Time travel. A man goes back to 1918 to collect viral samples of the Spanish Flu.
|A Matter of Time
A virus is a bundle of RNA. It neither eats nor produces waste. It can’t reproduce on its own. If you think a virus is primitive, you’re wrong; for, compared to us, it mutates at light speed. It has become perfect at three things: invasion, subversion, and, above all, replication.
The Near Future
The warm updraft ruffles her feathers as she surveys the open tundra. She’s never been this far north, but the climate has changed. Deep within, she senses something is wrong with its world. She sees the silver line of a river and the white caps of waves on the gray Arctic Ocean. Smelling the scent of rotting flesh, she shifts her wings to corkscrew down.
She lands on a wooden cross spiking a mound of brown lichen and gray stones. Hearing a faint ticking coming from the side of the mound, she cocks her head to get a direct view of the protruding hand and arm, and notices a glint of light reflecting off the wrist. Yet, the hand is still and reassures her. Hopping down a few feet from her prize, she turns, puffs out her chest, and approaches in a slow stride of importance. She stops, rises to her full height, pecks, and backs off as if expecting a reaction from the dead hand. In a few seconds, she returns and starts eating.
Later that day, other birds land and expose more and more of the partially thawed body. By the time they leave, only the head, legs, and right arm remain whole and buried under the melting permafrost.
In the lungs of the dead man had lurked his killer, an influenza virus that caused 100 million deaths in 1918-1919. It was called the Spanish Flu. Now, in the guts of two dozen birds it had a new home.
Thousands of birds have gathered along the shores of the lake. Within the gastrointestinal tract of a small fraction of them lurks a new variation of the H5N1 virus. Others, even fewer, hold an older, reacquired version. Their droppings, containing trillions of viruses, contaminate the lake.
Flying at the point of the vee, the leader of a migrating flock is the first to see the jade green haven. The wind blows the welcome scent of his flock’s summer home. He calls to those behind and changes the angle of his wings to start their descent. As they approach, he surveys the lake for danger. He guides his flock to a party of his species peacefully feeding near a shore, and is reassured by the cacophony of discourse. Coming in, he stretches out his legs and glides into the surface of the water. He folds his wings and dips his bill into the lake to drink.
Viruses enter his gut. Two of them attach to a single cell. One of them is H5N1, the other the Spanish Flu. In the next instant, they launch spikes into the cell, securing their hold. Melting holes in the membrane wall, they leave their shells and slip in. Their coats melt away in the acidic environment of the cell, exposing the ribbons of RNA within. The two viruses mingle and swap parts of their genetic code. One of them becomes harmless, the other, attacks the nucleus.
Knocking out key rungs of the cells DNA, it inserts itself in the vacancy and corrupts the cell. It starts replicating RNA. In ten hours there are hundreds of thousands. A chemical trigger alerts the empty viral shells left attached to the cell, and they begin to destroy the membrane walls. The hordes burst out.
Lacking the mechanism of DNA to repair alterations in its code, almost all of the horde is defective and become easy prey to the army of the immune system. Some thousands escape and a few hundred infect new cells. Like a needle stuck on an old record, the scene repeats. Eventually, billions of them pass through the digestive system and enter the lake.
In a Lab
Professor Roy Grist turns to his slightly chubby, and to his eyes, lovely assistant as he stops to open the door. “Maiko, I finally found the broadcast I’ve been looking for.”
He holds the door as she steps inside. “I think we can start getting ready for the launch. Listen to this.” He strides into his laboratory, grabs the remote off the table, and thumbs the radio on. It spits out a few words amid the hiss of static. He tunes it to Philadelphia, seven a.m., Oct. 2, 1918.
A clear voice speaks in a serious tone, “This is a public announcement from the Board of Health. All retired doctors and nurses are urgently requested to report to the nearest hospital.”
He thumbs it off. “It’ll be a snap to get into a hospital.”
Maiko hesitates, then speaks in a quavering voice, “Are you sure about this? So many things could go wrong.”
He sticks his pen into his mouth and pretends to blow out a puff of smoke. “Don’t worry, gorgeous, I know what I’m doing.”
“Oh, please! Be serious.”
“Sorry, I’ll be extremely careful. I fully understand the risk of altering history.”
“It’s not that! What I’m really worried about is something happening to you.”
“I’m sorry, but I’ve got to do this. The H5N1 virus will cause a pandemic. It could even be as bad as the Spanish Flu. Hundreds of millions might die. No one knows for sure the structure of that flu. I have a hunch it’s different than what we think it is. I need to bring some back for study.”
In frustration, she whispers, “I just think it’s too dangerous.”
He hugs her, “Come on, I need your help with the time machine.”
Sept. 30, 1918
It’s just after lunch, and school has been closed since yesterday at the order of the Board of Health. Seven year old Danny is looking for his mother. He swings the kitchen door open to find her at the sink washing dishes. “Ma, I feel sick.”
Laura Sullivan shakes in fright and the dish slips through her fingers. It crashes on the floor and shatters. Wiping her hands on her apron, she places a hand on her son’s forehead. It’s warmth chokes her breath. She places her other hand on his cheek. It, too, is hot. “Go to bed, Danny. I’ll get Doctor Smith. He’ll fix you up in no time.”
But Laura knows no doctor will come nor a hospital accept her boy. Nearly every door in the neighborhood had a piece of crepe hanging on them: white for a young death, black for middle age, and gray for elderly.
She kneels in front of their picture of Jesus, and prays. Let Danny have just a cold. Not the flu, please, not the flu. Rising, she gets some menthol and mixes it into a jar of vaseline. Then, she goes to her son’s room.
Danny is in his pajamas. Seeing her, he said, “Ma, it hurts.”
He points at his chest. “Here.”
Laura opens the jar and almost puts the mixture on his chest before she remembers the danger. “Put some of this on your chest and in your nose. It’ll help you breathe and take away the pain.”
She gives the jar to her son, opens the window, and tries to think what else she can do. She hears wheezing. She snaps her head down. Danny’s chest is expanding as if he were doing some heavy exertion though he’s only applying the vaseline. Her husband’s shift at the plant should be over soon. She prays he won’t be asked to work overtime.
Not Far Away
A pitch black disc appears unnoticed over the night skies of Pennsylvania. Inside, Roy Grist peers through the floor at the empty pasture below. Looking east, he sees the lights of Philadelphia twinkling in the soft glow of the approaching day. He reckons it’s a three hour walk away. Satisfied, he glides down to land at the lip of a strand of trees lining a road.
He steps out, pulling his left sleeve down, he pokes a button on the rim of his wristwatch, and waits for the confirmation signal. A red glow lights up the face of his watch. Placing his right forefinger over the glow to identify himself, he pushes the button again. There is a slight sound of gurgling as the black craft disappears.
Roy places his hat on his head, straightens his tie, picks up his black bag, and starts on his way into the city. Entering the outskirts of the city, Roy puts on his mask. Though few people are in the streets, all of them are wearing one, too. A street car rattles by; a sign is on the front: SPIT SPREADS DEATH. At the first large intersection he checks his map and turns left. The Philadelphia General Hospital should be six blocks up. He plans to take a dozen quick samples with some Q-tips and leave.
He knows that it’s going to get worse, much worse. Soon, in the hospitals, a quarter of the patients will die each day and be replaced by new ones. The dead will pile up at morgues, in hospitals, and in homes. People will be too sick and weak to move them, and so, the dead will putrefy. Later, when the peak passes, they will be buried without coffins in mass graves dug by steam shovels. Hundreds of thousands in this city alone will fall ill and many of them will die. He doesn’t want to stay any longer than necessary.
Back at the Sullivan’s Home
John opens the door. “I’m home.” He had worked three hours overtime.
He hears his wife’s weary voice from the kitchen, “I’m in the kitchen. I’ve got to tell you something.”
“What is it, Lau...”, his voice freezes as he sees the gauze placed over her mouth. “Where’s Danny?”
Laura hands her husband a gauze mask. “Sit down and wear this.” She takes his hands. “He’s got the flu, John. He’s mighty sick.”
“Take me to him.”
“Whatever you do, John, don’t touch him. Don’t get too near.”
He stares at her. “Why aren’t you in there helping him?”
She looks down and whispers. “I haven’t the courage to watch him suffer anymore.”
John pushes his chair back and runs to his son’s room. He opens the door and recoils as a stench assaults his nostrils. Shaking, he shuts the door, unable to bear watching his son, his face deep blue, struggling to breathe as a bloody froth bubbles from his mouth and nose.
An hour later, as he sits in the living room, covering his weeping face with his huge hands, he feels a hand touch his shoulder. He hears his wife say, “It’s over.”
That sleepless night, John tacks a white crepe on his front door. In the bleakness of morning, he sits facing the window, waiting for the undertaker making his rounds.
He hears it first, the clop, clop , clop, of hooves on pavement as the undertaker’s horse drawn cart nears. He calls his wife. They stand at the window. The cart stops and the undertaker, dressed in black, a white bundle of cloth under his arm, slowly comes up the walk. John opens the door. No words are spoken. No hand is offered.
The boy is blue, almost black. The blood has been wiped off his face. He’s dressed in clean pajamas and lying on fresh sheets. The undertaker begins to unwrap the white cloth. John asks, “Where’s the coffin? Are you going to take him just like that?”
“I’m sorry, there ain’t no coffins. Too many dead.”
Laura screams, “No, wait. Let me get a box. John! Empty the 20 pound box of macaroni. Bring it here. Quick!”
As her husband rushes out of the room, Laura pleads, “Please, please, let us put him in the box, don’t take him away like that.”
“Sure. I’ll wait... and help.”
John returns with the box and places it on the floor. As the undertaker lifts Danny’s legs, there is a string of pops, a crackle of air bursting through skin. He raises apologetic eyes to the shocked parents, “The Doc at the morgue told me that that’s air under the skin. It’s from broken lungs.”
Sobbing Laura leaves, unable to stand hearing any further evidence of the suffering her son went through.
The two men place Danny in the box and take him to the cart. The box is balanced on top of what looks like a pile of mummies. John watches the cart for a while until it stops a few houses down the block. He turns and with head down trudges inside.
At the entrance of the hospital, as soon as Roy steps past the door, he hears the sound of painful hacking from countless throats. He pauses, shocked by the force of the coughing. A woman sitting at a desk asks, “Sir, do you have an appointment?”
“I’m Dr. Roy Grist. I have a letter from the Rockefeller Institute signed by Dr. Welch. I need to get swabs to take back for clinical tests and research. Would you kindly call Dr. Starr?”
“I’m afraid he’s ill with the flu, however, I’ll have a nurse take you to Dr. Stengel. He’s in charge now.”
Five minutes later, a nurse arrives, listens to the receptionist, and steps over. Her voice muffled by the gauze mask is heavy with exhaustion, “Dr. Grist, please follow me. Dr. Stengel is on the third floor.”
On the third floor, as they pass each room, he glances inside; every bed is taken. The nurse leads him to the farthest room, she points to the only doctor in the room. “That’s Dr. Stengel.” Without a further word she leaves.
He hesitates to step inside, for the rattle of shaking beds and the squeak of iron springs unnerves him as much as the forceful hacking and coughing. He takes a few deep breaths and enters. “Dr. Stengel, I’m Dr. Roy Grist from the Rockefeller Institute.”
Dr. Stengel turns around. He offers his latex gloved hand, then, thinking better of it, withdraws it. “Yes, Dr. Grist, what can I do for you?”
Roy hands him the letter. “I’d like your permission to take some swabs back to the Institute.”
He reads it quickly and says, “Of course... Dr. Grist, does the Institute have any suggestions for treatment?”
“No, nothing anyone has tried works.”
“I’m afraid things will get much worse. We need urgent help.”
“I’m sorry, I have nothing to offer. I’d like to get back to the Institute right away.”
“Certainly. And... don’t forget to scrub your hands before you leave.”
Roy opens his bag and moves quickly from bed to bed. He’s very careful, but he’s unlucky; he gets infected.
Back in the Lab
On a large wall screen, in a dim room, a man on a horse trots off into the sunset. Maiko turns off the DVD player and zaps the monitor to CNN. Rubbing her eyes, she leans back into the chair. It seems like ages since Roy left. She can hardly recall the plot of the movie and can’t get interested in the news. She closes her eyes for a second not intending to fall asleep, but she does.
Back at the Hospital
Roy almost runs down the steps to the sidewalk. Glancing over his shoulder at the entrance of the hospital, he shudders at the memory of the sights, sounds, and smells inside the dark mouth of that monolith. He strides up the street, looking for an empty alley to activate the call for the time machine.
A page from a newspaper, borne by the wind, rustles through the air. Roy studies the trash littered alley it came from; it has a dead end and looks empty. He enters the narrow passage and pushes the button on the rim of his wristwatch. There’s no glow of confirmation. He frowns. Where’s Maiko? As he passes a large botch of rumpled newspaper, a leg, then, an arm thrust out. A grime smeared face smiles a broken set of yellow teeth, “What do we have here? What a surprise. A gentleman.”
Roy backs off deeper into the alley. What’s Maiko doing? Knowing the time machine will automatically appear in five minutes, he stalls for time, “I’m a doctor. You shouldn’t be sleeping here. Go home.”
“Mister know-it-all. Always giving free advice, ain’t we?”
“Listen, tell me your problem. Perhaps, I can help you.”
“My problems? What about yours? Hand over your money.”
“I’m a doctor. I’m on important business. Thousands of lives are at stake. Get away.”
“I hate your kind! I hate all you doctors. And especially the one who brought me into this world.”
Roy senses the time for words is over. He feints to the left and dodges right. A powerful grip encases the watch on his left wrist. He tries to pull away and his arm is twisted. Grunting in pain, he falls to his knees. A fist slams into his head. Released from the grip on his wrist, he rolls to the wall. Leaning against it, he totters up. His assailant, eyes lit up in intense excitement, approaches in a wrestler’s crouch. Lifting his head, Roy yells, “Officer! Over here, help me!” His foe turns. Roy kicks him in the balls. Staggering past the gasping man, he heads for the street. Half way there, he’s tackled from behind. Rolling over, he’s shocked to see the grimy face streaked with tears. As he raises his hands to ward off the blows from the wailing man, his watch glows red. He slams it with his fingers.
The time machine explodes into their time from a hole the size of a single atom. Its expansion to its full size is in a microsecond. The force of instant entry knocks Roy’s tormentor off and throws him to the wall. One look at the ominous black shape and he flees.
Panting, Roy stands up and pats the black craft, “Thanks, partner. What kept ya?” Finding his bag in a pile of crumpled newspaper, he picks it up, and hauls himself into the machine. In a few seconds, all that’s left in the alley is a swirling patch of old newspapers.
Roy awakes in the air exhausted and sweating. He looks down, “What the...” Under his feet is a vast valley of widely spaced stunted trees rimmed by massive snow capped mountains.
He types, “Where am I, partner? What year is this?” No response.
He checks his watch and notices one of the buttons on the rim is missing. Probably knocked off in the fight, he thinks. Gently taking the controls, he exhales in relief as it responded. He glides it down in a smooth landing. A door slides open, and Roy shivers as the cool air penetrates his clothes.
He ponders what to do. He can’t be sure where and when the machine will send him--the middle of a mountain or the Precambrian might be the result. On the other hand, he knows he won’t survive here long. He decides to gamble. Climbing in, he goes through the procedure, and crosses his fingers. Nothing happens. Pounding on the keyboard, he curses.
Roy steps out once again, and this time notices a thin line of smoke rising from behind a small hill. With a brisk pace he heads for what, he hopes, will be men.
Samuel stops sucking on a bird bone and arches an eyebrow, “Did I hear what I think I heard?”
Henry tosses his bone into the embers, grabs his rifle, and stands, “I reckon you did, Samuel.”
“I’ll be damned. Who might that be?”
“Well, it ain’t no Injun, hunter, or trapper. Nobody but a fool would be hacking and coughing in this wilderness.”
“I’ll have to say you’re speaking the truth, Henry.”
“Let’s go meet that fool.”
“No need to. That fool is coming here like bee to nectar. You hide in them there bushes. No knowing if he’s an evil fool.”
Gathering his things, Henry places them inside the tent, and kneels behind some bushes with his rifle. Soon, he’s startled to see a man in a suit and hat appear, walking bent forward with a heavy step, passing from tree to tree, and clutching their slender trunks for support. Henry rises and steps forward, for he knows that stranger hasn’t the strength for mischief.
Coughing hard, the man enters the campsite wavering like a branch in a storm, except there isn’t even a breeze. Then, energy spent, he topples forward to crash on the stony earth.
For a moment, there’s stunned silence, then Henry brushes past his companion and kneels next to the fallen intruder. He gently rolls him over and brushes the dirt off his face. The eyes flutter open and the lips part. “What year?”
“What you say?”
“What year is it?”
“It’s 1918, September, I reckon, might be October.”
“Where am I?”
“This here is Alaska, about as far north as anyone can get. What’s your name?”
He struggles to croak, “Roy Gr.”
Henry jerks back as, with a powerful cough, a red froth erupts from the man’s mouth and nose. He shouts, “Samuel, don’t just gawk. Help me carry him into the tent.”
Samuel grabs the man’s ankles and they carry him into the tent and lay him on a cot. More and more, blood foams out, then the edges of his face become tinged with blue and spreads and darkens. Blood trickles out of his ears. Delirious, he mumbles and moans.
Quickly, they leave the tent. Fearful of the unknown, they pray silently to ward off evil. Sitting at the fire, they seek comfort in its warmth from their inner chill. They sit for a long time until the wheezing and gurgling stops.
Back in the Lab
Maiko jerks up and looks at the time. She swears at herself and checks the computer log. She sees a call for activation of the time machine was registered twenty minutes ago. Roy should already be back. She calls out his name.
Her attention is diverted to the TV, “In Anchorage, this morning, a serious outbreak of flu has doctors and authorities concerned. Symptoms are very severe and it’s feared the H5N1 virus has mutated to a form capable of direct infection between humans. Unconfirmed reports from Nome talk of deaths in rural areas in the north. Health authorities have issued warnings to travelers and advised people to stay home. This has been Carol Huxley of CNN, Anchorage.”
She leaves the lab thinking he might be in another room. She calls out repeatedly, her tone rising, as only silence answers.
Henry holds the cross as Samuel pounds it into the permafrost. He swings it one last time and huffs, “This ain’t going in any further no matter how many times I pound.”
Henry agrees, “We can put a few more rocks on.”
Samuel points to the watch on Henry’s wrist, “Call me superstitious, but taking a thing from a dead man is asking for trouble.”
“To tell the truth, I’m having doubts myself. It’s a mighty fine time piece to leave with a dead man, though.”
“What in tar nation do you need to know the time for anyway?”
“You’ve got a point there, Samuel.” He unburdens his wrist. “And I ain’t looking for a curse.” He uncovers the buried arm and put the time piece back on. Returning the arm under the earth, he places a stone on it. “What did he say his name was?”
“I don’t recall, Henry.”
Note:If you'd like to know what really happened in 1918, read THE GREAT INFLUENZA by John M. Barry.