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Contagion
(© Biswapriya Purkayastha)

Page 1

I walk up the steps of the laboratory building and show my pass to the armed guard at the door. Though he knows who I am perfectly well, having seen me go in and out every day for the past month and more, he checks the documents left and right, top and bottom, even holding it to the light to check the security window. It isnít thoroughness, not really; he doesnít search me, as he is entitled to, Iíve seen him wave through some of my colleagues with hardly a glance. Nor is it stupidity. He just hates my guts.

Ah well. I never asked anyone to love me. All I ask is that they do as theyíre supposed to.

Inside, the white corridor curves to the right, smelling of antiseptic and room freshener. The lights are bright today, brighter than they should be Ė thatís wasting power. I make a mental note to mention it to the guard on my way out. It will make him detest me even more, of course. But thatís all right.

I stop briefly at the notice board. The newest one is three days old and refers to the latest outbreak. It hasnít been updated, which might mean that the disease hasnít spread further or that the news of its further spread hasnít arrived; either is possible.

At the beginning we used to try and construct epidemiological maps to predict the onward spread of the condition, but the models broke down so often and so repeatedly that we had to stop. I remember how we had proceeded on the assumption that it would spread more or less as other communicable diseases, from nodes of infection outwards, so that a cordon sanitaire could be established, and cities or villages quarantined until the infection burned itself out. But it spread so rapidly, and the progress from the onset to full blown pathology was so quick, that it spread faster than we could contain it. Even a single individual sufferer Ė or one in the asymptomatic, prodromal stage, who might not even know he or she was infected Ė who slipped out of the cordon would start a fresh node of infection.

It became impossible to contain the infection in any meaningful way; it had become necessary to evacuate those who could be evacuated Ė or, let me be honest, those who were worth evacuating Ė and try and develop a vaccine. If one could be found, we could begin a mass inoculation drive, and maybe Ė just maybe Ė we could win. All over the world, laboratories were trying to find a vaccine Ė just like this laboratory, for instance.

I look into the general office on my way in. Thereís nobody there, but a wet circle on the nearest desk testifies to the very recent presence of a mug of coffee. I donít bother to check the latest database on the computer at the nearest table, on which a screen saver image of slides of the bullet-shaped virus on brain tissue plays in an endless loop. If there had been anything worth mentioning, weíd all have been informed.

I change into my working clothes, drawing on the white overall on top of the rest, securing it at wrists and ankles, not forgetting to transfer the package into an inner pocket. The laboratory which is used for tissue cultures is to my left as I leave the office, a thick, shatter-proof glass window stretching the length of the wall. Inside, I can see the rows of work-benches, and beyond, the chambers where the active cultures are contained. Itís very difficult to maintain the active cultures in vitro; the virus is delicate in the extreme outside the body, and it mutates unpredictably and rapidly, so there are a bewildering variety of strains. It makes the task of developing a vaccine even more difficult.

A few of my colleagues are moving back and forth inside the laboratory, clad in their overalls and the respirators it is compulsory to wear in the laboratory. A slender figure looks up at me and raises a hand. Itís probably Keiko Kurita, the Japanese research student who came here on a three monthís programme and has been stranded here since the beginning; there is, of course, no longer a way to return to her homeland. I nod back at her and move on, ignoring the intercom on the wall. Today I have no desire to talk. I have other things on my mind.

Outside the Directorís office I see a small knot of people. One is the Director himself, still in his crumpled brown suit, his bald head shining in the light. Heís probably the reason the lights are so bright, I decide; the security guard outside isnít to blame. The others with him look like media people. I skirt the wall as I pass them; they donít look at me. The Director is talking and waving his hands about a good deal.

[ Continue to page 2 ]

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Genre:Living Dead
Type:Short story
Rating:7.64 / 10
Rated By:160 users
Comments: 8 users
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