Home > The Girl with All the Gifts(6)

The Girl with All the Gifts(6)
M.R. Carey

It was so long ago now that Justineau has forgotten most of the details. Three years after the first wave of infections, when the freefalling societies of the developed world hit what they mistakenly thought was bottom. In the UK the numbers of infected appeared briefly to have stabilised, and a hundred initiatives were discussed. Beacon was going to find the cure, reclaim the cities, and restore a much-longed-for status quo.

In that strange false dawn, two mobile labs were commissioned. They weren’t built from scratch – there wasn’t time enough for that. Instead they were jury-rigged quickly and elegantly by refitting two vehicles already owned by the London Natural History Museum.

Intended to house travelling exhibitions, Charles Darwin and Rosalind Franklin – Charlie and Rosie – now became huge roving research stations. Each was the length of an articulated truck, and almost twice as wide. Each was fitted with state-of-the-art biology and organic chemistry labs, together with berths for a crew of six researchers, four guards and two drivers. They also benefited from a range of refurbishments approved by the Department of Defence, including the fitting of caterpillar treads, inch-thick external armour and both forward-and rear-mounted field guns and flame-throwers.

The great green hopes, as they were called, were unveiled with as much fanfare as could be mustered. Politicians hoping to be the heroes of the coming human renaissance made speeches over them and broke champagne bottles off their bows. They were launched with tears and prayers and poems and exordiums.

Into oblivion.

Things fell apart really quickly after that – the respite was just a chaos artefact, created by powerful forces momentarily cancelling each other out. The infection was still spreading, and global capitalism was still tearing itself apart – like the two giants eating each other in the Dalí painting called Autumn Cannibalism. No amount of expertly choreographed PR could prevail, in the end, against Armageddon. It strolled over the barricades and took its pleasure.

Nobody ever saw those hand-picked geniuses again. They’re left with the second division, the substitutes’ bench, the runners-up. Only Caroline Caldwell can save us now! God fu**ing help us.

“You didn’t bring me here to be objective,” Justineau reminds her superior, and she’s surprised that her voice sounds almost level. “You brought me in because you wanted psychological evaluations to supplement the raw physical data you get from your own research. If I’m objective, I’m worthless to you. I thought my engaging with the children’s thought processes was the whole point.”

Caldwell makes a non-committal gesture, purses her lips. She wears lipstick every day, despite its scarcity, and she wears it to good effect; puts up an optimal front to the world. In an age of rust, she comes up stainless steel.

“Engaging?” she says. “Engaging is fine, Helen. I’m talking about something beyond that.” She nods towards a stack of papers on one of the work surfaces, in among the Petri dishes and stacked slide boxes. “That top sheet, there. That’s a routine file copy of a request you made to Beacon. You wanted them to impose a moratorium on physical testing of the subjects.”

Justineau has no answer, apart from the obvious one. “I asked you to send me home,” she says. “On seven separate occasions. You refused.”

“You were brought here to do a job. The job still remains to be done. I choose to hold you to your contract.”

“Well, then you get the whole deal,” Justineau says. “If I was back in Beacon, maybe I could look the other way. If you keep me here, you have to put up with minor inconveniences like me having a conscience.”

Caldwell’s lips narrow down to a single ruled line. She reaches out and touches the handle of her razor, moves it so that it’s parallel with the edge of the table. “No,” she says. “I really don’t. I define the programme, and your part in it. And that part is still a necessary one, which is why I’m taking the time to talk to you now. I’m concerned, Helen. You seem to have made a fundamental error of judgement, and unless you can step away from it, it will taint all your observations of the subjects. You’ll be worse than useless.”

An error of judgement. Justineau considers a remark about the reliability of Caldwell’s own judgement, but trading insults isn’t going to win this. “Isn’t it apparent to you by now,” she says instead, “that the children’s responses are all within the normal human range? And mostly displaced towards the top end of that range?”

“You’re talking cognitively?”

“No, Caroline. I’m talking across the board. Cognitively. Emotionally. Associatively. The works.”

Caldwell shrugs. “Well, ‘the works’ would have to include their hard-wired reflexes. Anyone who experiences a feeding frenzy when they smell human flesh isn’t testing entirely within normal parameters, wouldn’t you agree?”

“You know what I mean.”

“Yes. And you know that you’re wrong.” Caldwell hasn’t raised her voice, shows no sign of being angry or impatient or frustrated. She might be a teacher, exposing a pupil’s sophomoric lapse of logic so that they can correct and improve. “The subjects aren’t human; they’re hungries. High-functioning hungries. The fact that they can talk may make them easier to empathise with, but it also makes them very much more dangerous than the animalistic variety we usually encounter. It’s a risk just having them here, inside the perimeter – which is why we were told to set up so very far from Beacon. But the information that we’re hoping to gain justifies that risk. It justifies anything.”

Justineau laughs – a harsh and ugly spasming of breath that hurts her coming out. It’s got to be said. There’s no way around it. “You carved up two children, Caroline. And you did it without anaesthetic.”

“They don’t respond to anaesthetic. Their brain cells have a lipid fraction so small that alveolar concentrations never cross the action threshold. Which in itself ought to tell you that the subjects’ ontological status is to some extent in doubt.”

“You’re dissecting kids!” Justineau repeats. “My God, you’re like the wicked witch in a fairy tale! I know you’ve got form. You cut up seven of them, didn’t you? Back before I got here. Before you requisitioned me. You stopped because there were no surprises. You weren’t finding anything you didn’t already know. But now, for some reason, you’re ignoring that fact and starting up again. So yeah, I went over your head because I was hoping there might be somebody sane up there.”

Justineau registers her own voice, realises that she’s too loud and too shrill. She falters into silence, waits to be told that she’s cashiered. It will be a relief. It will all be over. She’ll have taken it as far as she can, and she’ll have lost, and they’ll send her away. It will become somebody else’s problem. Of course she’d save the kids if she could, if there was any way, but you can’t save people from the world. There’s nowhere else to take them.

“I’d like you to see something,” Caldwell says.

Justineau doesn’t have any answer. She watches with an eerie sense of dislocation as Caldwell crosses to another part of the lab, comes back with a glass fish tank in which she’s set up one of her tissue cultures. It’s an older one, with several years of growth. The tank is about eighteen inches by twelve by ten inches high, and its interior is completely filled with a dense mass of fine, dark grey strands. Like plague-flavoured candy floss, Justineau thinks. It’s impossible even to tell what the original substrate was; it’s just lost in the toxic froth that has sprouted from it.

“This is all one organism,” Caldwell says, with pride and perhaps even a perverse kind of affection in her voice. She points. “And we know now what kind of organism it is. We finally figured it out.”

“I thought it was pretty obvious,” Justineau says.

If Caldwell hears the sarcasm, she doesn’t appear to be troubled by it. “Oh, we knew it was a fungus,” she agrees. “There was an assumption at first that the hungry pathogen had to be a virus or a bacterium. The swift onset, and the multiple vectors of infection, seemed to point in that direction. But there was plenty of evidence to support the fungal hypothesis. If the Breakdown hadn’t come so quickly, the organism would have been isolated within a matter of days.

“As it was … we had to wait a little while. In the chaos of those first few weeks, a great many things were lost. Any testing that was being done on the first victims was curtailed when those victims attacked, overpowered and fed on the physicians and scientists who were examining them. The exponential spread of the plague ensured that the same scenario was played out again and again. And of course the men and women who could have told us the most were always, by the nature of their work, the most exposed to infection.”

Caldwell speaks in the dry, inflectionless tone of a lecturer, but her expression hardens as she stares down at the thing that is both her nemesis and the focal point of her waking life.

“If you grow the pathogen in a dry, sterile medium,” she says, “it will eventually reveal its true nature. But its growth cycle is slow. Quite astonishingly slow. In the hungries themselves, it takes several years for the mycelial threads to appear on the surface of the skin – where they look like dark grey veins, or fine mottling. In agar, the process is slower still. This specimen is twelve years old, and it’s still immature. The sexual or germinating structures – sporangia or hymenia – have yet to form. That’s why it’s only possible to catch the infection from the bite of a hungry or direct exposure to its bodily fluids. After two decades, the pathogen still hasn’t spored. It can only bud asexually, in a nutrient solution. Ideally, human blood.”

“Why are you showing me this?” Justineau demands. “I’ve read the literature.”

“Yes, Helen,” Caldwell agrees. “But I wrote it. And I’m still writing it. Through the cultures I took from badly decayed hungries – cultures like this one – I was able to establish that the hungry pathogen is an old friend in a new suit. Ophiocordyceps unilateralis.

“We encountered it first as a parasite on ants. And its behaviour in that context made it notorious. Nature documentaries dwelled on every lurid detail.”

Caldwell proceeds to dwell on every lurid detail, but she really doesn’t need to. Back when she first identified the hungry pathogen as a mutant Cordyceps, she was so happy that she just had to share. She persuaded Beacon to approve an educational programme for all base personnel. They filed into the canteen in groups of twenty, and Caldwell started the show by playing a short extract from a David Attenborough documentary, dateline twenty years or so before Breakdown.

Attenborough’s perfectly pitched voice, honey from an English country garden, described with incongruous gentleness how Ophiocordyceps spores lie dormant on the forest floor in humid environments such as the South American rainforest. Foraging ants pick them up, without noticing, because the spores are sticky. They adhere to the underside of the ant’s thorax or abdomen. Once attached, they sprout mycelial threads which penetrate the ant’s body and attack its nervous system.

The fungus hot-wires the ant.

Images on the screen of ants convulsing, trying in vain to scrape the sticky spores off their body armour with quick, spasmodic sweeps of their legs. Doesn’t help. The spores have commenced digging in, and the ant’s nervous system is starting to flood with foreign chemicals – expert forgeries of its own neurotransmitters.

The fungus gets into the driving seat, puts its foot on the accelerator and drives the ant away. Makes it climb to the highest place it can reach – to a leaf fifty feet or more above the forest floor, where it digs in with its mandibles, locks itself immovably to the leaf’s spinal ridge.

The fungus spreads through the ant’s body and explodes out of its head – a phallic sporangium skull-fucking the dying insect from the inside. The sporangium sheds thousands of spores, and falling from that great height they spread for miles. Which of course is the point of the exercise.

Thousands of species of Cordyceps, each one a specialist, bonded uniquely with a particular species of ant.

But at some point a Cordyceps came along that was a lot less finicky. It jumped the species barrier, then the genus, family, order and class. It clawed its way to the top of the evolutionary tree, assuming for a moment that evolution is a tree and has a top. Of course, the fungus might have had a helping hand. It might have been grown in a lab, for any number of reasons; coaxed along with gene-splicing and injected RNA. Those were very big jumps.

“This,” Caldwell is saying, tapping the sealed lid of the fish tank, “is what’s inside the subjects’ heads. Inside their brains. When you walk into that classroom, you think you’re talking to children. But you’re not, Helen. You’re talking to the thing that killed the children.”

Justineau shakes her head. “I don’t believe that,” she says.

“I’m afraid it doesn’t matter what you believe.”

“They exhibit behavioural responses that have no bearing on the fungus’s survival.”

Caldwell shrugs off-handedly. “Yes, of course they do. For the moment. Waste not, want not. Ophiocordyceps doesn’t devour the entire nervous system all in one go. But if one of those things you think of as your pupils smells human flesh, human pheromones, it’s the fungus that you’ll be dealing with. The first thing it does is to consolidate its control of the motor cortex and the feeding reflex. That’s how it propagates itself – in saliva, mainly. The bite gives nourishment to the host and spreads the infection at the same time. Hence the extreme caution we take in the handling of the test subjects. And hence” – she sighed – “the need for this lecture.”

Justineau feels an intense desire to assert herself against a judgement that’s already been made. She takes hold of the lid of the fish tank and wrenches it open.

Caldwell gives a wordless yell as she recoils, hand clasped to her mouth.

Then she thinks about what she’s doing, and lowers her hand. She glares at Justineau, her cool detachment holed below the waterline.

“That was very stupid,” she says.

“But not dangerous,” Justineau points out. “You said it yourself, Caroline. No s*x org*ns yet. No spores. No way for the fungus to spread in air. It needs blood and sweat and spit and tears. You see? You’re just as likely as anyone to make a false assessment – to see a risk where there really isn’t any.”

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