Ten years have passed since the alien liberation league broke in to the Interplanetary Zoological Park and set the alien exhibits loose. Ten years since chaos was unleashed on Chicago. In the decade that has followed the I.Z.P. has stood abandoned, crumbling in to ruin, a reminder of better days.
But something has survived!
Across the city people are falling ill with a mystery sickness the likes of which has never been seen before. An indiscriminate killer, the disease appears to be fatal for anyone it afflicts. In the quest for answers, Chris Gault, once a ULF trapper and medic, now a doctor at Chicago's Hope Medical Center, will cross paths once again with Detective Superintendent Ed Lieberwits, and while the doctor searches frantically for a solution to Chicago's latest problem, the retired cop will uncover something far more disturbing − that someone does not want them to find a cure.
There are lights. Then ceiling. More lights. More ceiling. The pattern seems endless, interrupted only when the gurney rounds a corner and his head lolls to the side.
Every tiny imperfection in the floor is translated through the fishtailing wheels to his makeshift bed, rattling its metal frame and jolting his body. In his state of altered consciousness, his brain barely registers the pain.
There are figures. People dressed in blue who race alongside him.
He can hear voices. Orders barked in frantic tones. He catches fragments of their speech.
“…down in the ICU. Tell them they’re going to need visors…”
“…five units of blood…”
Somewhere a machine beeps.
More lights. More ceiling.
A head appears in his vision. Upside down. Metal rimmed spectacles behind clear, curved plastic; a green surgical mask. A gloved hand holding an intensely white light. Blinding light, shone directly in his eye. He blinks reflexively. His vision clouds red.
The upside-down head comes closer. The light switches eyes. The head follows, retreats, and then disappears above him.
“…hemorrhaging in the eyes…”
The machine beeps faster now and finds a voice. “Warning. Warning,” it says in inhuman tones. “Blood pressure falling.”
The upside-down head comes back into view. Concern now showing in the eyes. The mask convulses. “Stay with me now fella. Y’hear?”
The words mean nothing. He blinks again and a single, bloody tear rolls off his cheek.
The beeping is more insistent. An alarm sounds. The machine voice comes again, strangely detached from the urgency of the situation. “Warning. Warning. Blood pressure critical.”
His eyes swim in their sockets. Everything is blurry. Everything is red and blurry.
“…bleeding out…need that synth blood…now!”
Consciousness is fleeting. Moments remembered here and there. His eyes flick open. The world is still red. A bag of dark fluid hangs above him. He feels the cold, sticky rubber of surgical gloves on his hot skin.
“…need to get a line in this guy…”
A figure stands over him. The same metal rimmed spectacles behind curved plastic. The same surgical mask.
He feels pressure on his arm. A pinch. Something squirts upward. The figure jerks back.
“He’s thirdspaced! He’s thirdspaced!”
The figure looks up. Blood is spattered across his visor.
Everything fades to black.
The beeping stops. The machine plays monotone.
* * * * *
Lieberwits jumped awake and looked across at the link trilling in the darkness, the caller ID projected in fluorescent green alphanumeric above the base unit. He couldn’t remember the last time a link call had awakened him in the night. Such occurrences had become a thing of his past. Something he’d had to endure only as part of his job. But if he had learnt anything during those years it was that calls in the small hours of the morning never brought good news. He had no reason to believe that this one was the exception to the rule.
A lifetime of memories came rushing back. Nobody called him by that title any more. Nobody, that was, except Kimberley.
His heart sank. Despite his initial shock, the call was not entirely unexpected. “What is it, Kim?” he asked, although deep down he already knew the answer to his own question.
“I’ve…It’s…I’m sorry to disturb you so late at night, detective.” Her voice shook with emotion.
“It’s okay, Kim,” he said in calm, soothing tones. “I told you to call when there was any news.”
“It’s Ed, detective.”
Lieberwits knew Kimberley’s husband. Ed Wood was like a son to him. The two of them had worked together ten years ago when some alien liberation crazies had broken into Chicago’s Interplanetary Zoological Park (the IZP) and set a number of the exhibits loose. After the case was closed Lieberwits had retired from the force, but he and Wood had remained steadfast friends.
At Lieberwits’s recommendation, Wood had gone on to make detective and it was then that Kimberley had come into his life. Lieberwits remembered their first meeting, Ed accidentally introducing him to her as Detective Lieberwits even though he had been retired three years. Regardless, whether out of deference or respect, she had always addressed him as detective and Lieberwits did not mind. He had taken an instant liking to her. As time had gone by it had become more of a standing joke between them. Her pet name for her partner’s old friend.
When Ed and Kim were married, Lieberwits had been honored to be a part of the wedding party. Recently he had been thrilled to learn that they were trying for a family. But something had gone terribly wrong.
In the past three weeks, Wood’s health had deteriorated rapidly. At first he had complained of flu-like symptoms. A sore throat, headaches, nausea, muscle aches, chills, and night sweats. Shortly after, his entire body had broken out in a strange rash. Kim had rushed Ed to the hospital but despite their best efforts, doctors at Hope medical center had no explanation for his baffling symptoms. Within days, the rash had cleared but in the weeks that followed it was apparent to everyone that Wood’s health was failing.
When Lieberwits had last visited, just a day ago, Wood was delirious and looked close to death. He was so weak he was unable to move, his skin hanging on his bones and his breath coming in long, wheezing draws. Something had ravaged Wood’s body, destroying a perfectly healthy thirty-six year old and leaving the shell of a human being in its place.
The sight of his friend in such condition had upset and disturbed Lieberwits and he found he could not bring himself to return to the hospital. He had asked Kim to keep him updated of developments and now she was calling, rescuing him from the images that had haunted his dreams these past two nights.
“It’s…” He could hear her choking back sobs and then a moment of silence on the line. “He’s gone!” The words seemed to burst from her. “Ed’s gone, Detective!”
“Stay at the hospital Kim. I’ll be right there.” Lieberwits terminated the call and swung his legs off the side of the bed. He sat there for a while, elbows on knees, head held in his hands as he stared at his pale feet in the darkness, waiting for the full implications of their conversation to hit him.
Alone in his dark bedroom, Lieberwits sat, and he wept.
THREE WEEKS EARLIER
“He’s crazy man!”
“Calm down son, I’m sure he didn’t mean anything by it.” The beat cop tried his best to diffuse the situation.
“Didn’t mean anything by it! Are you kidding me? He attacked me!”
Detective Ed Wood pulled his cruiser to a halt and watched the altercation in front of him through the virtual windshield. The youth was clearly agitated about something, his face red and angry while his arms gesticulated wildly. The cop put on a façade of attentiveness while his body language spoke more of indifference. Wood allowed himself a small chuckle. He remembered his days as a beat cop.
He had heard the report code come through on the police network. An alleged assault in West Englewood, a district that he had patrolled as an officer. Wood had come immediately on hearing the attacker’s description. He knew these streets and the characters who wandered them and he had come believing that he could use his experience of the neighborhood to bring closure to this latest episode. Although, if he were being honest with himself, he was intrigued.
He sighed deeply, readying himself for what lay outside the relative calm of his cruiser. “Driver’s door,” he said, and on command the door popped out from the body of the black and white branded hover vehicle and pivoted upward on its forward hinge.
Wood stepped out into blistering heat. He looked back at his jacket, tossed carelessly on the passenger seat and decided against retrieving it. He shielded his eyes from the sun with a hand and looked upward as if the answer to whatever was causing the unreasonable temperature might be found simply by peering into the cloudless blue sky. Whatever he was looking for, he didn’t find it.
The hand dropped, retrieving a pair of gold-rimmed sunglasses from his breast pocket and flicking them open before putting them on. Already beads of perspiration were forming on his forehead. With confident strides he made his way towards the cop and the alleged victim.
“What appears to be the problem here, officer?”
The cop looked up from his wrist unit, a look of mild irritation on his face. “Just a minor disagreement. Nothing I can’t…” Wood palmed his holo-ID, his badge rotating a few inches above his outstretched hand. The cop’s features went slack. “I’m sorry, detective, I…”
“Minor? Minor? You call this minor?” The young man said angrily. It seemed all the cop’s good work had been undone with a loose word.
“Why don’t you tell me what happened?” Wood said.
The youth turned toward him. “I just told this guy everything,” he said, pointing to the cop.
“And I’m asking you to tell me again,” Wood said. “Think of it like a memory test.” He forced his best smile.
The young man huffed his frustration, folding his arms across his chest. “It’s like I said to him,” he jerked his head sideways toward the officer. “I was just coming down this alleyway, cutting through on my way to the skytrack terminal when he came at me.”
“Who did?” Wood asked
“Just like that. No interaction between the two of you?”
“Just like that.”
“You didn’t provoke him?”
“No! I was minding my own business when he jumped out on me.”
“What did he look like, this bum? This guy?”
“Older. Like forties or fifties maybe. Dark curly hair and a big scraggly beard with streaks of gray in both. He was wearing some long coat and a pair of pants that were full of rips and holes. Dude needs a bath, man. Seriously.”
Wood nodded thoughtfully. “What did he do to you?”
“This!” The young man turned at the waist, bringing his right arm in front of Wood. Below the short sleeve of his Tee shirt, four red and angry looking scratches crossed his bicep. Wood raised his glasses, grasping the arm with his other hand just above the elbow and rotating it slightly to better see the injury.
“What do you want to do about this?”
Wood gave him a skeptical look. “Press charges? Come on tough guy, you can’t survive a few scratches?”
“He assaulted me! God knows if he hasn’t given me some kind of infection. I don’t know what’s growing under his fingernails. The guy’s disgusting!”
“And like you said, he’s a bum. What good is going to press charges do other than give you some perverse sense of justice being done. The guy’s homeless, he’s about as low as you can get, and you want to have him thrown in jail?”
“They still have showers in there don’t they?”
Wood swept a hand through his hair, frustrated. “Come on. What do you say we just let this one go?” The young man’s silence suggested he wasn’t convinced. “All right,” Wood huffed. He looked down the alley. “Is he still down there?”
“As far as I know.”
“Why don’t I go talk to him. See if we can’t straighten this out.”
“Be my guest. If it’s all the same to you I’ll stay here.”
“That’s fine. If you want to continue giving your statement to the officer here…”
“I got it,” the cop said, meeting Wood’s gaze. “I can finish up here with him.”
Wood turned away from them and focused his attention on the alleyway. There was nothing particularly noteworthy about it, a back alley that doubled as a service road for the restaurants that lined the street in front. Large rectangular metal trash containers hugged the buildings, their green surfaces blighted with corrosion and graffiti and, here and there, smaller wheeled plastic counterparts were scattered around. Despite the amassed containers, trash lay strewn across the alley. Bottles, bags and paper clumped together in untidy piles or collecting in corners and nooks. Wood began to walk, his eyes scanning ahead.
He had a pretty good idea who the “bum” was that the young man talked about for the description given and broadcast on the network fit that of Brian Fellowes, a down-and-out that Wood had known for almost as long as he had been a cop. Wood had never had any trouble with Fellowes. Occasionally he might get a little bit drunk and out of hand, but Wood could forgive him for that. Alcohol was probably the only vice he had left. For the most part, their meetings had been as a result of people complaining of Fellowes’s begging activities or simply the fact that he was loitering outside their restaurant or place of business. Wood would be asked to move him along, to sweep away the city’s human detritus so its other citizens could go about their daily lives without having to be reminded of just how fleeting their own good fortune might be.
When he was sober, Fellowes had always been good-natured at such encounters, greeting the young officer politely and understanding the reasons for his need to move. Over the years, Wood had come to realize that Fellowes was just a victim of circumstance, a man who had slipped and fallen and now struggled to regain his footing on life’s path. Brian was no trouble, he was just perceived by others to be a nuisance, which was why this report of an attack troubled Wood so much. If it was Brian who had attacked the young man, then it was distinctly out of character, either that, or the over-aggravated teen wasn't telling the whole truth and something else was going on here.
Wood stepped carefully around the litter, his shoes crunching on loose gravel spewed out from potholes dotted along the crumbling asphalt. He moved swiftly but cautiously down the alley, his eyes searching ahead for signs of movement or danger. Wiping his brow with the back of his hand, he squinted up into the sky for a second time as if expecting to find a second sun there that might account for the oppressive heat. Meteorologists on the news and weather nets seemed to take great delight in reminding everyone on an almost hourly basis that it was turning out to be one of the hottest summers since records began. Wood could find nothing about such news delightful. The weather was going crazy, and as a result so, it seemed, were people. “It’s fried their brains,” he muttered to himself.
He picked his way forward, loosening his tie and then pinching part of his shirt between finger and thumb, flapping it against his chest to get some kind of reprieve from the heat. Already dark patches were forming under his arms. Wood felt uneasy. Nothing about this felt right.
There was a sound. A rustling consistent with something or someone digging through garbage bags. It had come from behind the trash container off to the right ahead of him.
“Brian? Brian, is that you?”
Silence. For a moment. And then the rustling came again.
“Brian?” It’s Ed. You know, Detective Wood. Used to be Officer Wood.”
Again the rustling stopped briefly before continuing. Whoever, or whatever waited for him on the other side of the rusting green hulk knew he was there.
“Listen. Brian. I was hoping we could have a little chat. Clear up a few things about what happened here today. What do you say?”
Nothing. Just the pause in activity as before. Wood raised his voice and spoke with a more authoritative tone. “It would make things a whole lot simpler if you just came out and talked to me, Brian. You know I don’t want to have to take you down to Central and process you.”
Wood paused and collected his thoughts. No cop liked a confrontation, but he had found it better to be mentally prepared for it. He reached for his holster, flicking off the retaining clip with his thumb before drawing his plasma pistol. The small, light firearm fit easily in his hand and he leveled it in front of himself, training it on the corner of the container and steadying the butt of it with the palm of his left hand.
“Brian. If that’s you, I want you to know that I’m coming around. My gun is drawn. I don’t want you to be alarmed.”
Wood began to sidestep, working his way round in a wide arc. When he got a clean line of sight on whatever awaited him he would at least have some distance and reaction time to work with if things went awry.
With each step, more of the hidden corner became visible to him. At first all he saw was just black refuse bags but then the sole of a shoe came into view, and then another, both of them twitching erratically. Gradually, an entire form was revealed to him, prone and face down atop a pile of similar sacks. The body convulsed and spasmed.
Wood looked back along the alley. The beat cop and youth both watched him from a distance, the youngster’s arms still folded across his chest, his whole body language bristling hostility. Wood switched the pistol to his left hand and indicated with exaggerated points of his right that he had found the target. The cop put a hand to his head and made a telephone with his thumb and little finger. Wood read the sign. You want me to call for backup? He quickly switched the pistol back and held up his left hand, making a flat palm. “I got it,” he whispered, although quite why he had said it out loud, or whispered, he didn’t know.
Tentatively, he moved forward. “Brian? Is that you?”
There was no response from the figure, it simply continued to quiver and twitch.
Wood closed the gap. It looked like Fellowes if clothing were anything to go by and certainly in terms of shape and size it was a close match.
“Brian? Are you all right?” He was standing by the figure’s feet now and could see that it was face down in an open bag of restaurant leftovers. He winced, partly from the unpleasant smell emanating from the bag and partly in disgust. As low as he was, Brian still had a modicum of self-respect. This wasn’t like him.
Wood holstered his pistol and crouched next to the form. “Come on Brian. This isn’t you. You’re better than this. What do you say we just leave here, sort out this little issue we have going on and then I’ll fix you up with a good meal and a cold soda, huh? You must be hot in that coat. Come on, it’ll be on me. Huh? What do you say?”
For a moment the spasms ceased before continuing. Besides that, there was nothing from the figure to suggest it had even heard him.
Wood frowned. “Okay. Do you want to tell me what’s going on here, Brian?” He moved closer to the body, reaching for it with a hand. “Brian? Are you all right, Brian?”
He touched the shoulder, giving it a gentle shake and the figure rounded on him with alarming speed. It was Fellowes all right, but in a state that Wood had never seen before.
Fellowes had always been gaunt; it was a product of street life. You ate scraps or you went hungry. But now he was emaciated, his skin seeming to hang on his face and his eyes…his eyes looked without seeing, as if there were no soul alive in the body.
Wood stumbled backwards, startled by the sudden movement and Fellowes’s appearance. He landed heavily on his rump. Before he could rise, Fellowes was on him, snarling something unintelligible and clawing at him with his hands. Wood fought to keep him off, hoping to somehow maneuver him into a position and immobilize him but Fellowes was ferocious and possessed of a strength that Wood found incomprehensible given the muscle mass he must have lost.
Somehow Wood managed to gain the upper hand, reversing their positions so that he sat astride Fellowes and had him pinned to the floor. Fellowes was on his stomach and seemed resigned to the fact that he had lost, all the fight having suddenly left him.
“What the hell’s gotten into you, Brian?” Wood managed between breaths as he grabbed one of Fellowes’s hands and placed it in the small of his back. “What the hell is going on?” He reached for the other hand and Fellowes turned his head and bit down hard on Wood’s wrist.
Wood cried out, reaching across to grab his injured arm and Fellowes literally bucked him off his back before scrambling to his feet and fleeing.
The detective cradled his arm, grunting with effort and the pain as he pushed himself backwards with his feet, watching as Fellowes escaped farther down the alley. When his back found the side of the trash container, he slumped against it, finally turning his attention to his wrist.
His right hand was clamped over the bite area but already he could see lines of red seeping between his fingers and feel the warm stickiness beneath. He lifted his trembling hand to examine the wound and found that he had been bitten so hard that two semi-circular impressions were clearly visible on his skin and almost every tooth mark could be seen. Of more concern were the four puncture wounds that corresponded to Fellowes’s canine teeth.
Wood was bleeding.
PRESENT DAY. JUNE. 2465.
Something was wrong at the hospital. He sensed it the moment he walked in. People looked pale and shaken and there was a fear in their eyes that hinted at stories they weren’t giving voice to.
Chris Gault opened his locker with a touch of the biometric thumb lock and changed quickly into his green scrubs. He heard a door slam and looked up from tying his waistband. Twelve lockers down from him an orderly was just packing up. “Hey Jacob,” he nodded in greeting. “What’s up? Rough night?”
Jacob rubbed his eyes with a thumb and forefinger, pinching them together on the bridge of his nose. “Rough’s not the word for it,” he said, shaking his head. “This whole place is going crazy.”
“Why? What’s up?”
“You haven’t heard?”
“Haven’t heard what? What’s going on? Everyone’s walking around here like they’ve just been told it’s the end of the world or something.”
“No. Seriously. They haven’t told you?”
“Told me what? What are you talking about?”
“Oh man.” Jacob shook his head. “Look man, it’s not for me to say, I don’t know all the facts, but there was some weird, freaky stuff happened here last night and suffice to say it’s got plenty of people spooked. Let’s just say I’m glad to be getting out of here.” Jacob threw his small duffel bag over his shoulder. “Like I said, I don’t know much about it, but I’m sure you’ll have a report. I’ll see you around.”
* * * * *
Chris exited the elevator and turned down the long white corridor, a half eaten muffin in one hand and his required morning cup of coffee in the other.
He stopped and submitted himself to a retinal scan from a panel on the wall before backing in to and elbowing his way through double doors upon which the words “Epidemiology – No Unauthorized Access” were embossed. Upon reaching his office, he stopped again, holding what remained of the muffin in his teeth while he unlocked the door with another thumb touch.
He stepped inside and took the muffin from his mouth, enjoying another bite as he did so. For a synth muffin, it wasn’t half bad, a fact he attributed to the staff canteen’s purchase of two of the very latest replicators. Give it a couple of years and their sub-routines would start getting a little buggy from the constant use and then most of what they produced would get that synth after-taste. Still, he’d enjoy it while it lasted.
What Jacob had said was unsettling. In the short walk to his office, a thousand thoughts had raced around his head. What could have happened that had got staff at Chicago’s Hope Medical Center so scared? Why the hell did Jacob think it had anything to do with him? Not knowing left him with a myriad of possibilities. His musings had ranged from the downright bizarre to the terrifying.
He put the coffee down on his desk interface. “This is Doctor Chris Gault logging in.”
“Good morning, Doctor Gault,” a soothing, neutral voice filled the room. “What may I assist you with this morning?”
“Are there any messages or reports awaiting my attention?”
“Seven. Would you like me to rank them in order of urgency.”
“Ranked. How would you like to view them?”
Chris was still standing, his growing sense of unease making him edgy and tense.
“Go virtual screen with them.”
A beam of energy projected from the desk and ionized air particles into a hovering virtual screen on which the first file was displayed. Chris walked around the desk, the screen rotating to follow his movement. His eyes scanned the document, identifying the pertinent information. White male. Thirty-six years old. Admission date. Presenting symptoms. Diagnosis: Unknown.
He read more. Patient’s condition slowly deteriorated despite treatment with a catalogue of drugs. Time of death: 3:41 AM. June 19th, 2465.
That was last night.
More notes followed. Chris’s eyes raced across them. Patient had hemorrhaging from body orifices. Ultimate cause of death was cardiac arrest from massive blood loss although the real cause of disease was still unknown. His eyes stopped on the last line of notes. “Patient crashed and bled out.”
Chris felt his blood run cold. The last piece of muffin fell from his hand.
* * * * *
Valerie Bowden put the slide back on the counter. Carefully, she selected another, picking it up and placing it in the vertical beam of ultraviolet light before her. She shook her head, wrinkles furrowing her brow. “Strange,” she muttered. That was the last slide. Everything had come up negative.
“Lights,” she commanded, and the purple-bluish glow of the UV lamp in the dark room was replaced by brilliant white. She squinted against its sudden brightness.
The room was revealed to her again now. A room filled with a myriad assortment of equipment. Burners and centrifuges, petri dishes and test tubes, pipettes and vacuum hoods and flasks of all different sizes, some spherical, some conical. Between the basins and racks were occasional workstations and at each station two large receptacles could be found, one, a jar, containing lysol – powerful disinfectant; and the other, a yellow plastic cube marked with a red design.
It caught Valerie’s eye now. Exactly why she couldn’t say. Maybe because it was one of only a few red things in the room. Maybe it was just because she happened to be looking that way when the lights came up. Or maybe it was because what it signified was now forefront in her mind.
She had never really paid it much attention before, even though she had been around it and seen it for most of her adult life. Now as she looked at it, it seemed to take on a certain beauty. Three incomplete rings, like giant petals, and at its center, a collection of thorns. A deadly plant in the throes of blooming.
Someone had stuck some tape to the top of the box and in thick black marker the word “Sharps” was visible in handwritten scrawl. Stamped neatly underneath the emblem, in matching red, was the word BIOHAZARD.
This was Chicago’s public health laboratory, and this was where Valerie felt at home.
* * * * *
Words were racing through his head now. They came to him in a torrent, cascading through his mind. Words that he had not heard or uttered since his training at medical school but which he had always kept in the back of his consciousness.
He remembered the 3D holos that his lecturers had shown him. Holos that had so appalled him and his fellow students that some had left the room retching. It was hard to forget words like that. Names of scourges of mankind, some long since eradicated from Earth, some, recent discoveries. Now he was ticking off the possibilities, trying to identify whatever they had at Hope as anything that could account for the horrific symptoms of their deceased male. Smallpox. Yellow Fever. A viral hemorrhagic fever like Ebola or Lassa or Marburg, or even worse, Quinn’s disease. God forbid they had any one of them at the hospital. An infectious agent with upward of an eighty percent lethality rate among healthy subjects, let alone the largest concentration of immunocompromised individuals in Chicago. Something like that would just burn through the hospital unchecked. It would be akin to a slaughter.
Still, the hospital had at least done something right. All of the surgeons and hospital staff who had come in to contact with patient zero, as he was now being labeled, were being quarantined in an isolated part of Hope’s sprawling campus. It was suspected that the blood and body fluids patient zero had lost were “radiantly hot,” loaded with almost incomprehensible levels of infectious agent that could easily be transmitted to those in close contact with him. Secondly, the victim’s body had been double bagged and placed in the deep freeze in the hospital morgue which was probably, at this point, the best thing they could do to try and prevent secondary cases. If what Chris was envisioning was true, the infectious agent would turn the body into a liquefied mass held together by a bag of skin in just a few hours. Even with the measures put in place, the best they might hope for was a human popsicle.
Chris sat at his desk and began to type on his interface. He couldn’t help but notice that his hands were shaking. If this was as serious as he thought, it was hard to know where to start. “Small steps. Small steps,” he said quietly to reassure himself. How could this have happened? Bioterrorism? Figuring out what it wasn’t was just as important as finding out what it was.
He pulled up a new graphic, accessing the city’s BIOWATCH grid. A colored schematic showed on the floating screen.
BIOWATCH was an array of sensors situated around the city that monitored the air quality, looking specifically for pathogens. Today it was mostly green. Here and there were dots of yellow and he touched at them with a finger, bringing new details to the screen. His eyes scanned quickly. Some elevated levels of Mycobacterium species carried in the air, but only just above baseline levels and certainly nothing he need worry about. Nothing, at least, that could cause the symptoms and disease that the hospital had been witness to. He let out a sigh. Whatever it was, it certainly wasn’t in the air around Chicago. If it had been he would have expected to see multiple nodes in alarm.
His nerves calmed a little, Chris pulled up another page on his virtual screen and logged in to the SIRIuS system. SIRIuS was the Syndrome Identification and Reporting Information System. A global system of reporting and identifying trends in infectious disease. It had proved invaluable in locating the epicenter of the 2392 H5N1 influenza pandemic and bringing that episode to a quicker and more satisfactory end. Now, Chris hoped, it would shed some light on whatever had blighted Chicago.
In a matter of minutes, Chris had entered all the necessary details. The screen blanked and when it returned, it showed a map of Chicago, an ominous red marker situated directly over the Hope Medical Center. Chris frowned at the map, then reduced the scale with a pinch of his fingers. Now the entire eastern half of the United States was visible, but still only the one red marker was shown. He shrunk the map again to show all of the United States and Canada. Still just the one marker. Finally, he adjusted the scale so that the whole world was visible. Only one spot marked the screen.
Whatever it was, it looked like Chris had the index case.
It became a long day. Chris had gone about his rounds as usual, but today he had been detached from his patients, distracted by the news of the previous night’s events and worried by the conclusions his thoughts brought him to. There was a tension at the hospital that hung heavy in the air, and whether he imagined it or not, Chris was sure he saw fear in the eyes of the staff that he passed in the halls and conversed with on the wards. Now, as he sat in his office writing up his notes and reports, those thoughts came back to haunt him again.
He leant forward and reached for his com link, allowing his forefinger to play over one of the speed dial buttons. He tapped his finger against the ion display, deep in thought, while he gnawed on the nails of his other hand. Three letters stared back at him from the display. CDC. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention. A call to them would set a whole chain of events in motion. He wondered if he should do it.
Was he over reacting? After all, a series of nurses, doctors, and at the very end, surgeons, had seen the patient and not one of them had called. At least not to the best of his knowledge. To surmise, the hospital had one patient, dead from an unidentified illness, and despite his misgivings as to what the cause of that illness might be, that was all they had. Was he really so sure of himself that he was prepared to single-handedly embark on a course of action that would result in a team of experts from Atlanta descending on Chicago in full hazmat suits? Their presence would not go unnoticed, he was sure of that. And once the media got a whiff of it then it would be headline news. His one call to the CDC could spark mass hysteria at the hospital. Probably Chicago as well. Maybe even nationwide.
What about his superiors? They would be none too happy to find representatives from the CDC beating a path to their door without at least some notification. He should at least speak to them first but then again, maybe they were the ones behind the hospital’s current wall of silence. Hope’s board of managers would not want to admit they had a deadly pathogen on their premises without concrete evidence. Maybe they thought this was something they could contain and take care of themselves.
As he wrestled with his thoughts, Chris wondered how many others at the hospital were doing the same; sitting in their offices, terrified they had something lethal in their midst but also afraid of the possibility of sounding a false alarm and creating an unnecessary panic.
He tapped his finger once more against the com link, then slowly withdrew his hand. Maybe he was being premature. Maybe this needed an old fashioned approach. He had one victim. A Mister….he looked at the file again…Wood. He needed to think about the epidemiology of this thing. He needed to start identifying risk factors. What was it about Wood that made him a susceptible victim? What combination of conditions resulted in his disease? Behaviors. Environment. All these things came into play.
Chris scanned Wood’s file again. He had been married, which meant he had left a widow and, as uncomfortable as it might be, Chris was going to have to interview her.
* * * * *
Valerie didn’t like being beaten. A senior technician at the public health lab, there wasn’t much she hadn’t seen in her twenty-three years of service here.
Samples came in from the city morgue all the time. It was a common occurrence, part of Chicago’s ongoing public health program to monitor disease in the community. A “first alert” system to identify possible outbreaks in the city and set wheels in motion to begin aggressive treatment and or vaccination programs.
Usually they came together, batches of up to a dozen depending on the day’s death toll. Eppendorf tubes, packed in dry ice and brought by hover vehicle in a small insulated box sealed with yellow biohazard tape. What Val didn’t and couldn’t have known was that this sample had come alone and had been brought by courier.
She didn’t understand it. She had thrown a battery of serological tests at the sample and everything had come up negative. When the first round of ELISA tests yielded nothing, she had decided to try a new approach, immunoflourescence – antibodies to known diseases attached to small fluorescent molecules that would glow under UV light. If an infectious agent was in the sample, the antibody would bind to it and the slide would glow under the lamp.
Nothing had glowed. Nothing had stuck.
Could it be that the sample really didn’t contain anything infectious? She doubted it. Over the years the people over at the morgue had become skilled at identifying death from infection as opposed to death from natural causes. A protocol was in place to interview friends and family of the deceased and to ask pertinent questions as to the state of the person’s health prior to death. She could count on one hand the number of dud samples the morgue had sent her. No. There was something in here. She was sure of it.
She picked up the Eppendorf tube to look at the small handwritten label on it. She knew little about the victim, only that which had been supplied on a data crystal. He was a hobo. A vagrant with no known friends or family. It was almost a waste of a data crystal. They could have sent her a hand written note.
She sighed, readying herself to set up all her tests again, just to be doubly sure. But tomorrow, she decided, she would head down to the morgue. Sometimes it wasn’t enough to look microscopically. An examination of the body might provide her with clues as to what she was missing.
Tomorrow she would go to view the body of Brian Fellowes.
* * * * *
“Hey! I’m home!” Chris yelled as he entered the door to their small apartment.
“Oh hey!” Jenny Gault had just enough time to look up from the sofa to see Chris dive into the small bathroom off the hallway. “You all right?” She asked after him. All she got in reply was the sound of running water.
Chris held his hand under the dispenser and watched as a gob of blue soap dropped into his hand. He had washed thoroughly before leaving the hospital but he was leaving nothing to chance. Quickly he lathered the soap up into bubbles, making sure his hands were well coated before applying it to his forearms and scratching at them vigorously.
“You okay?” Jenny appeared at the door.
“Wha…? Oh Jeez, you made me jump.”
“I said, are you okay? You seem…I don’t know.”
“Yeah. No. I’m fine. I’m fine. Honestly.”
Jenny looked around the small bathroom. “Did you leave your stuff at work?”
“What?” Chris looked around at the floor. His pack was notably absent. “Yeah, I guess I must have forgotten it,” he lied through a nervous smile.
“Does that mean you’re actually going to take a night off? I’m actually going to get to spend some time with my husband?” She smirked at her own sarcasm.
“Yeah. Listen, I might take a shower if that’s okay.”
Jenny raised her eyebrows and threw her hands up in mock exasperation. “All right,” she sighed before her head disappeared around the doorframe. “I made you dinner though,” she called from the hallway. “You might want to come and eat first.”
Chris toweled his hands dry and then immediately threw the towel in the bathroom’s small laundry basket. He stepped into the hallway and walked its length to the apartment’s small living area. Jenny was already sitting down again, folding one leg under her as she retook her seat on the sofa. She paid him little attention, her eyes already focused on the room’s wallscreen, her dinner in a bowl in her hand.
“Yours is over there,” she said, poking a fork over her shoulder but never taking her eyes from the wall.
“How was your day?” he asked.
“Pretty good,” she mumbled through her first mouthful of food. “I’ve got some really interested students this semester. Real bright kids. The kind of students that make me remember why I went into teaching.”
Chris snorted. “You went into teaching for the same reason I went into medicine. We lost our jobs, remember?”
She scowled at him. “Don’t say it like that. It was a forced career move and neither of us have done badly out of it.”
Looking at her curled up on the sofa, Chris had to admit she was right. Jenny was now a professor at Chicago University, lecturing in Xenobiology. She enjoyed a high salary and a light teaching schedule that most days allowed her to be home by three in the afternoon. No longer did either of them have to endure the disruption of interstellar travel or face the inherent dangers of being ULF trappers and medics. It had been like this for ten years now. Ten years since they had shut down the Interplanetary Zoological Park and left its employees to fend for themselves.
Unlike her, Chris had stayed in medicine. It was what he had trained for before his tenure at the IZP and what he enjoyed. At least, that was, until today. The IZP had allowed him to hone and use his skills in extreme environments and from those life and death situations Chris had made lifelong friends. Like Jenny. She, like him, had been a medic first and trapper second and their similar backgrounds, interests and experiences at the IZP quickly brought them closer together. After the closure of the zoo they had remained good friends and soon that had become a more serious relationship. It came as no surprise to any of their friends when they announced their engagement. Now they had been married six years.
“Whatchya watching?” He asked her.
“Ah. Nothing much. There’s nothing on.”
He blew out a deep breath and ran a hand through his hair. Jenny turned off the wallscreen with a command and turned to look at him. “What is it Chris? What’s bothering you? You standing over me like that is making me nervous.”
He scratched at the back of his neck, head bowed as he thought. “Something happened at the hospital today Jenny. Well, no, actually it was last night.”
“And that something would be?”
“Some guy died, but it wasn’t normal. He crashed and bled out and I can’t come to any kind of reasonable conclusion as to why that would happen.”
“You’re sure it’s not a zoonotic disease?” she asked. “Every serious disease we’ve encountered in the last five hundred years has been a zoonoses.”
“Yeah. Well, I keep thinking about that but then I can’t figure out where he would have picked it up. I’m going to see his wife tomorrow. Ask her a few questions.”
Jenny nodded. “All I know is that every time we go into uncharted territory we expose ourselves to new types of infection from new sources and most of the time those sources are animals. You only have to look at Canutama virus. Cutting down swathes of Amazon rain forest blessed us with that.”
“But this guy was a city cop. Where in the hell could he have got this thing from?”
“Who knows? Maybe he traveled recently. Ask his wife.”
Chris nodded. “I’m going to, but it still makes no sense. If that were true, I’d at least expect to see other reported incidences somewhere. I put the details into SIRIuS. This guy is the only case.”
“In Chicago, maybe.”
“No Jenny, that’s just it. This guy is the only case in the whole world.”
She shrugged, not having an answer for him, then turned the wallscreen back on and sank back into the sofa. “I’m just saying. That’s all.”
Review by: Angela Schuch, SciFi Chick
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