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Knutt the Conquerer

At first glance one might have assumed the room to be a laboratory of some description. Given the proliferation of vials, flasks, mysteriously curling tubing, burners and bubbling liquids, such an assumption could perhaps have been forgiven. It would, however, have been wrong, more or less.

A closer inspection would have revealed a hard-used table in place of a lab bench, and a bureau and sideboard pushed against the window where they housed a veritable library of scientific, or at least science related, books and papers. And the floor, where one might have presumed to see easy-clean tiling or industrial linoleum, was instead carpeted in what was probably once luxurious pile.

In short, this space bubbling and seething with diabolical science was, at its root, a humble if ill-used dining room.

Through the half-glazed door to the right of the table cum lab bench was a simple kitchen, almost clinically clean and relentlessly organised. Despite its obvious hygiene, only the bravest, or possibly most reckless, of visitors would have accepted any refreshment offered here, for each beaker, basin and bowl had at some time in its life played host to chemicals and compounds not typically conducive to a persons good health.

The owner and creator of this extraordinary space was William Knutt. William Knutt was not, as might be imagined, a scientist by profession. Science for William was more of a fascination, a riddle to be solved, a means to a greater end.

He was in fact a teacher. Not a particularly good one, but then he hadn't expected to be, it being the profession chosen for him by well meaning but technically stupid parents who believed the prestige of the position would somehow overcome his utter unsuitability to the task.

Which profession he would have chosen for himself if allowed is hard to say. He had dabbled, enquired and read into most, with little sign that he would have found greater success in any other endeavour. Certainly as a scientist he made a great coal miner, or arsonist, as his dining room carpet would attest. Yet science had grabbed his attention and held it for some two years now.

In short, William Knutt had applied all his admittedly limited knowledge to his current task and firmly believed he was close to a breakthrough which would revolutionise the world, or at least, a small part of it.

The object of his research was the common cold, something he considered himself unfairly blighted by. Each year he suffered a succession of summer colds, followed shortly after by a succession of winter colds, which he had only just shaken when the next round of summer colds began again. His life, he felt, would have been greatly different had he not spent the larger portion of it sneezing, snuffling and coughing. Perhaps he was right, though it seems unlikely.

Whether he would have enjoyed greater professional success had he enjoyed a rather more robust immune system is impossible to know, but it did lead him to the decision to take matters into his own hands in search of a cure.

Now, any true scientist could have told him such a quest was doomed to fail. The group of viruses behind the common cold infection is large and sneaky, mutating too fast for any anti-viral medicines yet discovered. But William Knutt was not the sort to let minor botherances like facts derail him when he was on a mission.

He had read extensively, though not necessarily wisely, his research materials ranging from works from esteemed microbiologists to science fiction novels, the latter being his preferred genre, since it was marginally easier to understand.

Basing his experiments upon ideas put forward by such luminaries as Jonkin Fumes, author of the Tillomarinal Equinox series, and Hank F Mustin, author of the Planetary Plague quadrilogy, he spent every available penny on equipment and supplies, sure in his heart he had the answer. He would be the man who would cure the common cold.

His work as a teacher suffered, though few noticed the difference. He withdrew from what society he kept, and his already infrequent contact with family dwindled so far that his mother began making enquiries as to his ongoing existence. And so it had continued for two years.

And then came the day of his breakthrough. His cry of triumph was heard many houses away, and the man himself was seen hurrying from his house shortly after, whereupon he sprinted up the road shouting at the top of his voice. Such behaviour would, in itself, have caused a certain amount of comment. The fact that he was shirtless at the time greatly exacerbated the consternation of those who witnessed the event.

However, such was William's excitement that he hardly noticed the astonished crowd. His latest experiment had returned glowingly positive results that very hour. Glory and probably a Nobel prize surely awaited. He had cured the common cold. As he told everyone. Though nobody particularly believed him. After all, the man was far from a scientist, and anyway everyone knew you couldn't cure the common cold.

And yet, in the coming days a sceptical scientific community slowly warmed to the doings of the strange lay-man. Certainly his results appeared promising. He had extensive cultures that had responded to his treatment in just a few hours. Gradually, more scientific minds turned their attention to his methods and findings, though his unscientific approach proved troublesome.

At last the CEO of a large pharmaceutical company made him the offer he would not have dreamed of refusing, and moved him and his dining room into the sterile confines of a professional laboratory.

Months passed, but the results could not be replicated. Frustrations grew, and William Knutt once more found himself the subject of scorn and derision. The CEO, somewhat embarrassed at his decision to engage such a man at his firm, sent a manager down to convey his disappointment along with the termination of his contract.

William Knutt, close to being broken by the strain of proving his cure, took drastic action. Calling an urgent meeting with those scientists who could be persuaded to come along, he stood at the front of the room and injected himself with a virulent form of the rhinovirus. The men of science squirmed uneasily in their seats. There were, after all, rules against this sort of thing.

A security guard was sent in to apprehend William but he was too slow. William was prepared and had taken his experimental drug before the guard reached him. The scientists glanced uncomfortably at each other, then shrugged. Nobody in the room had told the man to take the drug, but now that he had, the least they could do was observe his reaction.

And so, William Knutt was hurried through the facility to an isolation room where every manner of monitor was applied to almost every part of his body. William lay back in his bed with a contented smile. At last, he was being taken seriously.

Hours passed and no symptoms emerged. The scientists speculated. Perhaps he had prior exposure to the virus that had given him immunity. But no, the virus was a fresh mutation. There was no way he could have been exposed to it before. Perhaps the sample had been sterilised before injection. Such unscrupulous acts were, regrettably, not unheard of in the world of desperate science. But analysis of the remains of the sample proved the virus to be very much alive and as virulent as ever. It seemed that the cure had worked. It had stopped the virus in its tracks.

Even the CEO appeared at the window of the isolation chamber where William was being kept. He smiled his satisfaction, then demanded a brutal round of tests and examination of the patient, before returning to his plush office on the twenty-first floor.

Some two weeks later, William Knutt was presented before the CEO and his most respected scientists to hear the results of the battery of tests he had endured.

The lead scientist cleared his throat, stood, and walked over to a display screen on the back wall. He pulled a laser pointer from his pocket and began a long preamble, explaining the various processes and tests the patient had undergone. The CEO nodded knowingly, settling back in his leather chair.

'It is fair to say there is ample evidence to show that the drug did, in fact, destroy the Rhinovirus,' said the scientist after several PowerPoint slides had been droned through.

William Knutt jumped to his feet, punching the air and shouting his delight. The scientists in the room stared at him in shock, the CEO watched with good humoured interest. The lead scientist cleared his throat again and continued, in a somewhat weaker voice.

'However, our tests have shown that the only reason the drug worked was that it boosted Mr Knutt's immune system to such a degree that it is now in overdrive.'

William held up his hands. 'So? That's surely a good thing.'

The lead scientist rubbed his brow and looked down, struggling to frame the words. 'Not exactly,' he said carefully. 'Sadly, your own body is now under threat.'


'Your immune system has begun attacking your own body.'


'Your body is killing your body.'


'I'm not sure how else to put it.'

William Knutt lived out the rest of his, now rather limited, days in the research facility. He was given a small corner of a laboratory where he was permitted to conduct experiments under the closest scrutiny.

The sterile environment probably helped his poor abused body to function for several more years, despite the assault it raged upon itself. His discovery inadvertently lead to a treatment for patients whose immune systems had been suppressed by chronic disease, though only after proper scientists had altered it almost beyond recognition.

He died having failed in his quest to cure the common cold, but will forever be a footnote in the journals, mostly on how not to conduct scientific experimentation. He became, in the end, both teacher and scientist. Of sorts.


© 2014 Kay Lawrence.

Please note, the people, places and works described in this story are fictional, and any resemblance to real people, places or works is entirely coincidental. I am however, sorely tempted to write the Tillomarinal Equinox, if I can work out what the heck it is.


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