"Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord/he is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored/he hath loosed the fateful lightning of his terrible swift sword/his truth is marching on…"
The world turned monochromatic for a split second and Dr. Trevor scrambled to his feet, grateful for the cover. Every bomb bought him a miniscule clipping of time, and he wasn't going to waste this one. He hurled himself against a tree, panting like the Marathon messenger and watching braver men than him advancing across the field to his left. He knew the crossfire would cut half of them down, end their careers without a single kill to their names, and the war wouldn't turn out even remotely different. To save one life was to save the world entire, he thought, but what, then, does it mean to throw one life away?
On the grass ahead, bleeding but still very much alive, was the man in gray he'd seen cut down in a skirmish. Trevor had been at his usual post, peering over the wooden ramparts outside the door to the medical tent, clutching the bayoneted rifle he'd taken from a soldier he'd been too late to save. He'd seen the wall of trees dividing his perimeter from the thick of the battle rustle and break, and a Reb step through. The man was the owner of a thick salt-and-pepper beard and probably looked quite proud when standing among his own people. Here, however, he was uncertain.
The first runners of the Union charge, that particular breed attracted to suicide missions, broke ranks, desperate to enter the battle of Shiloh before the good Rebs were taken. Trevor, too petrified to move but not so much that he couldn't watch, saw one of the Yankees brandishing a hunting knife. The Reb moved swiftly but not fast enough: when he managed to steady his rifle, the soldier in blue cut him across the torso, leaving a gash from right shoulder to left hip. Since then the rows of warriors had stepped over him. Trevor wanted to throw up. All of them are fighters. That makes them comrades. Why should sides matter?
If there were no sides, replied a nagging voice which he identified as Lieutentant Ewing, there'd be no fighters, now would there?
Trevor dropped to his hands and knees as another volley of shots clipped the chaos that spread between there and the village. The man was yards ahead of him now—meters, they'd say in Europe, a hell of a word—and he crawled across the earth, covering himself as much as he could. He'd improvised his outfit to provide him cover for this sort of mission and was now camoflauged in a dirt-colored cape which had proved one of his more successful projects, unlike the trolley for carrying casualties which he'd scrapped after a single use.
By the time he reached the injured Reb's side, the battle was in danger of being forced backwards towards headquarters. Trevor was trying hard not to be terrified, but this meant the medical station would be in equal danger, dynamite and bullets falling within its walls, by the sides of the dying men.
"Where'd you come from?" The Reb's breath was rattling, growing more labored every time it was drawn. "What side?"
"I hardly think it should matter," Trevor replied. "Come on, I'm going to get you to the hospital. Can you stand?"
A volley of gunshots drowned the Reb's answer, though he was certain it contained the word "Yankees".
"I have to tell you to forget your sides," Trevor grunted, heaving the Reb's arm over his shoulder and staggering to his feet under the dead weight. "There's no blue or gray for you anymore. There's red and lack thereof. Now, walk as much as you can, I'll do the rest."
The Reb had been a strong man before being attacked. Though Trevor, from his battle experience, fancied himself to be fit, he had to grit his teeth under the burden as they began to walk in tandem.
The dirty medical tent was grossly underequipped to handle the influx of casualties from the fields of Shiloh. It had been pitched hastily the moment the Union command had given the order to hold the town for battle, and was cumulatively about the size of a small church. It was divided into three rooms of about equal size, all with canvas walls and ceilings and grass floors. The room at the front had an entire wall open at one end, meant to allow a quicker passage of bodies. It was used for light care, the stitching of wounds and resetting of bones. In the middle was a unit for victims of more intense injuries; operations (amputations more often than not) were performed in here. The idea of open wounds in such a contaminated atmosphere made Dr. Trevor want to retch. In the back was the ward for sick patients, which was of late disturbingly full.
Trevor had operated a general practice in Pennsylvania before enlisting, having hoped to put soldiers back into the fight, and return home after the Confederacy's inevitable defeated in months. After all, they were disorganized, uncivilized; for God's sake, they still owned humans as property. But months had stretched into two years, and Trevor had seen one ideal after another shattered.
More men died of disease than of bullets. He cut off more legs than he saved.
He was lucky that they'd even gotten a tent. Often they had to operate in the open, directly under the crossfire.
Since the recent outbreak he'd taken to wearing a mask at all times, even when not around patients. It was a remarkable invention, porous in only one direction so that he could cover his nose and mouth and still breathe through it. He wished he'd thought of it earlier, as it would have saved quite a few lives.
By the time Trevor lurched into the tent, he was out of breath and the Reb was all but unconsious. His injury was probably not as serious as his body was making it out to be, so Trevor searched for an empty cot in the first ward.
"Trevor!" A bark sounded from somewhere in the flap leading to ward two. A moment later, the full force of Lieutenant R. J. Ewing appeared through it. It was not doing Ewing justice to say that he entered rooms. He took control of a room upon arrival, subjugating it like an unfortunate enemy soldier or one of the plump chickens he was so partial to. He commanded attention and drew eyes, a skill that had proved indispensable on the battlefield. When a unit's commander fell in battle and the soldiers began to panic, it was Ewing's unofficial responsibility to pull them back together.
He charged towards Trevor and stopped before him. Towering almost a foot higher, with his imposing beard and grizzled features, he made Bradford Trevor's slight frame and wispy brown hair seem woefully inadequate. The fact that Ewing carried a ceremonial cutlass with him everywhere did not help; the sword was hanging in his belt, always within reach of his hand.
"What," he began, gesturing at the Reb, "is that doing in our tent?"
"Ewing, he's been wounded. We need to get one of the surgeons to stitch him up." Trevor and Ewing had developed a mutual relationship wherein they both agreed not interfere in each other's jobs. Since Bull Run, this had evolved into a tentatively strained friendship.
"And what then? Release him back into the wild? Let him walk back to their camp and inform them about everything we've set up here?"
Trevor sighed. "Several things, Ewing. First of all, he's not seeing anything other than the ceiling of this tent. Second, even if I were stupid enough to let him go, he'd never pass through our bayonet lines. Third, we may be at war, but I'm still a doctor. I'm not about to let anyone die."
Ewing opened his mouth, then closed it again. None but Trevor had ever had the ability to silence him. "All right," he managed at last. "But turn him directly over to the stockade when he comes to. And don't let him out of your sight."
Trevor spied an empty cot and, heaving the Reb up by his knees, laid him down across it. The man let out a small noise; whether of relief or pain, Trevor could not tell. He called out to one of the surgeons, his least favorite, Dr. Young, who was stealing a swig from a bottle of medicinal corn liquor. "Unless you're too drunk, Young, get some thread and deal with the gash on this one. And stay out of that stuff. We're running low on anesthetic and that bottle's all we have."
To Young's credit, he asked no questions about the soldier's gray uniform, though his reaction time was slowed in arriving. "Gonna hang about, Trevor?" he asked.
"Don't forget to disinfect it," were Trevor's only words as he left.
To his great annoyance, Trevor's assignment for the day was to the sick ward at the back of the tent, which was kept very dark and always featured an eerie symphony of groaning patients. The sick ward was the worst place for a field doctor because it reminded him bluntly that there was no glory to his job. In the dusky chamber, populated by a skeleton crew of defeatist former denstists, you could maintain no illusions that you were fighting for the good of humanity, an angel resurrecting God's golden warriors to march against the forces of Lucifer. You knew that you were facing nothing more than the same enemy doctors, from Asclepius to Pasteur, had faced their entire existence, and had as much chance of defeating as they had of leveling the Appalachians.
Had he not been slacking off at the entrance, Young would have been on duty in here. The only other man in the room was Dr. Ross, who was regarded as the type of person whom, if they were in a dark room, you stayed out of it. He had never been caught smiling and rarely made eye contact, not because of shyness but because he didn't deign most people worthy. In a development that seemed more sinister than anything else, Trevor was the only other medical operative to whom Ross would speak freely. Every time that implacable brogue was directed towards him, Trevor felt as though God was speaking to him through the devil. It was unnerving.
"Are we to share the graveyard today, Trevor?" Ross asked without looking up. He was examining a patient, who was moaning and lolling his head from side to side. Trevor wondered if his agitation couldn't be traced to Ross's presence.
The sounds of the far-off battle—popping gunfire, occasional blasts of dynamite, and, the worst, screams—penetrated the canvas walls. "Judging by what we can here, this battle's about to spill over. By the time the corpses arrive, assignments aren't going to mean much."
"I suppose you're right." Ross had begun wearing his own copy of Trevor's porous mask. He had been a university scientist before enlisting, and rumors circulated that he was involved in the highest echelons of medical research. He could expound at length on bacterial toxins or viral mutation, although he usually didn't. Instead, he said, "Have you been here, recently? The men are in quite a bit of pain."
"It's just a flu," Trevor replied, beginning to make his rounds of the beds, all of which were full. "Some southern bug our boys aren't used to. The tradewinds down here carry all sorts of diseases over the gulf. Honestly," he said, gesturing around, "I never understood the appeal of this country. They're welcome to—"
"This is no influenza I've seen before," Ross interrupted. "I've been watching the patients. No two of them are complaining of exactly the same symptoms. This one's liver is inflamed. That one's got a splitting headache. One over there's urinating blood. Name an ailment and I'll point it out in this room."
"So our unit's unlucky. I hardly find that remarkable."
A noise at the door turned them both. Ewing was framed in the gap, sword gleaming at his waist. "I hate to interrupt, but the casualties are arriving. Leave the sick ones for now and get to the front. We need some fast work."
Ross sighed. "Shouldn't you be on the fields, Lieutenant?"
"I'd love to be, but my whole damn platoon's in here. I've got maybe two healthy men under my command. And quite a few of us are having the same problem."
"Then maybe you should leave us to our work."
Trevor glanced at Ewing, who seemed unaware of Ross's preternatural hatred of battlefield work. "Ross, he needs us—"
"These men need me more."
"So help me, if you don't get the hell into ward one right now I'll have you reprimanded and court-martialed for disobeying a direct order from a superior officer. Move!" Ewing finished, making both doctors jump. Groaning, Ross followed Trevor, who was eager to be on his way.
"Hell!" Young shouted, tipping another body haphazardly onto a cot from a stretcher. "Dammit, Trevor, they're comin' in from everywhere!"
"They're coming in from one place," Trevor said, nervous in the way a man can only be when he is about to cut off another man's leg. "That place is Shiloh, where they got shot. Keep working. There'll only be more."
Young tilted the liquor bottle into his mouth again, splashing whiskey on his face. "Where're all those new recruits we just got? They should at least be helpin' us out!"
Trevor gritted his teeth, careful not to shut his eyes, and plunged the hacksaw into the skin above the soldier's knee. The soldier, biting into an iron bullet hard enough to crack his teeth, let out an inhuman howl of pain. Trevor repeated his mantra in his head, over and over again, to form a rhythm: It's gangrenous. If I don't cut it off he'll die. It's gangrenous. If I don't cut it off he'll die.
"Young," he grunted as the hacksaw hit bone, "you are supposed to be in charge of medical recruits! You tell me where they are!"
Ewing, having taken over direction of Young's recruits, was in the doorway gesticulating so wildly with his cutlass that Trevor was afraid he would hit somebody. He had started out in typical R.J. Ewing fashion, with a perfect system, directing different types of injuries to different sides of the room. As the bodies from the village and fields continued to pour in, however, he found himself yelling at the doctors to dump them on whatever flat surface he could most readily point at. That was the fundamental dilemma of war medicine. It was madness expected to have a method.
Trevor, still operating the hacksaw with one hand, was readying a tourniquet with the other and using the full force of his mind to desensetize himself to the room's omnipresent screaming. He disinfected quickly and skillfully and bandaged the moment the cut was clean, then hurriedly wheeled the moaning soldier into ward two, returning to the first to find three new casualties grown up in place of the one he had just taken care of. Trevor fought the urge to cry in frustration. It was like fighting the Hydra.
The seven or eight surgeons were running a process so haphazard it could not even be called medical; convention was being destroyed left and right as privates and captains from the tent's brigade lay beside each other; Trevor did not understand how they could continue fighting a war with so many of their soldier dying in this room; and there was still the moaning and screaming, always the screaming—
—and then there was Ross, standing calmly beside an instrument table, still wearing his mask, twirling a glass vial between his thumb and forefinger. Trevor was both incensed at the sight and glad to have something to think about besides gangrene. He stormed over, pushing wheeled cots aside as he went.
"Ross!" he called out. "What are you doing just standing there!? Do you have any idea how understaffed—"
"Trevor, I'm holding the end of your problems in my hand," he said in a smooth cadence. This wasn't a voice meant to follow the beat of a marching drum. This was a voice to soothe a man into slumber and stab him in his sleep.
"Ross, I don't care what's in that tube! We don't have any time for this! People are dying as we speak!"
"I know," Ross said. "How closely have you looked at them, Dr. Trevor? Did you ever stop to consider what it is they're dying of? They're coming in far too fast to be wounded. Quite a few of these are no battlefield casualties."
Something was sliding into place in Trevor's mind. If they weren't casualites, they could only be victims of the sick ward's mysterious virus; yet this idea seemed to cause Ross no end of satisfaction. "If you know something, say it!"
"Did you ever wonder what we're gaining from practicing here? Or, for that matter, practicing anywhere?" The vial still clutched in his right hand, he came around the table so that he and Trevor were separated only by a single stretcher. On this stretcher was another patient, who Trevor began to suture automatically. "We can stitch and set and prescribe all we want, but there will never be a cure for war. Until now. I've found it, Trevor; in this vial is the end to the North vs. the South, to America vs. everyone else."
Ross was a researcher of infectious disease.
A new virus that caused more casualties than the Battle of Shiloh.
Ross, claiming he could end war.
"Give me the vial, Ross," Trevor said, his voice shaking. "You don't have to do this. You won't save anyone."
"I'll save everyone!" Ross cried. "I knew it. My destiny was to create this. I found a bird not long ago, on the march down here. Its entire body was rotted away from viral attack. More than that; the bird's body had turned against itself. Everything fought everything. Nothing stood a chance."
Trevor was frozen, his stitching needle hanging in midair.
"I took samples of the bird's flesh. I cultivated its killer. I tested it on patients we'd received, naturally filling the sick ward. Can you imagine," he actually began to grin, at which point Trevor knew he'd lost his mind, "two sides fighting each other over something as trivial as secession, when this is ravaging them? There will be no fighters. And with no fighters, there will be no war."
Ross raised the vial high above his head, letting it slip to the edge of his fingers.
"Ross, if that breaks, you'll kill us all!"
"Haven't you been listening to me!? Besides, you have a mask! You'll be fine! I have no quarrel with doctors."
With a fluid motion, he brought his hand down towards the steel of the cot.
"NO!" Trevor lunged over the prostrate soldier and grabbed Ross by the wrist with both hands. The vial slipped out of Ross's grasp; instead of shattering on cold steel, it landed on soft cushion beside the prostrate soldier. Ross grunted, scowling, and reached for it; but Trevor was around the cot in a flash and throwing his full weight into Ross, knocking them both off their feet. Ross grasped for the glass tube as they collapsed in a heap but missed it, and Trevor pushed himself up from the grass floor as quickly as possible, searching the surgical table for something he could arm himself with. He found a small scalpel and clutched it, but Ross was on to him and grabbed the weapon himself, forcing it towards Trevor's face. As the blade drew near his vulnerable flesh, Trevor strained with the exertion of holding Ross's arms away; in one last desperate motion, he kicked Ross's knees out from under him, and the cursing, spitting doctor fell to the ground again.
But this time he didn't waste his opening, and went straight for the vial, his magnum opus. Suddenly, the soldier, whom Trevor had assumed to be unconscious, swept his left arm and knocked the tube to the ground. Ross scrambled up to find Trevor's hand at his throat, holding onto the scalpel for dear life.
"All right, Ross," he began, "just back away."
By way of reply, Ross raised his right foot and stomped the vial into a pile of shards.
"It's airborne now," he shouted. "I'd wager it'll pass through this room in minutes. And I should mention," he went on, "that it's no dumb virus. It can corrupt the body, it's a deceiver, it can almost think for itself. And it knows when it's being attacked, and who's attacking it."
"It's transmitted through inhalation!" Trevor shouted to the room at large. "That means hold your breath!" he added, exasparated.
It was already too late: though the patients looked bad, the doctors looked worse. Every man in the room who had been hurrying between cots administering bandages only seconds ago was clutching some region of his torso, or his limbs, or his head. Young was closest, and Trevor watched for the first time a scene he would never be able to forget: Young clawing first at his eyes, then at his entire face, then every part of his body—the virus was in too many places for him to reach. The organ attacking him was the one you're supposed to be able to trust: the skin. Young was dead within a few more seconds.
Trevor fought to think clearly. It was clear that the doctors, being the enemy of the virus—no, not virus, entity, he couldn't call it a virus now that it had a mind—would be the first to go, and most painfully. Across the ward, anybody in the surgeon's uniform save for Ross and Trevor was collapsing; many dying on the spot. The patients were vulnerable, they'd all have it inside a minute.
Trevor cursed, first quietly, then much louder. Everybody in the room was either a doctor or a patient. Except…
In the open gap of the tent, Ewing was still holding his breath, though his face was beginning to turn blue. Trevor assumed he had some madcap notion about apprehending Ross. Then, realization struck him.
Lieutenant R.J. Ewing was the safest man in the room.
"Ewing!" Trevor shouted. "I have a plan! Don't move, and give me thirty seconds!"
He turned around. Ross was still standing there, with no intention of moving.
"Trevor," he said softly, sounding almost like he was pleading. "Don't fight this."
Trevor held his gaze, his soft brown eyes locking with Ross's of piercing gray.
"It's what the world needs. What it should want."
Trevor inched towards the table, beside which the soldier, now dead as his wound reopened, remained still.
"Think of an end to war. Think of a world of a hundred free states, of a million people, coexisting. No squabbles. Perfect mutualism."
Trevor had reached the table now, still holding Ross's gaze. Ewing had about fifteen seconds before he would be forced to breathe.
"Tell me you wouldn't agree to that."
Trevor stretched out his hand. Ten seconds.
"Tell me!" Ross roared.
"I agree," Trevor said, just before he swung the blunt edge of the hacksaw in a wide arc and struck Ross in the side of the head.
The doctor crumpled, stunned. Wasting no time—Ewing had six seconds—Trevor jerked the mask from Ross's face, sprinted to the opening of the tent, and pushed it into Ewing's hands.
"Put it on, damn you!" he shouted.
Ewing wasted no time. He pulled the elastic bands behind his grizzled mane of hair and strapped the mask across his nose and mouth. There followed a sharp rush of air as Ewing scrambled for oxygen, taking in as much as he could through the pores.
"Trevor," he began as soon as his breath was regulated, "we've got to leave here!"
"We can't!" Trevor shouted back. "Somebody will come by here and catch it, then spread it to the entire battlefield! We'll only be bringing about Ross's crazy dream!"
"Then what do you suggest we do!?"
"Every man in that room is a breeding ground for the disease. If they die, the thing—virus—loses its fuel, it dies along with them."
Ewing's face set in lines of revulsion and distress. "Are you suggesting we kill them all?"
Trevor, fighting back his gag reflex, nodded.
"Look around the room. You're in no danger," he said. "Find me a piece of cloth, any cloth. There are rags all over the place. Then find me a match. People smoke all the time in here, no matter what I tell them, so just look in any of the desks."
Ewing nodded, and Trevor was eternally grateful for his willingness to take an inferior's orders. "What will you do?" he asked.
"You're making the fuse. I need to find the gunpowder."
With no further conversation they moved quickly in between the cluttered piles of cots, surgical equipment desks, and fallen bodies. Trevor tried to remember the facts he knew: they had been dangerously short on liquor to dull pain before operations. So far as Trevor knew, Young had been sampling the only bottle. Young had fallen not far from where Ross should be lying now; though Trevor could not see Ross, he decided he could just not distinguish the unconscious doctor.
Rifling through a cache of supplies near the opening, Ewing triumphantly held up a piece of cloth. Trevor nodded his appreciation and almost walked into Young's corpse. He started backwards, knowing that if a virus could spread through inhalation, contact was almost certainly dangerous.
Trevor closed his eyes, gritted his teeth, took a deep breath. What he was about to do was the hardest thing he had ever done, and he had reached into a soldier's gaping wound to reposition his leg amid a hail of gunfire.
Careful not to touch Young's icy hand, Trevor pried the corn liquor from his grip, seeing that it remained about two-thirds full.
A stabbing pain surged into Trevor's fingers, causing him to cry out and drop the bottle. He could not understand what had happened—unless—
—the muscles in his fingers were acting on their own—
—Ross's peacemaking disease had been all over the bottle of liquor.
Trevor's fingers were now flexing and unflexing entirly outside his control, and he could tell from the blinding pain that the disease was spreading quickly to his hand. There was no doubt—the disease knew its adversary, and wanted to destroy him slowly and painfully. Soon it would reach his arm, then his body, then, too horrible to think about, his head—
Healer, heal thyself, he thought desperately, but was in too much of haze to think clearly; as though in slow motion he saw Ewing fighting his way towards him, sword drawn horizontally, and barely had time to shout no, don't before realizing that there was no other choice.
Ewing's ceremonial sword caught the light and glinted as it descended, then Trevor was in even worse pain, but this time it was clean pain, pain as it should be. He immediately forced himself to look away from the revolting sight of his own dear left hand, lying in the grass before him, staining it red.
"Ewing," he rasped. "Put the rag in the bottle, then light it…"
"Trevor, you need a bandage!"
"That can wait…protect your hand, then throw the bomb at the wall…the rest will happen by itself…"
Fighting the red haze that was gathering around his eyes, Trevor watched Ewing tear off half the cloth rag and wrap it around the fingers on his right hand, then shove the other half through the neck of the bottle of alcohol. In his left he gripped a match and struck it along the wood of a table, then held it to the end of the rag.
The fuse caught instantaneouly, and Ewing hurled the entire bottle at the canvas wall of the medical tent.
The patients in ward two, were they not already dead, would see the room erupt in flames.
Just as Trevor had supported the Confederate Reb only hours before, Ewing now threw Trevor's arm around his shoulders and began to walk, Trevor only conscious enough to notice that he was losing a disgusting amount of blood.
"Tear off part of your shirt…bandage it…" he whispered.
"It's not going to be enough. You can't staunch bleeding with cloth—"
"Do as I say," Trevor said with failing strength.
The walls were burning on all sides now, and as they limped toward the opening through the crackling fire, Trevor gave instructions for the most basic yet vital procedure he knew. Ewing was totally unknowledgable on the subject, but as he applied pressure to the wound, staunched it, and bound it tightly, Trevor felt his strength begin to return. As they escaped into the Shiloh sunshine, he could support himself, though he couldn't walk.
The masked officer and the one-handed surgeon rolled onto the grass, Trevor grasping it with his remaining hand, feeling it, breathing it in, reveling in the sounds of far-off battle. Their tent, due to reports from the terrified body-carriers, was already cut off from operations in Shiloh, though Trevor was sure every soldier on the field, wearing blue or gray, would pause for a second to contemplate the column of acrid smoke and the stench of burning canvas.
Just as Trevor began to feel he would never get up again, the grass crunched behind him, and Ross struggled from the ruins of the tent, his clothes and skin burned away, a mad sneer on his face, a scalpel in his hand.
Trevor crawled. Ewing stood to face him before realizing he had dropped his sword. Ross charged him. Ewing dodged out of the way and turned again to face the mad surgeon.
Trevor, life departing his body, reached his old post just as Ross plunged the scalpel into the flesh on the edge of Ewing's torso, causing not a cry of pain from the stoic platoon commander but merely a grunt, little more than an acknowledgement.
Ewing staggered. Ross raised his arm. Then Trevor shot Ross through the heart with the bayoneted rifle he'd taken from a soldier he'd been too late to save.
For the last time that day, Dr. Bradford Trevor found himself binding a wound, his single hand so dexterous it could have belonged to Hippocrates himself. Ewing's gash was long but superficial. An improvised strip of cloth from his uniform would do the job.
Both marked in this way, new casualties of the battlefield, they began to walk together away from the medical tent, toward the village of Shiloh lying across the fields of battle, from war to war, leaving behind Dr. Ross, one more body on the fields of the South. Ewing hummed The Battle Hymn of the Republic.