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Saving Lives

U
L

Not for the first time, the solution came to him in the middle of the night. He sat up and reached for his phone.

'Give it a break, Geoff,' his wife moaned.

He leaned back and kissed the top of the small mound under the summer duvet.

'Sorry, love.'

'What time is it?'

'One. One-thirty.'

'Had one of your ideas, have you?'

'Wait!'

Geoff tapped his thoughts out into the notes function.

'Got it,' he said.

He turned the phone off. She pushed her head up from beneath the covers.

'Night, Geoff, baby.'

He leaned over and pecked her cheek.

'Good night, Cath.'

He found a relatively cool spot on the pillow and rested his cheek there. Thoughts bubbled up. If his idea worked, he'd have done it; found the basis for the rapid vaccine production method that everybody had dreamt about. It would surely save thousands – possibly hundreds of thousands – of lives. He turned his head, found another relatively cool spot. The answer had been staring him in the face all along. A sort of accelerated recombinant methodology. It all depended on the protein. Why hadn't he thought of the twist before? He turned his head and returned to the first spot, not quite as cool now. No more gambles on last year's flu strains and lengthy growth cultures on stupid egg yolks. No more annual apprehension about a deadly bird flu epidemic. He turned his head in search of another spot.

'Geoff?'

'Mmm?'

'Could you try and keep still, please?'

'Of course, darling. Sorry.'

But the effort of trying to keep still kept him awake. The sweat pooled on his chest. His scalp itched. He waited until he thought she was asleep, then rolled very slowly over, so he was facing away from her, and reached for his phone. Sweltering under the sheet, he looked at his notes and thought them through. He'd had plenty of wonderful ideas before in the small hours of the night. Sometimes when he reconsidered them in the cold light of day he found they were rubbish. But sometimes the ideas proved to be good. This time, he was happy to see, the idea seemed good. A fortunate combination of ideas producing the sudden fruit of years of research. Maybe he should send Rob a text message to let him know. He checked the time. One forty-five. Maybe not. Rob would be there bright and early in the morning as always in any case.

Geoff looked at his phone. It was just gone two-thirty. He heard a distant rumble and saw light flicker briefly on the horizon. He yawned. He'd get a big pay rise; that was for certain. And maybe he'd be given a lab of his own, with research staff. What would it take to win the Nobel Prize, he wondered? He was still relatively young. But this was a big discovery. More flashing and flickering on the horizon. Some booms and bangs now. About time, Geoff thought. The heat and the humidity had been unbearable for over a week. With a bit of luck, the storm would break all of that and wash the air. Think how many lives he would have saved.

The bedroom door slowly opened. It was Maria.'Are you awake, Daddy?' she whispered.

'Yes, my dear,' he whispered back. 'What's up?'

'I can't sleep.'

'The heat?''The storm.'

'Ah. Shall we watch it for a while?'

He climbed out of bed as quietly as he could. Maria walked around the bottom of their bed and joined him at the wide-open window. They said nothing. The flickers and flashes grew in intensity, illuminating towering cumulus clouds, limning their silhouettes. Sometimes, he heard a little intake of breath as Maria reacted to a bright flash or a big thundering boom.

'What's happening, Daddy?'

'It's an electrical storm, darling. It happens a lot in the summer, particularly when it has been hot and humid.'

'But what's happening?'

'There's too much electricity in the clouds. The electricity escapes by jumping from one cloud to another or to the ground and as it jumps it makes a big spark and the spark makes a big bang.' It wasn't strictly correct, but it would do for a twelve year-old.

'It's pretty,' said Maria.

The thunder got louder. Geoff felt a vague breath of warm air. Some of the flashes were becoming big in the sky. With a bit of luck the storm would come their way. There was a sudden loud roll of thunder. Cath stirred and moaned. Now the wind started to pick up, though the air was still warm. Geoff yearned for the sort of cooling wind that sometimes presaged a good, heavy rainfall. That's what they all needed. But the wind stayed warm. There were a few sudden gusts. Geoff wondered whether he should close the window. And then the wind died down.

'Time to go back to bed, darling,' he said, kissing Maria on her head. 'Quietly.'

'All right, Daddy.'

She crept away.

He watched on for a while. The storm remained distant, beating itself to death on the Continent. Why were Continental storms so reluctant to cross the Channel, he wondered? He crept back to bed. He'd never been to Stockholm. He imagined the fanfare and the congratulatory applause...

His phone alarm rang; six-thirty. He switched it off, lay back on his pillow and looked out of the window at the sky. There was a diffuse pinkish-yellowish glow. What did they say? Red sky in the morning... Maybe the storm would come back after all. It was still far too warm. He sat up and swung his legs to the ground. He picked up his phone. Perhaps he could text Rob now. He pushed a button and the screen lit up. He checked for e-mails. None. He checked a news site. No signal. That was typical. Their room was the least receptive to wifi. He switched to 6G. No signal. Strange. He crept out of the bedroom, crossed the landing and entered the bathroom. The blinds were drawn. He switched on the light. No light. Probably a fuse had jumped in the cellar. He couldn't be bothered to go downstairs and fix it straightaway, so he opened the blinds enough to provide some light and then got under the shower. The water was hot, but not scalding hot, so he reckoned the electricity must have been off for a few hours already. Then he was under his shower in his Stockholm hotel room, rehearsing his acceptance lines... He dried himself off, got dressed, and went downstairs, creeping past Maria's and Danny's bedrooms. As he went he checked his phone. Still no signal. It was ten to seven.

Paddy the golden retriever greeted him at the bottom of the stairs as usual, tail wagging, tongue lolling. Geoff followed Paddy into the kitchen and pulled the curtains back. He opened the back door and stepped into the garden. Paddy followed him out and wandered off down the lawn for a morning sniff and a piss. The sky was the same sickly pinkish yellow. The air was still too warm but fresher than the air in the house all the same. Geoff took a deep breath, then exhaled. Should he text Rob? Nah. In just over an hour they'd both be at the lab. He breathed in again. As he turned to go back into the house he heard a distant, disembodied voice crackling through a loudspeaker.

In the kitchen, he tried the wifi radio. Nothing. Of course! No electricity. On the window sill they still had an old-fashioned battery-operated radio. He turned it on. Nothing. Just the crackle of interference and very distant voices talking foreign languages. He twiddled the main knob and switched frequencies with the buttons. Nothing. He took a pocket lamp from the kitchen drawer and went down into the cellar. He opened the fuse box. All of the fuses were in place. He checked the box where the electricity arrived from the mains. The small disc wasn't spinning. So; a power cut. Something was up.

He went back upstairs. The crackling voice was now much nearer. He took his keys and unlocked the front door. An unsilenced diesel engine growled its way up the street. It was an armoured personnel carrier painted in typical army drab-green camouflage. There was a loudspeaker on the roof.

'Stay indoors,' said the voice. 'Close all doors and windows. Await further instructions. Stay indoors. Close all doors and windows. Await further instructions…'

The announcement was on a loop, Geoff realised. He closed the front door obediently. What could have happened? A chemical incident of some sort at the refinery, possibly. The locals never stopped worrying about that refinery. All those chemicals. Windows. Windows! Jesus Christ. Geoff ran up the stairs, all the way up to their bedroom.

'What's up?' Cath grumbled as he strode across to the window.

'Some sort of chemical escape, I think,' Geoff told her, panting. 'We're to close all doors and windows.'

'Says who?'

'Says the Army, believe it or not.'

'The Army?'

'Yes, they've just passed by. But don't worry. It's probably just a precaution.'

Cath slumped back onto her pillow.

'In this heat and all,' she moaned.

'It won't last long, I'm sure.'

Don't bloody worry, he thought to himself. With the windows wide open all night. God knows what they'd let in. Still, no use Cath worrying.

He ran down to the children's floor. Maria's room first. She was still fast asleep, her hair splayed out on the pillow around her. He crept across to the window and closed it softly. Then Danny's room. Danny was awake. His alarm must have just gone off.

'Morning, Danny.'

'Hi, Dad. What's up?'

'No school for you this morning.'

'How come?'

'There's some sort of alarm going on. Escaped chemicals, or something. The Army just passed by.'

'Really? Wow! What are you doing?'

'Closing your window, son. They've told us to keep all doors and windows closed.'

'Oh, right.'

Danny stretched.

'Dad?'

'Yes.'

'I think I'm going to stay in bed for a while yet. I've got a bit of a headache.'

'You do that, Danny. It's probably this wretched heat. Be sure you drink enough water. Anyway, there's no point in getting up for the time being. We're to await further instructions.'

'OK, Dad. See you later.'

How long was this alert going to go on for, Geoff wondered? It was ten-past seven now. Normally, he'd be in the lab at eight. He thought of Rob again. He turned on his phone and selected 'contacts', then Rob, and then 'message'. 'Hope alert doesn't last too long,' he tapped. 'I've got very good news.' He pushed 'send', then watched as the bar showed him it was gradually sending the message. But the bar never got to the other side. The message couldn't be entirely sent. No matter, Geoff thought. It would send as soon as it could. He put his phone back in his pocket.

What more could he do? Water. Their water supply might be cut off. He went into the children's bathroom, put in the plug and ran the bath. Sure enough, the taps started to splutter when the bath was half full. He turned them off. Downstairs, in the kitchen, he got out all the big saucepans and filled them with the remaining water in the system. What else? Food reserves, he thought. In case they had to stay indoors for a few days. Pasta. Cath was a great one for stocking up on pasta. He went back down into the cellar.

He felt suddenly woozy, as though he'd got up too quickly. He sat on the stairs and waited for the dizziness to pass. In a minute it had gone, but now he had a faint headache. Must be a bug, he thought. Summer flu, perhaps. Ha, ha. Doing the rounds. Probably what Danny's got. What an irony. He went to the pantry in the cellar's half-light. Sure enough, Cath had bought in packs of pasta of various sorts and sizes. He gathered up the packets in his arms and carried them upstairs. Now, how to cook it? Maybe they'd turned the gas off. He tried the cooker. Gas hissed from the ring. So, there was still gas, but you never knew. Then he thought of the camping gear. He went back down into the cellar and brought up the camping gas stove they used each summer. The gas cartridge was still quite full.

The cellar, he realised, was not the healthiest place to be if there had really been some sort of chemical leak. The old coal cellars at the front of the house were only separated from the street by grids and grills. Once he'd dumped the pasta packages and the camping gas cooker on the kitchen table he went down into the cellar one last time. He brought up all the masking tape he could find in the tool cellar. He closed the cellar door and used the tape to seal it off.

He looked at his phone. No signal. It was gone seven-thirty. Maria would be getting up. He went upstairs and knocked on her door. She gave a little 'it's too early leave me alone' moan. He knocked again, and then went in. There was a smell of vomit.

'Maria?'

She moaned.

'What's wrong, Maria?'

She moaned again. He went to her bed. She'd been sick everywhere; all over her pillow and her sheets. He sat on the far side of the bed and lifted her head so as to position her away from the mess.

'Come here, my darling,' he said.

'I feel very sick, Daddy.'

'I know, my darling, I know. Let's get you away from that mess and clear you up.'

She rolled slowly over to the clean side of the bed.

'Wait there,' he told her, and went to fetch a face flannel from the bathroom next door. As he got up, the dizziness came over him again. He sat on the end of Maria's bed and waited until it passed. The headache was more powerful now, more insistent. He got up and only just made it to the toilet before his stomach started heaving. Afterwards, he cleaned himself up and then took the wet flannel to Maria's room. She had thrown up again. This time on the clean side of the bed.

'Oh, my darling,' he said.

'I'm sorry, Daddy.'

'Don't be sorry,' he told her.

He cleaned up the bedclothes as best he could. He laid her on her side so that she wouldn't choke.

'I'll just check on Mummy and Danny,' he told her.

She moaned faintly.

'I feel so hot, Daddy.'

He put the wet flannel over her forehead. She was running a high temperature.

'I'll be right back,' he told her.

He crossed the landing to Danny's room. He had to fight back a bout of dizziness in the doorway, leaning against the door jamb. He knocked. There was no reply. He went in to the room and was almost overcome by the stench of vomit and worse.

'Danny!' he cried.

'Sorry, Dad,' Danny murmured. 'I can't help it. I'm so hot.'

'Wait,' Geoff said. 'I'll be right back.'

He staggered out of the bedroom and across to the toilet, where he was violently sick again. He cleaned himself up for a second time. Cath! He made his way dizzily up the stairs to their bedroom. The same stench of vomit and excrement greeted him at the door.

'Cath!' he cried. 'Cath!'

She didn't reply. He went over to the bed and pulled the covers back. She was lying on her side, her head in a pool of vomit.

'Cath?' he turned her head towards him. She opened her eyes.

'What's happening, Geoff? What is it? Am I ill?'

'Yes, my darling. You're ill. But don't you worry. You're going to get better.'

'Danny, Maria. How are they?'

'Don't you worry, my darling. Everything's going to be all right.''How are they?'

'They're sick too. It's some sort of bug.'

She gave a faint smile.

'A bug, darling. I think.'

He felt suddenly sick again.

'I'm coming back,' he said, rushing out of the bedroom to the toilet. What could he be throwing up? He'd vomited up everything he'd had in his stomach the first time. He looked into the bowl. There were streaks of blood in the bile. His head throbbed. He stood up, staggered to the bathroom and studied his face in the mirror. His eyes were bloodshot and his face was very pale. What could it be? He heard the crackling voice again. He took a firm hold on the door jamb and propelled himself slowly to the staircase. He didn't trust the stairs on his feet, so he sat on his backside and shuffled down to the ground floor. The voice was in the street again now. He worked his way through the hall and opened the front door just in time to throw up onto the pavement. More blood now, he noted. His head was throbbing as though somebody were beating him with a bat.

'Stay indoors,' said the voice. 'Close all doors and windows. Await further instructions. Help is on its way. Stay indoors. Close all doors and windows. Await further instructions. Help is on its way. I repeat, help is on its way.'

So; not on a loop this time. He staggered out into the street. The cars were parked just as they had been an hour before. But the sky was yellow now.

'Stay indoors. Close all doors and windows. Await further instructions. Help is on its way…'

It was another green-painted military vehicle but this time not an armoured one. He dragged himself in front of the car. He could just make out two people in the front in white suits with helmets and visors. The car stopped.

'You'd be better off getting indoors,' came the tinny, disconnected voice.

Geoff nodded wearily. He stumbled forward and fell onto the front of the car.

'We can't help you,' said the voice, 'but help will soon be on its way. Wait indoors. Please wait indoors.'

Geoff dragged himself around to the side of the car and gazed in through the side window.

'Is it radiation?' he asked.

The vehicle started moving forward, slowly at first.

'Is it radiation?' Geoff shouted.

The man holding the microphone nodded.

'Radiation?'

The man nodded again and then the car began to gather speed.

Geoff sobbed and turned back to the house. There was nothing he could do, then. Jesus! Those windows, wide open all night. He staggered in and closed the door. He felt so dizzy that he had to sit down at the bottom of the stairs for a while. His head felt painfully swollen, though he knew from touching it that it wasn't swollen at all. He got back up and made his way to the kitchen. Paddy was sprawled out on the parquet floor, immobile. The floor was covered in patches of yellow, blood-specked liquid and piles of dog shit. Geoff ignored the mess and the stench. He took a pen and a sheet of paper from a drawer and sat down heavily at the kitchen table. He checked his phone then wrote the date at the top of the piece of paper. He scratched his head and watched, horrified, as wisps of his hair fell on the sheet. He blew them away.

'Important!' he wrote, underlining the word. 'My name is Geoff Dickens. I work at the New Millennium Laboratory. I have been team leader on a project working to create a viable production method for a so-called universal influenza vaccine. My team is part of the WHO's Global Influenza Programme. The team leader is Dr Hamilton at University College, London. Just before the radiation disaster my colleagues and I were on the cusp of discovering a viable method for universal vaccine production that would have enabled rapid scaleability. I believe I have now identified the method that will allow for just such rapid scaleability…' He stopped and rested his head on the table top. When the painful throbbing had receded a little he sat up and continued, slowly writing out the method. 'Unfortunately,' he concluded, 'owing to the radiation disaster that occurred earlier this morning I and my team did not get a chance to try the new method, though I am fairly certain that it will work. Whoever discovers this note should please take it to the nearest health or scientific authorities. The discovery is potentially a very important one that could save many lives.'

He signed his name, then turned his head away and retched over the kitchen floor.