Omega14 - Regents Park Through the bars Helen could see the scarred faces of a few 'survivors', the victims of the Eddington Necrosis Virus. Named after its discoverer, Dwight Eddington, and nicknamed the Doomsday Virus after its manifestation on the twenty-first of December 2012 – coincidentally the date of the Mayan doomsday prophecy – the plague had reached pandemic proportions after just five months, killing billions worldwide and leaving the survivors permanently disfigured. The former London Zoo – the animals long since dead from neglect after the keepers had died – now bore a passing resemblance to a Victorian freak show. Human specimens now occupied the cages and enclosures that had once housed a rich variety of species. Conditions were better than back in the 1800s, admittedly. Some twenty-first century values had been preserved. The exhibits were comparatively well fed and clothed. Their quarters were relatively comfortable, with blankets and pillows, and as far as possible were kept scrupulously clean. Nobody wanted to risk infection on the scale of the Doomsday Virus again. Walking with a slight limp, a man approached the bars and fixed his gaze on Helen's face. "Alright, my pretty?" he said, leering at her with a single eye which peered out from beneath a malformed lid. The skin covering his other socket was criss-crossed with ragged scars. The three fingers of his good arm were gnarled and they curled around one of the bars possessively. One digit unfurled towards Helen, as if to stroke her. Shuddering, Helen withdrew a couple of paces and her nose wrinkled. The stench of decay never really left a survivor. Eighty-seven percent of the human population had contracted the virus. Over five billion had died. Victims had developed within hours a high fever, followed by a vesicular rash, similar to that of smallpox. The vesicles would turn necrotic as the underlying tissue was gradually eaten away. The virus had been highly contagious and transmissible by contact and ingestion. Rotting flesh dropping away from infected people had led to contamination of water sources, and some scientists had also speculated airborne transmission from the mass graves that had been a necessity. Helen took a deep breath. The air was clearer now. For months the smell of death had filled the air, but as the population had diminished, so had the virus's means of propagation. The odour of the dead had been replaced with the cloying fug of thick smoke as cremation had become the method of choice for disposal of the bodies. But that too had faded in time to leave the sweet smell of fresh air. Even the London smog had lifted with no traffic or industry to churn out their choking pollutants. A scream echoed from an enclosure nearby, the howl almost inhuman – wolf-like, even, although the wolves were long gone from this place. Helen barely flinched at the sound. The wails of the dying, and of those mourning, had filled her ears for so long that a single cry no longer registered in her mind. Death had not been easy or pretty. Some victims suffered massive blood loss from a large number of suppurating wounds. Others succumbed to septicaemia as the virus invaded their bloodstream. The pain of the necrosis and the horror of being slowly eaten alive simply caused many to go into multi-organ failure and shock. With no treatment, and healthcare systems overwhelmed, survival rates had been dismal. Only nine percent of sufferers made a recovery. These were the ones for whom the spread of infection had been slow enough that physical removal of the lesions had stemmed the onslaught of the disease to the extent that the immune system was able to kick in. In the absence of any effective treatment, the only hope of survival had been amputation. Those who lived lost arms, legs, fingers, toes, eyes ears, and noses, and multiple amputations were not uncommon. Faces, chests and backs were permanently scarred, either from crude surgery to remove infected tissue, or from the signature pockmarks of the disease. Helen held up her hand in front of her face. Her eyes traced the blue veins running beneath pale skin that was smooth and unblemished, in stark contrast to that of the poor souls on the other side of the bars. She was one of the minority who had natural immunity. Her own family had largely perished: her husband, her son and daughter, her parents, her sisters. Only her brother, Edward, had also been spared the disease, but he had later been killed in the riots and looting that had followed the collapse of civilised society. The sky overhead was a clear blue and Helen shielded her eyes from the dazzling light of the sun. Spring was welcome. Winter had been difficult. The lack of power and heating had taken its toll. Of those that had survived the Doomsday Virus, thousands more had perished from starvation and cold. The threat of the virus was gone, but the western world would take decades to rebuild. It could be done, and would be, in time. The information was preserved, but there simply was not the manpower yet. Half past twelve, or thereabouts, was feeding time. A man appeared pushing a trolley loaded with a few plates of food. Helen eyed what looked like chicken and a few drab boiled vegetables. Chicken was a staple food. The birds were easy to keep and provided eggs as well as meat. Many people had found chickens simple to farm in the early days after the plague. The faint smell of the smoke from the open fire used to cook the meat tinged Helen's nostrils. She cast a glance at the man proffering the plate. His face was relatively clear of pockmarks, but his fingers were twisted. He fumbled with the keys hanging from his belt but eventually managed to find the one he was looking for. Unlocking a padlock, he opened a hatch and pushed a plate of the food into the enclosure. "Grub's up, my lovelies," he shouted. Then, pushing his trolley on down the path towards the next pen, he waddled away, hips rolling as he walked on feet that were so swollen as to barely fit inside shoes that were already split from trying to contain them. The survivors would have called Helen one of 'the lucky ones'. Helen disagreed. She would have welcomed the comforting embrace of death rather than bear witness to this post-apocalyptic world. She was alive, but she was not living: merely existing. Her family was gone, leaving a gnawing emptiness inside. But at the age of thirty-two, Helen still had the potential to have children, would be able to be a mother again. Females who had contracted the disease were invariably left infertile, their ovaries and wombs ravaged by the internal battle played out between the flesh-eating organism and their own bodies' immune systems. And this was the underlying reason why Helen was here. The freaks of nature, the ones who possessed natural immunity to the Doomsday Virus were a sought-after commodity. They were the ones who could keep the human race going. The healthy females had been rounded up and incarcerated in zoos, prisons and secure hospitals. Males – a few healthy, but mostly survivors, those that still possessed functional genitalia, at least – would congregate at these institutions on market days where the chance to mate with one of the exhibits would be sold off to the highest bidder. Helen's ears pricked to the sound of a crowd approaching as she picked at the chicken. Shuffling footsteps, punctuated with the dull thuds of wooden legs, echoed on the concrete. A group of nineteen individuals stood in front of her enclosure. All were survivors. Twenty-seven eyes appraised her smooth skin, her rounded bosom and the curve of her hips: a healthy specimen. A large man, missing one arm below the elbow, stepped to one side of the crowd. His mouth was dragged upwards in a half smile as a result of part of his cheek having been carved away and crudely sewn back together. His name was Conrad Bertram, and he was the governor of the newly named Regents Park Human Perpetuation Facility. "Now, gentlemen," he began. His voice carried a slight lisp because of the lack of control he had over the left side of his mouth, and a drop of spittle formed at the corner of his half lip. "Here we have Helen. Thirty-two years old. Brought here a few weeks back. Rather skinny when she arrived, but we've taken care of that and now she's a fine young woman in full health. So who will start the bidding?"