Copyright © Ian Irvine, 2000.
The View from the Top
first we knew of the disease was on NetNews, of course.
man was staggering down George Street with blood running out his
mouth and nose. His arms were mottled with purple bruises. He collapsed,
while the cameras dwelt lovingly on his affliction and his agony.
I sat up. NetNews desensitised one to almost anything, but this
was something I had not seen before.
had I? Cutting the news, I called up Diagnostic and opened the
SymptomSeeker. I typed in what I had seen. It came up with nothing.
Bloody useless program!
linked to the WHO site in Geneva. All
lines are busy! I tried the US Centre for Disease Control in
Atlanta. It took ages to get through. I linked the SymptomSeeker
to the CDC’s database. Again, what normally would have happened
instantly took minutes. I split the screen and went back to the
news item, updating my file with other observable symptoms. After
a few minutes two words flashed into the window.
were a number of these but I found a match just as the reporter
did his piece to camera and told me.
had originated in central Africa, killed a few hundred people there
in a number of outbreaks between the 1970’s and the 1990’s, then
vanished again. It had gained a lot of media attention, more because
of the gruesome nature of the deaths it caused than for any widespread
threat. Most people who caught it died, but because it had disappeared
no one had done any work on a vaccine.
turned up the volume. ‘They’re calling this disease the Ebola flu,’
said the reporter, ‘because it’s easily spread by coughing or kissing.
Or sex!’ He gave a false laugh. ‘Take care who you go to bed with
tonight, folks. I certainly will be!’
knew it was nothing like the flu virus, of course. But it must
have mutated, to be transmitted in the air that way.
The next day
I was called into the Director’s office. Prof. Chalmys, a woman
of about 60 years, sat behind a huge tungsten desk with absolutely
nothing on it. Her face was as tight as a ballon from the latest
in cosmetic skin regeneration. It didn’t match the rest of her.
One corner was occupied by her computer, a squat black cube. The
screen, on a swing arm by her desk, was unlit.
want you to head a special task force into the virus,’ she said.
‘You will have the status, and remuneration, of a Head of Department,
and a research budget limited only by your ability to spend it.
It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.’
didn’t know what to say. It was too much a dream. I’d never liked
the Director, who had the habit of looking half a metre to my right
instead of at me. Moreover, she was well known to be obsessively
secretive, a blame-shifter and a credit-taker. I wondered why the
job was being offered to someone as junior as me. On the other
hand, my work had been pretty good so far. It was a fabulous opportunity.
would be honoured,’ I said, ‘as long as I’m given access to everything I
there anything in particular you require?’ she asked coolly.
mail you a list.’ What I really wanted was the rest of my mother’s
work. She had to have written more than I’d found.
was given everything I asked for, including my mother’s missing
research papers. However they said so little that I wondered if
she had been losing her mind. Then I realised that they had been
tampered with. I knew her writing style so well that the deletions,
and the alterations, were obvious. Why? I kept asking myself. What
was being covered up?
then again, why choose me? Was the investigation just a sop to
the politicians? Was I being set up to fail because I was so junior
that I didn’t matter?
flu spread across Sydney, then Australia, like an atomic detonation.
Within a fortnight a hundred thousand people had it. Within another
fortnight, 76,000 of them were dead. It was more virulent than
it had been thirty years ago. I suspected that our purified gene
pool lacked immunity. Australia was put under international quarantine.
had it come about? That was the question no one could answer. How
had a virus that had seldom been reported outside Central Africa, that had not been heard of for more than 30 years, suddenly
appeared in the centre of Sydney?
few days later I received a personal call in my office. Kirrily’s
school had been closed. The husband of a teacher’s aide had come
down with the fever. The aide was not on any of Kirrily’s classes,
but I was still afraid.
left the office instantly and picked her up. No one at the school
had come down with the disease, and Kirrily had no symptoms either.
night I sat up late, watching the progress of the virus. The Case-Fatality
Rate was now 79%. 79% of people who got the disease died.
ran into Kirrily’s bedroom in a panic. She was sleeping, holding
a long-eared rabbit across her chest, a fluffy toy she carried
everywhere with her. I knelt by her bed, watching her as she slept.
You’re all I have in the world, Kirrily. I’ve lost my mother, and
my daughter, and suddenly my work doesn’t seem as important as
I thought it was. I can’t lose you too. I loved her obsessively,
though I tried not to show that.
ran back out again and logged into the Health Department site to
check some medical statistics.
group of concern? it flashed.
typed in – 7-10.
rate, weekly per hundred thousand – 4400.
fatality rate – 86%.
were more at risk than adults. No surprise there. They usually
were, especially if they had no genetic resistance. If the resistant
genes had already been culled from the population.
had to get away. I ran around the apartment, throwing clothes into
suitcases. My job gave me pause, but only for a moment. My suspicions
had hardened. I was being used and maybe my mother had been too.
could we go? Home! It just popped into my head. We’re going up
the north coast. We’ll be safer there, if there is anywhere safe
in the world.
made ten trips to the garage, staggering under stuffed suitcases,
boxes of food, matches, torch batteries and all the other things
we’d need for a stay that might run into months.
up!’ I said, shaking Kirrily by the shoulder.
looked up at me sleepily, rolled over and went back to sleep. I
shook her awake. ‘Get up, Kirrily. We’re going on a holiday.’
the country,’ I said. ‘You’ll see rabbits, kangaroos, wombats,
woke up at once. ‘I love frogs.’
there’s lots where we’re going.’
led her down to the car, then ran back to lock up. I was just closing
the door when I remembered Ben’s old PocketBook. I didn’t suppose
it would work where we were going. I took it anyway, for sentimental
was pitch dark as I backed the car out onto the street. A full
moon made the city more silent and statue-like than I had ever
seen it. It looked like one of those Future Gothic places you see
in space operas.
three blocks away I saw my first live victim – though ‘live’ was,in
this case, an overstatement. A middle aged woman lay sprawled in
the middle of the road, a dark puddle beside her. I pulled up next
to her but it was quite obvious she was dead. Ebola flu is a horrible
way to die.
sped on, and saw many more bodies that night. Kirrily did not,
fortunately. She went back to sleep as soon as we were in the car,
and slept the night away.
came around a corner, driving too fast, and saw a roadblock directly
in front of me. I skidded to a stop with the bumper touching the
barrier. The officer tapped on the window with the butt of his
torch. I opened it, trying to control myself. In a lifetime I would
never get over the fear of people in uniforms.
a curfew, lady.’
on official business,’ I said. I showed my Citizen’s Card and my
passed both through his scanner. There was a chatter in his headphones.
His eyes widened, he saluted smartly and stepped back. Having support
at the highest level was some use after all.
scene was repeated half a dozen times before I got out of Sydney
onto the north coast tollway. There wasn’t much traffic. I supposed
those who were going to flee Sydney had already done so, and I
hardly saw a vehicle coming in. I drove all night, stopping for
fuel and a greasy breakfast at dawn, then continuing.
I turned off the tollway onto a winding road that led toward the
mountains. It began to rain. We weaved up an escarpment and off
onto a back road that was a series of potholes separated by greasy
black mud. A few minutes later I went right, over a cattle grid,
up a long overgrown drive and pulled up at a cottage set in a wild
garden. I felt an overpowering sense of relief at coming home.
place is this?’ asked Kirrily.
ours. My mother owned it. This is where I lived when I was a kid.’
The place stirred childhood memories, mostly of playing by myself
while my mother brooded.
are all the animals?’ She looked disappointed. I suppose she expected
wallabies and wombats under every tree.
cottage had not been rented for a few years. I didn’t have a key,
couldn’t even remember which estate agent was in charge of the
place. The doors were locked but one bathroom window was so rotten
that I could lift the glass from its pane. We got in that way,
unlocked the doors and opened the windows. There were mouse droppings
everywhere, though the house wasn’t quite as dingy as the fourteen
year old remembered it.
electricity was turned off. By the time we’d made the place livable
it was dark. I lit a fire and we sat in front of it, toasting bread
on long forks and roasting apples next to the coals. It felt like
an adventure together.
I’m going to go looking for frogs,’ said Kirrily. ‘I suppose you’ll
be too busy to help. You always are.’
didn’t sound angry, just resigned.
see,’ I said in that parently way. ‘I expect there’ll be plenty
of frogs, in this weather.’
sat looking out the window in the darkness, smiling dreamily. I
felt more together with her than I had ever been. She ate her bread
and began to hiccup.
gave her my mother’s remedy, a teaspoon of sugar, but this time
it did not work. The hiccups just went on and on. We thought it
funny, at first. Then she threw up, right in front of the fire.
cleaned it up, and her. As I was washing her face I noticed that
her forehead was hot, and her eyes shiny. ‘Are you all right?’
head aches!’ she said in a croaky voice. ‘My stomach hurts too.
I think I’ll go to bed.’
made one up for her on the floor beside the fire. I gave her a
big glass of water. In a panic, I fumbled out the PocketBook.
signal , it said, even when I extended the aerial to the
fullest. I felt like throwing it through the window. Then I remembered
that we’d had satellite NetNews when I was a kid. I ran outside
with the torch. The wind hurled rain at me. The dish was still
there. I traced the wires down and found the outlet in the front
room. I connected the wires to the universal access connector
on the PocketBook. I didn’t expect it to work.
didn’t. There must be a faulty connection somewhere. I scratched
through the leather carry bag of the PocketBook for the manual.
I looked up Satellite Access.
normal satellite access, connect to the UA connector. To access
the Tantalum satellite phone system, snap the receiving rod into
the connector and rotate the arm until it points vertically.
Certain kinds of roofing materials may interfere with reception.
If no signal, try outside.
receiving rod? I felt around in the bottom of the bag. Inside a
pouch I found what looked like a metal rod with a cylindrical sleeve
on one end and a snap connector on the other. I blessed Ben yet
again, for having the best of everything. The Tantalum system was
a commercial network mainly used by big business. I’d never used
it, but I knew it was very reliable, provided access anywhere on
earth, but was hideously expensive.
installed the rod in the connector, rotated it into position, tapped
in my bank account number and instantly the PocketBook beeped.
flu diagnosis!’ I snapped. I said it three times but the machine
didn’t recognise the word. I gave up and typed it in. A list of
symptoms appeared. They included fever, headache, vomiting, stomach
pain and hiccups.
enough to be sure, but I didn’t feel in any doubt. In Kirrily’s
age group the chance of dying was now 87%.
I shouted at the machine.
VACCINE OR DRUG THERAPY AVAILABLE. PATIENT CARE: INTRAVENOUS
DRIP TO MITIGATE SEVERE DEHYDRATION. BODY FLUIDS AND WASTES HIGHLY
INFECTIOUS. ISOLATE PATIENT. USE PLASTIC SHEET OVER BED, WEAR
FULL PROTECTIVE CLOTHING INCLUDING DOUBLE GLOVES. STERILISE BY
AUTOCLAVING, WASHDOWN WITH DISINFECTANT. ALTERNATIVELY, 1:10
HOUSEHOLD BLEACH KILLS VIRUS INSTANTLY.
wasn’t bothered about that. If she died, I would too. ‘Nearest
had to type that in as well. The computer industry had been boasting
about speech recognition software for forty years, and it still
nearest hospital was down on the coast, an hour and a half away.
I carried Kirrily out to the car, wrapped in plastic bags against
the rain. I could feel the heat radiating out of her.
hadn’t gone more than a kilometre when I found the road blocked
by a fallen tree. I stood in the rain, trying to think. It must
have been pouring for days up here, for the ground was saturated.
If I went off the road I’d be irretrievably bogged. I reversed
back to the house, carried her inside and made a Triple 0 call
on the PocketBook.
took at least ten minutes for an answer.
RESPONSE TIME, 36 HOURS.
supposed half the population of Australia had an emergency at the
sat with her all night. The fever got worse. It had come on very
suddenly. The old Ebola fever had usually taken days to develop.
In the morning she was delirious, one minute shaking with chills,
the next minute burning up. I opened her mouth to give her a drink
and saw threads of blood oozing from her gums. The water went down
but came up straight away, a thick red colour. I tried again. She
brought it back up, every time.
picked her up and immediately put her down again. Never had I felt
so helpless. Where I had held her, purple bruises began to grow
under her skin.
sat by her side all day and the following night, watching her die
and knowing there was nothing I could do about it. It made me question
what my life had been for. Why had I spent the last eight years
in pursuit of my mother’s dream? She had abandoned me!
was my long overdue punishment. Surely I deserved to lose Kirrily,
as I had lost my own daughter, and Jeffee, and Ben, and my mother.
I deserved to be tormented for my monstrous crime.
Kirrily had not spoken for a day
and a half. She didn’t recognise me now. Slowly but inevitably
she was slipping into a coma from which she would never wake. I
felt furiously angry with the world. How had this come about?
called Triple 0 again.
RESPONSE TIME, 36 HOURS.
emailed the Centre, advising them of the situation and saying that
I would not be in for a while. I did not tell them where I was.