February 24, 2024

I, Science

The science magazine of Imperial College

This story was written for the MSc Science Communication Course for Imperial College London, for assessment as part of the Narrative module


By Will Hornbrook
Posted April 2022

5pm crept up on Maria, as it always did, slowly and without drama. Or so she thought… She took off her lab coat, packed up her bag and made for the door.

“See you tomorrow Simon!”
“Eh?!”

“I mean, Sam… sorry!”

“How long have we known eachother? Three years?” Sam laughed as he continued pouring agar plates. 

Always full of energy, often chaotic, Maria couldn’t deny Sam was a hard worker. He was always the first to arrive and the last to leave.

Maria laughed too. She pressed the electronic door release and headed out.

Why had she called him Simon? she thought. Long day.

As she trudged down the echoey stone staircase, Maria took several hefty swigs from her water bottle. She was so warm. Tiny rivulets of sweat ran down her arms towards her elbows. It would be a relief to reach the cool crisp air of the January evening. When she finally did, and the door had clunked shut behind her, she paused on the pavement and filled her lungs.

Inhale.
Exhale.

The influx of oxygenated air momentarily revived her and she set off towards King’s Cross station.

Standing on the crowded Victoria line tube platform, a strange feeling came over Maria. Her stomach churned. She couldn’t work out if she was hungry or never wanted to eat another thing again. If anyone else on the platform had been paying attention to her, they would have noticed her body begin to sway; an anchored feather caught in a gentle breeze. They might also have noticed the colour drain from her skin and her eyelids fluttering faster than normal.

“If you see something that doesn’t look right,” a female voice announced over the loudspeaker, “speak to staff or text the British Transport Police…” This may not have been the sort of ‘something’ they had in mind, but it certainly didn’t look right. Unfortunately, no one did see it.

Five minutes later, Maria was starting to panic. She had made it onto a carriage and wedged herself into a corner seat. Her head had lolled to one side, and her face was pressed up against a perspex screen. Her forehead gently knocked against it as the train rattled along. Now she tried to look up at the map opposite. She blinked rapidly as her vision phased in and out of focus. Her eyes darted from left to right.

                                 Euston
                              Warren Street
                              Oxford Circus
                               Green Park
                                Victoria

What are all these names? Victoria… she was a queen, wasn’t she? And a sponge cake… Where am I going?

She could no longer make sense of it. Her whole head was pounding. She looked down from the map to the people sitting opposite. Her eyes met those of a tall man with cropped black hair and a green winter coat. Maria didn’t know it at the time, but his name was Tosin. Tosin raised his eyebrows sympathetically. Now he’d seen something that ‘didn’t look right’. He opened his mouth to express his concern when, without warning, Maria buckled over, gave an agonised yelp and projected a seemingly relentless stream of vomit at his trousers and shoes. 

In an instant, Maria’s internal panic spread like a shockwave through the train. Nearby passengers jumped up from their seats, many of them letting out a shocked gasp. A toddler at the opposite end of the carriage started pointing and giggling. Maria was engulfed by confusion. The world spun around her.

She clung on to one vital thought: the card. Reaching into her coat pocket, she retrieved her phone. Her mouth was dry and her fingers tingled, but she just about managed to rip off her phone case and thrust it towards Tosin. “The card!” she croaked, jabbing at a bright red, credit card-shaped object clearly visible inside the phone case.

Tosin, who had been stunned into paralysis by what had just happened, snapped back to reality. He tried not to think about the wetness slowly seeping into his socks or the smell slithering up his nostrils. He grabbed the phone case, took the card out and studied it.

TO THE DOCTOR CONCERNED
The holder of this card MARIA STARCROSS
is employed at UK Public Health Agency.
In cases of suspected infection with serious illness, where the possibility of laboratory acquired infection cannot be excluded, please contact
Telephone: 02637 1881 3632

Ask for the Duty Doctor.

Shit, thought Tosin.

He glanced down and noticed that the vomit was densely speckled with crimson spots. “Shit!”
This time he’d said it out loud. The toddler giggled again.

“Is anyone here a doctor?!”

Maria pushed open the door to the lab at 8:29am. She liked being early. She slipped her coat and scarf off, took a seat at her workstation, and switched on the computer. If she had not been so punctual, she might have missed the email that had just pinged into her inbox informing her that she had a morning briefing with her manager Paula.

“There are some early signs we might be dealing with a new strain,” Paula said, twenty minutes later.
“What are we seeing?”

“The replication time seems to be about 2.5 times faster than expected for MG1655, and we’ve observed significant growth outside the normal pH range.”

“But this a lab strain. I don’t understand… could it be the transfection reagent, do you think? I know we haven’t used this one before.”

“Could be. All I know is we need to sequence the hell out of this thing.”

“I’ll get right on it.”

Inside the containment level 3 lab, Maria got to work. Level 3 wasn’t strictly necessary for working with MG1655, a strain of E.coli, but it was better to be safe than sorry, especially if there was a possibility the bacteria had mutated. She put on her respirator mask and protective glasses before fastening a wraparound gown around her waist and reaching into a box of disposable gloves. She plucked two out with a flourish and examined them closely. If she hadn’t taken a moment to check the gloves before putting them on, she wouldn’t have noticed the slight rip in the material, and a small ellipse of skin below her left thumb would have been exposed. She replaced the faulty glove and pulled on a second pair as a precautionary measure.

Two hours later, Maria had completed her mini-preps ready for DNA sequencing. The tiny tubes, each containing less than a centimetre of clear liquid, held all the answers. Clang! Clang! Clang!

What?! Her chest tightened.

Maria spun around to see Sam knocking on the window of the lab. She sighed with relief.
Why does he always do that?
Sam was beckoning her outside.

“Come and look at this!” came his voice, muffled by the glass.

If Maria had fancied Sam, like he’d always hoped she would, perhaps she’d have been more eager to rush outside and see him. Perhaps she’d have been less careful about sterilising her Eppendorf tubes, disposing of her mask, or removing her gloves before leaving the lab. But she wasn’t. She held up both hands to the window, fingers splayed. “Can’t right now! Be out in ten.”

5pm crept up on Maria, as it always did, slowly and without drama. She took off her lab coat, packed up her bag and made for the door. By now, Sam was hard at work in the level 3 lab.

“See you tomorrow Sam!” Maria called in through the window.

“See-ya Mari-ya!” Sam laughed at his little rhyme like it was the first time he’d ever said it. It wasn’t.
Maria rolled her eyes, pressed the electronic door release and headed out.

As she skipped down the echoey stone staircase, Maria wrapped her scarf tighter round her neck and buttoned up her thick winter coat. It was a cold evening, and it would feel even colder once she was outside in the crisp January air. She walked to King’s Cross station, hopped on a southbound Victoria line tube and found a seat in the corner of a carriage. As the train rattled along, she unwound her scarf again; it was always hot on the Victoria line. Apparently sharing her opinion, a toddler at the other end of the carriage took this moment to quote the American rapper Nelly.

“It’s getting hot in here, so take off all your clothes!”

This was met with titters of laughter from the other passengers and a heavy dose of embarrassed shushing from the boy’s mother. As Maria chuckled, she caught the eye of the man sitting opposite her. He was also clearly amused by the child’s outburst. He had kind, sympathetic eyes. They shared a smile. Maria didn’t know it at the time, in fact she probably wouldn’t ever know it, but his name was Tosin.

If the events of the day had taken a different path, Tosin would shortly have found himself carrying a limp, breathless Maria up the steps of Oxford Circus, shouting anxiously to the station attendants.

“We need to get this woman to a doctor! Now!”

He would have waited with her until the ambulance arrived, until he could explain to the paramedics about Maria’s red card, and until they had assured him she was in safe hands. They would have tried to persuade him to go with them to the hospital for an assessment, but he would have firmly declined. Then the ambulance would have thundered off into the night, sirens wailing, and Tosin would have been alone. It wouldn’t have been quite the birthday he’d imagined. He would have got home late, late to his own party. He would have dashed upstairs to get changed, not wanting his girlfriend or guests to see the vomit and blood stains on his clothing. He would have sat on his bed and checked his phone, collecting his thoughts. Eventually, he would have shown his face in the living room.

“There he is!”

His girlfriend would have hugged him and kissed him on the cheek. His friends would have chanted playfully. When his girlfriend brought out his birthday cake – salted caramel, his favourite – he would have blown out the candles. The mutated form of MG1655, which would already have begun replicating inside Tosin at 2.5 times the normal rate, would have released its deadly toxins. In the single breath it would have taken Tosin to extinguish the flames of his burning candles, tens of thousands of bacteria and toxin particles would have been scattered like snowflakes across the surface of the cake. Everyone at the party would have eaten a slice.

Instead, Tosin and Maria shared a smile on the tube. Then they went their separate ways, blissfully unaware of the twists in time that could have been.

The next morning, Maria is sitting at her workstation, analysing the sequencing results from yesterday. Sam is conspicuous by his absence. He hasn’t called in sick. After a while, Maria wanders over to his desk and notices a bright red card, partially covered by paperwork.

TO THE DOCTOR CONCERNED
The holder of this card SAM FAWN
is employed at UK Public Health Agency.
In cases of suspected infection with serious illness, where the possibility of laboratory acquired infection cannot be excluded, please contact
Telephone: 02637 1881 3632
Ask for the Duty Doctor.

He’s supposed to keep this on him at all times, she thinks.
She sighs and returns to her work. Suddenly, her heart skips a beat. She re-reads the previous line of sequence data.
The mutant.
She checks it again. Then a third time. A lead weight sinks inside her.

Batch 494. The one Sam was transfecting when I left yesterday!

Then the phone rings.

Across London, Sam’s body lies cold and lifeless in a hospital morgue. The mutant is out, and already it has begun to spread.


Will Hornbrook is studying for an MSc in Science Media Production at Imperial College London. He has a background in biology and a passion for telling stories, whether it be through his films, music, or writing.