Home > The Girl with All the Gifts(5)

The Girl with All the Gifts(5)
M.R. Carey

Then she puts down the bone-saw and picks up a screwdriver – part of a set that her father received as a free gift from the Reader’s Digest publishing company when he subscribed to some of their products more than thirty years previously.

The next part is delicate, and difficult. She probes the cuts with the tip of the screwdriver, levering them further open where she can, but making sure that she never inserts the screwdriver’s business end deep enough to damage the brain beneath.

The subject sighs, although he has no need for oxygen any more. “Soon be done,” Dr Caldwell says, and feels foolish a half-second later. This is not a conversation, or a shared experience of any kind.

She sees Selkirk watching her, with a slightly guarded expression. Piqued, she snaps her fingers and points, making Selkirk pick up the bone-saw and hand it back to her.

Now she’s engaged in a ballet of infinitesimal increments – testing the skull with the tip of the screwdriver to see where it moves, going in with the saw again where there’s resistance, and gradually levering the whole top of the skull loose in one piece.

Which is the hardest part, now done.

Lifting the front of the calvarium, Caldwell snips loose cranial nerves and blood vessels with a number ten pencil-grip scalpel, lifting the brain gently from the front as it comes free. Once the spinal cord is exposed, she cuts that too.

But she doesn’t try to lift the brain all the way out. Now that it’s free, she hands the scalpel back to Selkirk and accepts a pair of snub-nosed pliers, with which she removes, very carefully, the few jagged edges of bone that stand proud from the rim of the hole she’s made in the skull. It’s all too easy to gouge troughs in the brain as you lift it through that makeshift trapdoor, and then it’s of such limited use you might as well throw it away.

Now she lifts it; with both hands, from underneath, teasing it up with the tips of her fingers through the opening in the skull without ever letting it touch the edge.

And sets it down, with great care, on the cutting board.

Subject number twenty-two, whose name was Liam if you accept the idea of giving these things a name, continues to stare at her, his eyes tracking her movements. It doesn’t mean he’s alive. Dr Caldwell takes the view that the moment of death is the moment when the pathogen crosses the blood–brain barrier. What’s left, though its heart may beat (some ten or twelve times per minute), and though it speaks and can even be christened with a boy’s name or a girl’s name, is not the host. It’s the parasite.

And the parasite, whose needs and tropisms are very different from human needs and human instincts, is a diligent steward. It continues to run a wide range of bodily systems and networks without reference to the brain, which is just as well seeing as the brain is about to be cut into thin slices and set between glass plates.

“Shall I take the rest of the spinal cord out?” Selkirk asks. She has that tentative, pleading tone in her voice that Caldwell despises. She’s like a beggar on a street corner, asking not for money or food but for mercy. Don’t make me do anything nasty or difficult.

Dr Caldwell, who is prepping the razor, doesn’t even look around. “Sure,” she says. “Go ahead.”

She’s brusque in her manner, even surly, because this part of the procedure, more than any other, hurts her professional pride. If anything were ever to make her shake her fist at the untenanted heavens, it would be this. She’s read about how brains were sliced and mounted in the good old days, before the Breakdown. There was a device called an ATLUM – an automated lathe ultramicrotome – which with its diamond blade could be calibrated to slice brains into perfect cross-sections of single-neuron thickness. Thirty thousand slices per millimetre, give or take.

The best that Dr Caldwell’s guillotine can manage, without smearing and crushing the fragile structures she wants to look at, is about ten slices per millimetre.

Mention Robert Edwards to Dr Caldwell. Mention Elizabeth Blackburn, Günter Blobel or Carol Greider, or any cellular biologist who ever got the Nobel prize, and see what she says.

More often than not she’ll say: I bet he (or she) had an automated lathe ultramicrotome. And a TEAM 0.5 transmission electron microscope, and a live-cell imaging system, and an army of grad students, interns and lab assistants to handle the dull routine of processing so the Nobel laureate would be free to waltz in the moonlight with his frigging muse.

Dr Caldwell is trying to save the world, and she feels like she’s wearing oven mitts instead of surgical gloves. She had her chance once to do it in style. But nothing came of it, and here she is. Alone, but complete unto herself. Still fighting.

Selkirk gives a bleat of dismay, jolting Caldwell out of her profitless reverie. “Spinal cord is severed, Doctor. Level with the twelfth vertebra.”

“Toss it,” Dr Caldwell mutters. She doesn’t even try to hide her contempt.

8

One hundred and seventeen days have passed since the day when Liam and Marcia were taken away and didn’t come back.

Melanie continues to think about it and worry at it, but she still hasn’t asked Miss Justineau – or anyone else – what happened to them. The closest she’s come is to ask Mr Whitaker what two little ducks means. She remembers Dr Caldwell saying those words on the day when it all happened.

Mr Whitaker is having one of those up-and-down days when he brings his bottle into class – the bottle full to the brim with the medicine that makes him first better and then worse. Melanie has watched this strange and mildly disturbing progress enough times that she can predict its course. Mr Whitaker comes into class nervous and irritable, determined to find fault with everything the children say or do.

Then he drinks the medicine, and it spreads through him like ink through water (it was Miss Justineau who showed them what that looks like). His body relaxes, losing its tics and twitches. His mind relaxes too, and for a little while he’s gentle and patient with everyone. If he could only stop at that point, it would be wonderful, but he keeps drinking and the miracle is reversed. It’s not that Mr Whitaker gets grumpy again. What he gets is something worse, something quite awful, that Melanie doesn’t have a name for. He seems to sink in on himself in total misery, and at the same time try to shrink away from himself as though there’s something inside him that’s too nasty to touch. Sometimes he cries, and says he’s sorry – not to the children, but to someone else who isn’t really there, and whose name keeps changing.

Knowing this cycle well, Melanie times her question to coincide with the expansive phase. What might those two little ducks be, she asks Mr Whitaker, that Dr Caldwell mentioned? Why did she mention them right then, on the day when she took Marcia and Liam away?

“It’s from a game called bingo,” Mr Whitaker tells her, his voice only a little blurred around the edges. “In the game, each player gets a card full of numbers from one to a hundred. The caller calls out numbers at random, and the first player to have all their numbers called wins a prize.”

“Are the two little ducks one of the prizes?” Melanie asks him.

“No, Melanie, they’re one of the numbers. It’s sort of a code. Every number has a special phrase or group of words attached to it. Two little ducks is twenty-two, because of the shapes the numbers make on the page. Look.” He draws them on the whiteboard. “They look just like ducks swimming along, you see?”

Melanie thinks they look more like swans actually, but the game of bingo doesn’t interest her very much. So all Dr Caldwell was doing was saying twenty-two twice, once in ordinary numbers and once in this code. Saying two times over that she was choosing Liam instead of someone else.

Choosing him for what?

Melanie thinks about numbers. Her secret language uses numbers – different numbers of fingers held up with your right hand and your left hand, or your right hand twice, if your left hand is still tied to the chair. That makes six times six different combinations (because holding up no fingers is a signal too) – enough for all the letters of the alphabet and special signs for all the teachers and Dr Caldwell and Sergeant, plus a question mark and a sign that means “I’m joking”.

A hundred and seventeen days means that it’s summer now. Maybe Miss Justineau will bring the world into the classroom again – will show them what summer looks like, the way she did with spring. But Miss Justineau is different these days, when she’s with the class. She sometimes forgets what she’s saying, breaks off mid-sentence and goes quiet for a long time before she starts up again, usually with something completely different.

She reads from books a lot more, and organises games and sing-songs a lot less.

Maybe Miss Justineau is sad for some reason. That thought makes Melanie both desperate and angry. She wants to protect Miss Justineau, and she wants to know who’d be so horrible as to make her sad. If she could find out who it was, she doesn’t know what she’d do to them, but it would make them very sorry.

And when she starts to think about who it might be, there’s really only one name that comes into her mind.

And here he is walking into the classroom now, at the head of half a dozen of his people, his scowling face half crossed out by the wobbly diagonal of his scar. He puts his hands on the handles of Melanie’s chair, swivels it around and pushes it out of the classroom. He does it really fast and jerky, the way he does most things. He wheels the chair right past the door of Melanie’s cell, then he backs in, pushing the door open with his bottom, and spins the chair around so sharply and suddenly it makes Melanie dizzy.

Two of Sergeant’s people come in behind him, but they don’t go anywhere near the chair. They stand to attention and wait until Sergeant nods permission. One of them covers Melanie with his handgun while the other starts to undo the straps, the neck strap first and from behind.

Melanie meets Sergeant’s gaze, feeling something inside her clench like a fist. It’s Sergeant’s fault that Miss Justineau is sad. It has to be, because she only started to be sad after Sergeant got mad with her and told her she’d broken the rules.

“Look at you,” he says to Melanie now. “Face all screwed up like a tragedy mask. Like you’ve got feelings. Jesus Christ!”

Melanie scowls at him, as fierce as she can get. “If I had a box full of all the evils of the world,” she tells him, “I’d open it just a little way and push you inside. Then I’d close it again for always.”

Sergeant laughs, and there’s surprise in the laugh – like he can’t believe what he just heard. “Well, shit,” he says, “I’d better make sure you never get hold of a box.”

Melanie is outraged that he took the biggest insult she could think of and laughed it off. She casts around desperately for a way to raise the stakes. “She loves me!” she blurts. “That’s why she stroked my hair! Because she loves me and wants to be with me! And all you do is make her sad, so she hates you! She hates you as bad as if you were a hungry!”

Sergeant stares at her, and something happens in his face. It’s like he’s surprised, and then he’s scared, and then he’s angry. The fingers of his big hands pull back slowly into fists.

He puts his hands on the arms of the chair and slams it back against the wall. His face is very close to Melanie’s, and it’s all red and twisty.

“I will fu**ing dismantle you, you little roach!” he says in a choking voice.

Sergeant’s people are watching all this with anxious looks on their faces. They look like they think there’s something they should be doing but they’re not sure what it is. One of them says, “Sergeant Parks…” but then doesn’t say anything else.

Sergeant straightens up and steps back, makes a gesture that’s halfway to being a shrug. “We’re done here,” he says.

“She’s still strapped in,” says the other one of Sergeant’s people.

“Too bad,” says Sergeant. He throws the door open and waits for them to move, looking at one of them and then the other until they give up and leave Melanie where she is and go out through the door.

“Sweet dreams, kid,” Sergeant says. He slams the door shut behind him, and she hears the bolts shoot home.

One.

Two.

Three.

9

“I’m concerned about your objectivity,” Dr Caldwell tells Helen Justineau.

Justineau doesn’t answer, but her face probably says excuse me? all by itself.

“We’re examining these subjects for a reason,” Caldwell goes on. “You wouldn’t necessarily know it from the level of support we get, but our research programme is incalculably important.”

Justineau still says nothing, and Caldwell seems to feel a need to fill the vacuum. Maybe to overfill it. “It’s no exaggeration to say that our survival as a race might depend on our figuring out why the infection has taken a different course in these children – as opposed to its normal progression in the other ninety-nine point nine nine nine per cent of subjects. Our survival, Helen. That’s what we’re playing for. Some hope of a future. Some way out of this mess.”

They’re in the lab, Caldwell’s workshop of filthy creation, which Justineau doesn’t often visit. She’s only here now because Caldwell summoned her. This base and this mission may both be under military jurisdiction, but Caldwell is still her boss, and when that call comes, she has to answer. Has to leave the classroom and visit the torture chamber.

Brains in jars. Tissue cultures in which recognisably human limbs and organs spawn lumpy cloudscapes of grey fungal matter. A hand and forearm – child-sized, of course – flayed and opened, the flesh pinned back and slivers of yellow plastic inserted to prise apart muscle and leave interior structures open to examination. The room is cluttered and claustrophobic, the blinds always drawn down to keep the outside world at a clinically optimum distance. The light – pure white, unforgivingly intense – comes from fluorescent tubes that lie flush with the ceiling.

Caldwell is preparing microscope slides, using a razor blade to take slivers of tissue from what looks like a tongue.

Justineau doesn’t flinch. She takes care to look at everything that’s there, because she’s a part of this process. Pretending not to see would, she believes, take her past some point of no return, past the event horizon of hypocrisy into a black hole of solipsism.

Christ, she might turn into Caroline Caldwell.

Who almost got to be part of the great big save-the-human-race think tank, back in the early days of what came to be called the Breakdown. A couple of dozen scientists, secret mission, secret government training – the biggest deal in a rapidly shrinking world. Many were called, and few were chosen. Caldwell was one of the ones at the front of the line when the doors closed in her face. Does that still sting, all these years later? Is that what drove her crazy?

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