The alarm clock bleated next to him. Marcus Zane slapped it into silence and rolled over. His face came to rest against warm flesh. He opened his eyes. Alice Parker leaned on an elbow and smiled down at him. “Wakey wakey lover boy.” She gave him a long warm kiss. “You have an assignment, remember.” He groaned. “Do I have to?” His head was still pounding from the staff party the night before. He’d been having an affair with Alice for a couple of weeks now, and though he’d never planned to mix business with pleasure that all went out the window after they’d gone out for a few drinks one Friday night. He was flattered that she’d asked and she’d welcomed the attention. He was a junior reporter and she was the features editor on “MICROCOSM” a glossy bi-monthly focussing on in depth human-interest stories.
She’d described it as Vanity Fair meets Ok! Magazine. He’d laughed when she told him that. He pointed out that Wigan wasn’t exactly the top choice celebrity hang out. She’d laughed at his cheek and somehow after ten too many drinks they’d ended up in bed. Her husband was some sort of oil industry kingpin and always away on business. They hadn’t really had a marriage for the last five years…or so she told him, and he was more than happy to go with that version of the truth. She reached over to stroke his face. “You’re new on the team, if I give you all the juicy stories people are going to get the hump, and tongues will wag.”
He sat up and rubbed the sleep out of his eyes. She smoothed his hair back. “It’s not like I’m asking you to do an undercover story on the homeless. You’ll be done by lunchtime. We can spend the afternoon together.” She kissed him gently. He smiled.
“You know I want to write features about the important things going on in the world, not just local stuff.” Alice gave him her stern look, the one she reserved for employees she wasn’t sleeping with, but her eyes still twinkled. “It’s not just about column inches you know.”
He reached for her. She laughed and swatted him away with a pillow. “Maybe it’s not safe sending you into an old folks home. Some of those octogenarians have still got some moves, and you’re a good looking kid.” He blew some stray feathers out of his eyes. “What sort of animal would they be? What’s older than a cougar?” Alice swung the pillow again. “Sabre-tooth I guess. Just get the story.” Marcus stretched and slid out of bed. Alice watched him as he prowled towards the shower. “He’s a hundred today. Just get a couple of stories from him and a picture of his card from the queen. It’ll tie in nicely with our remembrance feature.” She heard the sound of the shower running. “Play your cards right they’ll make you a nice cup of tea.”
Marcus arrived at the care home just after eleven. By that time they’d all finished their breakfast and the medicine run was over. One of the staff pointed him to the corridor where the old man’s room was and he headed down towards it. An old lady on a zimmer said hello to him and he nodded back. He reached the end of the corridor and looked around. He saw a faded name card inserted in a small metal holder screwed to the door. Reginald T Clifford. He could hear the TV blaring from inside.
He got his recorder, pad and pen out ready. He’d been caught out before by a corrupted memory card and though he relied on the recording for detail he made sure he noted the hard facts down on paper. He knocked on the door. There was no response.
He knocked again. The TV was switched off and he heard a shuffling behind the door. “Who is it?” The voice was husky with age, but still strong. “It’s Marcus, the reporter from the local paper.” The door opened and a white haired man stood there. He wore a rumpled sweater and pressed trousers resting on freshly polished shoes. Marcus could tell he’d been in the forces even without the small biog Alice had given him. Reginald had been a chemist initially but joined the Air Force as a pilot, reaching Wing Commander before being transferred to some secret establishment as part of Montgomery’s think tank.
He followed the old man into the room and waited until he’d settled into his favourite armchair. It was surrounded by the detritus of day to day living. A pile of books lay heaped on a small table on one side. On the other a pile of letters and a jug of water. Marcus pulled up a small chair opposite him. “Congratulations.”
He nodded to the card from the queen that lay open on top of a book. The old man grunted. “Load of rubbish, like she cares.” Marcus kept his smile going, though part of him could feel his afternoon slipping away. Normally people were quite excited at being interviewed, but obviously compared to Reginald’s previous life an interview with the local paper was small beer. “Just want to ask you a few questions about your life, we’re doing a series of articles to go alongside the remembrance day special for the local paper.”
The old man looked at him. His eyes though sunken amongst the folds of skin that drooped below his forehead still shone with a clarity that was unnerving. “Okay if I use this.” He held up the recorder. “I suppose so, but if think you’re asking me something I might regret replying to I’ll get you to switch it off. Okay?” Marcus nodded.
This was turning into a bit of a weird one. “Yes, of course, but I’m not going to be asking you that sort of question.” The old man grunted. “I suppose you just want to know the secret of old age and a happy life?” Marcus started the recorder running. “Well, if there is a secret I’m guessing our readers would be very happy to hear it. The old man sighed and settled back in his chair. Fixed Marcus with his eyes. “Have you ever killed anybody?” Marcus was caught of guard. His mind had drifted off to what he might be doing with Alice that afternoon if he could get this interview done and dusted by lunchtime. “Er, not unless you count my video gaming skills?”
The old man shook his head. “No, I don’t. I’m talking about watching the life go out of a man in front of you.” Marcus answered carefully. The last thing he needed was for some old guy to go mental on him. “Then no. I guess my job is slightly safer than sending dispatches back from the front line.” The old man grunted. “Yes, I’m sure it is.” Marcus tried to steer the conversation back into safer territory. “So, what sort of things did you get up to when you were in the Air Force?” He opened his pad and sat with his biro poised. The old man launched into a blow by blow account of the dog fights he’d been involved in, the friends he’d lost and the near misses he’d had.
After an hour of listening to the months of misery and endurance that was probably standard for members of the RAF in those days, Marcus was no nearer to getting a feel for a good article that when he started. “Well that’s all really fascinating. Sounds like you had a pretty amazing time during the war.” The old man snorted. Got up and started pottering around making some tea. “There was nothing amazing about what we did. We were just kids. If we got through the day without getting killed that was good enough for us.” He held up a bowl. “Sugar?” “One thanks”
Marcus doodled on his note pad. All he had to do was get one decent anecdote and a picture and he was done. But it was taking far longer than he could possibly of imagined. “So, have you been married?” Surely he could get a small bit of romance into the article.
He’d seen a few pictures around of the old man standing next to a Spitfire with his arm round a pretty dark haired girl in uniform with a pillbox hat.
Reginald poured boiling water into the teapot. Stirred it and left it to brew. “I was engaged once.” He went over to the picture and gave it to Marcus. “Louise Shaffer. She was a Wren, worked as a radar plotter on the Arctic convoys. We were planning to get married when she returned at the end of the summer. It was 1942” Marcus waited. Somehow he knew this wasn’t going to turn out well. “The convoy’s codename was PQ-17.” Marcus felt a chill run through him. He’d watched a lot of history documentaries and remembered the story of the PQ-17 Arctic convoy. It had suffered massive casualties because of a catastrophically bad decision by the Admiral of the fleet.
Based on information that German battleships, including the Tirpiz were moving in, he’d ordered the covering force to intercept, and told the convoy to scatter. As they tried to reach the appointed Russian ports, the merchant ships were repeatedly attacked by Luftwaffe airplanes and submarines. Only 11 out of 35 reached their destination. Marcus listened as the old man told his tale. “Louise was in one of the ships that was torpedoed.” His face grew sad. “After that I decided I wanted to be part of something bigger. Something that could actually help end the war.” Marcus looked at him intently. As a journalist he intuitively knew when the real story was about to arrive. A kind of sixth sense that made the hair stand up on the back of his neck.
He was gripping his pen so hard his fingers had gone white. He relaxed them. “Was that when you joined Montgomery’s think tank?” The old man looked into the distance. “Yes.” The think tank had been responsible for all sorts of wild ideas. Project PLUTO a fuel pipeline stretching from England to France in 1944 and a tracked vehicle called the Weasel were two he remembered. “I heard they were developing some kind of aircraft carrier made of ice?”
The old man smiled. “Yes, that was one of Geoffrey Pyke’s mad ideas. It was called Pycrete, made from a mix of ice and sawdust. Project Habakkuk. It never got off the ground.” Marcus leaned forwards. “So what projects did?” The old man poured the tea, added milk and set the cups down. He looked at the recorder. “Time to switch that off.” Marcus reached out and turned the machine off. If the story was that big it would already be all over the internet…and if it wasn’t…then he was going to get a scoop. The old man took a sip of tea, his eyes grew misty.
“The convoy Louise was protecting was more than just foodstuff and munitions. Before she left I’d watched as they loaded them up with the crates at Loch Ewe.” Marcus looked up from his pad. “Loch Ewe?” The old man continued. They used to run the convoys from Iceland, but in September they assembled at Loch Ewe and headed for Arkhangelsk…the city of Archangel…such a pretty name, but so many died trying to get there.” Marcus looked at him. “You mentioned crates being loaded. What sort of crates?” The old man sighed, he suddenly looked every year of the century he bore on his shoulders. “I supervised the packing of them. By the time I realised where they were going it was too late.”
Marcus stopped writing. “Too late for what?” The old man took another deep sip of his tea. “You have to understand, we had no idea how long the war would go on …Hiroshima was years away and Alan Turing’s work was still top secret.”
Marcus felt the familiar rush of adrenalin that accompanied a scoop. “So the convoy was carrying something you’d developed in the think tank…something as deadly as Hiroshima and as important as the enigma machine. Something that could shorten the war?” The old man nodded.
He slumped back in his chair. Marcus looked at him. He didn’t look well. “Are you alright?” The old man coughed, his face a grey sweaty mask of pain. “I’m a hundred, what do you think. “Should I call someone?” The man shook his head. “Let me finish, and be rid of it.” Marcus sat back down. “Okay, if you’re sure.”
The old man wiped his face with a handkerchief. “I’m sure. It was something we’d been developing in conjunction with Porton Down …the Germans already had nerve agents and we’d tested Anthrax…” Marcus listened, this was getting more disturbing by the minute. “Biological warfare?” The old man started to cough, it became a hacking spasm.
The sweat ran down his face. He wiped his mouth. Took a deep breath and steadied himself. “It was madness, especially after what happened after the First World War…everyone agreed it was only to be used as a last resort and that the flasks should be stored outside of Europe.” Marcus’s eyes widened. “Russia?” The man nodded. “But they never made it. The flasks in the crates went down with the ships.”
The blood drained from Marcus’s face. “What happened at the end of the First World War?” The old man stared into the distance for a moment. “The Spanish flu. It infected over 500 million people across the world, a 100 million people died. Nearly five percent of the world’s population. It was one of the deadliest natural disasters in human history.” He looked at Marcus. “But of course, it wasn’t natural. Even nature has rules when it comes to a deadly virus. The flu worked by causing an actokine storm. It made the human immune system overreact on a massive scale, destroying the healthy cells like a hurricane smashing through a poppy field.
One of our scientists working on the vaccine contracted the disease and it must have spread from there…by the time they developed an antidote the damage was done.” Marcus looked at the old man. No wonder he looked so ill. Carrying the knowledge of a hundred million deaths around would do that to you. Marcus felt the weight of the old man’s story sitting on him already. “Who else know about this?” “They’re all dead.” Marcus pressed him. “But surely the official secrets act…” He tailed off at the look the old man gave him. “Think of an unofficial secrets act, where things are buried forever. Alan Turing’s last two papers were only declassified in 2012…what was on those convoys will never be declassified.” Marcus stopped writing.
“But the freedom of information act…” Again the old man gave him a look. “The problem with that is you have to know what information you’re looking for. No one knows what we made.” Marcus looked at him. “You know.” The old man coughed into his handkerchief. Marcus thought he saw flecks of blood. The old man wiped his mouth and continued. “I do. And every day I wish I didn’t.”
He shifted in his chair, tried to find a position where he wasn’t in pain. “When the ships went down everybody assumed that their cargo would remain on the bottom of the Arctic Ocean. The depth, water temperature and the inhospitableness of the region should have prevented the flasks from becoming a problem.” Marcus swallowed. His throat was suddenly dry. He took a sip from his tea, now stone cold…but he didn’t care. “The flasks, what happened to them?”
The old man stretched a leg out. Rubbed at a cramping muscle. “The temperature under the ice kept the virus dormant. But once the wooden crates began to rot the flasks were free to rise to the surface. It took a long time and no one else would ever have made the connection…” Marcus leaned forward. “Except you.” The old man nodded. “Exactly, I’d trained as a chemist before I joined the forces. I knew when something was unnatural.
The first time the virus surfaced was back in 1976 in Zaire. There were many isolated cases right up until the most recent outbreak which claimed over twenty thousand lives.” Marcus knew immediately what he was talking about. “Ebola” The old man nodded. “A few years later a rare combination of two viruses, one dating from the 1900’s and another more recent, took hold amongst monkeys in central Africa. It became the hybrid virus responsible for killing over 35 million people to date.” Marcus nodded. “Aids” The old man seemed to shrivel inside himself. “How many deaths? All so mankind can become more successful at killing each other…”
Marcus did the maths. “Nearly one hundred and fifty million people.” He shut his notebook. The old man looked at him. Managed to summon a wry smile out of somewhere. “I guess you’ll be needing a picture?”
Back at the office, Alice looked over his shoulder as he finished the article and adjusted the position of the photograph. “I like the medals. Nice touch.” Marcus saved the file and hit print. The laser printer hummed and spat out a proof. He looked at it. “Yes, I thought so. “ She leaned against him. “I also thought making it into a love story about a heroic pilot losing his fiancé in the Arctic convoys gave it real heart.”
Marcus smiled. “Yes, a small human interest story set in a big canvas, just like you taught me.” She straightened up. Looked at her watch. “Well, I’m sorry it took so long. I thought you’d stumbled on some big feature story and were going to surprise me with an idea for a syndicated article.” Marcus got up from his desk. “Nope ‘fraid not.” She looked around to make sure no one was watching and gave him a kiss. “Never mind, I’m sure one day you’ll come up with a story that will surprise us all.” Marcus smiled. “Well you just never know do you?” He closed his laptop, and shrugged on his jacket as they headed out of the office.