Of all the emotions slithering within the eel tank of Jason Holland’s mind as he took his daily walk to the lab, exhaustion was probably chief. Or resentfulness, or desperation, or hope. Take your pick.
Exhaustion because he’d worked so hard, and for so long. Soon it would be over, though that provided little consolation when he was so close. Three more weeks until the company closed the lab, officially for budgetary reasons, but Jason didn’t doubt the real reason behind the closure. He should never have let on how close he was to finding a cure – a real, actual cure for Burkitt’s lymphoma. Stupidly, naively, he thought they’d be pleased. Maybe even increase his budget. But the company made a fortune from chemotherapy drugs – why the hell would they want a cure?
And so they’d shut him down – hence the resentfulness. He’d already lost his assistants; Jason was only still around because his contract was almost up, and it was cheaper to ride it out than pay him redundancy. But there was very little he could do, alone in the lab. Well, almost alone: he still had Tanya.
Very little, but not quite nothing. The time he had left could just be enough, and that was the source of the desperation. Technically, pedantically, he’d already found the cure – the drug he’d developed would entirely eradicate the cancer, he was certain of that. It was just that, in its present state, it would kill you first.
He understood why it cured the cancer. He didn’t understand why it killed you, and there wasn’t time enough to find out, but perhaps he didn’t need to. There were sixteen variants of the molecule that would, in principle, cure the disease. He only needed one that lacked the lethal side effect.
Hence the hope.
He approached the gates to the lab. Predictably, Fran Winton was lurking outside. He really thought she’d give up when they announced the closure. She was persistent, he’d give her that.
“Murderer!” she shouted as he came close. “Scum!”
“Hello, Fran,” he replied calmly. Her abuse washed over him. It was an irrelevance now, like a headache in a war zone – annoying if you stop to think about it, but hardly a priority.
He unlocked the gate and walked in. For a moment it looked like Fran was going to limit her assault to a verbal one today, but then – yes, there it was – an egg cracked on the back of his head. He swore under his breath and kept walking.
Once inside, he cleaned the yolk out of his hair in the kitchen and went through to the lab.
“Hi Tanya,” he said. She looked up at him and sighed – not the most enthusiastic greeting, but he could hardly blame her. “Fran egged me again. Idiot woman – I get attacked for cruelty to animals, but I’ve seen her egg box, and they’re not free range.”
Tanya gurned at him. It was three days since her last injection, with no apparent side effects. He was working his way through the sixteen variants of the cure. He gave her a mild dose – not enough to kill her, or to cure the cancer if she had it, but enough to induce the prolonged, searing pain that preceded death in a stronger dosage. He’d tried nine variants so far, and every time she’d suffered badly.
Cruelty to animals? It’s a fair cop. He hated to do it, to watch the chimp in so much pain. He loved animals, always had; but he loved people too, and Tanya’s suffering could save so many lives. Not least… well, best not to think about that. Keep your personal feelings out of it, Jase. Stay professional.
He cleaned out her cage and gave her a generous pile of fruit. As she was eating, he gently injected her behind with variant ten. Maybe this would be the one that gave him his cure – more likely, by the following afternoon she’d be on the floor of her cage, screeching in agony.
“I’m sorry, beautiful girl,” Jason whispered, a tear running down his cheek. “Soon this will be over, I promise.”
“I’m home!” called Jason, letting himself into the house. It had been a dull day at the lab – after injecting Tanya, there was very little to do but monitor her. The symptoms were slightly different with each variant, but generally there was no effect until the second day, so he hadn’t expected anything to happen, and his expectations had been met. All he ever wanted was to come home to Lucy, but he was forced to stay at the lab until five. Occasionally head office called on some pretext – really they were just checking up on him. They knew he had very little to do, and if they caught him knocking off early, they could fire him and shut the lab down with immediate effect. He wasn’t going to let that happen.
Lucy didn’t respond to his call, but that wasn’t surprising. She was so weak now. He went up to the bedroom and there she was, fast asleep. That was a blessing. She was in so much pain these days.
He sat beside the bed and stroked her head. How long had she got left? When people found out, they assumed he was working on the cure because his wife had the disease, but it was just one of those strange coincidences – his research was well under way when the doctor told them the lump in her abdomen was Burkitt’s lymphoma. The doc had been surprised to discover what an expert Jason was on the subject.
But all his expertise meant nothing if he couldn’t find a cure that wasn’t worse than the disease. If he did, he’d come straight home with a syringe of the stuff and inject it straight into Lucy’s arse. Sod peer review, sod clinical trials – he didn’t have time to do things properly. It might save her life or it might kill her, but she would most certainly die if he didn’t try.
She started to scream. It was that bad now – she was screaming in her sleep. Jason whispered comforting words through his tears, and perhaps they did calm her down a little, but she still looked so distressed.
“Maybe this time,” he said. “Maybe this one is the cure.”
Jason’s heart stopped as he approached the lab. The gate was open.
When he got closer, he could see the lock had been smashed clear off. Someone had worked hard. He could guess who.
He looked around to see if there was any sign of the bitch, and that was when the true horror of the situation hit him. A little way down the street, swinging from a lamppost on the other side of the road, was Tanya.
Jason tried to cross but there was too much traffic. Tanya saw him and scurried down the lamp post. She had no such reservations about traffic, and lolloped into the path of an oncoming lorry.
Four tyres went right over her. The chimp was dead, no question: Jason was about the rush over and recover the body, when he glimpsed something even more shocking in the corner of his eye. There was a fire in the lab. His precious drugs!
He raced towards the building. It was too late to help Tanya, but he could still save his chemicals. He had no way now to test them, but he couldn’t let them burn. They could yet save Lucy’s life.
The door had been kicked in. There was some relief to be had once he got inside; the fire wasn’t as bad as it appeared through the window. He could see that she’d spread petrol, but ineptly, and the flames were yet to advance from the desk where they’d begun. He could stop this.
He grabbed the extinguisher and sprayed foam over the desk until the fire had been smothered. That danger was averted, but who knew what else the silly bitch had done?
He stepped out into the hallway and there was Fran coming down the stairs. She almost ran into him: they both got a shock, neither expecting to confront the other so suddenly. Jason recovered first, and he was still holding the fire extinguisher. He’d never forget the sound it made when it crashed against her skull.
Jason filled the syringe with his final variant of the drug.
Sixteen variants: fifteen had caused dreadful, excruciating pain. A stronger dose would certainly have killed. What were the odds that this final version would be any different?
Actually, Jason thought the odds were pretty good. Partly that was just optimism, but he believed that he was beginning to understand the cause of the unfortunate effect the drugs kept having on the nervous system. It was a vague hypothesis, based only on the slight variations in symptoms between the fifteen versions of the drug, but if he was right, this was the one that should buck the trend. This was the drug that would save his wife, without killing her first.
He just had to prove it.
He knelt beside the cage and lined up the syringe with the naked buttock pressing against the bars. She knew what was coming, but could hardly resist - there was barely room to move in that cage, built for a much smaller primate.
“Fuck you,” she growled, though the words barely came out. Three weeks she’d been in there now, in terrible pain for a great deal of that time, too restricted to even writhe in her agony. The creature that remained was barely alive, barely human. More animal, really, though Jason doubted she’d appreciate the irony.
“If it’s any consolation,” said Jason, as he injected the drug, “this could save a lot of lives. I thought you’d approve. After all - it’s not tested on animals.”