‘You’re welcome, caller,’ Elizabeth says, and disconnects the line. She leans back in her chair, her hands kneading the aching muscles in her neck.
One of the temps comes round with a tray, and she grabs a coffee from him with a grateful smile. The red light on her console flashes again. She hesitates, then presses the button to log herself out. She’s been on for the last five hours straight, she can afford a five minute coffee break.
She picks up her mug and takes a sip. The coffee tastes slightly burnt and a little tangy, as if the milk is just turning. But her throat is dry, so she drinks it anyway. Lately, a lot of things taste like they’re on the point of going bad. She’s not sure if the fault is in the quality of the food, or her tastebuds.
She looks down at her mug. It isn’t clean; there’s a faint trace of lipstick on the rim. She puts it down on the desk beside her keyboard. Elizabeth hasn’t worn lipstick for a long time.
She logs back in and the console lights up immediately. She clears her throat. ‘Thank you for calling the Central Health Advice Line, my name is Elizabeth, can you please tell me your primary symptoms?’
There’s a pause, then a man’s voice says, ‘Well, um, I’ve got a rash. And a cold. And my eyes are sore.’
‘Thank you,’ she says, and clicks on the link that brings up the diagnostic screen on her monitor. She hardly needs it any more, but the habit is ingrained. ‘What does the rash look like? Spots, or big raised patches?’
She waits, her hand poised on the mouse, for his answer. Her earpiece buzzes faintly. She imagines the young man laying the phone down and pulling up his shirt to check.
She looks around at the other operators, all doing the same. Well, not all: there are a few more empty desks today.
Answer the calls, read the script, enter the data. And when certain words or phrases come up, type out the alarm codes. Then smile (the callers can hear it in your voice) and explain that help is on the way.
Then the vans are dispatched and the machinery takes over. The important people do the important things. And on the consoles, the Incoming Call lights carry on flashing.
‘Spots,’ her caller finally decides. ‘They’re a sort of reddy-brown colour. I thought I just had the sniffles, you know what it’s like, everybody’s been coming down with something or other. But then I started to feel a bit feverish, and then I noticed these spots. On my neck, then my legs, now they’re all over me. And inside my mouth, like little white ulcers.’
Elizabeth runs through the rest of the standard questions, before the word she’s been waiting to see from the start of the call finally flashes up on her screen. ‘You have measles,’ she says.
No alarm codes for this one. No medical teams in hazmat suits, no frowning technicians downloading data and calculating graphs, no executives calling hurried meetings with government officials.
Not that they do any of that any more, even when there are alarm codes.
Elizabeth never found out what it was they were so scared of in those early days; the symptoms they were looking out for never seemed to have a common cause. The media started with a resurgence of smallpox as the favourite. Ebola and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease also had their lurid days in the sun. Even bubonic plague got a look in.
‘Measles?’ the man repeats. ‘Like, what kids get?’ He gives a short little laugh. ‘Oh, okay. Measles, right. So what should I do?’
‘Just rest,’ she says, ‘and take an over-the-counter painkiller if you need to.’
‘That’s it? That’s all there is to it?’
She turns up the volume on her earpiece. Her hearing isn’t what it used to be. ‘Yes,’ she says. ‘That’s all.’
There actually weren’t many of those flashing-lights-and-sirens cases, even in the beginning. The calls were almost all mundane, everyday things: coughs and colds and chest infections. Nothing serious.
The lab techs stopped working through the night, the men in both the suits and the white coats started to look less worried. There was a general lightening of the atmosphere, a sense of crisis averted.
But the calls kept coming in.
‘There’s no specific treatment plan,’ she says, ‘because—’ she stops, thinks: because you’ll be dead within three months, then continues, ‘your immune system will fight it off within 7-14 days.’
‘Okay,’ he says, sounding relieved. ‘Should I stay off work? We’re really short staffed, obviously, but—’
Elizabeth presses her hand to her temple. ‘Yes. Just—’ be with your family while you still can. ‘We recommend that you stay home until the symptoms have disappeared.’
In a couple of weeks, he’ll call back. Because even if the measles symptoms have disappeared, he’ll have new ones. The operator who takes his call will issue him with a prescription over the phone, following the Second Wave protocols. The drugs will knock back the mumps, or gastroenteritis, or whatever he ends up with, and he’ll feel like he’s getting back on his feet.
For a while.
‘Okay, I’ll do that then,’ the voice in her ear says. ‘I’d been thinking, you know, with everything you hear, but—well, anyway.’ Another little laugh. ‘Measles.’ She can picture him clearly, this man, smiling and shaking his head. ‘Thank you, um, Elizabeth, was it? Thank you ever so much. I feel better already.’
If he calls back a third time, the script will say he needs to attend a special clinic for further treatment. The operator will look up his address and send him to the facility closest to his house.
It’s fine, we know what’s causing this. The virus has been identified and we have an anti-serum waiting. Let me tell you where you need to go. Have you got a pen, or would you like me to upload directions for you?
There’s no anti-serum, of course. No treatment. The facilities aren’t clinics.
‘You’re welcome, caller,’ Elizabeth says, and disconnects the line.
This is how the world ends: not with a bang but a sniffle.
She can’t quite clamp down fast enough over the bubble of laughter that catches in her throat. It earns her a sharp look from the one remaining manager on the floor, but there’s no comment made. The operators get a lot of leeway these days.
The medics and the lab staff were considered the key workers at first, but it’s Elizabeth and her team who get the respect these days. It takes a certain kind of skill to lie with a smile on your face, to make the callers believe, just for a little while longer, that it’s going to be okay.
She pushes her now-cold coffee aside and unwraps the vending-machine sandwich she’d picked up earlier. It tastes just as bad, so she puts it back in its plastic sleeve. She hasn’t been hungry for a while now, anyway.
Symptoms? Well—I haven’t eaten for three days. Is loss of appetite a symptom?
Yes. Yes, it is. You’re going to need some further treatment, caller.
Elizabeth re-clips her earpiece and presses the Incoming Call button on her board. ‘Thank you for calling the Central Health Advice Line, my name is Elizabeth, can you please tell me your primary symptoms?’
Her fingers drift over the keyboard, and bring up the location of the nearest clinic to her house.
This story originally appeared in Daily Science Fiction.