Three Days During the Contagion, by Leigh Ward-Smith
I never would’ve expected to end up puddled here like this, my innards turning to a slurry of candy cane–striped turkey. My chemical bonds rapidly losing integrity, I can feel it. Hydrophilic atoms shunning their tendencies, unlassoing themselves.
Janking into the streaming news service—once a river, now more like a brook—I get a few slivers of reality outside my own domicilic bubble. The neural network tells me that others with more science background than I are attempting “last-ditch surveillance and containment efforts in an acute clinical situation.” Luckily, my brains are still intact enough to boil that down for the layperson: Severe shitstorm is what they really mean.
Citizen reporters are also blaming everything from rogue microbes carried aboard the Mars-returned lander, Sagan XII, five months ago to synthetic bacteria of more recent vintage. Some naive jokers have even taken to calling whatever the hell it is that’s attacking humanity the Scrooge virus.
Merry effin Christmas.
What I Presume is Day 2
At present, the trickle of information in my bubble-abode is severely stanched, limited to what I see and can touch nearby, because of the disease course. I have to throw myself upon anything I intend to pick up or examine, if I can indeed pick up anything at all, as I crawl toward the console with its host of nested possibilities, in digital and analog.
One thing that’s abundantly clear. My small world contracts more, hour by bloody hour, moment by moment, each second being turned to mush. What’s more, it’s sticky-trailed where I have been before. At least I won’t repeat maneuvers, as long as my mind’s still right.
But is it? An ore-dark cloud descends over all my limbs for the time being, and nothing means anything for awhile.
I think I’m sleeping in my own bile.
I don’t know if the nearly dead dream, but these words kept filling my mouth, and I instinctively wiped moisture from my cheeks again and again, while time had lost both tangible substance and meaning.
If I could just reach the console. Maybe whoever’s left can help—no, not me. Maybe Lissa. Oh, God. Please save Lissa.
For my life, I could not remember who Lissa is. Or who she was.
In the stifling air of a late November day in Minnesota, Dr. Shyra Grimlock’s team was laboring to suss out novel bacillic beasts before they made the leap from lesser animals; in this case, they were evaluating the results from real-time polymerase chain reaction (PCR) testing as well as reverse transcription-PCR testing by their colleagues in the field. Specifically, teams in Central and South America were taking cloacal samples from the shy albatross and combining those with data from other teams studying New World bats (that is, bats in the Americas).
And so far, the data were indicating a high seroprevalence of influenza viruses (essentially, many instances of flu infections) in bat colonies and in nesting habitats of the albatross. The numbers were making Dr. Grimlock downright nostalgic for oseltamivir resistance. These populations of mammals in South and Central America were particularly worrisome; she discerned a hidden pool, or, in epidemiology-speak, a multihost reservoir of pathogens with the potential to trigger a catastrophic zoonotic outcome.
She did not know that by early December, the first jump from infected bats had begun. Farmyard swine and then guinea pigs, or cavies, which are not truly pigs, were sickened by the thousands in Peru.
Its first human case, patient zero, was a 26-year-old woman in Argentina with influenza-like illness (ILI), misdiagnosed as H5N1. Whole-genome sequencing had yet to be done, but endotracheal aspirates were positive for genes encoding matrix protein of RNA-based influenza virus.
The aspirates were taken Dec. 6, the day she received endotracheal intubation in efforts to save her life. Later that same day, she succumbed to multiple-organ failure instigated by acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS).
Her name was Lydia Soto, of Río Gallegos, Argentina. And she had been the mother of two: Sofia, 2, and Santino, 7.
Dr. Grimlock, working at her lab in the United States, did not learn of Ms. Soto’s death until five days later—a veritable eternity in acute epidemiological spillover situations.
Sitting in her office on a gray December day, Dr. Grimlock drummed her flexible stylus against the metal desk, tap-a-tap-tap, tap-a-tap-tap, which only proved to pull the instrument out of its rest mode. “How may I be of assistance, Shyra? I can send the drone down to the post office if you would like.”
“No thank you, Serge. I’ll stroll down there later, to clear my mind. Sorry to have woken you; you may hibernate again.”
“Very good, doctor. It is predicted to be clear, but growing chilly by 16:00 hours,” the tool indicated, already powering itself down.
She pictured Correa in an adjacent lab or office space in the Department of Medical Microbiology and Immunology, probably chewing on a stick of Chomp-for-Joy. She didn’t know whether Dr. Biswas in the Department of Bio-Botanical Engineering had received institutional review board approval for the foodstuff yet, but Correa was forever keen to take a leap and try something novel.
She tapped her watch, brought up the menu, and touched his name: Lorrent Correa. He, the noted Argentinian virologist and co-author, with Dr. Grimlock, of the previous report, “Exploring the Cryptic Reservoir: Bats as Vectors of a Newly Discovered Highly Pathogenic Novel Influenza A Virus, Provisionally Dubbed H19N11.” Additional co-authors on the paper were Megan Probst, Dr. Grimlock’s assistant and PhD candidate in epidemiology, and Jens Liljedahl, their statistician.
“Hey, what’s up, Grim?” Dr. Correa used her nickname, but somehow his mellow mannerisms didn’t annoy her. It was just one of the trade-offs of getting to know a fellow scientist from having worked in close quarters with them over a period of time. In their case, the experiment in sometimes-clashing but more-often-meshing personalities had lasted for 3½ years.
“I can’t get these surveillance data to work.”
“From the porcines in Patagonia, not to mention the avian samples.”
“Aha. Me neither. Oh, and by the way, that sounds like a nursery rhyme, or maybe a rock band.”
“Porcines in Patagonia. Just needs another P. Which is like me right now, incidentally.”
She laughed teasingly, speaking the words ha-ha.
“Anyway,” she continued, “let’s be serious. Misery loves company. Wanna come over and put our minds together on this perplexing conundrum?”
“Sure thing. After a, um, short pit-stop, I’ll be there in half a jiffy.”
Nodding, although she knew he could not see her, she interjected: “Oh . . . Lorrent?”
“Do bring the gum.”
She heard him laugh, or at least she heard the echo of chuckling in her mind, even as the application closed and the university’s proprietary GPS application, “Where’s the Doctor?” indicated he was heading in the general direction of her office, steadily but surely.
Thank god for not opting out, she thought of the system that some of her colleagues had deemed invasive. The academic scuttlebutt was that the admin used the harvested data, essentially time-tracking down to the minute for each faculty member, to decide on tenure status, looking at the demographics of time spent in the classroom, time in conferences with students, time researching, time in the laboratory, and so forth.
She remembered how Correa had joked: “I hope they don’t direct-monitor us when we’re in the john. Wouldn’t that be fascinating, though? What is the average duration, length.” To her quirked eyebrow, he’d continued. “I mean of urination, so get your mind out of the gutter, Grim.”
Still, he’d assented to having the GPS app installed on his watch, as had Grimlock.
Knowledge is power, as she saw it, and she’d successfully lobbied in favor of faculty being privy to the data drops, which they were. She’d used it in the last year, in fact, to streamline her own personal algorithms. Reducing office and conference time by about a half-hour three days a week, while increasing benchwork time (that is, working in the laboratory) by almost two hours most weeks, was plenty in the end-point analysis. It suited her just fine to have fewer students to deal with, with the exception of her grad assistant and PhD candidate Megan.
After a few minutes, Lorrent strode in wordlessly, scooted up a rolling chair, and settled next to Dr. Grimlock. The thought flickered on her mindscreen that the situation seemed as natural as influenza A viruses in bats.
She laughed to herself. Influenza viruses are notorious sex fiends, promiscuous to the point of being near-obligatory in the general sense, if not the epidemiological one. Same thing with the nature of bat colonies, she had learned by way of reading and interacting with Dr. Ford from afar.
For an instant, she wondered if Correa was the same, but she pushed it out of her head. Best not to get too involved with a colleague. Emotional entanglements just meant pain for somebody—and sometimes, for both bodies.
With an “alrighty then, let’s get down to work” came the only words the two of them uttered for a while, as they hunched over the hard copy results of the fieldwork, red pens in hands.
In her journal, Grimlock would dictate the following words that evening: “Science involves so much pure-fire perspiration, never mind the inspiration and experimentation aspects.”
Serge recorded her words seamlessly, saved them, and transferred the audio files into digital ones, all almost simultaneous, but for an .0002-second delay.
Dr. Grimlock could not know it, but Serge was monitoring its own systems (which she was aware of) that evening and ran across a minute problem. The typical data delay was .000228 second. His systems were running within normal parameters of error, but with an appreciable improvement. He noted the positive glitch, as it were, in his subroutines. This, he would not forget.
When the new ILI, or contagion if you will, was first identified in pigs in the capital city of the extreme southern Argentine area of Patagonia, called Río Gallegos, it was surmised that the porcines had been infected by ingesting the remains of sickened shy albatross or perhaps their eggs, a delicacy among some. Normally, the shy albatross would nest on the Diego Ramírez Islands, which are claimed by Chile, but it was speculative, hypothetical thinking that avians had become disoriented and traveled northeast due to either underlying disease or a combination of ocean acidification and warming brought about by globe-wide climate change. The bat reservoir, one among many animal reservoirs (ARs), had not previously been suspected, Grimlock’s team included.
“Host range expansion is THE numero-uno, clear and present danger of today’s virologic landscape, as it is impacted by climate change” explained Dr. Bria Ford in a ProText to Dr. Grimlock. “It is entirely plausible that these birds infected South American bats in Peru or Chile or Argentina, or even penetrated as far north as Guatemala in Central America. What do your data show, Shyra?” In response, Grimlock had shuttled the surveillance figures and the results of her field team’s bat studies in a huge zipped file to Dr. Ford. Her partners in this ongoing research were from the epidemiological departments at the University of São Paulo and Soyapango University of the Sciences near San Salvador, El Salvador.
Monikered by the media as New Ultra-Virulent Avian Influenza (NUVAI), this strange, new infection was provisionally designated in virologic nomenclature as H19N11 virus, in the paper Grimlock and her colleagues published just three months ago.
Dr. Correa had pinpointed the genes enabling resistance to conventional antivirals like oseltamivir.
But neither Correa nor Grimlock had anticipated the cross-species flow from non-human mammals to human beings. Not until December 23.
The last second of the eleventh hour.
I feel a burble in my nose and try to sniff but instead watch cross-eyed as part of my nostrils cave inward. Then I begin hacking up . . . Jesus! What? Blood-coated phlegm? Slivers of tongue, some still quivering, slithering, purulent-pearly.
Before my remaining eye loses all focusing ability, rods impaled by cones, I slide the screen to download all updates and see it.
Emergent Pathogens Report, 23.12.2033
Gut microbiota shows bonding with synthetic oxytocin (pitocin) and alien pathogen(s), genus and spp. as yet unknown. Advise immediate quarantine. Widespread colonization seen in populations of North America; South America as far south as Cape Horn; Africa; and parts of Asia. Too few reporters to determine infection reservoirs. Airborne transmission as well as other unknown etiology(ies?). Possible mosquito vector concurrent. Death toll likely in the hundreds of millions or more. May Fate have mercy on us all.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the World Health Organization had been ransacked by the novel pathogen, so the statement was signed jointly by CDC Drs. Lorrent Correa and Shyra Grimlock, neither of whom was the director of the once-vast Atlanta, St. Louis, and Helena, Montana–based organization. Now, both were acting co-heads of the CDC, considering that almost the entire leadership was on its deathbed or beyond. Even Alma Lavotti, MPH, MD, the director, had expired, quite literally, at her cherry-wood desk due to spontaneous hemorrhage from an orbital cavernous hemangioma, or bleeding eyes, which seemed to have triggered an acute myocardial infarction event.
All this happened, more or less. There was a brief attached to the pathogen report indicating it. Strange way to convey an obit.
So, I have no idea who either Dr. Grimlock or Dr. Correa is or whether they were still alive given the static message being broadcast over the neural network. It could have been recorded hours, or perhaps even days ago, and time-stamped, embargoed until when I’m alert and conscious. For the moment.
When the entire bloody situation was beyond hope and curing and anything else that lay outside of that.
Scratching absently at my wrist, I can see that the corded vessels are now hanging, angel-haired, outside my skin, having broken their inner tethers. Although the full-on drip tickles and makes me giggle, sending necrotic teeth tumbling over swollen lips, I realize something, finally.
I yawn, and it comes out more like a laugh. My brain drums something into me: It is high time for a long winter’s nap. To sleep, perchance to dream humanity back into existence. With or without me.
And I start to hum God rest ye, merry gentlemen . . .
Leigh Ward-Smith is a refugee from the journalism, editing, and academic worlds; instead, she chose paupership and parenthood (natural bedfellows). She loves to write, especially speculative fiction, humor, and literary stuff and generally goof off with her family. She blogs at Leigh’s Wordsmithery, where you can find links to her other publishings.
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Tags: death, disease, Leigh Ward-Smith