The Shattering Tide 3
Shiv along with Ynyth was waiting for us in the lobby of the Medical Facility and from the look on his face what ever he had to tell me, it was terrible news.
“Shiv, what the hell is going on?” I asked before he could speak.
“It’s Cati….” He paused, “She has that virus that’s been killing non humans. They don’t think she’ll last the night.” He said not mincing words.
“What?” I asked not believing what he had just said. “She was fine we all had dinner together not that long ago!”
He shook his head. “That was over two and half weeks ago, and since then she’s cancelled every time for headaches and such. I know it doesn’t seem long but this virus works very fast and she never told anyone how ill she was. Now it is too late.” His voice trembled and he was close to tears.
“I thought bacta treatments cured it?”
“If it is caught in time.” He said miserably. “They say she is too far gone and there isn’t enough bacta to spare for a patient in her condition. The medical centers have been overrun with new cases in the last couple of months and there is just not enough bacta to treat them all.”
I was too stunned to speak. Not enough bacta, since when? I shook my head to clear it. “Can I see her?”
He nodded, “She asking for you. She knows what is happening to her so I guess she wants to say goodbye.” He swallowed down his emotions as he began to lead the way down to the Isolation unit. Both my uncle and I were silent as we followed him through the dimly lit sterile looking hallways. “And Merly, it won’t be pretty.” He added as we stepped off the turbolift into the isolation unit which felt about as creepy as it could get. There really had not been much of an attempt to make it welcoming or comfortable to the relatives and friends of patients. The dull, pallid green walls were covered with warnings and safety protocols. The waiting area was small and aside from the small reception desk, everything else was hidden behind door of thick durasteel with no windows.
“How bad is it, Shiv?”
“Bad.” He replied. “The authorities were alerted when one of her neighbours heard strange sounds coming from her flat, they had the building admin open the door and then they had to call in the medics. I was called because I am her emergency contact.”
I heard Ynyth sobbing behind me but I didn’t dare to look at her because if I did I would start crying as well and it seemed to me that someone had to hold it together, this was my turn. I nodded my understanding too choked up to speak. I had seen the reports and heard the holo-casts about this virus which they had still not found a reason for, or a vaccine against. It was virulent and deadly, sweeping through the planet’s alien population like sand in a wind storm. The demand for bacta had been so heavy that the suppliers could not keep up with it and now there was a shortage of the stuff which was the only known cure. The rumour I had heard was that the Rebellion was interrupting the flow of bacta from Thyferra in order to hoard it for their own people and word on the street was that if things didn’t change soon things were going to get ugly on this planet very soon, very fast. The news reports hinted that Rebels had already infiltrated the Core, and that there were spies on every corner. I never paid these reports much attention because the news casts whispered of these things constantly, urging loyal Imperial citizens to be ever wary of suspicious characters.
Internal Imperial memos had suggested another theory, that the virus was a biological weapon most likely engineered by the War Lord Zsinj to gain a foothold on Coruscant by dividing the loyalties of the population. Zsinj was an Imperial Admiral turned rogue and he had declared independence from the Empire shortly after the battle of Endor. He had created an elite military force and set about dividing to conquer. I found it strange that Isard did not consider him much of a threat or at least that is what one of the reports I had read told me, because he was quite powerful. I thought about this now, wondering if it had been he who had some how managed to set this all up, introducing some viral agent into the air or water supply to kill indiscriminately and cause mass panic.
If Isard was indeed hiring specialists to find a way to vaccinate against this virus, or another cure that worked as well as bacta she was dragging her heels about it. The numbers of dead rose daily and what had started out as nothing more than a few casualty reports was turning into a pandemic. Already star-ports were flooded with aliens trying to get off Coruscant and that in its self surprised me because if this virus was as contagious and as deadly as it was being reported I did not understand why a planet wide quarantine had not been put into place. There were too many questions and not enough answers and now one of my best friends was dying from this virus no one seemed to know anything about.
Shiv stood at the reception desk and spoke with the droid on duty after about ten very long minutes one of the doctors came out to meet with us. I knew right away from the set of his mouth and that look in his eyes that there was absolutely no hope. This place smelled like death and this doctor had seen a lot of it. The beings that came in here never left.
He came into the small waiting area looking haggard and much older than he should have. He repeated what Shiv had said, that she was too far gone and even if the bacta could help her she would have to have several organ replacements and there simply was not enough time or bacta or anything now that would help her.
“What exactly does this virus do?” I asked, my voice sounding far away and oddly calm to my ears.
The doctor shook his head. “That is the trouble, no one can agree on the path it takes. It is almost as if it were many viruses all bundled into one. It attacks each alien race slightly differently but the results, if left too long, are all the same, death.”
“Differently.” I asked him. “How is that possible?”
He sighed and suddenly looked so weary that I wanted to tell him to go home and get some rest. “It jumps from one species to another and as it does so it seems to mutate, tailoring itself to attack that specific alien immune system. Gamorreans become dehydrated in the initial stages, with boils covering their flesh to the point that their skin cracks open…” he paused and looked at me wondering how much details to give.
“Go on doctor.”
“The end-stage disease makes them restless, they cannot lie down but their skin opens up with sores, their internal organs break down and liquefy, essentially they bleed to death through every orifice. The Quarren patients we have seen so far differ in that instead of boils, their skin turns black as the decay sets in, their immune system seems to go crazy and …well…dissolve to death.”
I had to take a deep steadying breath as for a moment the world swam about me. “And rodians?”
He shook his head. “I don’t know, Miss Akami is the first Rodian we have treated here at this facility. We had hoped the virus was simply a Gamorrean and Quarren disease but now we know it is worse than we thought. I have been in contact with the other facilities on the planet and there are now reports of three more separate alien races that have contracted it. We still don’t know how it is spread and it seems to be getting worse as it jumps from one species to the next.”
I nodded. “If she had been brought in sooner would that have saved her?”
He sighed and shrugged ever so slightly. “I don’t know. This virus has a short incubation time and patients can be asymptomatic until, for what ever reason, it breaks out then the decline is very rapid. It could be that she thought she had Rodian flu or maybe food poisoning. From what I have been led to understand the initial symptoms can feel like normal, treatable every day illnesses. We think, that as a general rule of thumb, the virus incubates for several weeks and then takes approximately seven days to fully break out but it is only in the last seventy-two hours that most patients realise something is very wrong with them by then for almost all of the infected it is simply too late. I am truly sorry.”
“Just how long has she got?” I asked astonished at how business like my voice suddenly sounded. I could have been talking about the timer on a parking meter.
He gave me that I wish I had better news for you look and said “It is hard to say at this point. At this stage it can take anywhere from a few hours to a day. As I said before, we have no experience with Rodians having contracted this virus. She might last the night but not much longer than that.”
“Can I see her?”
“Miss Gabriel, we don’t know how this virus travels yet and I cannot risk you becoming a carrier.” He shook his head.
“I won’t let my friend die alone, doctor.”
He looked at me for a second then said. “I will be honest with you, this is a terrible virus. I have never seen anything like it in my entire career. It isn’t something you will want to see and I am sure it is not how you will want to remember your friend.”
I stared at him for a long moment, suddenly realising that I had not noticed how blue his eyes were, reminding me sharply of Jyrki. It seemed strange to me that I would consider the doctor’s eye colour while Cati lay dying not more than a few meters away from us. It took me a few more seconds to understand that he was still waiting for an answer. He looked at me in that pitying way doctors sometimes had and for reasons I could never explain it suddenly made me angry. Sorrow and pain I knew well enough but anger I could use.
“Listen to me and listen good,” I began, my voice a low edgy growl, “Cati is my friend, one of my best friends. She doesn’t have family any more so we are all she has got and I will not let her die alone! I don’t care how you do it but make it so that we can be with her, am I making myself clear?” I had gathered the force around me and added a push of suggestion with my words. I felt him give in.
He nodded almost absently. “There is an observation room but you will have to cover your clothing and footwear as well as masks. Once you have seen her you can decide if one of you wants to go into the isolation room to be with her. In order to do that you will have to wear a hazmat suit and I have to warn you, they are not very comfortable.”
I looked at him. “Well I doubt they are worse than wearing an EVA suit and going for a walk in zero G.”
Oddly enough that made the doctor smile. “You’re a spacer?”
He looked at each of us and shook his head slowly. “Our quarantine and safety procedures are in place for a reason so do not break them or else you will find yourselves locked up in an isolation ward yourself.”
We nodded and then followed him through the thick doors which separated the Isolation ward from the rest of the planet.
The first thing that I noticed was the smell, or rather the lack of it. There was a soft whumph sound as the doors had opened and the doctor had explained that the Isolation ward was on a different ventilation system and the rooms were kept under negative pressure. As we walked through the eerily silent sterile corridors I could feel the sense of horror prick its way through me, starting at the base of my spine and working its way upward until my heart raced with a sudden terror I could not identify.
In the small dressing locker room we were given clothes to wear and a pale faced medical assistant helped us with the protective gowns which went on over our own clothes. I felt as though I were a well wrapped Tusken by the time we were done, it seemed a bit of over kill at least that was what I though until we were shown into the observation room.
I had thought that my nightmares were beyond bad but they were nothing to the reality of what I saw now. Ynyth made a muffled sound and turned away from the viewing window into Shiv’s protective embrace. I felt my uncle move towards me but I held up my hand to stay him. If he showed me any sort of kindness, compassion I would break down as well. I saw when I glanced at him that he understood.
The isolation room was small, sterile looking and empty except for a bed and an Em-D droid. At first my brain could not decipher what I was looking at and then I realised that the small, foetal curled heap on the bed was actually Cati. The bed was a mess of smeared blood and other darkish looking fluids. I could see that her skin, which was usually a pretty green colour, had turned a vile, pallid yellow hue.
“I can’t stay in here.” Ynyth whispered and Shiv nodded, looking at me as he held her.
“Go, there’s nothing either of you can do.” I told him answering the question he hadn’t actually asked.
“Merly?” His voice shook.
“I’m staying.” I said surprised at the determination in my voice. “I won’t let her die alone.” I looked at the doctor who was watching us with an expressionless face. “I want to be with her.”
“Are you certain, Miss?”
“She’s aware isn’t she?” I asked, avoiding his question, turning back to stare through the transparasteel observation window. I could sense her through the transparasteel and I could sense her pain.
He drew a deep breath. “As far as we have been able to discern all the patients we have seen infected with this virus have been aware of their situation right up until the moment of death.”
I whirled around to stare at him. “She knows what is happening? She feels everything?”
His nod was slight and resigned. “We do what we can but the pain is great. We understand so little about what this virus does or how it attacks the body that there is really very little we can do for our end stage patients except to try and make them comfortable and even that is difficult. It is as if her body is eating itself and we are powerless to stop it.”
I glanced at my uncle but his face was impassive. Shiv stared at me, still cradling Ynyth protectively in his arms. “I won’t let her die alone.” I said again but even I could hear the small shiver of fear in my voice.
“You don’t have to do that. She will hardly know you are there.” The doctor said. He was lying.
“I will know. You said she is aware of everything then she will know too. No more discussion about this.” I said. “Shiv take Ynyth home, I will call you when it’s…” The words caught in my throat, “When it is over.” There was a long moment of silence while he weighed what I had said then he nodded and without a word he and Ynyth left.
“Lei'lei….” My uncle began but I interrupted him.
“I won’t leave her to die all alone horribly, not like this.” I kept saying the same words over and over again.
He put his hands on my shoulders and looked me directly in the eyes. “Child, what I wanted to say was that I will be here for you.”
I swallowed. He had not called me that in a very long time. It was always his way of punctuating something he wanted me to pay great attention to. I just nodded and followed the doctor into the next room hoping I really did have the strength to do this and that it wasn’t all talk.
The hazardous environment suit was a lot like an EVA suit but lighter and a little easier to move around in. I had to take a deep breath when the aid slipped the hood over my head and sealed it. The air in the suit hissed and my ears popped a little as the positive pressure made the suit puff out.
“You have your own air, separate from the room in the pack in your back, enough for four hours. Once it is depleted you will have to go through the decontamination room and be fitted with another pack.” The young man who was fitting the seals around the suit said.
The doctor looked at me. “I will be close by if you need me and the Em-De droid in the room will administer pain killers, what ever she needs. Hit the large red button by the door when you want to come out.” He told me. “And what ever you do…do not throw up in your suit.”
This statement made me laugh but not in any good way. I was suddenly very scared. “How infectious is this?”
“We don’t know. The current theory is it is transmitted through the bodily fluid and the water system. We know it doesn’t affect humans but we don’t know if humans can be carriers so we are not taking and chances.” The doctor replied.
I nodded again and then after going through the strange double door system they had in place, I was allowed into the sterile, safe room where Cati was lying on a bed. Despite the single bed sheet that covered her small body, I could see that the ravages of this virus were worse than I could have ever imagined, making my nightmares seem like pleasant dreams by comparison. I swallowed down bile and the desperate urge to flee and went to her bedside.
“Cati?” I said, my voice sounding odd inside of the suit. I had to speak loudly to be heard through the clear mask that covered my face. “It’s Merly.”
She turned her head to look up at me and tried to smile though the sores on her decaying skin made this task both painful and difficult. “Guess… I won’t be making you… any more pretty ball gowns to go dancing in.” She said in a horse whisper. I was grateful the suit had a way of amplifying the ambient sound.
“Oh Cati….” I whispered but I couldn’t finish because I had to gasp for air as I tried not to break down into sobs right then and there. Tears welled up in my eyes and rolled down my cheeks. I blinked, then absently going to wipe them from my face I realised that I couldn’t do that wearing this suit. I pulled up a chair to sit at her side. She reached over and put her hand on mine. It was covered in small open oozing sores but I was wearing gloves and I didn’t pull away. Her eyes had lost their bright mischievous shine instead they looked dull and cloudy. I did not need to be a medical genius to see she was in terrible pain.
“Don’t cry.” She told me but I couldn’t help it. How had this happened to her? What had she ever done to deserve such a terrible death and it would be terrible, there was no stopping this now. “I just wanted to say goodbye properly to one of my best customers and… best friends.” She said slowly, carefully, because it hurt her to speak. “You don’t have to stay… I know it is bad, hell I can’t bear to look at myself either.”
I glanced up to the transparasteel observation window where my uncle watched with concern and sadness. It gave me strength to know he was there and I turned back to look at my friend or what was left of her. “I’m not going anywhere, Cati. A few sores don’t scare me, I used to work for Jabba the Hutt remember, I’ve seen far worse than this.” I told her and was relieved to discover I meant it.
Cati turned her head to smile at me as best she could. “You never were one to shy away from much. I always liked that about you.” She said and then winced in agony as a spasm wracked through her tiny body. I shook my head, swallowing down my sorrow feeling that awful prickle of tears again. How had this gotten so bad? Why had she not told anyone she was sick? Why had we not noticed because as I sat there watching my friend die I realised the signs had all been there and we had just been too blind to notice.
“I’m sorry, Cati.” I said quietly.
“Not your fault.” She said as fiercely as was possible. “I should have come to the Med center sooner, I knew I was sick, I just thought it was the flu.”
We should have done a lot of things I thought but it was all too late for those now. I just nodded.
“I don’t think I have long so please listen…” She said urgently, gasping in between each word with pain.
So I nodded and leaned in as close as I could and she began, haltingly to tell me what it was Shiv and I were supposed to do once she was dead. She had no family so it would be the two of us who would take care of her affairs once she died. I sat there as calmly as I could, almost business like, wondering if I had suddenly found myself in hell. I puzzled at how it was that Cati could be so accepting of her horrible fate when I could not. I wanted to scream and shout, rail against the powers that be for what was happening to my friend instead I sat at her bed-side, stifling in the protective clothing with the imagined stench of decaying flesh and death so strong I did not think it would be possible to ever escape from it. I listened to her carefully and after what seemed forever, but was really only a short time, she stopped speaking. It had become too painful for her and she had said all she had wanted to. The room seemed smothered in silence then, the passing of time every bit as slow and as agonizing as when I had been kidnapped by Jyrki. Shortly before she slipped into the delirium that would steal her from the world forever she turned to look at me.
“Thank you.” She said.
I frowned, uncomprehending. “For what?”
“For coming.” She whispered.
She went to touch my arm but her own hand was a mess of puss and fluids and it slipped off the slick material of the hazmat suit. It took all my self control not to burst into uncontrollable sobs. I simply reached out to lay my gloved hand flat on the bed where she could rest her own on top of it. I watched in silent horror as the person who had been my friend and confident slowly slipped away, her body disintegrating before my eyes. She said nothing more, only moaning as her body seemed to dissolve into itself. The Em-D droid hovered by her bed to administer more medication but even I could see it was doing little good. In the end there was nothing any of us could to do to help her, nothing any could do to ease her excruciating pain and over the course of hours I stayed at her side, watched her die a terrible, slow and painful death.
When the alarm on the suit peeped letting me know that my air was about to run out I dutifully left the room. If Cati was still aware of my presence she made no sign of it but she was still clinging onto life. I stared in morbid fascination as her tiny chest heaved up and down with the effort of each breath. I knew that once I left this room I could not come back a second time.
“Goodbye, Cati.” I whispered. The words sounded weird and tinny in the protective coverings I wore and suddenly I was overcome with a terrible sense of claustrophobia.
The decontamination process was not over soon enough for me and I almost panicked trying to get out of the suit which was had been hosed down, disinfected twice and then sprayed with bacta mist. Once I was out of the suit and pronounced clean and safe I was allowed to dress in clean hospital wear and go back into the observation room to rejoin my uncle who had been watching the entire time.
“That was a very brave thing you did.” He said quietly as he gathered me into his arms. I just held onto him tightly and tried to remember how to breathe.
I didn’t know if it was brave or not. I only knew it seemed as though time had somehow slowed down for me but for the rest of the galaxy it went on as normal. The doctor came in briefly and told us that she was in the end stage it would not be long and it would not be pretty. I wasn’t sure it could get much worse but I nodded anyway.
Together my uncle and I watched and waited until an hour or so before dawn the Em-D droid pronounced Cati dead and I was grateful it was over for her as well as for me. For the first time in my life I hoped there was some sort of all encompassing deity and that it was vengeful beyond all belief because who ever had come up with this virus deserved to die by it.
The doctor, whose name I had forgotten and who looked even more exhausted than before, came into talk to us about what would happen to her remains but I only half heard his words. There was not much of her remains to do anything with, I thought, but what was left would be cremated to prevent any possible spread of infection. Cati was no longer a being, she was now simply a bed full of hazardous waste. I was in a state of shock. It felt as if I were only half there and that the world was very surreal. When the doctor finished we were allowed to go. As though I were on auto pilot I followed my uncle into the changing room where we dressed into the street clothes we had worn to come here.
“Lei'lei, let me take you home.”
I glanced up at Uncle Vahlek uncomprehending and shook my head. “Not yet.” I whispered. I didn’t know how to explain that I needed some time to shake away the images in my head. I did not want to bring this terrible death which I felt sitting on my shoulders into Thrawn’s beautiful flat. I did not want to contaminate the only place I had ever truly felt safe.
Uncle Vahlek seemed to understand. “The doctor mentioned to me there is a small quiet room on the fourth floor. Why don’t we go there?”
I nodded and followed, trailing behind him as he wound his way through the medical facility like a lost puppy. The meditation room, as it had been oddly titled was thankfully empty and I let out the breath I felt I had been holding all night slowly. I suddenly realised that I hadn’t cried, I could not seem to cry at all. There were no tears and that felt strange to me.
“Do you want a cup of tea?” Uncle Vahlek asked.
I nodded absently.
“I’ll see if I can find a cafeteria.” He said, he was giving me time alone to think, to come back to myself.
I nodded and watched as he left as quietly as he had come in. I waited a few moments then paced around. The room had been designed for exactly this sort of occasion, a comfort to worried or grieving relatives and friends of patients. It had been tastefully decorated, trying very hard not to look as though it were a part of the medical facility. It failed miserably. Everything looked slightly shabby and a little sad. I stopped pacing and stood by the large window, watching as the sun rose slowly over the cityscape of tall elegant buildings, the morning sky a blaze of angry looking reds and oranges. Watching the early morning traffic increase as thousands of beings went about their daily routine not knowing, not caring that some one I had loved had died. How was that possible? I thought. Why had the world not ground to a screeching halt?
As the sun’s pale yellow rays slowly crept between the spaces of the buildings, I realised I would never see Cati again, never hear her teasing voice ask me about my love life, never see her create something beautiful to wear out of a simple piece of fabric and worst of all never again get to share laughter with her. She was gone forever. Suddenly I felt as though I couldn’t breathe, grief engulfed me and it was as though I were drowning in it but I did not want to let go, not here, not in this awful sterile public place so I stifled the sobs in the back of my throat, swallowing it down with my hand covering my mouth. The ache from the effort was nauseating and hot tears fell of their own accord. Too wrapped up in my struggle to not cry I did not hear the door to the room opening, I neither cared nor noticed who came and went and I was far too lost to my own thoughts to realise it wasn’t Uncle Vahlek. Trembling with a sadness I had not thought possible, I didn’t even jump when the person behind me spoke.
“Hullo Mouse.” Said Jyrki quietly.