Panacea (Excerpt)

Benn remembered his grandmother telling him about life before the Panacea. He had grown up spending many a Thursday night being told what it was like to fear bacteria and avoid strangers who showed even the slightest amount of illness. He had to try his hardest to even imagine what it would be like to be in a hospital with people who had things growing in their lungs or problems with their stomachs. His grandmother had even told him that hospitals would be full of people in their seventies who had long since accepted that they didn’t have much time left.

To Benn it sounded like hell, to be constantly worried if eating something would make you sick because what if you didn’t get better? He remembered laughing out loud when she told him that their used to be huge, expensive campaigns to get people to stop smoking or give money to help treat people in hospitals for life-threatening illnesses. She hadn’t found it funny, she remembered what it all used to be like.

‘They’d warn us to never try things like that.’ She would tell him as they sat by her fireplace, ‘They told us how smoking was addictive and deadly. They told us certain foods were a one-way ticket to an early grave. People as young as ninety were being asked how they managed to live so long, their answers would be published in newspapers and on the internet. Oh, you should have seen it Benn, everyone was so scared!’

Benn remembered the looks she gave him when he chuckled, and the silent nods of clarification when he didn’t believe it. Benn’s grandmother was only forty three when the Panacea had been introduced. She had already said goodbye to her father who died of kidney failure when something called dialysis didn’t help. It sounded complicated so Benn didn’t want to ask how it was to go through something like that, much less wonder aloud at the idea that an organ could fail. He had heard of heart attack, but having an organ do something that required some kind of treatment terrified him, he imagined just how scary it really would be to fear pretty much everything. Every tiny little thing coming with health warnings and allergy advice, it must have been hell to have to be careful about every minute detail.

‘Nothing was safe, but we got by. We would joke about wrecking our livers with alcohol and getting diabetes from sugar.’

Another word Benn didn’t know, he decided not to ask. He was never sure why he didn’t ask.

‘When the Panacea came out people ran to buy the patent. Doctor Nostrum was all over the news for months. A cure-all they called it, an elixir. Some even called it a miracle. The world changed so fast then… so fast.’

Benn had learned about Doctor Alphonse Nostrum many times in school. The man the world had thought a genius, and some argued to be an idiot. He had created the Panacea and as companies were lining up to buy the patent, he opened clinics all over the world and gave it away for free. Anyone with any kind of ailment could show up with a doctor’s note and have access to a formula that would heal anything they had. There were sceptics, of course, but when everything from the common-cold to brain haemorrhages vanished without a trace, people the world over agreed that it they been saved.

Soon there were deliveries all over the world and the formula was made public. People would wake up, swallow a pill and know nothing bacterial, viral or otherwise dangerous could touch them. Mankind became like gods, nothing short of accident or murder could wipe someone out; and the human race was finally in control of its own destiny.

‘Then things got… strange.’ The story would go on. This was Benn’s favourite part. ‘People were living almost twice what they thought, hundredth birthday parties were no big deal and hospitals were only for injuries. Illness was dead, life was long. But that didn’t mean our resources grew… the economy went south, the retirement age couldn’t be agreed upon. Strikes came from doctors, pensioners, workers, farmers, just about damn near anyone with a voice. But still we feared the time before, we knew we couldn’t go back. There was no real answer.’ She would always pause here, Benn thought it was because she knew how much it excited him, though looking back he believed it may have been fear that always caused her to stop. A fear that only forty years before was thought to have been left behind.

‘When the GDLA was approved, Doctor Nostrum killed himself.’


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