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by J. F. Bone
Category: Science Fiction
Description: 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. But it didn't work. Quite the opposite ... he created a disease the ravaged the human race.
eBook Publisher: Wildside Press, 1962 Amazing Stories
eBookwise Release Date: December 2008
11 Reader Ratings:
Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [38 KB]
Reading time: 18-26 min.
"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."
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?"
"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."
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.
"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."
"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."
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?"
"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.
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."
"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."