The Patron Saint of Plagues
By Barth Anderson
Spectra Copyright © 2007 Barth Anderson
All right reserved. ISBN: 0553588354
Sunday, May 15. 11:00 a.m.
Mottled gold on green, like the shimmer of foil or the gleam on a sheen of motor oil, the plant looked unhealthy from stalk to leaves. Systemic cell death. Vein clearing and branding, which appeared as dark varicose veins shooting across withered leaves. Classic.
"This ain't happening," Stark said.
He scanned up the row, looking for more infected spinach plants. His grandfather's method of defense against vCaMV was to change up the varieties throughout the rows, planting no two plants of the same variety within ten feet of each other, which made for jagged, uneven growth and shaggy rows. Had the method broken down here? Stark could see the Bloomsdale spinaches, the Olympia, the Sailorman, de Wilde Savoy, and the Oklahoma Green, alternating through the rows. To outsiders, the seemingly haphazard plan looked like madness, but "gold mold," as the array of variants of cauliflower mosaic virus was commonly called, had never appeared here.
Adjusting his straw fedora to block the sun, Stark knelt and clipped a small leaf from the young spinach and slipped it into his field press.
"May 15," he said to the press, as it sighed nitrogen, enclosed the sample, and consulted with the NIA satellite.
A momentlater, the field press confirmed the obvious. vCaMV was here, on this farm, the place he grew up.
He stood and looked across Nissevalle Valley. The greenhouses had been emptied of sprouts, and fields were planted and primed for summer storms and sun. For nearly two decades, farms from Alberta to Chihuahua had battled seasonal vCaMV outbreaks for meager yields. Gold mold was known to sweep through whole regions in a single season, like a slow-motion prairie fire. But it had never come to Nissevalle. This quop was poised for another very profitable year, and losing shares now would be a disaster. Spinach rippled with passes of May breeze, and so did the corn, low and fluttering. Field hands in hats like Stark's weaved through the young crops as tillers dogged behind, maneuvering through the tomatoes on preprogrammed weeding missions. The idyllic haze of Nissevalle Farm suddenly looked like so much rot.
"Jesus," he whispered. "It really here."
After eighteen years away from this farm, Henry David Stark was still getting himself apace with death's routine visits here. It was one thing to behold it in a hot zone, or an anonymous hospital, but another entirely to see death pass between the paddocks and hay barns of his childhood. Yesterday morning in the creamery, loud with lowing and meowing and the mechanical gasp of milkers, a heavy-headed cow swung her face away from bright headlights shooting suddenly through the dawn's fog and stepped backwards with a stomping hoof, catching a small kitten unawares. Stark had cried out, trying to scare the cat from danger. But blink. Gone. Then, last night in the goat barn, Stark watched as three kids, slick with blood, slid out of their nanny's body, but without so much as a kick, or even a breath. Stark was surprised how such small passings troubled him, after what he'd seen in, say, China's Borna outbreak. But he'd left the CDC's Special Pathogens Unit to take charge of its Surveillance and Response Central Command two years ago, in order to distance himself from death's rhythms. In bringing the Central Command (that is, himself) to the co-op farm last January, it was inevitable that he'd synchronize himself with death--yet again.
The biggest rhythm of all, however, was the one that pounded straight to the brink--the farm's end. It was always there, that deadly rhythm--hail, a tornado, financial ruin--but as a boy, he never listened to it. Standing over the dying spinach plant, Stark felt that countless days on a farm could never make it ordinary.
As he began thumbing information about the spinach's variety and location into the field press, a stylized, red asterisk appeared before his eyes, eclipsing the LED display and his fingertips. Bad timing
His impulse was to shout across the spinach field to his grandfather, who was just now returning from disking up the green manure field on his International. But the field hands would hear, and most of them had lost their own farms to vCaMV. Yelling that he'd found gold mold would be like shouting fire
in a burn ward. Instead, he took off his hat and waved it over his head.
The red asterisk pulsed across his vision again. Congo's yellow fever, probably. Maybe the vaccination program's net hadn't been cast wide enough, and Queen Mum was alerting him to the need for more stockpiles. Stark glanced at the field hands working their way toward the spinach fields. On a quop
farm like this one, everyone was judged by their work. It had always been that way, even from Stark's childhood, when he couldn't wait to get out of the Junior League gardens and show that he could work with the adults. Even with the CDC calling for him, Stark didn't like leaving the field so soon after entering it.
Grandfather pulled up on the International Harvester he called Methuselah. A tall man, sturdy as a two-by-four, Grandfather's skin was so dark he seemed made of wood--and thanks to the krono he'd received in his forties, he looked half his ninety-one years. "What's shaking?" he said over the blatting engine, hands resting on the steering wheel. His heavy work gloves looked absurd with such skinny wrists sticking out of them.
"Shaking?" Stark shouted back. He rarely understood his grandfather's anachronisms. Or at least, he pretended not to.
"Did you find something?" Grandfather asked from atop the Harvester, older, even, than the man driving it.
The tractor wafted an enticing smell toward Stark: cut cover, a green and nourishing smell. Grandfather's cover crops of choice were buckwheat and oats, and he'd just tilled a field of them into the dirt, where they would compost and enrich the soil. Grandfather also claimed it was a defense against gold mold. Strong soil. Strong plants. Fewer diseases.
"Look, I hate to leave," said Stark, smelling green buckwheat as his grandfather cut the engine. "We all just started, but I got to check in with Mum."
While the tractor gave a protracted cough as it tried to fall silent, a red asterisk lit before Stark's eyes again. Red (as opposed to blue or yellow) usually meant that the Queen Mum was simply alerting him to an emergency. But when Stark blinked at this one to clear his vision, an urgent was waiting for him. He'd be able to read it on the interface in his contact lens's receiver, but he wouldn't be able to save the message or respond to it. It was a one-time shot. Whoever sent this message was desperate and had formatted it so that Stark would receive it without having to use his "brain gear"--a high-ranking official in a major health organization in dire need of speaking with Stark directly. While his grandfather slid down from the tractor on slow, rickety knees, Stark read the message.Sunday 15 May URGENT, Attention Dr. Henry Stark, the Ministry of
Well-being of the Holy Renaissance is not negotiating this outbreak with momentous etiquette.
The message would only be available for a few moments, but he took the time to reread that. Even after a third read, the sentence still made no sense to him.
Grandfather realized that Stark wasn't paying attention to him. "What? Bad news?"
Stark didn't answer.Minister Alejandro bore into the kingdom two WHO virologists, but they are commencing on untrue discoveries. This dengue is not dengue. It is not allocated by small flying beasts. Please touch me as soon as possible. I am the unique man witnessing reality. Urgent. Dr. Pedro Mu-oz.
Stark pursed his lips, frustrated. The Central Command's surveillance and response software was falling apart, obviously. "Look, I got to check in."
"I know that," Grandfather said, slipping off his gloves.
Stark gave a little astonished laugh. "How you know?"
"You start blinking hard right after you get your bat signal," said Grandfather, gloves in one hand, the other resting on his hip. "Plus, it's the only time I actually see you look nervous about anything."
Stark smiled. He liked that, though he imagined it wasn't the Code Red that made him look nervous. "Something else you should know," said Stark.
How to say it? Was it possible to break such news gently? This was a model farm in many ways, from its Land Reform cooperative structure to its success against vCaMV. In the corner of his eye, the infected plant fluttered like a green fire. Finally, he simply handed Grandfather the field press. "It all in here."
Grandfather took the press without opening it. "Why a doctor of your caliber, upon whom the whole world depends, elects to speak like a backwoods hick is beyond me. Whatever happened to the verb 'to be,' anyway?" he said in a sour voice.
"'It is all in here.' Say it."
all in here,'" Stark said in a grand English accent, slipping halfheartedly into their old banter. His eyes flitted to the field press. "I got to go."
He turned and ran up the gravel drive to the manor, feeling as though he'd activated the timer on a grenade and shoved it in his grandfather's hands.
Nissevalle Manor was a four-story mansion built with Land Reform earnings ten years ago, and it housed the fifty-three working members of the quop
. The house stood on a small bluff overlooking the farm's barns and sheds, the quilt of five-acre private fields, and the much larger, hundred-acre cooperative fields sprawling against the southern hill faces in this valley.
Stark ran up the dirt road from the spinach field and past the penetrating stench of the poultry barn, then yanked open the back door. From the spiral staircase, he could smell the posture-straightening scent of bacon frying. Dalia the Kitchen Czarina was feeding the early crew down in the dining hall after their shift, and as he ascended the spiral staircase to the fourth floor, Stark could hear a friendly argument about milk prices in the first-floor buyer's den, someone singing (badly) in a shower, the whine of the house pooch, an e-phone ringing on the second floor, the three Wheeler kids speaking in their imaginary language, a tractor's sudden bleat from the barn, laughter, chimes, a dripping faucet.
The cacophony of home.
Stark's fourth-floor room looked west over the members' private fields. An afterthought of a cubbyhole in the unfinished, pinewood hall, it was icy in winter, broiling in summer, and Stark knew the quop
had given it to him because nobody else wanted it.
He didn't complain. As a CDC administrator, Stark didn't bring much to the daily workings of a farm. Sure, he was an intern, a weeder when he wasn't sampling for vCaMV, but if he'd stayed here for the last twenty years instead of accepting the Junior League's scholarship for college when he was eighteen, he would have been a coordinator with years of experience in the quop
by now. His choice of rooms. A senior share at profit disbursement. But now he always had one foot planted in the outside world--in the Congo, or in the vast urban outbreaks that blossomed from Kazakhstan to Kirkuk. Stark knew that he was occupying a space that might better be filled by a farmer, so small as his room was, he was grateful that the quop was willing to house him at all.
Stark opened his bedroom door and swung his canvas bag onto the floor, ready to grab his brain gear, park his rump in the rocking chair, and contact the Command Center's satellite.
But he stopped short, hand still on the doorknob, as he realized that someone was standing in the middle of his room. Half in surprise, half in greeting, Stark said, "Hey."
The stranger lifted his face, lit with a sudden flash of alarm. It was Earl, the new arrival from Baltimore--a big, strapping fellow with forearms the size of bread loaves. As their eyes met, Stark was about to step backwards into the hall, but Earl seemed more frightened of Stark. "Oh. Hello," he said. "I--"
"What going on?" said Stark. "Why you in my room?"
"Pardon me, please," said Earl, his bush of black hair bobbing as he took a step toward Stark and the door. "I think I in the wrong room."
Stark snorted in mockery. Everyone knew that new arrivals like Earl stayed with the nonmember interns in the first-floor dorm. With gold mold still wiping out farms every summer, even experienced field hands were lucky to get a membership here. "I think you knew you ain't in the right room." Stark's eyes darted to his brain gear, still dangling like a rubber squid on his rocker. Then his eyes shifted to his desk, where all the discs and his memboard sat, just as he'd left them last night. His only valuables hadn't been touched or taken. "What you want in here?"
Earl looked honestly shocked and embarrassed. "Nothing. I promise. I--" He took a step toward Stark and the door.
Stark blocked his way. "Come on. What you doin here? You didn't steal nothing that I can--"
"No. Search me if you like." Earl raised his hands. "I ain't no thief."
"Then what you want?"
Earl's face colored. "I met a girl. She told me she lived up on the fourth floor. I thought this was--"
"You lie good," Stark said. "But you lyin." His fists clenched in anger--and fear, as he contemplated what this huge man could do to him if things got rough. "You looking for the head of Surveillance and Response, ain't you. You reporting to someone overseas?"
It wasn't long, but Earl paused and blinked, and Stark knew that he'd hit the mark. "No, this girl said--"
"Well, you found me," said Stark. He spread his hands and let them flop to his sides. "Now what? You obviously don't want to interfere with me, or hurt me, or you'd a done it already. Might as well tell me who you're with."
Earl sighed and apparently decided he was done with the act and done with Stark, shoving him aside with a hard sweep of his arm.
"Go downstairs and pack up," Stark shouted at Earl's back, following him to the stairwell and yelling after the man as he ran down the steps. "Gonna see to it you get kicked out! Tonight!"
Earl picked up speed, running downstairs, but then he stopped and stuck his head into the center of the spiral staircase, looking up at Stark. "You think that scares me? You think I some homeless farmer looking for a handout from your grampa?"
"You the one runnin."
Earl grinned wolfishly up at him, and said, "I ain't the first to get inside your room, Dr. Stark of the CDC." Then he started trotting down the stairs again, saying, "And I won't be the last."From the Trade Paperback edition. Continues...
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