Pandemic

by Jesse F. Bone

Public Domain

Science Fiction Story: Generally, human beings don't do totally useless things consistently and widely. So--maybe there is something to it.

Tags: Science Fiction   Novel-Classic  

“We call it Thurston’s Disease for two perfectly good reasons,” Dr. Walter Kramer said. “He discovered it--and he was the first to die of it.” The doctor fumbled fruitlessly through the pockets of his lab coat. “Now where the devil did I put those matches?”

“Are these what you’re looking for?” the trim blonde in the gray seersucker uniform asked. She picked a small box of wooden safety matches from the littered lab table beside her and handed them to him.

“Ah,” Kramer said. “Thanks. Things have a habit of getting lost around here.”

“I can believe that,” she said as she eyed the frenzied disorder around her. Her boss wasn’t much better than his laboratory, she decided as she watched him strike a match against the side of the box and apply the flame to the charred bowl of his pipe. His long dark face became half obscured behind a cloud of bluish smoke as he puffed furiously. He looked like a lean untidy devil recently escaped from hell with his thick brows, green eyes and lank black hair highlighted intermittently by the leaping flame of the match. He certainly didn’t look like a pathologist. She wondered if she was going to like working with him, and shook her head imperceptibly. Possibly, but not probably. It might be difficult being cooped up here with him day after day. Well, she could always quit if things got too tough. At least there was that consolation.

He draped his lean body across a lab stool and leaned his elbows on its back. There was a faint smile on his face as he eyed her quizzically. “You’re new,” he said. “Not just to this lab but to the Institute.”

[Illustration: ILLUSTRATED BY BARBERIS]

She nodded. “I am, but how did you know?”

“Thurston’s Disease. Everyone in the Institute knows that name for the plague, but few outsiders do.” He smiled sardonically. “Virus pneumonic plague--that’s a better term for public use. After all, what good does it do to advertise a doctor’s stupidity?”

She eyed him curiously. “De mortuis?“ she asked.

He nodded. “That’s about it. We may condemn our own, but we don’t like laymen doing it. And besides, Thurston had good intentions. He never dreamed this would happen.”

“The road to hell, so I hear, is paved with good intentions.”

“Undoubtedly,” Kramer said dryly. “Incidentally, did you apply for this job or were you assigned?”

“I applied.”

“Someone should have warned you I dislike clichés,” he said. He paused a moment and eyed her curiously. “Just why did you apply?” he asked. “Why are you imprisoning yourself in a sealed laboratory which you won’t leave as long as you work here. You know, of course, what the conditions are. Unless you resign or are carried out feet first you will remain here ... have you considered what such an imprisonment means?”

“I considered it,” she said, “and it doesn’t make any difference. I have no ties outside and I thought I could help. I’ve had training. I was a nurse before I was married.”

“Divorced?”

“Widowed.”

Kramer nodded. There were plenty of widows and widowers outside. Too many. But it wasn’t much worse than in the Institute where, despite precautions, Thurston’s disease took its toll of life.

“Did they tell you this place is called the suicide section?” he asked.

She nodded.

“Weren’t you frightened?”

“Of dying? Hardly. Too many people are doing it nowadays.”

He grimaced, looking more satanic than ever. “You have a point,” he admitted, “but it isn’t a good one. Young people should be afraid of dying.”

“You’re not.”

“I’m not young. I’m thirty-five, and besides, this is my business. I’ve been looking at death for eleven years. I’m immune.”

“I haven’t your experience,” she admitted, “but I have your attitude.”

“What’s your name?” Kramer said.

“Barton, Mary Barton.”

“Hm-m-m. Well, Mary--I can’t turn you down. I need you. But I could wish you had taken some other job.”

“I’ll survive.”

He looked at her with faint admiration in his greenish eyes. “Perhaps you will,” he said. “All right. As to your duties--you will be my assistant, which means you’ll be a dishwasher, laboratory technician, secretary, junior pathologist, and coffee maker. I’ll help you with all the jobs except the last one. I make lousy coffee.” Kramer grinned, his teeth a white flash across the darkness of his face. “You’ll be on call twenty-four hours a day, underpaid, overworked, and in constant danger until we lick Thurston’s virus. You’ll be expected to handle the jobs of three people unless I can get more help--and I doubt that I can. People stay away from here in droves. There’s no future in it.”

Mary smiled wryly. “Literally or figuratively?” she asked.

He chuckled. “You have a nice sense of graveyard humor,” he said. “It’ll help. But don’t get careless. Assistants are hard to find.”

She shook her head. “I won’t. While I’m not afraid of dying I don’t want to do it. And I have no illusions about the danger. I was briefed quite thoroughly.”

“They wanted you to work upstairs?”

She nodded.


“I suppose they need help, too. Thurston’s Disease has riddled the medical profession. Just don’t forget that this place can be a death trap. One mistake and you’ve had it. Naturally, we take every precaution, but with a virus no protection is absolute. If you’re careless and make errors in procedure, sooner or later one of those submicroscopic protein molecules will get into your system.”

“You’re still alive.”

“So I am,” Kramer said, “but I don’t take chances. My predecessor, my secretary, my lab technician, my junior pathologist, and my dishwasher all died of Thurston’s Disease.” He eyed her grimly. “Still want the job?” he asked.

“I lost a husband and a three-year old son,” Mary said with equal grimness. “That’s why I’m here. I want to destroy the thing that killed my family. I want to do something. I want to be useful.”

He nodded. “I think you can be,” he said quietly.

“Mind if I smoke?” she asked. “I need some defense against that pipe of yours.”

“No--go ahead. Out here it’s all right, but not in the security section.”

Mary took a package of cigarettes from her pocket, lit one and blew a cloud of gray smoke to mingle with the blue haze from Kramer’s pipe.

“Comfortable?” Kramer asked.

She nodded.

He looked at his wrist watch. “We have half an hour before the roll tube cultures are ready for examination. That should be enough to tell you about the modern Pasteur and his mutant virus. Since your duties will primarily involve Thurston’s Disease, you’d better know something about it.” He settled himself more comfortably across the lab bench and went on talking in a dry schoolmasterish voice. “Alan Thurston was an immunologist at Midwestern University Medical School. Like most men in the teaching trade, he also had a research project. If it worked out, he’d be one of the great names in medicine; like Jenner, Pasteur, and Salk. The result was that he pushed it and wasn’t too careful. He wanted to be famous.”

“He’s well known now,” Mary said, “at least within the profession.”

“Quite,” Kramer said dryly. “He was working with gamma radiations on microorganisms, trying to produce a mutated strain of _Micrococcus pyogenes_ that would have enhanced antigenic properties.”

“Wait a minute, doctor. It’s been four years since I was active in nursing. Translation, please.”

Kramer chuckled. “He was trying to make a vaccine out of a common infectious organism. You may know it better as Staphylococcus. As you know, it’s a pus former that’s made hospital life more dangerous than it should be because it develops resistance to antibiotics. What Thurston wanted to do was to produce a strain that would stimulate resistance in the patient without causing disease--something that would help patients protect themselves rather than rely upon doubtfully effective antibiotics.”

“That wasn’t a bad idea.”

“There was nothing wrong with it. The only trouble was that he wound up with something else entirely. He was like the man who wanted to make a plastic suitable for children’s toys and ended up with a new explosive. You see, what Thurston didn’t realize was that his cultures were contaminated. He’d secured them from the University Clinic and had, so he thought, isolated them. But somehow he’d brought a virus along--probably one of the orphan group or possibly a phage.”

“Orphan?”

“Yes--one that was not a normal inhabitant of human tissues. At any rate there was a virus--and he mutated it rather than the bacteria. Actually, it was simple enough, relatively speaking, since a virus is infinitely simpler in structure than a bacterium, and hence much easier to modify with ionizing radiation. So he didn’t produce an antigen--he produced a disease instead. Naturally, he contracted it, and during the period between his infection and death he managed to infect the entire hospital. Before anyone realized what they were dealing with, the disease jumped from the hospital to the college, and from the college to the city, and from the city to--”

“Yes, I know that part of it. It’s all over the world now--killing people by the millions.”


“Well,” Kramer said, “at least it’s solved the population explosion.” He blew a cloud of blue smoke in Mary’s direction. “And it did make Thurston famous. His name won’t be quickly forgotten.”

She coughed. “I doubt if it ever will be,” she said, “but it won’t be remembered the way he intended.”

He looked at her suspiciously. “That cough--”

“No, it’s not Thurston’s Disease. It’s that pipe. It’s rancid.”

“It helps me think,” Kramer said.

“You could try cigarettes--or candy,” she suggested.

“I’d rather smoke a pipe.”

“There’s cancer of the lip and tongue,” she said helpfully.

“Don’t quote Ochsner. I don’t agree with him. And besides, you smoke cigarettes, which are infinitely worse.”

“Only four or five a day. I don’t saturate my system with nicotine.”

“In another generation,” Kramer observed, “you’d have run through the streets of the city brandishing an ax smashing saloons. You’re a lineal descendent of Carrie Nation.” He puffed quietly until his head was surrounded by a nimbus of smoke. “Stop trying to reform me,” he added. “You haven’t been here long enough.”

“Not even God could do that, according to the reports I’ve heard,” she said.

He laughed. “I suppose my reputation gets around.”

“It does. You’re an opinionated slave driver, a bully, an intellectual tyrant, and the best pathologist in this center.”

“The last part of that sentence makes up for unflattering honesty of the first,” Kramer said. “At any rate, once we realized the situation we went to work to correct it. Institutes like this were established everywhere the disease appeared for the sole purpose of examining, treating, and experimenting with the hope of finding a cure. This section exists for the evaluation of treatment. We check the human cases, and the primates in the experimental laboratories. It is our duty to find out if anything the boys upstairs try shows any promise. We were a pretty big section once, but Thurston’s virus has whittled us down. Right now there is just you and me. But there’s still enough work to keep us busy. The experiments are still going on, and there are still human cases, even though the virus has killed off most of the susceptibles. We’ve evaluated over a thousand different drugs and treatments in this Institute alone.”

“And none of them have worked?”

“No--but that doesn’t mean the work’s been useless. The research has saved others thousands of man hours chasing false leads. In this business negative results are almost as important as positive ones. We may never discover the solution, but our work will keep others from making the same mistakes.”

“I never thought of it that way.”

“People seldom do. But if you realize that this is international, that every worker on Thurston’s Disease has a niche to fill, the picture will be clearer. We’re doing our part inside the plan. Others are, too. And there are thousands of labs involved. Somewhere, someone will find the answer. It probably won’t be us, but we’ll help get the problem solved as quickly as possible. That’s the important thing. It’s the biggest challenge the race has ever faced--and the most important. It’s a question of survival.” Kramer’s voice was sober. “We have to solve this. If Thurston’s Disease isn’t checked, the human race will become extinct. As a result, for the first time in history all mankind is working together.”

“All? You mean the Communists are, too?”

“Of course. What’s an ideology if there are no people to follow it?” Kramer knocked the ashes out of his pipe, looked at the laboratory clock and shrugged. “Ten minutes more,” he said, “and these tubes will be ready. Keep an eye on that clock and let me know. Meantime you can straighten up this lab and find out where things are. I’ll be in the office checking the progress reports.” He turned abruptly away, leaving her standing in the middle of the cluttered laboratory.

“Now what am I supposed to do here?” Mary wondered aloud. “Clean up, he says. Find out where things are, he says. Get acquainted with the place, he says. I could spend a month doing that.” She looked at the littered bench, the wall cabinets with sliding doors half open, the jars of reagents sitting on the sink, the drainboard, on top of the refrigerator and on the floor. The disorder was appalling. “How he ever manages to work in here is beyond me. I suppose that I’d better start somewhere--perhaps I can get these bottles in some sort of order first.” She sighed and moved toward the wall cabinets. “Oh well,” she mused, “I asked for this.”


“Didn’t you hear that buzzer?” Kramer asked.

“Was that for me?” Mary said, looking up from a pile of bottles and glassware she was sorting.

“Partly. It means they’ve sent us another post-mortem from upstairs.”

“What is it?”

“I don’t know--man or monkey, it makes no difference. Whatever it is, it’s Thurston’s Disease. Come along. You might as well see what goes on in our ultra modern necropsy suite.”

“I’d like to.” She put down the bottle she was holding and followed him to a green door at the rear of the laboratory.

“Inside,” Kramer said, “you will find a small anteroom, a shower, and a dressing room. Strip, shower, and put on a clean set of lab coveralls and slippers which you will find in the dressing room. You’ll find surgical masks in the wall cabinet beside the lockers. Go through the door beyond the dressing room and wait for me there. I’ll give you ten minutes.”


“We do this both ways,” Kramer said as he joined her in the narrow hall beyond the dressing room. “We’ll reverse the process going out.”

“You certainly carry security to a maximum,” she said through the mask that covered the lower part of her face.

“You haven’t seen anything yet,” he said as he opened a door in the hall. “Note the positive air pressure,” he said. “Theoretically nothing can get in here except what we bring with us. And we try not to bring anything.” He stood aside to show her the glassed-in cubicle overhanging a bare room dominated by a polished steel post-mortem table that glittered in the harsh fluorescent lighting. Above the table a number of jointed rods and clamps hung from the ceiling. A low metal door and series of racks containing instruments and glassware were set into the opposite wall together with the gaping circular orifice of an open autoclave.

“We work by remote control, just like they do at the AEC. See those handlers?” He pointed to the control console set into a small stainless steel table standing beside the sheet of glass at the far end of the cubicle. “They’re connected to those gadgets up there.” He indicated the jointed arms hanging over the autopsy table in the room beyond. “I could perform a major operation from here and never touch the patient. Using these I can do anything I could in person with the difference that there’s a quarter inch of glass between me and my work. I have controls that let me use magnifiers, and even do microdissection, if necessary.”

“Where’s the cadaver?” Mary asked.

“Across the room, behind that door,” he said, waving at the low, sliding metal partition behind the table. “It’s been prepped, decontaminated and ready to go.”

“What happens when you’re through?”

“Watch.” Dr. Kramer pressed a button on the console in front of him. A section of flooring slid aside and the table tipped. “The cadaver slides off that table and through that hole. Down below is a highly efficient crematorium.”

Mary shivered. “Neat and effective,” she said shakily.

“After that the whole room is sprayed with germicide and sterilized with live steam. The instruments go into the autoclave, and thirty minutes later we’re ready for another post-mortem.”

“We use the handlers to put specimens into those jars,” he said, pointing to a row of capped glass jars of assorted sizes on a wall rack behind the table. “After they’re capped, the jars go onto that carrier beside the table. From here they pass through a decontamination chamber and into the remote-control laboratory across the hall where we can run biochemical and histological techniques. Finished slides and mounted specimens then go through another decontamination process to the outside lab. Theoretically, this place is proof against anything.”

“It seems to be,” Mary said, obviously impressed. “I’ve never seen anything so elegant.”

“Neither did I until Thurston’s Disease became a problem.” Kramer shrugged and sat down behind the controls. “Watch, now,” he said as he pressed a button. “Let’s see what’s on deck--man or monkey. Want to make a bet? I’ll give you two to one it’s a monkey.”

She shook her head.


The low door slid aside and a steel carriage emerged into the necropsy room bearing the nude body of a man. The corpse gleamed pallidly under the harsh shadowless glare of the fluorescents in the ceiling as Kramer, using the handlers, rolled it onto the post-mortem table and clamped it in place on its back. He pushed another button and the carriage moved back into the wall and the steel door slid shut. “That’ll be decontaminated,” he said, “and sent back upstairs for another body. I’d have lost,” he remarked idly. “Lately the posts have been running three to one in favor of monkeys.”

[Illustration]

He moved a handler and picked up a heavy scalpel from the instrument rack. “There’s a certain advantage to this,” he said as he moved the handler delicately. “These gadgets give a tremendous mechanical advantage. I can cut right through small bones and cartilage without using a saw.”

“How nice,” Mary said. “I expect you enjoy yourself.”

“I couldn’t ask for better equipment,” he replied noncommittally. With deft motion of the handler he drew the scalpel down across the chest and along the costal margins in the classic inverted “Y” incision. “We’ll take a look at the thorax first,” he said, as he used the handlers to pry open the rib cage and expose the thoracic viscera. “Ah! Thought so! See that?” He pointed with a small handler that carried a probe. “Look at those lungs.” He swung a viewer into place so Mary could see better. “Look at those abscesses and necrosis. It’s Thurston’s Disease, all right, with secondary bacterial invasion.”

The grayish solidified masses of tissue looked nothing like the normal pink appearance of healthy lungs. Studded with yellowish spherical abscesses they lay swollen and engorged within the gaping cavity of the chest.

“You know the pathogenesis of Thurston’s Disease?” Kramer asked.

Mary shook her head, her face yellowish-white in the glare of the fluorescents.

“It begins with a bronchial cough,” Kramer said. “The virus attacks the bronchioles first, destroys them, and passes into the deeper tissues of the lungs. As with most virus diseases there is a transitory leukopenia--a drop in the total number of white blood cells--and a rise in temperature of about two or three degrees. As the virus attacks the alveolar structures, the temperature rises and the white blood cell count becomes elevated. The lungs become inflamed and painful. There is a considerable quantity of lymphoid exudate and pleural effusion. Secondary invaders and pus-forming bacteria follow the viral destruction of the lung tissue and form abscesses. Breathing becomes progressively more difficult as more lung tissue is destroyed. Hepatization and necrosis inactivate more lung tissue as the bacteria get in their dirty work, and finally the patient suffocates.”

“But what if the bacteria are controlled by antibiotics?”

“Then the virus does the job. It produces atelectasis followed by progressive necrosis of lung tissue with gradual liquefaction of the parenchyma. It’s slower, but just as fatal. This fellow was lucky. He apparently stayed out of here until he was almost dead. Probably he’s had the disease for about a week. If he’d have come in early, we could have kept him alive for maybe a month. The end, however, would have been the same.”

“It’s a terrible thing,” Mary said faintly.

“You’ll get used to it. We get one or two every day.” He shrugged. “There’s nothing here that’s interesting,” he said as he released the clamps and tilted the table. For what seemed to Mary an interminable time, the cadaver clung to the polished steel. Then abruptly it slid off the shining surface and disappeared through the square hole in the floor. “We’ll clean up now,” Kramer said as he placed the instruments in the autoclave, closed the door and locked it, and pressed three buttons on the console.

From jets embedded in the walls a fine spray filled the room with fog.

“Germicide,” Kramer said. “Later there’ll be steam. That’s all for now. Do you want to go?”

Mary nodded.

“If you feel a little rocky there’s a bottle of Scotch in my desk. I’ll split a drink with you when we get out of here.”

“Thanks,” Mary said. “I think I could use one.”


“Barton! Where is the MacNeal stain!” Kramer’s voice came from the lab. “I left it on the sink and it’s gone!”

“It’s with the other blood stains and reagents. Second drawer from the right in the big cabinet. There’s a label on the drawer,” Mary called from the office. “If you can wait until I finish filing these papers, I’ll come in and help you.”

“I wish you would,” Kramer’s voice was faintly exasperated. “Ever since you’ve organized my lab I can’t find anything.”

“You just have a disorderly mind,” Mary said, as she slipped the last paper into its proper folder and closed the file. “I’ll be with you in a minute.”

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