GIFTS FROM A DEAD RACE
Part 1 of 2
Projected behind the newsreader was a picture of Earth, the sun, and a red-arrowed elliptical line. 'And it is believed to be travelling at eighty miles a second and should bypass Earth close indeed, about five million miles away. First spotted by a Peruvian astronomer, Santiago Almeida, as a smudge on a telescopic film...'
Rawlings fingered the switch-off button and snuggled down in bed beside his wife Rachel. He smiled. She was already asleep. They'd both had a hard day at the hospital. Gently he kissed her slightly parted full lips and snapped out the bedside light.
Astronomers first became alarmed when the Almeida meteorite approached the sun. The first glimmerings of a comet-like tail were released, charged gases and particles streaming in the solar wind.
It was impossible to tell from Earth, but near the meteorite's surface some unimaginably powerful fissionable material from a dead race had reacted to the sun's proximity, exploding on its far side.
Almeida altered course...
'What were you arguing about with Paula Mayfield today, love?' Rachel wanted to know as they nestled close in bed, only half-watching the late-night movie.
'Oh, the usual - my pet annoyance...'
She rose on one elbow to look down on him. Her grey-flecked blue eyes were earnest, framed by auburn hair that gladly hung free after the constriction of the day in hospital. 'We're living in the dawn of the 22nd century - we must move with the times.'
He kissed her lightly, sighed, his grey eyes dulled by grim thoughts. 'I know. The days of pollution are past, we live in the Recycled Age! Buildings, transport, the oceans, even people - all becoming scrupulously clean.'
'Well, yes... That's the idea. Looking after Spaceship Earth.'
He pulled back the sheet and smiled - an impish grin, she'd called it on their honeymoon: 'Like a leprechaun.'
She ruffled his thinning black hair. 'You don't convince me of your subversive views this way, you know.'
'True, but it's fun trying...'
Food was bacteria-free. This was the hydrogen age; every nuclear plant had been shut down over the last two decades and the nuclear waste rocketed into the sun. The population explosion seemed stemmed. First had come world-wide fluoridation; it ruined the teeth in sixty years, but by then you were ready for dentures anyway. Next, the introduction of birth-control agents in the water supplies: a family unit must have no more than two children; if they were permitted to have children, a pill was issued on prescription to dissolve in water, nullifying the birth-controlling properties.
Almeida was heading for mid-Atlantic. Computer-predictions calculated that the population in its path would not amount to estimated losses due to radioactive fallout so, with some relief, fingers poised on the nuclear rocket buttons edged back. The world watched.
Still travelling at thousands of miles per hour, Almeida singed the tree tops around Salisbury Plain and on impact obliterated Stonehenge and nearby Winterbourne Stoke. The tremors toppled Amesbury Abbey onto mid-afternoon shoppers and traffic.
Turf and bedrock layers were peeled back like flower-petals with the shattering explosion, leaving a 50ft deep crater, half a mile wide. As the spectacular cloud fountained high into the air, seismographs around the world recorded the upheaval. Within minutes, helicopter rescue teams lifted off from the tarmac of the RAF experimental base at Boscombe Down.
Afterwards, she said, 'I'm still not convinced.'
Now, he looked serious. 'I'm a little deflated at your response...'
She laughed and hastily confirmed the truth of this.
Undeterred, he said, 'Do you remember in training, reading about the rape of the phallus?'
'Circumcision. Yes. Something about it being almost an obsession with American doctors in the middle of last century?'
'Yes. Well, we've extrapolated on that since, haven't we?'
'Why not? An excision made on babies today is merely removing unwanted, useless and often troublesome organs. Vestigial-'
'That's the problem. We've become so clean-conscious, so bloody function-minded, so anything that could cause trouble is removed and discarded. Dissidents, criminals, foreskins - ouch!' She had tweaked his. 'Appendices, extra toes, supernumerary nipples - you name it, and we'll get rid of it!'
'And I'll now get rid of this...' She leaned forward, her hair stroking him.
Steaming and hissing, the countless pieces of Almeida strewn around the area of devastation spewed out microscopic spores.
The pernicious virus soared into the air, mingling with clouds and winds.
Their bleepers interrupted with urgency.
Swinging out of bed, Rawlings jabbed the transceiver on the cabinet: the receptionist said in a high-pitched voice: 'General recall, Doctor. A rush on - emergency admittances. Some weird epidemic...'
Rachel groaned under the covers. 'We'll be there in ten minutes, Nurse,' he said. 'Thank you.'
Reception's computerised admission system was overloaded. Young nurses and auxiliaries were purposefully scurrying everywhere. Porters with trolleys filled the foyer.
Admissions reported agonising pains in their joints; shortly afterwards, multiple complex fractures would result as the rigidity of the bones broke down. Within a very short time, the bones turned to powder. Death through lack of skeletal support...
'God!' Rachel said, turning away from the patients.
Savagely, Rawlings snapped, 'He won't help us!' and pulled her with him to his soundproofed office.
After a reviving wash, he contacted Central Hospital: they might have more to go on. Rachel had been sick in the basin and was now recovering, wiping her drawn face. Cupping the phone, he asked, 'Feeling better?' She nodded, ashen-faced. She looked as bad as he felt.
Central reported no clues. Their report made him shudder. 'Yes, all we can do is scoop up the remains, get ready for the next lot,' he said then hung up.
At that moment Rachel's bleeper sounded. A look almost of relief passed across her face. 'I'll get down to surgery,' she said hoarsely.
'Right, love - take care.'
Alone, he scoured his memory for any military establishment experimenting with bio-chemical warfare agents. None. A derailed chemical shipment - perhaps radioactive? Another Seveso incident, a Bhopal leak? It seemed too far-fetched, though, even if isotopes did affect the bone-structure. Nothing acted that fast. Besides, there was so little radioactive stuff around these days, unlike last century when they say you didn't know where you'd trip over it.
Suddenly he went very cold. A Chinese biological attack? But the government would alert everyone, wouldn't they?
He switched on the desk-viewer.
'... nationwide reports of a mysterious debilitating disease. Health organisations are on full alert, all off-duty staff are being recalled. The Prime Minister has assured the nation that this is not - repeat, not - an enemy attack. There is no reason to panic. Cricket at...'
Disillusioned, he phoned reception. 'Nurse, this is Dr P Rawlings. Has the Principal arrived yet?'
'No, Doctor. Mr Scannura phoned in about ten minutes ago, he's trapped in a traffic-jam on his way here. He was trying to get a police helicopter to life him, the last I heard.'
'I see. Thank you. Can you get Doctor Mayfield, please? How many doctors have - only four? Oh... Yes, I'm taking over till the Principal gets here, then. Oh, and what are you telling callers? Right, keep it low-key, there's enough panic as it is... Well done.' Thank God we're not at Central.
As he waited for Paula Mayfield, he watched the latest news-flash. The truth was percolating through. The northern hemisphere, including Russia and China, had been affected. The graphics displayed a purple plume swathing from southern England across Europe and Asia. The meteor was to blame. Yet, perversely, commentators observed that there was no wholesale infection; it was strangely selective: mostly the younger people succumbed. Most of the more vulnerable elderly people were unaffected.
'You wanted to see me?' Paula's freckled face was sickly pale, in stark contrast to her flaming red hair.
'Yes.' He wiped a paper handkerchief across his weary face, dried the fear-sweat from his palms. 'Take a seat, Paula.' Face impassive, she perched on the chair's edge, as if afraid to spill fragile emotions.
'I think we'll have to go it alone, without Scannura.'
'Agreed. We must attempt something - we all feel so helpless...'
The view-screens lit up with the names of personnel who had made it to the hospital. Disconcertingly, one or two names blinked out: victims...
'A dual autopsy, then, one on a victim, another on a healthy old person, to determine the difference.'
Paula's eyes widened.
'Yes, it's probably criminal - and it could take longer than we've got... But we have no choice, have we?'
Hands tight-clenched in her lap, she lowered her eyes and nodded.
'Naturally, we'll try keeping a lid on it.' He scanned the list. 'We can trust Nurses Mosely and Lindman and Sister Summers. I daren't take any other doctor. We'll meet in Basement Theatre, seal it off, if-'
The door swung wide, no knock, no explanation.
'What is it, Nurse Lindman?' he snapped.
Lindman's Jamaican skin was almost bloodless, large attractive eyes awash.
'What is the matter, Molly? Paula asked more gently.
'It's Doctor Rawlings, Mrs Rachel-'
He felt devoid of feeling. He had seen too many grotesque corpses in too short a time to feel anything but numb. His wife was like all the others. The blood in his body pounded, which seemed strange, for he felt sure that he no longer had a heart. He felt empty. Memories of their moments of tenderness not so many hours ago kept replaying in his mind, brutally superimposed by the sight of her now. He turned away, said gruffly to Paula, 'We've got one body, then...'
But finding a live guinea-pig would prove more difficult.
To be concluded tomorrow…