The slick of black, heady oil rolled across the floor, staining the raw surface of the clinic, and the young boy collapsed back into the examination table. He was pale, even for someone who had never seen sunlight, with milky eyes and black spittle hanging from cracked lips.
"Of those we've seen, the virus has spread most quickly in this patient." Doctor Ripnar was a tall man who tended to sway when he walked, but had hands as deft and precise as any surgeon and he used them now to steady and restrain the boy. "His blood is turning into the same substance you see at your feet." he continued, "We might have been able to keep him alive long enough to find a cure, but we don't have the resources for everyone."
Adjudicator Lawrence nervously straightened his tie; his pink and sweaty face bulbous with stress. "Everyone?" he asked, "How many have been infected?"
"It's in the air supply, Adjudicator. We're all infected."
The Adjudicator lurched, virulent juices churning in his stomach. He hated the lighting in the clinic; it was too bright, pushing everything past reality into something easily twisted by the mind. He saw his daughter lying limp on the examination table, wasting away before his eyes as the foul substance bubbled from her mouth.
"Are the restraints really necessary?" he asked weakly, seeing Clara's blonde hair dangling over the table edge.
"Hmmm? Oh, the boy. I'm afraid the pressure on the brain is a little unpredictable; we don't need him thrashing about and making a mess." Doctor Ripnar spoke without empathy, but Adjudicator Lawrence assumed it to be the doctor's own way of dealing with the situation rather than a genuine lack of care for his patient. They were both facing a pandemic that they had no hope to cure or even contain.
"But tied down like that... won't he choke if he vomits again?" A spluttering from the direction of the boy seemed to confirm Adjudicator Lawrence's concern, but Doctor Ripnar did not move.
"Adjudicator, this boy will slip out of consciousness before he is even aware he is choking. Certain regulations placed upon my profession forbid me from administering lethal relief," here Doctor Ripnar's voice began to waver, his hands clenched and shaking, "but... should some accident occur it would almost certainly cause less suffering than allowing his body to be slowly starved of oxygen."
"Yes... yes I suppose you might be right." Adjudicator Lawrence forced the image of his daughter aside and tried to focus on the issue at hand: the complex was contaminated and it was his responsibility to deal with it. "In your opinion, Doctor, was this a deliberate act of sabotage?"
"You would be ill-placed to assume otherwise." said Doctor Ripnar, deliberately keeping his eyes averted from the delirious boy.
"And how long has it been in the air supply?"
"It would be impossible to say with certainty."
"Then give me your most conservative estimate!" snapped the Adjudicator, the severity of the situation beginning to fray his nerves.
"Three hours, Adjudicator. I would expect no longer than that."
Adjudicator Lawrence buried his gaze in his shoes, screwing his face in distaste at the gagging sound coming from the examination table. For the present, the individual lives of his citizens were a secondary concern; he had to do what was best for humanity as a whole, and that meant stopping the virus from spreading to the other facilities.
"Very well Doctor. Send your notes on the case to my office, however limited they may be."
The waiting room was busier now than when Adjudicator Lawrence had arrived. It was difficult then to cut a clear path from one room to another; now it was swell of bodies writhing about each other in an orgy of disease. Carefully removing himself from this focal point of the ill, he recalled Doctor Ripnar's passing words, This is only the beginning. Within an hour, half the complex will struggle to function.
It was difficult to understand how it had happened. Certainly Complex 57 didn't have the same quarantine measures that other cities had - of the facilities buried beneath the Pacific Ocean, his was one of the smallest - but the question was why? There was a great deal of distrust and disagreement between the complexes, but there was also the mutual understanding that to attack another outright would bring ruin to them all. Now someone had ripped that understanding apart, exposing it raw for the scavenging bottom-feeders to pick through.
Not that the who and why mattered so much now; it had happened, and Adjudicator Lawrence had a job to do. He hurried down the corridor, more aware than ever before of the weight of the ocean bearing down above him, hurrying past the steady stream of citizens trying to reach the infirmary. The only thing that really drove him on was a bead of pride, the slightest gleam of duty to the rest of humanity that cut through his desire to give up in the face of the inevitable.
Sweating his way down the corridor he realised he was mostly passing the young and the old. These would be the first batch of dead: those who would still have someone left to mourn them. They were sluggish, reacting to life as if great weights were hanging from each limb, having to be dragged along by worried family members. Seeing them made Adjudicator Lawrence conscious of how heavy his legs felt and the numb ache that was slowing them down. A knot of oil began to form in his throat.
Doctor Ripnar studied the crowd from the safety of his office, peering through tight slits of his blind. Soon, acting as a single panicked entity, it would realise that his medical team was unable to help and fevered desperation would set in. He suspected that it would have made a fascinating, if morbid study of human nature, had he only the time to appreciate it. His trouble was that he was all too aware of what was happening to both his body, and their's. His head was already throbbing under the pressure of his increasingly viscous blood and soon he would be forced to wade through his own bile, hanging thereabouts on the border of consciousness until his heart finally gave up.
His arms and legs were more like metal pipes than muscles when he wanted to move them, but when he tried to support his weight they crumbled beneath him. He had no desire to sink slowly into death, clabbering pathetically at the floor like a drowning fish a mile away from water, not when he had access to a cabinet packed full of more interesting ways to die.
There was a time when he would have been out there, doing everything he could to help his patients until the virus had incapacitated him entirely. He would have reassured them, sedated those in the greatest pain, taken over nearby storage rooms so the infirmary wouldn't be so overcrowded. But that Doctor Ripnar was three decades younger, and he still thought the desire for progress existed in humanity. The Doctor Ripnar that was carefully checking the labels on his bottles had watched stagnancy impregnate the human condition, until the bastard child was born and humanity enslaved itself to the idea that everything should remain forever the same. It had been intolerable, and finally it was coming to an end.
Not one to experiment with something so important and irreversible, Doctor Ripnar selected a bottle of morphine and drew deep with a syringe. The virus meant he was having a little trouble focussing, and his hands appeared to be shaking, but his veins were dark and swollen making it easy to hit one. A deep, heated ecstasy slowly clawed its way through him.
Finally alone in his office, although currently unable to appreciate its lofty twenty-foot-square dimensions and filtered lighting, Adjudicator Lawrence stared at his brushed metal desk and the complex-wide command programs he had running on the screens therein. This was the only terminal that was networked with the rest of the Pacific Ocean, and the only way to get a message out to the other complexes. He tried to clear his throat, which only made things worse - a sticky hot ball catching in his lungs - and bore down on the screen.
"This message is to serve as a warning to all facilities in the Pacific Ocean. Three hours ago ago, Complex 57 came under biological attack in the form of a lethal virus released into the air supply. The entire complex has been infected in a matter of hours. No survivors are expected. What little information we have on the virus itself is being made available to you now."
Adjudicator Lawrence paused. The screen was out of focus, sweat drenched his face and made his eyes sting - something slimy was slowly penetrating his brain. He willed himself to continue, caressing that bead of pride.
"Three crafts left this complex after the virus was released, all one-man vessels, departing on bearings zero-five-six, zero-six-nine, and one-three-two respectively. These vessels should be considered infected and must be treated with extreme caution. In all likelihood the occupants will soon be dead. Should they approach, I urge you to destroy these vessels rather than risk contaminating your own facilities."
He shut the transmission off and returned to his own complex. He had done his duty; now he could consider the welfare of his people. A few hesitant taps sealed the bulkheads. There wasn't any way or reason to slow the spread of the virus - it had already been regurgitated into every room, including his office, layer upon layer of lethal pathogen - but he could at least stop his citizens from moving around in futile panic. Sealed in their rooms and dormitories, emergency protocols running looped on their terminals, they could at least believe that the rest of the complex was safe, that medical teams would be with them shortly. At least they could die with hope.
Adjudicator Lawrence hovered over the faint glow of his control panel, its unwavering gleam a cruel mockery of the decay his body was suffering. At his fingertips he held personal data for every citizen in the complex. With a more few taps he could send, say, medical files for every single one of them across the undersea network. But he didn't send anything. He lived in a world where billions of people were wiped clean away when the surface tore itself apart, and not even the faintest trace of data still existed for the vast majority of those people. Adjudicator Lawrence had to believe that if anything was important, it was only that they had lived, regardless of whether or not there was a computer somewhere that could remember them.
With nothing left to do for his citizens, Adjudicator Lawrence allowed himself to think of his daughter. He couldn't do anything for her now and didn't even know where she was or if she was still alive. She could be face down on the grating, black sludge spilling from her lips, her heart long since still.
His stomach wrenched, covering the desk panels with its bitter contents. The Adjudicator used his tie to mop his mouth, trying to wipe away the taste without success. Clara would hate it - she couldn't stand bitter tastes. Yesterday's algae had been unusually bitter and she had hardly eaten enough of it, but today he had been planning to take her to the central restaurant. The Chef there had a tomato plant that had been rescued from the surface and painstakingly cared for over the last six decades. The flesh of the fruit was so sweet, so exotic, it would have been a rare treat for her.
Sinking to the floor, Lawrence wept.