Chapter Thirteen: The Breakup


As far as I know, Charlotte did not have a reason to reconstitute the virus. With or without some hypothetical toxin!
And I dreamed your dream for you and now your dream is real
 – Mark Knopfler

Michel waited patiently for the barman to finish serving the group in front of him. He ordered his pint, and Toni’s wine. This was hard, harder than anything he had done before. Every muscle in his body, every neuron in his brain was screaming at him to stop, to get out, to retreat to the safety of the lab. But he had to do this – for Tom, for himself, even for the memory of Charlotte.

Perhaps the beer would help, drown out the screaming and make it bearable.

“Your other friend coming back, do you think?” 

Michel shrugged. “I do not know. I thought she would be pleased.”

“Ah. Women. You never can tell. There you go.”

Michel handed over a handful of coins. “That should be right.”

The barman smiled. “Thank you very much, Mike. Right as usual. And don’t worry about the wine. I’ll make sure I save you some.” He winked at Michel, “She’ll be back.”

Toni was writing in a ring-bound notebook when Michel returned. She looked up with a smile as he approached.

“Thank you, Michel.”

He nodded. “You are welcome.” For a moment, he just stood there, then suddenly dropped into his chair. Toni frowned.

“Are you all right? I thought you looked a little odd, just there.”

“It is all right. You remind me of someone, that is all.”

She smiled again.

“Someone you remember fondly, I hope?” 

Michel shook his head. Verdomme. “It seems a long time ago, now.” He kept her gaze until she dropped it, ruffled the edges of her notebook; coughed.

“Okay. So we were talking about chikungunya. About it how it isn’t dangerous?”

Michel nodded, slowly.

“But if it were dangerous, it could infect someone? In the lab I mean. And that would be bad?”

“It would be very bad. But as I have said, we have the P3, we have the procedures.”

“But an accident – “

“It is impossible.” 

“Okay.” Toni hesitated. “And it’s not fatal, anyway?”

“Not normally, no.” He took a sip from his pint. “People with weakened immune systems, perhaps the young, perhaps the pregnant – then there might be a problem.”

“And Charlotte wasn’t pregnant?”

“Not as far as we know. The coroner said nothing about that, and you journalists would be on it like a pack of wolfhounds.”

Toni looked down at the table between them. “Yes, maybe you’re right.” Then a thought seemed to appear to her, and she looked up again. “Coroner? There was an inquest?”

“Naturally. It was an unusual happening.”

“What was the verdict?”

Michel leaned back in his chair. “I would have thought you would have looked it up. Natural causes. Fully consistent with being infected by a virus. But not,” he said, suddenly leaning forward on the table, “not one picked up from a lab.”

“All right. Let’s talk hypotheticals,” Toni said, brightly. “If you cut viruses apart, as you say, can you put them back together again? Do you do that?”

Michel took another sip, leaned back in his chair again. He had no idea where this was going. He wished he could understand what she wanted. He wished Sabine were here to help him. He wished she didn’t remind him so much of Karen.


“Yes, I hear. And yes, we can put viruses back together, as you put it. Indeed, it is something we have to do if we want to test our theories in the wild. It is something we have to do if we want gene therapy to work. It is not so difficult.”

“And you, I don’t mean you personally, but in general – you could make mistakes putting them back together? They could get back together wrong, and be dangerous?”

Michel sighed, rubbed his eyes. It had been a long day. The confrontation with Slater had been difficult, and ever since then he had been puzzling how to make everything all right again, how to repay the trust he had asked Slater to place in him. The answer had come just before Slater had left; just before Sabine asked to join him. And now she wasn’t here, and he had to answer these questions by himself. Scientifically, the questions were not hard: he simply had no idea if there was anything behind them; if the journalist had an agenda that he could not follow.

“I mean,” Toni continued, “perhaps something could have got in there, or somebody did something wrong, got tired and careless, and the virus could have escaped?”

“In theory, yes. No. Possibly.” Michel suddenly felt the need to defend science, defend its practitioners, defend his friends, against this insult. “It is, I would say, very unlikely. What is more likely is that somebody could deliberately do something.”

“Like what?” Toni was alert, her pen still on the paper.

“Maybe you could put the DNA for a toxic protein into the virus. You would have to reverse transcribe it and make sure it got packaged, but you could do it like that.”

Toni shook her head. “I don’t know what those words mean. But is it easy?”

“Easy? It is trivial, if that is what you mean.”

“I mean could you do it? Could Charlotte do it?”

He lifted his chin and, summoning every last ounce of self-control, held her gaze, saying nothing. She looked away first.

“So Charlotte could have done this?” she asked again.

“Even if she had, the P3 – “

“Yes, I know, but you, all the scientists, you work so hard and you get tired – “

“That is why we have the procedures.”

“But you could still make mistakes, yes? Did Charlotte work weekends? By herself?”

“We all do that.”

“And if you do, are you not tempted to take shortcuts? The gloves, the masks – “

“As far as I know,” Michel said, too loudly, “Charlotte did not have a reason to reconstitute the virus. With or without some hypothetical toxin!”

“But other people did? You said you it’s something you want to do to test your theories?”

Michel stared at his hands on the table. The important thing was to stay calm. He counted his breaths, counted the pounding in his ears; willed it to slow down. Slowly, he became aware that Toni was still speaking. Still looking down, he spoke over her:

“We need to know how the viruses would infect in the wild. I have said that.” He rubbed the side of his nose. Words were important, here. “We are not there yet. It is something we have to do, should do, carefully. Carefully.”

“So… could a reconstituted virus have got infected, contaminated itself? Picked up some toxic DNA from somewhere else?”

“You do not know what you are saying.”

“But it could?”

He shook his head. “The chances of something like that happening by chance… It would have to be engineered. We are clever people. It would really not be difficult to engineer, to splice in a toxin into a virus, package it up and let the virus infect someone. The clever thing would be to stop it spreading. Otherwise you would have a lethal pandemic. You would have to stop the virus leaving the host, to spread. But by chance? No. Never.”

“Would it be difficult to do deliberately? Technically I mean?”

“An undergraduate could do it if you give him a recipe. You have to be careful, and clean, and you have to think about it quite a bit, but I could teach you to do it. If you were not a complete klutz. Perhaps I will try next week. The really clever thing would be to make an inducible promoter, a switch that makes it so that it could or could not infect people. Maybe you could even turn it on and off. Like a light switch.”

Toni had stopped taking notes. “Like a weapon?”

“Like a weapon.”

“But who would do such a thing?”

Michel drank long and deep from his glass, almost finishing it. “There are many groups who might want something like that. We are thinking about using viruses in gene therapy, to make people better – so maybe you could use viruses the other way. Maybe the military would want to use viruses to kill people.”

“And do you think that Charlotte – ” Toni stopped, and stared at the door.

Michel looked up, and saw Sabine standing there. He stood, but Toni had already reached her, put her arm around her. Together, without a word, they sat together across from Michel. He noted the smudged eyeliner, the redness of her cheeks, her rapid and shallow breathing.

“Sabine, sweetheart,” Toni said, “is he…?”

Sabine nodded, sniffed. “It’s over. I’m going to get my things in the morning.”

“Do you need somewhere to stay?”

Sabine didn’t answer, but looked up at Michel. “I’m sorry, Michel. I should have been here for you.”

“It is okay.” He slid the still-untouched glass of Châteauneuf towards Sabine. “I will be at the lab, if either of you need me.”

He turned to the door, stopped, and came back. Without asking, he took Toni’s pen from her unresisting fingers, and scribbled on her pad. “In case you want to talk more. I will be out of the lab tomorrow, but please call me.”

And then he left.

About the author

Richard Grant is our Deputy Editor. A British molecular cell biologist and structural biochemist, he is now Executive Scientific Director at a pharma comms agency in London. He writes fiction under the pseudonym 'rpg' and tweets as @rpg7twit. In addition to helping to steer LabLit's editorial direction, he helps edit fiction and poetry. He blogs at Confessions of a (Former) Lab Rat on Occam's Typewriter.