upon them.
Beneath the Basement Operating Theatre's glaring hot lights, Rachel lay cold and naked, lifeless and almost boneless.
Rawlings pulled his eyes away but could not shake off the memories of their marriage. He looked across at Old Minerva's comatose figure, his throat dry. 'Let's hope the old woman's sacrifice will be worth it.'
This was no longer Rachel, he told himself. Perversely, though he had the choice of corpses, he had picked hers; to give her death some meaning, to be useful, saving life even from the grave? He made deep incisions with the argon-laser knife, the focused beam sealing off blood vessels as it cut.
All of Rachel's organs and their secretions were analysed and checked. Towards the end, he had to let Paula take over.
Eleven aching, tiring hours passed. Effectively, they were sealed off from upstairs and the outside world. The result of the autopsy on Rachel Rawlings was now on reams of continuous printout paper, recordings, tabulations and computer-drawn graphs.
'We'll take a break,' he said, feeding more information into the comparative physiology computer. 'I'll set the alarm for four hours' time. Okay?' Nobody disagreed. 'Then we'll start on Old Minerva.'
He woke with a splitting headache, stiffness in his shoulder and a leathery mouth. 'The humming's stopped?'
Lindman spoke. 'I think the hospital's shut down, Doctor...'
The ceiling-to-floor ventilation was off. He jabbed a light-switch, the tube flickered into brilliant whiteness. At least the standby generators were working...
'I switched over an hour ago, but let you all sleep.' Paula added, correctly interpreting his concern, 'Old Minerva is all right.'
'How do you all feel?'
They smiled, but he didn't miss the purple-rimmed eyes. 'Thermograph's warmed up and ready,' Mosely said.
'Good.' As the heat camera measured the old woman's infra-red glow, translating the temperature distribution symmetry on a view-screen in varied colours, Rawlings asked Sister Summers, 'How'd the x-rays come out?'
'Negative, Doctor. A couple of hairline fractures, self-healed. Nothing else.'
'Nothing here, either,' Paula said, checking the thermograph.
Rawlings sighed. 'Let's open her up, then.'
Lindman handed over another scalpel as the electricity from the Grid returned; the ceiling-to-floor ventilation now gusted like an arctic wind, splashing blood everywhere. 'Mosely, can't you turn the damned thing off?' Rawlings snapped, bracing himself as he performed an awkward excision.
'I'll try...' Leaving the anaesthetic trolley, she twiddled the theatre console. The airflow decreased to a reasonable down-draught, but now piped music - used as an anaesthetic for low-pain operations - surged in, deafening. Mozart's Jupiter suite. Distraught, Mosely ripped out the wires and the muzak stopped abruptly.
In the strange silence of snapped tapes, they repeated all the tests they had done on Rachel. A nagging fear was that the disease began in the bones; if so, then they were stymied, for the computer analysis Sister Summers produced revealed there had been nothing organically wrong with Rachel - except that her bones had turned to powder.
Rawlings suddenly grinned. 'Well, well. Look - a real appendix!'
Disinterestedly, Paula looked. 'So what?'
'Remember our argument? If you're practising medicine in 20 years time,' he said, poking at it, 'you'll be lucky to see one of these perishers then!'
'I suppose so,' Paula conceded, yawning.
The appendix poked back at his scalpel.
'More light, Sister!'
As the lamps were hydraulically lowered, he watched, scrutinising one single section of the vermiform appendage. Fibrous tissue glowed red. But he never blinked; he out-stared it. The appendix moved.
'It's alive, for God's sake - look!'
'I am,' Paula answered in a hushed voice. She shook her head, disbelieving. 'But it - it's supposed to be dead - defunct three million years! It can't be functioning...'
'Quick, we'll take some samples, analyse...' He was trembling, fearful lest his imagination was running away with the exhaustion.
All the old woman's organs were functioning correctly - and he grudgingly thanked the modern medicine for that. Extensive tests empirically showed that the appendix was no longer defunct but secreting some kind of natural vaccine. Though there was no way of knowing, it seemed probable that the secretion had been triggered by the infection itself.
'Check Rachel's records, Sister,' said Paula.
'There's no need,' he interrupted. 'She's got an appendectomy scar. Negative appendix...'
Paula's tired eyes glistened with tears. 'I think - you were right...'
He couldn't swallow, staring down at the silly little worm-shape. He recalled his words at the outset - something about God not being able to help...
For millions of years, it had been lying there, dormant not dead, apparently useless, just waiting for such an eventuality as this terrible plague from space. Fanciful, of course, flavoured with exhaustion and emotion. Instinctively, he felt his abdomen. At least he had managed to keep his own appendix intact, more by accident than by design. Could the new-born of the last three decades say the same? No. Many were doomed to die. Unless...
Voice tremulous, Paula said, 'We must isolate Old Minerva's appendix secretion.'
He wondered about her appendix then, hurriedly, added, 'If not, we'll use some of mine. We've got to devise a broad-spectrum antidote.'
In the high-streets of the affected world those who had avoided the pandemic space-virus began looting. Military curfews commenced on the evening that Rawlings and Paula isolated the vaccine, identifying its molecular structure so that it could be manufactured.
The crash of the ground-floor window jerked his head round, cricked his stiff neck.
'I'll see what's happening,' Lindman offered.
For four isolated days without let-up, injecting adrenalin and Benzedrine derivatives, he had kept going. Now, with the phial of artificial vaccine by his side, he was close to tears and mental collapse. Hoarsely, he kept saying, 'We did it, Paula - we did it!'
But she did not answer, was too intent on the doorway. She let out an involuntary gasp, and gripped his shoulder.
Three armed paramilitary men stood there, one gripping Lindman who was sobbing; her skirt and blouse were torn.
Tiredly, Rawlings stared, wondering what was happening. 'Who - who are you?' he asked weakly.
'You're quite cosy here, mate, with all these women, eh?' growled the unshaven leader, his feral eyes glinting. 'In fact,' he spat on the floor, 'you're so sure of yourself, maybe you know something about this plague.' He turned to his mates. 'I reckon I heard you say you did it.'
'You're mistaken,' Paula said icily, walking towards them. 'Doctor Rawlings has found-'
The leader's SLR butt crunched into her jaw, sent her reeling into the bench.
One of the soldiers cheered.
Still not fully comprehending, his euphoria at their success still hazing his thoughts, Rawlings stepped forward. Something was wrong, terribly wrong. Paula was hurt. Why? 'Paula?' he croaked. And as he manhandled the surprised leader out of the way so he could attend to Paula, bullets punched into him, jerking him into blackness, into oblivion.
Blood coursed from his ears. Ears that were deaf to the screams of Lindman and Mosely.
Sister Summers fought in vain while Paula retched in a corner, painfully supporting her broken jaw with bloody hands.
Forgotten, the phial stood in a rack on the anaesthetic trolley.
* * * * *
Originally published in Auguries magazine, 1984.
Copyright Nik Morton, 2015
GIFTS FROM A DEAD RACE started life as an explanation for the appendix and was first written as a sexier and longer version and was accepted for publication in MEN ONLY, but due to editorial staff changes it never saw the light of day until featured in AUGURIES in this much tamer offering.
If you enjoyed this story, you might like my collection of crime tales, Spanish Eye, published by Crooked Cat (2013), which features 22 cases from Leon Cazador, private eye, ‘in his own words’. He is also featured in the story ‘Processionary Penitents’ in the Crooked Cat Collection of twenty tales, Crooked Cats’ Tales.
Spanish Eye, released by Crooked Cat Publishing is available as a paperback and as an e-book.
Or you could try my co-authored fantasy novel Wings of the Overlord (by Morton Faulkner) currently available in hardback (5 good glowing reviews):