SHORT STORIES, CORONA, ACTION
It’s been a while (too long sorry), but I recently entered the NYC Flash Fiction Challenge after a hiatus of a year. For those unfamiliar with the drill, entrants are assigned a genre, a location and an artefact, then given 48hrs to write a 1,000 word piece of fiction.
I finished 6th in the first round (more on this next time), but please to announce I finished 2nd place in the next round which has brought me into the semi finals.
Here’s the story, but first, the prompts…
Location: A Penthouse Suite
Artefact: A Butterscotch Candy
The UK’s chief scientist, and creator of COVID vaccine, waits desperately for extraction from his penthouse suite. Outside, London burns, as a parasitic infection takes the form of a second wave.
Static crackled as Warren twisted the radio dial searching for the emergency broadcast system. Nothing. He swung his mobile across the window. The cell masts must be down too. Thirty minutes they’d told him. Thirty long minutes.
The thumping on the steel-cladded doors of his penthouse suite had stopped. They must be getting tired, unless their heads burst already, thought Warren.
Fifty storeys below, flames licked the Houses of Parliament. The London Eye lay shattered across the Thames. Big Ben’s clock face riddled with what from this distance looked like swarming ants. The thumping started again.
‘Come out, Warren.’
‘Time to take your medicine.’
A couple of muffled bangs. More silence.
Warren looked at the image staring back at him from the cover of Time magazine. His image. “Curer of COVID” read the headline. If only they’d listened when the truth emerged.
‘The vaccine’s not ready,’ he’d argued to the Health Secretary. ‘The trial candidates are exhibiting peculiar symptoms.’
‘The Prime minister is losing public faith. We’ll start with the schools. Nice touch embedding the vaccine in butterscotch candy; where’d you get the idea?’
‘The vaccine creates a brown aura around the iris,’ Warren explained. ‘A butterscotch colour. The test group said the serum tasted disgusting, so we wrapped it in candy.’
‘How sweet,’ sneered the politician.
Warren clenched his jaw, recalling the man’s arrogance when a colossal smash shook him from his thoughts. He span round to find half a fire extinguisher protruding through the wall. The cylinder was quickly replaced by an arm which began pulling the plasterboard away. More arms followed. Warren grabbed a lamp, smashing it over the groping limbs. Howls followed. A few dull thuds. Warren stepped forward, then fell backwards as a head forced itself through the hole.
Blood-soaked hair; pallid skin; each bulbous eye with a butterscotch aura around the iris.
‘Wakey, wakey, Warren!’ Screamed the head. ‘Come join the par-‘
With a sound like a plastic bag popping, the head erupted in a gush of brains and blood. Warren scrambled backwards, pulling his shirt over his mouth. Do not breathe in, do not breathe in, Warren repeated to himself.
He raced to the bedroom, stuffing pillows and towels against the door. That wasn’t the first bursting head he’d witnessed, but it was the closest.
‘You’re telling me his head just burst open?’ Warren asked his chief lab technician.
‘He’d been acting strange beforehand,’ replied the tech. ‘Like he was possessed. He was stacking chairs and trying to scale the walls, then… Bang!’
‘We need to halt distribution of the vaccine. How many doses administered?’
‘Government figures reporting at least half the schools across the UK and nearly all front-line workers but-’ A beeping cut the lab tech off. He checked his tablet. ‘Another candidate’s head just burst…’
Why had the government failed to act? Warren cursed. The thudding of a helicopter sounded. His heart leapt, then sank when he realised the only exit to the roof was through the lounge. The lounge now filled with parasitic spores.
The helicopter passed. Warren swore. The banging recommenced along with the continuing sound of plasterboard being torn from its frame. He pushed the bed against the door and checked the window. Reinforced glass. No escape.
A face met his. Warren yelled in shock. Before he could process the image, the head burst. Chunks of flesh smeared the window. The carcass fell silently away. Warren saw the adjacent apartment block. Hordes of bodies, scaling the walls like beetles. They were heading for the roof. In spite of the danger, the scientist in him admired the determination of the parasite.
‘But COVID is a virus, not a parasite,’ said the Prime minister over video-link. The members of COBRA nodded in angry agreement.
‘It manifested as a virus, but that was its intention,’ Warren had replied. ‘It infected our lungs and waited, dormant, to be unleashed. That’s why so many people tested positive but weren’t symptomatic. Our butterscotch candy vaccine was what it was waiting for; a mutated version of itself it could bind to, which-‘
‘So your vaccine gave this virus super powers?’ The Prime minister interrupted.
‘The virus – parasite – gives its host super powers. It takes over the nervous system, granting super strength. Then it infects the brain, creating a zombie-like effect which forces the host to climb as high as possible before the head bursts.’
‘Why on earth?’
‘The spores catch in the wind, carrying the parasite to new hosts. The higher it gets, the better the reach. If it gets high enough, the winds could carry the spores across continents. This is the second wave we’ve been anticipating, just not in this form.’
‘So, just create a vaccine for the vaccine,’ blustered the Prime minister.
‘I’m working on something,’ replied Warren. ‘I might have an answer, but I need time, and a lab. But there’s a problem. The terrifying thing is that the host remains sentient throughout the infection, but they’re powerless to resist. I think… I think it’s coming for me.’
‘Coming for you?’
‘If the parasite’s using its host’s sentience, it’ll know I’m the creator of the vaccine; the only person who can reverse the effects. It wants to kill me before I can kill it. My apartment block’s been sealed off. I’ve engaged the panic system, but I think I’m surrounded.’
‘Sit tight,’ ordered the Prime minister. ‘A chopper will be with you in thirty minutes.’
Warren made to check his watch. An explosion threw him against the bedroom wall. Bullet fire rattled the penthouse suite. A soldier wearing full hazmat suit pulled breathing apparatus over Warren’s head and escorted him to the helicopter.
After a minute in the air, the pilot signalled Warren to remove the apparatus. Warren surveyed what was left of his home, then turned to the pilot to thank him. The pilot responded with a thumbs up and lifted his visor. Rings of orangey-brown surrounded his irises. The pilot held out an open palm.