Ray’s night shift was nearly over. Just as well, he was feeling pretty crappy, his head was banging with a headache like none he’d had before; on top of that he felt a little feverish. A nice hot bath, a bloody stiff drink and some rest was the order of the day, he surmised, maybe then he wouldn’t feel so much like death warmed up. If I’m feeling better later on, I’ll go to the pub, see my girl. That pleasant thought pushed back at how ill he felt just for a moment. In spite of the fever, he smiled at the thought of Natalie. They had been an item for a little over a year now and he was as happy as ever he could remember.
The sun was beginning to rise; the new dawn sky was brightening quickly. Early summer was always his favourite time of year, all that promise of coming warmth. Mind you, that’s all it had been for the last year or so, a promise. Every time the suggestion of summer surfaced, it had been reneged by nature, relegating him and his fellow humans to a grey sky and rain, plenty of rain. Looks like grey was becoming the new blue. It was just coming up eight thirty and bang on cue, there was Jimmy, his replacement for the daytime shift, unlocking the padlock that secured the gate, and entering the site. He waved towards the hut. Ray reciprocated, glad he could now head home. Sometimes he wished he had company on the long nights, but then he wouldn’t get to read his books. Couldn’t have it both ways.
“Hello boy,” Jimmy said in greeting after opening the hut door. “Jeez, it’s hot in here. You had the heating on all night?”
“Yeah, it’s been freezing.”
“Well, it ain’t now. You look like shit, lad, go home and get some rest. Do you think you’ll be up for your shift tonight? Don’t push it if you’re not well, I can soon get a replacement.”
“Way to make a fella feel wanted, Jimmy. Yeah, I’ll be fine. A bit of rest is all I’ll need.” Ray picked up his iPad and made his way to the door. He paused before leaving as he remembered the dust. “Forgot to say, there’s a load of dirt from the dig in this hut, you might want to keep the door shut as much as possible.”
Jimmy sneered at the lad, “It’s just a bit of dirt, you big girl’s blouse. God, you young’uns, dirt never hurt no-one.”
“You say that, old man,” Ray retorted, emphasizing the word ‘old’, “but this stuff feels weird, makes you sneeze really easily. Gets right up your nose.”
“That’ll be the infection you’ve got, making you sensitive. Now go home before you give it to me.” Jimmy slapped him on the back. As if in reply, Ray sneezed as he walked out of the hut.
Jimmy walked over to the kettle and picked it up. About to put it under the tap to fill it, he noticed the layer of fine white dust that had covered it during the night. “Damn, he wasn’t wrong,” he said, absent-mindedly blowing at it to clean it off. It made his eyes water and he sneezed, leaving gobbets of saliva and phlegm running down the kettle. “Shit,” he said in disgust and put the kettle under the tap to wash it thoroughly. “Nothing’s ever easy in this bloody place,” he mumbled to himself.
He’d just sat down to appreciate his fresh cuppa when the eggheads arrived at the gate. Watching as they made their way into the compound, he noticed the woman professor wasn’t among them. Shame that, he thought, she was a bit of alright. He liked the more mature woman, but he’d never biblically known an educated one and wondered what she’d be like; he was partial to his daydreaming. Disappointed at her absence, he stayed put and let them open the gate themselves. As he watched them unpack for another day’s work, he noticed they all looked a bit worse for wear. Must have been a good night down in the pub, or too many hours slaving away in the laboratory, perhaps. Whatever it was, every one of them appeared to be nursing a sore head. Maybe they had the bug young Ray suffered from. “I’ll give ‘em until lunch time and they’ll be going home.” He chuckled as he mentally bet himself that the car park would be empty by the early afternoon.
Professor Brenda Mulroney arrived at the dig just before lunch time, having spent her morning in the labs and with the college doctor, who had taken a blood sample in exchange for medication. The site was quiet; most of the team had chosen to perform low effort tasks, as they were still feeling worse for wear, all continuing to deteriorate in health, apparently none were immune to this contagion. The security guard failed to notice the arrival of his fantasy woman, so she unlocked the gate herself, irritated at having to do so. Parking next to the other cars, she wandered over to the prep tent.
“Where’s the guard?” she asked the first person she came across.
“He’s not well, apparently,” Megan Hurst, a pretty little blonde, third year undergraduate was the first to respond. “I think he really is unwell, he’s normally out here trying to chat us up, dirty old man,” she continued, forcing a smile in spite of how she felt.
“Is he on site?” Brenda was looking at the girl who, through her obvious illness, was trying to maintain a semblance of lucidity. She was appalled at the fact that Megan was still working and not in bed nursing herself back to health.
“Yeah, he’s in the hut,” Megan replied, taking in several deep breaths to stop herself throwing up. Beads of sweat appeared on her forehead, and her skin was pale and clammy. She knew full well she should have called in sick, but there was a queue of graduates that would give their eye teeth for the job she was doing, and she’d be damned if all her hard work would be to the benefit of a replacement researcher. She needed the experience under this professor if she was to go for her Master’s degree.
“Thanks. Can you get everyone together, please? We have to talk. I’ll be back in a moment.” The professor didn’t feel very good herself, but she wasn’t sure if it was a psychosomatic reaction to what she had seen in the labs, or whether it was real. Looking around at her colleagues, she suspected the latter. Leaving Megan to her new task, Brenda walked over to the security hut.
Upon opening the door, she saw Jimmy, head in his hands, rocking back and forth on his stool. He looked up when she entered and seeing who it was, tried to stand up. The effort clearly hurt him and he groaned in pain. Looking at him she could see at once that his eyes were horribly bloodshot, the sclera almost completely red and his lips cracked and dry, sticking to his teeth and preventing any speech. With motherly concern she felt his forehead and pulled back quickly. It was red hot, his fever massive.
“Dear God, Jimmy. How long have you been like this?” she asked, concern in her voice.
“About an hour or so, I think,” he mumbled awkwardly, looking like he might fall over at any moment. Pulling out her mobile phone, she dialed the emergency services. This site clearly had a problem.
A voice crackled on her phone, asking which service she required. “Ambulance.” Pause. “Yes, hello. My name is Professor Brenda Mulroney, we have many people sick and febrile, I need a few ambulances to attend the archaeological dig at the East Side Car Park.” Listening for a moment, her face reddening with annoyance, her breathing deepened as she fought for control. Questioning her decisions and observations was not something to which she was accustomed, the feeling of indignation exacerbated by her headache. “You want my mobile number? Why?” Pause. “Well I don’t know it, I never call myself. It belongs to the University.” Brenda’s face was flushing with annoyance; her hands were shaking as her stress levels rose. “At last, thank you.” Sarcasm was dripping off her words. Bloody bureaucrats, she thought. She listened some more. “Of course I know what I’m talking about,” she replied angrily to the doubter on the other end of the line, “I’m a bloody professor. I have a team of six people and a security guard, all presenting the same extreme fever symptoms. Just get the bloody ambulances, NOW.” She rang off before she said something that she would later regret.
Jimmy looked at her, never having seen her angry before. In spite of his condition, his desire for her grew. Angry women; who knew, he pondered in surprise.
Brenda looked around the room and spied a cot in the corner. It looked ex-military with a black-painted cast iron frame, a thin mattress and a soft pillow. Walking over to it, she noticed it was covered with dust. She’d hoped to be able to lay Jimmy on it until the ambulance came, but she was afraid of the fine powder. He’d have to try and stay on the stool for a little while longer.
“Jimmy, I have to go and see my people for a few minutes. I’ll be right back. Will you be okay? I’ve called for an ambulance, they should be here soon.”
He nodded absently; his mind was drifting, wanting to keep as still as possible to reduce the feeling that his brain was floating in hot molasses. In his weakened state he barely registered the door opening and closing as Brenda left. Once outside she realised how hot the hut had been, the heating must be up full blast. Maybe that accounted for his high temperature. Walking over to the archaeology tent, she saw her team had assembled. That was probably over-stating it somewhat. They were there, some lying on the ground, others drooped over the canvas and wood chairs. A low murmuring, a sort of groan was coming from the group.
Dear God, she thought to herself, what they hell is going on? And where are those bloody ambulances? On cue, she began to hear their ululating tones in the distance. It certainly seemed that in spite of everything, she had been understood by the operator; it sounded like a whole fleet of emergency services vehicles were on their way. Walking over to her people, she began to feel their foreheads, trying to determine how sick they actually were. All had extreme temperatures; so then, it appeared Jimmy’s temperature hadn’t been because of the overheated hut. She felt for her own pulse; although a little fast, she was somehow in better shape than anyone else on this site. Then she remembered, the doctor at the lab had replaced the syringe of blood he had taken from her with a B12 shot and some antibiotics. That would explain her improved physical condition.
A couple of ambulances arrived, screeching to a halt at the locked gates. She ran over to them and allowed them through. They drove across the site to the tents and the green uniformed medics jumped out, one of each two man team making their way to the rear of each wagon where they climbed in to get their medical kit. The others walked briskly to the stricken group and looked them over. Brenda had followed the vehicles after they drove in and spoke to a woman in the back of one of the ambulances.
“Where are the others? We have six people here and a security guard in the hut. There’s no way you can get them all into these two.”
“You’re lucky you’ve got us ’cos there’s a bit of a flap on at the moment. Can’t you hear all the sirens everywhere?” the medic asked, incredulous. “I reckon there’s some sort of outbreak going on; we’re all getting similar calls to yours. If your people can walk, we’ll share them out between our ambulances and get them to the hospital; otherwise they’ll have a long wait if they want to lie down.”
Her partner, a tall, skinny cadaver of a man, walked quickly back to her and climbed into the ambulance. “I think we can’t do much for them here. I think it’s best we just get them to the hospital. We can divide them between the ambulances.”
“That’s just what we’ve been discussing, Paul. Let’s do it. I get the sneaky suspicion that this day is only going to get worse.”
They climbed out of the ambulance and were joined by the other crew. Paul, apparently the more senior of the teams spoke first.
“We’ll split them up between ambulances. It looks like they’re all pretty bad so there’s no priority case here. I’ll go over and get the security guard; he can go in my bus.”
They set off to complete the task, efficiently but gently walking the ill to the vehicles. A couple threw up on the way, the vomit a combination of bile and a small amount of blood. The presence of blood was indicative of a serious problem that was going to place them at the top of the triage priority list.
Brenda accompanied Paul, the medic, to the hut. As they opened the door Brenda gasped in horror. Poor old Jimmy was standing at the window, blood trickling from his eyes. He’d rubbed them at some point and had smeared the blood across his face in a gory mess. The medic was the first to react, being used to sights like this and worse. Rushing to Jimmy’s side, he put one arm around him and led him to the cot in the corner. Remembering the dust all over it, Brenda tried to stop the inevitable.
“Stop! Don’t…” she cried.
Too late, Jimmy fell forward and his collision with the mattress blew dust upwards like a cloud, enveloping Paul’s face. Paul gasped and bent double in an attack of coughing, frantically rubbing his eyes in spite of his training not to do so. Brenda was Afraid to help; she knew the dust was the problem and was hesitant to come to their aid. Taking in a lungful of fresh air and squinting her eyes shut as much as possible, Brenda walked into the cloud and grabbed Paul. Leading him out of the hut she sat him on a tin drum by the door. Breathing deeply, hyperventilating to prepare herself once more, she held her breath and plunged back into the hut. Moments later she emerged, half-carrying, half leading Jimmy into the weak summer sun. He collapsed to his knees, uttering a low, persistent moan. His fingers had curled into claws, stiff as if in rigor mortis, his arms twitching in reflexive paroxysms.
Paul’s medical partner rushed over, having already seen to the boarding of the rest of the sick.
“What the bloody hell’s gone on here? Has he attacked Paul?” she glared accusingly at Jimmy, who remained oblivious to the accusation.
“Don’t be bloody stupid. Can’t you see the man is incapable?” Brenda reacted proprietorially over the verbal assault. Jimmy may be a half-assed security guard, but he was her security guard.
The woman peered more closely, saw the state of the patient and backed off, raising her hands in acquiescence.
“I’ve never seen anything like this before. What’s the problem?”
“Jeez, I don’t know. See to your partner, he’s got dust in his eyes. They’ll need washing. He should also be checked into the hospital. I think the dust is the cause, and he’s just inhaled a shit-load.”
The woman’s face creased in fear for her partner. She fancies him, Brenda thought.
“What’s your name?”
“Aanisah,” she replied. Snapping out of her emotional state she delved into her bag, brought out an eye wash bottle and began to bathe Paul’s eyes.
“I’ll take Jimmy here over to the ambulance while you do that. If there is a problem in the area, then the sooner we get to the A&E the better, or your partner will end up in a long queue of sick people.”
With that, Brenda assisted the unfortunate guard to the vehicle. Aanisah had completed washing Paul’s eyes out and was close behind, leading him to the passenger seat up front. Climbing in the back and securing her charge, the professor closed the doors and called up front that they were ready. Aanisah acknowledged and started the vehicle. It pulled away slowly, and Brenda gripped a hand rail on the ceiling of the cabin; as there were no more seats, she was obliged to stand for the short journey to the hospital. With sirens sounding and lights flashing the two ambulances charged out of the site, leaving the gates open.
Throughout the area the cacophony of sirens hailed the change that was coming.
Copyright © 2013 David Kingsley Roberts