“Once Bitten, Twice Die” by Antony J. Stanton
Book one from ‘The Blood of the Infecte’ series
The end of the world was just the beginning…
This is the end.
The thought was only fleeting. In reality the end had been and gone a long time before. Sinna had warned him not to do anything stupid, but here he was fighting for his life. What he really should have done was to just give up and let Death claim its prize. If he had known what the future held in store for him he may well have accepted the inevitable. He may have sought a more agreeable means of dying; something a little less brutal. Perhaps something that did not jeopardise the lives of others. Had he been aware that he himself was soon to become a vicious murderer he might not have battled quite so hard. But Abbott was not gifted with foresight. At that moment all that consumed him was trying to stay alive just a little longer. Besides, what kind of death can any one person choose for their first experience of it?
His aggressor advanced with surprising vigour. Abbott was forced back onto the table. He was fit, well-trained and considerably larger than the other. Nevertheless, he found himself unable to contain the onslaught, the triumph of wrathful incognisance over strength and experience. Only certain kinds of demise permit the luxury of reviewing your existence as it flashes in front of your eyes in glorious Technicolor. Some keep you fully engaged and struggling for salvation until the very end. In such cases even a brief perusal of your life in black and white is asking too much. Abbott’s situation fell firmly into the latter category.
He frantically grasped the lunatic’s forearms. His assailant however possessed unnatural surges of power dredged up from his inner demons. A trail of phlegm and a guttural snarl escaped his lips. Hands clawed and teeth snapped. He lunged repeatedly at Abbott’s face. He was virtually within reach now. Abbott dodged his head to the side with a grunt. He tried to get a knee under his attacker’s body but the man was writhing too much. It was just not possible. Yet without doing so he knew he would not be able to hold him off much longer. His strength, along with his hope, was fading fast.
Abbott was flecked with spittle. The stench of warm, rancid breath was overpowering as their heads slowly came together. Some of the man’s teeth had rotted and fallen out leaving open sores in blackened gums. His face was mottled with an unhealthy, purple tinge. It was covered with scabs and flaking skin. Red lines like those of a habitual drinker covered his cheeks. His eyes were bulging and blood-shot, and darted about as though without focus. Yet the most chilling factor was the absolute lack of perception. The pupils were dilated and blank like those of a shark. It was as though he was just lashing out blindly. If the eyes are a window to the soul, then these particular portals looked out onto a vista of pure hell. And then there was the rage; unprovoked yet wanton and plentiful. There was just an overpowering urge to kill.
Abbott’s arms burned. His attacker still showed no sign of tiring. If anything he grew even more frenzied and ironically that may have provided an invaluable reprieve. Death took a reluctant step back and waited, denied its reward for now. As the man thrashed about there was a loud crack. The back legs of the table splintered. The pair were sent tumbling. Abbott hit the floor hard. Pain shot through his shoulder and he was winded but he managed to slip a leg between the two of them. Deftly he launched the man over his head, slamming him against the wall. This was his moment to save himself. This was his one chance to live. If the other reacted more quickly then he would surely be dead. He rolled and scrambled to his feet grabbing at whatever he could reach – a heavy, pewter candlestick discarded nearby. He swung as his opponent started to rise. It struck with a thud across the temple. The force jarred right up through Abbott’s arm, but somehow his adversary did not go down. As he leapt, Abbott backed up and swung, again and again.
Each blow solidly found its mark leaving deep, red gashes. The man sagged to his knees, a trail of blood at his nostril. He flailed forwards with an enraged gargling as the liquid dripped from his chin. Abbott struggled to maintain balance. He desperately hit out once more and cracked the skull right on the top. This time it made a different sound, more hollow and decisive.
This time the candlestick embedded itself.
This time the man went down.
Abbott sank to the ground. The body lay at his feet with one leg twitching, disturbingly. A small pool of viscous blood gradually took shape around the head forming a macabre halo. Abbott gulped down air as his hands started trembling. He was in an upstairs room with bookshelves lining three of the walls. The house was identical to all the others in the street and presumably in most this would have been a bedroom. However the owners of this one, almost certainly dead – or worse – had turned it into a reading room. The shelves were made of cheap, knotted pine and books were lying on the veneer flooring, torn and discarded. He noticed that only one tome remained standing – the Bible.
As he sat trying to regain composure, the violence of the confrontation made it hard to focus. He found himself fixing on irrelevant details, a mist enshrouding his mental faculties. He looked around vaguely for a matching candleholder, as these would probably have come as a pair. The random notion surfaced that it was just like a scenario from Cluedo; Colonel Mustard, or in this case Sergeant Matteo Abbott, in the library, with the candlestick. He wondered again where Sinna was as he should have arrived a long time before. It was most unlike him to screw up. Only now did he start to appreciate that something had gone badly wrong.
Sergeant Abbott had left the relative safety of RAF Headley Court earlier that afternoon but later than was prudent. Headley Court was a small military station to the north of London, near the town of Bishop’s Stortford. It was a medical establishment specialising in rehabilitation, as well as research and training. Abbott had been driven by Private Giuseppe Campos in convoy with another Land Rover carrying Sergeant Sinna and Private Rohith, both soldiers from the Gurkha regiment. They had gone to a supermarket and had carefully and quietly loaded shopping trolleys with bottled water, tinned food, cleaning products and other essential supplies. Sinna kept an anxious vigil over the three of them throughout.
Campos had become agitated as the afternoon progressed. “Sarge, you know my parents live around here, don’t you?” He looked at Abbott through veiled eyes.
“Hmmm,” Abbott replied cautiously, not looking forward to the next few words.
Sinna had heard the comment too. He stood in the aisle a few metres away, gripping his SA80 assault rifle as he scanned all around them, listening for sounds of anyone approaching in the gloom. Their afternoon had been uneventful so far although the threat of attack always lingered ominously. To let one’s guard down meant courting death. They all knew it, the RAF station had experienced it and they did not want to add to the obituaries. Sinna flashed Abbott a look with a hint of a warning but there was also empathy in his expression. Abbott respected Sinna. He was a fastidious and dedicated soldier but had a big, compassionate streak running through him. He was charismatic and the troops took to him well.
“Sarge, what d’ya think?” Campos took a step nearer to Abbott, his hands fidgeting. “Is there any chance that we could swing by my house? Just for a moment? I mean, they’re almost certainly dead but I’d really like to make sure, just in case, you know?”
Abbott rubbed his chin and avoided looking at Campos who’s pleading eyes drilled into him.
Abbott glanced at Sinna who just shrugged and looked away.
“All right, all right. We’ll drive over to their house when we’re done here but we’re not getting out of the Landy. We can beep the horn a few times, maybe shout out of the window but we’re not getting out. Is that clear?” he answered sternly but Campos was no longer listening, his face had lit up and he was chattering away to himself. He was a nice lad, always cheerful and keen to help as best he could. Abbott knew how much Campos thought of his parents and how much he idolised his father. For a moment Abbott felt a flush of bonhomie. Even in this terrible world that they all barely existed in now, he had been able to brighten someone’s day, albeit briefly.
Sergeant Sinna turned to Abbott with a grin, sharing in the moment. “I think we’re just about done here. Why don’t you two poke off and we’ll catch up with you at the house?”
Abbott’s smile vanished as he was jerked back to reality. He was aware that every second spent off base exposed them to significant risk and whilst he wanted to help Campos find his parents if at all possible, he did not want to put himself or his colleagues in any greater jeopardy than was absolutely necessary.
“Are you sure?” he asked with a frown. “Wouldn’t it be better if we waited and went together?”
“This is the last lot of stuff to chuck in the Landy. It’ll only take a mo and we’ll be right behind you losers. I’d rather we get back to the station as fast as possible and certainly before sunset.”
Sunset was at six thirteen; it was now five forty-two. That did not leave them much time. Abbott was about to argue until he saw the look on Campos’s face. He shrugged. “Sure, okay we’ll get cracking then. And thanks – this means a lot to the boy.”
“Yeah I kinda gathered that,” Sinna laughed. “Go on, just stay in radio contact and don’t do anything stupid, okay?”
‘Anything stupid’ – did that include allowing Campos to persuade him it was safe to leave the vehicle after there was no reply to their shouting? Did that include going into the house even though Abbott knew it was lunacy to be confined in such close quarters? If only Sinna knew how stupid he had been since last they spoke.
Abbott now shuddered and the makeshift weapon slipped from his grip as he passed a hand across his face. Only then did he notice the throbbing in his arm. It was a small bite mark. The skin was barely broken, hardly worth mentioning really, with just a slight prick of blood. He could tell where the man’s teeth had fallen out with the marks on his arm representing those that remained. He rubbed his flesh ruefully and pulled the sleeve down. As he sat hugging his knees to his chest the temptation was to remain there, hidden and safe from the horrors of the outside world, horrors that were never far from one’s conscious thoughts, horrors that temporarily submerged when one was preoccupied but then resurfaced like a bloated corpse.
However he knew he could not stay there. It was hard to find motivation but he had to leave the house, and fast. He rebuked himself for his inactivity; come on, get moving soldier. This is no time to rest. Wearily he rose and crossed quietly to the door. With every step the floorboards creaked. He stopped and held his breath, listening for sounds. The house was still; evidently the scuffles had not attracted any further, unwanted attention. Yet!
He drew his gun and flicked the safety catch off, taking no chances this time, then raised his radio and operated the ‘press-to-talk’ button. “Sinna, this is Abbott, do you read?”
“Sinna, this is Abbott. Come in.”
Odd, he thought. The only explanation he could think of was that they had got confused and gone straight back to base. Ordinarily Abbott might have been angered by this. Ordinarily alarm bells might have started to ring. But now he just clipped the radio back onto his belt, rubbed his arm and continued, survival mode dictating his actions.
He paused on the landing and listened again, then slipped quickly down the stairs. Campos’s body lay at the bottom, his head twisted unnaturally to the side where his neck had snapped. His eyes and mouth were open in the grimace he bore as he was savaged and fell. Abbott felt for a pulse but he already knew there would be none. Above him on the wall was a photo, a portrait in a wooden frame. It side-tracked Abbott and he stared at it for a moment. It was a typical family pose of much-loved mother and idolised father with their arms around each other’s shoulders. A boy, Private Giuseppe Campos of perhaps only seventeen years old, was sandwiched between them, kneeling down as though in the stance of a football team. Campos was not much older now and had hardly changed since that photo was taken. He reflected on the photo a moment, the familiar ease with which the three of them embraced each other and thought with sadness for a moment of his own parents.
Now however was not the time for reminiscing; there would be time for that later, he thought, although in this he was wrong. He was conscious that it was not level and dimly aware that normally his fastidious nature would have prompted him to straighten it. But not today. Not now.
Abbott had served in three war zones and accumulated several medals for his efforts. He had witnessed death, both amongst his own troops and the enemy and was on first name terms with it. Recent dealings however were all very new and strange. Perhaps in times before he might have been more traumatized by this most recent attack but now he steeled himself, shook off the mental fog and moved with the intent of someone focussed on staying alive. The prospect that Death has not yet left the building but is somewhere nearby sharpening his scythe and having a quick breather before returning to the scene of the crime does wonders to one’s motivation.
He looked down at Campos’s lifeless body. “Sorry pal. Heaven knows you’re better off where you are now.”
He crossed himself although since very recently he no longer believed in God. He reached down and took Campos’s holstered pistol and dog tag. It did not escape his attention that like himself, Campos had not even had time to draw his weapon.
Suddenly there was a creak from upstairs which made him freeze. He hoped it was merely the noise of the house groaning in the wind rather than his attacker walking to the top of the stairs. Silence returned. In fact there was an eerie stillness in general. There were no noises of traffic or any kind of life from outside, none of the background chatter that one normally expects from living in an urban area. Creepy. At that moment a car alarm sounded, screaming out into the quiet with its shrill tones and the noise was even more alien in this world devoid of the usual detritus of life. The house was in disarray. Furniture lay overturned and broken, there was smashed crockery on the carpet and a bloody stain smeared down one wall. A stale smell pervaded throughout. With a nervous glance at the stairs Abbott moved to the front door. He looked at the sky although in truth the weather did not matter. The weather would never be of consequence again, just as the date no longer meant anything. He was more interested in the time of nightfall. The sun was scuttling quickly westwards, unwilling to loiter and neither was Abbott. He really did not want to be off station and alone when it got dark. The road, although gloomy and unlit, was quiet. There was no movement until a dog ran past, its tongue lolling out. It seemed unconcerned and happy as though everything was normal and for that he envied it. The dog stopped briefly to scratch and sniffed at a wall before continuing. Abbott slipped out and moved guardedly towards his Land Rover. Glass crunched beneath his feet and he tried to walk as quietly as possible checking all around him as he went. It was predominantly a residential street and there were signs everywhere of hysteria. The gate to Campos’s house was off its hinges, rubbish was strewn all around and the windows in many adjoining buildings were smashed. Old newspapers danced in the breeze like modern age tumbleweeds, and there was a distinct smell of burning. On the garden path he noticed the head from a plastic Barbie doll. In the garden next door was a child’s plimsoll lying in a patch of dried blood. The shoe was small and pink and Abbott had to force himself to look away and not think too deeply. There was still no sign of Sergeant Sinna and Private Rohith. At the gate he looked all around and felt confident that he was not being watched. Not for the first time that day, he was wrong. Not for the first time that day Lady Luck was smiling upon him more than he would ever know.
He got into the vehicle and with shaking hands he started the engine. He was well aware that there would be questions on his arrival back at base. He could imagine the anger as to why they had been out alone with no backup. He had no answers, no good reason for their actions, other than the emphatic plea of a young man desperate to find his parents, a plea that he himself could well understand.
On the short drive back he could not help but notice various corpses arranged in their final resting places. He had to swerve around a body lying in the middle of the road. Another, an elderly gentleman in a pinstripe suit, was slumped against the front door of a house as though asleep. Abbott saw them all but felt nothing. It was as if the attack upon himself, or perhaps the proximity of his own demise, had left him emotionless and unable to empathise. By the time he arrived back at the base the shock and exertion of the violence and the effect of Campos’s death were starting to affect him. He felt exhausted; sweat had dried on him giving him a chill and his arms and back ached as though he had flu.
Corporal Bannister from the army security regiment at Headley Court was smoking in the guard room. He had been sat on duty with his feet up on a table for the last half hour, his green, military shirt crumpled and open at the neck more than uniform standards would normally permit. His rifle rested on the desk in front of him, pointing into the distance down the empty road leading to the station. He allowed the smoke to escape from his lips, slowly bleeding away until recapturing it in his nostrils, a trick he had admired in an old movie featuring Humphrey Bogart and an attractive lady whose name he could not remember. With his spare hand he casually played with his cigarette lighter. It was in the style of a metallic Zippo but had the caricature of a naked woman on the side, a tacky souvenir from a recent beach holiday with mates. Colleagues had teased him for possessing such a crass object but he liked the fact that the lighter was a vague source of controversy and rarely cared for other people’s opinions anyway.
From the main road any car that turned to enter the base had approximately forty metres to drive up to the guardroom. When he saw Abbott’s Land Rover swing into the approach lane he took his feet off the table but did not extinguish the cigarette and remained leaning back in the chair. As the sergeant brought the car to a halt he flicked a length of ash on the floor. Slowly he got to his feet and wandered out to unlock the gates.
“How was your day at work honey?” he began as Abbott wound down his window, then stepped back in surprise and cursed. “You look dreadful,” he spat out.
Abbott shot him a glance but said nothing. He took in the decline in uniform standards and the informal, almost disrespectful way in which Bannister addressed him, the fact that he was smoking whilst on guard and had been slow to open the gates. However he could not muster the enthusiasm to say anything, something that Bannister would later recall as having struck him as out of character.
“Where are Sinna and Rohith?”
“Dunno. They haven’t got back yet?” Abbott asked listlessly.
“Nope. Hey, where’s Campos?” Bannister asked with real concern in his voice now.
“What?” Bannister covered his mouth with a hand as he digested the news. “How?”
From beyond the guard room they heard a bellowing. “Bannister, are Abbott and Sinna back yet?” Station Commander Group Captain Tristan Denny approached the gates but stopped short as soon as he saw Abbott. “Good lord, what on earth happened? Where’s Campos? Are you okay?”
Not sure which question to answer first, Abbott just repeated himself in a monotone voice. “Dead.”
Denny stood for a moment staring as he too processed the information and then deflated a little in the shoulders and back, as though certain sections of his body had been punctured. His reaction was similar to Bannister’s; he brought his hands together in front of his face like a monk deep in prayer and closed his eyes. Then they flicked open and fixed nervously on Abbott. “You don’t look so good yourself. How are you?”
“I’m okay sir, a little tired but otherwise all right.”
Only then did Denny realise that the other Land Rover was not there. He looked confused. Bannister noticed the vein on his temple stand out as he started to go a little red in the face.
“Where are the others? I thought two cars went off base?”
Abbott found it hard to meet his scowl. “Err, we got separated sir. I thought they should be back already.”
“Separated?” Denny was incredulous. “How on earth did that happen?”
“It was Campos sir. His parents live close to where we were looking for supplies, so we just popped by to check if anybody was there. We only took a moment and Sinna was supposed to come and join us but he never showed up…” Abbott trailed off as the Station Commander threw his hands in the air.
Overreacting again, Bannister thought. Finally Denny took a deep breath, heaving his shoulders up and forcing himself to calm down. He turned away from the two soldiers and rubbed his head frantically for a moment.
“Look, this is really unacceptable,” he said, trying to keep his voice calm. “I thought we had introduced procedures to avoid this kind of event. Totally unacceptable. But that can all wait. The important thing now is the whereabouts of Sinna and Rohith. I need you to show me exactly where you left them and where you arranged to rendezvous. Then drop the Land Rover at MT, but I want you in my office later for a debrief.”
Bannister stood fidgeting awkwardly. His gelled, brown hair made his naturally impish features seem decidedly more boyish and mischievous than his twenty-eight years would imply. His dark eyes, ever alert and restless, darted about anxiously. As Abbott drove away Denny did not even acknowledge him at first but stood swaying slightly with his head bowed. A light moan escaped him. He had never looked as tired and defeated as at that moment. His ginger hair was greying and slightly unkempt and smudges under his eyes indicated how badly he was sleeping, yet his uniform was still immaculately pressed and his army boots were gleaming.
“How long has he been back?” Denny finally asked.
“He just arrived that minute sir.”
“He looked terrible.”
“Yes sir.” So do you, Bannister thought. In truth they all looked haggard nowadays and the stresses were beginning to tell on Denny more than most.
“Radio Captain Lewis and tell him to meet me in my office in five minutes.”
Denny turned and stalked away from the guardroom. Bannister was left feeling vulnerable and alone as he searched up and down the road for any sign of Sergeant Sinna, before going to recheck the padlock. He sank back into his chair, lit another cigarette and nervously picked up his weapon. He looked out at the setting sun, half veiled by clouds. He often thought that the most beautiful sunsets he had ever seen were in England, the frequently overcast sky lending itself to dramatics. The red shafts of light poked through and illuminated the cloud from beneath, as though the roof of the heavens was aflame, although tonight it felt to Bannister more like hell itself was boiling over, spewing forth its contents unto the earth. He was morbidly becoming a little more resigned to the prospect of his own fatality with the passing of each day and every death. He sat staring at the outside world beyond the safety of the fence as the shadows lengthened and gathered around him.
“Bugger!” Captain Thomas Lewis cursed as he left Group Captain Denny’s office. The news was bad – really bad. Another soldier killed and the whereabouts of two more unknown. As well as that, the thought of going out now as twilight shrouded the station was not one that he relished, and the nonchalant way Denny had mentioned it made his mood even worse. Still, he would have it no other way; as second in command on the base, if two of his men were missing then he would damn well go and find them. He was certainly not going to go out alone though; he wanted three of his best soldiers with him. They would most likely go unmolested but you never knew…
In less than five minutes they were driving away from the station with Corporal Bamburac from the supply and logistics section hastily locking the gates behind them. Captain Lewis turned to look back, as he always did, as the protection of RAF Headley Court receded out of reach. He was from the Royal Artillery and had been at Headley Court for only six months. However he had served in the army for ten years and like many of his colleagues a lot of that time had been spent in Northern Ireland, Iraq and Afghanistan and thus he had a fair amount of frontline experience.
“Stay alert lads; let’s not get our names on the list of deceased for today. We don’t want what happened to Parsons to happen to us, do we?”
With the news of Private Campos’s death and the other two still missing the atmosphere in the car was sombre. Sat in the back even Bannister’s normally incorrigible manner had been quietened. Beside him sat the dark, hulking mass of Lance Corporal Dean Millington, a black man-mountain from the army security regiment and a reassuringly solid soldier to keep handy. Driving them away from safety was his most senior sergeant, a Scot named Garrick Straddling. He had served for more than twenty years in the army and was one of the most experienced men on the station. He was fairly short and stout with a large chest and belly and thick arms. His gruff, cynical attitude to life in general reflected perfectly his physical appearance and he seemed to have an idiom of doom for every occasion. He had an enormous auburn moustache and was balding on top with a wispy comb-over at the front. Although Lewis found him stubborn and uncooperative at times, he was definitely someone to take along on just such an excursion.
“Where to boss?” Sergeant Straddling asked.
Captain Lewis had a map with the locations marked on it by Abbott. As Sinna had not arrived at the house of Campos’s parents by the time Abbott had left, it seemed reasonable to start at the supermarket.
The onset of nightfall shielded their eyes from the worst of the scenes of pandemonium that now littered the roads; scenes that these four soldiers were all-too familiar with and were grateful not to be reminded of yet again. Occasional creatures scurried out of their way as Sergeant Straddling whisked them wordlessly through the streets to their destination, hands gripping the wheel tightly as he scanned their path.
They arrived at the store and Straddling warily brought the Land Rover to a halt. No one spoke. Lewis peered out trying to see any movement or sign of their comrades.
“Odd,” Straddling said.
“Huh?” Lewis turned to see what had caught his attention.
Straddling pointed. Near the entrance to the store was the Land Rover. “They never left.”
“So they’re here somewhere,” Bannister said as he leaned forwards from the rear. “Let’s go get ‘em I say, and then get the hell outta Dodge. Being away from home gives me the willies.”
“Okay, okay. Just go easy,” Lewis frowned. “There’s something not right about this. Why is their car still here? Why haven’t they left yet? They should have been back at Headley Court a long time ago.” He spoke into his radio. “Sergeant Sinna? Private Rohith?” but there was no answer. He turned to his sergeant, “Before we get ourselves into any trouble, do the honours please.”
Straddling honked the Land Rover’s horn a few times, destroying the evening hush and making them all uneasy. Attracting such attention when away from the security of the station was never a wise idea but in this case Lewis considered it inevitable. Only silence answered them back.
“I guess there’s nothing for it then,” Lewis said.
Tentatively they all got out of the vehicle, brandishing their SA80 rifles before them.
“Straddling, bring up the rear and keep checking your six,” Lewis whispered. “Let’s keep it as quiet as possible,”
“But he’s only just been blasting out the Landy’s micking horn,” Bannister muttered to Millington, earning him a scowl from Straddling.
They examined the other Land Rover but it gave no clues. The rear had been half-loaded with supplies and all seemed completely normal. Lewis motioned towards the entrance of the supermarket and the four shuffled forwards with Straddling casting nervous glances over his shoulder.
By now night engulfed them, and with no lighting the store was in total darkness. They crept along, torches probing back and forth. There was a putrid smell of decaying food mingling with the stale funk from the dirt of animals. The aisles were littered with goods that had been knocked off shelves. Some had split spilling their guts, making every step crunch painfully. At the end of the first aisle Lewis raised a hand to bring them to a halt. They clustered together, breathing rapidly but as quietly as possible.
Cautiously he called out into the threatening blackness. “Sinna? Rohith?”
They proceeded down a second aisle. It was when they got to the third that they encountered something strange. The produce displays had been absolutely decimated. The shelves had been toppled and packets and cans strewn all around. Something serious had happened here. This was not the action of marauding animals. The shelf units were substantial. To knock one over would have required considerable force, to break one even more so.
Lewis looked back to ensure the others were aware of the potential significance. Still there was no sign of either missing soldier as they stood amidst the mess. He scanned around but it was Straddling who noticed it and gave a hiss.
“What is it?” Lewis asked.
Straddling just pointed. Down – at their feet.
They were standing in a pool of it; lots of it. It must have stretched for several metres, along the floor and was splattered on the shelving.
“Bugger me!” Bannister exclaimed with a low whistle.
Frantically now they widened their search but there was no sign of the soldiers anywhere, just the ominous streak of blood that looked like something or somebody had been dragged through it, smearing a gory trail along the aisle until it suddenly stopped. There were no bodies or indications as to the source of it. As they stood bewildered back at the scene of so much carnage Lewis was no closer to an explanation. He could not determine from where the blood had come or why the smudged trail ended so abruptly.
“What the hell happened?” Lewis asked. “If they’ve been killed where are the bodies? And if they haven’t been killed, then where are they?”
It was all too surreal, too inexplicable. He could not shake the feeling that at any moment they would be attacked themselves. His torch picked up something reflective in the dark and he stooped to pick it up – dog tags. They were printed with the name ‘Sinna’ and his staff number.
“Oh god no,” he mumbled as his last hope disappeared. Then he shouted – an unnatural sound in the silence. “Sinna? Rohith?” No one answered. His voice died in the darkness.
There was a trace of blood on the dog tags and the chain had been severed. There was nothing else. No other sign that either soldier had ever been there, no weapons, no bodies, nothing.
They checked outside and all around the store but there was still no indication as to their whereabouts. The soldiers appeared to have vanished, spirited away for some dark purpose. Finally Lewis turned to his men with a baffled look and repeated his question.
“What the hell happened?” but there were no answers. They bunched closely and looked about them, feeling ever more vulnerable.
“Boss, they’re not here,” Straddling murmured, not sounding his usual confident self. “We would’ve found them, we’ve searched everywhere. They wouldn’t have just abandoned the Land Rover. Whatever has occurred, they’re long gone.”
“They’re dead!” was all Bannister could manage as he peered into the darkness, voicing what they all believed. Millington just stood impassively as always, watching and waiting.
“I don’t know what’s happened but we can do nothing for them,” Lewis said, speaking quickly and quietly. “I hate to go without finding any answers but I think you’re right. They’re dead and I suggest we get out of here fast before the same thing happens to us.”
Bannister nodded a little too enthusiastically. “Abso-bloody-lutely.”
Swiftly they manoeuvred their tight huddle, rifles swinging wildly at every noise as they scurried back to the vehicles. The keys were still in the ignition of the other Land Rover so Bannister and Millington took it. With a remorseful glance towards the supermarket Lewis got in as Straddling started the engine and floored the accelerator, whisking them back to the protection of the base.
For the time being at least.
As Captain Lewis and his soldiers sped through the deserted streets towards their safe haven all the devastation was a clear reminder of what had led to their current circumstances. The gruesome proof was all around. Lewis had a rough idea of what had triggered the chain of events – that was inevitable. The name of ‘GVF Laboratories’ was very familiar to them all, as was the ‘Dem-buster’ drug. However, he did not know exactly how things had gone so terribly wrong, nor the name of the man chiefly responsible for their precipitous situation now, Dr Boxall.
Several months before and a little distance from RAF Headley Court towards the north west of London, Dr Jason Boxall had finished work and returned home. His daughter Isabelle greeted him at the front door with a kiss. With her freckles and shoulder-length brown hair she was a little carbon-copy of her mother Julia.
As Jason joined his wife in the kitchen he called out, “Mum, dinner,” but there was no answer. “How’s she been today Jules?”
“Same, same,” she replied. “She’s been upstairs most of the day. I got her out of bed around nine and brought her down but she went back just after lunch. She just seemed to want to watch TV in her room.” Julia could see the pain in her husband’s eyes as she spoke and put an arm around his shoulders. “She’s fine, really. She’s happy.”
“Yeah I guess,” he lapsed into silence. Several years before, his mother had been diagnosed with Pick’s disease, a form of dementia similar to Alzheimer’s. Her mental functioning had declined considerably in recent months and she was now becoming a hazard to herself so Julia and Jason had decided to look after her in their own home.
Jason was happy that they were able to do this but it did not assuage his feeling of guilt. He knew his mother would have loved to have visited more often over the previous years but somehow they had not made enough time for her until it was too late. Jason realised now to his cost that those were precious years that he would never get back. Dementia is an insidious fiend that steals into your home when you are not looking, sits down next to you on the sofa and before you realise it, has made itself an unavoidable part of your life, stealing away the person that was once there and leaving nothing more than a husk bearing scant resemblance to whom the person once was. For him the guilt would always be there but at least they could now take care of her.
When he went up to her room she was sat in a faded red armchair in the corner, watching the television. She turned and stared vacantly at him for a long moment before offering a limp smile but he was not sure if that was a sign of recognition or just a reflex action.
“It’s dinner time mum. Are you hungry?” he asked.
“Yes dear,” she replied and made a muted kind of laughing sound like a swan’s hiss.
He looked into her eyes and she returned his glance without any obvious emotion at first but then, as though she could read his mind, she patted his arm.
“It’s okay dear, it’ll be all right,” she smiled. He wasn’t quite sure to what she was referring but her positive reaction gave him a fleeting warm glimmer. He wondered exactly when she had stopped being the woman she once was, when her personality and humanity had died.
When they had all finished dinner Isabelle went to slip off her chair but Jason tapped his water glass with his fork. “Attention, attention, Boxall family meeting in progress.”
“Oh Daddy but I want to go and play.”
“Well, you know the rules – meeting first. There may be something that you want to add. There may even be talk of your birthday if you stick around long enough.”
“I want add something,” Rory piped up.
“Of course you do my love,” Julia grabbed his head and kissed the top of it. “You always want to add something, usually a ruddy great mess.”
“Okay,” Jason continued, “it’s been a pleasure for us to have Nanny Boxall staying with us for the last couple of weeks hasn’t it? How would you like it if she stayed with us for a little longer?”
Rory cheered but Isabelle paused in consideration for a moment before speaking, her six-year-old brain already learning the subtleties of feminine guile. “That’s really great. So she will be here for my birthday?”
“Does that mean I will get an extra present from her?”
Julia laughed. “Yes, of course you will.” In fact they had already bought her present on behalf of Nanny Boxall, a furry rucksack in the shape of a dog’s face with floppy ears and a big, brown nose.
“Great. I do have one other thing to add,” Isabelle said with a sly look.
“Yes?” Julia arched her eyebrows enquiringly, trying to contain the smirk.
“Now can we talk about my birthday party please?”
After the children had gone to bed, Jason and Julia sat in the living room with a bottle of wine.
Jason took a slow swig and turned to his wife. “That was not the only thing we had to discuss tonight.” Not for the first time that evening she arched her eyebrows but said nothing, waiting for him to proceed.
He cleared his throat. “It seems I am being promoted at work, kind of.”
“Really? That’s fantastic. Kind of? What does that mean?”
“There is a new project that I am going to be involved with, it’s being pushed through as top priority and getting unlimited funding, kind of.” He could not contain his grin and she could tell he was bursting to blurt it all out but was teasing her with the slow drip-feed of information.
“Yes?” Again the eyebrow, this time accompanied with a gentle pinch of his leg. “Well go on then, tell me.”
“As you know I have been involved with neurological synaptic networks, their functionality and connectivity, and…”
“Whoah! Hold your horses there Einstein. Layman’s terms please else you get to do the washing-up for a week.”
She was a smart lady but he was a neurological scientist, and when he started talking about mitochondrial synaptic junctions it left her, like most people, feeling a little lost. She had fond memories of when they first met at a friend’s dinner party. They had been placed together although her friend subsequently swore that there was no intended element of match-making. In fact her friend had hoped to set her up with the man sat on her other side, a TV producer called Gavin, but he had been chatting to the lady on his right all night so Julia and Jason had spent most of the night talking.
When she had found out that he was a brain scientist she had mocked him by yawning and pretending to fall asleep in her dish, poking herself in the face with her spoon in the process and splattering soup on the tablecloth which set them both off giggling. She challenged him to tell her the most interesting fact he could think of about brains.
“Well, did you know that there are more potential pathways to connect the cells in the average human brain than there are molecules in the known universe?”
“Wow!” She had been genuinely amazed, although she did not really know what synaptic pathways were or what function they served, but she was impressed by this statistic nonetheless. “So what do these pathways do then? And why is it so important that there are so many of them?”
As he had started to explain she became a little lost but found herself desperate to understand and appear intelligent. She remembered thinking how intense and piercingly blue his eyes seemed and she felt herself being drawn in. She had liked this man right from the start although she had no idea why and she found herself laughing a little too readily at his jokes.
Several years and two children later, and she had given up work at least until Rory, their youngest, was old enough to join his sister at primary school in just under a year. Jason was now employed by a small yet esteemed company in the neurological research industry. He himself was also highly regarded in his field and never short of well-paid offers from rivals. He was extremely good at his job. What he was not so good at was describing what he did, in layman’s terms. He tried to explain.
“I have been investigating how electrical charges flow between cells in the brain, how the patterns of these flows relate to a person’s thought processes, storage of memory etcetera, etcetera.” He paused to ensure she was following him.
“Hmmm,” she gave a faint nod.
“Well, we have always been notoriously under-funded. Compared with companies in the US we work on peanuts. Now however it seems that some wealthy hot-shot called Gautam van Firstenburg has taken an interest and we are going to get an unexpected cash-injection. He’s been bank-rolling a company that researches certain brain diseases including types of dementia. This is what our studies have been dabbling in for a while, only he has been looking at these issues from a genetic point of view. It seems he’s really keen to try to come up with a cure for dementia as soon as possible.”
“Really?” Julia said. “I thought that dementia meant the brain was slowly dying and since dead brain cells can’t be repaired or replaced there’s no cure for it?”
“Not exactly. Yes, dementia does mean that brain cells are, in effect, dying. However, considering the brain is really only three pounds of gelatinous mulch it is the most incredible organ. In the last twenty years our understanding of it has improved drastically but we still have a heck of a lot to learn. We used to think that once the cells of the brain died, through trauma, illness, even alcohol…” he raised his glass and clinked hers, “…then that was it, there was no getting them back. But that is not necessarily the accepted truth any more. Certainly the brain can learn to adapt and other areas can relearn the functions that are lost when one part of the brain is damaged. There is a possibility also that the damaged cells can even be repaired. We are working on both angles but we are encouraging it to do this really quickly, sort of speeding up the metabolism of the brain so the chemical processes operate a lot faster.”
“And how exactly does all this affect you?”
“This Gautam van Firstenburg chap is in the process of buying our company and amalgamating it with his own. He was quoted in the press as saying something about dementia being a war against individual humanity and he intends to develop a ‘neurological nuke’ that will end the war once and for all. He wants to combine our research with his. Once we have introduced the elements of change the brain will continue to adjust itself, evolving even as the damage repairs itself. I mean we’re talking about radical alteration in the DNA of how one’s brain works. With the amount of funding we’re going to have, we’ll be able to do so much more than ever previously.” His eyes were really lighting up now and he was talking a lot faster.
“That’s amazing, really. So who is Gautam van Firstenburg, and what’s his background?”
“He’s a billionaire of Indian-German descent living in London, and his company is called ‘GVF Laboratories’. He isn’t married and has no kids, but wants to do something philanthropic with his money, to leave his legacy for society. I understand that his parents have both recently been diagnosed with different forms of dementia and so he decided to try and help them, hence the need for speed. I guess he wants to go down in history as the man responsible for curing dementia, sort of like a modern day Marie Curie. A cash injection this large, and all in one go, means that we should be able to make huge progress in a really short space of time.”
They both paused, contemplating how this could affect people’s lives, and especially their own and that of Jason’s mother. At that stage they could not possibly have envisaged exactly how everybody’s lives would indeed be altered forever.
There was the sound of light footsteps on the stairs followed by the living room door creaking open and a sleepy, young girl wandered in rubbing her eyes.
Julia rose first. “Are you okay darling?”
“I had a nightmare about Nanny.”
In the ensuing weeks and months Jason’s job at GVF Laboratories was more intense than ever before. Typically when he arrived home at the end of the day he would check on his mother. Slowly her mental state declined.
One evening over another glass of wine the conversation returned to his project.
“How’s work?” Julia asked. “Any developments?”
“Huh? Oh yes, actually we have been making considerable progress. We’ve been hampered a little by some internal politics though.”
“What’s the problem?”
“Van Firstenburg has stated he is not keen on animal testing so we are having to find alternative methods which are making matters more difficult.”
“Wouldn’t that be a good thing though? Not harming innocent animals?”
“This is true,” Jason sighed. This was an issue that he had struggled with, like most people involved with such research. “No one actually likes testing any medical procedures on animals but unfortunately in this business there really is very little substitute. I mean it is possible in some cases to use alternatives such as growing human tissue cultures or computer modelling, and we do both, but unfortunately these methods are just not accurate enough. Doing experiments on animals is almost as realistic as experimenting on humans; almost. So we will be doing some animal testing, just not nearly as much as we would do normally.
“We’ve had a few breakthroughs though. At the moment we’re making some really aggressive DNA modifications that speed up the cell functioning like crazy. I told you before that Gautam van Firstenburg is keen to push this ahead as fast as possible, possibly even too fast. It’s caused a few problems trying to slow things up and performing enough of the correct trials. But anyway, the point is that all the results look promising and he wants to go ahead with human clinical trials.”
“But surely he is not the expert, you are. Do you think it’s too soon for that?”
“No you’re quite right, he’s not the expert but he is the money. Without his backing we would certainly not have made the advances that we have made to date, not in my lifetime anyway. It’s sooner than we would have liked but it is safe.”
“Well that’s incredible. And?”
“Hmmm, well, they’re looking for volunteers, human guinea pigs with advanced dementia of various types. You’d be surprised exactly how few people actually have advanced Pick’s in the UK.”
“Ahh. And you were considering volunteering your mother.” It was not a question, just an uncomfortable realisation.
“Yes. With virtually all new drugs or medical procedures there will come a time where you need to test the results on humans. This has just come slightly sooner than we would have liked. Now the life expectancy of a sufferer of Pick’s can be as little as three years from diagnosis to as long as ten years in some. My mother was diagnosed with this, what, six years ago? So we really are living on borrowed time. It’s her best chance, her last chance and I really think it will work.”
“What exactly does it involve?” Julia’s natural sense of caution meant that she did not particularly like the sound of this plan, but then what other options did they have? As with Van Firstenburg’s parents, time was running out.
“There is a long course of drugs to take that may have some unpleasant side-effects for some, such as nausea or headaches. There will be some therapy called trans-cranial, magnetic stimulation, which involves using electro-magnets to excite deep areas of brain tissue, and a little radiography will help with this stimulation. The drugs will be administered over the period of about a week then a couple of weeks off and repeated several times.”
“And are you sure that you are not rushing into this, because of your mother?”
“Absolutely not. Not all research programmes progress at the same rate. This is just one of the faster ones.”
Julia took a deep breath. This really was a big decision to take but, if he was sure… “Well then, I guess it’s the right thing to do for her.”
They both laughed a little nervously.
“Think I need another drink. You?”
Until recently the drug had unofficially been named the Dem-buster, a reference to the Dam Busters squadron of the Second World War, implying its triumph over dementia and alluding to Van Firstenburg’s mention of developing a ‘brain bomb’. Now however it had been given an official brand name, ‘Mnemoloss’, taken from Mnemosyne, the Titaness of Greek mythology, daughter of Gaia and Uranus and the personification of memory.
Jason’s mother was taken for a rigorous screening procedure. The medical research facility of GVF Laboratories was to the north east of London, just outside the city of Cambridge. It had a small unit that provided accommodation for patients. Standing blankly by the front door waiting for Jason to bring her suitcase down she looked lost and afraid. Julia had to go into the kitchen to avoid the children seeing her with tears in her eyes. However the programme went smoothly for her. After just over a week she was released and Jason took her home until the second stage of drugs were to be administered.
Julia and the children were all waiting for her when she arrived back. On seeing her walk unsteadily through the front door Julia burst into tears and flung her arms around her. Jason’s mother stood for a second not reacting then slowly returned a frail hug. Over the next week she seemed to recover quickly but she did experience some side-effects in the form of nausea and terrible headaches. She had always been fairly steady on her feet but now a couple of times she stumbled and fell. Otherwise so far everything seemed well.
Extensive clinical trials were required before a licence could be obtained to produce the drug commercially. In order to speed up the process GVF took an innovative approach and involved large pharmaceutical concerns from overseas. Human volunteers were found initially in twelve other European countries with more non-European nations added as the tests proceeded. This was an unusual arrangement and although nobody could have predicted, it contributed significantly to the events due to unfold. In days and weeks to come Jason would have time to rue some of the decisions made and how they foolishly thought they were infallible. Although like some of his colleagues he was uncomfortable with the speed with which the human tests were pushed through, he was not vocal enough in his protestations to make a difference. They were all swept along with the euphoria of the huge financial boost from Van Firstenburg and his unshakable desire to succeed, and Jason in particular with his own agenda to cure Nanny Boxall. They were so concerned with developing this neurological nuke that they forgot to treat Mother Nature with the respect that she deserves. Instead they showed her an arrogant level of disdain and sometimes Mother Nature bites back.
More sessions of drugs followed. Always though at the back of Jason’s mind were the doubts. Were they going too fast? Were the normal safety procedures being ignored? His fears were mainly that the drugs would not work as they hoped and they would ruin this unique opportunity to achieve excellence and cure dementia. Nanny Boxall gradually became more responsive. She would often look up with a smile as Jason checked on her, or would speak of her own volition. To Jason these were priceless moments that helped to assuage his concerns. However, his worries were trivial in comparison with the horror that even now was building.
Finally the drug was released onto the open market with huge acclaim and a celebratory party for ‘significant’ employees, of which Jason was one of the most important. He received a special mention at the party which he found highly embarrassing, and promise of a pay rise which he found highly agreeable. As Mnemoloss had been created in such unusually international circumstances the promotion of it was immediately opened up to medical practitioners all across the globe. The world press had incredible coverage of this new ‘wonder drug’ and the nickname ‘Dem-buster’ became better known than the actual brand name. After a couple of days the media, always notoriously fickle and with the attention span somewhat akin to the dementia sufferers that GVF was seeking to cure, turned its gaze elsewhere.
Although Mnemoloss was now being prescribed freely they continued to examine its long-term effects in the laboratory. It was having excellent results with neurological recovery. What was not so good however was that in a small yet growing number of cases there were unpleasant examples of personality change. People with dementia are often fairly amiable and pliable having lost aggressive instincts along with most other basic drives, but increasingly those taking Mnemoloss were starting to become irascible. In a smaller number of instances that irascibility was becoming something decidedly more unwelcome…
A short while after its release date Jason returned home from work to find Julia looking disturbed. When the children were out of ear-shot he asked what was bothering her.
“It’s nothing really, I’m sure I’m being silly. It’s just that earlier when I was in your mother’s room I was chatting away to her and she told me to shut up.”
“What?” Jason was stunned. It was very unlike his mother to be bad tempered, but also he wondered whether the drugs were reversing her decline to such an extent that some of her emotions and instincts were returning? He was not sure whether to be disturbed or delighted by this news.
Julia looked distraught. “I mean for starters I didn’t know she was capable of having or even expressing feelings anymore. But also it was the aggression with which she said it.”
“It may just be that as the drugs take effect emotions start to come back in a random order. The brain is trying to juggle with an awful lot of change and things get a bit confused in there. Or maybe she did not really know what she was saying. Let’s face it she has been talking garbage for quite a while now.”
“Oh she knew what she was saying all right. She even turned and glared at me when she spoke. She’s said daft things to me before but this was different. This time it was as though there was real hatred.”
There had been vague mention of such incidences with other volunteers from the Mnemoloss programme. However these were people he did not personally know so it was easier to write them off as over-reactions. To hear this report about his own mother was very disturbing. He went upstairs to check on her but she was asleep, breathing in a soft, rasping rhythm. She looked more at peace now than she ever did while awake and he could almost believe that she was her normal self again. He sat on the chair in the corner, watching her for a while and feeling decidedly troubled.
A couple of days later and her headaches returned. She would lie in bed moaning and sweating at night and although she was indeed becoming more vocal and communicative, she was still not quite coherent enough to formulate complex sentences. It was like trying to deduce from an eighteen-month-old child what is bothering it. Jason wondered whether that frustration brought on by pain was the reason for the irritable behaviour.
Despite the drug having attracted a huge amount of press coverage, the first attack ironically went by virtually unnoticed by the media. An elderly man called Howie who lived with his wife in Stuttgart, Germany, had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s six years previously. He had been put forward by his family doctor, Doktor Rourke, for the initial trials, and although there had been some doubt over his suitability, Doktor Rourke was most insistent and they had pressed ahead anyway. Herr Howie had completed the first two courses of Mnemoloss but the side-effects had been so severe that he had been withdrawn.
One Sunday afternoon after he had been removed from the trials Frau Howie was in her garden. She looked up to see her husband advancing towards her. He looked distracted and seemed irritated by something. She had risen to her feet and as he neared he had suddenly struck her, knocking her to the floor. The neighbours, a quintessentially English couple called the Clarksons, were in their garden at the time. They heard a commotion and peered over the fence, only to see Herr Howie crouching over his stricken wife and biting her. They rushed round and restrained him, Mr Clarkson receiving an injury on his wrist in the process. The four of them were taken to hospital. Herr Howie had calmed down already but was sedated. Mrs Clarkson was treated for shock and the other two were treated for bite wounds. Doktor Rourke visited them in hospital but there was nothing to initially lead him to believe it was linked to Mnemoloss. The incident made page seven of the local newspaper, the ‘Stuttgarter Zeitung’, but otherwise it went unnoticed.
It was only a few days later when Doktor Rourke was in his surgery he came across some information pertaining to the drug trials. Out of professional courtesy he rang his local connection associated with GVF to mention the incident. His report eventually found its way to GVF Laboratories in Cambridge and finished its journey in the office of a man who worked near Dr Boxall, where such post-trial information was being collated.
The second attack happened a week after the Howie occurrence in the town of Penn just outside Manchester. A teenager walking to school saw an old man he knew, called Mr Abra, tottering out of his front door wearing only his pyjama trousers. The boy stopped and laughed at Abra who seemed to take offence, turned and chased him. When he was later questioned the youth said that the old man had been shouting something at him but that it did not seem to make any sense, as though he was talking in tongues. After a short distance the teenager realised he had outpaced his attacker and turned to see him instead attacking another elderly gentleman. The gentleman, who was eighty-four years old, later had a heart attack and died. When the media got hold of this story it made larger headlines in the UK and the fact that Abra had been using Mnemoloss was mentioned this time. Now alarm bells started to ring at GVF, although at this stage they were still reasonably muted.
Dr Boxall was summoned for a meeting the next day and asked to relay his research to some of the more senior managers. First he returned to the animal section to check on progress and to speak to the head clinician, a small, twitchy man called Bennett who had an impressively bushy moustache that he waxed to a point. When he looked at the moustache Boxall could not help but think of the whiskers of the rats in the cages, especially since Bennett spent so much time amongst them. If any man was ever suited to their job it was he.
Bennett led him down the lines of cages that housed the rats, row upon row of them stacked on work benches that ran the length of the room. The room was austere with white floors and scrubbed surfaces. The smell from the many rodents mingling with the scent of mass-produced cleaning products was quite nauseating at first until one got used to it. Boxall had worked there with Bennett for several long months, interspersing his theoretical computer modelling with live tests in the early stages of drug development, but he spent much less time there now and Bennett had more current information on the progress of the animals.
Bennett briefed him as they strolled down the ranks of cages. “Of course a few of the specimens have died through natural causes. As you know we don’t include them as ‘Death From Drug’. Here are the statistics.” He handed some charts to Boxall. “They basically say that ninety-five percent of the test cases took to the drugs okay, the other five either DFD’d within the first couple of days or through other complications within the first week. Otherwise, as clinical trials go, it was remarkably smooth and straightforward, one of the better ones that I have ever seen.”
Boxall felt a brief flush of satisfaction with this news as they both knew how important he had been in the design of Mnemoloss. He was about to thank the man and leave to study the charts further when Bennett added an afterthought that made Boxall stop short.
“At least, the earlier rats we used all seemed to go through the tests without problem. It was only the latest batch that for some reason has started to skew the stats somewhat.”
“How do you mean?” Boxall had a sudden feeling of alarm, those old, nagging doubts coming back to the surface chanting ‘I told you so.’
“It’s not that there have been many more DFD’s. It’s just the latest group of rats have exhibited behavioural changes. At first we put it down to a coincidence. As you know that kind of thing happens sometimes, but there were so many of them that we thought there must be more to it than that. I assume the drugs have been tweaked in the latter stages of development and for some reason it has just not agreed with them.”
“Behavioural changes? What kind of changes?”
“Well recently the rats have been becoming quite aggressive. Often it is a struggle to get them out of their cage without claws and teeth flying everywhere. Three of my techies were bitten only last week. Most odd, I have never seen anything like it.”
The hair on Boxall’s neck literally stood on end. For a second the world receded and he felt faint. He had heard about the attack in Manchester and whilst an isolated case is nothing to go by, the fact that the animal trials were reflecting the human reactions was worrying; very worrying. He thanked Bennett without enthusiasm and left the laboratory as quickly as he could without wanting to seem in a rush. A small prickle of sweat already ran down his throat like a talon gently tracing a path over his skin.
At nine thirty-five he arrived back in his office. Immediately he checked the data from Bennett and then re-checked. The results were not conclusive, merely suggestive, but he was worried nonetheless. During the development phase of the programme Boxall had commanded a team of up to eight technicians working directly for him and he could still contact them and use them if he needed to. The next twenty-five minutes he spent doing just that.
By half past ten they were all assembled in his office and he quietly closed the door. It would be very easy to panic them but at this stage there was not much to go on, nothing more than a disturbing hunch and the slightest spectre of a problem. He decided to keep it low key and for the moment just to gather more information, just to be sure.
It was five past eleven when they left the conference room. Whilst apologizing for the short notice, he gave them all until three o’clock that afternoon to report back to him on their various assignments. “No lunch breaks today I’m afraid, no cigarette breaks, you’ve barely even got time to breathe. This takes precedence over everything else you were doing and over anything that anyone asks you to do. If someone has a problem with that then tell them to come and talk to me about it. Is that understood?”
The last one out of the room closed the door leaving Boxall alone with his thoughts and the ticking of the clock. His doubts were speaking to him again in the silence and the one word he heard loudest was one of the most feared words in drug development – ‘mutation!’
He sat there pondering. Drugs do cause mutation over time and viruses and diseases will evolve and adapt eventually. Such a fast alteration however was practically unheard of. Mnemoloss had been manufactured to target certain neurological functions and change the way the brain codes information. As such, it was in reality actually created to teach the brain to mutate, after a fashion. Not only that but it was designed to act quickly. Could it be that they had somehow got it wrong and it was indeed aggressively causing mutation, only not as they had planned?
Until twelve o’clock he looked through some of his notes that he had stored on his laptop. Then he donned his white lab coat and went back to see Bennett. Regardless of what his team of technicians found out he decided to check over all of his work and retest the drugs. It was a little late to be doing this now, after Mnemoloss was already commercially available, but it would put his mind at rest. After all, had he not felt that the whole development programme had been forced through too quickly with insufficient animal trials? When he presented his findings to the medical board later that day he would insist on a lot more testing in the laboratory.
He returned to his office at two fifteen. By three o’clock he had received most of the data from his team. He sat watching the clock and fiddling nervously with a sheaf of papers. By half past three they had all got back to him and he went to see his managers who were having coffee and biscuits in an office at the other end of the building.
He entered the room, politely refusing the drinks he was offered. Boxall had regular dealings with the two men and knew them well. The woman he had met only a couple of times and knew mostly by reputation. His direct boss, Dr Michael Rhind, was wearing a light grey suit and yellow tie. He was a tall, slim man in his late fifties with thinning light brown hair in a side parting and always seemed to have a five o’clock shadow and a cup of black coffee. He was a neuroscientist like Boxall, and had been ultimately responsible for overseeing the neurological aspects of the drug and liaising with other departments. After Boxall, more than anybody else he understood the drug and its application, and the two of them had worked closely throughout its development. Next to him sat Dr Robert Cannon who had been responsible for integrating and coordinating the various aspects of medical science. He was a slim man who looked fit, was always extremely energetic and enthusiastic, and had very blond hair and eyebrows which in certain lights made him appear nearly albino. Dr Rhind reported directly to him and he, in turn, to Gautam van Firstenburg. He wore a standard, grey suit with light pin-stripes that seemed to lack imagination and was going threadbare at the elbows. Lastly, sat on the far right, was Ms Zoe Jenkins who had recently been promoted to the position of general manager responsible for sales of Mnemoloss. She was relatively young for such a senior position, being only in her early thirties. She had a fine head of glossy, red hair that clashed particularly badly with the red blouse that she wore. All three of them had clipboards resting purposefully on the table.
“Gentlemen, Ms Jenkins, I am sorry for being slightly late…”
Rhind waved his hand dismissing the need for apologies. “You know presumably why we asked for this ‘chat’; there has been a media report of a patient from the trials acting aggressively and clearly we need to cover ourselves. We would like a few facts so that we can exercise a little damage limitation with the press. We just need to know what caused the attack, if there have been any other incidents and whether you think there is a significant likelihood of this happening again.”
Boxall placed his notes on the table in front of him and cleared his throat. “I have got my technicians to gather whatever data they could since this morning. I looked into three main areas; animal tests, results from the human trials and contacting as many of the volunteers’ families as possible, or failing that – their doctors.”
He paused and looked up but none of them spoke, they were all scribbling furiously, so he continued. “Firstly, the animal tests.” He placed some graphs on the table in front of them. “Ninety-five percent of our test cases took to the final drug without problem. Of the five percent that died, one percent were from unrelated causes, two percent died within the first week of administering the drugs, likely due allergic reaction, and two percent lasted as long as two weeks before DFD’ing.”
Jenkins looked up in confusion. “What was that, ‘DFD’ing’?”
“Sorry, Dead From Drug. In the tests we found no signs of drug distortion and no side-effects at all with the final drug compound. The only comment I would add is that today the Chief Lab Techie reported some possible behavioural change in the rats.” The three of them paused and looked up intensely, waiting and not interrupting. Boxall continued uneasily. “The rats have been exhibiting increased episodes of violent behaviour although at this stage that could be for one of many reasons.”
“Such as?” Jenkins interrupted sharply. Boxall could see quite clearly how she had been promoted so quickly.
“Well, we were initially limited to the number of animals or rats we were permitted to use, which meant that the trials that we did have were of a greater duration than normal. So it could just be a function of that, literally they have gone a bit stir-crazy. There have been previous studies into just that condition which suggested that this kind of behavioural change does sometimes occur. We’re examining their diet to see if something might have affected them. Lastly, the strain of rat we have been using is not the typical kind used here in the UK. We imported them from Germany. So we’re considering that possibility and contacting our counterparts there to find more info.”
“Yes, please do,” said Rhind, “and get back to us as soon as you have anything more on that.”
“Absolutely. Next were the results from the human trials. The trials officially ended a little over three months ago and the drugs have been commercially available for the last month and a half. As we were short of time we concentrated on those in the UK. We were able to get hold of the doctor involved in the case in Manchester. I’ll come to that in a moment. Basically all of the families and doctors we spoke to said that Mnemoloss had enhanced the patient’s quality of life through improved memory, linguistic functioning and social skills. We estimate the improvement at the moment to be equivalent to roughly two years of steady dementia degeneration and that should increase.”
Jenkins stopped writing for a moment and looked up. “Were there any other side-effects reported by the volunteers? Character changes, increases in hostility or such like?” she asked.
“There have been character changes, but to some extent at least, we predicted that would happen. Dementia by its very nature involves changes in personality. As parts of the brain degenerate people lose social norms, forget whom they are and how to act. Our patients are regaining functions that they lost possibly years ago and with that they are re-experiencing some of the feelings of confusion that they will initially have had.
“But, no one else has experienced an increased level of hostility like that in the Penn incident. There have been isolated episodes of minor aggression but not the same as in that case. We spoke to the doctor in Manchester. It seems that the patient, a man called Abra, was fairly hot-tempered in general so it’s possible that the incident had nothing to do with Mnemoloss but just that he was reverting to type, perhaps exasperated by his condition. However I am still not one hundred percent on that and I need to look into it a lot more.”
Boxall’s last few words had been largely lost on the three of them, due to the collective sigh of relief. In drug development ‘mutation’ may well be one of the most feared words; in the manufacturing industry in general another is ‘recall’. There are various reasons why a product may be recalled and most of them are health-related. Invariably whatever the reason, the cost will be high and if people have been harmed by faulty products then the following law suits can be disastrous. Clearly they did not want to hear that their drug was causing episodic violence. As they sat back and each started to express relief, Boxall’s mind returned to his wife’s words: ‘This was different. This time it was as though there was real hatred.’
Dr Cannon put down his clipboard, clasped his hands on his knees and smiled for the first time. “That’s great news Jason, just what we wanted to hear. You will obviously examine all this further, yes?”
Boxall nodded vigourously. Cannon’s smile lessened but he seemed genuinely keen to be of assistance. “Is there anything we can do to help you?”
“All I would like is to have my original team of eight lab-techs back working exclusively for me for the foreseeable future. Also given that the animal tests were cut down to the bare minimum originally, I would like to go back and extend those trials and complete them thoroughly. As I said, my findings are not yet conclusive and we really must look into it all a lot more.” He stared at Cannon expecting the worst.
The other two also looked at Cannon who sat thinking for a second, then nodded. “Of course. Yes to all your requests. Put it in a brief memo to me and I will action it immediately. I know that Van Firstenburg did ideally want to limit animal tests but I think this has been enough of a scare for us all and will do our PR some good. I am sure I can sanction at least a limited number of further tests.”
Leaving the meeting Boxall felt an enormous sense of relief, although he was bothered by the word ‘limited’ that Cannon had slipped in at the end of his sentence. As the data had been collected for him throughout the day it had gone some way to allaying his fears, but only now could he relax a little. After a brief phone conversation with Bennett he packed his laptop into his suitcase and left for home. The material he had presented to them had been correct, at least at that moment in time.
Next morning Jason sat in his kitchen having a leisurely cup of tea whilst contemplating his plan of action. Unbeknownst to him, this was to be one of the last happy moments he would have together with his family.
Arianna Beugg had started using the Dem-buster several weeks previously. She had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s three years before and whilst she could still recognize her husband Viktor and their children, she was rapidly becoming more forgetful and confused. On the final night of Viktor’s life they had gone to sleep as normal. Despite her worsening condition they still shared the same bed, as they had done for the last forty-two years since immigrating to Brooklyn, New York from Holland. She had been experiencing more frequent and severe headaches over the past couple of weeks but they were not serious enough to link them to any changes in medication, and the fact that she had suffered from migraines throughout most of her life unfortunately masked their significance.
Viktor would never again see daylight. That night Arianna found herself in excruciating pain with the impression of blinding light thumping through the front of her head. Confused already, she tried to scream but no words would form, just a wild, rasping noise that made her husband stir in his sleep but not enough to rouse him to full consciousness and save his life. The pain continued but as the radiance subsided, so did any last remnants of cognitive awareness. The agony gave rise to a ferocious rage that needed assuaging. Like an injured animal she turned in the darkness and blindly attacked the person nearest to her, biting part of him that was exposed above the duvet, Viktor’s neck.
Neighbours were alerted to a problem by a banging at around three in the morning. The police were phoned and Sergeant Gerrard of the NYPD arrived at the Beugg house at approximately four o’clock. He could hear noises coming from within and was sufficiently worried to force open the door, only to find Arianna lying in the hall on her stomach. Her face was covered in blood and her legs skewed at an odd angle as though she had broken them in a fall down the stairs. She was moaning something although he could not make out any recognizable words as she tried to crawl towards him. As he knelt by her side she grasped him by the wrist with surprising strength and pulled him down towards her. Because he thought she was going to whisper something to him he did not struggle until he felt her teeth clamp on his ear.
When reinforcements arrived a search of the house was made and the body of Mr Beugg was discovered in bed with his throat ripped apart. The blood on Mrs Beugg’s face was found to be his, not, as Gerrard had suspected, her own. Gerrard was taken to hospital and his half-severed ear was reattached. Two days later he went into the police station to fill out a report and have a debrief with his commanding officer, although by the time the meeting was over he already had the first of the migraines so he excused himself and returned home to bed.
Gerrard did not return to active police duty and the headaches continued to get worse. He started to become irritable, withdrawn and acting quite out of character. Although during this period he was bed-ridden a lot of the time, when he was able to go out of the house he started to frequent a local lap-dancing club called Valentines. He regularly withdrew large sums of money from his bank account but by the end of the day had no recollection of what he had done with it. All the while he was plagued by nausea, headaches and a distinct feeling of paranoia.
A clerk at his police station phoned after three days to check on him but got no reply. He rang several more times without success, so his police lieutenant became concerned and a squad car was sent to his house. There was no answer but the two officers, Shirvell and Sparrowhawk, could see through the half drawn curtains that the place was in disarray. Later that evening they returned but there was still nobody home so they decided to wait, which did not displease them as there was a café opposite that served excellent coffee and pastries.
Shirvell had not even had time to take the first bite of his chocolate praline doughnut before his radio crackled into life.
“Disturbance reported in Valentines Bar on Union and Third. Officers needed to respond.”
“Shirvell and Sparrowhawk currently on Fifth and Garfield,” Shirvell answered. “We’re going to Valentines now.”
By the time they arrived a small crowd had gathered. A few of the women who worked in the bar were standing in a huddle on the street corner sobbing. One, who they recognised by name – an exotic dancer by the name of Charity – wearing nothing more than a leopard print thong and a feather boa, was hysterical. Officer Sparrowhawk noted she had blood on her hands and neck from an open wound. There were also a few of the bar’s clientele nearby. Two were sat on the ground looking stunned with temporary bandages applied to various body parts. It transpired that a man had gone berserk inside and attacked one of the other customers before turning on the staff. The officers calmed the scene and called for backup before striding purposefully towards the bar’s entrance. As they walked they released their side-arms from their holsters; both carried the Glock, one of three types of semi-automatic 9mm pistols issued to NYPD officers.
Shirvell pulled open the large, outer door and they entered a small hallway. The door swung slowly closed behind them and they stood by a cash register in a foyer where they let their eyes adjust to the dim lighting. Both of them had been here before whilst off duty and knew the layout inside as much as they recognised its stale, musty odour. The smell had never previously bothered either of them but today it seemed unusually unpleasant.
Music was playing from within. The current song was ‘Boys, Boys, Boys,’ a track from the 1980’s by a sultry Italian popstar called Sabrina.
“Seems like they’re playing your song, hey?” Shirvell whispered to his partner with a smirk.
They moved further into the club, through a ribbon curtain and into the main dance area, their shoes sticking slightly to the floor. There was a stage to their left with benches around low, plastic tables. To the right was the bar area, illuminated with tacky neon lights and bar stools with red, heart-shaped seats. Some of the stools had been overturned and it was to this area that their attention was drawn. Lying face down by the bar was an enormous black man. His legs were twitching and underneath his torso there was a small pool of blood that looked unnatural in the artificial light. He was wearing a string vest and his arms were thick and muscled; he was clearly the doorman. Just beyond him lying on the floor was another man who could easily have passed for a homeless person. He was dressed in ill-fitting jeans, grey plimsolls that had worn through at the sole and a dirty white t-shirt with the name of a rock band, “Battleborne,” emblazoned on it. Another dark puddle was slowly growing around his upper body
The bar was curved and from where they stood they could just see the legs of a third person slumped at the far side. Cautiously they manoeuvred around the tables whilst checking for anyone else. The man looked up and stared at them.
“Strewth!” Shirvell exclaimed. “Gerrard, what on earth have you done?”
Sergeant Gerrard did not move; he just glared balefully at them with bloodshot eyes and moaned. He had clearly not shaved for a couple of days, his hair was dishevelled and his clothes were a mess. The bandages that the hospital had applied were hanging loosely by the side of his head and his ear was covered in blood. He wore stained jeans that were torn at the knee and a scruffy jacket.
“What have you done?” Shirvell repeated as he edged forwards carefully, his gun trained on his sergeant but his other hand held out in a placating gesture.
Gerrard did not react or speak; he just stared down at his fingers that Shirvell now noticed were dripping with blood. There was more blood around his mouth and down the front of his jacket. As Shirvell moved slowly towards him from the front, Sparrowhawk slipped closer from the side along the edge of the bar. In one hand he too held his weapon but with the other he had unhooked handcuffs from his belt. He would not get a chance to use them however. Suddenly Gerrard’s head jerked up. The wild unfocused stare had been replaced with a brief glimmer of recognition. His expression became apologetic for a moment and then his features rippled. He snarled and anger flooded his face, as though a mask had been dropped seamlessly into place. His hand moved under his jacket to a bulge that neither had previously noticed.
“Keep your hands where I can seem them,” shouted Sparrowhawk as Gerrard pulled a gun from his trouser belt. He held it at an unusual angle as though it was unfamiliar to him but swung it menacingly in their direction. Without hesitation two shots blew Gerrard’s head apart, one fired by each policeman.
The ensuing investigation exonerated both officers of any guilt. Forced into a situation which left them no other option they had fired upon their colleague only as a last resort. The erratic actions of Gerrard, both in Valentines and over the previous days, were put down to the acrimonious divorce he had been enduring. Other colleagues had found he had become somewhat bad-tempered and withdrawn, and had clearly been bottling up his emotions. The divorce distracted attention from the attack he had suffered at the Beugg house which was subsequently overlooked and no association was ever made.
Gradually across the planet a pattern of uncharacteristic aggression was emerging and spreading faster than anybody could ever have envisaged. Still the appropriate connections between Mnemoloss and the attacks were not being drawn. Time was running out and unfortunately the opportunity for effective intervention was dwindling and all but gone.
Dr Boxall decided to dedicate himself to retesting laboratory animals and rats. He was still assessing information and trying to satisfy himself of what he badly wanted to believe, but all the while his doubts chattered away to him, hinting of a mounting problem. He kept a radio on in the background, tuned to a news channel. A small but growing number of violent outbursts involving people who had been using Mnemoloss had come to light. After much deliberation he decided to go back to his boss, present his findings and make some strong recommendations. They were sure to be unpopular but he could just not ignore them anymore.
The catalyst for this decision was made for him by an abrupt rise in media attention. From several countries around the world there had been reports of an increasing number of vicious and unprovoked attacks perpetrated by elderly people, either on loved ones or on random strangers. In each case the aggressor had fairly recently started using Mnemoloss. It was just too much of a coincidence. At this time, unfortunately, nobody had yet recognized the preponderance of secondary attacks.
Boxall rang Dr Rhind’s office and found it engaged. He tried five more times over the next thirty minutes but as it was still unavailable he went to see him in person. Before he left he rang through to Bennett, who answered on the first ring.
“Ah Stephen, it’s Jason.”
“Thank goodness, I was just about to call you. I’m worried.”
“Really? Maybe we’re thinking the same thing. The tests we’ve been re-running on the rats, I’m not sure we did enough of them before the drugs went to human trials and I’m not sure we now have enough time left to continue them. I’ve been listening to the radio. There have been reports of a few more incidents worldwide, which probably means there have actually been many more incidents. A trend seems to be developing. I think we need to stop looking at the animals; it’s too late for that. We need to move onto humans now. I’m going to recommend to Rhind that we recall Mnemoloss immediately and I think we have got to start considering the possibility of mutation.”
Most people would like to think that at critical moments in their life their brains will be racing and they will be leaping to all kinds of brilliant solutions. In truth, as adrenaline kicks in, it is extremely difficult to focus on even simple tasks. Bennett found himself twiddling his moustache, completely numb, almost unable to hear his colleague as those two disastrous words hijacked his thoughts and demanded his total attention; ‘recall’ and ‘mutation’. He found himself staring uselessly at the hairs that had risen all along his arms.
“Yes, right, I see.”
“I also think we are now at the stage where we have got to try to find a cure. We have to try to reverse the effects of Mnemoloss and we have to do it as fast as possible, in case this is as bad as I think it might possibly be. But God help us I’m wrong.” There was no answer from the other end of the phone, so Boxall raised his voice. “ Bennett? Bennett!”
“Yes, yes sorry. My word, I was thinking along the same lines, I guess just not as far along as you. Okay, yes. Can you pop into my lab and we can talk this through a little further? I will assemble all my technicians for say, about half an hour?”
“Fine. I’m going to Rhind’s office now. I’ll come straight to you after.” He hung up and sat for a short while, feeling hollow and sick. All the work of the previous months and years, his reputation, his job, everything was about to come tumbling down but at the moment all he could think about was his mother. His mother, who had taken the Dem-buster. His mother, who had recently started to exhibit worrying outbursts of aggression. His mother, who was sat in the same house as his unsuspecting wife and children at that very moment! He made one more vitally important phone call, more important to him than anything else, and then he quickly went to find Dr Rhind.
When he arrived there were several other men that he did not recognize standing around Rhind, all talking loudly and excitedly at each other. When Rhind saw Boxall he immediately slipped through the bodies, took Boxall by the elbow and led him away to a nearby drinks machine. Whilst stabbing coins into it with trembling hands he spoke rapidly.
“Jason, good lord, it’s all going crazy. I assume you‘ve heard?”
“The media. It’s on the TV and will be in the papers by tomorrow. The press are linking Mnemoloss to these unprovoked attacks. Surely that can’t be right, can it?”
“Actually that’s what I came to see you about. I’m afraid it seems as though there might be a connection and I don’t think we have a choice any more. We have to issue a recall.”
Rhind slumped down into a chair holding his chin in his hands, not noticing the steaming black coffee spilling out from the paper cup. “Really? You think?”
Boxall nodded slowly.
Rhind went pale and looked as though he was about to retch. A soft, moan escaped his lips as he hung his head. “Yes, yes, you may be right.”
“Immediately. This very afternoon. We can’t have Mnemoloss administered to even one more person. Apparently an investigative journalist in North America called Elizabeth Carpenter broke the story. It’s been picked up by various radio stations and now it seems to be echoed all around the civilized world.”
“Good lord! This is really bad. This is going to cost millions, hundreds of millions, I dread to think. Are you absolutely certain?”
“I’m afraid so but that’s not all,” Boxall continued. “We have got to contact all the people who have taken Mnemoloss, every single one of them, and test all of them, world-wide. I believe the media reports may be correct; there may be a link after all between Mnemoloss and these behavioural changes. I’m afraid until I’ve done more tests I just can’t rule it out.” He felt an incredulous sense of unreality, as though his mouth knew things that his brain had not yet accepted, but what else could he do? With the possibility that their drug, his drug, was turning people into violent maniacs, they had no other choice.
Rhind buried his head in his hands. “Yes of course,” he mumbled. “That’s absolutely right. I just can’t believe this is happening.”
Boxall left Rhind to come to terms with reality, feeling not a little angry. From the start his hands had been tied as to how he ran his own experiments. He had tried to mention this to his superiors but had been ignored and now they were facing the consequences. He wondered though whether he had been vocal enough in his protestations. He had been wracked with guilt over his mother’s condition. Because of that he had been as desperate as Van Firstenburg to see the drug succeed, tempted by the possibility that it might make a difference. Had that clouded his judgement? He did not think so, but how could he be sure? And did it even matter now?
In pharmaceutics as in any other industry requiring research and development, advances tend to be made at a steady pace, balanced with progress in other fields, insightful leaps forward then periods of stagnation, reconciliation and review. With Mnemoloss however, so much money had been made available which had meant their progress had been positively meteoric. After each seemingly successful result they had forged ahead in a self-congratulatory environment without stopping to consider any possible flaws. Ironically it seemed that this massive amount of funding was ultimately leading to their downfall. As the Four horsemen of the Apocalypse slowly drew into view on the horizon they were not the traditionally accepted faces of War, Famine, Pestilence and Death. Instead they each wore a different guise; that of Progress, Charity, Pride and Arrogance.
It was Tuesday when Boxall went to see Rhind. At that moment, as he was making his way back to Bennett’s laboratory, there was a knock at the front door of his home. For some reason Julia felt a sense of unease as she went to answer it and checked on Isabelle and Rory first. She went to open the front door but paused and took a breath, steadying her nerves. Jason’s brother, George, was standing there, looking at his feet and shifting back and forth.
“Oh George, it’s you. Hello.” She was surprised to see him, in fact slightly taken aback. Although he lived reasonably close and often went to a martial arts club at the end of their street, he did not normally come to the house unannounced, and especially not when he would surely know that Jason was at work.
“Yeah, hi,” was all he could think to say and just stood there awkwardly. She noticed he was carrying a small sports bag. “Errr,” he paused, “can I… come in?”
“Yes of course, sorry.” She led him into the kitchen. Checking that the children were still playing in the lounge she quietly closed the kitchen door behind them.
“Why are you here George? Is Jason okay?”
“Yes, he’s fine. I guess he didn’t have a chance to call you then?”
“No. Why?” She started to feel a flush of panic but tried to calm herself. After all, there was nothing to worry about, was there…?
“He phoned me a few minutes ago and asked me to pop by. Well in fact he asked me to stop by – for the night.”
“What’s going on?” Julia’s voice was rising with her sense of apprehension.
“It’s nothing, please don’t worry. Or at least I hope it’s nothing. You must have seen some of the reports on TV of elderly people going nuts and attacking strangers, or… even loved ones? Well it seems they have all been taking the Dem-buster drug.”
“Yes, but…” and it slowly started to dawn on her. “You can’t possibly mean your mother?” She was aghast.
“I’m sure she is okay but Jason said to say that he might not make it home tonight and just wanted me here. Just in case.”
“Oh my god!” She crumpled into a chair, clasping her hands together. The children must have heard her as they ran in at that moment, Isabelle looking worried.
“Hi Uncle George. What’s wrong Mummy?”
“Nothing sweetheart,” she replied somewhat lifelessly, trying to sound cheery. “Everything’s fine,” but as the children turned to go she spoke a little more sharply, “…but come and play in here, both of you. Now!”
“How is she?” George gestured upstairs to his mother. “Mind if I go and check on her?” He ran upstairs without waiting for an answer.
She was sat in her armchair watching television. When he entered she turned with a scowl that transformed into a vague smile. “Hello dear.”
“Hi Mum, how are you?”
“Yes, dear.” He was not sure if that was a positive reply to his enquiry or if she was just saying anything, but he decided to leave it at that. She appeared completely normal. He frowned and went back downstairs closing her bedroom door behind him. He noticed that there was no lock to it.
When Jason had phoned earlier George had initially thought his brother was being ridiculous and over-reacting but something in Jason’s voice had quieted his protestations. Now he too was starting to feel alarmed although he could not say why. The children were still in the kitchen and complaining that the toys they wanted were in the lounge and why couldn’t they just play in there? Julia however wanted them in her sight and wanted to keep herself between them and her mother-in-law; just in case.
Jason did not get home that night, but he spoke to Julia on the phone, telling her there were problems with the drug. It was possible that it was linked to hostile attacks around the world and that he had to stay and work round-the-clock on the issue. He asked after his mother and was told that she was okay, the same as always. His parting words to her were to be careful and not take any risks. That did nothing to put Julia’s mind at rest.
George slept on an inflatable bed on the landing outside his mother’s bedroom. In his younger years he had served in the army and so was quite used to roughing it. He had checked on her several times throughout the evening and she seemed fine. Julia had put her to bed as normal and he then went in to say goodnight. As he turned out the light he thought she glared at him and muttered something dark under her breath, but when he turned the light back on her eyes were already closed and there was a peaceful expression on her face. Perhaps it had just been his imagination.
On Wednesday morning the story of Mnemoloss was on the front page of every newspaper and dominating every television news report. There were many more acts of aggression reported. This could have meant that other unconnected acts of aggression were mistakenly being attributed to the drug, or that there was indeed a rapid rise in their occurrence and the press was more alert to them.
Like his brother, Jason had spent the night on an inflatable bed although in truth he had only managed to sleep for two hours. He had now turned his efforts to frantically searching for a way to reverse the effects of Mnemoloss. Theoretically that should not be too hard – he hoped. They understood what Mnemoloss was designed to do and hence knew, or thought they knew, how it reacted in patients’ bodies. Reversing it should therefore be more straightforward than developing it had been in the first place. The key factor now was time and they did not have enough of it. Jason did not make it home that day and neither did George who remained in his brother’s house with a growing sense of alarm.
One of Boxall’s staff called Montgomery was extremely busy phoning their contacts overseas who had been involved with the foreign trials. Invariably though the call was not needed as the contacts had seen the horror-show on television and knew the alleged link between the Dem-buster and the violence. It was with growing revulsion that Montgomery made each subsequent call as many of them had terrible stories of their own, most of which had happened in the past few days, as though someone had just thrown a switch and all around the planet the drug had morphed into its evil alter-ego. Montgomery was a petite lady with blonde locks scraped back in a severe bun. As the phone calls progressed she played with the strands of her hair in agitation and the bun increasingly came apart in her hands, leaving her looking more and more dishevelled and fraught.
The journalist Carpenter seemed to be making a name for herself on the back of GVF’s misfortune. Because she had been responsible for breaking the story she unwittingly became a lightning rod for further reports and found herself swamped with calls from strangers who all had tales of violence. After her first mention of a potential link between Mnemoloss and the outbreaks, she then went further and suggested the hostility might not be confined to people who had been administered the drug. She had received an undisclosed number of accounts suggesting that those who came into contact with Mnemoloss users were also becoming hysterical and acting strangely. She briefly hinted at secondary effects although did not mention the word ‘mutation’ and did not yet know the exact method by which the condition was being passed on. Speculation in the media was rife.
In Hong Kong two men working for an electrical goods company were delivering a refrigerator to an old woman on the third floor of a block of flats. The front door was open when they arrived but there was no answer when they called out. Fearing the lady might have taken a fall they tentatively ventured further into the flat.
They found her sitting in her living room wearing a nightdress and mumbling to herself. She ignored them and it was only when one of the men called Tai shook her gently by her shoulder that she seemed to react. She stood with surprising vigour, grabbed at his wrists and started biting him whilst making a strange gargling noise. His friend Patel came to his aid and forced her back onto the couch where they were barely able to restrain her. In the process he was bitten as well. At first it was hard to contain her, even though there were two of them and she was just an old lady, but after a few moments she suddenly seemed to calm down and just went limp. Tai took the opportunity to phone the police and she was still sedate when they arrived.
Both men went to have their wounds checked in hospital but the bites were not serious. Tai went back to work the next day, feeling a little queasy and with a passing headache. Patel did not appear and had not phoned in sick. Over the next two days there was still no sign of him so Tai went to his apartment. He arrived at the flat to find a commotion outside. The police were questioning the doorman who said that he had been advised of a disorder by some of the upper floor residents and was about to go and investigate when a ‘wild man’ had rushed past him, pushing him to the floor. The man turned out to be Patel. He had run into the street attacking passers-by at random. People fled from his path and Patel, who was frothing at the mouth like a lunatic and yelling in some foreign language, disappeared into the subway station opposite.
He had made it down to the platform from where he normally caught the subway to work and had been attacking and savaging everyone within reach. Many people were taken to hospital and treated for shock or bite wounds. Patel himself did not need any medical care as he fell onto the train tracks whilst struggling with two men who were trying to subdue him, and went under the wheels of a train. The events of the day made Tai feel peculiar. He still had the headache which now grew in intensity and a raging thirst that he was unable to slake. He returned home and by the time he got there was feeling worse. He rang his work the next morning to say that he was ill and that would be the last rational conversation he would ever have.
By Wednesday evening Boxall was absolutely exhausted and had been working feverishly throughout the day. He had been granted all available resources by his superiors and was urgently repeating previous experiments, tests and computer models but this time in reverse. It felt as though up until this week matters had slowly been gathering like distant, wispy clouds on the horizon. Now they were converging, building into the mother of all Biblical storms. The situation was speeding up and he was struggling to keep pace with it. Things were no longer under his control and he felt as though he might just flounder and sink beneath the surface at any moment.
He spent a large part of his time working in the laboratory directly with Bennett whose moustache had never received so much twirling and tweaking. Boxall periodically returned to his own office to keep track of what his team of technicians were doing and giving them new directions. In the background he had a television tuned constantly to a news channel but there was never any good information. Reports were tumbling over each other, struggling to the fore like an angry crowd of shoppers at a Thanksgiving sale, all outdoing the previous one for grief, shock and savagery.
That night none of the team of scientists left the building. Food was brought to them and basic sleeping arrangements were provided. Otherwise they all worked continuously. On Thursday morning Boxall found himself sat in his office feeling numb and staring blankly at the television. It took him some time to register that everything had gone quiet. He turned to Montgomery who was hovering outside his office.
“Hey, the news channel has gone dead. That’s the first break in the reports in the last forty-eight hours.”
“Oh yeah, so it has. I wonder what that means.”
Montgomery put down a clipboard and picked up some half-moon glasses from the desk. The channel was just showing the view from a roof top, looking out over the city where previously a reporter had been standing and reading the latest bulletin. As they stared they saw the clouds moving in the background, a couple of birds fly past but otherwise nothing else happened, no reporter holding a microphone, no news subtitles being pasted to the bottom of the screen, nothing. Just still, eerie silence.
“I’m not sure I like this,” Boxall stood then rang his wife.
Julia, George, Isabelle and Rory were all sat quietly in the kitchen. They were not really waiting for anything, just marking time with a sense of dread constantly lurking in the background. They had not been outside for the last two days and had mostly spent their time watching the news channels. Nanny Boxall was upstairs in her room as usual. They took her meals but otherwise preferred to leave her alone. The children seemed to perceive the unfolding horror and had become sullen and miserable. George had tried to remain upbeat and keep them all preoccupied but even his normally boundless reserve of energy had been exhausted.
When the phone rang Julia jumped and snatched it up. “Yes?” she answered quickly.
“It’s me, how are you all?”
She could feel herself on the verge of tears and panic. “We’re okay. We’re in the kitchen, apart from your mum. She’s in her room. How are you?”
“Ah, we’re all fine here, just really tired,” Jason replied. “I think we are making progress though. Just thought I would make sure you’re okay. We’ve got a TV news channel on here but it all seems to have gone quiet. I mean, the picture is still playing but there is nothing happening; nothing at all. There’s no one even in the frame, it’s really spooky. Have you heard anything lately?”
“No. We’ll go and check the TV and let you know if we hear anything.”
Boxall stood staring for a moment, lost in exhausted distraction and then dragged himself back to his work.
A short while later a harassed-looking presenter returned to the screen and announced in a shaky voice, “The Indian Government has declared a state of emergency and is mobilizing the army in order to control the mounting violence and lawlessness.” He informed anyone watching that this was an action that had not happened since 1977 and effectively introduced martial law. There had been a sudden rise in violence across the UK as well, which had taken the form of looting, rioting and unprovoked aggression, but as yet no such measures had been taken. Boxall did not hear any more details. He was already thinking about his family and what he should do.
Within a few minutes he was driving home. The streets had an eerie quality to them. There were not many vehicles. What cars there were on the road seemed to be driving fast and not stopping at traffic lights. Relatively few pedestrians were out but there did seem to be a lot of police, either on foot or flashing past in police cars and vans. Those on foot were never by themselves and always wearing full riot gear. Every time he saw someone else walking or loitering he could not help but consider them with suspicion. What were they doing? Were they looting? Or even more dreadful to contemplate, were they crazed people who had taken his Mnemoloss?
Occasionally he saw a smashed shop window and twice cars that were actually ablaze but with no sign of fire engines in attendance. It reminded him of the prelude to the Brixton riots of 1981. This was the calm before the storm. The quiet intake of breath before the screaming begins. The recoil of the hand before the fist strikes. People were largely hiding in their homes, waiting and watching. Frightened, but not quite sure of what they were afraid.
As his keys rattled in the front door his family all assembled in the entrance hall. Julia immediately threw herself into his arms in tears. The children were crying and George stood back, watching the stairs suspiciously.
“What’s going on Jas?” George asked. “The TV says there’s been a state of emergency declared.”
“Yeah, I saw. I guess that means India is now under martial law.”
“No,” Julia was confused. “Here. A state of emergency has just been declared here.”
“What? Oh my god!” He sagged against the wall and suddenly felt almost as though he was watching the scene from above. He tried to focus and concentrate. “Are you all okay?”
“Yes, yes.” They were fine.
“And how has Mum been?”
Julia did not answer and George avoided his look.
“Tell me.” Jason felt panic rising up inside. “How is she?”
“She’s fine bro,” George said quietly. “She’s just been acting a little… odd. I thought she’d snapped at me a couple of times but couldn’t be sure. She’s not been chatting much and although recently she had seemed to be getting more lively and talkative, the last couple of days she has hardly come out of her room, hardly said anything. Then last night Isy just popped her head into her room and your mother yelled at her. She told her to get out in no uncertain terms. There was real venom there. We heard it all over the house.”
Jason was shaken but also thankful. It could easily have been so much worse, judging by the news reports from around the globe. “But you are all okay though?” He stroked Isabelle’s head; the stress of being away from his family at this time had been enormous. “Look, I’m probably being a little drastic, I’m sure this will blow over in a few days but I think you should all come with me. Now.”
“What?” Julia was alarmed and panicking again. “Where?”
“Back to the labs. It’s totally secure, there’s a guard on the gate and it’s a lot safer than anywhere else. There are crude but acceptable sleeping arrangements that we have all been using for the last few days and it means I don’t have to worry about you anymore. A lot of the staff have been staying there and some have gone to get their families already. I have got to go back; more than ever I have to be there now. And it will help me a lot if I know that you are all there and safe.”
Julia nodded. Rory was whining and George was still looking upstairs. Jason checked his watch impatiently.
“We have got to go immediately though, in case a curfew is imposed here and the roads are all blocked. Is that okay with you all? You too George.”
“Just one thing,” George said looking doubtful, “what about Mum?”
It was Jason’s turn to avoid his younger brother’s eyes.
“We can’t leave her,” George frowned. “She isn’t capable of looking after herself.”
“We can’t take her with us, it’s too risky. The fact that she’s been getting more aggressive, I just think we can’t take that chance. We don’t know what she’s going to do…”
He trailed off, not sure exactly what he thought or what to say. This was not something that he had planned. When he drove home he had not had any firm ideas, he only wanted to get back to his family. But now that the UK was in a state of emergency and things were deteriorating at such an alarming rate, this was definitely the right action to take, to protect his family. And his mother? He could not even bring himself to think of it. George was right, she was not capable of looking after herself but worse than that, if she was becoming aggressive like so many others now, then she really was a danger to everybody.
He put a stop to his train of thought as it was heading somewhere terrible and unacceptable. He focused on his family instead. “Okay kids, we are going to go away for a few days. We have got to go right now though so I need you to be good, get a couple of games to bring with you but that’s it. Please go to your play room and choose what you want to bring.”
They scampered off chatting to each other, sounding quite excited and Jason turned to Julia. “Right, just bare essentials. Pack a quick bag with a couple of changes of clothes, toiletries, only what you really need, and then let’s go. Whatever happens we must not get stuck here.”
Julia disappeared immediately upstairs but George lingered a moment, holding his brother’s stare; the futility reflecting in his eyes what Jason felt in his heart.
“Jas, I can’t just leave her. You go, I’ll stay.”
Jason started to protest but George raised a hand, silencing him. “Look we’re wasting time and as you said, we haven’t got much of it. I can’t go with you bro and you know you’d do exactly the same in my position. I’ll stay and look after her. When you’re able, then come and get us. It’ll be all right.”
Jason was close to tears. He looked George in the eyes and it actually seemed that his younger brother believed what he was saying, that everything would work out and they would be reunited sometime soon. Jason tried to believe him but his doubts told him otherwise. Finally he shrugged and nodded.
“Okay but listen – be really careful with her. Find a way of barricading her in the room and every time you go in check first that she is not aggressive. And carry some kind of weapon with you at all times. All of that military training might come in handy after all.”
George snorted incredulously but Jason took hold of his shoulder sternly. “I’m not joking, I mean it. She may become violent and dangerous, even towards her own son. Be careful and we’ll come for you as soon as we can.”
George took a step back but the sceptical look had gone and been replaced with one of acceptance; or was it fear?
The children were assembled first and waiting by the front door. Rory was wearing his Spider Man outfit and Isabelle had on a pair of jeans and a red and white striped jumper, her training shoes that flashed every time she took a step and her doggy back-pack which she had called Muffy. Julia solemnly walked downstairs holding some blankets and an overnight bag that was bulging. She was wearing the pink duffle coat that he had bought her for her last birthday and her white gym shoes. Poking out of the top of the bag Jason could see her hair-dryer; he smiled thinly as this was hardly an essential survival item, but he did not have the heart to say anything. George came last. His expression was grim and resigned and this time neither brother could look each other in the eye.
“Okay, everyone outside, I forgot to say goodbye to Mum so I’ll just nip upstairs, won’t be a sec. Please get everybody in the car George and start it up for me.”
He could feel the lie stumble as it tripped off his tongue and his cheeks burning with guilt as the rest trudged outside, leaving him alone in the house with his mother and his shame.
She lay quietly asleep under her bed-covers. Her breathing was slow and rasping as though she had a terrible chest infection. He watched her for a moment and tried to convince himself that she was all right but the pallor of her skin, the red blemishes and small lesions that had formed even since he had last seen her were evidence that she was most definitely anything but okay.
“I’m so sorry Mum, this is all my fault. I’m so very sorry.”
He felt a terrible surge of guilt and tears welled up in his eyes, but an excited screech from Isabelle reminded him of his responsibility now and he forced the tears away, wiping his eyes on the back of his hand. He picked up the red cushion from the chair in the corner and grasped it in his hands for a moment whilst regarding her with an unreal, discorporate feeling. He walked slowly towards her, stopped by her bedside and hesitated. Could he really do it? Her condition was certainly deteriorating and it was only a matter of time until she became violent. He was almost certain of that. Was it better to leave George alone with her to be attacked and injured? Or could he really do this thing to his mother? Just then her breathing became a little irregular. She frowned and let out a small gasp as though in pain. He looked at her again and shook his head, straightened and tossed the cushion back onto the chair. No. No, he had done her enough injustice as it was, merely by creating this monstrous drug. He could not wrong her further. He bent down to kiss her gently on the forehead.
“I love you Mum. God bless you. Goodbye.”
At that her eyes flickered open. The whites were bloodshot and smouldering. The pupils were nothing more than vacant holes of wrath and insanity. Her mouth contorted into a snarling sneer with a hiss. Her hand grabbed him firmly by the wrist, pulling him down towards her stained and snapping teeth.
Book available as ebook and paperback on Amazon at amzn.to/1MrY3AW and all major online retailers.
All three books in the series set for imminent TV adaptation.
Antony J. Stanton