Tuesday, April 13, 2021

Gone Viral by Jacqueline Harrett

 Sitting in a cafe by the Serpentine with a gin and tonic should have been the perfect way to end the week, but there was a problem. The call heralded trouble.

Cynthia, my lab assistant, had found something odd in the samples we’d been sent from the Institute of Developing Deadly Diseases. Could I return to have a look?
‘I know it’s Friday but...’ I could hear the concern in her voice, ‘... if this is what I think it is.’
If Cynthia was the sort of woman to panic every time something odd came up, then I’d have ignored it. She was quite capable of dealing with things. She’d had to. I’d fallen apart when my wife left me. Drinking too much. Late mornings and stupid mistakes. She’d had to do a few cover ups. Patience was running thin.
With a sigh I headed back to the lab. It’s a private lab and IDDD depends on our discretion. They pay us enough for that privilege. So, much as I wanted to ignore it, I knew my Friday evening was now taken care of.
Our lab is well concealed. At the front is an expensive photography exhibition. The only people interested are lost in the city, or with more cash than sense. I mean, who the hell pays 2k for a photograph?
I keyed in the code, entered and changed into my white coat and mask before entering the lab. Cynthia met me with worried eyes.
‘Sorry, Phil. It’s...well look for yourself.’ She pointed to the microscope. One glance and I could feel my heart rate increase.
‘Smallpox? But how? All known samples are held in high security units. This can’t be smallpox. Where did it come from?’
‘In our usual batch from IDDD but no label or identifier.’ Cynthia raised an eyebrow. ‘What do we do now?’
I scratched my head. I needed to be sure before we went any further. If it really was smallpox, then we’d have to inform the authorities and wait for the shitstorm to follow.
‘Where’s the rest of the sample?’
It didn’t take long for us to check that it was all contaminated with what was a deadly virus. It had been sent with our usual delivery. Who had done that and why?
‘You need to go, speak to the Institute.’
Cynthia was right. Another trip out of the city. IDDD’s well hidden. Big house in the country. No-one would believe what goes on there. Top secret. It’s the sort of place you want to avoid, and where you don’t ask questions. But - there was no choice. I had to find out what was going on.
It was dusk when I arrived. You’d never guess that the place was a cover for top scientists to perform their magic. They produced vaccines and pathogens. I didn’t have clearance so was wary about my welcome. I needn’t have worried. They saw me coming and the door opened before I could ring the doorbell. A tall attractive blonde smiled at me.
‘Dr Boyle. Welcome. I’m Selina. We’ve been expecting you.’
A glance showed that this was no ordinary place of work. I didn’t know where they did the science stuff but from what I could see it looked like one of those old country hotels. All comfy armchairs and log fires in the winter. I almost expected a corgi to be sitting on the sofa.
‘Drink? Beer? Wine? Spirits?’
Remembering the gin and tonic I’d had earlier I decided more alcohol was not conducive to a clear head.
‘Low alcohol lager, please.’
‘I’ll just be a moment. Please feel free to look around.’
The room was large with a bay window to the front and what looked like original oil paintings on the wall. Whoever had put this together had plenty of cash, that was for certain.
Selina returned with a tray. A can of lager and glass and what looked like fruit juice. Placing the tray on a low coffee table she gestured with one perfectly manicured hand. I opened the can to a stream of froth. Damn. She passed a box of tissues and smirked as, feeling like a fool, I mopped up the beer from my hand and the table. While I did that, she poured the beer into the glass and handed it to me. She raised her own glass in salutation, and I did the same, taking a greedy gulp.
‘So, Dr Boyle. Tell me what you’re thinking.’
She crossed her legs and leaned forward exposing more cleavage than I’d expected so I didn’t want to say what was on my mind. But, there were other things I needed to know.
‘Who are you and what the hell’s been going on here? We’ve got something that looks suspiciously like a phial of blood infected with smallpox. Sent from here. That’s lethal stuff. As far as I know the only samples are held securely in Russia and the States - so what’s in my lab?’ I could feel my voice rising. There was something dodgy about this set-up. She raised one perfectly arched eyebrow.
‘The sample is a synthetic form of horsepox. We’ve been developing a virus. We think we may have a smallpox replica.’
‘Christ.’ The implications of that statement were huge. Smallpox could wipe out a city, a country. A weapon of war.
‘And do you have an antidote?’
She shrugged her shoulders as if the question was insignificant.
‘Possibly. We need to test it.’
I frowned. This was big stuff. Why the hell was she telling me?
‘So, how do you find your job, Phil?’
I was startled by the use of my name. Only Cynthia and my wife, ex-wife, used the short version. Everyone else called me Philip or Dr Boyle or even just Boyle. The change of direction unnerved me further.
‘It’s hard to say. Things… have been... well... I’ve felt a bit vulnerable since my wife...’
Something about her made me want to spill my guts, unleash my frustrations with the work, the secrecy, the demands on my mind, my time. She was a good listener. I’ll give her that. Ten minutes later it had all been laid out bare - no holds barred. At the end I felt released, cleansed even.
She tilted her head to one side.
‘The virus,’ she said.
In my unburdening I’d almost forgotten why I was there. ‘Yeah, what about it? Do you have a vaccine if that thing gets out?’
‘We’re hoping you can help us with.’
‘Hey, I just analyse the bloods and write reports. I know nothing about how to make, or fight, a virus like that.’
‘No, but we’ve been working on it.’
I nodded and smiled. That was a good sign., wasn’t it?
‘We think we’ve perfected a vaccine. We know, from Cynthia’s reports, that your behaviour has been somewhat erratic of late. You’ve no relatives, your wife left you and you’ve taken to drinking.’ She shook a finger at me. ‘Tut tut. Not good. But we’ve an idea how you can redeem yourself, become an important member of the team again, in fact.’
My gut twisted. They knew everything. So much for loyalty. I thought Cynthia had kept quiet about my little misdemeanours but apparently not. I was so wrapped up in my own thoughts I barely registered what she was saying.
‘So, you see, we want you to play a major part in this development. We’d like you to help us.’
They were offering me a way back in - a way to regain my status. I nodded. My head was so fuddled it felt like blancmange.
‘We want you to be part of the experiments.’
‘How?’
‘We’re going to infect you with the virus and then the vaccine. See how effective it is.’
That’s when I discovered my legs weren’t working. She just smiled. I was beginning to hate that smile.
‘There’s no point in struggling, Phil. I slipped a paralysing agent into your drink.’
She opened a silver embossed box on the coffee table and, as I watched, removed a syringe. I was helpless. I didn’t even feel her roll up my sleeve and stick the needle into my arm.

*

Now, I don’t know where I am. It’s a room with a window, triple glazed with bars on the outside and shutters that close at night. All I can see is a roof top and sky. I’ve lost track of time. They’ve talked to me through an intercom system. Food and water provided through a chute. A shaft to throw away debris.
The bathroom is the only place I have privacy, so they haven’t seen the pustules yet, itchy and red. The fever has started. She told me they’d given me the antidote. I hope she was telling the truth. Otherwise I guess I’ll never have a drink by the Serpentine again.

© Jacqueline Harrett

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