University of Nottingham campus, England, 2039

107 7 3

"So," the Head of the School of Life Sciences said, eyeing them both over the rim of her glasses. "Why don't you tell me how this happened?" 

"Kate?" Matt said, in a strangled voice. "Why don't you explain?"

Kate grimaced. "Well- I mean- I guess-"

"Please." The Head massaged her temples. "Just tell me how the fire started."

Kate swallowed. "I suppose it started with the snails."

Beside her, Matt slowly sunk lower in his seat, deflating like a very embarrassed balloon. 

*

Two hours earlier, Kate had been breathing in the fumes coming off a takeaway cup in the desperate hope that the steam would somehow be infused with enough caffeine to wake her up. Then she wouldn't have to actually drink the terrible coffee from halls.

"'Ornin'," she said to Matt around an enormous yawn, ignoring the professor at the front of the laboratory, who was giving a health and safety talk. It was never important anyway. "Are you ready to do some science?"

"I am . . . as long as you agree to never do this again." Matt wiggled his fingers in a lazy imitation of the jazz hands she had done on the word 'science'.

"You've always gotta harsh my mellow," she said mournfully.

"Don't say that again either," Matt said, flicking open his lab book.

"Kill my chill?"

"Nope."

"Remove my groove."

"Absolutely not."

"Fuzz my buzz," she said decidedly. "Anyway, what's the experiment today?"

*

"You were experimenting on snails?" the Head of the School of Life Sciences asked.

"Right," Kate said. "We were studying natural selection by observing the adaptations of snail species found in different environments."

The Head sighed. "Just tell me what happened next."

"Well, we were collecting samples from the lakeside."

*

"This could be totally romantic if you weren't, you know, carrying a whole bucketful of snails," Kate commented.

"I've got slime in my hair," Matt said mournfully. "How is that even possible?"

"Take one for the team, Matt. You gotta protect your missus."

"It was a snail. You were in literally no danger." He peeled a snail off the underside of a rotting log and carefully placed it inside the bucket.

"I think that's a matter of opinion," she declared self-righteously, jotting down the snail's location. "Let's look under the bridge. I bet there's some, like, aquatic snails there. Hey, did you know that some types of freshwater snails have gills, but others have to go up to the surface to breathe?"

"Yeah, I had to do the pre-lab too," Matt said, crouching down to crab-walk under the bridge. "Did you see that New Scientist article about the poisonous sea snails?"

"About the venom being used for pain medication? So cool!" Kate said, holding onto the stone edge of the bridge to stop herself slipping on the muddy bank. "And there's approximately a million different species, so the research potential is just-"

"Oh my God. Look!"

Kate whipped her head up. "What? Is there a body?!"

"Don't be ridiculous, Kate. Who'd be stupid enough to throw a corpse in a lake? There's a massive crate here!"

*

"It was just chance that you stumbled across an entire box of fireworks by the University lake, then," said the Head of the School of Life Sciences.

Kate and Matt nodded in unison. "Total chance!"

"So how did the fire start?"

*

"We can't just leave a whole load of fireworks here!" Matt said.

"Why not? I bet they belong to Rugby Soc. They'll probably pick them up after a Campus 14 tonight."

"Kate! A toddler could find them before then! It could be dangerous!"

Kate sighed. There was a crick in her neck from being crouched down for so long. "Well, what do you want to do, then? Bin them?"

"That's – that's even more dangerous! Someone could drop a cigarette butt in and cause an explosion."

Kate traced a finger over a patch of moss on the underside of the bridge, mulling over the problem. Then she looked at Matt, grinning hugely. "I've got an idea."

*

"A controlled explosion," the Head of the School of Life Sciences said, unimpressed. "Really?"

"It was the safest course of action," Kate insisted, maintaining a straight face.

*

The fireworks were magnificent. Even in the bright morning light, the sparks of green and red against the blue sky were quite a sight.

"Let's do the last three all at once," Kate said, almost dizzy with excitement. "Before someone comes."

*

"You should have given them to a groundskeeper," the Head of the School of Life Sciences said. "You set fire to the undergrowth."

"We did put out the fire almost immediately," Kate said defensively. "Those nettles barely even got burnt."

*

"WHAT THE HELL DO WE DO?!" Matt yelled shrilly.

"I'VE GOT THIS!" Kate yelled back as she jumped into the lake, scooping water desperately into the bucket. Pushing past Matt, she doused the spluttering flames coming from the patch of nettles in lake water. The fire, weak to begin with, went out almost immediately.

"THIS WAS THE WORST IDEA YOU'VE EVER HAD," Matt said, still shouting.

*

"I'm extremely disappointed in you both," the Head of the School of Life Sciences said. "The University expects more common sense from our students. It's as if you didn't even listen to the health and safety talk at the start of the lab session."

Kate opened her mouth, and then closed it again. That was true.

"We're very sorry," Matt said. "We've learnt a very important lesson today."

The Head of the School of Life Sciences shook her head. "You will both receive a written warning for misconduct from the School of Life Sciences. At the very least, thank God that nobody was harmed."

"Thank God for that," Matt echoed weakly.

*

"THE SNAILS!" Matt yelled, staring back and forth from the empty bucket to the blackened patch of nettles. "KATE, WHAT HAVE WE DONE?!"

***The Next Together is a published Young Adult, available now from all good bookshops.***

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