In all this modern madness and mayhem (of which I fully approve, naturally), what’s needed is a tale of woe to lower your spirits and dampen your enthusiasm. I have, of course, just such a tale to hand. Here we go…
Leaving the Dream
The stern lady behind the plexiglass screen glared at Philip. “Hand on the scanner.” Her lips barely broke their sneer.
Philip knew the routine. It was the same as everywhere else. He placed his left hand on the pad and watched the embedded chip, in the flesh beside his thumb, glow that sickly green.
The woman turned to regard the screen beside her. “Philip Armitage. Status amber. You have missed three vaccinations.” She scrolled down a long list. “Boosters for measles, malaria and scrofula.”
Philip raised his eyebrows. “I thought I was up to date.”
The woman snorted. “They always do. Go into the booth and wait. When your vaccinations are updated, you will be permitted to enter.”
As Philip took his hand off the scanner, a disinfectant mist sprayed over its surface.
In the booth, with the door closed, Philip waited patiently. He wondered when those vaccinations had expired. Yesterday he was at the supermarket and they were fine, everything was showing green. He shrugged. It was worth it to visit Grandad. The ones the woman had mentioned probably weren’t expensive, so it wasn’t an issue. He’d need them updated anyway, to be sure his children didn’t get taken into care.
Presently the door opened and a white coated man came in, wearing a bubble helmet and pushing a trolley. He consulted a small tablet.
“Mister Philip Armitage. Boosters for measles, malaria and scrofula, yes?”
“That’s right.” Philip rolled up his sleeve. “I have no idea what those diseases are, you know?”
The man laughed as he filled the first syringe. “Nobody does, because we’re all vaccinated against them. We don’t have to experience them any more.” All three syringes filled, the man rolled the trolley beside Philip. “Well, as long as we are up to date. The unvaccinated can still infect us, of course.”
Philip winced at the first injection. “There can’t be any of the unvaccinated left, surely?”
The man picked up the second syringe. “Sometimes we come across those who won’t update their medications. They have fallen for the conspiracy theories. They are a danger to our safety so they have to be isolated.” He stuck the second needle into Philip’s arm. “But there is nothing to worry about. They are soon removed from the rest of us.”
“Where do they go?”
The man drew a breath. “Isolation camps, I think.” He avoided eye contact as he injected the third vaccine. “Okay, you’re up to date. Your account will be debited for these three shots.” He checked his tablet. “You should be okay for at least three months. Then you’ll be due for flu and chicken pox shots.”
Philip rolled down his sleeve. I wonder how much this will cost. It would have been rude to ask. The vaccines were for everyone’s benefit and you couldn’t put a price on that. He simply thanked the man and returned to the receptionist.
“Hand on the scanner.” She hadn’t improved her public relations skills in the last few minutes, Philip noted.
He placed his hand on the scanner. The woman checked her screen.
“Hm. You’re up to date.” She pressed a buzzer and a door opened beside the reception booth. “Go to visiting room seven. It’s been disinfected.”
“Thank you.” Philip walked through the door, rubbing his arm. These constant injections hurt and sometimes caused fever, but that just proves they are working. That’s what all the doctors say. He walked along to a door with a seven stencilled on to it, pushed it open and entered.
“You’re bloody late,” boomed the voice from the speakers.
Philip dashed to the console and reduced the volume. He smiled through the plexiglass partition. “Sorry, Grandad. I had to have some vaccines updated before they let me in.”
The old man sniffed. “Well it’s not as if I have all the time in the world. I’ll be seventy in three days.”
“I know.” Philip sat in front of the screen. “We’re planning to visit for your birthday. One at a time, of course. That’s the rules.”
His grandfather, Judas Armitage, rubbed his forehead. His hand seemed to rub across his eyes as he lowered it. He took a breath. “You won’t need to. I won’t be here.”
Philip narrowed his eyes. “Grandad? Is something happening to you? Is this why you wanted me to visit today?”
His grandad’s brow furrowed. “So which vaccines did you get today?”
Philip shrugged. “Boosters for measles, malaria and scrofula. Why?”
Grandad shook with laughter. “My parents named me well. I wonder how they knew?” He took a few deep breaths. “Okay. I’m going to tell you things that will horrify you. I’m sorry, Philip, but all this mess is partly my fault.”
“What mess?” Philip shook his head. “Are you going daft in your old age? We’re safer than we’ve ever been. I know you used to work for a vaccine company so you helped the world become this safe. What do you mean, your fault?”
“Just be quiet and listen. Right. First of all, measles vaccine has never needed a booster. Malaria has never been a problem in this part of the world, and as far as I can recall, nobody has had scrofula since the fifteenth century.” He looked into Philip’s eyes. “Scrofula vaccine was my idea.”
“Shush. You won’t be able to tell many people what I’m going to tell you. Maybe there’s nobody left to tell. Maybe, one day, you’ll tell it to one grandchild, the one you trust the most. Just so the knowledge doesn’t die out.”
“Grandad…” Philip stared at the emergency button. Should he call a nurse?
“Don’t even bloody think about pressing that button, boy.” His grandad glared at him. “What I’m telling you is truth and you won’t hear much of that these days.”
Philip sighed and nodded. Grandad was on one of his rants. Best to just let him roll it out, better get it over with today so he’d be okay for his birthday.
Grandad rubbed his face. “Okay. When I worked on vaccines, I was the one who came up with the idea for a scrofula vaccine, among many others. One in particular will haunt me in my grave.” He lowered his head. “I had been talking with the agricultural department and they told me about Marek’s disease.”
“You found a vaccine for it?”
“No. There was already a vaccine. But it wasn’t perfect. Marek’s disease doesn’t affect humans, it’s only a problem in chickens. The vaccine didn’t stop infection but it reduced symptoms in infected birds.”
“We have some like that. They’re…”
“I’m coming to that. The thing is, the leaky vaccine for Marek’s disease led to the development of a very nasty strain of the disease. Vaccinated birds got sick but recovered. Unvaccinated birds almost always died.” Grandad leaned forward. “It meant that all birds had to be vaccinated, forever. It was a permanent income stream with no way to stop it. Do you see?”
Philip’s head swam. “But vaccines stop us getting sick, or at least make it so we don’t die. Aren’t the Pharmers trying to save us?”
“Oh hell no.” Grandad laughed. “The Pharmers are out to make money. It’s business. They don’t want to cure anything. Cured people stop buying drugs.” He took a few minutes to compose himself. “I was one of them. I saw that if we could induce a version of Marek’s disease in humans then we could sell all of them vaccines, forever. If they refused to take it, they’d die. And, with a coronavirus, we did it.”
“You gave humans a chicken disease?”
“No. We made a human disease mutate into something deadly. Using leaky vaccines. Now you have to keep taking six-monthly shots for that one or you risk a quick death from the vicious variant.” Grandad lowered his head. “I am sorry, Phil. Really. None of us saw where this was going to end up. We were only focused on profit.”
Philip pressed his hands to his head. “I don’t get it. Are you saying a vaccine made a disease worse? How is that possible?”
“It’s like this. Take a deadly disease, like say, Ebola. It kills most of the infected and it kills them pretty fast. So it doesn’t spread too far. People soon stay away from the infected area and the infection burns out.” Grandad licked his lips. “Then a pretty harmless one, like a cold. Hardly kills anyone and it’s mostly just a nuisance. Spreads like crazy because it isn’t really doing much harm. People aren’t much bothered about it.”
“Okay. I get it.” He didn’t, but Philip thought it best to play along.
Grandad raised his finger. “So you get a deadly disease like Ebola and vaccinate people, but imperfectly, so they still get it but it feels like a common cold. What do you think happens next?”
Philip shook his head.
Grandad sighed. “You have Ebola that spreads like a cold. The vaccinated survive it, the unvaccinated don’t. Just like Marek’s disease in chickens. You have to keep up your vaccinations or this thing, which you’ve been told is all over the place now because the vaccinated can still carry it, will kill you.”
An uneasy feeling twisted Philip’s guts. He wasn’t sure he understood but somewhere, deep in his subconscious, alarm bells were ringing. “Yes, but as long as we keep up the vaccinations we’re fine, right?”
“Oh sure. That’s the part we thought was pure profit. We didn’t consider politics. It wasn’t our thing.”
Grandad spread his fingers on the table. “It soon escalated. You had to prove you had the coronavirus vaccine. Then you had to prove you had the flu vaccine. Then a whole shitload of other vaccines, including vaccines against things you’d never come in contact with. Then boosters, even for things that didn’t need boosters. Oh we were coining it in. It was great. Until the politicians found the loophole.”
“Um…” Philip considered the emergency button again.
“The politicians figured out how to cut back on pensions and the cost of care for the elderly. Like me. You get to a certain age, you’re no longer productive, you cost money rather than pay in taxes and they can just stop the vaccine and let you die. That is what will happen to me now. I retired at sixty-five. They gave me a few more years because I was one of those who made it possible.” He looked into Philip’s eyes. “Don’t spend money on presents for my birthday.”
“Oh come on Grandad. You don’t believe the government will kill you.”
“Governments have killed their own people since governments were invented.” Grandad leaned forward. “They have killed people who disagreed with them, or who were inconvenient, since the beginning. Sometimes millions. It is still happening. They will kill me in a few days. They will kill you when you are no longer productive. They will not be blamed. It will be blamed on a disease variant from the unvaccinated, even though it actually comes from the vaccinated.” Grandad fell silent, his chin in his chest and his lip trembling.
“Are you okay, Grandad? Should I call a nurse?” Philip leaned closer to the plexiglass screen.
“No. I mean yes. I mean I’m okay. Don’t call the nurses.” Grandad rubbed at his eyes before looking up. He stared right into Philip’s eyes. “It wasn’t all that dangerous, you know. The one we picked. I picked. The others were against it at first but I convinced them, as I did with the ridiculous scrofula vaccine.”
“I don’t understand, Grandad. How did it get so dangerous?”
Grandad bit his lip. “I thought I’d explained that. Maybe I didn’t explain it so well. I guess they stopped teaching many aspects of science years ago, so you wouldn’t figure it out for yourself.” He stretched and settled in his chair. “Most viruses mutate.” He held up his hand to forestall Philip’s response. “I know, that’s what you hear every day and it’s why you need so many vaccines.”
“Isn’t it true?”
“Yes, it is true. Some viruses mutate very fast, they can throw up many new variants in a matter of weeks. Those viruses tend to become less dangerous over time.”
“But—” Philip shook his head. “You said you made one more dangerous.”
“That’s right.” Grandad reached for the glass of water on his table and took a sip. “Normally, natural selection would favour the less dangerous variants. The really bad ones put you in bed for a few weeks, the milder ones just gave you the sniffles. So the milder one spreads very much faster and if you catch the mild one, you’re immune to the vicious one. The vicious one dies out while the mild one stays around.”
Philip closed his eyes. This made sense yet it was the opposite of what he had always been taught. Mutant viruses were always more dangerous – but here was his grandfather, with a lifetime’s knowledge of the subject, telling him the opposite.
“Are you taking this in?” Grandad tapped on the plexiglass. “There isn’t much time to make you understand. These visits are limited, we only have a few minutes more and there won’t be another one.”
“Yes, Grandad. I think so.” Philip opened his eyes. Through the screen, his grandad glowered from beneath bushy white eyebrows.
“Just remember it. You can work it out later when you have time to think.” Grandad composed himself. “Okay. What the Marek’s vaccine did, and what we did, was to create a population who were resistant to the more vicious form. They didn’t get confined to bed, they didn’t feel all that sick at all. So they spread the more vicious variant around. Among themselves it felt like a cold, but when it got into someone unvaccinated, it was deadly.”
Grandad lapsed into silence. Philip wondered if he had fallen asleep but he still sat upright. When he looked up there were tears in his eyes.
“We didn’t mean to kill so many people.” Grandad drew his sleeve across his eyes. “The first round of vaccines caused so many deaths, so many ruined lives. We couldn’t stop. It was too late. The Marek variant of our virus had started to appear and we had no choice but to vaccinate everyone. The vaccines were killing and crippling people but if we stopped, the vaccinated would kill everyone unvaccinated.” He drew a deep breath. “I don’t suppose you are understanding this entirely. I should have started telling you much sooner. Well, it can’t be helped. This is my last chance.”
Philip pressed his hands to his face. “Come on, Grandad. First you say the government is going to kill you and now you’re claiming to be a mass murderer? How can I take this in?”
Grandad shrugged. “Neither was intentional. Obviously we didn’t want people to die. Our only focus was profit from selling medications, and the dead don’t need medications.”
“But you kept going.”
“We had to.” Grandad stared into Phil’s eyes. “Don’t you see? The virus we had forced into existence was running rampant. We thought… we thought it would just need to apply to that one virus. We didn’t consider the politicians and their bosses.”
“Their bosses? I thought the politicians were in charge.”
Grandad snorted. “That would be a story for another time, if we had another time. I’m afraid it’s something you’ll have to find out yourself.” He took another sip of water. “Look. Those ‘boosters’ you just had? Sterile saline. They do nothing. They aren’t needed so why take a risk? We were promised huge profits if we played along and the business I was in has only ever cared about profits.”
Phil felt his arm, where the injections had just gone in. “So I paid for salty water?”
“Yep. And you’ve paid for a lot of it over the years. Only a few vaccines are real now. Most of the ones on that long, long list are made-up crap just to keep you in line, and keep you paying.”
“So I could just stop them all and I’d be fine?” Phil stared at his hand, still holding his arm.
Grandad snorted. “Yes, but you’d have to run. Once the system flags you up as an anti-vaxxer – and you only have to miss a booster for a few days – they will come looking for you. Either you take the booster or you can’t buy anything, can’t pay rent, can’t travel… it’s really not an easy choice to make.”
“So it’s impossible.”
Grandad bit his lip. “No. Quite a few have done it. You’d have to find them and they don’t want to be found. They aren’t in the cities…” His voice faded into silence.
Philip blinked a few times. “They live outside quarantine? How? There’s nothing but scorched earth out there.”
“That’s what you’ve been told. Is any of this sinking in? Almost everything you’ve been told has been lies. There was no global warming catastrophe. Even our Marek variant has become rare. These are not cities, they are prisons, and they are becoming increasingly isolated from each other.” Grandad wiped at his eyes again. “The unvaccinated are the only hope for humanity now. You should take your family on a day trip out of the city and just not come back. Find them. It won’t be easy, our government is hunting them so they are very elusive.”
“Grandad…” Philip shook his head in an attempt to stop it spinning. “You’re turning my world upside down. I can’t take this in. Where are these unvaccinated? Aren’t they all diseased?”
“Of course they’re not diseased. If they were, they’d have died out.” Grandad lowered his generous eyebrows to give his favourite glare again. “They are healthier than any of us. Stronger, fitter, faster. I met some of them, years ago. They invited me to join them but how could I? They would soon have found out who I was and what I had done. I couldn’t live with it.”
“You could have left? But I thought the unvaccinated were all sent into isolation.”
Grandad laughed, long and hard. “Oh yes, they go into the strictest isolation of all if they’re caught. Individual accommodation six feet underground.”
Philip furrowed his brow. “Really? Isn’t that expensive?”
Grandad rolled his eyes. “Coffins, you idiot. They are killed.”
Philip pressed his arms around his midriff. His guts felt as though they were intent on some kind of intestinal origami and he didn’t think he’d like the result. All this information. All the contradictions. He’d expected a nice chat with Grandpa and here he was with his life being torn asunder, his beliefs shredded and his trust in authority demolished. Philip threw his head back and groaned.
“It’s a lot to take in, lad.” Grandad placed his hand on the plexiglass screen. “I really should have started sooner but there never seemed to be a right time. Now you’ll know I’m telling the truth in a few days, when you get the call.”
“You won’t be allowed another visit. Tell your kids Great-Grandad was thinking of them. Tell your sister too, she won’t be allowed in here now either. And I’m sorry, but I’ve forced your hand on this. It’s for the best.”
“What are you talking about?” Philip wondered if Grandad was finally losing his marbles.
“These visits are monitored. Call tomorrow to try to arrange a visit. They’ll tell you I’m too ill for a visit. They’ll be watching you because they know what I’ve just told you. You will have to move, and soon, without arousing suspicion. It’s going to be a hard life for you and your family now.”
“Grandad, you’re rambling. Have you taken your meds today?”
A red light flashed on the ceiling. Grandad stared up at it. “Time’s up. Don’t do anything unusual. Wait for the call.”
“What call?” Philip tapped at the intercom but no sound came out. “Is this thing on?”
Through the screen, Grandad shook his head, slowly. Behind Grandad, a door opened and a nurse in a bubble helmet entered, pushing a wheelchair. Grandad glanced at her and looked back at Philip. He mouthed some words, slowly, then sat in the chair and allowed the nurse to wheel him out.
The lights on Grandad’s side went out. On Philip’s side, a buzzer sounded and the door behind him clicked open.
Philip stood still for a few minutes, staring into the darkened half of the room behind the plexiglass screen. His mind went over Grandad’s last mouthed syllables time and again, but they always returned the same answer.
‘The call that tells you I’ve died’.
Philip left the room in a daze. His life was about to change in ways he could not even conceive, and he had to admit, a part of him welcomed it.