This story is by Michael Bourdeau and was part of our 2020 Summer Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Joseph Calden trudged through the trash littering the floor of his basement laboratory. The tinkle of empty aluminum food cans ricocheting off each other reverberated through the open space, punctuating the droning air circulation fans that kept him alive. The overhead LED lights were dimmed to a level that kept him from going blind, but just. He continued–as he did every day–past the airlock, pausing to look through the porthole up the stairs. He could just make out the dim sign of light. It was daytime.
He continued into the living area, through more tuna cans and plastic wrappers, to the mirror. He watched as the disheveled man squinting back at him ran his fingers through his coarse beard. He flared his nostrils and sniffled twice before pinching his nose between thumb and first finger. Seemingly satisfied, the stranger moved on.
“Alexa, play newsreel…” Joseph reached for the date, “September 23, 2020.” The screen flickered into life.
“With me today is Doctor Joseph Calden,” the animated daytime anchor chirped. “He is the mastermind behind a brand new technology that promises to revolutionize the way we fight disease.” She turned from the camera to the man next to her, his eyes blazed with passion, “Doctor Calden, it’s a pleasure to have you here today. Can you please explain your new technology to everyone?”
“Absolutely Angela,” the man on the screen moved with vibrant energy, “We are using a new technology called CRISPR to design our own virus.”
“Can you explain what CRISPR is for everyone at home?”
“Absolutely. Put simply, CRISPR allows us to snip out a section from a strand of DNA and replace it with something new. We are currently editing a virus that–once introduced to the host–will assimilate the body’s current antibodies, calculate a generalized antibody form, and then supplements the host body’s immune system and begins attacking all viruses that fit that generalized form.” He paused, “Much like a master key, it fits many locks. Not just one.”
“That sounds a little scary,” Angela tittered.
“I know it sounds like something out of a horror movie Angela,” Joseph leaned towards the anchor, elbows on his knees, “but we’re working slowly. Going through all the proper channels. We won’t see human testing for at least five years.”
“”Well, that’s good to hear,” she laughed into the camera before turning back, “now why is this work so important?”
Joseph’s shoulders dropped and his eyes looked around as if he was searching for something, “Angela, every year thousands of people die of diseases that shouldn’t. Vaccines take too long to create. This thing we’re creating can destroy a brand new form of virus within 24 hours of introduction to the host body. If this works like I think it will, we’ll save millions of lives.”
‘Well then, I think I speak for everyone when I say, good luck.” Angela turned back to the camera, “Next we have…”
Joseph found his fingers caressing the faces on the screen. He wiped his cheeks dry and a creaky voice escaped him, “Alexa, off.”
“I’m sorry, I didn’t recogniz-”
“ALEXA OFF!” The monitor blinked off. Joseph moved to the food cupboard, slowly looking through the cans: chicken, tuna, chilli, peanut butter. His hand fell to a can of chicken. After twenty seconds of holding it he eventually picked it up, taking the can opener down from the shelf at the same time. Every turn of the screw took a little longer than the last. After it was finally open, he grabbed a handful: stared at it, contemplated it, scoured at it before throwing it back in the can and throwing the can against the wall.
He walked back into the lab. Brushing the broken glass that had been a beaker the night before off the table, he sat down and opened his notebook. He skimmed it out of habit even though he knew every word, every scribble, every note in every margin. What was he missing? There had to be something. The air circulators droned. His mind clamped around the sound like a steel trap. He found himself unable to focus; he needed a distraction.
“Alexa, uhh,” he was stuck, “phone call with Dr Brad Hauser. October. October…”
“October 16, 2020?” The flat robotic voice bounced around the room. Joseph cringed at the voice.
“Yes.” He heard a ringing phone answered by a familiar, non-robotic voice.
“Brad, I’m telling you. I’m seeing something in these numbers. Something is very wrong!”
“I’m sorry, Joseph. I’m just not seeing it.”
“Something’s wrong with the virus. It’s latency period is currently five days, surpassing the four days we expected.”
“I know Joseph, we’ve talked about this before. It’s simply a rounding error.”
“But what about these reports,” papers rustling, “that show that specimen 143 is attacking the host cells directly, instead of the disease cells.”
“Not statistically significant Joseph,” there was a pause, “You are working too hard. You’re seeing ghosts in the numbers. You need to take a break, recharge your batteries.”
There was a long pause and a sigh, “Maybe you’re right Brad. I just can’t shake the feeling that I’m missing something. Something simple, but important.”
Simple, but important.
He wondered where Brad was now. Was he still alive? Was he in another bunker working through the same trials he was? Had he died early enough to be buried in a mass grave? Or had he hung on long enough that there was no one left to bury him when the time came? Too bad he would never know; his long-range radio antenna had been damaged beyond repair three months previously.
To take his mind off Brad, Joseph went about his daily checklist.
Front door seals. Check.
Medical Hazmat suit. Check.
Solar Panel efficiency. 72%.
Battery. 64%. Good enough to supply him with electricity for three lifetimes at his current usage.
Air circulation fans. Damn droning air circulation fans that ran all day, every day, without rest.
Air circulation fans.
Simple, but important.
After completing his rounds he sat down in the well-worn chair in his library, a walk-in closet that had enough room for a chair and six books. Everything he needed he could access by computer; these six volumes had special meaning. He pulled down a medical glossary. “Alexa, The Planets. Gustav Holst.” Immediately the room was filled with the brass stabbings of Mars.
Joseph caressed the book in his lap. Slowly he opened the cover and examined the yellowing paper. He counted the eight stains, touching each one before going to the next. Finally he made his way to the blue ink. He followed each swooping t and every looping e.
Joseph, I see big things in your future. I’m so proud of you. Your mother would be too. -Dad
Joseph rubbed the faded ink with his finger. Soon a tear fell, creating a ninth stain. He slammed the book closed to protect it from any more destruction, put it back on the shelf, and left the library.
A thought tickled Joseph’s brain, “Alexa, Newsreel, whatever the last date is.”
“January 13, 2021?”
“Yes,” Joseph growled, “whatever the date is, just play it.”
“Day 27, covering the Crisped Flu that is still ravaging the world,” the tired man reading the news mumbled into the microphone, not daring to look the camera in the eye. “Even with lockdown measures in place, more people are still getting sick. Hospitals everywhere are overwhelmed. The CDC is asking that anyone who feels sick–particularly those with nose bleeds–to stay home and quarantine yourself from your loved ones. Do not leave your house for any reason. Experts estimate that currently 85% of the world’s population is infected, 35% still not showing any symptoms.
“Speaking of symptoms, this flu attacks the respiratory system. It usually begins with a simple bloody nose, soon your lungs fill with blood, you’ll feel like you’re breathing underwater. Lastly, you spike a fever of 105 degrees. Death comes about three days after the first sign of nosebleed.”
The monitor shattered. Shards of the beaker Joseph threw at it showered him, baptising him in glass. He stood there, lost in thought. The respiratory system. His eyes lit up.
He began brushing the shattered beaker from his sleeves when a sharp pain stopped him. He looked to his hand and the blood that was already bubbling up. He made his way to the bathroom to triage. After he had bandaged his hand he began to wipe the blood from his face. Realizing he missed a spot on his upper lip, he wiped again. He pinched his nose shut and cringed at the slow trickle that returned when he let it go.
He walked to the front door and turned off the airlock, the ventilators quickly spun down to silence. Actual silence. Joseph looked up the long staircase, “So simple. So important,” he shook his head and smiled as he stepped out of the lab and began to climb the stairs.