‘You do understand, Mr. McDermott, this treatment is highly experimental, and you'll have to stay close to the medical facility for a while?’
‘Yeah, yeah, so Coach tells me . . .’
Gen told herself his drawl was normal for someone from a small town in the Mid West, but the flat, heavy tones still irritated her. In most ways, though, he was the ideal guinea-pig in this early stage of testing, twice as big as most men, incredibly fit, and about as imaginative as a log. He showed no awareness of the serious risks he ran in agreeing to the course of twenty injections. Quite apart from unknown and possibly unpleasant side-effects and the chance that the treatment might fail to arrest the development of his condition, there was the content of the injections themselves. As a dedicated research scientist, Gen had always thought she would be prepared to try out new treatments on herself. But the idea of those alien things cruising through her arteries, she visualised them as shark-like scavengers, hunting for the chemical signature of m-t cells, well, it made her blood run cold. She brought her attention back to McDermott's unappealing face. He was speaking again, very slowly. It reminded her, embarrassingly, of jokes about the effects on brain activity of too much pro football.
‘What I want to know is, Miss err?’
‘Madison, Doctor Madison.’
‘Okay, so what I want to know is, Doctor,’ and he emphasised the last word slightly in what she felt was an attempt to put her in her place, ‘how soon can I get back to competitive events?’
‘Well, Mr. McDermott, the course of injections is almost finished. Your last one is scheduled for Friday afternoon. But we need to keep you under observation for at least two more weeks, and then at intervals of a month for another six months.’
‘Yeah, well, I can go with that, it's like when I did in my Achilles. Coach said I needed to rest easy for a day or two, and I always do what he says.’
Gen found his unwillingness or inability to face up to his situation, whichever it was, very disturbing. Once again, she rearranged the ornaments on her desk so as not to have to look at him, shifting the blue glass polar bear so that it formed a new isosceles triangle with the silver everlasting calendar and the little English corn-dolly from her trip home three years ago. ‘This is much more serious than an individual injury, Mr. McDermott.’ Her voice came out less firm than she would have liked. Hell, this is a whole lot harder than research on cells in a dish. Why won't they let us do tests on animals before proceeding to live human trials?
‘Not to me it isn't. That damned operation kept me out of the last Olympics, when I was good and ready for them too . . .’
‘Anyway, I hardly think you'll be ready for a competition in the next month or so, but perhaps some gentle training?’ She knew he was quite fanatical about his training regime. In the notes from his local doctor it said that every day McDermott did a hundred press-ups, skipped for two hours and swam twenty lengths, and that was when he wasn't getting ready for a major event. As if to underline his determination to return to professional sport at the first opportunity, he'd had worn tracksuits and trainers instead of pyjamas throughout his stay on the Ward. She thought again of how his amazing physique made him perfect for testing out a new and potentially dangerous drug. Half the problem in such testing was the strain that allergic reactions placed on the patient's physiological system. Body temperature swinging between extremes of hot and cold, blistering of the digestive tract, erratic behaviour in the heart muscles, these sorts of side-effects could make testing a treatment almost as dangerous as allowing the illness to run its course. Normally, milo-thenemia was diagnosed so late that patients' bodies were exhausted, far too weak to be the subject of a new treatment. But McDermott's blood was screened regularly for steroids and other compounds prohibited in competitive sports. Unusually high levels of blood sugar had led to further tests and news of his condition was rushed to Professor Ovens who was Gen Madison's boss on the research team.
Briefly, Gen put aside her dislike and tried to consider Mick McDermott as a person, feeling a stab of pity rare to her nature. Milo-thenemia didn't kill straight away. Instead, and progressively, it ate away at the tendons that controlled each muscle in the body until the patient was a total cripple. Near the end, which could come months or years later, his throat muscles wouldn't even be able to swallow a lethal dose of sleeping tablets if his life had become unendurable. It was a fate that would horrify anyone, but how much worse for a man who gloried in the strength of his body? Mick's chosen sport was the terrathon, cross-country endurance races that took in every kind of rough climbing and survival skills. As the North American champion for the past five years, his face was familiar to Gen from newscast pictures, usually grinning in triumph at some award ceremony, although she'd also caught a picture of him once, taken from a TV helicopter, as he sweated his way up a narrow gully on a sandstone cliff. She remembered with distaste how the effort of dragging himself up the impossibly angled gap had made his lips draw back from his teeth in a feral snarl. But he was different when you met him in person, quieter and more ordinary looking. Apart from the massive hands resting rock steady on each knee, and the legs as thick as young trees, he could have been any man waiting to go shopping on a Saturday morning. Gen shopped alone these days but she sometimes looked wistfully at the couples buying their week's groceries together. It must turn what could be a boring chore into an extra part of their relationship.
‘So,’ he went on, dragging her back to the job in hand from what he no doubt saw as another moment’s inattention, ‘training next week and competitions as soon as Coach says I'm ready, huh?’
‘Something like that,’ she agreed to placate him, making a mental note to have a serious talk with Mick’s coach. James D. Prowess was a type of person she liked even less than the professional jock sitting all over her best visitors’ chair. From the beginning, she'd been aware that Prowess saw the treatment as an entirely mechanical activity, shorn of both its risks to Mick and its long term benefits to hundreds of Mick’s fellow sufferers. He’d asked her what it cost and how long it took as if he was sending his second best auto in for a re-bore. Had the illness not already been producing a small reduction in Mick’s performance levels, she doubted the champion would even have been told about the treatment. Prowess would simply have milked him for the present and left him on the scrap-heap in future years.
Apparently satisfied he had the green light to go back to his unusual life style, Mick left her office, slamming the door behind him loudly. She sat on at her desk, however, staring thoughtfully through the window into the internal courtyard, where streams of blue and gold water trickled through a tangle of tropical plants. It wasn’t anything like the arid wilderness that Mick chose for his crazy stunts, closer perhaps to a jungle prowled by ruthless predators such as Prowess.
On Friday night, Mick hit a bar in Forty-Second Street for a couple of beers before going back alone to his apartment. It was a mess and he kicked the pile of unwashed sports clothes aside to get at the answering machine next to his bed. There were several messages waiting, including one from a girl he’d picked up some weeks back at a post-race party. Lolinda, big breasts and an even bigger smile, which he remembered with pleasure. Plus there was a message from a money-lender who'd been giving him some grief over repayments on the Chevy. But thoughts of both of these were thrust aside as he recognised Coach's voice. ‘Hi there, it’s Jimbo! Got some good news for you, Micky boy. Pre-match training event starting in Colorado Hills next Wednesday. I'm out of town this weekend but you be at JFK nine-thirty Tuesday night, usual VIP Lounge, and I'll go through the timetable.’
Mick laid his plans carefully as if he was planning the strategy for a race. That iceberg Madison wanted him to take some more tests on Tuesday afternoon and stay in overnight for the results, but he was positive he could slip away from the ward without anyone noticing and catch up with her after Colorado. He had a hunch she wouldn't approve of his going so soon. To himself, he was willing to admit that the treatment had been pretty rough on him. There were open sores on his arms and legs around the site of each injection, and his system had sweated enough saline to frighten a marathon runner. But hell, a man in his world had to expect a little pain to reach peak fitness again after a setback. He reflected that he might have been a little rude to the kid doctor when she was trying to warn him, but this whole specialist hospital thing had him in a blue funk. It might be a necessary evil but nothing said he had to like the experience.
By the time the new set of results came in and Gen managed to locate Ovens for an urgent case conference, their star patient was twenty thousand feet up, sitting in a three across with Coach and Coach’s new flame, and toying with a glass of cold seltzer. The sores on Mick’s arms itched maddeningly and he scratched at them through the sleeves of his shirt, anxious that Prowess might cancel the training event if he thought Mick wasn’t up to it. The inadequate air conditioning in the passenger cabin was making the situation worse. The whole surface of his body was tingling with heat and he felt dizzy, as if he’d been exercising for too long on one of those multi-position contraptions. He ordered some more ice and forced himself to swallow his drink, one sip at a time.
Gen's light grey eyes watched the Professor’s face as he scanned the results. His expression was an echo of her own. Coupled with a natural concern for their present test subject was the fear that the treatment might prove impractical for other sufferers. ‘But it was going so well,’ she raged quietly, pushing the papers away from her so they slid untidily across the desk, piles of colourful graphs half obscuring sets of figures and hand written medical notes.
‘And it's the rise in body temperature you're most concerned about?’ he asked. They both knew that, despite his seniority, she was the brains behind the new development, and the one who had the best chance of dealing with any obstacles in the way of its implementation.
‘Yes, I didn't notice it before. There was so much variation in McDermott's daily readings that the pattern was obscured, but this last five tests all show, directly or indirectly, that the temperature in his heart and other organs is going up by perhaps half a degree per day. The other stuff about sugar retention could be caused by the illness itself so I'm keeping an open mind about that just now.’
‘Check. We know he had high blood sugar levels before he started the treatment,’ the Professor agreed, pulling the damning set of thermometer readings towards him again as if by staring at them he could come up with a solution. Once again, he went over their research in his mind, searching for some clue. Most treatments that involved the bacterial targeting of unwanted cells relied on using of one set of chemical reactions to enable the target’s cell wall to be penetrated by the attacker. Rather like giving each bacterial scavenger a single stun gun set to a high frequency. But milo-thenemia cells seemed to be able to vary the chemical structure of their cell walls so that a considerable proportion of them resisted penetration, almost as if they were communicating with each other. Gen’s idea had been to program into the scavengers the ability to adopt a varied range of behaviours, so that it would be less easy for the population of m-t cells to come up with a winning response. He could still recall his excitement when she ran the ideas past him for the first time. The Professor’s background was entirely in clinical studies, but Gen had started off with a doctorate in cybernetics and she regularly borrowed concepts from that area to help in her medical research. They'd been working late and had grabbed a cafeteria meal before going back to his office. He remembered her perched on his desk, drawing system diagrams on his blotter and talking up a storm. ‘You see, Gordon, it's based on the principle of requisite variety. Our scavengers have got to have at least as many states they can move through as the cells they are attacking.’
‘Are you saying that our attacking cells can learn what to do, the way we imagine the population of m-t cells is learning?’ he’d asked, leaning back in his chair to look up at her.
But she'd shaken her head decisively. ‘I don't find that comparison with learning very useful, Gordon. There isn't enough information about what happens when scavenger meets m-t. I know that studies on resistance to antibiotics have used the learning analogy but it's an unhelpful one. The pattern of selective mutation looks like a learning process from outside but how could cells that are being destroyed have any way of storing learned information in order to transfer it to other cells?’
‘What if they don't store it, but pass it on instantly?’ he’d suggested.
‘You mean like insects signalling where there's food?’
‘Yes, or like sting-rays releasing their purple dye into the water when under threat - some form of electrochemical signal that alters the behaviour of nearby members of the population who maybe pass it on equally fast?’ It was an interesting hypothesis, one he hadn’t been able to dismiss but which there seemed to be no way to test. Eventually, despite the long development time-scales involved, he’d given her plan the go-ahead. Nine months later the team’s biochemical engineers had successfully used a form of gene-splicing to combine genetic material from four slightly different bacteria into a single organism. Each bacterial strand had been grown by the team from the same grand-parent sample. They were as close as cousins but they attacked the m-t cells with subtly different chemical probes. Tried on Mick’s cells in a culture dish the scavengers had been one hundred percent successful in wiping out m-t. Like most experiments, though, it threw up as many questions as it answered. The most puzzling result from this one was that, as the number of m-t cells dropped in each sample, it was matched by a comparable drop in the number of scavenger cells. Eventually the team reached the point where the treatment had to be tested on a live patient. They’d been prepared for anything to happen, they’d had to be. Deployment inside the body, with all the other systems that comprised the environment, was an altogether more complex problem. But at first, everything had gone surprisingly smoothly and had continued to do so until the most recent set of tests.
‘We'll have to keep McDermott in for longer than just tonight,’ Gen groaned, already anticipating the athlete’s bullish unwillingness to be guided by her.
‘Do we tell him about the reaction?’ Ovens asked.
‘I think we should, don’t you? I don’t want to worry him. Though, Lord knows, that’s a difficult thing to do with our Mr. McD, but he’s bound to start noticing. The last thing we want is for him to think he's got an influenza and start taking off-the-shelf medicines without telling us.'
‘Agreed. Well, I'll leave the patient-contact stuff to you, Genny, but let me know how he takes the news, will you? I'll ring my wife in a minute and tell her I’m staying overnight at the facility to see if we can't come up with something.’
‘Thanks Gordon,’ she said bleakly, gathering up her papers again and stuffing them into the black leather satchel she'd carried since Med School. Why did trouble in their line of work always have to come when they were least expecting it and too tired to think properly?
At the Ward, she was met by an empty bed and a totally disappeared patient. Fulminating against all men, and terrathon champions in particular, she rang around the places she thought he might be, but without success. Eventually, and with great reluctance, she called Prowess. He'd been most uncooperative last week, refusing to support her plans for phasing in Mick's training gradually. She was going to find it difficult to treat the man civilly. But neither Prowess nor his glamorous secretary were available, and the message on the answer-machine made Gen put the phone down suddenly, her face even paler than usual.
The first stage of her journey to Colorado was in a private jet. Professor Ovens had a very rich patient suffering from milo-thenemia who was only too happy to help. As she flew over night-darkened hills and empty stretches of desert, Gen's thoughts lingered sadly on the way the plane’s owner was already being ravaged by the disease. Whatever they found in their work on Mick, it would probably be too late for the wasted man she'd seen for a few minutes this evening. But his condition made her even more determined, if that were possible, to succeed in cracking the m-t collaborative defence.
At Denver they were unable to trace Prowess so they went on by helicopter to an area the local police said was often used by terrathoners. All around them, giant ranges of weathered rock glowed pink, amber and lemon yellow in the fragile light of dawn. Gen rubbed tired, gritty eyes, anger at Prowess making her unable to respond to the beauty of the scene. In spite of the presence of an experienced observer sitting beside the pilot, she felt she should help in scanning the landscape for some clue to Mick's present location. Leaning forward, she spoke into the observer’s ear, over the noise of the engine. ‘What are we looking for, exactly?’
‘Anything, really. Maybe smoke if he's built a fire, maybe a glimpse of a tent or his anorak? These survival types tend to choose bright colours like orange and pink to make it easier to be found in this sort of situation.’
Gen nodded and sat back in her seat, but she doubted if the man knew what ‘this sort of situation’ really amounted to. Without Mick's continued co-operation, she wouldn't be prepared to risk testing on another candidate. Not for a long time, anyway. More people would get milo-thenemia and reach an incurable stage. Mick himself would die. And all because of that bastard Prowess . . . She ground her teeth together in frustration. The world of pure research was relatively calm and peaceful. That was one of the main reasons she liked it. But it was surprising how violent her feelings could get on occasion. She could see no alternative but to go personally and retrieve her patient, or at least to observe him as closely as she could if it were too late to save his life. This late in the game, that might be all she could do to help the research along.
After three hours of fruitless searching, the observer spotted something. He drew Gen and the pilot's attention to the day-glow purple of a climber's anorak. The flash of colour was tucked into a narrow crevice, high up on the inward edge of a steep valley. The pilot tried several times to get them a better view but air turbulence prevented him from taking the chopper in close over the climber.
Gen peered anxiously out of her window but she couldn't see any sign of life below. It struck her as ominous that the figure didn't once look in their direction. If we'd found Mick, even if he were asleep, surely he'd react to the helicopter noise? Then the radio on the helicopter began to crackle. A message was coming in from base. The pilot noted down a couple of co-ordinates and looked back at her, his mouth set in grim lines.
‘See here, Ma'am, I'm sorry about your friend and all but there's a nasty patch of weather coming up from the south. Where we are right now, we'll catch the full force of it. We'll have to start searching again when it's past.’
‘But the man down there, Mick, he might not last that long. I’ve got to get to him!’
‘He sick or something?’
‘Yes, that's right, he's a patient of mine.’
‘Oh, I get it. You're a doctor! Sorry Ma'am. I guess they didn’t brief me fully. Well, my observer here’s got survival training. If he’s agreeable I’ve got enough time to take you both as close as possible and let you carry on alone?’
Gen looked at the observer. He was a fairly young man and didn’t seem particularly tough but his face gave no indication of concern. ‘The name’s Jim Peters, Doctor Madison,’ he said, holding out his hand. ‘I'd be happy to accompany you and help to keep your patient alive until Joe here can pick us up. That is, if we're not too late already?’
‘We'll just have to try, Mr. Peters,’ Gen said, conscious that almost anyone would make a better showing than she would in the rugged landscape below them. It looked amazingly hostile, like a section of the Mars landings, with almost no vegetation, the only shade from sun, wind or rain being provided by clumps of rock. She gestured doubtfully at her clothes and Peters dug out a rucksack from a compartment behind him. It contained a spare set of rough-terrain clothes: trousers, jumper and anorak, socks and climbing boots. The boots were rather too large and Gen wondered whether she should make do with her own relatively flimsy pair, but he urged her strongly to pad the climbing boots with extra socks.
‘You can bring your own shoes in case you get blisters and want a change, but you'll need the heavy duty ones where we're going.’
‘Okay!’ she yelled above the din. As they descended into the valley, the racket of the helicopter reflected off the rocky walls, making it even harder to hear what her companions were saying. The floor of the little valley was so littered with boulders that the pilot didn't want to set down. Instead he hovered above the most open area while they dropped their emergency supplies and climbed down a rope ladder. As the chopper lifted off and angled away to escape the valley, Gen looked after it, conscious that she was further from her normal environment than at any time in her life. They had climbing gear, a radio, food and blankets. But she'd have to manage without the wealth of equipment available at the medical facility. Until the storm-front moved on, there was just her and Peters and whatever they could do between them to help Mick.
Peters moved rapidly to cache most of the equipment in the lee of an overhanging rock, but Gen just stood there, in her borrowed clothes, feeling about as useful as a cracked test tube. The valley, which had seemed impossibly small from the air, now seemed correspondingly vast. An aimless breeze skipped here and there along the length of it, kicking up swirls of dust. As far as she looked, both up and down the valley floor, there was nothing but rocks and sand and silence.
‘When the storm hits, we should be able to shelter under here,’ Peters explained, pointing at the overhang, his voice sounding unusually loud against the emptiness.
‘What next?’ she asked, eyeing the still form in the purple anorak, perched so high up the ridge in front of them.
‘I think we try to reach him before the storm arrives, don’t you?’
‘Yes but Jim, I've never done any climbing before.’
‘Would you rather stay down here, then?’
‘Much, much rather. Only I suspect you may not be able to move him without my help. And if you can't move him, I'll have to get up there, somehow, to provide any treatment.’
‘Okay, then, here's what we'll do,’ he said, getting a coil of thin rope out of his pack. ‘I'll rope you up like I would a beginner at the class I run. Then I'll go up first and attach the rope to some strong supports in the rock face. When that's done, you follow me and the rope will hold you even if your feet slip.’
He’d fallen naturally into the role of instructor and she was grateful to let him take the lead. The weather front was moving in fast, staining the sky to the south with streaks of crimson and black like a vegetable dye on a specimen. An impossibly high bank of thunderheads clustered at the leading edge of the storm. In the middle of these, she could see violent streaks of branch lightning although it was still too far away for the sound of thunder to reach them. It was the first time Gen had been out in a thunder storm since she was a little girl and she could feel sweat breaking out on her palms.
‘You alright, Doctor Madison?’
‘Yes,’ she lied, guessing he wouldn’t be deceived. ‘And please call me Gen?’
‘Gen. That short for something?’
‘Gennifer-Ann, actually, but I prefer Gen.’
‘You got it,’ he said over his shoulder, embarking on the first part of the climb. He continued talking to her as he went, pointing out footholds and crumbling sections to be wary of, resting in a couple of places so she could see how to relax without letting go. It all looked surprisingly easy. She was glad he was the sort of person who knew how to pass on his skills. In the academic world, some experts tried to wrap up their knowledge in a mysterious welter of technical terms, to preserve what they saw as their superiority to outsiders.
Reaching Mick's side, Jim bent down and felt the big man’s neck. Gen held her breath. Please let Mick be alive! I’ll do anything, even climb that horrid rock face, if he needs me. When Jim gave her the thumbs up sign, she felt light-headed with relief. Stepping closer to the cliff, she began the climb, her black satchel bobbing awkwardly against her back. She took it one stage at a time. Move a foot. Get a purchase on the ledge. Move a hand. Then the other foot. She was much slower than Jim and after a few minutes her muscles were screaming with the unaccustomed exercise. ‘Can I stop for a minute?’ she called, unable to look up but aware of his constant stream of calm encouragement, now coming from only twenty feet above her head.
‘Yeah, take a break, Gen. Good. Lean into the rock and let your shoulders relax. Excellent.’
‘How's our patient?’ she asked breathlessly.
‘He's alive. More’n that I couldn't say without your help.’
‘Then I'd better get moving again.’ And she flexed her muscles, one by one, before taking a cautious step to the left. Small pebbles scuttled away from under the toe of her boot, like tiny crabs in a rock pool. Gen froze. She could hear them falling to the valley floor. Behind the noise of the stones, she became suddenly aware of the rising voice of the wind. It whined thinly through the valley head, intruding itself on the still air, plucking at her hair and blowing it into her eyes. Seconds slid by and she wondered if she'd ever move again.
‘You taking another rest down there?’ he enquired.
‘No, I . . .’ She couldn't go on. Her voice seemed to have dried up.
‘It's alright, Gen,’ he called gently. ‘You're doing really well. But hurry it up a little bit, will you? I need your help with him.’
‘Okay,’ she agreed, forcing herself to think of Mick. Will it be safe to move him? How much time do we have before the rain arrives? A hold at a time, sweating and trembling in every limb, she made it up to the ledge where Jim was crouching over Mick, his face showing concern. Gen knelt down the other side of the sick man, resting her hands on his chest. A brick-like heat warmed her fingers and she looked at Jim. In his face she saw that he too was worried about how hot Mick was.
‘The guy's like a furnace! What exactly are you treating him for?’ Jim asked.
‘It's a degenerative muscle disease and we've been injecting him with what we hope is an antidote.’
‘You hope, so he's kind of like a guinea-pig?’
‘Sort of,’ she murmured, shy at having to discuss her work with someone outside the facility. ‘What we’re using is similar to a vaccine. It’s a group of bacteria that we've prepared in the laboratory which attacks the ones in the group he's suffering from. The treatment was going well until this weekend, when we noticed Mick’s temperature was rising drastically. But he’d gone off with his sports trainer before I could contact him.’
‘Well, he certainly is baking. I didn’t know you could get that hot and survive.’
‘Nor did I,’ she said, taking a thermometer out of her satchel. ‘It feels like there's a war going on inside him.’
‘Maybe they're using miniature flame throwers to wipe each other out, the little buggers,’ he said, steadying her with his arm as she took Mick's temperature.
‘Maybe so.’ She thought for a moment. ‘Listen, Jim, are we going to be able to move him?’
‘Well, I’ve had a quick look. It doesn’t seem as if there are any bones broken. If we’re going to get him safely down to the valley floor, we’ll need to put a rope round him first, so let’s start by doing that?' Between them they started raising Mick's head and then his torso, slipping a double loop of rope round him under his arms. In that confined space, his limp body was incredibly heavy and hard to shift. By the time the knots were tied, both of them were panting with effort. ‘Isn't he just a dinosaur?’ Jim complained jokingly.
‘What do you mean,’ she snapped, feeling a surprising defensiveness on behalf of the unconscious man whom she knew as a person, however slightly, and Jim did not.
‘Well, he's big enough be an asset to any football team, that's for sure. At least it should mean we don't have to worry about keeping him warm when the storm hits.’
‘Because he's got a large volume to surface ratio. It's the thin guys who cool down fastest. Mind you, that makes them good at long distance events, like the marathon, where the pressure is on for hours.’
She wondered if Jim knew the full name of their patient. It would be better if he didn't make the connection. She'd hate to start a wave of rumours about Mick's mystery illness. Very carefully, they positioned Mick's inert body at the edge of the rocks and let it swing out slightly over the void. Gen closed her eyes for a moment. What if the rope frays or the knots have been tied wrong? This must be how patients feel when submitting themselves to the competence of doctors. They just have to trust that we know what we're doing and won't stray outside that knowledge. Oh, Mick! She felt a wave of guilt that was close to nausea but there was no time or energy to spare for further introspection. Facing up to her responsibility for whatever happened to Mick was a dubious luxury that would have to be kept till later.
‘Now listen, Gen, we've got two choices. Either I go down alongside him and you watch the rope or vice versa. Which do you prefer?’
‘Can I go with him? I'd feel safer if you were watching the rope. Plus he knows me. If he comes to suddenly, the fact that it was me there might help a little bit.’
‘Good thinking!’ He’d rigged up extra supports so the ropes supporting Gen and Mick were hanging independently of each other. She pushed off from the ledge. When she was about five feet down, Jim allowed Mick's body to start its descent. The cliff-face wasn’t completely vertical. As best she could, Gen shepherded the limp bulky form past snags of rock and over rough sections, but she reckoned he was going to collect quite a lot of bruises, always assuming he was alive long enough for the bruises to develop. ‘Oh shut up,' she muttered fiercely to herself.
Through concentrating ruthlessly on helping Mick, she paid less and less attention to her surroundings. In the background she was dimly aware of the wind strengthening yet again, but it became just one more thing to be excluded from her concentration. As they reached bottom, however, the rain hit. A wall of stinging, silver water soaked both of them. She looked up and saw that Jim was already descending, water pouring off him like a gargoyle in a churchyard. He came down the face far faster than she had, his cheeks lashed scarlet by the raindrops, cursing volubly at the weather. Once he was down, they cut the ropes around Mick’s waist and struggled to get him under the shelter of the rock. It was only a distance of twenty yards but the struggle seemed to take forever. Gen’s hands were torn and bruised from contact with sharp pieces of stone. It was like moving a soaking-wet double-mattress with no handles. Whenever she thought she had a firm grip on Mick’s clothing, her chilled fingers would lose it, part of him would bump onto the rocks. Then the job of lifting him would be all to do over. She couldn’t see for the rain in her eyes and her ears were buffeted by rolling echoes of thunder. The crescendo of thunderclaps warned her that lightning could only be seconds away. Barely in time they gathered Mick into their scanty shelter and threw their bodies on top of his, lightning crackling shockingly close to where they had just been. The storm was shaking the little valley in earnest now, causing quite large stones to become dislodged and roll down its slopes. Gen held her breath, expecting that any minute they’d be buried in a large rock slide or struck by lightning. She felt Mick stir under their combined weight but didn’t dare move off him to see how he was.
Yet, as suddenly as the storm had hit, it rolled away, leaving a swathe of lighter rain in its wake. Then even that stopped and the sun came out, making the rocks around them steam. Jim got to his feet and helped her up. They both looked down at Mick, like a pair of sparrows that had somehow acquired a cuckoo chick. His eyes were open and he squinted up at Gen in the brilliant light. ‘Doctor Madison?’
‘Yes, Mick, it’s me.’ She crouched down, taking his hand in hers. It felt slightly cooler. The drenching they’d received might actually have done him some good.
‘Have I been ill?’
‘I'll say! We came looking for you and found you unconscious up there.’
‘You came looking, you, whatever for?’ His voice was hoarse with fever and exhaustion but there was no mistaking his astonishment.
‘Well, I got you into this mess. We both know the treatment’s been having side-effects, don't we Mick?’ It was much easier talking to him here than it had been in her office.
‘Yeah. Well, I guess I didn’t tell anyone about feeling hot. You knew about the sores on my arms though?’
‘Yes, are they any better?’
‘Not so's you'd notice,’ he grunted, rolling up one sleeve. Jim swore softly at the mess on Mick's arm.
‘What in Heaven's Name did you come out here for?’ she asked. ‘Couldn’t it have waited till you were better?’ Mick paused a moment before answering. She wondered if his slowness of speech might after all be a cultural thing, a combination of being brought up in a small town and spending so much time alone.
‘I wanted to come precisely because I was so sick,’ he explained. ‘What you and Ovens said to me was like being told I had cancer or something. The fear that I was going to be a cripple. That this might be my last time in the wilderness. When Prowess gave me the chance, I jumped at it.’
‘Prowess,’ hissed Gen, ‘that snake!’
‘You don't like him?’ Mick asked.
‘No! He’s just using you. Why else would he bring you out here after I told him how you needed to stay under observation and rest?’
‘Because I wanted him to. Look, Madison, I guess none of this means anything to you, the rocks and the storm and stuff. But it’s where I can be me. I’m no good in offices, cities, crowded up against hundreds of other people on the subway. There’s not enough space for someone like me to breathe. I need this place, and Prowess knows that. Oh, I guess he’s looking after number one, alright? But I get what I want out of it too.’
‘But I told him to keep you in the city. At least for a while. I explained why it was important, and he wouldn't listen!’
‘You mean he wouldn't do what you told him? I seem to remember you telling me as well, Madison . . .?’
‘Well I'm an adult, aren’t I - accountable for my own decisions? If I was dumb enough not to take any notice, why should Prowess be any different?’
‘I guess you're right.’ she conceded in a tired, edgy voice, not wanting to upset him by going on with the argument. There were aspirin in her pack and she got him to sit up so he could take a couple with some water. Then she helped him out of the wettest of his clothes and tucked a silvery survival blanket all round him. Combined with the alien landscape of rock and scree, and the strange, eroded colours of the isolated valley, the sight of his bulky shape wrapped up like a turkey for Thanksgiving reinforced her feeling that they'd mysteriously been transported to the Moon or Mars. ‘Do they bring astronauts out here for training?’ she asked.
‘Don’t know. Guess they might at that,’ he agreed, looking round him with an appreciative grin. ‘It’s wonderfully wild, isn't it?’
Gen’s answering growl of disgust only made his grin broader.
Jim had been busy warming up some food on top of a peculiar tin can that became hot when air got to it. All at once, Gen found herself ravenous for something sweet to eat and for the biggest, blackest cup of coffee that money could buy.
The terror of the storm had passed giving the valley a sharp-edged, transient beauty. Every stone had been polished by the rain and they reflected the sun in dazzling arrays of colour. From some hidden corner, a wag-tail appeared and began pecking for insects where small pools of water had gathered in the cracks between boulders. Gen laughed out loud suddenly and, catching Mick’s eye, saw he completely understood her change of mood.
‘It takes me like that sometimes, Madison, being alive in spite of the worst Nature can throw at me.’
Before eating, she took Jim’s advice and changed back into her own clothes which had been stored in the rucksack. Then the two of them crouched round the heated food and ate, solemnly stuffing bread and tinned stew into their mouths as fast as they could. Mick could only manage a few teaspoonfuls of stew and a hot drink but, when Gen took his temperature again, she was relieved to see it was still coming down. She left him to rest in the shadow of the rock and went back to Jim who was tidying up their eating things.
‘What do you think happened,’ Jim asked, ‘to make him so hot, I mean?’
‘I don't know. We may have to wait for further field trials to find out. But it could be what you said earlier, that whatever heat the treatment caused was simply unable to dissipate fast enough because he's bigger than average.’
‘That would mean ordinary people could have the treatment without getting too hot, then?’
‘Yes, assuming there aren’t any other side-effects.’
‘And the sores on his arms?’ he queried.
‘They're horrid, I agree. He's got them like that wherever we did an injection. Some vaccines have that effect. You may remember getting one after your BCG at fifteen?'
‘Yes, it left a smooth place on my arm, a scar about the size of a dime.’
‘Exactly. Well, I know that having lots of scars on one’s arms and legs might not look so good, but the people suffering from this disease would count that a small price to pay, believe me.’
‘That bad, eh?’
‘Now the storm’s passed us, I'm going to try the radio. Is there anyone you want to send a message to, Gen?’
‘Yes, my professor. His name is Gordon Ovens at Plu Tech.’
‘What do you want to say?’
‘Just tell him we've found Mick and his condition is looking stable.’
‘That's all - no personal messages for anyone?’
‘I guess not, Jim,’' she said, feeling both sorry there was no one she wanted to tell of her survival, and surprised she was sorry. Her parents were in England and they had no idea what she was doing today. In due course she would write to them about the events of the last twenty-four hours but it was better not to worry them just yet. In fact, she’d not made any close friends in her years here. There had been a few times when her work released her from its obsessive grip, but she was too shy to go looking for contacts in singles bars or tennis clubs.
Jim managed to get through on the radio and passed on Gen's message as well as reassuring his wife that he was alright. It wasn’t long before Gordon put through a call to her and they talked over the details of Mick’s condition. Gen perched on a chair-sized boulder, knees tucked up under her chin, responding carefully to his questions. As he spoke she imagined him sitting in his office, where they’d spent so many hours, the grey walls and smoothly-finished furniture screening them from the world outside, from the sunshine and rain, and the troubled lives of their patients. She’d always believed such detachment was necessary for a research scientist. And yet, she found herself almost welcoming the break in her own sense of detachment. Something had got to her, stung her into awareness, though whether it was the storm, the danger to Mick or another factor, she didn't know. What mattered out here was whether you could depend on your companions and they on you.
Once they’d discussed Mick’s condition and Gen’s hypothesis about the effect of their patient’s size on his heat retention, Ovens told her about the progress he’d made in the laboratory. It seemed Gen had been right. Providing the scavenger cell group with four possible responses made it difficult for the target bacteria to protect themselves. In previous experiments, day five of their treatments had resulted in the destruction of about thirty percent of the m-t cells but, by day six, the target population had begun to show adaptive resistance to the attackers. Now one hundred percent of the attacked cells were being destroyed by day six. ‘And Gen, you know the mysterious disappearance of the scavenger cells?’
Gordon’s voice was distorted by static so she leaned forward precariously on her rocky perch as if that would help her to hear better. ‘Yes?’
‘Well, what happens is that every time one of them attacks an m-t cell successfully, the m-t cell dissolves, releasing a chemical that kills the attacker. I suspect it’s this chemical that also warns the rest of the m-t population that an attack of a certain kind has occurred. Because we never destroyed the whole population before, they were able to multiply again and confuse our readings. But I decided it was time to get one scavenger to meet one m-t, just as you described. We isolated as small a sample as we could and filmed the encounter through the electron microscope. It was amazing! If the scavengers knew they were going die, it would be comparable to hari kiri.’
‘No,’ she disagreed, ‘it's more like a bee defending itself. Bees don't usually sting people but, when they do, the act of stinging kills them. Probably it's instinctive. They don't know they're going to die but it always happens.’
‘Only in this case, Gen, it's the behaviour of the stung victim which kills the attacker.’
‘As you say, Gordon. But whatever causes it, the result is good for our patients because they won’t need clearing of scavenger cells after the treatment.’
‘So when are you coming back?’
‘Sometime this morning, I expect. Jim, that’s the man who helped me rescue Mick, he says the helicopter has already taken off to come and fetch us.’
‘Good, I can’t wait to show you this film and start planning the next phase of testing.’
‘Nor can I, Gordon. Until later then,’ she said, passing the radio mike back to Jim. She didn’t doubt that tomorrow would see her seated again at her familiar desk, but it was going to hurt to say goodbye this place and the friendships she’d begun to make. It felt odd that Gordon had shown so little interest in how they had rescued Mick, but then, she might have taken the same approach if she hadn’t been through it herself. You just had to have been there.
Impossibly fast, the helicopter arrived and landed on a site which Jim had partially cleared of rock. The valley soon filled with paramedics, their bustle and noise jarring Gen’s heightened sensitivity. The wind-etched isolation that had reigned there before seemed terribly precious now that it had been destroyed.
With Gen to accompany it, Mick’s sedated body was transferred to Denver and then back to Plu Tech. The Intensive Care team looked after him for forty-eight hours and then he went back on the ward. Gen threw herself into her work, using the necessary routines of research and management to stop herself from thinking too much. The building seemed more crowded than she remembered. Meals in the canteen were so noisy and rushed that she got into the habit of eating in her office and getting down to work again as soon as she’d finished. She didn’t check the date when Mick was to be discharged back to his flat, but one day she was passing the ward and realised he’d gone, neatly and officially instead of the furtive departure to Colorado that had so enraged her. Twenty minutes later she was sitting in her office, staring absently at a beaker of machine coffee, her long ink-stained fingers drawing restless patterns on the desk top, when Gordon came in.
‘Got a moment?’ he asked.
‘I wanted to go through our list of m-t sufferers with you, decide which of them to include in the next batch of test subjects.’
‘So you’re happy we've gone as far as we need to with McDermott?’ she asked. ’That there's no need to keep up the observations for a bit longer before starting to treat other people?’
‘We could probably afford to wait a bit longer. But these people are desperately keen, Gen. They’ll take the chance if we offer it to them.’
‘Yes, I'm sure they will,’ she responded, trying to sound enthusiastic. Another set of patients? New people with raised hopes, some of whom will be disappointed. She couldn't deceive herself. It wasn’t going to be easy for her to treat them as theoretical experiments any longer. They had become people.
‘You don't sound very convinced?’ he probed gently.
‘Oh, I am. You're right Gordon. If we have a cure, even the beginnings of one, it would be wrong to keep it to ourselves.’
‘What’s eating you, Genny? Everything okay?’
‘I’m tired, that's all. That trip to Colorado took more out of me than I realised, perhaps?’
‘Yes, I should have insisted on you having some time off. How about taking a few days out now?’
‘I don’t know, Gordon. I’d only hang about the apartment all day. It’s better to be here than have time on my hands.’ She could tell he was about to argue the point when the telephone shrilled suddenly, making her jump. Ovens picked up the receiver and passed it to her. ‘Hello, Extension 3700,’ she said automatically.
‘Hello 3700,’ said a familiar voice, ‘it's me, Mick.’
‘Hi Mick!’ she replied, grinning with surprise. ‘How's life with you?’
‘Well, for starters, life still is with me, thanks to you and Jim. I never got a chance to thank you properly.’
‘That’s not necessary, Mick, I was only doing my job.’
‘No really, it's important to me. I asked to speak to you on the day of my discharge and they said your phone was blocked to calls, busy doing research or something?’
‘Or something,’ she echoed. ‘So are you back in training again?’
‘Yes, and it’s great to feel so well after that rough few weeks. Actually, I'm flying down to Colorado this weekend, to see Jim again. We plan to trek out to that valley together and wondered if you'd like to join us?’
‘Would I like to, me?’ Thoughts of the isolated valley filled her mind - emptiness, the slurring voice of the wind, muted colours of another earth under a sky so much more real than the polarised view through her window.
‘Yes. I could hire some equipment for you. The flight's on me, of course. Go on, Madison, we'd really like you to be there with us!’
‘It’s what I’d like too, Mick. Count me in. But there’s so many things I need to ask you about. Can you meet me for a drink after work tonight, say six o’clock?'
‘Sure, I'll wait for you in the foyer nearest your office.’
Mick rang off and Gen looked up at Gordon.
The Professor smiled broadly. ‘Seems like you're going to be taking those days off, after all?’
‘Seems like I am.’