The Short Story Project ~ A Story

First published: Wednesday, July 29th, 2009
5,715 words ~ spooky scale: •••• 13+

To The Panic Room

We are currently in the 24th week of the H1VZ pandemic. Here is the News after nearly six months of the outbreak. Authorities in Shanghai claim they have no taken back control of the City. They say they plan on consolidating their gains before launching an attack to up the Eastern front. On a less-happy note, contact has been lost with Darwin and Perth, and we have had no news from Bangkok for over a week now, however recent satellite pictures show us…

He looks down at his coffee. The heat steams up his face mask, so he unzips it and pushes it back, over his head.

“Can’t you switch that thing off?” he calls to the man behind the bar, in the plastic cage rendered misty from the abrasion of multiple scrubdowns. “Or change channels or something?”

The cage encloses all the area behind the bar except for slits where the drinks are pushed out onto the counter. In the event of an attack the flimsy structure would provide no real protection, in fact it would probably be more of a hindrance than a help in stopping the barman from making a clean getaway. But he knew that that isn’t its purpose.

The air inside the cage is kept at a slightly higher pressure to that outside. But that’s enough to keep out germs, microbes, dust and more importantly, virii. And the air that is being pumped in is washed and bleached, micro-waved and UVed, before passing through carbon nanotube filters that imprison all organic matter, living or dead. It’s the price to pay to persuade ‘non-essential’ staff to man the bar.

“Nah!” grunts the figure in goggles and a facemask, his voice muffled by the layers of protection and the humming beat of the pumps. “Keeps me company. Go crazy stuck in here all on me own. And it’s the same on all the channels anyway.”

He goes back to wiping down the bottles and shelves with a diluted acid solution that he sprays from a flask covered with bright yellow and black hazard stickers. It’s compulsive. Like a caged animal at the zoo. Repeating the same gestures over and over and over.

Next he’ll line them all up, the same distance from the edge.

Then he’ll start cleaning another shelf.

It just gets to everyone in different ways.

The coffee is pretty foul anyway. The fact that it’s made with distilled water and coffee grains that have been thoroughly irradiated and disinfected probably doesn’t help. But now all the vending machines have been removed — heat, water, sugar and darkness create an ideal breeding ground — the bar is all they have. It costs the hospital a fortune to keep it open, but is considered necessary for morale.

He drops the empty cup into the nearest flash incinerator, always surprised at the loudness of the blast, the bright light and the hiss as the top panel opens again. His polystyrene beaker and coffee grounds are now just a few sterile molecules in the plastic bag hanging underneath.

It would be nice, relaxing even, to be able to linger over a newspaper or a magazine, but bringing those in from the outside would send Dave — is that his name, Dave? Or was that the one before..? — would send Whatsisname into fits, kitting up and spraying and swabbing down even while you’re still drinking.

He zips up the standard issue white Kevlar vest then, palms his panic button before pulling on his gloves. You aren’t supposed to do it. The rules say it’s supposed to be clipped to your shoulder or your belt. But the risk of setting it off accidentally is well worth the seconds gained by having it safely in your hand at all times.

Behind him the Dave taps at the milky perspex laminate. He turns to see the goggled silhouette waving its hands over its head like a child imitating rabbits’ ears. Then it dawns. His facemask. He’d forgotten to pull it down. Again.

He lifts a fat gloved hand in thanks, then slips his right hand between his legs to pull off the glove without setting off the button in his other glove. He pulls and zips the mask into place, then eases his hand back into the glove. It’s an ungainly and embarrassing manoeuvre, but you get used to it. You get used to a lot of things.

The double doors hiss as he passes though, expulsing the air from the bar. Unequal pressures everywhere.

Out in the lobby, the security guard is sitting on his chair facing the entrance in exactly the same position, the fat shotgun across his massive thighs. For a moment he wonders if they’ve been replaced by dummies. It would be hard to tell. Outside of an emergency. It was hard to tell what, if anything, went on under the shiny, black helmet.

There is another, slimmer, but similarly black-plated and supine rent-a-guard on a chair in front of the cage where Admissions used to be. All admissions take place round the back now. Round the back the guards patrol the electrified fences and don’t hesitate to shoot.

He turns to wave back through the doors but the Dave is out of sight. Probably kitting up to disinfect the counter. He sets off with precaution towards the gleaming corridors and stairwells, back to his wards up above.

The glistening floors are treacherous. Ever since everything has been coated in that industrial grade epoxy effectively sealing even the most microscopic cracks where contamination could hide, it is hard to tell what is just the natural shine of the resin and what are pools of residue from whatever highly corrosive disinfectant they’re using this week. Because you can’t keep using the same one all the time, or the germs’ll get used to it. Start feeding on it, y’know. And, any liquid on these high gloss surfaces is extremely slippery. So much so that some of the staff have started strapping crampons onto the oversized paper socks that everyone wears over their socks. Up to now he has resisted, judging that this’ll just result in even more layers of resin — which renders the place toxic for days — as the claws cut into the surface creating nooks and crannies for contamination. But this just means he has had more than his fair share of painful falls and a severely bruised coccyx. Instead, he stays close to the walls, grabbing at handles and rails with his left, panic-button-free hand.

As he passes the double doors out of the lobby, his cellphone rings but it is now buried under too many layers. It can wait. The chirping accompanies him along the corridor. For some reason his voicebox isn’t taking the message. Just another sign of the small dysfonctions eating into the system, despite all the precautions that are being taken. As if answer to this thought, the strip lighting overhead flickers, makes a feeble attempt to wake up again, before it fades out completely.

He holds onto a window sill gnarly and lumpy with repeated sealings of resin, silently cursing himself for not carrying a walkie-talkie and a large heavy flashlight like some of his colleagues. The latter can also serve as a weapon in a pinch, they like to boast.

He feels the silence and the dark press in around him before, with a dim vibration underfoot, the emergency generators, deep in the basements, kick in and the passage is illuminated again, with pools of pale green light, almost submarine in the way they reflect and flow from ceiling to floor to wall.

Now he can more-or-less see again, the priority is the bolt hole in the stairwell up ahead. All the stairwells are equipped with these armoured chubby holes.

If the power disappears, even for less than a minute, there can have been a breach in the defences outside. Like for any organism, anyone, or anything, can slip in when the protection is down. If you are out in the open when it happens, you just head for the nearest bolt hole, and its endless supply of filtered air and filtered water. You lock yourself in, and you wait. And hope they come for you before you start thinking about the filter on the toilet.

His phones starts chirping again.

This time he pauses, looks around, and pulls off both gloves, pocketing the panic button. Because of the alert, it’s now pretty useless anyway. The squads are out patrolling the corridors before sounding the siren to sound the all-clear on another false alert.

But if there is a problem, the phone will give his position away.

If something has managed to get in, walking around with a ringing phone is just the same as standing outside naked and yelling ‘Come and get me!’.

The zipper on his jacket gets stuck and as he tugs to free it, a glove falls out of his pocket and onto the floor. Finally the zip head jerks free and he clutches at the window frame to stop himself falling. Looking around anxiously, he pulls out the phone.

“I’m so worried—”

A woman’s voice starts in his ear.

“Deidre, I’ll call you back,” he hisses.

“No! Don’t hang up. There’s no power. Anywhere. I’m so scared!”

“Deidre. Not now!”

He snaps the phone shut, switches it off and pushes it back into his pocket. If she can call then there’s power somewhere. It can’t be that bad. Crouching down, he surveys the corridor as he pulls his mask and gloves back into place.

The green emergency lights aren’t constant, they fade a little then jump back to their full strength. The light reflects in the high shine of the resin coating and is then distorted by the face mask which, he notes, is beginning to steam up around his mouth and nose. The slightest movement, even his heart pounding it seems, changes the reflections and the appearance of the corridor. He feels slightly nauseous but whether it is the situation, the coffee, or the shifting reflections, it is hard to tell. Finally, he unzips the face mask and pushes it back. It was a risk of course, but already he feels a bit better.

He is about halfway along the corridor. It is about the same distance aback to the lobby as it is to the panic room. In all probability the lobby is deserted, and there’s no guarantee he can get back into the bar if there is no power. And the Dave has probably barricaded himself in his own personal bolt hole.

No, forward is the best decision.

With a gasp of relief he arrives at the double doors leading to the stair well. Beyond the doors is safety.

He pushes through.

And falls sprawling onto the floor, tripping over a large soggy mess just behind the doors.

On all fours he taps the floor, looking for other obstacles, trying to find his way. To make things worse, the only light is that seeping through the cracks round the door. For some reason the emergency lighting isn’t working here.

His hand falls on a hard lump. Even through his gloves he recognises the shape. It is one of the ugly black shotguns that the guards all carry.

His thoughts whirr through his head, too quickly to take it all in, like tyres spinning on ice. If there’s a shotgun here then the guard can’t be too far away. And then. If that was the guard he just tripped over, then whatever is here managed to overpower an armed guard. And finally. Guards have torches, powerful halogen flashlights clipped to their belt…

But the shotgun. Should he take that?

Even supposing he manages to find out how it works, he is just as likely to shoot himself. Better forget it. Anyway, it didn’t help the guard much.

He shuffles around until he is facing the door, and then advances towards the mass on the floor. Judging from the size and the feel of the protective armour, it is a guard. Or, rather, it had been. Reaching across to the neck to feel for a pulse, he finds there is nothing above the shoulders but a sort of dark stickiness.

Instinctively he pulls his hands back.

He feels he can smell the blood, taste it in his mouth.

“Stop panicking,” he shouts silently to himself. “It’s just the mind playing tricks. If you could smell or taste something, you’d have done so before touching it.” He repeats the reasoning, all the while breathing slowly, trying to keep calm.

“Get the torch,” he continues. “Once you get some light, you’ll see it’s all imagination. That’s all.”

He taps the body, arriving at the utility belt at the waist, and then follows it round until he feels the shaft of the flashlight. But try as he may, inside the thick gloves, his fingers are too stiff and fat to unclip it.

He must take them off.

If the area is contaminated, he is already at risk, not having his face mask. Gloves aren’t going to change that.

The worst thing here is the blood from the guard, and he died from having his head ripped off, not from anything contagious. And, he tells himself, once he has the flashlight, he can find the bolt hole and increase his chances of survival.

He breathes.

He pulls his glove off his right hand and feverishly unclips the flashlight. The sound of his hoarse breathing echoes in his ears. Immediately he stops, counting to ten. calming himself.

The regular rasping breathing is still there.

He swings around, dropping his glove as he fumbles to push the button on the light, and all the while raising himself to his knees. And up.

The white blaze reflects off the walls and ceilings, blinding him, as if burning into his retinas and leaving dancing after images of the bulky form leaning over him.

The one glimpse is enough to see the damage wrought by the virus: the bulbous eyes just visible before it swings up an awkward disjointed arm to protect itself; the swellings on the face and neck and cranium where pockets of highly contagious pus have formed; the livid marbling of the skin…

And then it screams.

The high-pithed rasping whine sears through his ears like an electroshock. He staggers back, nearly falling, nearly dropping the light.

With the effect of the afterburn, several figures are jerking and bouncing right in his eyes.

Besides the pain, the scream is not a good idea. It will bring others.

He swings out wildly with the torch. Black shadows splatter across the walls. The creature retreats.

He spins round, screwing himself up against the desire to clamp his hands over his ears. The door to the panic room is set into the wall just a few feet from his back.

He shifts backwards, waving the flashlight to keep the creature away.

As he moves back, his heels catches something on the slippery floor.

There is a deafening blast that seems to pummel him on all sides at once, accompanying a violent pain in his ankle. He staggers, trying to stop himself from falling as a shower of dust and debris engulf him.

Still brandishing the torch, he sees through the dust, the gaping-mouthed, slobbering, once human creature standing with its head to one side, as if it is trying to make sense of the noise and the light and the chaos.

And failing to do so.

For a moment, he even thinks it has stopped screaming. Until the ringing and roaring in his ears makes him realise he’s just been deafened by a blast. Only temporarily, he hopes.

As the creature remains motionless, he shifts backwards to the small metal plate that controls the access to the panic room. He rubs his wrist against the plate.

When the system was demonstrated, everything worked perfectly. The detector behind the panel was triggered by the RFID tag in his wrist, and the door sprang open with a satisfying pop and a hiss as it equalised the pressure from behind the airtight door.

He twists his wrist up and against the plate, trying to improve the contact. But the door remains obstinately, desperately closed.

He hits out at the solid metal door in frustration. There is no point in even attempting to force it, he knows it is specifically designed to resist earthquakes, explosions, forced openings. Still he hits at it as tears fill his eyes, blurring his vision. Until his hands hurt.

Looking up, he blinks, clearing his vision. The zombie-like figure is still standing, head to the side, as if still puzzled by the events.

The dark mass at its feet is all that is left of the security guard. Judging from the black stains that mottle its face and imbibe the torn tee-shirt and shorts, it is probably responsible for the guard’s demise. The head is nowhere to be seen.

Over to the left is the stairwell with steps folding into the tar-black shadow. As each floor is equipped with a panic button, this means a mad dash to the stairs. Providing he can get round the zombie.

He can’t bring himself to think of it as a ‘he’. It ceased to be human once the virus took hold. Now it is just… something else.

Of course, he has seen them on TV, before the authorities decided that it’s bad for morale and then after it’s only been blurry, blocky film passed around on thumb drives, on hidden links on the net. The novelty quickly wore off.

After that he only saw them on video monitors surveying the isolation wards just until they get so out of hand they have to be knocked out. As the pandemic spread they have long left human sedatives behind. They now measure the Mickey Finns in ‘decaphants’, as in, enough to put down ten elephants. Currently the base dose is two decaphants. And rising.

Once they are unconscious they are bundled out into the converted refrigerated lorries, sealed with the same glistening lumps of resin, and taken off on the nightly convoys to the camps. After that, no one knows what happens. But everyone suspects.

There’s a precedent for H1VZ’s symptoms. It is a condition known as Amok, and was found in the Far East, in Malaysia. One day, without warning, something snaps and the victim goes wild. It can involve indiscriminate, random killings, but not always, sometimes they just run for miles and miles and miles, stumbling into obstacles until their feet and limbs and faces are just a bloody pulp. Sometimes the victim just inflicts injury to himself, sitting silently in a corner. But these all have the same thing in common: there is a complete loss of control, as if the person who was there no longer exists, or has just moved on. And then, there is the complete indifference to pain. It is as if the nerves are deconnected, or connected elsewhere. People run for miles on a broken leg, missing hands or arms. It was as if nothing can affect them anymore. Nothing.

Research — or at least, that research that isn’t uniquely centred round finding a vaccine — suggests that the virus, once it has burnt through the victim’s body triggers the same centres as Amok does. Or The Zombie, as people prefer to call it now.

And once that happens, once the nervous tissue is burnt out and gone, there is no return. The previous personality is completely AWOL and during a dissection when you see the shrivelled fibrous sponge that the brain has become, you know it isn’t going to send you a picture postcard, say ‘Hi, how you doing?’ and move back in.

And now that ‘it’ is blocking his path to safety.

Or is it? Perhaps he is already contaminated.

At the thought, he can feel his skin crawl. He itches everywhere as if the virus is even now creeping over his body, burrowing through his skin, his ears, his eyeballs, his mouth. It’s infiltrating his cells, kidnapping his own DNA to turn his own body into a virus factory, his own personal fifth column, working towards his destruction from the inside. Soon his cells will swell and collapse and start bleeding, his metabolism will accelerate, the reprogrammed DNA will infiltrate his brain, rewiring his instincts and reflexes, it will cushion the nerve endings, stopping not only pain, but all feelings. It will pump him full of endorphins and hormones and enzymes until he runs Amok.

He shakes his head violently. He knows the symptoms, and his mouth feels dry, very dry. He blinks. His eyes burn. He blinks, but no tears come.

It’s the dust. The dust and the panic, the voice of reason murmurs in his head. You haven’t been in physical contact, and the virus doesn’t survive more than a few minutes in the open air. In all probability, you’re not contaminated.

Now if the figure standing and staring opposite were to sneeze, that’s another matter…

He edges towards to stairwell.

Upstairs he decides. That was the best bet. Any idiot can fall down stairs, but the Zombie’s haphazard motor coordination means that about the only way to get up the staircase was to crawl.

He shifts further to the left.

Its eyes follow him.

Yet apart from that, it hasn’t moved. He wonders for a moment if its head can follow him right round, like an owls. Don’t be stupid. Because of the absence of pain reflexes they can do lots of seemingly impossible things, but you can’t change anatomy, and the human skeleton won’t let a head move beyond a certain point.

He glances at the yes again. Is it really following him, or is it like one of those trick paintings whose gaze follows you round the room. As if reading his thoughts, the figures shuffles a foot, following his uneasy progression to the stairwell.

Then he twigs. It’s the electric torch. It is drawn to the light like a moth to a lamp. Some primitive, atavistic reflex deep in the melted down synapses sparked and pulls it towards the light.

He shifts closer to the stairs, still pointing the torch light at his feet. He figures he is pretty safe for the moment, while it keeps its distance. But if he keeps it alight while going up the stairs, it will do its damndest to follow. Coordinating lifting one leg after the other was probably out of the question, so it will probably just try until it falls over. And then it’ll crawl. He’ll have to switch the flashlight off on the stairs. And bolt for it.

He inches nearer.

From time to time, the building under his feet seems to shake and shudder. Small sprinklings of dust fall from the ceiling, probably where it got damaged in the blast. The particles float down slowly and gently with the curious grace of bubbles or light snow in the eerie white light reflecting around the walls. It is strange and somewhat calming. He still can’t hear what those distant bumps are, over the ringing and rushing in his ears. The rushing, he decides, is the sound of his own body, of breathing and blood pumping and nerves and muscles moving. The ringing, no longer an airplane taking off, more the distant clamour of alarms must be the fluid in his cochlea madly resonating all those little haircells. He hopes that this isn’t the sound of being deaf.

Again he shuffles closer to his destination.

He is less than a foot away now. He should probably get away right now, before the Zombie loses its fascination for the light. While most of them lumbered along, he knew that they were just as capable of making lightning dashes. They can’t manage to stop though, and generally end by tripping and falling. Which isn’t a problem for them if they fall on their prey.

He slides his feet to the left and turns to look up the stairs. Shadow covered the first landing where you turned to take the next half flight up, but the parts he could see looked clear. Anyway, once he was up there, he could always switch the torch back on. With any luck, his Zombie would still be struggling down here.

He breathes in and flexes his leg muscles.

In his mind’s eye, it is one smooth movement. Off with the torch, grab the hand rail, bound up the stairs and around the corner. Get out of reach as quickly as possible.

He pulls the switch on the torch back and the darkness swallows him. He darts up tot he first stair and realises he still has the torch in the hand he needs to grasp the rail. His foot, oversized because of the protective suit, catches on the edge of the step. He falls upwards, but manages to push against the wall and keep his balance.

Then his other foot comes down on nothing. He reaches out for the rail and the torch falls from his hand. He continues falling, landing on the edge of a stair that hits him across the diaphragm, pushing all the air out of his lungs, and doubling him up in pain.

Maybe he shouts, maybe he screams. He can’t be sure with the hoars roaring still in his ears.

He pushes down with his arms, feet peddling to get a grip, but his left foot isn’t responding properly. He twists round and tries to pull his knees up.

Something is blocking his foot.

The Zombie has been quicker than he thought and has grabbed him.

He kicks out, putting all his weight into it. Then, sharply, pulls his legs up again.

They come free.

He pushes himself round and scrambles up the stairs on all fours.

As he nears the top, he sees the same watery green light seeping through the cracks round the double door opposite. The panic room is on his right.

He rounds the corner, slides up to the plate. And franticly rubs his wrist against it.

The heavy door jerks back, then slides to the side. Cold grey light from inside floods the stairwell. He falls inside and hits the panel to seal the door. He doesn’t dare look outside as the door slips back into place. An acrid mist fills the small cubby hole as the automatic decontamination process sets in.

He sits on the stainless steel chair, his head in his hands, gasping for breath, and sobbing as the mist turns to rain.

~ ~ ~

When, fourteen hours later, the door swung over to the side, he shouted at the guard. Not because he was angry, but because his deafness didn’t give him much control over the volume of his voice, and so it was better to shout than whisper.

He’d tried to explain over the intercom that was set flush into the wall. Rather conveniently a small diode lit up when it was in operation, but he didn’t know what part, if any, of his explanation had been heard, or even understood.

The guard pushed against his chest with a firm and massive hand, but it could have been the gloves and protective suit that gave that impression. His other hand bunched into a fist that he punched into the air before jiggling it and pulled it sharply down. Like some unknown, but highly evolved gangland greeting. Then he removed the hand from the chest and steps back.

He looked out and saw the thick snouts of half a dozen weapons wink as the barrels were all pointed down. And the holders took a step back.

“If you’re speaking to me, I can’t hear you,” he shouted as he stepped forward. “I’ve gone a little deaf.” Then hastily added. “Nothing serious, of course.”

The massive guard with the white bunny suit over his armour brought a crushing hand down on his shoulder and half steered, half marched him off for another decontamination and scrubbing off, leaving the rest of the squad to continue their patrol.

Once he was safely enclosed in the pen that was to be his home for the next two weeks, skin scrubbed raw and slightly burning from the different cleansing agents, wearing only paper shorts, and carrying a tray of pills, potions and unguents for the smarting cuts and bruises sustained from his short walk from the bar and upstairs to the panic room, he sat down on the plastic stool and waited for the technical assistants to finish patching in the portable computer he’d ordered. One advantage of being deaf was that he need not take ‘no’ for an answer. He also didn’t need to be bored by the details. He gave the order and just moved onto the next subject.

He’d had to text Deirdre, too, and had used the same tactics: GLAD UR OK2. IN 40TINE 15 DYS. EXPECT MAIL. XXX.

The computer arrived wrapped in clingfilm. So that was the compromise the techies had arrived at. If everything went fine they could just pull it off. If he was positive, it didn’t really matter. That and everything else he had been in contact with would finish in the incinerator.

He shivered. And it wasn’t just because he was wearing nothing but a pair of paper shorts.

He logged in and his desktop flickered to life. Then his inbox started to fill up with all the mail he’d missed. he could deal with that later. He would have the time. First he needed to give Deirdre all the news.

But first he needed to check the results on the batch of culture he’d been running before he’d slipped away for a coffee… When was it? Yesterday morning? It felt like a week at least.

He scratched at the irritated red patch on his arm where he’d had a pack of shots — anti-virals, tetanus, steriods, and he suspected from the number that they’d slipped in antidotes for the Black Death and probably a Mumps vaccine for good measure.

He connected in to his lab where the latest samples had been in culture for far too long. He’ll have to burn them all, and start over from the control tubes.

He flicked trough looking for specimens that appeared out of the ordinary — if that was the appropriate word — and would be sent on for amplification and sequencing to see if they’d caught an interesting mutation. The results would then wend their way through the System to Portland Down, and perhaps Atlanta where the World’s efforts were currently being coordinated. Like an organism voyaging through the host’s nervous system until it reaches the brain, he mused.

The culture and analysis was heavily automated, no one sane wanted to get anywhere near the virus, so he could work just as well from here.

He yawned and ripped the top off one of the bowls in the pile of sterilised rations he’d been locked in here with. He poured sterilised water in and waited as it heated and reconstituted itself into a disgusting and bloody mess — SpagBol, he guessed. Colour- and texture-wise not the most appropriate food after what he’d been through.

He spooned the goo into his mouth, washing it down with the tasteless water, as he tapped the spacebar and tables of figures paged down the screen.

The blinking of unusual data caught his eye. He scrolled back, then flipped the screen to access the optical microscope and waited for it to roll into position over this particular dish.

The culture looked like a crescent moon wen it should look like a badly made pancake. The mutations are in the ‘how badly made’ part. If it was this weird shape then something must have contaminated the sample. But what was interesting was that contamination had stopped the spread of the virus. It was probably a solvent or a bleach, or something like that, something that was known, or had no practical application. Nothing to get excited about.

He flipped back and then followed the link to the sample’s history. Somewhere along the line the contaminate had slipped in, and he’d need to find out where.

Looking over the record he remembered the case. It had been a false positive. A kid had been brought in round the back with early symptoms, but it had turned out to be just a cold. He was one of the lucky ones who got to go home after his fourteen days. But even so, there shouldn’t have been any trace of the virus. Unless…

Unless it was so feeble that only the extra day that the sample had been in culture had allowed it to be revealed.

This was important.

If there were slower strains of the virus out there, they must increase the the time that it was cultured in order to detect them. They’d also have to keep people locked up for more than fourteen days, which wasn’t going to be popular.

Yet this was curious. Usually these things got quicker, not slower, when a mutation was successful and they became steadily more efficient, more deadly. Unless this was a sleeper, now being favoured precisely because of the time limits that were being imposed the world over. He typed franticly, there was surely a communication in that.

But why the crescent shape? Why wasn’t the circle just smaller, or more tatty.

The view through the optical microscope showed the virus barely showing around the edges of something else. What if it was not a slower mutation after all, but another, slower virus that had been killing it. And, again, he was only seeing this because of the extra day that the cultures had had to develop. The most logical conclusion was that… No, let’s not jump to conclusions, he thought, but he couldn’t help himself. Suppose the boy had been contaminated but that the infection had been defeated by… the common cold?

He bit down on the plastic spoon. His bowl of SpagBol was empty. He stared at the screen.

Could this be the start of a cure?


I have stolen from thousands for this story. The decor was provided in part by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling. Of course, George A. Romero gets a big mention.

There is also, hidden inside my own mess, inspiration from Nicholson Baker’s The Mezzanine in that I wanted everything to happen to my protagonist while he was trying to get back upstairs to his lab. I also wanted the trip to be a bit like a rollercoaster ride, and never let you know if you’re over the last big whoosh, or if there’s another one coming up. You, the reader, are the best judge of whether I succeeded with that. As I typed this up, late, it realised that it was the longest story so far. Perhaps a little too long, it could probably be edited down tighter, but never in time for this week. Twitter followers will understand why.

The themes in this story are currently all around us here, even though most of it is lifted from a short story named Powders that I wrote many years ago.

With the rest of the family, we are planning on spending August in England, and have been watching with quite a bit of worry the swine flu ‘pandemic’ spreading there. We don’t think the Brits have got more of it, just that the others are doing a better job of covering it up. I was in a Chemist shop on Saturday here in Montreuil, just outside of Paris, in front of me was a massive police office, his car blocking the pedestrian precinct outside. As he moved to the counter, he asked to speak to the person in charge. On what subject? he was asked. Security measures, he said. What you’ve done to protect the premises and personnel in the event of an emergency. Erm… what emergency? the person behind the counter wanted to know. Well, Home Ministry contingency plans expect Chemist Shops to be attacked or ransacked in the event of panic over swine flu, so we have to come round and warn you, see what you’ve prepared and…

Apart from that, move on, there’s nothing to worry about.

Ludivine has got us all face masks and antibacterial tissues for the train journeys. Looks like the Eurostar will be more fun than Eurodisney.

On a another, more pleasant, note, the end of the story was quite simply inspired by the cold that I was suffering from when I was writing. I thought that if the cold could serve to do something good it might be supportable. And, it was only after I’d finished that I remembered H.G.Wells The War of the Worlds. Damned!

Change of notes:

As I have mentioned above we will be absent during August. On a practical level, I won’t have type to time up the stories that I have already written and can be published. So they’ll have to wait until September. As I will also be away from work, I will not have my 40-minute metro trips as writing time. I will be taking my notebooks with me, but can make no promises.

I will also take stock on the first stories, the 10 already published here, and the 3 now waiting in my notebook. On an organisational front, I need to have them typed up in advance. I was ill [again, not a cold, teeth problems] last weekend and totally zombified. I had to catch up during the week. That shouldn’t happen. On a story-telling front, there are a couple that I like, but I feel that too many are becoming campfire stories [like ‘the little girl with a wooden LEG!’] like Perfect Teeth, just a lead in and a twist at the end. I need to stretch and try out more. That will obviously mean failing, that is inevitable, but I’d like to fail more ambitiously if you follow. Then there is the fact that the current story is my longest so far, and needs editing down, and this week’s one — that I have still to type — could perhaps use a different verb tense for greater effect… Perhaps I overlooked my capacities and capabilities by aiming for one a week.

All this too will be part of the August break.

So anyway.

Thank you for being with me up to here. I hope you’re still enjoying the ride. And see you in September.

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 2.0 France License.

Last edited: Thursday, August 27th, 2009

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Welcome to my adventures in writing scary [well, I hope] YA fiction. More complete info here.

Photo: Photo Booth by Apple

If you are a publisher or agent for YA fiction, & would like me to send on a ms, please, please ask.


You can always buy me something from my Amazon Wish List [France] or Amazon Wish List [UK]

Update : It’s not possible for a wishlist to be 'multi-national'. So I have duplicated the French one for the UK. I’ll get a US one up here sometime as well.

a full-length novel

black as snow Juliet has just moved to the country. She doesn’t like her new school, she doesn’t like living on a stinking farm where it always rains. Then she starts seeing a pony, waiting outside at night in the rain. And she’s sure it’s waiting for her...

Before she knows it, she is called on for help by a trio of strange creatures who live in the woods nearby. And then the rabbits... Oh yes, the rabbits.

Fantasy, comedy, and more than a touch of spookiness in this strange tale where things quickly get Black as Snow.

Download Black as Snow
as a PDF file. 12+


If you do adapt one of my stories, please let me know so that I can link to you from here. I am particularly interested in images — photos, illustrations... — inspired by the stories, as I would like to add these to the pages and downloadable PDF files. I am also interested in audio files, podcasts &c., as well as translations, especially to French.


All the stories in this Free Reads section are available to read online, download, & use for free under a Creative Commons BY-NC-SA licence.

If you want more information on what you can do with these stories you can read the full licence here, or you can probably find your answers on the FAQ page.