They want to live too: A story from Infectious Futures

27 February 2018
Written by
Jenni Hill

In 2015, we commissioned six stories about a future facing up to the challenge of antibiotic resistance called Infectious Futures: Stories of the post-antibiotic apocalypse as part of a much larger effort to publicise, educate, and enrich the conversation around the subject. These stories, originally in print form, will be uploaded as blogs, one at a time into an online collection. Enjoy! 

They want to live too

SHE FOUND the girl in the attic. Her name was Ruby. Gran had asked Yuki to put some of dad’s books into storage upstairs. They needed the space, now that Yuki was getting taller, and Gran had to rely on her walking cane more and more. The attic was full of fascinating things. Mum’s clothes, the floral smell and soft feel of them the closest she had ever felt to the woman who died bringing her into the world. A dust-covered tent, deck chairs and camping stove promised holidays Yuki would never go on. Hockey sticks, footballs, rainbow-painted roller-skates: these had been consigned to the attic for being too dangerous for little girls to play with, even though some of the kids from the estate played football outside her window now and then – kids Gran disapproved of.

Dad’s old bike was there too, forbidden for the same reason. It was too easy to take a fall, open a wound. Once, when she was very young, Yuki had asked Gran why everything seemed so much more dangerous now than it clearly used to be. She hadn’t yet been taught in school about the Antibiotics Crisis, but the ease with which children in old stories recovered from illness, and the careless way they played, seemed to suggest something was amiss. Gran explained that bacteria, these tiny wriggly creatures that caused infections, too small for the eye to see, had once been fought with antibiotics. But the medicines had been used too much, or too recklessly (Yuki wasn’t sure she understood that part) and the infections had evolved. With each new strain of antibiotics, the infections had changed too.

Why do they do that?” she’d asked, imagining these tiny organisms growing extra heads, or new limbs, to fight off human medicine.

Gran looked thoughtful. “I suppose they want to live too, as much as we do.

She had climbed on the bike in the attic, experimentally, a few years ago. The way it wobbled had knocked over a box of cutlery, the clatter bringing Gran, suffering from arthritis even then, following her up the ladder. The scolding had lasted for a week. Gran had taken away her gaming password for the same length of time, but Yuki remembered thinking that playing Night-Rider 3000 on-line didn’t quite compare to the feeling when her feet had left the floor to rest on those turning pedals.

Yuki was not allowed to bring the footballs, roller-skates or bike down from the attic, but this time she was allowed to bring down an ancient, battered PC computer. Yuki spotted it under a pair of curtains, thinking it looked cool in a clunky, retro sort of way, and begged Gran to let her restore it.

Gran had no objections to an activity that Yuki could pursue in her room, and which might help her get ahead in Tech Studies. If Yuki hadn’t seen the PC there under the moth-eaten fabric, she might never have met Ruby.

She told Becca and Matt about the PC during class. ‘Class’ took place in Yuki’s bedroom, where she logged in remotely to the expensive private academy that Dad’s life insurance paid for. The teacher, droning away on the screen above their chat log, had turned off chat during lessons, but the latest version of the software had been hacked by a girl in Class Five and the whole school now had a jailbroken copy.

Yuki ducked off webcam for a moment and snapped a picture for Becca and Matt of the PC lying on her cartoon bedspread, grey and inert. Matt typed “Awesome!” and Becca sent a link to a podcast called Restore/ Recycle.

Older children weren’t as prized by childsnatchers.

After they’d all logged out of school that night, Matt and Becky watched on their webcams as she took the PC apart, and they looked up replacement parts for her on auction sites, which she bought and paid for with pocket money. The final part she ordered, an old-fashioned LED screen, was too big to fit into the front door grocery hatch. Gran kept a close watch on her when she opened the door to the masked delivery man, and Yuki wished she didn’t know why. She thanked him, closed the door, and wiped the parcel down with anti-bacterials.

She thought about Dad and that last, fateful time he had opened this door. They’d worn masks too; she remembered that much. Impersonating delivery men, who, like rubbish men and doctors, wore white surgical masks for the brave work of going door-to-door. Those masks had also helped protect their identity. They were never caught.

Yuki remembered how they’d plucked her right from her dad’s arms. One holding Dad back, one bundling her toward the van. Dad knocked the first man to the ground, where he cracked his head on the bricks laid about the front garden.

The other pulled out a gun. Gunshot wounds were usually lethal even pre-Crisis. Now they were a death sentence. There’d been so much blood. The men must have panicked, because they’d left her there crying next to Dad, the blood soaking through his white T shirt, red as the pansies in the flower beds. She remembered that clearly. Though she’d been only a few years old, she hoped she’d have remembered Dad too. Hoped she would have remembered her real father, if those men had sold her to another set of parents – a couple too scared and too rich to go through the risk of a biological pregnancy to expand their family, or who had perhaps lost a baby or two to disease.

Older children weren’t as prized by childsnatchers, but Gran still looked relieved after she closed the door.

Yuki took the LED screen to her room and connected the power. It was weird, seeing the screen boot up in 2D, no wall-holograms, touchscreen or motion-recognition to be seen. She actually found it quite dull, until she found Ruby. The machine was slow, it kept trying to install anti-virus software and system updates that weren’t there, and most of the files on it were boring: old spreadsheets she could make neither head nor tail of, homework, timetables, software instruction manuals…

Then she found Ruby Yang.

Ruby was beautiful. Ruby was funny. Ruby had been something called a video blogger. Ruby’s blogging was saved to the hard drive, and there were videos about fashion, netball, make-up tips, videos of her shopping with her friends and playing football in muddy white trainers with boys at the park. Even something called parkour, which Yuki researched and which sounded incredibly, foolishly dangerous. But fun.

Ruby was, Yuki decided almost instantly, absolutely perfect. She didn’t fancy Ruby, it wasn’t that. (Yuki was twelve, and had not yet decided whether she liked girls or boys or both; and if she did like girls, she thought she would like them like the tall and red-haired Katherine in Class Six, not Ruby.) But Ruby’s laugh and her voice and her energy showed Yuki something she wanted. She wanted to be Ruby. She ordered some cherry red lipstick, like Ruby wore, and slicked it on for school the day it arrived.

Almost immediately after logging in she got told off for wearing make-up to class, and had to run past Gran to the bathroom to wipe it all off. When she got back, she saw a message from Becca saying how great it had looked, so she sent her one of Ruby’s video files in reply. Becca shared it with Matt, typing out a transcript of the words in the video; like four other kids in their class, Matt had been rendered deaf by a childhood ear infection.

The next day, Becca was wearing lipstick and Matt pulled up his sleeve to show a bird tattoo, in imitation of Ruby. Nobody, even adults, risked tattoos anymore, so Matt must have used ink or a temporary tattoo, it was hard to tell on camera. Yuki shared more videos with them, and when others in maths class asked about Matt’s tattoo, he shared the videos with them.

Everyone loved them. The video of Ruby with her shiny red bike – where she had attached a GoPro camera to her head and zoomed down a massive hill in the park – was a particular favourite.

That week, older kids, even red-haired Katherine in Class Six, were messaging Yuki about Ruby. She found more and more videos on the old PC, and shared them with the school. She felt so popular, pleased to be sharing Ruby with the world. She wondered if Ruby had ever shared her videos, but if she had they must have been taken down, as she couldn’t find them anywhere on-line. Later that week, Yuki asked Gran about Dad’s bike again. It was green, not red like Ruby’s, and it didn’t have a basket with three yellow daisies on the front, but Yuki still thought it was pretty fine.

One video on Dad’s bike and she’d be the envy of everyone.

Gran said no. When the entire class were wearing red lipstick, even one or two of the boys, the teachers mostly gave up complaining. Ruby’s videos had struck a chord with the school. Becca, who was good with words and did well in English class, said it must be Ruby’s exuberance, her sense of adventure, the way she seemed to embody something missing from their lives. Becca also used the phrase joie de vivre, which Yuki secretly thought was pretentious, and had to look up.

As fine as it would have been to make a video on Dad’s bike, someone else got there first. People were making and sharing their own Ruby-like videos. She even saw one boy from her school go past her window on a bike he’d found from somewhere. It had a basket with three improvised paper daisies on it. One evening, after another argument about Dad’s bike, Gran and Yuki were unpacking groceries in stony silence – antibacterial soap, anti-bacterial washing up liquid, vitamin D supplements, vegetables double-wrapped in plastic, and meat with strict cooking instructions (HEAT TO 95°C OR HIGHER TO KILL BACTERIA) emblazoned in red lettering across the packaging – when she caught Gran looking at her thoughtfully.

Gran dropped the hot chocolate. She dropped the jewellEry box too -– a stick of cherry red lipstick rolled across the floor towards Yuki. Gran was crying.

I used to wear my hair like that, you know.”

Yuki had plaited her long black hair around her crown, as Ruby did with her own black hair. Yuki felt lucky to have hair the same colour as Ruby.

Funny how fashions come and go.

What else did you used to wear?

Oh, you know. Lots of denim. Short skirts. Huge earphones, like you wouldn’t believe!” Gran held her fists to her ears in imitation, and Yuki giggled.

We had the small ones back then, of course, but the bigger ones were fashionable, so we wore them.

After their quarrel, Gran seemed relieved to have found a neutral subject for conversation. Once they had eaten dinner and Yuki was upstairs, ostensibly doing her homework, Gran knocked on her door. She came in with a mug of hot chocolate for Yuki and a plastic jewellery box.

I brought you some of my old things, I thought you might like to see—” Gran stopped suddenly, staring at the images projected on the wall screens.

Yuki had been checking out the fansite Matt had made for Ruby’s videos. Multiple moving images of Ruby looked back at them both from the bedroom walls, smiling, running, playing outside and laughing, always laughing, the sunlight shining in her hair.

Gran dropped the hot chocolate. She dropped the jewellery box too -– a stick of cherry red lipstick rolled across the floor towards Yuki. Gran was crying.

We’ll get you on that bike,” she promised.

The two of them restored the bike, removing rust and oiling the brakes until Gran was sure it was safe. As safe as it was ever going to be. Though Yuki had no idea how to ride, enough kids in the area were now out on their own restored bicycles, and happy to teach her.

Yuki never told anyone about Ruby’s true identity.

As a vlogger, Gran had made up the name ‘Ruby’ because it sounded glamourous. (Yuki agreed.) She’d used her maiden name, Yang, and her granddaughter had never suspected that Gran could be the same person her peers were turning into a reborn idol, not until her tearful confession that night, as they’d mopped up hot chocolate on Yuki’s bedroom floor.

Dad’s green spray paint wouldn’t come off the once-red bike, but Yuki liked the reminder that he’d ridden it too. Yuki never told anyone about Ruby’s true identity, even when Gran found the basket with the three yellow daisies and strapped it proudly to the handlebars. As Yuki shakily pedalled unassisted for the first time, she looked back to see Gran waving proudly from the door.

Jenni Hill is an author and science fiction editor from London. She has published many short stories and is working on a fantasy novel. She lives in a house filled with too many books.