Thomas wiped his forehead again. ‘Perhaps . . .’ he said again, his voice tentative. ‘It’s just a theory, but . . .’
‘But what? Spit it out, man,’ Richard barked impatiently.
‘Perhaps the virus has mutated. Perhaps it has found a way to . . . a way of . . .’ Small beads of sweat continued to appear on Dr Thomas’s forehead in spite of his attempts to wipe them away. He took a deep breath. ‘Of beating Longevity,’ he said finally, his eyes widening at the enormity of his words.
‘Beating Longevity?’ Richard looked at him uncertainly. ‘What exactly are you suggesting?’
‘I’m suggesting that we have a big problem,’ Dr Thomas said, his voice cracking. ‘I’m saying that if Longevity can’t fight this virus, then . . . then . . .’ He took a deep breath. ‘Then we’re all going to die.’
Richard nodded, digesting this. ‘Die,’ he said thoughtfully. Then he shook his head. ‘Impossible. Longevity is invincible. You know that. Everyone knows that. Our society is built on that reassuring fact, Doctor. I am the most powerful man in the world because of that fact. There is no virus that Longevity can’t destroy. Man is immune to illness, to ageing, to death. There must be another explanation.’
‘No,’ Dr Thomas said, shaking his head. ‘No, Richard, you’re wrong.’
‘I’m wrong?’ Richard looked with interest at the scientist he had known for so long, the man who had served him faithfully for decades, never questioning him, barely even daring to look him in the eyes. Until now. ‘That’s a bold accusation.’
Dr Thomas sighed heavily. ‘I’m sorry, sir. I didn’t mean – it’s just that the enormity of this – if I’m right, what it means for me, for you, for everyone . . .’ He was sweating heavily now. Richard looked away in distaste.
‘If you’re right,’ he growled. ‘So at least you’ll admit there is a chance that you’re wrong. And may I suggest that this chance is a very big one. You are not a brilliant scientist, Doctor. You did not invent Longevity; you did not invent anything. You simply research things I ask you to and give me your findings. So please excuse me if I don’t take your proclamation of the end of the world too seriously. Or even at all seriously.’
‘But if this virus is left to spread there’s going to be an epidemic,’ Dr Thomas said, wringing his hands desperately. ‘Longevity has suppressed our immune systems – we don’t have need for them. A virus like this could kill millions. Hundreds of millions.’ His face twisted uncomfortably.
‘And that’s it? That’s all you have for me?’ Richard’s eyes narrowed angrily.
Dr Thomas cleared his throat. ‘I wondered if maybe we should consider Old Medicine,’ he said cautiously. ‘If we go back through the files, tweak one or two old drugs, I’m sure we can come up with something that might help. Antivirals. Even antibiotics, for secondary infections. The incubating period for this virus is five months. If we could develop a vaccine, perhaps, then we could –’
‘Old Medicine? Old drugs?’ Richard cut in angrily, his face creased with incredulity. ‘You want us to go back to the Dark Ages when each disease had to be treated separately, when it was a fight just to keep people alive?’ He could feel the vein in his neck throbbing angrily.
‘No. I mean yes. I mean, we have to do something, don’t we?’ He was agitated; Richard could see the fear in his face as he spoke.
‘And then what? We wait for the next virus to take hold?’ Richard could hear the stress in his own voice and forced himself to take control.
Dr Thomas looked up. ‘I don’t know,’ he said quietly, his shoulders slumping. I’m just looking for answers like everyone else. I don’t want to die, Mr Pincent. I don’t want my family to die. I don’t . . .’
He didn’t finish the sentence; instead he started to sob quietly, pathetically.
Richard turned away, searching for anything to look at other than Dr Thomas and the body laid out on the slab. But there were no windows to relieve his sudden claustrophobia – nothing but grey walls. This was a room, like others around it, that had been used variously over the years as a torture chamber, a prison, a hiding place. It swallowed its inhabitants whole, rarely returning them to the land of the living.
‘You appear to have lost faith,’ he said eventually.
Dr Thomas looked at him uncomfortably. ‘I
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