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We Circle Through the Darkness

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When Althea reviews her notes from the beginning – what they think is the beginning – she has to go back a few years. Their best guess at an index patient comes from a routine check-up in Brazil. The records aren’t high on the kind of detail they need, just normal medical notes. No one knew there was anything to look out for then. The doctor had noted the strain was weird, not something they recognised. 

An understatement, as it turned out. 

The progression has been unlike anything they’ve seen. PIV-1 is infecting millions on a daily basis and the rate is increasing exponentially. 

Yet, they’re still struggling to persuade governments to pay attention and, most importantly, invest in research. As it stands, they’re limited in how much they can find out about the pathogen. 

This thing’s more contagious than the common cold but because the symptoms are about as benign as the cold, funding is hard to come by. The WHO has placed it on the watchlist, but people still don’t see the need to take it too seriously. Today, she has a date in the lab with PIV-1’s genetic material. They’re still trying to work out exactly what they’re dealing with. 


Things turn after that. Last month, Brazil had announced the closure of airports to commercial traffic in an effort to limit the spread of the disease. Across the world, other countries are obviously watching to see if they should follow suit but predictably, all hesitate. They don’t realise it’s probably already too late, was too late some time ago. Based on the available data, Althea knows the virus is essentially global already. Every epidemiologist worth anything can tell that.  

However, amidst all of that, today represents progress and a hard-won victory. She’s in a meeting today, where they’re discussing sending research teams to infected countries across the globe. It may speed progress on decoding the pathogen and the development of a vaccine.  

They’ve done their best to coordinate efforts across the globe but physical distance has proved a formidable barrier. This is a global pandemic; a global approach is required.  

Althea knows that had this meeting taken place a few years ago, things would have been simpler and the time invaluable. 

Yet, the focus now being applied sparks hope within her. 

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On the airfield, as they prepare for departure, everything is serene and perfectly normal to all appearances. Outside, however, the team know that life is far from typical. The disease remains fairly innocuous at present and therefore very good at spreading itself; victims struggle with coughing fits and insomnia, among a few other symptoms. The real problem for the average person is the sheer ubiquity of it. People can’t decide whether to panic or not yet. The situation is febrile.  

In the air though, the atmosphere is more buoyant than anyone can recall it being in some time. The sheer tangibility of this new forward momentum is infectious – in a good way.  

Some hours later, they alight at Japan and head straight from the airport to the office. Their colleagues are likewise happy that the disease is being given the appropriate priority and the meeting goes well. No startling new conclusions are reached at this inaugural meeting – everyone’s still settling into things, exploring the contours of the new role.  

They discuss the latest progress and reach an agreement to exchange data and samples. It’s a promising start.

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News of the first attributable death to PIV-1 comes from Russia in the early hours of the morning, as they prepare to depart to Greece.  

It had only been a matter of time but nevertheless, it makes the lack of meaningful advancement even more keenly felt as they board the plane. They’ve had some success at sequencing the genome, but its mutation pattern remains frustratingly complex and it now no longer appears to be interested in preserving its host. 

When they arrive in Greece, one could still be forgiven for thinking that the world wasn’t in the grip of the worst pandemic in history. In the distance, workers still continue about their business.  

The signs of life outside can be seen in the expressions and tense postures of the people meeting them at the airport to bring them to the office. 

The work proceeds as well as it could, but the shadow cast by recent deaths make even that feel like the worst kind of failure. Everyone seems frustrated at their inability to will the data to give a simple solution. 

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The death toll is increasing at a grim pace. Their next trip therefore comes sooner than they had originally envisioned. The tentative projection of a trip a month looks laughable in the face of recent developments. 

They leave for Indonesia barely a fortnight later, in the end, only taking the time to determine the best location to visit and coordinate with their Indonesian counterparts.  

Conversely then, this meeting is somewhat more hopeful than any others have been recently. There have been some recent breakthroughs in culturing the virus and the meeting focusses on potential avenues of research and the results of the latest experiments. It feels as if they might finally be on the right track and they visit a lab to review the current trials and carry out some field work.  

When they leave, it’s with fresh, workable data and renewed vigour.  

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It’s three months since the announcement of the first death when it’s declared that there’s no longer any uninfected people alive. The mortality rate of the disease is inexorable and even though every country is dedicating full resources to research, they can’t seem to get a fix on the pathogen. 

They have reams of data on it. There’s little doubt that without this initiative, they’d know far less about it and be in a much worse position. And yet, a workable vaccine still isn’t within any kind of foreseeable distance. 

As they depart for the USA, the air is heavy with the sense that they don’t have much time left. Everyone on the plane has lost at least one person that’s close to them. Some don’t have anyone left, just this.  

The pall is familiar when they step off the plane. They’re fully suited in protective gear, as are the people meeting them. They can no longer leave anything at all to chance. In the year since it’s made itself known, the disease has evolved beyond all recognition and any exposure at all is almost guaranteed to be fatal. 

Everyone is subdued when they gather for the latest meeting. They have plenty of data but the conclusions they’re able to draw from it are limited. Field work is becoming increasingly dangerous – not because of the obvious risk for infection, but because the social order has inevitably broken down and did so some time ago. Going out into cities puts you at more risk from fellow humans than from the pathogen.  

They still try. But when they leave, it’s with the knowledge that the trip gave them little of value.  

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It’s not long before the trips are nearly impossible to arrange. The sheer amount of organisation required is severely hampered by the simple fact that nearly everyone on the planet is dead. 

Even from within the suit, it almost feels that the air’s filled with a miasma that seeps into the very marrow of you. 

They may not yet be infected – and despite everything, they know it’s yet – but the physical exhaustion, the sheer mental fatigue that hangs over them nearly has them buckled with the weight.  

They’re due to land at France shortly. In their files, they have records of several new developments and results of experiments that would have been promising several months ago. Now, no one talks aloud of the very real possibility that there’s no longer enough scientists left alive to do anything with any of it. 

Or whether there’s enough of humanity left for it to mean anything. 

When they do step off the plane, there’s no on there to meet them. This isn’t new – the past few times, they’ve had to make their own way to the site. Someone tries to call their contact but can’t get an answer. That’s not new either. It can be difficult to keep everyone updated on the latest contact information these days. 

They try different numbers, anyone that they have a record of in their files. No one answers. Frustrated, they try to contact their own people to find out if they know of anyone else they can get here.  

There’s no answer from them either. The team only left a few hours ago – they know they should be able to get someone but still no one answers. 

They stand in the airfield.  

Everything is serene and perfectly normal to all appearances.