(© Biswapriya Purkayastha)
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
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
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.
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