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Something Useful

A line of men and women in white coats watched from behind a glass screen as three figures were marched into the room.

Sadia blinked at the sudden illumination. Neon lights scorched her eyes and she swallowed hard, not knowing what to expect. For the last hour she had been prodded and scrubbed in a faceless backroom. Blood samples had been taken. Measurements had been made. And then she had been dressed in a shapeless blue smock and escorted here.

Two other women had been herded into the room at the same time. Both were clad in identical robes. Sadia ventured a weak smile, but the others were too disorientated to respond. One of them, a large black woman, was trying to stop herself from shaking. The other woman was Chinese. She was slim, with dark eyes and a pale complexion.

Behind the glass, the white coats were watching them impassively. Some held clipboards and were taking notes. Others were hunched over computer screens. All of them were white; respectable looking; British.

After a couple of minutes, there was a clunk and then a steady hiss. Sadia wasn’t sure where the noise was coming from. The Chinese woman had sat herself cross legged on the floor, but the other woman was looking around in alarm.

Somebody else who doesn’t know why she’s here, Sadia thought. Another one who'd been abducted; drugged, bundled into the back of an ambulance, only to wake up in a windowless room, in the middle of a nightmare.

It’s all my fault, Sadia thought. I should never have run away.

Nadeem had been a nice enough boy, but she had barely known him. She certainly didn’t want to spend the rest of her life living in a foreign country with some young man she had only just met. So she had run away. She had come to London. A friend of hers had promised to put her up for a day or two, but they had had a row and Sadia had been thrown out onto the street. She could have gone home, but her dad would have beaten her. She had found a park bench instead and tried to sleep. People walked by and pretended not to notice her. It was humiliating. She hid in a bush and tried to sleep there, but then it rained. Finally, she sheltered in an underpass, but the bright neon lights kept her awake.

There were other people around. Once or twice, someone would speak to her. There were places to go for food. She had eaten hungrily one afternoon – her first decent meal in quite a while. A young woman had sat with her and talked. Asked her questions. Very friendly. A social worker perhaps. She had said something about finding her a bed. But then, when she walked out into the street, two men had followed her. She had been grabbed and bundled into the back of the ambulance.

Sadia had woken up in a cold room in the heart of some kind of institution. A mental hospital, perhaps. Everyone seemed to behave like doctors, although nobody would tell her where she was. They all wore white coats and carried stethoscopes. Except the guards, of course. They only carried guns.

She was fed and well looked after, but there was no-one to talk to. She was forced to exercise each day and was subjected to regular medical examinations. There was a toilet and a sink in the room, so she was able to wash herself. But there was nowhere to pray. And she had no idea what day of the week it was.

Then one afternoon, the routine changed. The guards had brought her here with these other women, who she had never seen before. And now she was being stared at by the white coats. And she wanted to go home more than ever. She didn’t care what her father did or what her uncle might say. She just wanted to see her mother again. And her sister Shaheen. And her younger brother Ali.

The Chinese woman let out a muted cry. She was scratching at her hand. Red blotches were beginning to form on the back of it and, gradually, they started to spread. It took several minutes, but time seemed to speed up. The blotches crawled along her arm and began to infect her neck and upper body.

Sadia frantically inspected her own hands. Had something been released into the air? Did they intend to kill them all? But there was no sign of infection that she could see.

The black girl was similarly unaffected.

After half an hour, the Chinese woman was lying unconscious on the metal floor. Her body was trembling. Soon, the movements slowed and then her breathing stopped altogether. The black woman went over to look, her eyes wide in alarm. She glanced back at Sadia and confirmed what Sadia had already known.

The Chinese woman was dead.

Shortly after, men in full body suits came into the chamber and removed the corpse. Sadia was led into an adjoining room, where her body was scrubbed and scraped like it had never been scraped before. Eventually, with her skin raw, she was returned to her room and fell into a deep but troubled sleep.



A few days later, the experiment was repeated. This time there was a larger group, three men and three women. Their arms were tied behind their backs and some of the men had to be dragged, kicking and snarling, into the glass fronted laboratory. This time people knew what to expect. And this time they were afraid. The black girl was the only one there Sadia recognised. There was a black man too, short with a bloodied lip. An Arabic woman sat in a corner. There were two Chinese and a man with a long grey beard who might have been Jewish. When the gas – or whatever it was – had been fed into the chamber it was the black man who reacted to it. The young woman cried out in horror, expecting to suffer the same fate, but nothing happened to her. After half an hour, only one of the group lay dead.

When the suited guards came to return them all to the cells, they were armed with machine guns.



Another week passed. Sadia was collected at the same time each day for examinations and exercise. Nobody spoke to her. One day, when she was being escorted back to her cell, she saw a figure being taken out of a room next door. It was the Chinese man. A day or two later, the guards came to collect her and Sadia knew there would be another experiment. This time she would be lucky to survive.

The Chinese man was being led out of his cell at the same time. One of the suited guards stepped forward to unlock the door at the end of the corridor. At that moment, the Chinese man swung his fist at the second guard, knocking him backwards. For a moment, they grappled. The first man moved back from the doorway. He could not open fire without hitting his colleague. He launched himself at them instead. For an instant, the three men were locked together.

Sadia glanced forward. The door that had been unlocked was now wide open.

She did not allow herself to hesitate. She leapt through the gap into another faceless corridor. At the far end, there was a green illuminated sign. A fire door. She ran towards it. A man in a white coat stepped out of an office and stared at her in alarm. She rushed past, hit the bolts on the fire door and sped through it.

The scientist must have hit the alarm as a siren sounded loudly.

Sadia sprinted across the grass towards the fence surrounding the complex. It was a good ten feet high. There was no way she would be able to climb it. But there was a hole in the fence at ground level. The wire mesh had been pulled away. Sadia did not give herself time to think. She bolted straight through it. The edges of the wire scraped at her skin and tore her clothes but she didn’t care. She had to get away.

On the other side of the fence there was woodland.

Sadia heard voices calling from behind her. She looked back instinctively. Guards with machine guns were rushing out of the open fire escape. They aimed their guns and Sadia made off. She heard the sound of bullets being fired, but nothing seemed to come near her. The trees and the fence obviously afforded some protection.

She stumbled through the woods, expecting the guards to follow her, but she heard no sound of pursuit. She risked another look back. Through the tangled foliage, she could just about see two men standing on the other side of the fence. They were not moving through.

Why were they not following her?

She didn’t care. She was free now. She had to find a phone. She had to call her dad. Her sister. Anyone. She ran out into a country road, nearly colliding with a car as it roared by. The driver blared his horn angrily.

She couldn’t risk calling the police. Whatever had been going on, it was obvious a lot of money was involved. It couldn’t be happening without the government knowing about it. Perhaps they were even behind it.

A signpost a little way along the road held the promise of a nearby village. She didn’t recognise the name. But there would be a phone box there somewhere or a public house where she could make a call. She would have to reverse the charges though as she didn’t have any money.

She walked along the road, wincing slightly. She had twisted her ankle in the near collision with the car.

Another vehicle was coming up from behind. It wasn’t really safe to remain on the road. Sadia moved off the tarmac and hid behind a bush as the car sped by.

A little way further on, she spotted an old red telephone box. Opening the heavy metal door, she lifted the receiver and dialled Directory Enquiries. A woman answered, with a pleasant Scottish voice.

‘I need…I need to make a reverse charge call…’ she mumbled.

‘What’s the number, caller?’ the Scottish woman asked.

Sadia wracked her brains, trying to recall the area code. She brought a hand up to her forehead. She was sweating profusely. The run had taken its toll. Her head was throbbing. She was feeling rather dizzy.

‘What’s the number, caller?’

Sadia looked at the back of her hand. Red blotches were forming. Her hand was beginning to swell. She let out a horrified grasp. Now she understood why the men hadn’t followed her. They had wanted her to escape. The whole thing had been planned in advance.

Sadia slumped down against the wall of the phone box.

The institute was conducting its first field trial.



All material copyright Jack Treby 2018