Short story: Caterwaul
When a plague hits Willoughby, the authorities quickly jump to dangerous conclusions. By Edlyn Tokley and Simon Brown.
“So what did happen in Willoughby? Was it the plague?”
“Then what was it?”
“That’s not so easy to explain.”
“OK. Let’s try this from a different angle. Why did everyone start off thinking it was the plague?”
“Because of the all the dead people and all the dead rats.”
— Transcript from interview with Dr Sarah Amedi on WorldNetNews, 14 March
The protein microspan implanted in Sarah Amedi’s sphenoid bone twinged, pulling a cheek muscle. She turned her head away from the bright sunlight streaming through the tiltrotor’s cockpit to read the text that a second later flashed inside her retina.
“Don’t get no cold. <3”
The tag was so unlike Cam MacInnes she worried he meant it ironically, then ticked herself off for reading too much into it.
She blinked rapidly three times, bringing up the keyboard under the message, and used her iris to highlight a reply.
“Try not to”, she sent. She waited 10 seconds then, almost against her better judgment, sent “<3U2”. Then felt like a dill.
The aircraft was losing altitude. Sarah tried to see ahead, but from the back seat her view was distorted by the Plexiglas bubble. All she could make out was the lack of buildings and the grey ribbon of a highway running north to south in the distance.
“We’re here,” the pilot said in her headphones.
The aircraft slowed to a hover. People were waiting on the edge of a field 30 metres below, holding on to their hats to stop the downdraft blowing them away. Sarah didn’t recognise anyone, and her stomach squeezed with nervous apprehension.
They landed with a soft bump. Some of the people rushed forward, crouching, and started unloading the boxes that took up most of the room in the cockpit, ignoring her. When they were gone, the pilot told Sarah to watch out for the wing blades as she disembarked.
“You’re not stopping?”
“Another run to do before night.”
She took off the headphones, clambered out and hugged her backpack to her stomach as she beetled to the edge of the pad. When the tiltrotor rose into the sky she waved goodbye. The pilot ignored her, and no one else had bothered waving. The downdraft made her hair and the back of her jacket billow. The noise was deafening.
“Sarah Amedi?” someone behind her shouted.
She turned and saw a short, middle-aged woman with greying hair and a tired face. “Yes,” she shouted back. “Who are you?”
The woman waited until the tiltrotor had flown away and she could talk normally. “My name is Zuzanna Arad. I’m with Michel Lilar. He asked me to meet you and take you to our lab.”
“Oh, thank you.”
Arad pointed to her backpack. “That’s it?”
“A change of clothing and a toothbrush. I was told it would only be a couple of days.”
“That was yesterday,” Arad said, leading off.
Sarah followed. “Yesterday?”
“Today I can tell you it will be more than a couple of days.”
“There have been developments?”
They reached a blue 4WD and Arad opened the front passenger door for her. “You could say that. We now have seven dead.”
Arad got in the driver’s seat and they headed north, over a field. After a few minutes they reached a dirt road that took them to the outskirts of Willoughby, a small town folded into the landscape.
“Dr MacInnes speaks highly of you,” Arad said.
“That’s good of him.”
“We would have preferred him, to be honest, but he’ll have his work cut out for him at the university.”
Sarah wasn’t sure how to react to this, so said nothing.
The dirt road gave way to a sealed one. Houses became more common. No one was on the streets. She kept looking for dead animals, particularly rats. All she saw were cats prowling around gardens; she counted seven or eight.
“Has it spread?” she asked.
“Not in the last two days, as far as we can tell, but we’ve been warning people to stay indoors. The roads in and out were blocked this morning.”
“To stop anyone coming into town.”
“And to stop anyone leaving. The detention centre was always secure, of course. This is what passes for the town centre.”
They drove by a handful of shops and a modern supermarket, then turned on to a side street that climbed a hill. A base hospital sat at the summit. Built sometime in the 1950s, it was a monument to redbrick architecture.
Arad pulled up behind a more modern and whitewashed ancillary building at the back of the hospital, and led the way through double doors along a corridor with a linoleum floor. The walls were painted green to shoulder height, then white above.
" We know what to do if it is the plague. We do not know what to do if
we do not know what is killing everyone."
They went through another set of double doors and everything changed. The hallway was blocked by a long desk, behind which sat a neat looking man in a lab coat with a palmtop in front of him. A policeman who somehow managed to look serious and bored at the same time stood next to him. Behind them was a temporary airlock made from clear plastic sheets and zip-flaps attached directly to the wall. More clear plastic sheeting covered the floor and walls and all the windows without obstructing the light. Heavy black sheets covered three vents in the roof. Sarah could hear the bass chug of a heavy-duty air recycler somewhere in the wing.
“Paul, this is Sarah Amedi,” Arad said to the man in the lab coat. He smiled at Sarah then checked his palmtop. He glanced a couple of times between the screen and Sarah’s face. “So it is,” he said, and handed Sarah an ID tag with a clip. She put it on and the policeman moved aside to let the two women pass.
After going through the airlock, Arad opened the first door on the left. There was a hiss of cold air before she led the way through to a long narrow space. Sarah thought it must have been a ward room before the emergency. A long work desk with computers connected to microscopes was set against the far wall. On either side of the table were specimen cabinets with cool blue neons under the glass sliders. At the end of the room was a mobile morgue unit; it had 12 cabinets – seven had labels.
The lone person in the room was staring at a computer screen.
“Michel?” Arad said.
“It’s not the plague,” the man said without looking up.
Arad took a deep breath and let it out slowly. Sarah felt as if she’d appeared halfway through a conversation.
Professor Michel Lilar shrugged. He was a large overweight man in his 70s who looked as tired as Arad. “No sign of buboes or gangrene on any of the victims, nor any trace of Yersinia pestis.” He jabbed a finger at one of the specimen cabinets. “And the bacillus wasn’t found in any of the rats I tested. It is not the plague.”
“That’s a relief,” Arad said.
“That’s terrible,” Lilar told her. “We know what to do if it is the plague. We do not know what to do if we do not know what is killing everyone.” He looked up at her then and saw Sarah for the first time.
“Michel, this is … ”
“Dr Sarah Amedi. Cam says good things about your microscopy work.”
“Genetic epidemiology is what I’m best at,” Sarah said.
Lilar smiled. “He said you were very direct.”
Sarah did not smile. “Did he say anything else?”
He pointed to the mobile morgue and the specimen cabinets. “Rats in the cabinets. In the morgue, two old women, one old man, two children, one young woman eight months pregnant and, as of yesterday, the local football team’s best scrumhalf. Take what you need.”
"Nauru's underwater," one of the journalists pointed out.
"That's where some of the refugees are from."
“Did it take you long to find out the real cause for the fatalities?”
“There were complications.”
— Transcript from interview with Dr Sarah Amedi on WorldNetNews, 14 March
Sarah was sitting in front of a small television in the hospital’s staff kitchen that was so old she couldn’t change channels with the chip in her head. She found a remote next to the television with batteries taped in place. The kitchen was filled with kettles and electric stove tops, an ancient fridge that sounded like a wheezing water buffalo and two Formica-covered tables that first saw light of day around the time Sarah’s grandmother was born. She made herself a hot drink with what she thought might once have been instant coffee, regretting it after the first sip, but there was nothing else on offer.
The news was on. Tom Prince, a local politician, filled the screen. He was being interviewed outside his electoral office. He was dressed in a dark charcoal suit and sweated too much.
“The detention centre should not be here. These illegal immigrants bring diseases into the country. They should be locked offshore like in the old days, at Manus Island and Nauru.”
“Nauru’s underwater, Mr Prince,” one of the journalists pointed out. “That’s where some of the refugees are from.”
“Pacific islanders should stay on Pacific islands,” Prince continued, ignoring him. “It’s not our fault their homes have disappeared beneath the sea.”
“There’s no evidence the outbreak originated in the detention centre,” a second journalist said.
“The first victims to die came from the detention centre. And the next death came from one of the cleaning staff working at the hospital. Of course that’s where the disease came from. You don’t have to be a scientist or a doctor to figure that out.”
Yes you do, actually,” Arad said as she entered the kitchen, talking over the interview. She opened the fridge and scanned its shelves. “The couple from the detention centre were the first to die, not the first infected.”
“How do you know?” Sarah asked, and turned off the television. Her grandparents had fled Biafra 80 years before and made their home in Melbourne: Tom Prince was making her skin crawl.
“Signs and symptoms,” Arad answered. She retrieved a small square of cheese and a lettuce leaf and joined Sara at the table. “The first case was an old woman from Willoughby itself, name of Ava Gable.” She nodded in the general direction of the converted lab room. “She’s corpse number three. At first no one had any idea what she had was serious – her GP thought it was a bad cold – but what’s interesting is that this woman was a member of a small group of local citizens who made regular visits to the detention centre to bring the refugees books and DVDs, and toys and pets for their kids.”
“Refugees,” Sarah said.
“You said ‘refugees’, not ‘illegal immigrants’. I like that.”
Arad regarded Sarah for a long moment. “Your parents were refugees?” Sarah nodded. “It was my great-grandparents who came here. From Poland, before WW II. They decided to be immigrants before it was necessary to be refugees.”
“Did they bring any diseases with them?”
Arad shook her head. “Yours?”
“Toxoplasma gondii,” Sarah said.
Lilar and Arad exchanged glances.
“How many bodies?” Lilar began.
“All of them,” Sarah interrupted. “Rats as well as people.”
“All the bodies, human and rodent, are infected.”
“But the fatality rate for Toxoplasma gondii is negligible in healthy adults.”
“I know. We need to find out if the victims were suffering from any other disease or infection, like AIDS. We also need blood tests for the entire population of this town and the refugee centre.”
“But that’s hundreds of people,” Lilar said.
“Thanks to Sarah, we have a possible cause,” Arad pointed out. “It’s our first real lead. And those hundreds of people are already confined and isolated, so that will make the job easier.”
Lilar shrugged. “I’ll get in touch with our lords and masters. I don’t think they’re going to like this.”
“They’ll like it a lot less if people keep on dying,” Sarah said. “And while you’re talking to them, just in case I’m right, we’re going to need a giant bucket of medications to treat the infected. I’ll get you a list.”
Sarah had been staring at computer screens for 20 hours straight and her vision was blurring. She stood up, her chair scraping along the floor.
“Finished for the day?” Lilar asked. He looked as red-eyed as she did.
“Going for a walk. I need to clear my head.”
Outside it was dark and cold. Sarah thought about going back for a jacket but changed her mind. The cold would wake her up. It might help her squeeze another hour or two of work from the day.
She walked down the hill and into town. There weren’t many lights on, and the streets were dark. The town centre was soon behind her and she was passing one-storey brick bungalows and older, wooden homes.
Most of the houses and gardens were well kept. No one was out on the street. Many of the homes were completely dark, but a few still had lights on, their windows glowing warm in the cold night air. The street lights themselves had been turned off. Maybe to encourage people to stay indoors, she thought. Moonlight made thin by cloud cover threw some relief across the street.
Something ran across the street in front of Sarah and paused at the other side to glance at her. It was hard to be certain, but Sarah thought it was a small ginger cat, not much older than a kitten. It disappeared under a hedge. Another cat scarpered from the hedge and ran up the street until it was swallowed by darkness.
She stopped and listened. There were no sounds of dogs or owls or nightjars. To the left she could hear a television in one of the homes. A cat snarled behind her, and another cat replied with a loud hiss. She turned to see if she could find them, but without luck.
Sarah shivered. The cold was getting to her. She was halfway back to the hospital when she heard a caterwaul from somewhere in town.
"Willoughby could be the vector for a disease that will kill
thousands ... possibly tens of thousands."
“There’s a move to break the town’s isolation,” Arad told her in the morning.
Sarah had stumbled into the kitchen, yawning and stretching. She went to the window and peeked outside. The clouds from last night had banked up. The sky was grey as far as she could see. Nearby trees swayed with a strong wind. A cat pounced on to the window sill, startling her.
“It’s going to rain,” Sarah said, regaining her composure. She faced Arad, turning her back on the tabby. “Tom Prince, right?”
Arad nodded. “He is trying to convince the authorities that only the refugee camp needs to be quarantined. He’s not keen on everyone having to give blood samples.”
“Good white middle-class Anglo-Australians can’t be responsible for any disease outbreak.”
“I know Lilar is trying to explain the science to the Minister for Health, and maybe she can convince Prince to shut up and lie down.” She shrugged. “You know, I think Prince understands the science, intellectually I mean, but I don’t think it matters to him. As far as he’s concerned, there is a principle at stake and he will not allow any amount of evidence to gainsay him.”
Sarah heard a voice outside and looked through the window again. A tall woman with grey hair tied in a bun was walking determinedly up the hill. She was followed by two cats. Sarah peered through the glass. No, three cats. That was odd. The woman stopped with her hands on her hips as if catching her breath. The cats twined around her legs. Sarah could almost hear them meowing.
“Cats,” she said under her breath, repressing a shiver.
“Locus for T. gondii,” Arad said automatically, as if Sarah had asked her a question.
Sarah frowned. “I need to make a telephone call.”
Lilar appeared with a woman about Sarah’s age. “Prince has won. The Minister’s lifted the quarantine and stopped the blood sampling.” He waved at the woman. “This is Dr Hunt, one of the two local GPs.”
Dr Hunt moved forward to shake Sarah’s hand. With the other hand she offered a foam icebox. “Your blood samples,” she said. “At least, as many as I could gather. I know John Upward – he’s the other GP in town – has some for you as well.”
Sarah took the icebox and thanked her. Dr Hunt smiled and looked slightly apologetic. “Wish I could have done more.” She shrugged. “I’m going to the refugee centre. I’ll take samples there and bring them to you.
Shouldn’t take more than a day or two.”
Sarah thanked her again and asked: “The first local to show symptoms – Ava Gable, right? – was she your patient?”
Dr Hunt shook her head. “No, John’s. But the next two locals to show symptoms were both mine.”
“Did you have to treat them for anything before the onset of symptoms?”
“The usual thing this time of year, with all the pollen in the air. You probably already know hayfever’s a real problem in rural areas.”
“They both suffered hayfever before?”
“Yes, but this year it was more serious. More serious for a lot of people, in fact. Pollen count must be pretty high this season.”
Sarah’s left cheek muscle contracted with a message from the microspan implant. It was from Cam MacInnes.
“Lab report sent to your account. Check partial genome sequence. It’s the same for all the samples. Cf archive sample.”
She logged into her university account and found the report. A series of codons flittered along the back of her iris.
Lilar appeared and noticed her out-of-focus stare.
She nodded absently.
“Cam analysed the samples I sent him from our dead human and rodents. He compared them to the protozoan’s sample DNA we have in our archive.”
“He found a mutation common to all the samples I sent.”
“Unless someone’s already found out what every codon in T. gondii transcribes to … ”
“ … it could take months to find out what the mutation does.”
“Normally,” Sarah agreed.
Sarah focused on Lilar, breaking the link with her account. “I have an idea. Well, a hunch. Give me until this afternoon, and then I’ll talk to you and Arad. In the meantime, you might try and get the quarantines put back in place.”
“I think my influence with the Minister has run out of steam.”
“You and Arad have confirmed that the human victims died from complications arising from an infection by T. gondii?”
“Yes. All except Ava Gable from encephalitis. She died from a heart attack.”
She sighed heavily. “Suggest to her if my hunch works out, Willoughby could become the vector for a disease that will kill thousands in the next year. Possibly tens of thousands. And as a side-effect, completely devastate the nation’s already battered ecosystem.”
For a long moment Lilar said nothing, then copied Sarah’s sigh. “Well, then. That might budge her. You’ll talk to us this afternoon?”
Sarah spent three hours talking to every local she could find. She knocked on doors and visited most of the shops in the main street. On the climb back up the hill to the hospital she thought she was being followed. She stopped and turned around. No one was there. It was early afternoon and the place was as quiet as a dream. There were no birds. None. She was in the middle of the country and there wasn’t a single cockatoo in a single tree. She looked up into a sky empty of all life. When she brought her gaze back to ground level she noticed the scrub to her left move. It was the largest cat she had ever seen.
A feral, she thought to herself. It had large paws and a curious, intelligent face with large yellow eyes that studied her intently. She resumed climbing the hill, but kept her gaze on the cat. It followed her for a while and then disappeared behind the tree line. It made no noise at all.
When she entered the annexe she went straight to the security desk. Paul and a different policeman were on duty.
“Hello Dr Amedi,” Paul said. “I think it’s going to rain today.”
“Are you a local, Paul?”
“I moved here about 10 years ago, if that’s what you mean.”
“Do you live with your family?”
“Oh, no. I’m not married, Dr Amedi. I live by myself. I have a flat behind Mrs Tingwell’s place. She’s a widow, you know.”
“Do you have any pets?”
“No. I’ve never had pets.” Paul thought for a moment. “Although lately I’ve been thinking about getting one.”
Paul nodded, surprised. “That’s right.”
“And you?” Sarah asked, turning to the policeman. He was taken aback.
“Do you have a family?”
“Now we do. The kids have all got cats. Don’t know where they came from, but we seem to have a pride full.”
Sarah nodded her thanks and went through to the lab. Lilar and Arad were already there.
“Did you talk to the Minister?” Sarah asked Lilar.
“She said she would consider it. I will phone her again if your hunch convinces me it’s necessary.”
“I’d lay odds it’s no longer a hunch,” Sarah said confidently.
“Really?” Arad asked, crossing her arms. “And why is that?”
“I’ve been talking to people.”
“Yes. We’ve been looking at medical records and tissue sampling. But not talking to anyone. At least, not in any systematic way.”
“OK,” Arad said warily. “Shoot. Give us your hunch.”
Sarah took a seat. “We all know T. gondii’s preferred host is the cat. It is the only host where the parasite reproduces sexually.”
“And Willoughby has an unusually large number of cats, yes,” Arad said, intercepting her. “We know this.”
“Serological studies suggest that toxoplasmosis may be the most successful parasite-caused disease in humans worldwide.”
“But the fatality rate is very low,” Arad pointed out. “And then almost always in the most vulnerable, like the unborn and the very young. Are you suggesting T. gondii has mutated to become more dangerous?”
“Yes, but not directly. There are strong links between T. gondii and changed behaviour in its hosts. It alters the behaviour of infected rats so they are more vulnerable to cats. There is anecdotal evidence it also affects the behaviour of some humans.”
She turned to Arad. “You remember you told me that the first person to be infected who subsequently died was a woman who brought pets to the children at the refugee camp?”
Arad nodded. “Ava Gable.”
“The pets were cats.” Sarah made it a statement, not a question.
“Yes, I believe so.”
“According to Dr Upward – her GP – she was asthmatic. Her reaction to cats was so strong she redlined every allergy test in the category. She was found dead in her house.”
“A house full of cats?” Lilar ventured.
Sarah nodded. “Her windpipe was so restricted she had a heart attack trying to get enough air to breathe. And she was covered in a rash so severe the skin was cracked and weeping. Her last few days must have been a living hell, yet still she kept cats in her house.”
"Her last few days must have been a living hell,
but she still kept cats in the house."
Arad took Sarah back to the landing field for her lift back to the university.
“Tom Prince gave in. The quarantine is back in effect. Do you think it will be too late?”
Sarah shrugged. “We’ll know soon enough.”
As the tiltrotor lifted off, Sarah made sure to wave goodbye to Arad, but she was already heading back to the car.
Halfway back home, she had the sudden and overwhelming urge to buy a kitten.
“So the infection is contained?”
“I wouldn’t say that. Political interference and populism got in the way of the science.”
“So the infection isn’t contained?”
“I wouldn’t say that, either. We won’t know for some time if the second quarantine was in place quickly enough. Weeks. Maybe months.”
“How will we know?”
“Two things. Watch for a rise in the sale of cat food. And watch the morgues.”
— Transcription from interview with Dr Sarah Amedi on WorldNetNews, 14 March