The Last Way Out
It had started in Poland. No one had paid too much attention at first, grimacing uneasily at the news, then scrolling on to less dire events. Perhaps it was better that way. Kinder, even.
Patient 0 was a homeless man in Warsaw. Uninteresting in every other respect. The usual story: alcoholic parents, drug addiction from an early age, sleeping rough by the airport. The story of thousands. He could have died in the street, undiagnosed and written off as an overdose if everything had gone to plan. But fate had other plans. No amount of money can account for the decisions of the Gods.
The symptoms weren’t the ones the virus was constructed to carry. It was supposed to be quick, incurable, discreet. A sudden fatigue. Flu symptoms. Organ failure. A coroner’s report. But that hadn’t happened when Virus N09 was given to Patient 0. He’d drunk up the offer of vodka gladly, passing out under the luggage trolleys in the car park, waking at 2.34am. It should have killed him inconspicuously overnight, leaving him to be found by the security staff at 4.25am.
In reality, the WHO was muttering nervously behind closed doors by then. Patient 0 had been found on security cameras screaming in pain, writhing on the floor. It had only been four hours since infection. His muscles were contorting, welt like lesions forming rapidly over his clavicle and neck. Only minutes before, he’d been drunkenly wandering the station, singing to himself. This was very patently not a drug overdose.
The staff had rushed him to hospital. The virus transmitted much faster than predicted. The lab had tested it on rats and then capuchins, and both test transmissions took 72 hours. Only two hours after Patient 0 was signed in at the city hospital, Patients 1 and 2, a security warden and an air hostess, were also exhibiting symptoms of N09.
The area was quarantined. For a while, there was anxiety from the world press, but a week later, the disease seemed to have been contained. The panic subsided. The three victims died suddenly in almost unison a week later, on Friday the 9th of November, 11.20pm, 11.29pm and 11.38pm. The hospital reassured the public that it seemed to have been a freak occurrence, and that after a post mortem, the bodies would be disposed of according to anti-epidemic regulations.
N09 was called Warsaw Flu by the press, although the Polish government had complained about the virus panic affecting tourism in peak season. Secretly, the publicity of the disease had also angered the creators.
The virus had travelled undetected to Minsk by that point, probably transmitted from a handrail on the airport escalator. A week later, Patient 3 died with his wife and two children in a luxury flat in the town centre. It went unreported for four days, until someone complained about the children not attending school. It had only taken two hours to kill them.
From then on, the virus ravaged the city, evading any quarantine or barrier. Humans are like any other pack creature, fleeing unthinking away from the group, only to carry the illness with them. It was moving too fast now, too suddenly revealing symptoms far too late. The health authorities flailed to shut borders, ground flights and cut shipping. But the rich hated that, grounding their profits along with the trade routes, and delayed the process.
From the Ukraine to Turkey, then Germany, France and Sweden. The numbers swelled from 40 to 3,200 in a matter of days. All of Europe shut down, the virus at last arriving in London by the first week of December. It was brought by a salesman who insisted on leaving France in his yacht for Britain, despite the legal repercussions.
London shut down, the city falling into panic. The schools, companies and communal spaces shut down, yellow tape sealing off street after street. The poorest died first, most exposed to the sweat and saliva of others on tubes, buses and coffee cups. But that had always been the plan.
When the city numbers hit the four thousand mark, Sergei had simply picked up his briefcase and walked to the basement door. His wife and children would be there waiting for him, and their servants. He called the head scientist, Lewis, and briefly explained his departure: a week earlier than they had planned. Still, the results were as planned. Lewis said little in return. Perhaps he knew, deep down, that he wasn’t on the list of those to be saved. Or perhaps having seen the effects of the project himself, he was suffering from a pang of humanity.
His wife’s thin face was sketched with the same uneasy silence. She sat dressed in blue silk by the two sleeping boys, her gloved hands folded in her lap. The passageway from his Kensington home to the underground channel was dimly lit, shrouding her in a yellow light. Corpse like. From here, a chauffeur would drive them to the safe house to wait out the virus. A simple vaccine was not an option. The disease had been designed to evade such measures with a mutation rate. They’d be safe away from the plebeian swarms that coughed and retched up their lungs over each poured glass or swept floor.
No, in a month or two, 30% of Europe would be dead, and the weakened virus form would be released in the capitals, numbing the symptoms. Someone had to play God, Sergei had reasoned, in a world where the devil was too kind. Too many children were born, too many medicines to keep the elderly and infirm on this planet. A cull was necessary. He considered his actions to be nothing more than a restructuring, a downsize on the population. Sustainable figures equalled a better chance at his descendent’s survival.
He settled back in the BMW, closing his eyes. The safe house was well stocked, air sealed, all the staff in quarantine since before the virus was released. Even the precaution of a tunnel out of London had been made to avoid any need to stop for petrol or the possible collection of viral particles. The boys would complain about not being able to play outside, of course, but what could be done. They drove on through the night, until the car joined a rural road up on the moors. The house stood miles from anywhere, surrounded with a high wire fence.
Sergei opened the door himself, impatient to get inside. His wife didn’t move.
“Ella, wake up.” He said impatiently, turning his face back to the passenger seat. His wife was still, frozen in the moonlight. “Bloody hell Ella, get out.”
She didn’t move her gaze, slowly raising her hands from the blonde little head in her lap.
There was a welt like mark on the boy’s neck.