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Graduation

They had let her out on the morning of her graduation. Two years, four months, and five days after entering isolation and six months after widespread adoption of the vaccine. They’d lied about almost everything on the program including how long they needed her for. April hung on to the only things that she still believed were true: her blood had saved her friend and would vaccinate the globe. She’d spent most of her life isolated and now she was connected to almost everyone through millions on millions of injections of something synthesised from inside her.

She felt awkward and out of place in the Great Hall. It was the first set of ceremonies to be conducted back in the Wills Memorial since 2019, more than a decade ago, the first time that everyone felt safe converging in such numbers in a confined space. They had arranged a gown for her and let her change at the hospital before a taxi had picked her up to drive her into town. She had kept it from her parents, there would be time to call them later and she hadn’t wanted them to come straight away. She couldn’t really explain it but she’d completed her studies shut away, it was hers and hers alone and she wanted to keep them separate from her memories of her time in Bristol.

In the cab on the way over she had dropped a text to Aps, just a jokey thing commenting on the weather: beautiful day for a graduation. She knew they’d all had their ceremonies already as the scientists (even the pseudo ones like Leah) had been earlier in the week; she’d listened to them all chat about it on one of their regular video calls and been bombarded with photos afterwards, the usual shots of mortar boards thrown into the air, friends arm in arm, laughing families.

There was a shot of Aps that she loved, eyes glowing, facing down the camera with a broad smile. There was no trace of the shattered and wrecked girl that she’d seen in the HDU, no vestige of the months and months of rehabilitation she’d worked through, rebuilding her body, processing what had happened. They had clung to each other for the last two years, speaking every day, working through their memories of their shared experiences and talking about what they were facing now. April would read to her in the first few weeks of her recovery, dialling her up on video, and voicing over whatever she was studying. Later, as Aps got better, she took over the lead on their conversations and April was grateful for that; there were only so many ways to describe her day when every day was basically the same in isolation.

The pictures of Leah and Cora also brought her joy. Leah had grown her hair out, falling down across her shoulders. It was how she wore her hair growing up, she said, when they’d first moved to Italy. Her parents had flown over for her graduation and there were several shots of her and her dad pulling faces at the camera before a final one of the two of them, his arm across her shoulders, him looking at her with a quiet pride. Cora was mostly alone in her pictures but looked content and comfortable in herself. April knew she’d met someone in the last few months, they were taking it slow but it was making her happy. Cora had confided in her the day of her ceremony. She’d hesitated a little as she’d said that she would always love Rob but that she thought that it was finally time to move on.

April took a seat towards the back of the hall which was beginning to fill up. Everyone else gravitated towards the front, filling the rows with the best view. She didn’t mind. She didn’t really know anyone, they’d tried dialling her in on seminars but it had never properly worked trying to keep up with the flow of discussion in the room. They had usually forgotten she was there, a disembodied face on a propped up tablet. Towards the end she’d managed with just viewing the lectures and picking up one to one conversations with her tutor. She had hoped to meet him but couldn’t pick him out in the sea of faces and she felt still too uncertain to try and mingle in the crowd. It was only after she sat down that she realised how overwhelming it all was, like she was undergoing some sort of social bends, coming back up into a large group of people too quickly after so long on her own.

She took a deep breath and stood up. This was too much. She turned to leave.

In the doorway were three women. They weren’t wearing gowns and looked slightly breathless, flush in the cheeks, as if they’d just run up the gothic stairs on their way to the hall. One of them saw her and pointed. And then they were all running, all four, them to April and April to them. She felt arms around her for the first time in two years. They stayed like that for a long time.

“Why are you crying?” said Leah, finally. “You got a first.”

“Yeah,” agreed Cora. “It’s us that should be in tears. We didn’t have to study on our own for our degree and you still did better than us. I think the University’s a bit embarrassed about it to be honest, you’ve made them look bad.”

“They’ll spin it as evidence of the effectiveness of their distance learning programs,” said Leah. “And, I don’t know how to break this to you Cora but we are all kind of crying.”

“What are you doing here?” said April. “How did you know?”

“Really?” said Aps. “You think we wouldn’t figure out your cryptic little text. Absolutely classic April, can’t just come out with it and ask us to come.”

“I never was very good at asking people for help. Ask my therapist.”

“Which one?” said Leah. April laughed.

“Hey, now you’ve graduated you could be April’s new therapist,” said Aps.

“I really don’t think that’s going to work,” said April.

“You could be my lifetime study,” said Leah. “Don’t rule it out. I’ve already worked out our first session. Tonight. Classics night at the Kandi. Classics with an x, obviously, you haven’t missed that much. Indie dance therapy. I’m going to get it peer reviewed, imagine it will be bigger than CBT.”

“I never really got on with CBT,” said April. “But screaming Nirvana songs in your face under a strobe light I think I can get on board with.”

Cora gestured towards the front of the hall where some members of faculty and local dignitaries were taking their place on a stage underneath the building’s dome. Someone tapped a microphone and the four of them squeezed into seats on the back row, Cora and Leah flanking April and Aps in the middle.

Aps held April’s hand until her friend’s name was read out. She gave it a squeeze and let go and they all watched her walk to the front to receive her honours.

Alone but not lonely.

April alone

April like to be alone. Not lonely, that was different, that felt unasked for, unchosen, but alone was fine. This felt lonely.

She had been unconscious for three weeks. There was an old Joe Strummer song she liked called Coma Girl that she’d sung afterwards; nobody else seemed to find it as funny as her but nobody else was carrying as much darkness as she was. Too many dark secrets. In some ways she’d preferred it when she was in the coma. It was more honest at least.

They’d brought her back as her blood levels had stabilised, when they were sure her organs weren’t about to shut down. They’d flustered around her, treated her with kid gloves as if scared that they might break her again but she knew it was less about her and more about what she represented to them. She was vaccine. And based on her first conversations about what happened next she was vaccine and not heard. She’d signed the papers to save Aps, waived her rights, offered up her immunity, and agreed to submit to whatever was required to produce the cure. They said it was for her own protection, that it would be too much of a burden to be known publicly as the girl-that-saved-humanity (her embellishment, they’d said something slightly drier). She wasn’t entirely convinced that Vaccine Girl would be joining the celebrity ranks of the Avengers any time soon but was more inclined to believe their other arguments, notably that she might receive a lot of unwelcome attention from the anti-vax movement. It was still a minority fringe but the idea that the virus was a result of mankind’s desire to immunise itself against disease had picked up some traction. All of the test facilities and labs were anonymous now. And it looked like she was too.

They wouldn’t make promises but said they’d probably need her for a year. Maybe eighteen months to be sure. They weren’t really apologetic about it – there’s nobody else that has shown your immune response so we’ve got no choice – but had said that they would be able to open up her contacts, electronically, as long as she stuck to the script. She could continue with her studies remotely, it had all been arranged, most of the lectures were recorded anyway for people that struggled to make it to campus to fulfil their difficult five hours a week schedule. April hadn’t been one of those people. She didn’t mind about the lectures but she knew she would miss the arguments in her tutorials, the smell of books and the silence in the library which had an almost tangible quality, not just the absence of noise but the particular sound of people consciously not making noise. She would miss the walk down to the University and the bustle of the Union bar on a Friday afternoon and the smell of spilt beer on pub floors and the feeling of dancing through dry ice in a club.

Mostly she would miss her friends. It surprised her how much this was true, how much it had become true in the last few months since they’d met as strangers, shared a house, and formed their little coven. She knew no-one except her was calling it a coven. She wanted Leah’s standard greeting, an exaggerated kiss on both cheeks; she wanted Cora to  braid her hair, feel her tease out her tangles and smooth down the strands; she wanted to walk arm in arm with Aps, listening to her talk and talk and talk. She wanted to touch Aps most of all, to feel that she was really there, that she really came back, that she really did save her. She’d seen them all, part of her new video call friendship community but it didn’t feel real until she could hold and be held.

Her captors (again, her embellishment but, hey, this one was broadly true) tried to sell her on her sacrifice. You stay here, they get to go out, and maybe we get to stop this whole thing. She couldn’t argue with it, with its relentless rationale and logic. She could live with that but still couldn’t live with the deception and the cost. Aps had nearly died. If they’d just asked her then she’d have signed up for whatever they needed. She was sure she would. Mostly she was sure she would.

April, you alone can help us with this. Nobody else has your blood profile, your immune response. The whole program rests on you, so we had no choice. You alone.

Her phone rang. April hesitated before picking up, the screen announcing that it was Aps calling which meant that it would be all of them. This was how they usually called. She pressed the button to answer, turned her face to the screen, the small, circular camera, and waited. There was a brief pause as they connected.

“Hey April, it’s us, we see you… we still see you.”

Transfusion

It helped to think of it as an act of connection. April liked to imagine that they would run a tube from her arm straight over to Aps, joining them together, allowing her blood to flow directly across. She knew it wouldn’t be like that. They had explained it to her as simply as they could, how they’d take her donation and then need to filter it, clean it, then they’d do the transfusion. She preferred to think of it as her giving a part of herself to her friend. An act of connection.

She had signed something to say that she understood the risks. They needed an unusually high volume of blood plasma because of Aps’ worsening condition. It had emerged that the Victory program, as intended, had involved infecting a low risk patient and then testing them with a synthesised vaccine borne from an immune host’s blood. April had listened to the rational, detached description of it all but all she could think was that their low risk patient was currently in high dependency, fighting for her life. Their grand test of whether her immunity was transferable had become pretty binary: Aps lives or Aps dies. In that analysis April weighed all the risks to herself as secondary.

There was more, though, in her blood contract. No disclosure. She wasn’t sure what exactly they would do if she told her story but they gave strong hints that they would just deny and discredit her. Just another hysterical conspiracy theorist to add to the pile. It was true that nobody really fully trusted official sources anymore but they didn’t trust  the alternatives either; truth couldn’t stand buried under lies. She had to submit to an extended stay in the ICU so that they could run more tests, make sure they could successfully develop a vaccine that didn’t rely on permanently draining her of fluid, like she was a bath they had to refill before pulling the plug, sluicing another body full of blood down the drain.

There was a time, not that long ago, where the prospect of the additional stay of isolation wouldn’t have bothered her. Six months, twelve months, make it as many months as you like. She liked being alone and would live inside her own head. It might not always be happy but it was home. It felt different now, it felt like she was giving up a community that she wanted to be part of, people that had coaxed her out of her own head and helped her stand outside, blinking in the sunshine. She knew she could do it, she had the resources to disappear back into herself and hide away, but she wasn’t sure how easy it would be to come back out again. Maybe this would be her last act of connection.

They’d let her see Aps again before they took her to take the blood. She’d stood at the glass and seen a pale facsimile of the person she’d talked and danced and drank and sang and joked with. April closed her eyes and conjured an image of them, the four of them, Leah and Cora were there too. She remembered them walking arm in arm by the harbour in the early evening, winding their way to another pub, laughing about some guy that had just hit on Leah, anticipating another night out. She remembered them in a circle on the dance floor, baiting each other to pull some ridiculous shapes, watching Aps always, always default to the Watusi because she’d seen Uma Thurman do it in some 90s movie. The one time they’d persuaded her to join them in some star jumps she’d slipped over on a stray spillage and had just lay on the floor laughing until they’d helped her up. Movin’ On Up had permanently been rechristened as Fallin’ On Down from that moment on. And look at us now. April opened her eyes. We’ve never been this far down before.

They took her to another room in HDU and waited whilst she changed into a loose hospital gown behind a screen, fumbling at tying a bow in the draw strings behind her head. She lay down on a bed in the middle of the room and stared at the ceiling, grimacing slightly at a sudden scratch on her arm and the feel of something sliding under the line of her skin. She closed her eyes and tried to shut out the chatter of voices from in the room, calls to monitor her blood pressure, someone calling out measurements, litres upon litres. The voices faded as the numbers rose higher.

 

Suspended

It was harder being out, separated, than being in, isolated. At least before they had shared experience to rally around, something that connected them. This shouldn’t have changed anything, not really, but it didn’t feel like that. Leah and Cora had been allowed to leave quarantine on day seven, neither of them testing positive, neither of them showing any symptoms. They’d both argued against it. None of them had spoken to Aps for two days, everyone repeatedly stone-walled with standard responses when they asked how she was: her condition is stable, we can’t give out more details except to immediate family, her condition is stable, she is getting the best care, her condition is stable, you can’t do anything for her, her condition is stable. April hadn’t been released but she didn’t know why. She was also asymptomatic and testing negative, they’d told her they wanted to run some more diagnostics.

Cora had suggested they go for a walk. They had seemed to swap imposed confinement for self-imposed confinement, the two of them not sure what to do while they waited for news. April had encouraged them to get out: I was built for this, you two flakes need your fresh air and nature and real world stuff, you’re useless living in your own heads. I’ll call you if they tell me anything. I promise. They had relented and set out on a circuit of the Downs, the nearest green space, still dotted with groups of people in the late afternoon sunshine. They didn’t speak much at first, just walked, neither taking the lead. That Spring the four of them had quite often picked their way down past the zoo and sat overlooking the suspension bridge, sometimes taking a bottle of wine, to watch the sky fade into greys and pinks at sunset. By unspoken agreement Leah and Cora retraced those steps and sat down a bank of grass overlooking the brick towers and curved iron chains of the old bridge.

Cora lay on her back, feeling the grass press into her neck, one hand over her eyes against the sun, the other twirling a daisy between her fingers. Leah sat cross-legged looking out at the view over the gorge. She was thinking about the time they’d tried to drag April across but she’d refused to move from the viewing platform by the first tower and watched the three of them traverse the narrow walkway. They’d signalled at each other across the divide when they reached the other side. She couldn’t remember it exactly but she thought they had attempted to spell something out with their hands; April had just blown them a kiss and asked them why they were doing YMCA when they got back.  She took a photo of the view on her phone and sent it to April and Aps as a message accompanied with a waving emoji.

Cora propped herself up on her elbows. “Have you heard anything?”

Leah shook her head. “Sorry, no, I was just taking a picture. Thought I’d send them something to try and cheer them up.”

“April refusing to come across with us?”

“Yeah,” said Leah. “What were we trying to signal to her from the other side? I’m not sure if I’ve remembered it right.”

“We were trying to spell out ‘loser’ but no-one could agree on how to do the ‘s’,” said Cora.

“I was hoping it was something more supportive than that but that sounds like us,” said Leah.

Cora rolled the stem of the daisy between her fingers, watching the petals spin, before she flicked it towards Leah. “It’s okay, she knows we love her. And besides didn’t she drink most of the wine while she was waiting for us to cross back? I think she knew what she was doing the whole time.”

“She usually does,” said Leah.

They sat in silence for a while before heading back to the house. As they approached they could see someone standing on their doorstep, he’d rung the bell a couple of times and as they turned into the pathway up to their front door he was bending down, leaving something by the matt on the floor.

“Isn’t that James?” said Leah to Cora, leaning in towards her as they walked. Without waiting for confirmation she called out. “Hey, James. It is James, right?”

He stood up and tugged at his fringe. Leah fully recognised him then. Aps had told them about this habit he had of smoothing his hair when he was nervous, as if he could tease his curls straight if he pulled them enough. It fell back into its unruly tangle.

“Hi, yeah I’m James. You’re Aps’ housemates, aren’t you? Maybe you can help me.”

“Did you just get out?” said Cora. He looked blankly at her. “Like us,” she added. “Did you just get out of ICU?”

“I’m sorry, I don’t understand,” he said. “I haven’t been in isolation. Has something happened?”

“You must have been in,” said Leah. “Standard protocol on a contact trace.”

James held up his hands, gestured that they should slow down. “Hold up, I’m not following. I just came round to drop Aps’ Medlet back.” He held up her old health tracker. “She left it at mine after… after, well after she stayed over. She said she’d call. I thought she was playing it cool, you know first few days, but then I didn’t hear anything and wasn’t sure where I stood. She tried to contact me a couple of days ago but I missed the calls and then she just sent me a weird message apologising.”

Leah moved past him and opened the front door. “You’d better come in. Aps is in ICU, she’s got the virus, and we’ve only just been released from quarantine. It was the day after she spent the night at yours. They must have contacted you.”

James shook his head and followed them into the house. He held up his wrist and showed them his own Medlet. “I’ve been green all week, nothing has changed. I found her tracker later that morning. It was still green too. I think they hold a three hour memory of your last reading so she must have been fine when she left mine.”

“Why didn’t you call her?” asked Cora. “When you found her Medlet?”

He looked away, down at the floor. “I’m sorry. I thought she’d call if she didn’t have a spare. I figured she’d have a back-up, everyone does. Listen, honestly, I’m not too good at starting things with people. I like her. I’d wanted everything to be perfect that night but I don’t know. She seemed a bit off in the morning. I felt a bit embarrassed about calling…”

“This doesn’t make sense,” said Leah. “She got tested at the police station and she was clean. Then she picks it up in the afternoon and they don’t isolate someone she literally slept with the night before.”

“The police station?” said James.

“They picked her up walking home from yours,” said Cora. “No Medlet so they took her in for a standard check. She was lucky she just got a caution.” She touched his arm. “Listen, that’s not your fault.”

“You could have called though,” said Leah. “Whatever, that doesn’t help us now. I think we should contact April, get her to tell them that something might have been missed, that they might have not done the contact tracing properly.” Cora nodded. James looked apprehensive, he had started running his fingers through his hair again.

Leah’s phone vibrated. April had replied to her message, the picture of the bridge, with an ‘x’ and a bottle of wine emoji.

“Yes, let’s ring her,” said Leah, making up her mind. “April will know what to do.”

 

I see you

Seconds ticked into minutes which unfolded into hours that seeped into days. They were apart, locked away in their separate containment units, but together, each of them almost permanently in contact on a four way group video chat. Sometimes nobody even spoke, it just felt reassuring that they could see each other, a slice of the familiar amongst the unfamiliar tangle of tubes, machines, injections and monitors. Something messy and imprecise to break up the clinical precision and routine. Four days compressing ninety six hours folding up five thousand odd minutes tocking hundreds of thousands of seconds.

On the third day Cora had set them all a challenge, something, anything, to keep their attention away from the swirl of questions that nobody seemed to be able to answer for them: how long will we be here, is Aps okay, will we get sick? She’d called it quarantine karaoke, acknowledged that the title needed some work, and told them the rules. One song, each, that they had to sing to each other over the group chat. Original song as backing track accompaniment allowed. Scores awarded based on song selection, vocals, and performance. April had been reluctant but acquiesced on Aps’ insistence that it would cheer her up. Are you guilt tripping me? Yep, 100% but I’ve got the virus so shut up and sing.

Taking it in turns, they sang. None of them had quite known what to expect and it felt strangely raw, intimate, singing to each other through the small screens of their phones. Leah dedicated her song to her dad, said it reminded her of something he used to sing if they caught the early morning ferry down to Como, days when they needed to visit the larger town. Little darlin’, it’s been a long cold lonely winter. She sang it quietly, not really looking directly at them through the screen until they started to join her on the chorus, here comes the sun, and then she stopped, watching them finish it for her, smiling.

Cora declared that she’d only picked her choice for one line, it was the bit in Hotel California about checking out anytime but you can never leave. At the last minute she changed her mind and did a Lewis Capaldi song from when she was a kid. This time none of the others joined in. Cora kept her eyes closed throughout and they sensed, implicitly, that she was singing a lament for Rob, that they were being let in on something private. As she finished Leah blew her a kiss and April clapped her hands quietly. Jesus, Cora, that was beautiful but you’ve made me like Lewis Capaldi. I don’t know whether I should love you or hate you. Cora shook her head and mouthed you-love-it at the screen.

It was Aps that broke up their back-and-forth. The others watched as she sashayed back and forth belting out Taylor Swift’s ‘Red’, pointing at every indication of her infection in her room to accentuate the chorus. Red. Warning light on her Medlet. Red. Biohazard symbol on her door. Red. Virus positive written in the notes hung over the end of her bed. She clowned it up, pirouetting between her bed and the solitary chair that all of the ICUs had, ducked her face out of view before reappearing in extreme close up. It was gloriously funny and inappropriate, the others weren’t sure initially how to react but found themselves caught up in the dark joy of it. They were all laughing so much by the end that it took them a few moments to notice quite how breathless Aps was, ironically how red her cheeks were. She insisted she was okay. No more skipping Spin City when I get out. She nodded at April. Come on, best ’til last.

None of them knew it but it didn’t matter. A solitary guitar chord, a run of bass notes, and then the rumble of a baritone, April whispering over the top of the words, her eyes never leaving Aps through the screen. She told them afterwards that it was Nick Cave, ‘Straight To You’, and that he’d pretty much got her through her isolation first time round. None of them knew it but they heard what it was: a love song, a love-despite-anything song, a towering love-above-all song. Sad songs you can dance to, right? said April at the end. When all this is done I’m going to waltz you round our living room to this. Us April’s got to stick together. Aps just nodded at her. Deal? Aps nodded again.

Day four. Night four. They went to bed, separate in their own contained, isolated rooms, but they left their phones plugged in, switched on, and left the video chat open. They fell asleep to the soft light of backlit mobile screens and the virtual presence of each other.

 

Isolate

April watched the Community Trace Officer work; she had gone straight to Aps and was talking her calmly through the standard protocol. Spot test, assess, isolate, full diagnostic.  It was essentially the same process that April had been through as a kid, except then, without the early warning indication through the Medlet you only got picked up through the regular spot testing that they ran with high risk groups. She’d registered a high temperature that she was pretty sure was just a combination of her period and a regular flu bug that had been doing the rounds. They’d run the blood tests and found a viral infection. Later they recorded it as Covid-27.

The CTO was peeling apart a plastic, airtight package, shaking free a syringe. She was working precisely, quickly, clearly moving through steps that had become routine. She pulled up Aps’ sleeve and wrapped an elasticated blue band around her upper arm. April looked away as she inserted the needle, pulled back the plunger and filled the syringe with blood. Aps had looked away as well. Leah was asking questions about the test which the CTO was answering, her responses polite but not straying much beyond a yes or no. They were clear despite her mask. Yes, this was a spot test. Yes, it was safe. Yes, it was authorised in law. No, she hadn’t heard anyone call it the bad lover. Fast, small prick, unreliable, clarified Leah. No, we don’t call it that. But yes, it’s not completely reliable.

They waited. Aps’ sample had been spread across a thin slip of paper and inserted into a small machine, it looked a bit like a baby monitor that April had once found when she was helping her parents clear out some old things from the loft. Just a large LCD screen a couple of large push buttons, and a slot to push the paper into. Her old baby monitor had just shown room temperature and picked up noise; it would light up like a firework display if she’d either started crying or the ambient climate in her nursery had risen half a degree. She had no idea what this machine would show. Leah was evidently thinking much the same as she continued with her questions. So, when do we get the puff of white smoke? What are we looking for here? Cora was silent but had moved across to Aps’ side and was holding her arm. The CTO ignored them all and just stared at the blood test machine.

Something changed on the LCD. There was no flashing light or shrill alarm, just a few symbols and numbers that appeared. The CTO pulled a phone from her pocket and dialled a contact, holding up her other hand to signal that they should hold their questions. CTO attending case 29, 687, on the A4176. Female, 19 years old. April Daniels. Request immediate dispatch of ICA for four. Need pick up on Miss Daniels and her housemates. Case positive. I repeat, case positive. She hung up the phone and told them to pack some clothes.

“This must be a mistake,” said Aps. “You need to check the machine again.”

“I’m sorry,” said the CTO. “It’s just the spot test so it could be a false positive but the readings are very clear, I haven’t seen one like this that has turned out to be wrong. We need to get you somewhere safe, make sure you’re looked after.”

“I was tested this morning,” said Aps. “Literally this morning. At the police station. They wouldn’t have let me go if their test had come back with anything.”

“A few hours can be a long time in viral infection. I’m sorry but you really should pack some things. The ICA will be here soon and they’ll want to get you all into containment as quickly as they can.”

They all packed, cramming clothes and essentials into bags. Leah had whispered to April: What’s an ICA? Isolation Containment Ambulance, April had shot back. She remembered the one that had taken her to ICU the last time. It had seemed like a normal ambulance to her if she was honest, just with ICA embossed on its side alongside one of those biohazard symbols. At the time she’d thought that bit was pretty cool but it had been during her black metal phase. A couple of years after she’d come out of isolation she’d toyed with getting it inked on her arm, to cover up all the scratches from her testing, but she’d seen a couple of tattooists and they’d said it wouldn’t take properly on her scar tissue. Now she just thought they over dramatised the whole thing, giving everything its own acronym, its own special virus status. The sign served no purpose. Unless the CTOs were going to start projecting it in to the sky every time they picked up a positive to call in an ICA, like the bat signal. Maybe not the bat signal. No-one remembered much of that DC stuff now, it was all Marvel.

When they came back downstairs there were two men, full hazmat suits, waiting for them. The CTO had disappeared. They were gestured towards the front door which was open but as they stepped through it wasn’t into the short path down to the street but into a temporarily erected tunnel, plastic walls supported by flexible rods snapped into rectangles. The tunnel ran straight, just twenty feet or so, directly into the back of the ambulance. It smelt faintly of disinfectant. They were told to move.

April remembered her first time. They’d given her a sweet, told her not to worry about anything, a nurse had held her hand. She’d worn gloves but still, she had held her hand. The same nurse had asked her about her friends, about school, about what subjects she liked, what she wanted to do when she was older. She was just a child and they’d treated her like one. They’d explained everything. She hadn’t known enough to be scared.

Now they were all adults. Barely. They treated them like adults. Explained nothing and asked nothing, nobody held their hands, nobody gave them sweets. They didn’t know enough but they were still scared.

Trace

Cora remembered getting her first Medlet a little differently to the others. There had been a steady improvement in health tracking devices from ’20 onwards but none of them ever hit critical mass across a big enough part of a population to be useful in contact tracing. Governments argued with technology suppliers, nobody could agree a common platform, and some people just refused to wear them. Cora’s own view as a teenager was a more attenuated version of the prevailing mood in Scotland, sceptical and slightly distrustful. After the big Covid-27 outbreak in ’24 things changed. They mass produced the cheap but reliable Medlets and legislated that everyone should wear one, public mood had changed enough that it didn’t raise much debate. Scottish law changed later, holding out for an aligned approach across the EU that never came; there was a straight fault line between north and south.

Cora’s memory was acute because the moment she’d worn it on her wrist she’d felt nothing but guilt and remorse. She had sat in pubs with Rob, talked about freedom and the state and a whole load of bullshit about how nobody was going to tag and trace her. He’d been more laid back about it all, like he was about everything, but he’d said he’d agreed with her. She sometimes wondered if he’d liked seeing her all fired up like that: you’ve got the spirit in you, right enough, Cora. And he’d smile, watching her. She had been convinced that she was right, convinced in the way that only a seventeen year old can be convinced, all black and white before the world shows you that it’s grey. She was sure. And then he died, without warning, and she wasn’t sure of anything anymore.

They had told her afterwards that there was no guarantee that it would have made any difference. It was just there as an early warning signal. Most times it’d be a false alarm, some usual temperature fluctuation, some mis-read fever. Most times. The sceptics still said that the point of the Medlets was never really about the personal warning, it was about the geo-tagging and the tracing, the links to the MedApp and what it allowed local enforcement to do in isolating and locking down pockets of communities. It wasn’t just the sceptics saying that, the scientists were too: they just disagreed on whether that was a good thing or not. Cora didn’t much care about the civil liberties arguments afterwards, she just wanted Rob back and if she could have made that happen, even if it meant everyone else had to stay at home forever then she wouldn’t have thought twice.

She watched the others freeze at the sight of the flashing red warning light on Aps’ Medlet. She knew they were torn between their impulse to reach for her, enfold her, reassure her that it’d be okay, that it was just a warning, torn between that and their fear. It was this abstract fear that they all had, that there was this thing out there that they couldn’t see and it might kill them, but now it wasn’t abstract: it was her. It was a momentary thing. Almost like the briefest inhalation of breath, a heartbeat, and then it passed. They all rushed over to her and smothered her in a jumble of arms and hands. Leah had come out from her room and had half run, half slipped down the stairs to join them in the solidarity of their embrace.

Within five minutes Aps’ phone rang. They all knew that it should but the efficiency of it still felt strange, intrusive. She picked up and had a short conversation with a Community Trace Officer, answering a standard set of questions about her symptoms (“none”) and where she was now, who she was with. That stuff was just for show, they knew exactly where she was and who she was with.

“CTO?” asked April as the call ended.

Aps nodded. “Yep, they’ve registered the warning and said that we can’t leave the house. They’ve dispatched a mobile unit to come round and assess me.”

“You okay?” said Leah.

“I… yeah, I’m okay. Just a bit shocked. I feel fine, maybe it’s a mistake.” She shook her wrist. “This is the new one they gave me this morning, maybe it’s not calibrated right or it’s faulty or something.”

“At least you weren’t long without one,” said Cora. “It’s better to know, right?”

“I guess,” said Aps. “I don’t understand. James left me a message, saying he’d found my old one and it was all showing ‘green’, everything was okay. How can it change so quickly? Don’t they normally cycle through ‘amber’ and stuff first?”

“They’re pretty sensitive now, I think,” said Cora. “Better to be safe than sorry. I’m sure it’s nothing.”

“God, I’m sorry guys,” said Aps. “You should probably all stay away from me or something.”

“Not happening,” said Leah.

“Nope,” said April. “If you’ve got it, we’ve got it. Anyway, I’m Miss Immunity, remember? They tested me practically to destruction so I’m prepared to take my chances on a probably rogue Medlet reading.”

“Do you think I should ring James? Tell him?” said Aps.

“You won’t need to, they’ll do a full contact trace if they follow protocol. Everyone you’ve been near in the last ten days. If you’ve been enough of a social butterfly you might put the whole town back in lockdown.”

“Jesus,” said Aps.

“Really?” said April. “When did you meet him? That’s going to be a bugger to contact trace. At least you know he’ll forgive you.”

“Hey, lapsed Catholic here,” said Leah. “You don’t hear me making jokes about your religion, do you?”

“Satan’s just not that funny,” said April, smirking. “No offence meant. I was just trying to lighten the mood. It’s a new thing I’m trying.”

“Say ten Hail Mary’s and we’ll say nothing else about it,” said Leah.

They saw the flashing lights through the window, the room winking in blues and reds, illuminating their faces as they turned towards the door. The bell rang and Leah, Cora, and April stood first, forming a barrier between Aps and the world outside. The bell rang again, followed by a knock, and a voice calling CTO. 

“It’s okay,” said Aps. “It’s going to be okay.” She slipped in between them and walked to the door, lifting her hand to open it, red light flashing on her wrist.

Better red than dead

“Where’s Leah?” asked Aps. When they’d returned from the police station she’d headed straight for the shower. She’d been in there so long that Cora had knocked on the door, asked if she was okay. She’d been leaning against the tiles, letting the water cascade down on to her head, letting it wash her eyes clear of tears, hoping she could just rinse the whole experience away. She’d told Cora that she was fine and they’d left her to calm down and waited for her downstairs.

“I think she went to call home,” said April. “She was pretty shaken up.”

“I know how she feels,” said Aps. “Have we got any wine?”

Cora reached into the fridge. There was a folded piece of paper in front of a solitary bottle of white at the back on the top shelf; someone had scrawled ‘in case of emergencies break glass’ on it. Cora pulled out the bottle and held up the paper to the others: “This must qualify, right?”

“It’s the exact set of circumstances I had in mind when I put it there,” said April.

They drank and talked. Aps told them what had happened the night before with James, she gave them a version that was sympathetic to him, she didn’t even really know why except that the thought that the night before her worst ever morning after had been a bit of a letdown was too much to cope with right now. They poured her more wine and she told them about the arrest, about the journey in the police car, and the subsequent questions and tests.

“What tests?” said April, leaning forwards. “What did they do to you?”

“Just bloods I think. And temperature, it seemed pretty standard,” said Aps. “They had me a secure isolation unit, a nurse did them. I guess she was a nurse, anyway.”

“Can they do that?” asked Cora. “Just run tests.”

“I think so,” said April. “I think it was one of the changes a couple of years ago. If you’re under caution I think they can take fluids and insist on a full viral check. If you’re out without your Medlet then it makes everyone get pretty twitchy.”

“I didn’t know what to do,” said Aps. “I think I was in shock. I just went along with it all. I barely remembered to ask to make a call and then I phoned you guys. Thank you, by the way. Thank you for coming.”

“Don’t be soft,” said Cora. “Of course we would come.”

“Yeah, it was your turn to clean the bathrooms on the rota,” said April, smiling.

“This must get me out of that,” said Aps. “Come on, what’s a girl got to do?”

“Oh, you’d need to have at least spent a night in the cells to get out of that,” said April. “You just had a scary arrest, some mildly intrusive medical tests, and a caution. That barely offsets your night of passion with Jamesy boy.”

“Yeah, and we’ve totally gone easy on asking you about that,” added Cora. “Details will be required at a later date. All the details.”

Aps listened to them talk for a bit, swapping slightly lewd observations about what her night had been like, most of them better than the reality. She picked at the strips of tape holding the cotton wool in place on her arm from where they’d scraped at her skin for a blood sample. She teased up the end of the tape and pulled it away quickly. There was a small, red circle on the inside of her arm. It had all happened in a blur and she tried to sort the fragments of her memory to form a clearer recollection of what had happened. She’d rolled up her sleeve, that part was clear. Then she’d looked away. It was something she’d done since she was a kid, she’d never really liked needles and blood. Just look away. There’ll be a small scratch and then you won’t feel a thing. Just like the night before. When she looked back she was being taped up.

Aps’ phone started to vibrate in her pocket. She pulled it out and saw that it was James trying to call; she let it ring through to voicemail. “It’s James,” she said to the others, acknowledging their enquiring looks.

“He’s certainly keen,” said Cora. “You going to answer?”

Aps shook her head and waited for her phone to ring again if he’d left a message. He had. She picked up. “Hey, er, Aps, it’s me, James. Thanks for a lovely night. I just thought you should know that you left your Medlet here. I can drop it round if it’s easier for you. Nothing to worry about, it’s all flashing green.”

“Voicemail,” said Aps. “He’s found my missing Medlet and wants to drop it round.”

“At least it wasn’t your pants,” said April. “Could have been way more embarrassing.”

“That will be covered in the details required at a later date,” said Cora. ” And, for the record, I don’t believe that what Aps was wearing that night would have been described as pants. The lady has some class.”

“Best pants, then,” said April. “Probably not the ones with the bunny rabbits on.”

“How do you know about those?” said Aps, sitting up suddenly.

“Shared house. Shared washing machine. No secrets,” said April. “They’re cute. I mean, I wouldn’t wear them, not being, you know, seven, but they’re cute. Very you.”

Aps was about to reply when she felt a vibrating sensation on her wrist. An urgent tightening. She looked down at the new Medlet they’d given her at the police station and instead of the soft green light she’d seen for as long as she had worn one – green equals clean – she saw an angry, blinking red pulse. It had been drilled into them for years. Red was a warning. Red meant lockdown, seek help. Better red than dead.

To the station…

Fifteen minutes. That was if the traffic was good. Could be twenty. Leah looked at her phone again, checked the time, flicked open the Uber app. Still showing five minutes away which, based on the last ten minutes, was a lie. Say it was five minutes that meant a minimum of twenty until they could get to Aps. She thought about ringing the driver. April and Cora were over by the window, pulling back the curtain to keep an eye on the street. A black Tesla pulled up outside. The five minutes wasn’t a lie. The latest five minutes at least.

None of them really spoke in the car and the driver had taken this as his cue to turn his radio up, some rock station that April vaguely recognised as something she’d tried when 6 Music had been decommissioned. Some song none of them knew pushed them out onto the pavement outside the police station; a blast of pounding noise and someone singing about gambling. As the Uber door shut behind them and they were left with just the traffic noise on the street, a muffled don’t forget the joker shouted from the radio in the car behind them, Leah realised she had no idea what they were supposed to do.

In the moments after Aps had called it had all been clear. Our friend is in trouble: we go and help her. Nothing to contemplate, nothing to consider, no doubt. How do we get from here to her? The problem was as simple as that but now that problem had been solved, what now? None of them had dealt with this before. Leah was uncomfortably aware that the others were looking to her to guide them. What? Just because she called me? She wondered at that: why had she called me? But now wasn’t really the time. Leah led them inside, through a revolving door. If it wasn’t for the sign announcing The Bridewell Police Station it could have been any other office block, glass panelled walls demarcated into rectangles by red, steel strips. Beyond the initial door there was a decompression zone that was pretty common in large buildings, an expanse of space ended by a series of health screen machines that you had to proceed through to be allowed access further inside. Standard temperature check and cross reference to the national viral health register.

Leah cleared the health screens last. She should have expected it; her EU registered status always took longer to clear now in the UK, there were just more cross references back to the Italian database where her main health records sat. April and Cora were already at the enquiry window as she caught up.

“…we just want to make sure she’s okay,” Cora was saying to a dead pan police woman. She was ensconced behind a screen, mainly some sort of frosted glass that you couldn’t see through but with a clear window through which her head was visible. They were speaking through an intercom. She looked bored.

“What are they saying? Can we see her?” said Leah.

“No, you can’t see her,” replied the police woman, Inspector Martin from her name badge. “She’s still being processed under the terms of her arrest.”

“Can you at least tell us what she’s been arrested for?” said April. “It must be some kind of mistake.”

There was just a shake of a head in response and a gesture that they should all move to sit in the waiting area, a stretch of moulded plastic chairs bolted to the floor. There was a vending machine but most of the numbers displayed against its range of drinks had been scratched out. The three of them sat down. April got up again, walked up to the machine and looked at it.

“Anyone for a hot drink lottery?” she said. The others shook their heads. She swiped her contactless card and punched three numbers: two, two, three. Nothing. She tried again: one, one, two. This time the machine stirred, dropping a cup and filling it with a squirt of some unidentifiable black liquid topped off with hot water. It passed as black coffee and April cradled it back to join Cora and Leah.

“What do we do now?” said Cora.

“We wait, I guess,” said Leah.

“But we can’t do anything.”

“But we came. I think that’s all we could do,” said April. “We’ll be here when she gets released.”

“If she gets released,” said Cora.

“When,” said April. She blew across the top of her coffee and took a sip.

It was three hours before Aps was released, on a caution. In that time they discovered that 112 was definitely black coffee, 114 might have been a cappuccino, and 220 was the worst cup of tea that any of them had ever tasted. Talking about the drinks was the only thing that had distracted them from worrying about their friend. When she emerged, escorted by a woman dressed in blue scrubs, surgical mask hanging loose around her neck, she broke into a run and the four of us collided in the waiting area, Aps clinging to us in a desperate and grateful embrace.

“I lost my MedLet,” she said, repeatedly, as we held her. “I left it at James’s.”

None of them asked the questions they wanted to ask about that. They could all keep until later, for when it was safe to laugh about the whole thing, and start the enquiry about last night. They all bit their tongues about whether there had been any biting of tongues.

“What now?” said Cora. “Can we go?”

“Yes, it’s all sorted, I’m free to go.” Aps held up her wrist to show them a new MedLet, issued in the station, its warning light softly glowing green.

“Green equals clean,” said Leah.

“Green equals clean,” they all repeated.

Aps arrested

I had thought about walking the long way home in the early sunshine, taking an extended morning after walk of shame or stride of pride depending on your point of view. I wasn’t ashamed to be honest but it hadn’t been a night to take much satisfaction in either. The amble of ambivalence? Whatever. My desire for a shower trumped all.

I was half way back when they stopped me. Two police officers approached from Redland Park, I didn’t think much about it until they got a little closer and I realised they hadn’t shifted their gaze from me. They were wearing the mask attachments on their helmets, I’d only really seen that in footage of what they did during lockdown, patrolling. You didn’t see it on the streets; if they needed masks you were usually indoors.

“We need to take you back to the station, Miss Daniels,”

I’d read about the CCTV and ID bank upgrades but it still took me by surprise to be addressed by name. “I don’t understand…,” I started.

“We’re placing you under arrest under the Viral Health Act, 2024….” It was the guy that continued talking, reading out my rights, but I didn’t hear the words. I felt exposed, rubbed at my arm and wished that I hadn’t taken my jacket off. It was the other one, the woman, that placed a firm, gloved hand on my shoulder and began to escort me up the street. They didn’t say much and I was too shocked to make much sense, just repeatedly asking what I had done. “We’ll tell you more when you’re secured from the public, Miss Daniels.”

They had a car parked around the corner on Whiteladies Road. I sat in the back, a screen sealing them off from me. It must have been soundproof because I could see the guy talking into a walkie-talkie but I couldn’t hear him. She drove. No sirens, no flashing lights, just me sitting in silence as we passed the University. I thought there was a police station down near the Royal Infirmary so I assumed we were going there. I only knew where the Infirmary was because directions to the nearest hospital had been in the student welcome pack we’d all got, part of the viral awareness literature that had been pushed on us since we were at school but updated a bit now we were older. Mainly stuff about risks through fluid exchange, the old romantics. I was feeling a little calmer, the strange quiet in the back of the car had helped me gather my thoughts. It must be a mistake. Or something silly. It’ll be fine.

In the station they took me straight to a temporary ICU. I didn’t even know they had them but so many places had isolation units for emergencies now that it didn’t surprise me. Technically it wasn’t a cell and they didn’t seem to lock the door but someone stayed outside the whole time, I could see him through the porthole window. They told me that someone would attend to me soon and to make myself comfortable. I paced up and down for a bit and tried to think through what I needed to ask, what I was entitled to. Most of my police procedural knowledge was from that night me and the girls had watched those VSI re-runs and I was pretty sure screaming for my attorney wasn’t going to help. I didn’t have one, for a start, unless Jane Atkins, a girl I’d met in the first term who was studying law counted, and I had a nagging feeling they weren’t even called attorney’s in the UK. All the times someone had asked for a phone call on the show seemed to have worked though so maybe that was legit.

Eventually a woman came in, asked me a few health questions, and requested to take a blood test.

“Listen, you can refuse,” she said. “But then I just have to get a warrant processed as part of your arrest and we do the test anyway and all you’ve achieved is some time and pissing everyone off.”

I let her scratch into my arm, it didn’t seem like a big deal. She even managed a thin smile and a muttered ‘thank you’. As she was finishing up, blotting a small piece of cotton wool onto the place she’d made the incision, deftly taping it down, she moved her hand down my arm and tapped my bare wrist.

“You know why you’re here, right?” She tapped again and looked at me and I realised I wasn’t wearing my MedLet. The good parts of last night came back to me, the kissing parts, the undressing parts, the taking off my MedLet part.

“It’s just a mistake,” I said quickly. “I haven’t got any symptoms, I’m not hiding anything. I just stayed at a friend’s house last night, I must have taken it off to sleep and forgotten it. You can’t be serious?”

She smiled, glanced up at my slightly disheveled hair. “Well I hope your ‘friend’ was worth it because, unfortunately, failure to wear a health monitoring and tracking device is serious and can carry a big penalty. Let’s hope you’re not carrying. You might just get a caution if you’re clean.”

“What do we do now?” I said.

“I need some time to run the test diagnostic. In the meantime you wait here.”

My earlier calm had evaporated now and all I could think to lean on were some of the lines I’d rehearsed in my mind earlier. “Can I make a phone call?”. She nodded, said to use my own mobile but she’d wait while I just made one. I didn’t know who could help or what anyone was allowed to do. I called Leah and burst into tears when she picked up. She listened as I explained what had happened, forcing the words out through sobs and shortness of breath. There was no hesitation on the other end of the line.

“Hang on, Aps, we’re coming.”