Rating: A healthy PG-13
Spoilers: Heavy book references in this one, a few book characters appear later on. No plot spoilers, however. TV references: Storm Front, Birds of a Feather, Things that go Bump
Chapter Length: 1736 words
Summary: An unusual epidemic has hit Chicago and Harry's in the thick of it.
Author's Notes: Special thanks to my mum (the nurse) this chapter for letting me ask her questions about weird things and generally indulging me in my inner weirdness.
The new patients were on the second floor, in isolation. Murphy and I took the elevator up and emerged on two security guards. They backed off when Murphy flashed her badge and we were able to go down the hall. The little common room was occupied by a nurse and a few family members who weren’t allowed in to see the isolated patients. There was a young guy, holding a toddler, who was gesturing elaborately toward the nurse. In return, the nurse was speaking loud and slowly to him.
“Not stupid,” the young guy replied, angrily. He had what I took to be a Spanish accent. “I not understand English! You talk big, it not help!” Then he said something that I don’t think was very nice.
Murphy detoured from our walk to go in and intercept. I followed her and stood there, completely useless, while she spoke to the guy in rapid Spanish. I’ve done a lot of traveling in Spanish speaking countries and I can get by with ‘a cup of coffee, please’ and ‘my name is Harry’ and ‘do you mind if I exorcise that demon living in your attic?’. I can follow most conversation, if the person is speaking slowly. They were not speaking slowly and the only thing I could clearly catch was ‘policía’, when Murphy flashed her badge.
“Why don’t you have a translator here?” She asked, after she’d spoken with the guy for a bit. “He says no one has been able to tell him what’s happening.”
“Things are a bit chaotic right now,” the nurse said, apologetically. “We have a deadly, apparently contagious disease that no one has ever heard of before and everyone is trying to decide how serious it is, whether we need to call the CDC or if it’s just a fluke, how these people contracted it from one another and how we go about treating something that has no obvious symptoms. It’s a mess. Unfortunately, things are getting lost in the cracks.”
“He wants to know how his sister is doing,” Murphy relayed. “Catalina Hernandez?”
“She’s like the other one, out cold, but stable,” the nurse answered. “They’re both in a coma and we have no idea why. Can you phrase that to seem less hopeless?”
Murphy did so. She also seemed to say something calming that made the guy go to sit in one of the chairs. The nurse looked like he wanted to hug her. Murphy was still in cop mode, though.
“You should get someone up here to translate,” she suggested, in a way making it clear it was an order. “And I want to know what’s going on with the patients.”
“I will,” the nurse promised. “Dr. Forrester is in charge of the isolation cases. He’s down the hall, you should talk to him.”
“Thank you,” Murphy said. She marched off and I went after her.
“I didn’t know you spoke Spanish,” I said.
“Did you think Constanza was an Irish name?” She asked, amused.
“Assuming doesn’t work out well for me,” I explained. “I try to do it as little as possible.”
“Well, I’m half Cuban,” she said. “My mother’s family defected.”
“Cool,” I said. “In that, you know what you are. I have no idea what my family were.” Except, maybe, a long line of frighteningly powerful wizards. I don’t think that’s an ethnicity, though.
“You’re obviously a mutt,” she teased, with a smirk.
“Ruff,” I replied.
As we approached the isolation rooms, a tall man in scrubs came out of one and a flurry of residents came after him. He gave a few orders and the residents split off in different directions. He leaned against the wall and lowered his mask.
“Are you Dr. Forrester?” Murphy asked him.
“I’m sorry, you have to stay in the waiting room,” he said, tiredly. He had a springy sort of British accent. “Family isn’t allowed down here.”
Murphy flashed her badge again. “I’m with the Chicago PD. I know you’re busy, but can I ask you a few questions?”
Forrester straightened up. He was really tall, maybe an inch shorter than me. That’s saying something. “Oh, sorry, m’um. It’s been a long few days. That young man, the policeman, I’m very sorry for your loss.” He peeled off the glove on his right hand and trashed it, before offering the hand to shake. “I’m Darcy Forrester. I’m the chief diagnostician.”
“Lieutenant Connie Murphy,” she replied. “This is Harry Dresden. He’s a consultant with the police.”
I got a handshake too. The powder from the gloves itched on my palm. After getting the formalities out of the way, Forrester leaned back against the wall, looking exhausted. He forced a polite smile to us, though.
“What can I do for you?” he asked.
“We’d just like to know what’s going on,” Murphy explained. “It’s all very strange.”
“It is,” Forrester agreed, fervently. “It was weird enough when Officer Bloom came in, but to think it might be contagious is disturbing. Basically, in all three cases the patient fell asleep as normal, and then simply never woke up. We’ve done everything we can think of – noise, shaking, drugs, they don’t respond to any of it, which makes them technically in a coma.”
“Technically?” I repeated.
“Well, that’s the mad part of it,” he replied. He seemed sort of enthusiastic about the madness. I guess that he liked his job. I can understand that; I get very excited about sandalwood oil. “They’re dreaming.”
“And that’s not normal for a coma?” Murphy questioned.
“No, see, there’s a coma scale, and you have these levels of coma, with characteristics of each which you evaluate them by,” Forrester continued. “All of them register a 1, which isn’t good. That’s no response to noise, light or pain stimuli. Sleeping has a cycle, yeah? So, you go through 3 to 4 stages of sleep before you enter REM. Then you come out of it and start the cycle over again. You have to have a sleep cycle to be in REM, where you can dream, but coma patients don’t have a sleep cycle. But, and here’s the part that is really weird – they’ve been dreaming non-stop. Babies have about 50% REM sleep and adults have about 20% REM sleep. You think that if we get about 6 hours sleep a night, then we’re dreaming for about one and a half hours of that. Officer Bloom was in REM sleep for nearly 68 hours straight.”
Something about that made me shiver, instinctively. Dreaming for wizards is a bit different from dreaming for straights. We can usually get in there and actively control it – even talk to the people in it and sort out our problems. The thought of being inside a dream for 68 hours was scary.
“Can I see them?” I asked. “Do you mind?”
Forrester thought about it. “I suppose not. Why exactly do you need to see them?”
The sucky thing about intelligent people is they rarely go for the ‘I’m a wizard and I want to’ argument. I shrugged to stall for time and finally came up with, “I’m a visual person. I have trouble going by descriptions.”
Forrester seemed skeptical, but Murphy raised her chin defiantly and he relented. Murphy always has my back, even when she wants to stab it. Though, Murphy would always stab someone face to face, I’m sure. Forrester pulled his mask back up and opened the door to an antechamber. Murphy and I had to mask, cap, gown, glove ourselves again and then he opened the door to the main isolation room.
This one belonged to Catalina Hernandez. She was about twenty-four, all exotic features and silky hair. She was attached to several machines, but was breathing on her own. She had probes stuck to her head and chest, measuring various bodily activities. She didn’t look sick, which I found odd. She just looked like she was sleeping.
The room gave me the creeps and I didn’t know why. It made my skin crawl and my shoulders hunch up instinctively, like I wanted to be as small as possible. I looked over to the doctor and cop but neither of them seemed to be feeling the same thing as me. I walked over to the patient and felt around with my senses.
“They have an elevated heart rate,” Forrester narrated. “We’ve been able to control it with drugs, but when they wear off, the heart starts racing again. Brain activity is very high, too. That’s another odd thing about the coma. There are very few things we can treat at all. If you can’t treat the disease, you treat the symptoms. They have fevers, almost routinely, that spike up high. We can control those, too. Fever suggests infection, but none of the blood tests, or LPs or swabs, or anything has been positive. We put Officer Bloom through Cts, MRIs, X-rays, the works and there was no trauma to the head – to anywhere. It’s utterly baffling.”
I looked down at Catalina Hernandez. I could see her eyes moving under her lids, back and forth frantically. The rest of her body was utterly still, aside from her chest rising and falling as she breathed. She seemed to be breathing a bit fast. Forrester came over and lifted one of her eyelids. He shone a penlight into her eye.
“You can see the pupil doesn’t respond to light,” he said. “But her eyes are still moving rapidly.”
Her eyes were light brown. I looked into the open one and my skin crawled some more. Her pupil was huge, leaving only a rim of brown around the edge. She didn’t look peaceful. It’s hard to say why. She wasn’t frowning or furrowed or anything, but when people sleep, as I’ve mentioned, they tend to look calm. She didn’t look calm and as I moved my hand up to the railing of her bed, I got a jolt through my fingertips that made me feel wrong. I resisted the urge to twist and writhe, trying to shake the bad feeling off me.
“Harry?” Murphy asked. “Are you alright?”
I shuddered and stepped back from the bed, feeling sick. There was magic afoot there and it wasn’t good magic. Catalina’s monitors blipped and went dead. The lights followed and I pushed my way out of that room as fast as I could.