The world is on the brink of a World War. A baby girl, called Janet, is born to Hilda Whitcomb and her husband Frederick. Smallpox still looms large on the world stage, menacing every continent and almost every country. In a broad swathe of territories bounding the Tropics, from Brazil via sub-Saharan Africa and the Indian subcontinent to Indo-China, the most severe form of smallpox, variola major, is still a clear and present danger, killing 30% of those it infects. Most of those that aren’t killed are left blind or horribly scarred for life.
Curiously, in the West, for several decades, a milder form of the disease, variola minor or alastrim, with a death rate of less than 1% had taken root. But globally, there were still tens of millions of cases, millions of deaths that year from smallpox. With smallpox packed into humans of every creed and colour, the planet carried a viral load of variola virus that topped ten thousand million million virus particles. There were more smallpox virus particles on Earth than there were stars in our home galaxy, the Milky Way. But within the lifetime of that baby girl Janet every viral star in the variola firmament will be extinguished. And she will play her own tragic part in our story.