My hands fail me and I drop my bag.
The contents scurry from their captor across the blue lino floor, resting under computer desks and filing cabinets. I make no effort to retrieve them.
My computer casing has been removed and the inner hardware either removed or smashed. My breath is caught in my throat, my chest heaves and I suddenly I find it hard to breath. I am vaguely aware the others in the laboratory are watching me, waiting for the moment I will find my voice and crack. Was this some kind of horrific joke? Was this a test? Am I supposed to prove that I can recall years of research at the bat of an eyelid?
My mind is numb. There is no emotion or thought flowing around and I can’t even begin to bring myself to move, to sit down in front of the decimated computer and begin to make sense of it all. I don’t want too. Who would do such a thing?
Slowly, I find the strength to move and glance over my shoulder at my colleagues. Every pair of eyes seemingly fixated on their screens or equipment. I narrow my eyes at them: the laboratory is never empty, which of them would stand by and watch?
I turn my head towards the voice calling my name. A short, plump woman stands at the furthest end of the lab. She watches me for a second before standing aside from the door and gesturing that I go to her. My heels click loudly as I cross the silent laboratory. I try to intimidate those I pass with a cold stare, but they sit frozen in their seats, eyes adverted.
As I reach the door, the woman, dressed in a dark pin-striped suit, steps through into a carpeted hallway and strides off towards the end. I follow behind, so close I’m almost a shadow of hers. We walk up two more flights of stairs and two more doorways before reaching our destination. We meet no one. The building is strangely quiet.
Pin-stripe does not speak to me. She averts her eyes like those in the lab and motions towards a door behind a sectaries neat desk. I walk over, glancing over my shoulder towards my silent leader, whose eyes remain fixed on the floor.
Gold letters shine on the door: Matilda Floss. I’ve been brought to the chairman. My spirits rise slightly. I am pleased. Relieved that someone has noticed and that someone might be able to help me. Or tell me that this is simply a dream and that all I have to do is click my heals three times and everything will be restored.
I knock. Matilda answers and I enter. I am confronted by a thin, bony woman sitting behind a large polished antique desk. She glances up at me, over her glasses. ‘Natasha,’ says Matilda, nodding in greeting. ‘Sit down. Please.’
I sit down heavily. Matilda slides a plate of chocolate hobnobs towards me and waves a hand at them, indicating that I should take one. I do but replace my hand to my lap, the biscuit firmly clutched within it. I am not hungry; the loss of my research is still too raw. Matilda clasps her hands together and rests them on her desk. She peers at me over her glasses, reminding me of a teacher.
‘Natasha,’ she begins sternly, ‘now I must ask you to be completely honest with me; did you make any copies of the research that you have been doing regarding the common cold on any other external hard drives that are not kept within this laboratory?’
I frown, surprised by this question. ‘No, I didn’t. All of my research is – was – on that computer. I did have a couple of external hard drives, but those have been stolen as well.’
Matilda nods, her jaw muscles loosen and she looks thoroughly relived. My heart thumps loudly in my chest.
‘I’m glad to hear that,’ she says, a flicker of a smile appearing on her face.
‘Glad?’ I hear myself saying, incredulously. ‘Glad? All of my research is gone. Fifteen years worth of research has been stolen and destroyed and you’re glad I didn’t make extra copies to take home with me?’
I am so taken aback by her answer that it takes me a few moments to find my voice again. ‘What?’
‘Natasha, what do you think would happen if the public were to discover that we, sorry, you, found a cure to the common cold?’
‘I think they’d be deliriously fucking happy, if I’m honest.’
Matilda nodded. ‘Sure, the public would be “deliriously fucking happy” as you so eloquently put it, but what about the companies that manufacture all our drugs.’
I blink. ‘I don’t understand.’
‘Without the common cold there wouldn’t be any need for ibuprofen, cough sweets, excreta. Hundreds of companies would go out of business almost overnight and thousands of people would be made redundant. We have to keep the economy turning and it is too fragile for a cure at the moment.’
‘So you destroyed all my research because the economy is too fragile?’ I ask. ‘Bullshit. What’s really going on here?’
‘Natasha, I’ve given you a perfectly reasonable explanation. Please refrain from using that language–’
‘Tell me what’s really going on? Why are you telling me this?’
Matilda slides a piece of typed paper towards me but I don’t look at it. She cocks her head and smiles broadly at me. ‘Top of your class, weren’t you,’ she says. ‘Youngest female genealogist of your generation, that was, until they forced the grant for the Common Cold research on you.’
I ignore her taunting. ‘How many other diseases have we cured? One? Five?’
‘You’re becoming hysterical, Natasha,’ Matilda replies calmly. ‘I’m going to have to ask you to calm down or I’ll have you restrained.’
I stand up sharply and the chair topples backwards. I glare down at Matilda’s calm face. ‘I’m hysterical? This isn’t hysterical. Hysteria is the reaction the public will have when they discover what’s been going on.’ A hand grasps my upper arm roughly and I look round to find a suited skinhead attached there. I try to shake myself free but he tightens his grip. My head whips around back to Matilda. ‘What’s this?’
‘You are going to be escorted home, Natasha, where you will have a long relaxing bath and then go to sleep. You will not speak to anyone about this conversation. We’ll speak again in the morning.’
‘This is fucking bullshit, Matilda. I don’t care what it takes but I will get this out. I will ruin you.’
Matilda rises slowly from her chair; her eyes narrowed, her face sombre. ‘Get her out of my sight.’
Before I can verbalise my thoughts the skinhead tugs me towards the door. I resist and scream. I dig my nails into his hand trying to rip it from my arm. Someone grabs my free wrist from behind and pricks it with something sharp.
My legs become immediately weak. My vision begins to tunnel.
I collapse and arms are there to catch me. Dark eyes gaze down upon me.
The room blurs.