|Английски оригинал||Перевод на български|
by E. C. Tubb
Two lives were at stake and he had to make a—decision...
John Gibson had always thought that the waiting room of the General Mercy Hospital must be similar to the annex to hell. It was a large room, the floor of stamped dirt puddled with wet, the walls of cracked and broken concrete seeping with moisture and mottled with slimy lichen and creeping moss, the roof a mass of splintered beams pierced by a single, dirt-encrusted skylight. A few rough benches rested against the walls and, sitting on the benches, squatting on the floor, pressed against the walls or humped into corners, waited the most concentrated distillation of human misery the world had ever known.
John sighed as he saw them, feeling the grit of fatigue rasp his eyeballs and the burning discomfort of too many sleepless nights churn his stomach. It wasn't the assembled misery which upset him—he had seen too much misery in his half-century of life—it was the growing knowledge that there wasn't anything he could do to alleviate it, that there wasn't anything anyone could do. He looked at the woman at his side.
She was thin, too thin, but that was normal now. Her eyes glistened with drug-induced wakefulness and her hands quivered in constant motion as she toyed with a set of cards so marked, erased and marked again as to be almost indecipherable. She wore a smock of a drab gray color. Once it had been white, and had long ago abandoned any effort to appear attractive.
"Have you sorted them, nurse?"
"Yes, doctor." She didn't look at him, but there was no mistaking the despair in her voice. "It's getting worse. Two hundred and eight this morning. About seventy stand a chance of being helped, the rest..."
"We must do what we can." John reached for the cards. "I'll take maternity. Collins, flesh wounds and minor injuries. Fenshaw, chronic illness, radiation sickness, incurable and internal diseases. Send them in strict waiting-rotation; some of these poor devils have been waiting two days now."
"Yes, doctor." She hesitated. "After maternities?"
"The hard ones; use your discretion." He gripped her shoulders and turned her to look at him, smiling into her eyes. "One other thing, Sally, and this is important. We don't want you cracking up on us, so go easy on the benzedrine, will you?"
"Yes, doctor." She tried to smile with her bloodless lips and the glitter in her eyes increased as she stared at him. "And you?"
"I'll manage." He patted her shoulder. "You've got to get some rest, Sally. We need you too much for you to take chances."
"Yes, doctor." The title came with the ease of ingrained habit but the hunger in her eyes left no doubt as to the word she would rather have used. "It's nice of you to say that, but I can always be replaced—you can't."
"Where could I find another trained nurse?" John shook his head. "There may be some more doctors around but you're more than just a doctor. You are a diagnostician now, and you save us an endless amount of time. No, Sally, I'd rather lose Collins or Fenshaw than you."
"You have other nurses."
"I know that." He smiled at her again, shaking her gently as he gripped her shoulders. "I'm not going to flatter you, Sally, so you can stop fishing for compliments. You know how much you mean to me."
She flushed, a rising tide of red suffusing her sallow features and restoring for a moment something of her lost beauty. For a moment she clung to him; then, as habit and ingrained duty overcame desire, reached for the cards and began to call out names.
The procession to hell began.
* * *
It had begun three years before, when the soughing whine of falling missiles had painted the night with flame and mushroom clouds of smoke. It had begun when London vanished in a cloud of radioactive glory, when Liverpool and Newcastle, Glasgow and Manchester, Bristol and Portsmouth and a dozen other big cities had glowed and slumped and ran into heaps of molten slag. It had begun within the space of twelve hours in which half the population had died with merciful swiftness and it had carried over for another seven days, during which three quarters of the remainder had spewed out their lives in uncontrollable vomiting.
But it hadn't ended there.
A man can lose a leg and he will live. A man can have his limbs severed, bis eyes taken out, his ears destroyed, his senses dulled and rendered useless, and still he can remain a reasoning, intelligent entity. But no nation can have the heart and guts ripped from it and hope to recover, to carry on as usual, to remain a close-knit unity. England was dead—but it was a long time dying.
John wished that he had died with it.
He sat at his desk and stared at the file of maternity cases Sally had sent in from the waiting room. They were all the same, dull-eyed, indifferent, without imagination or the subtle something which would inevitably have driven them from their tiny villages into the big cities. They accepted life as it came and already most of them were ridden with superstition. Tiredly he went through the routine, knowing that he could have been an African witch doctor, masked and mumbling incantations, for all the impression he was making.
Blood counts. Geiger tests. Tracer elements. Albumen reaction. Teeth and skin. Wasserman and smear. Test for diabetes, for cancer, for radiation sickness. Test for vitamin deficiency, for calcium lack, for malnutrition. He didn't have to test for intelligence.
"How are you feeling?"
"You'll get over that. Now this is what you must do. Drink plenty of milk, boil all water, wash frequently, eat plenty of vegetables, stay away from all radioactive areas, refrain from lifting heavy weights, don't wear tight clothing. Don't drink too much. Get plenty of rest. You understand?"
They didn't, of course; how could they? Drink plenty of milk—when a cow was something most of them had only heard of. Wash frequently —when there was no soap. Stay away from radioactive areas—when they didn't know the meaning of the word. Plenty of vegetables—nettles, lettuce, berries, some wizened fruit. All hard to gather. All hard to cook—and there were plenty of rusty cans still to be found—if you went into the radioactive areas. Don't drink too much—when it was their only pleasure. Rest—how?
He watched them file out, knowing that half of their expected children would carry the inheritance of their parents' gift of blindness, distorted bones, congenital disease as proved by the Wasserman and smear tests. And yet there was nothing he could do to prevent it. No doctor can cure a patient if the patient won't take the trouble to be cured. Even if he has the intent he still needs the essential drugs and medicines, and the drugs had vanished along with the thousand other needs of civilization when the alphabet bombs had drifted down from the sullen clouds.
Tiredness clawed at him and he almost yielded to it, resting his head on his folded arms and closing his eyes, letting his body relax and slump against the edge of the desk. Memories came swimming to the forefront of his consciousness—white-tiled corridors and polished floors, rows of neat white beds and attentive, neat, white nurses. The gleam of sterile steel and the glare of brilliant lights. Ranked ampules of drugs, the slender perfection of hypodermics, the miracle of modern surgery.
He started, blinking and feeling the sudden pounding of his heart as he surged upwards from the desk. Collins stood before him, a steaming jug in one hand and some thick, cracked china cups in the other.
"Thanks." John rubbed his eyes and wondered if he should take another benzedrine tablet. He decided against it. The supply was getting low and he had driven himself too far as it was. He sipped at the hot brew, grimacing at the herbal tang, and felt brief regret at lost pleasures. "How is it going?"
"As usual." Collins shrugged. He was a young man, twenty years younger than John, and still had the cynical indifference of youth to the unfortunate. "I've looked at a few scratches and sewn up a few cuts; all I can do, really." He sipped at his tea. "How's the new generation?"
"They'll arrive." John tried not to show his irritation at the other's levity. "If you've cleared your cases how about starting on the chronics?"
"Why?" Collins stared directly at the elder man. "What good will it do?"
"It will relieve me and Fenshaw for one thing. I won't mention common humanity. If you haven't heard of it yet it's a bit late in the day to start."
"I'm a realist, John. What possible good can we do to a man dying of radiation sickness? The only real mercy we can give him is the easy way out. The same applies to most of the other chronics out there. They are just wasting our time."
"I see." John stared down into his cup, not seeing the dark brown, almost transparent liquid it contained. "Carl?"
"Why do you insist on ascribing everything I say to the influence of Carl?" Collins set down his cup with exaggerated care. "I can think for myself, John. That I happen to believe that Carl is right in a lot of what he says is merely coincidence."
"You are a doctor, Collins," said John quietly. "As such you took a certain oath. Must I remind you of it? Must I bring to your notice that bit about 'comfort to the dying'? A doctor isn't just a mechanic, Collins; he has a greater duty towards humanity than to repair their bodies—if they are repairable. Those people out there look towards us for help. Some of them have waited two or more days just to get to see us, some of them have traveled a long way. Are you asking me to turn them away? Is that the kind of man you think I am?"
"I didn't say that."
"You inferred it. You think that I'm soft, weak; in fact you think that I'm a fool. You have thought so ever since I refused to fall in with your plan to make all patients bring us food and material before they could expect treatment. Mercy isn't for sale, Collins. I told you that then, and I tell it to you now. Mercy is something you give away—or it isn't mercy."