“Can you help us or not?” I said, stepping back. Her feet stayed put as she leant forward, her unblinking eyes fixed with an intensity that made me want to turn and run the other way. I didn’t run, didn’t turn away, instead took a step forward and spoke again. “I need to speak to someone in charge, or we’re leaving.”
“That’s me,” the woman said, the wrinkles on her facing relaxing. Her stare dissipated as she took a step back, her hand pushing out, lips curling a forced smile. “I’m Doctor Lytham. I apologise for our introduction. I’m sure you can understand we’re still finding our feet here.”
I squinted towards her, but Cassie seemed to shake her head.
“What is this place? Why weren’t you evacuated?” I said.
A panicked scream raced across my nerves. Cassie’s eyes caught mine as our heads snapped around to the room I’d just left. The soldier standing at the door hadn’t flinched, was left unmoved as the sound died, only then did he raise his eyebrows, asking the doctor a question without words. Turning back, her face hadn’t changed, her arm sweeping out to guide us down the white corridor. Her head gave the smallest of shakes, dismissing the guard’s unvoiced question. She turned and walked down the corridor, her heels clicking along the hard floor.
“What are they doing to him?” I said, my voice more urgent, but Cassie was already following. I hurried behind despite my instinct to get clear of this place, I would not leave her with this woman who reminded me so much of Cruella De Vil. Every few steps the antiseptic smell built, the taste coating my tongue as we walked passed door after door, each with a porthole window painted white. We rounded a corner to find it much the same, with two guards stood either side, their backs to us. As we passed to the click of her heels, I turned back to see neither of the soldiers would meet my gaze.
“Did you work at the hospital before?” I said as hurried to catch up. She turned smiling high with her cheeks, her head shaking.
“There wasn’t a great call for my specialism in this corner of Cornwall.”
“What specialism is that?” I asked, walking fast to stay alongside.
“Let’s call it tropical diseases,” she said, giving me the least reassuring smile.
“Is it or not?” I said. Looking across Cassie, I saw her worried expression, then turned to the doctor whose forced smile was back again, her eyebrows raised.
“I’m seconded to Public Health England. We’re trying to understand the outbreak.”
“And find an antidote, a cure?” I said, my voice rising with excitement.
“Is it a tropical disease?” Cassie butted in from her side.
“Yes,” she said in my direction and turned to Cassie, repeating the same.
“Have you found a cure?” I said. “Please, if you have we need your help.”
Approaching a double door on the right she stopped, pushing both open and holding them wide. A few steps inside a clear plastic sheet with a zipper in the middle separated us from two figures in white plastic suits covering them entirely. Around their waists were white belts, a holster each side. In the left holster was the yellow of a Taser, in the right a pistol. Beyond the guards was a long hospital ward, with ten beds on either side. In each bed lay a patient, reddening bandages on either their arms, legs or faces, with at least two protective white suits busying around them, changing bandages, drawing blood or pushing buttons on the bedside display, much like those on a A&E ward.
Watching in silence, we listened to the buzz of activity, broken only by the sudden shrill of an alarm. Our eyes were drawn to the raise of a white gloved hand, the suit stood at the middle right-hand bed. The two guards stepped from their post, each drawing their tasers. A suit hurried from the other side of the room holding a red liquid filled syringe.
“Now for your answers,” Doctor Lytham said, letting the doors swing closed. “We have promising lines of evaluation, but we haven’t found a cure.” After following a few steps down the corridor, she opened another door and ushered us into an office. Packing crates lines the walls, many were closed, but most were open, their contents spread across the two sturdy wooden desks in the centre of the room. “We’ve isolated the disease to a new species of the Ophiocordyceps genus,” she said as she offered the two empty seats on the nearest side of the desk. We sat as she took one of the two empty seats the other side. “I don’t know if that means anything to either of you,” she said, her cheeks bunched in expectation.
“Zombie ants,” I said.
She raised her eyebrows and slowly nodded.
“Ophiocordyceps Unilateralis,” she replied. “Could we use you?” she said tilting her head to the side. Cassie turned like I’d been keeping something from her, like we’d known each other for years and was only now finding out I had some hidden depth. It was getting harder to remember we’d known each other for less than a day.
“No,” I replied, shaking my head. “I watch a lot of documentaries.”
The doctor’s shoulders deflated.
“We’re calling it Ophiocordyceps Sapien, for obvious reasons.”
Cassie looked at me with a tiny shrug.
“Because it infects humans,” I replied then turned back to the doctor. “But how? Have the tabloids not been warning of this ever since David Attenborough filmed it?”
Her mouth raised into a smile.
“Even a stopped clock is right twice a day,” she said, her lips flattening.
“We don’t know how it started,” she said, and I turned my head to the side. “We’re examining as many victims as we can, but the fungus is so virulent our best chances are with those newly infected.”
“What have you found? Are you close?” I said, feeling my heart pounding in my chest.
“All we know so far is if we can stop the bleeding we can extend the time till the fungus takes control.”
“You can keep them alive longer? How much longer?”
“We don’t know yet.”
“But you can’t stop it altogether?”
“Not yet. We need more data, we need to know when anything unusual happens. Like if someone doesn’t die from a bite,” she said raising her eyebrows, letting the silence hang as she watched me turn to Cassie’s blank face. “That’s why I’m so very interested in what you said.”
“You’re trying to help?” Cassie replied, turning between me and Doctor Lytham.
There was a knock at the door and it swung wide before anyone could raise an objection. Standing in the doorway was the white coated man who’d examining me as we’d arrived, across his white coat was a diagonal splash of what looked like blood.
“Major, that’s a negative on B29,” he said, his breath panting. I looked to the man and saw the khaki shirt underneath, turned to the doctor and saw the same under hers. She spoke, her eyes locking onto Cassie.
“What else would we be doing?”
Scraping back my chair, I stood.
“Trying to clean up the mess you made?”
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Reading out of sequence? Why? Here’s Chapter One