Alex woke early, as he always did, and climbed out of bed. Elaine, still sound asleep, was curled up in the corner of the bed with her hands over her head, as though trying to block her ears from some hideous noise. She had been very restless during the night and had cried out several times. Bad dreams – everyone had them. Often when her sleep had been disturbed, he would wake to find her in a foetal position, curled up into a tight ball.
Alex had not slept well himself. Visions of Cliff’s body sliding into the coal fire pit hadn’t helped. When sleep finally arrived, it was fitful and filled with images he would sooner forget. The work camp, desperate struggles at the shore of Cardiff, the death of Tina and the hand-to-hand fighting on the surface only a month ago. These nightmares had subsided in the last few weeks, now with Cliff’s death, they were back. Apart from Elaine, Cliff was the only person who had survived the recent battle against the military. He was the last link with those times.
They were housed in an apartment in the science sector of Genesis. Apparently, its occupants called the city Genesis because it would be the seed of a new beginning for the world once they had eradicated all the surface people. Clearly, things hadn’t gone to plan. Now everything was different. This city’s future and the survivors’ future were now intricately entwined.
Alex padded over to the bathroom and opened the wall cabinet. Inside was his electric razor, toothpaste and toothbrush. Three things he deeply treasured. He took out the electric razor and quickly ran it over a three-day growth. He still couldn’t get used to shaving on a regular basis. Elaine liked him clean shaven; still the sight of a clean-shaven chin after so many years of having a beard seemed odd. He squeezed out some toothpaste onto his toothbrush. After years of cleaning his teeth with his fingers and what soap he could find, his teeth had taken on a decidedly yellow appearance; but at least he still had some. Many survivors had lost teeth. With no real dentists’ facilities on the surface, painful or rotten teeth were just pulled out. Down here it was a different story. Like before the war, teeth were cherished and quickly nursed back to full health if something went wrong.
He brushed his teeth carefully, taking time to savour the taste of the toothpaste. It was heaven. Sometimes he would even swallow some just to savour the taste. When he finished, he peered into the mirror. He had barely looked into a mirror for nearly three years before he came here, and his image still shocked him. He was only 25, but his face told a different story. His grey eyes were surrounded by a face worn and beaten from extreme cold then blistering sun. There were permanent crow lines around his eyes and creases hanging from each eye that should not belong to one so young. His hair, once thick and bushy, now thinly framed his face.
In many ways, he realised, he was still in a state of disbelief about what had happened. Still alive when so many others were not. His only goal for so long had been survival, then he had become consumed by hatred for what the military had done to the survivors. Their destruction was all that mattered – justice in a world without justice. It had driven him to kill, to slaughter. Everything that he endured he used to focus on that one final act of revenge which he fully expected to take his life. But it hadn’t. The battle had swept everyone away but Elaine and himself. Now he had to reset and find a new goal. The world had suddenly changed again. He knew he had to adjust; his greatest fear was that he couldn’t.
Elaine stirred and rolled over in bed.
Alex watched her for a moment, taking in the lines of her body. The food at Genesis had put flesh on her bones again. Her tall frame was quickly filling out into more womanly proportions. Her hair had also regained some of its lustre, due largely to the use of hair conditioners and shampoo. Like him, her skin bore the ravages of the sun, but as she regained her health some of the softness had returned to her features.
‘How did you sleep?’ he asked when her eyes opened.
‘Hmm...’ She paused thoughtfully. ‘Strange dreams...’
‘You called out a few times in the night.’
‘Uh...what did I say?’
Alex shrugged. ‘The usual stuff. Mainly just groans and cries.’
‘The usual,’ she agreed, brushing away some hair from her eyes.
Most of Elaine’s nightmares seemed to revolve around her mother’s death from a rat plague and her own torture at the hands of the military. And his...well, they were many and varied because he had such a rich tapestry of horrors to choose from. His worst dreams revolved around the deaths of people he loved – his brother Jason, Ron and Tina… But the most vivid were about Tina’s death. Watching the life seep out of her with no-one there to help and nothing he could do. Sometimes, in his dreams, she would even survive the flu. Her temperature would break, and she would wake up weak and pale but alive with a big beaming smile. He would always wake up then. Those were the hardest nightmares. Ones that offered hope when there was none.
‘Peter McCaffrey has called a committee meeting which will start in about half an hour,’ Alex said, climbing into his clothes.
Elaine rolled onto her side. ‘What’s it about?’
‘Hmm...not sure, but the full committee is meeting so it must be important. I’ll get some breakfast on the way.’
‘I’ll probably be at work when you get back,’ Elaine replied, watching Alex dress.
Elaine had just started work in the hospital as a nursing assistant. Her dream job. Although she had worked in a pathology lab before the holocaust, she was also enrolled in a part-time nursing degree. The opportunity to continue her nursing had been too good to pass up. Although the first day had been traumatic, there was a light in her eyes that night that Alex hadn’t seen before. She chatted continuously about the things she had learned and the people she had met. After all the cruelty, slaughter and terrible things she had experienced, she only wanted to heal the sick. He admired her for that. To survive in this world, most people built a wall between themselves and the atrocities they witnessed. They became numb to it all, focussing only on their own survival. Not Elaine. When she saw pain or suffering, she wanted to heal it; she had seen the worst of human behaviour and chose not to build a shell of indifference against it. Something that Alex found impossible; the horrors he had witnessed had eaten deep into his soul and dissolved much of his humanity. His anger at the world always simmered just below the surface.
But nothing seemed to affect Elaine. She understood and accepted the things people did to each other and still loved them. She was his compass that reorientated him when his world became too terrible to bear. And he loved her for it.
‘I’ll drop down and visit you when the meeting is over,’ he said with a smile.
‘That will be nice. I can give you a tour. They have some amazing equipment down there. Then we can catch a movie.’
Alex laughed at this. There were two things above all else the survivors loved about this city. Flushing toilets and movies. Every second night in a large auditorium in the shopping precinct they showed classic movies on the big screen. This venue had quickly been packed out. So much so that the city people had stopped coming, preferring their computer screens and TVs to associating with the surface people and their rough and ready ways. ‘What’s on tonight?’ he asked.
‘The last of the Star War movies.’ Elaine replied with a grin.
‘Ah...definitely worth seeing.’
Alex gave her a quick kiss then headed off to the canteen for breakfast. Their quarters were not far from Dr Crean’s place. He took the lift down three floors and exited to the delightful smell of food wafting along the corridor. He followed the smell until he came to a large hall filled with tables and chairs. Along one side was a glass-encased serving area filled with steaming trays of food. Alex took a plastic tray from a rack and surveyed the assortment of food. There were fresh eggs, chips, fried tomatoes, mushrooms and hamburgers. The hamburgers were made from cultured meat but tasted exactly like the real thing. The place was indistinguishable from any canteen in any city before the war. He still felt that he was living in a dream and that he would soon wake up where he belonged; in a waste land under a blazing blood-red sun.
He filled his plate with a sample of everything and moved down the line to a woman serving hot tea and coffee.
‘Good morning,’ she said brightly when he approached. ‘What would you like?’
Alex took a moment to observe her. He judged she was in her late twenties with a plump fleshy face and glossy sandy-coloured hair, neatly pinned back in a short ponytail. Although her lips curled up in a smile the rest of her face remained frozen, like a porcelain doll. He wondered what she was really thinking behind that frozen smile. ‘Dirty mutant’, maybe, or was there a hint of pity in those grey eyes?...
‘What sort of teas do you have?’ he asked.
‘Well, there’s various mixtures of herbs, usually infused with lemon.’
‘In the Welsh community, we had our own tea that was very popular. Unfortunately, I don’t think the recipe made it down here.’
At the mention of the Welsh community a flicker of sadness crossed her features and she turned her face away.
Alex waited, feeling increasingly awkward as it was becoming obvious that she was on the verge of tears.
‘It’s alright, Jess, I’ll take over.’ A large woman with greying hair, again pinned back behind her head, moved across to take her place. ‘You must forgive my colleague,’ she said in a formal tone. ‘She recently lost both her parents.’
Alex studied her for a moment. She was not angry; he detected no trace of resentment in her eyes, just sadness.
‘I understand,’ he said. ‘We also lost many good people.’
His words hung in the air between them like an invisible wall. She clearly did not want to talk about an event which had taken thousands of the city’s lives. Alex wondered what she would have said if she had known that he was the cause of most of the deaths. ‘I’ll just have some lemon and ginger tea.’
She poured the tea in silence without making eye contact and put the cup and saucer on his tray. Alex wanted to say something reassuring, like ‘the future will be much better’ or ‘with time the wounds will heal,’ but realised reciting clichés would only make matters worse. There was a terrible, impassable gulf between the city and the surface people that only time would heal.
He muttered a ‘thank you’, then moved off to eat his breakfast.
The meeting was to be held in a small conference room adjacent to the central dome of the city. Fortunately, this area had been left virtually untouched by the invading surface people. On one side of the room there was a large glass panel that overlooked a beautiful subterranean forest and parkland that was infused by natural light from the diamond-shaped roof. The sight of such lush growth, and the smell of the trees and plants never failed to lift his spirits. Still clutching a carton of orange juice, Alex stood in front of the panel admiring the view while he waited for the rest of the committee members to arrive.
As it turned out, the underground city had had a similar governing structure to the Welsh community. There were ten board members – six were military, and the other four represented the scientists and food production, although these positions had little voting power and served only in an advisory capacity. The newly formed committee had adopted a similar structure; five members were from the surface and five from the city. In the case of a voting deadlock the chairman, who was from the surface, had the casting vote. The committee had been meeting every second day since it had been formed two weeks earlier. Alex, who had found the city and been instrumental in planning and carrying out the attack, had been one of its first members. This was a position he was still uncomfortable with as he hated politics; and politics among two groups of people who hated each other was almost unbearable.
Alex turned to see a short, balding man in his mid-forties smiling broadly at him as he walked over. Alex returned his smile, noting that his face had filled out in the last few weeks, and the shadows under his eyes had retreated. Dr Martin Crean and his wife Debbie had tried to help Elaine and himself over two months ago when they were hiding from the military. They had both been thrown in prison for their troubles and were facing a death sentence when they were found in a cell in the military sector of Genesis after the attack. Alex had been delighted to find they were both alive. Given the ruthless nature of the military, he suspected that they would have already disappeared – like so many other civilians – if they asked too many questions. The editor of the Chronicle paper and his assistant, who were also trying to help, had not been so lucky.
‘How are you settling in?’ Martin asked, reaching out to shake his hand.
‘Good, but the place certainly takes some adjustment. Still hard to believe I’m here.’
Martin nodded with genuine warmth in his eyes. ‘And Elaine?’
‘She’s really happy, loves working at the hospital.’
‘Glad to hear that. We need all the help we can get.’ He paused, making eye contact. ‘I was very sorry to hear about your friend Cliff.’
At the mention of Cliff, Alex felt a wave of sorrow. ‘He was a good friend’ was all he could come up with.
Martin seemed to sense Alex’s emotions and put his hand on his shoulder. ‘You must come for dinner soon. There’s a lot we need to discuss.’
Alex smiled at this invitation. It was hard to believe that only two months earlier he had seriously contemplated killing him. But circumstances were vastly different then. ‘Yes, we would be delighted,’ he said warmly.
‘Good, I will arrange it with Debbie, and you can fill us in on everything that’s happened.’
The other committee members began drifting in, nodding politely to each other as they took their places around a polished cedar table. Over the last few weeks Alex had come to know them all. A mixed bunch, he thought grimly. Representing the surface there was himself, and Arthur Fennel and James Rawling, who had served on the Welsh community committee; and Peter McCaffrey and Alison Weaver, who were from the Scottish community. Three men and two women represented the city. Neither side trusted each other. That was obvious from the many tirades he had witnessed since the committee had formed. The resentment and hatred ran deep. Four of the five city members were scientists, representing the disciplines of computing, medicine, science and agriculture. The fifth member was one of the few military commanders who had survived the attack and not been thrown in jail, or worse. His name was Garrett Minster, a thick-set man with a square face and short cropped hair. Alex had yet to see him wear anything more than a grimace. Apparently smiles or pleasantries were beyond his social range. His men called him Bulldog. An apt name, as it turned out, as once an idea lodged in his head it was impossible to remove. As a section commander, he had refused to fight the invading surface people and surrendered a small arms stockpile. He was also instrumental in convincing many soldiers to lay down their arms rather than continue a bloody fight in the tunnels, saving many lives on both sides in the process. For that, he was automatically promoted to the committee, and his knowledge of the city and the military had proven invaluable.
Peter McCaffrey, the only survivor of the three-man junta that ruled the Scottish community, arrived with Alison and smiled warmly at Alex. Peter had been the first of the Scottish leaders Alex had met when he made contact with the Scottish community; he was the most likeable and optimistic of the three. A trait, Alex thought grimly, would be put to the test in the coming months as he had been elected chairman and faced the unenviable task of negotiating a peace between the surface and city people.
Alex and Martin sat down in the middle of the oval-shaped table with the Scottish and Welsh community members on their right and the city members on their left – their usual battle positions.
‘Good morning, everyone,’ Peter said with a quick smile, remaining standing once everyone was seated. ‘Sorry to drag you all in here for an unscheduled meeting. I know you are all very busy men and women, but something urgent has come up that needs our immediate attention.’
There was a sombre note to Peter’s words that immediately caught Alex’s attention and he found himself glancing around the room to see who else shared his mood.
‘There have been some very disturbing developments over the past few weeks that we have been monitoring,’ Peter continued solemnly. ‘I had been hoping that the situation would resolve itself but clearly it will not. If anything, matters will only deteriorate unless we take immediate action. As I’m not in charge of surface matters I will hand over to Garrett.’
Alex followed Peter’s gaze as it fell on Garrett, who immediately straightened in his chair.
‘As you all know,’ Garrett started, after clearing his throat. ‘The military have been monitoring conditions on the surface since the holocaust, largely by listening in on radio broadcasts. We were particularly interested in what was happening in Europe. We even sent drones on short trips over there. France, The Netherlands and Germany were decimated, and only small communities survived. However, there were larger pockets of survivors in southern Spain and Portugal. About a year ago, radio broadcasts from this region started talking about a plague that was sweeping north from southern Spain. At first, we thought it was flu, but the symptoms didn’t match, and the mortality rates were extremely high.’
‘How high?’ Alex asked.
Adriana, Genesis’s chief medical officer, wiggled her large frame into a more comfortable position in her seat and pushed her glasses further up her rather generous nose. ‘We don’t know for sure. As this plague swept north, radio stations were abandoned. Their last messages spoke of people dying of respiratory failure. Severe coughs, high fevers, and many coughing up huge volumes of sputum and blood, even urinating blood.’
‘And you don’t know what it is?’ Arthur asked.
‘No,’ Adriana said, ‘we can only speculate. We have sent drones across to south-east England and watched these people fleeing across the channel from France. They appear to have an atypical form of tuberculosis.’
‘Consumption,’ Alison volunteered, quoting an ancient name for the disease. ‘My grandfather died of consumption.’
‘Aye,’ Peter said. ‘Tuberculosis killed some of my relatives too. But atypical? What type of TB is that?’
‘The usual form of tuberculosis is caused by Mycobacterium tuberculosis, a bacterium that infects a third of the world’s population,’ Adriana said dryly. ‘And before the holocaust, it was re-surging, killing 1.5 million each year. But there are many other Mycobacterium species which don’t usually infect people unless they are immune supressed in some way like...say...because of malnutrition or radiation poisoning.’
‘And you think that this atypical species of Mycobacterium has somehow managed to infect healthy humans,’ Arthur surmised.
‘Healthy may not be the right word, since all surface people have been exposed to high levels of radiation,’ Adriana replied, ‘and most are malnourished.’
‘But I still don’t understand,’ Alex interjected. ‘I studied tuberculosis in one of my courses at university. From what I remember, it is very infectious, but it grows slowly. It takes a long time to kill someone.’
‘Mycobacteria tuberculosis does. But not all strains of Mycobacteria grow slowly. Mycobacterium smegmatis, for example, grows quickly and has been known to infect humans, but it mainly causes skin infections, so it’s unlikely to be the cause. What we appear to be dealing with is a Mycobacterium that causes very similar symptoms to Mycobacterium tuberculosis but kills more rapidly and is highly infectious.’
‘So, we think it’s a new form of tuberculosis,’ Peter surmised. ‘Something that no-one has ever seen before.’
‘That’s right,’ Adriana agreed. ‘Probably there has been some gene exchange between Mycobacterium tuberculosis and an atypical mycobacterium. The resulting organism is a new species that we have no resistance to. This explains why it is spreading and killing people so rapidly. Look at the Spanish flu of 1918, HIV, Ebola…the trend is always the same. In other words, no matter who is exposed to this disease, city of surface people, this disease is likely to kill them both.’
‘We are facing a plague that is spreading rapidly across England,’ Garrett concluded. ‘The survivors carrying this plague could reach here in a matter of weeks if we don’t stop them.’
This time, both surface and city people alike looked surprised. Only Garrett and Adriana showed no emotion.
‘So, what do you mean by ‘don’t stop them?’ Arthur asked.
Garrett didn’t respond to the question straight away; instead he shot a glance across at Adriana, as though he was hoping for her input. When she said nothing, he continued. ‘You all know the strategy we had adopted before we were attacked by you.’ He waved a hand at Alex and the other surface people on the committee. ‘We picked that particular time because our drones were detecting a large number of people crossing the channel. We needed to stop them before they spread the disease across England.’
‘You were going to kill them too,’ Alex blurted out, verbalising the look of horror on many of the surface people’s faces.
‘We were protecting our people, exactly like the Welsh and Scottish communities did,’ Garrett said defensively, his features folding into a snarl that reminded Alex of an angry British bulldog.
‘There is a big difference between what we were forced to do to survive and you deciding to kill survivors because it was the easiest option,’ Alex replied, feeling the blood rise in his own face.
Garrett stood his ground. ‘We needed to stop this disease from reaching England,’ he stated.
‘A bit like eradicating a rat infestation,’ Arthur said angrily.
‘There were other ways,’ Alex weighed in. ‘You had the technology to isolate the sick. Instead, you decided to kill us all.’
Garrett’s features hardened and for a moment the two men glared at each other across the table. ‘I’m not defending what we planned,’ Garrett said, deciding to take a softer tone after a quick scan of the furious faces around the table. ‘I’m just stating the reasons for it.’
‘Doesn’t sound like it,’ Arthur growled. ‘Sounds like you approved.’
‘I did not approve, but I understood. There is a big difference. And I cannot be blamed for the actions of my superiors.’
‘Same defence used in World War II,’ Arthur scoffed.
Alex glanced around the faces of the survivors. They all had that murderous look he had seen so often before the attack on Genesis. In contrast, the city people looked more pale than usual. Except Garrett, who was flushed and looked like he wanted to exterminate every surface person in the room.
‘That’s enough,’ Peter raised his voice. ‘I thought we all agreed to work together.’
‘There is another solution to this threat,’ Adriana said quickly, ‘one that may offer an alternative to killing survivors. Firstly, it’s clear that we barely have enough antibiotics for our own needs let alone trying to treat the waves of plague-infected foreigners that are crossing to our shores. So, our scientists went back through the records to see if there was anything that worked before the advent of antibiotics. It turned out there was. Bacteriophage therapy. Using viruses called bacteriophages to attack and kill bacteria.’
‘I’ve heard of this,’ Martin said. ‘There were companies around before the holocaust that were promoting bacteriophage therapy as a way of fighting multi-drug resistance bacteria.’
‘That’s right. The Food and Drug Administration in America had also approved their use on compassionate grounds for treating people with multi-drug resistant infections,’ Adriana said. ‘We checked the scientific literature. It worked. In fact, before the advent of antibiotics in the early 1940s, it was the main way to treat bacterial infections and it was being used routinely in parts of Russia right up to the holocaust.’
‘And these bacteriophages,’ Alex said, ‘they killed all bacteria?’
‘Yes, everything in nature preys on everything else,’ Adriana replied. ‘The microbial world is no exception. For every bacterium, there are 10 viruses. It’s the oldest war on the planet. If it wasn’t for viruses, we would be overrun with bacteria in 24 hours.’
‘And these viruses never attack the human host?’ Arthur asked.
‘No, they are extremely specific. They will only attack the species of bacteria that they prey on and once they are gone, the viruses also disappear as they are cleared by the immune system.’
‘Neat little system,’ Peter commented. ‘One wonders why we ever stopped using it.’
‘Because antibiotics could be produced in bulk and a lot cheaper than live viruses. And you can’t patent viruses,’ Adriana commented dully. ‘But none of that matters anymore. The fact is we have a natural biological system we can use to destroy bacteria, including whatever type of tuberculosis that’s killing the survivors.’
‘So, what do you need to find these bacteriophage viruses?’ Alex asked.
‘We need samples from the infected people,’ Adriana replied. ‘The bacteriophages should be there. We need to find these bacteriophages and grow them up in large quantities, then inject them back into all TB patients.’
‘If I understand correctly, you have to first grow the bacteria on culture plates and look for plaques,’ Martin said.
‘And what are plaques?’ Arthur asked.
‘They’re clear spots on a bacteria lawn that indicate that the bacteria have been destroyed by a bacteriophage. We just need to grow the bacteriophage from these spots in large volumes, filter away the bacteria, and we have pure bacteriophage we can use to treat tuberculosis patients.’
‘Sounds simple,’ Martin commented.
‘It’s a little more involved than that, but basically that’s what we need to do,’ Adriana explained. ‘The problem will be finding the bacteriophage in the first place. We don’t know how common they are in a new strain of tuberculosis.’
‘So, you want to capture some of these sick people and bring them back here?’ Arthur asked.
‘No, that would be too risky,’ Adriana replied. ‘We have a number of mobile medical buses that can be refurnished with the necessary equipment within a few days. We can then send medical teams with these buses to the shores of Kent to intercept these people and take samples.’
‘And who would be in charge?’ Arthur asked.
‘We would co-ordinate the operation,’ Garrett said. ‘And Adriana’s medical teams would conduct the medical examinations.’
‘No way,’ Arthur growled. ‘We’re in charge here, not you.’
‘We have the medical skills and can provide a military escort,’ Garrett replied, looking to Peter for support.
‘You think we’re idiots,’ Arthur shot back, ‘Once you have the cure, you could do anything. Even turn this epidemic against us. Just like you did with the typhus plague.’
‘What...?’ Garrett face began to change colour again. ‘Are you suggesting that we would use this epidemic against you?’
‘You’ve done it before.’
‘The people behind that plan are all dead. Aren’t we trying to build trust?’
‘Trust has to be earned,’ Alison cut in. ‘I agree with Arthur; the military can’t be put in charge of this operation. We need to be in charge.’
Another uncomfortable silence settled on the committee as neither side was willing to offer a compromise.
Alex felt Peter’s eyes on him. ‘What’s your opinion, Alex?’ he asked.
Alex studied Peter’s face for a moment, feeling this was not a simple question. ‘I think,’ he said carefully, ‘that Arthur’s right; a surface person should be placed in charge of the operation. We know surface conditions and how to survive. We should be the ones in charge.’
‘Agreed,’ Peter said immediately. ‘And you are by far the best qualified person to lead. No-one else has your experience.’
Alex looked around the committee. The surface people in unison were all nodding agreement. Martin was also nodding. Only Garrett looked upset – he folded his arms and stared blankly ahead.
‘We would also be happy with this arrangement,’ Adriana nodded. ‘As long as our medical staff are left alone to do their work.’
All eyes were now fixed on Alex. If he refused, how would they solve this? Garrett would be the next choice and he was watching Alex with a measure of distaste akin to finding something disgusting stuck to his shoe. This mission couldn’t fall into his hands. With this realisation, he found himself nodding acceptance. The relief on Peter’s and Arthur’s faces was palpable. But all Alex could think of was what he was going to say to Elaine.