Fiction, Short Story

Modern Fears

The following is another short story that I’ve written as part of the ongoing ‘Write with Chris and Millie’ writing prompt exercise. The purpose of the exercise is to give us both a chance to practise writing prompts and stories. The original prompt phrase or sentence is highlighted in bold.

This week we’re all putting down our smartphones…

***

yucel-522589-unsplash.jpg

Photo by Yucel on Unsplash

And so, rather than acknowledge his terrible circumstances, he decided to do some dusting. Yes, thought Seth, he’d been so busy at work these past few weeks that he’d let his living room get into a terrible state.There was dust everywhere. This was his number one priority, way more important than anything else. The rash on his arm – admittedly a common symptom of the virus he worked with at the Biotex company laboratory – well, that rash could have come from anywhere or anything. It definitely wasn’t the virus. He definitely wasn’t infected with a highly contagious virus. And this was absolutely not denial, the first of the five stages of grief.

Seth hummed loudly to himself as he dusted, trying to block out the thoughts bubbling in his head. But his eyes were repeatedly drawn to the rash and his mind kept darting back to the lab. He’d followed standard decontamination procedure hadn’t he? He’d removed all his lab clothing, he’d not washed his hands because the highly complicated automated soap dispenser had scared him, and then he’d gone through the airlock-

Seth’s thoughts jerked back suddenly. He hadn’t washed his hands because the automatic soap dispenser had scared him. Seth dropped the duster, eyes wide. He couldn’t lie to himself any longer, he was in serious trouble and had to take action.

Seth reached for the smartphone in his pocket. He had to call the lab and let them know. But he couldn’t quite bring himself to put his hand into his pocket and actually touch his phone. Seth took a deep breath and slowly slid his fingers in. His palms were clammy and his heart was hammering. The instant one of his fingers touched the phone he whipped his hand away again. It was no good, he couldn’t do it, which was kind of the point, he reminded himself. If only he’d kept the landline!

Seth turned and looked at the television and suddenly felt extremely nauseous. The effects of the virus must be more advanced than he’d realised. There was only one hope left, the emergency notification equipment that every worker at the lab had been issued with. It was in his attic, under the skylight. He just had to get to it.

Seth staggered out of the living room, giving the television a wide berth, and dragged himself up the stairs. Intense fear gripped him and the nausea didn’t abate. The virus itself wasn’t fatal, that had never been the intent. The potential side effects though…

Standing at the top of the stairs, Seth reached up for the cord that would open the attic hatch and bring the ladder down. The ladder. With its complex sliding mechanism and carefully crafted rungs… Again, Seth found himself frozen to the spot. He tried to reach up one final time, but the thought of the precision engineered sections of the ladder neatly sliding down and all slotting into place sent a wave of terror crashing over him. Seth fell to his knees, sobbing. It was too late, the emergency system would have to stay in the attic, there’s was no way he could reach it now. His only chances was to go downstairs and get outside…go downstairs using the mass produced stairs and exit through the front door, with its double glazing and Yale locking mechanism… Seth lay down on the landing, circled into a ball and wept helpless tears into the wooden floor.

***

Dr Nicolas Bryant walked into the Biotex board room and sat down in the only vacant chair, feeling somewhat small against its large leather back. Ten pairs of eyes burned into him, and he didn’t need to meet their gazes to know that there wasn’t a single friendly smile waiting for him. He sat in silence, awaiting the judgement of the Executive Board.

Rex Astor, the CEO of Biotex, dropped a file on the table. The thud of the interim report echoed loudly in the silent board room. Dr Dr Bryant flinched, despite himself.

“Jesus, Nick,” sighed Rex, “one employee dead and a full HSE investigation in progress. What a damned mess! I don’t even know where to begin…”

Dr Bryant pushed his glasses back up to the top of his nose, but remained silent. He hadn’t been asked a question, and he didn’t know how to answer that statement.

“Do you have anything to say about any of this?” asked Rex, guestering towards the report file.

“I’m just as distraught as the rest of you that Seth passed away,” replied Dr Bryant carefully, “I knew him socially outside the lab. He’ll be keenly missed. But I don’t feel that the fault lies with any of my control systems. Seth apparently chose not to use automatic soap dispenser on leaving the lab. I can’t be held accountable for that.”

There was some muttering and tutting from the board members. Rex Astor raised an eyebrow.

“Seth made that decision after being exposed to your engineered virus,” said Rex, leaning forward, “and you don’t feel accountable?”

“As I’ve said, safety controls were in-” began Dr Bryant, but Rex interrupted him.

“Initial reports indicate that Seth had been dead for about a week when he was found,” said Rex, reading from the file in front of him, “thank God that the virus needs a living host, otherwise the police who broke into his home and discovered his body could have easily become infected and spread the outbreak further. As far as we can tell, the artificially induced technophobia in the virus became so severe that Seth couldn’t bring himself to use devices as complicated as taps to rehydrate himself or even the ladder to access the company-owned emergency homing pigeon that lived under the skylight in his attic.”

Rex Astor finally looked up from the report, and locked eyes with Dr Bryant.

“This engineered virus was only supposed to cure smartphone addiction, Dr Bryant. Induce a mild revulsion in prolonged contact with advanced technology. It certainly wasn’t supposed to be make people terrified of taps, ladders and bloody soap dispensers! And it most definitely wasn’t supposed to induce a fatal paralytic fear!”

“Admittedly, this initial strain has exceeded our expectations,” replied Dr Bryant slowly, shifting uncomfortably in the chair and absent mindedly scratching at his forearm, “but that doesn’t mean it is not recoverable. Might I take this opportunity to remind everyone that you personally approved this project, Mr Astor?”

“That’s true,” said Rex Astor, holding up a hand, “but I had your assurances that the highest safety standards would be adhered to. As you haven’t upheld your end of the bargain, I will no longer be upholding mine. We’ll wait until the conclusion of the investigation and pray that Biotex isn’t fined out of existence. But regardless of the outcome, this project is terminated.”

Dr Bryant sighed quietly to himself. He was disappointed that all his work would be wasted, but he knew this would be the outcome before he walked in here.

“That is of course the board’s prerogative,” said Dr Bryant, nervously scratching at his arm.

“I don’t want any trace of this project to remain,” continued Rex Astor, “we’ll get a full decontamination team, autoclave all your samples, shred the files and disinfect every square inch of that laboratory.”

Dr Bryant pictured the decontamination team walking through his lab with their high-tech rebreathers and disinfectant kits and shuddered involuntarily.

“I don’t know, Mr Astor,” said Dr Bryant, breaking out in a light sweat as he scratched at his arm again, “that all sounds a bit too technical. Can’t we just throw some buckets of hot water up the walls or something?”