FORTY SIX HOURS LATER
“Get back in line, sir.” Monroe gestured to the crowd the old man had left behind with a scowl on his face, but the man paid him no heed. He came straight towards me, balancing his weight on a walking stick.
The other soldiers ignored the man’s obvious infringement of the rules and turned their backs on his approach. When he arrived at my table, his tired eyes round like a child’s, I smiled up at him.
“You shouldn’t skip the line, sir.”
“Have some mercy, child. I’m an old man.”
I shook my head. “If only we all had that excuse.”
My assistant passed me a plastic cup half-filled with water and Sana, the cure I’d had mass-produced to combat Fortis’s effects, and I thanked her before passing it on to my patient.
“Drink it all,” I warned him, and he obediently sipped it until it was all gone.
When I switched on the telly after walking through my front door, the news was up-to-date and already running a story about Fortis, and our near miss with its catastrophic repercussions. My curiosity held me in the newsreader’s thrall for half the story, but when Sasha’s face appeared on the screen, along with a grisly account of her crimes and death, I turned it off and went into the kitchen to make a cup of tea.
What’d happened to her would never sit well with me. Fortis had destroyed her personality and her mind, but I’d killed her body with my own two hands. That was two counts of murder that could be heaped at my door. My ambition had ended the life of a young girl, and countless other people, and that was something I could never take back.
A knock on the door drew me out of my contemplation, and I left the kettle boiling to answer it.
It was Tyrone.
“I wasn’t expecting you tonight,” I said.
“I wanted to make sure you were ok.”
“How sweet. Please, come in.” I stepped aside and he accepted my invitation.
As he looked around my cramped living room I wondered, briefly, what he thought of my home. It wasn’t pristine or filled with the latest technology, but it was cosy and every available surface had stacks of books on it. I knew that Tyrone was a fan of literature, especially the ones with happy endings.
“I’m making tea.”
“I’ll have a beer, if you’ve got one.”
I fetched his drink from the kitchen and brewed mine before joining him again. He’d cleared an armchair of its paper occupants and was flicking through one of my grant proposals. When he heard me enter, he quickly put it down and smiled a little boy’s smile, as if he’d been caught doing something he shouldn’t have.
“Did you manage to distribute the Sana where it needed to go?”
“Fourteen countries have received their shipment. We’re waiting on confirmation from seven others.”
I sipped my drink. “Do you know how many people have been treated?”
“Upwards of six million. Needless to say, Hannah,” he raised his bottle to my mug and clinked, “you saved the day.”
“Seems only fitting, since I ruined it in the first place.”
“Now you listen to me.” He put his drink in his lap and took both my hands in one of his. “Everyone makes mistakes. When they come from a good place, it doesn’t matter. All that matters is admitting that you were wrong and working to fix what you’ve broken. That’s what you’ve done, Hannah. You set out with good intentions, but you abandoned your life’s work in a second when it started hurting people. That takes strength most people will never know, let alone have.”
With a wary gaze down at my feet, I freed myself from his hold and returned to the warm comfort of my tea. He must have sensed that I wasn’t sharing something, because he stretched back into his chair and huffed.
“I know you think I’m a dumb military man -.”
“I don’t think that, Tyrone." With a swallow, I met his eyes and spewed the secret of my soul to him. “I can’t meet your eyes and lie to you, so I’m going to tell you the truth. I know Fortis wreaked havoc. I know that it killed people, but I can’t give it up. I know the formula by heart, and I know that it can work. If I pinpoint where it went wrong this time, I can make it better.”
“No. I can tell from your face that you think it’s insane. That I’m insane. And maybe I am, but I know who I am and what I stand for. And I won’t let anyone, not even you -”
“Will you hush, woman.” He leant forward with a brightness in his eyes which baffled me. “I know you’re not going to give up on Fortis. I’m not that stupid. And I’m not going to judge you for having ambition. How do you think I climbed the ranks in the army so quickly? I trampled more people than I can count on my climb to the top, and I don’t regret a second of it.”
“You might not want to stop me, but there are going to be people who will.”
“People always try to stop progress. We have to be brave enough to fight them until we can prove that we’re right.”
A goofy smile spread onto my face. “We?”
He rolled his eyes, and got out of his seat. When I didn’t move, he rolled them again and slung me over his shoulder. I should have kicked, or screamed, but I was strangely content as he walked into my bathroom, swore, walked out again and then found his way into my bedroom.
Unlike the rest of the house, it was bare. My furniture consisted of a wardrobe, a vanity and a double bed, and the only ornamentation in the room came from the turquoise and scarlet patterned curtains, which I’d picked up in Dubai during one of my rare holidays. The emptiness of the space must have struck Tyrone too, because he gently lowered me to the bed and looked around.
“Where’s all your girl stuff?” He asked with a frown.
“What girl stuff?”
“Make-up. Clothes. Knick knacks. You know.” He shrugged. “Girl stuff.”
I stuck my tongue out at him. “I guess I’m a woman, rather than a girl.”
He licked his lips and approached the bed. “I’m down with that.”
I winked. “What else can you go down on?”
The fire alarm woke me up. I cringed at its shrill, and then a hand was on my arm.
“Get up,” Tyrone said. “It’s not a fault. There’s a fire in the kitchen.”
Like that, I was wide awake. “Crap. I need to get my research. It’s on the dining room table.”
"No time.” He yanked back the duvet and lifted my body into his arms.
This time I tried to kick him, because I’d spent most of my life on that research and I wasn’t going to leave it to burn, but he was too strong. We were out of the front door, smoke billowing around us, before I could land a solid blow. The hallway alarm kicked into action as we passed under it, and the first of my neighbours had emerged in a sluggish frenzy by the time we reached the stairwell.
“I can’t leave my research!” I shouted at Tyrone, beating his chest with my fists as he descended. The whole stairwell rang with loud voices, alarms and footsteps, so many that the thought of counting them made me dizzy.
“Yes, you damn well can!” He shouted right back.
My flat was unsalvageable by the time the fire had done its work. The fire fighters who’d wrestled to extinguish the flames offered apologies, and advised me to phone my insurance provider, and while I put on a brave face, inside I was having a breakdown. Fortis was my baby, and I’d left it to die. Tyrone had left it to die. How was I going to resurrect it now?
“You can stay at my place for as long as you need,” Tyrone said, joining me on the curb I was perched on.
I glared at him. “Are you happy with yourself?”
Letting his head drop into his hands, he laughed. “I know you’re angry that I made you leave the research behind, Hannah. I’m sorry, but it wasn’t worth your life.”
“It would have taken seconds to pick it up off the table. Seconds.”
“Hate me all you want. I chose to save you, and not your life’s work. I get it - that stings. But you can’t bring back a person, and I’m not ready to lose you yet.”
“Don’t make this about your feelings. You left my research behind because it scared you. You’re no different to everyone else.” His shoulders tensed up, and his hands pressed even harder into his face. It was evidence enough (for me) of a guilty conscience. “I knew it. You knew I wouldn’t give it up willingly, so you figured out a way to destroy it. I bet you started that fire.”
My accusation must have snapped the fragile hold he had on his temper, because he shot to his feet, grabbed my forearms and dragged me onto mine. I glowered defiantly at him, tears running down my face. “Don’t ever accuse me of that again. I would never risk hurting you, Hannah. And I certainly wouldn’t jeopardise your safety because of a disagreement.”
“Disagreement? We didn’t disagree, Tyrone. At least that’s what you led me to believe.”
I threw my hands up and he caught them.
“I told you what you wanted to hear, ok? I admit it. But I did not start that fire, and I’m offended that you’d think me capable of such a thing.”
“If you have a problem with my ambition, this relationship is pointless.”
“I have been nothing but supportive of you, even when you almost caused the apocalypse. If that doesn’t prove my feelings for you, Hannah, what do you want from me?”
With a sigh, I slid the rubber band onto my roll mat and stashed it in my bottom drawer, beside my newly purchased sleeping bag. It was barely five am but I worked best in the mornings, and without a commute between home and work to worry about, I’d found myself starting my day earlier and earlier.
My research had hit a brick wall: the gaps in my knowledge were too extensive, but I was hopeful that I’d recover all the information I needed with time. Three of the original patients injected with Fortis remained in our care, and two of them had consented to testing. Their blood would fill in some of the blanks. The other two, Emma Olivia and Cole Wile, had disappeared without a trance, but I wasn’t worried. In a world cured of Fortis, they’d stick out like a sore thumb.
I checked my phone. I had two emails from interested investors, and a message from Tyrone. He’d sent it last night, apologising again and asking me to meet up with him. I deleted the latter and set about composing replies for the former. By the time I’d finished with that, it was light outside and my colleagues were arriving for the day.
It was easier to put aside Tyrone, and his damned apologies, when I could immerse myself in my job, and when I could remind myself what I was sacrificing my personal life for. Fortis wasn’t perfect, but when I cracked its code, it’d change the world. How could I put my own desires above that? How could I advocate that level of selfishness?
My assistant knocked on my door and held out an envelope. “This is addressed to you, Hannah.”
I took it from her and read the enclosed contents. It was an invitation to participate in a study – one of the ‘utmost importance and secrecy’. Temptation seeped under my skin for half a second, the promise of fame and repute almost drawing me into its trap, but I came back to myself with a start. I had no room in my life for other research. Fortis had to have my mind, body and soul, if I was going to eliminate pain and fear from the eyes and hearts of everyone around me.
I threw the invitation in the bin and got to work.
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