Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Russian Roulette

They stood in the hospital courtyard, a line of threadbare men, shoulders hunched against the cold. Not that the cold was the enemy anymore; on the contrary, it was the only reason they were still alive. It was the sub-zero temperatures of the Siberian tundra that had stopped the virus from spreading, stopped it from killing them as swiftly and unmercifully as it had killed the rest of the planet's human population. If they had still been capable of gratitude, they would have been grateful to the freezing wind.

But the morning left little to be thankful for. In the heart of every man who stood waiting in line was the grudging knowledge that summer was coming - a few days of warmth and the epidemic was sure to get them too. They had been granted a reprieve, no more. Unless this new vaccine worked. That was their only hope now. And even that was a bitter hope, for it was a sad thing to think that they would be the last survivors, and to them would fall the almost impossible task of rebuilding the human species. Still, it was something.

The line outside the hospital was long and slow. It took almost three hours before those who had joined the line on the road outside were ushered into the head doctor's chambers. This was the only room in the entire complex, indeed in the entire city, that was still heated. After the news of the epidemic had hit, city planners had realised that future supply of fossil fuels was uncertain, given that there was no one left to operate the oilwells, so it was better to preserve what supplies of these fuels they had.

The men entered in groups of ten, their faces flushed with the sudden warmth of the room. Their relief was short-lived however: the white coated attendants serving them worked efficiently, and it was only a matter of minutes before the life-saving needle had been plunged into their arm and they were being ushered out into the cold again. As they walked out of the room, the men stared at the rows upon rows of vaccines stacked in a corner of the room, transparent ampoules that held salvation sealed within them. They looked so fragile, so tiny, that the thought in every man's head as he left was the same: What if they should run out?

In fact, they already had. When the supply of vaccines, rescued from faraway research labs at great cost of life, had finally reached the hospital, it had soon become clear that there would not be enough to service the entire population of the region, not even after the elderly and the disabled had been denied. The physicians overseeing the program therefore decided to inject all the women of the region with the serum (on the theory that with the population of the species severely depleted, the ability to bear children was crucial and had to be preserved), and give whatever was left to the men. At first there was discussion of selecting the finest specimens from among the men, but this soon proved impractical. To begin with, it was hard to decide on what basis the 'finest' were to be chosen. Some people argued that those with the finest intellect - the most intelligent, the most educated - must be saved, so that the great store of human knowledge could be preserved. But defining what parts of human knowledge were important and which were not proved problematic. Did poetry matter? Did quantum physics? Did history? Others argued that given that life in the coming decades was likely to be extremely harsh, it was better to save those with the most physical strength, since they had the best chance of survival.

There was also the issue of how such a selection was to be implemented. If the men found out that only some of them were to be saved and the others to be condemned to certain death, they might run riot and attack the hospital. Who knew what damage that might cause? No, letting the men know that a selection was being made was not an option.

The final solution the hospital committee struck upon was this: there would be no selection. Instead, the shortfall of vaccinations would be made up by identical looking vials of the flu vaccine, of which large quantities were available. The two sets of vaccines would be handed out at random, with no way of telling who was getting a genuine vaccine and who was getting a placebo. When summer finally arrived, those who had got the true vaccine (about one in six) would survive. The others would die. No one would ever know about the deception (the members of the hospital committee members swore not to tell). Those who died would simply think that the vaccine had not worked in their case. Those who lived would think they had got lucky. They might even believe that they were special somehow - perhaps they were stronger or better fitted for survival, perhaps they had been chosen by some supernatural force. Either way, it would give them an extra edge of self-confidence in the bleak years ahead.

Meanwhile, outside in the street again, the men who had had their vaccinations stood around in groups, looking around anxiously for the first signs of thaw and mentally preparing themselves for the task of staying alive.

P.S. Inspired by watching Gela Babluani's brilliant 13 (Tzameti) - take my advice and don't view the trailer or read about the movie. Just go watch it.


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24 comments:

Tabula Rasa said...

had the physicians healed themselves?

Cheshire Cat said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Cheshire Cat said...

If I were Mircea Cartarescu , I wouldn't be too happy about some Georgian punk ripping me off.

Anonymous said...

nice one 2x3x7.
take care.

The ramblings of a shoe fiend said...

Hmm... Oryx and Crake meets One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch ? Good one.

Arthur Quiller Couch said...

Wasn't there an Asimov story about triage as well?

Champak!! said...

Good post Falstaff. I am assuming that happy stories don't really appeal to you?

Keep writing.

-Mahjabeen said...

I like this one- different yet well adapted to your style -

I would have liked to see a juxtaposition between the current state of things, and '30 years from now' senario based on the current decision- imagination knows no bounds there!

n said...

very different from the usual. interesting. this time i'd like to know what happened in summer. maybe u can cook up a twist?

Swathi said...

'nother Crichton in the making?

neoe said...

Distinct flavour of Margaret Atwood here, except for the distinct absence of mute temple virgins and murderous nomadic tribes. Are you a fan?

DoZ said...

Agree with neoe... did remind me of Handmaid’s Tale. Notice that your stories are getting a bit less abstract than before. Conscious decision? Please don't take that as an insult - just an observation. I love them all and I say keep them coming.

Perspective Inc. said...

Nicely done! I love the cynical/morbid/layered depths of 'dark' in all/most of your stories.. :-)

Anonymous said...

This is more like it Falstaff !!! I enjoyed this - I always like the macabre in my stories. The human will to live and to believe in a better life I think is one of our species redeeming feature. We never seem to give up !!!

P.S. If I am going to post so many anonymous comments to your blog I think I should just get a Blogger Id :)

Anonymous said...

Adding to the comment above - if I have one complaint about your stories it would be the titles of your stories. They tend to give too much away.

neoe said...

So how come you haven't posted about this yet?

http://www.themanbookerprize.com/pressoffice/release.php?r=27#titletop

I'm shocked and disappointed that the unspeakable Sarah Waters has been nominated again. My money's on Kiran Desai.

Falstaff said...

TR: Yes, I think it's safe to assume that they did.

cat: Nice. Hadn't read that. Have to say that while there are obvious similarities, the plot of the movie is different enough from the story to not make it a rip-off.

anon: Thanks

shoe-fiend: Thanks. Was actually thinking of James Meek's People's Act of Love more than of Ivan Denisovitch - but that probably is more apt.

aqc: Was there? I'm not sure.

z: oh, they appeal to me - I just find them impossibly difficult to write. also, well, this is kind of happy - I mean they don't all die out, you know.

mahjabeen: Thanks

n: thanks. Who knows? Maybe there's a terrible flu epidemic and all those who haven't been innoculated for flu die out?

swathi: no, no, not that. Anything but that.

neoe: :-). I wouldn't say I'm a fan, exactly - that's probably putting it too strongly. She probably makes my top 50 list. But yes, do enjoy her, and have read most of her work.

doz: Thanks. Have you read Oryx and Crake? As Shoe-fiend says, I think the parallels with that are stronger. And no, not a conscious decision. In fact, it may not even be a trend. Though I'm not sure I mind being less abstract.

perspective inc: Thanks. Always difficult to know where cynicism ends and realism begins.

anon: Thanks. You may be right about the titles, though the fact is that I'm not really going for surprise here.

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