‘I know. I’m watching it happen.’ The Prime Minister nodded to the large television on the wall of his private office, a grim look on his face. On the screen, CNN was showing grainy footage from a security camera on what seemed like a permanent loop. ‘I don’t think they’re going to be able to contain it. If this thing can bring down Miami, imagine what would happen if it reached London.’
The General turned to the TV. On it, hundreds of people were surging through downtown Miami, attacking anyone they could catch. The footage froze for a second and then the mob stormed down the street again. After watching it a third time, he turned back to the Prime Minister. ‘The Americans, they’re sure all this is down to this new virus?’
‘They’ve not made it public yet, but they’re 100 per cent on it.’ The Prime Minister puffed himself up. ‘I heard it from the President himself.’
‘And there’s no cure?’
The Prime Minister rose and walked over to the General. ‘No.’
A thin layer of perspiration started to form on the General’s forehead. ‘There’s no vaccine?’
‘I’ve got people looking into it, but it doesn’t seem like there’s anything viable.’ The Prime Minister strode back to his desk. ‘And even if there was, people probably wouldn’t take it: they’d be too scared of what it might do to them. You’ve got to remember … it was a vaccine that caused the virus to mutate in the first place.’ With a sigh, he slumped into his chair. ‘Anyway, it’s all academic. At the rate it’s now spreading, there isn’t enough time, even if there was something promising we could work on.’
General McDonald moved over to the window and leant on the sill, gazing at the people walking along the street several storeys below. ‘In that case, we need to start thinking about ourselves. We need to close the borders; we need to do all we can to make sure the virus doesn’t get in.’ The General turned back to face the room. ‘And we need to do it now.’
The Prime Minister sat silently for a full minute, hands together in front of his face, the tips of his index fingers touching his lips, before he spoke again. ‘You’re right, it’s our only choice. How long will it take?’
The General glanced at his watch. ‘It can be done within the hour.’
‘Right,’ the Prime Minister placed his hands on his desk and levered himself to his feet, ‘I’d better make an announcement before everyone starts to panic.’
He was halfway to the door when the General cleared his throat. The Prime Minister froze as General McDonald started to speak again. ‘There’s something else we need to discuss …’
The Prime Minister turned, the anger clear on his face. ‘You really think this is the time to be discussing anything else?’
‘Yes.’ The General stiffened. ‘We need to decide what to do if the virus gets in.’
The Prime Minister took a pace towards the General and bellowed, ‘But you said closing the borders would stop that from happening!’
General McDonald had to stop himself taking an involuntary step backwards. ‘No, sir, I said it’d minimise the risk. There’s a big difference between the two.’
The Prime Minister remained where he was, his face contorted by fury and confusion as he tried to work out how best to respond. After a few seconds he gave up and walked back to his seat. When he spoke again, it was in a resigned tone. ‘So what are the options?’
The General swallowed nervously. This was the moment he’d been dreading. He knew what they’d have to do, but he wasn’t sure he could convince the Prime Minister to agree to it. ‘There’s only one viable option, sir.’
‘If there’s only one bloody option,’ anger rose in the Prime Minister’s voice again, ‘why do we need to discuss it?’
General McDonald did his best to sound self-assured, but inside his stomach was churning. ‘Because of what it would mean we’d need to do.’
‘And what would that be?’ The Prime Minister spat the words out.
‘If we get an outbreak …’ The General’s eyes flicked subconsciously from the Prime Minister to the television and back again. ‘If we get an outbreak, we’ll need to seal the area off. We let no one in.’ He locked eyes with the Prime Minister. ‘And no one out.’
‘No one?’ The Prime Minister sounded incredulous.
‘Absolutely no one.’ There was a steeliness to the General’s voice now. ‘No matter what.’
The Prime Minister closed his eyes momentarily, almost as if he was readying himself for the answer he knew was coming before he even asked his next question. ‘People aren’t just going to sit there quietly while something like that,’ he jabbed a finger towards the TV, ‘happens. They’re going to try to get out. What will you do then?’
The General leant on the desk, bringing his face close the Prime Minister’s. ‘We treat them as unfriendlies, sir’
‘What on earth does that mean?’ The Prime Minister shot back.
The General could feel the warmth of the Prime Minister’s breath on his face. All the nervousness he’d felt about raising his plan with the Prime Minister was now gone, replaced by something closer to confidence. He looked the Prime Minister in the eye once more. ‘We take them out.’
The Prime Minister pulled back in disgust. ‘You’re talking about killing people? British citizens on British streets?’
‘Yes.’ The General straightened up. ‘It’s the only way to contain something like this.’
‘Bloody hell!’ The Prime Minister put his head in his hands and rubbed his eyes. This wasn’t why he’d gone into politics. He might have expected to send troops to keep the peace in a far-off tropical jungle, or to keep the right people in charge of a strategically important scrap of desert, or maybe even the illegal detention of some would-be terrorist or other, but never this.
He thought about it for five minutes, wrestling with all the possible outcomes, knowing that if he made the wrong decision it would dog him for the rest of his career. If he agreed to the General’s plan and it turned out things weren’t as bad as they seemed right now, then he’d always be the Prime Minister who’d ordered the shooting of British citizens. Even if it didn’t actually happen, it would still get out that he’d given it the green light and his career would be over. Yet, if he vetoed the General’s plan, and things went wrong, he’d be responsible for everything that happened as a result, and his opponents would never let anyone forget it. Finally, he spoke. ‘Okay, get it set up. Do whatever you need to do.’
The Prime Minister got to his feet and strode towards the door once again. When he reached it, he turned and addressed the General one last time. ‘But it’s your head on the block if anything goes wrong.’
‘Bloody politicians!’ the General muttered under his breath, as he pulled out his mobile phone and selected a number. When it was picked up at the other end, he said only four words and hung up. He leant against the desk, staring at the TV screen, hoping against hope they’d never need to implement the order he’d just given.
‘Ladies and gentlemen, we’re starting our descent into Glasgow International Airport. If you’d like to fold your tables away and return your seats to the upright position, we should be on the ground in about twenty minutes.’
Michael did as he was told, but as he shifted in his seat, he could feel his shirt, soaked with sweat, sticking to his back. Despite the dryness of the air in the cabin, his skin felt clammy: he hoped he wasn’t getting ill, that this wasn’t the first sign of the infection. He glanced down at his arm. Even though he couldn’t see them, he could feel the scratches burning underneath the makeshift bandage. If the homeless man who’d attacked him had been infected, then he would be, too. Yet, there was a good chance that the man hadn’t even had the disease. After all, there were only a few pockets of infection here and there in the US, and the Government was managing to keep a lid on it, unlike the situation in Haiti or the other islands to which the disease had spread so far. Maybe the man who’d attacked him had just been drunk or high; there was no way to know for sure. He’d simply sprung out of nowhere and lunged at Michael as he’d tried to get into his car. Michael had managed to push him away and scramble behind the wheel, but the question lingered in his mind: why had the old man attacked him?
He pushed these thoughts from his mind because it didn’t matter; he’d be on the ground in a few minutes and then he could see about getting some treatment for whatever was going on. Michael glanced at his watch. It was just over twelve hours since the man had attacked him and if he was infected, he didn’t know how much longer he’d have before it was too late. Maybe there was someone at his work he could call who would know what to do: they’d created the disease after all, so they might know how to cure it, or at least stop it getting worse; that was if he even had it.
Michael had always known running a field trial so early in the development phase of the vaccine was risky, but they’d heard rumours that one of the major pharmaceutical companies was working on something similar. Even though they were a multinational business, they still couldn’t compete with big pharma. If they didn’t get their vaccine on to the market first, they’d be pushed out, meaning years of research, and more importantly, millions of dollars, would have been wasted. That’s why he’d given the go-ahead for the trial in Haiti, despite the inherent risks he knew it would bring.
No one could have foreseen this, though; that the vaccine would cause the rabies virus to mutate, to become more virulent, but less pathological. It no longer killed; it just drove people mad, made them violent: all they wanted to do was to attack others, kill them, tear them apart. It was the virus doing its best to ensure it was passed on; the virus was taking control of people, turning them into machines, to make as many copies of itself as possible and then infect others. It was no surprise — that’s what viruses had evolved to do — only their vaccine had somehow caused it to change. They’d thought the siRNA molecule they’d created would make the virus more susceptible to the immune system, allowing the body to fight it off on its own. Instead, it had made it stronger, almost indestructible. This hadn’t happened in the lab mice, or the monkeys, or the pigs; it had only happened when they’d tried it for real on humans. There was no way anyone could have predicted this, and by the time they’d realised what was going on it was too late: the mutation had happened and it had started to spread.
Michael lay on the bed in his hotel room, staring at the widescreen television, watching the disaster in Miami as it continued to unravel before him. For once, rolling news was living up to its billing: things were happening so fast that new reports really were needed every hour. No one was quite sure how it had happened, but somehow hundreds of people infected with the disease had suddenly appeared near the port. They’d rampaged through the city, attacking people; not killing them, just bringing each one down long enough to infect them before moving on to the next fleeing target. The infection had reached a tipping point and was now spreading like wildfire. The Governor had sent in the National Guard, but there was nothing they could do, not with so many people being infected so quickly. Michael knew diseases; he knew this disease: there was only one way this was going to go now and it wasn’t good.
Despite the air-conditioning in the room, Michael was still sweating heavily; the scratches on his arm still burned and his body was starting to ache. He tried to tell himself it was just a reaction to what he was seeing on the television, but deep down he knew it was the infection. The only question left now was what was he going to do about it? If he’d still been at home, he could simply have taken his gun and blown his brains out; messy, but quick. But he wasn’t, he was in Scotland. He’d only ended up in Glasgow because it was the first flight out of the US he’d found when he arrived at the airport the previous afternoon. He was hoping for somewhere more exotic, but he figured Glasgow would be a start. He knew people would come looking for him as soon as anyone outside of the company found out he’d been the one to ignore the risks and give the okay for the trial. He knew he had to get out of the country before that happened. By the looks of things, it was just as well he did or he’d have still been in Miami, watching all that was happening there in person, rather than on TV from half a world away.
As he was leaving Glasgow airport, Michael had passed a convoy of armoured vehicles heading towards it. He’d heard on the cab driver’s radio that Britain was closing its borders and sealing itself off in the hope of stopping the disease getting in. Now, in the safety of his hotel room, he wondered how many other countries would follow suit. He laughed grimly to himself: little did they know it was already too late; the virus was already here; he could feel it coursing through his veins. It had been almost eighteen hours since he’d been infected and Michael knew he didn’t have much time left. He knew he had to kill himself before he turned and infected anyone else. That way, at least he’d do some good.
He thought about how he could do it. He didn’t want to cut himself; that would be too difficult. Hanging was off the cards; there was nowhere in the hotel room he could suspend himself from. He went over to the window and considered jumping, but he was only two storeys up and that wasn’t high enough. Then it dawned on him: an overdose. Quick, painless and it would be easy enough to get hold of the drugs to do it. He could leave a note saying he was infected, warning people to dispose of his body properly. That would work. All he had to do now was to go out and purchase the painkillers, and hope that he had enough time to return to his room before the disease finally overwhelmed him.
The mounted policeman nudged his partner and pointed down Argyle Street. ‘Effin’ drunks,’ he looked at his watch. ‘Just gone midday an’ he’s aff his heed already.’
‘He’s better dressed than your average Jakie, though,’ his partner replied.
‘Bein’ rich don’t stop you bein’ an alkie, does it?’ He watched the man stagger a few yards further and then collapse. A knot of people quickly gathered round to gawk. ‘I suppose that’s the cue for one of us to get involved.’
Rock, paper, scissors had been their way of deciding who got to do any unpalatable tasks ever since they’d first been teamed up. ‘Yep.’
‘On the count of three.’ They held out their fists. ‘One, two … three.’
‘Bugger! That’s the fifth time in a row you’ve won. How the feckin’ hell are you doin’ that?’ Still grumbling about his run of bad luck, the policeman slipped from his horse and gave the reins to his partner. He spoke into his radio, calling for an ambulance as he walked towards the small crowd. When he got there, he knelt down beside the man; he was unconscious, but still breathing … just. The policeman put a hand on the man’s neck: his skin was red-hot and his pulse was racing. Then the policeman noticed something unexpected: there was no smell of booze. Usually drunks reeked of the stuff, especially when they’d had enough to pass out. As he stood up, a thought flashed through his head: maybe the man was sick rather than drunk. It couldn’t be the disease the Prime Minister had talked about on the news that morning, the one from Miami, could it? He hesitated for a moment and then reached for his radio again; better to be safe than sorry.
Suddenly, the man’s eyes snapped opened. His breathing was now slow and steady: something had changed. The man sprang to his feet and lunged at the policeman, clawing at his face and throat, sinking his teeth deep into his neck. The policeman punched his attacker as hard as he could, sending him staggering backwards into the surrounding onlookers. A woman screamed as she jumped out of the way and the man seemed to notice the bystanders for the first time. He leapt onto the nearest one, pushing her to the ground and biting savagely at her face. In an instant, there was pandemonium, with people tripping over each other as they tried to scatter. Distracted by all the movement, he broke off his assault on the woman and went for a middle-aged man who’d fallen and was now scrabbling to get back to his feet. He was only on him for a moment, just long enough to bite and infect him, before he went for another, then another, bringing each one down before moving on to the next.
In all the confusion, nobody noticed the injured policeman slump to the ground, his wounds searing with pain as the infection took hold. Suddenly, he was burning up, his heart was pounding, his breathing growing shallow. He tried to work his radio, to get a warning out, but he was losing coordination in his fingers; his eyes drifted out of focus and slowly his world faded to black.
‘Sierra six-one to base. Sierra six-one to base. Man down, I repeat, man down. We need backup. We’re on Argyle Street. There’s a man, he’s gone berserk; he’s attacking everyone.’
The voice on the radio crackled with a mix of panic and confusion, and it was clear to all who were listening that something serious was happening. ‘Scott’s down. He’s been injured. I think he’s unconscious. Hang on, no it looks like he’s okay. He’s getting back up.’
The voice sounded relieved, but only for a moment. ‘Shit! He just bit a woman … Now there are more of them. People are just attacking each other.’
Fear replaced panic in the voice. ‘It’s just like on the news; it’s like what happened in Miami!’
Those listening heard the transmission key being released, only to be pressed again a fraction of a second later. ‘I’m getting the fuck out of here!’
Part two of this free preview will be posted tomorrow (19th July 2014). If you wish to download a PDF of all three parts to this free preview, you can download it from here.
***The Outbreak by Colin M. Drysdale will go on sale on the 21st of July 2014 in both paperback and Kindle eBook formats. To purchase, click here.***