I wish I could tell you that today started out like any other day, but that isn’t completely true. I woke up with an itch in the back of my throat, the kind that you can’t satisfy by coughing. I took my coffee extra hot; no sugar, no cream. No dice. I kissed the wife goodbye and headed in to the lab, trying for the semblance of normalcy. I hate being sick. The train ride was uneventful, as usual, but the itch remained. I bought a pack of cough drops and a small plastic container of orange juice from the magazine booth on the crowded city street before ducking into the non-descript building that housed our research facilities.
I work for a no-name genetics firm, the daughter company of a shadow corporation deep in the bed of some big shot Pharma with even deeper pockets. As technical as the work can be, it’s pretty straightforward. I take genetic sequence A and couple it with seeded tissue sample B. Both of which are provided to me in a no-questions-asked transaction with a supervisor who doesn’t give me the time of day otherwise. That’s just fine with me, though. The guy couldn’t find his way around a laboratory if his life depended on it. The last thing I need is some buffoon plowing into test tubes and Petri dishes and fumbling my experiments while making small talk.
It wasn’t always this way. About six months back I worked for a guy named Burney Limkin, an outstanding supervisor and mentor. We’d chat for hours over drinks like a couple of fresh grad students about how our research was going to change the world. Sometimes we’d work long nights and into the morning until we were finally overtaken by exhaustion. But who couldn’t be excited during those days? We’d just isolated a major genome and we could all smell a breakthrough just around the corner. That is, until our elderly benefactor took the final dirt nap and his blushing twenty-seven year old bride got the keys to the bank. Turns out she wasn’t so hot about the idea of dumping her new gold mine into genetic research. When it comes to funding, no one cares as much about finding a cure to a disease than the man dying from it. When there’s no funding, the research stops.
Good old Burney caught a break running into an old colleague and found a spot working for some government watchdog group tasked with monitoring genetic research projects operating close to the legal line. The rest of us stayed on after the lab was sold. We were smart enough to figure out that we weren’t working to save anyone from anything.
You see, in this business, death sells. You won’t often see a cure for some crazy disease. It simply isn’t profitable enough. Besides, why cure something when you can sell medication to control the symptoms? Unfortunately for us, we didn’t have to deal with that particular moral dilemma. We knew that wouldn’t be a problem when the short, balding man with the clipboard called us in for the talk about lab security. The new company didn’t approve of us talking with our old boss; the connection to the Feds was too close. The gag order came with a hefty raise for each of us, so we didn’t complain too loudly.
With ties to Burney gone, none of us asked the questions we should have been asking. I think we all knew the answers anyway. Non-descript genetic sequences and prepped tissue samples that we never prepared ourselves? Welcome to the world of genetic warfare, where one hand never knows what the other is doing.
I’ve seen some interesting things through the business end of a microscope, but nothing close to some of the things in the last three weeks: rapid cell generation and mutations, cannibalistic cell structures, the works. We must have been on to something though. Dr. Dopple, the short, bald man with the clipboard seemed to smile much more frequently and we’d gotten a few large bonuses without so much as an explanation; all part of the benefits of secrecy, I suppose.
I changed into the thick, rubberized suit and chugged the last of my orange juice before donning the respirator and attaching the head piece with a large plastic window. Jennifer, another senior tech, was fumbling with her respirator. A petite woman, she’d never quite gotten the hang of the bulky protective suits we’d been issued. I walked over to her, fastened the straps, and handed her the head piece. She smiled a sad little smile and mouthed her silent thanks.
It wasn’t like Jennifer to be so closed off, but then again, that wasn’t the only thing that seemed different about her this morning. Pronounced veins in the eyes, graying of the skin on her otherwise rosy cheeks; it wasn’t just her cheery glow that was missing, had she been exposed to the samples we’d been working on?
I couldn’t help but laugh. We’d followed every possible precaution, maybe she was just coming down with the same thing that seemed to be on the horizon for me. I mentally reviewed my symptoms: the dry, itchy throat, loss of heat sensitivity indicated by the way I drank my coffee extra hot without pain, and in the mirror my reflection stared back with the same dull expression.
I methodically punched the keys to the air lock chamber and Jennifer followed me inside where we were showered with a spray of sanitizing chemicals and then smacked about with a torrent of nitrogenized air. Jennifer snagged a blue absorbent pad from the dispenser on the other side of the air lock and tossed it to me. I wiped down her visor and then she repeated the procedure for me before opening the door to the laboratory.
I caught the dim flicker of the fluorescent lights glinting off the seat of a stainless steel lab stool raised over Paul’s head as we entered the room. Paul had never been a violent man, so it surprised me when I finally registered that the red streak on the cold metal was blood.
My stomach wretched and a wave of nausea washed over me. My knees weakened and I slumped to the floor. Jennifer rushed to Paul and grabbed his arm, trying unsuccessfully to restrain him. The stool thudded down with a crunch on the twitching and barely recognizable form of the short bald man. His clipboard lay on the blood specked tile floor.
“Paul!” Jennifer shouted.
The sharp crackle from headset brought the urgency of the situation back to me and I rushed to help her restrain him.
“He’s killed us!” Paul panted. “He’s damned us all.”
I took the blood smeared stool from his iron grip and put my hand comfortingly on his shoulder.
“It’s going to be fine, Paul, we’ll think of something.” I reassured him, but with a man dead or dying on the floor and his assertion that he had somehow damned us all, I couldn’t help but think that perhaps all these coincidences added up to far more than any of us could handle. The body, yes, the bio-incinerator would do the trick for that, but these symptoms: Paul’s bloodshot eyes and the blue veins making sickly silhouettes on his face, the itch in my throat that could not be scratched. I couldn’t help but wonder how closely my reflection would resemble Paul’s now.
Jennifer looked as if she’d aged ten years as she slumped to the ground, staring at the blood pooling at our feet. Her ragged breathing crackled across the communications frequency that linked us together.
“What are you talking about, Paul?” she asked.
In answer, Paul removed his head piece and placed it on the table. There was no point in attempting to keep the lab sterile now, not with several pints of human blood splattered across several surfaces. I played along and freed myself from the bulky protective suit.
“What’s going on here, Paul?” I echoed.
“It was in the respiratory systems on these suits,” he said.
“What do you mean?” Jennifer and I demanded in unison.
The lab was silent and I could smell the coppery scent of blood. In answer, Paul walked over to the refrigeration compartment and snapped the seal on the handle.
“Are you mad?” I demanded. “Don’t open the samples; you’ve seen what they do!”
I struggled to pull my helmet back on but Paul just looked at me, the sadness apparent in his eyes.
“I’ve got a wife and two kids, Rob,” he said. “Look at me. Look at her.”
His finger shot out accusingly at Jennifer and she recoiled from his stare, slipping in the blood and then scrambled to her feet. She inched backwards and I could already see what she was aiming for. Paul saw it too, but made no move to stop her.
When she reached the emergency glass she clenched her right hand into a fist and glass showered to the tile floor with a loud crash. With the axe gripped firmly like a baseball bat she glared at Paul, taking her eyes off him only long enough to assure herself that I was staying in check.
“Step away from the samples, Paul.” Her voice was hoarse. “You’ve already killed one person; I won’t let you kill the rest of us!”
Paul’s laugh startled us both.
“It’s already been done, Jennifer. Don’t you get it? He killed us. He killed Burney. The samples aren’t in the refrigeration chamber anymore.”
And with that he swung the frosted glass door open wide. The sound of the axe hitting the floor couldn’t tear me away from Burney’s frozen face. His eyes stared at us with an expression of pure horror, as if he’d watched each of his friends murdered before his very eyes.
Then it hit me like a freight train, maybe he had seen it, if everything Paul had said was true, he might very well have watched the samples being loaded into our respirators on Friday. We’d been working on a new sample, trivial work. The other samples had stayed locked in the refrigeration compartment, or so we’d thought.
Paul sat down hard and struggled to remove his thick rubber gloves. After a few clumsy seconds he had exposed his hands and stared at his wedding ring before taking it off.
“So much for a trophy for slaying the beast,” he chuckled, amused at his own joke. But then his face hardened. “I’ll never see them again. Never again hold my wife in my arms, or watch my children grow and send them off into the world.”
“How did you know?” Jennifer asked.
“I got a call from Burney Friday morning, early, but my cell battery was toast. I bought a new one this weekend but didn’t bother checking the messages until today when I was getting ready to come in, but then it was too late.”
I looked at the crumbled body of Dr. Dopple and then back at Burney.
“If you knew the samples had been loaded into the respirators, why did you put your suit on this morning?” Jennifer accused.
“How else was I supposed to get through the sanitization room? Besides, the damage was done on Friday, we’ve already been infected.” He spat back.
She looked away from him then, obviously feeling stupid for not thinking her accusation through. Of course, the sanitization system, it was designed to destroy all living organisms that might be clinging to the outside of the suits and the suits, in turn, kept us alive and safe from the chemical shower.
“Well,” she mused, “at least we won’t be getting out of here.”
“Wrong again.” Paul shook his head as he answered.
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“Dr. Dopple here has already arranged for us to be transported in a few hours.”
“You’ve got to be kidding me!” Jennifer shouted.
But it was true; I could see it in his bloodshot eyes. Our phase of the research was complete. The three genetic samples we created were loaded into our respirators and we’d been infected. It would be up to another team to poke us and prod us, test cell regeneration rates, dissect us, and then incinerate the remains, and then what? Once the alpha testing completed, would they become the beta test subjects? Or had we been the beta test subjects?
My mind was reeling and the room started spinning. I could taste the blood just before a red torrent doubled me over. The crimson vomit washed over the tile and raced to meet the standing pool of Dr. Dopple’s blood now coagulating just feet away. Everything faded to black and my mind filled up with the tiny racing ants I used to see as kid just before falling asleep at night. The last sensation I could recall was Paul’s firm grip on my shoulder.
“Hang in there, Rob,” he whispered.
I knew my face could not obey but somewhere inside, on the edge of conscious thought, I smiled. It was over, there would be no pain. Sometime later the specialized team would break into the lab and a scuffle would ensue as they subdued their quarry. Another doctor, probably a short man with a heavy German accent, would bend cautiously over me and shine a light into my eyes while holding up my lids with heavy latex gloved fingers.
“Strain unsuitable for human host environment, proceed testing with other known vectors,” he’d say.
Then one of them, maybe Paul – maybe Jennifer, would break free and sink their teeth into one of their captors. The blind rage of the genetic mutations would take over and the instinct to maim, to rend flesh, and kill would win over any remaining human sentiment. Would it be like the movies? Would a mob of flesh-craving zombies follow in their wake?
Was this what death was like: the slow, rhythmic sound of something dripping off in the distance, the insatiable hunger, and the scent of a grand feast around every unconscious corner?
It wasn’t until I heard the squeal of tires and the liberal baying of an automobile horn that I instinctively opened my eyes. I wasn’t dead it seemed, or rather… I wasn’t fully dead. My fingers automatically searched for a pulse, probing the pallid skin of my neck with no success. Some senses seemed unnaturally heightened at the cost of those remaining. My vision swayed in and out of focus in time with the dangling fluorescent light, but I could almost taste every individual scent in the room and some from the street beyond.
Paul and Jennifer had finished off Dr. Dopple and made it halfway through Burney’s frozen flesh before the team arrived. They must have been hungry.
I struggled to stand, frustrated at the realization that my muscles and limbs were slow to respond to the mental commands. Far from graceful, I flopped onto the still-warm corpse of the doctor with the heavy accent who had pronounced that I was an unsuitable host for the experiment. The blue latex gloves that had once covered his fingers were bloody and torn, revealing broken segments of bones that had been exposed by the gnawing of flesh-craving teeth.
“Damn, infected.” I managed to blurt out after desperately attempting to form the words in my mind.
Flesh tainted by the genetic mutation was undesirable, a pattern that had been exposed with the interaction between like strains during our preliminary testing in tubes and Petri dishes. Saliva of the infected seemed to spread the mutation; it was beginning to look like the movies weren’t far off. Detection of mutation seemed to be controlled by the olfactory system, or by smell in layman’s terms.
I clawed at my throat as a matter of impulse, tearing away chunks of skin that clung beneath my fingernails like dirt from the garden. The itch was overwhelming, burning, and choking to my core. The urge to claw away my own neck might be controlled with enough mental force, but I’d have to do something to sate the thirst-like hunger.
Burney had always been a good friend so I knew he wouldn’t mind. He was mostly thawed by now and his tasty red muscles melted like butter in my parched mouth. I was surprised, however, after sucking the last of his small toe bones clean that the desire to feed had not been quelled in the slightest, instead I craved more.
There was a flurry of movement behind me. The German doctor was reviving, ready to be born anew into this world of undeath. I smiled awkwardly, but he took no notice. His bones were broken in several places, no doubt a product of his impact with the wall and stainless steel countertops. He limped gamely onward and through a ragged hole that had been blown through the reinforced laboratory wall when the team had initially entered. I followed quietly behind, observing his movements with a keen scientific eye.
A primary difference, it seemed, between the strain that I had been infected with and the one that had this doctor had acquired was a distinct ability to interact with the surrounding environment. I picked up the clipboard as I ducked through the hole and started jotting down my notes.
“Subject suffers from secondary infection, does not interact with environment or other infected persons that come into contact.” I stumbled over the words as I wrote them, paying close attention to the doctor’s movements and looking for any indication of consciousness.
At once the doctor increased his speed, hobbling along like a three legged frog at a decent clip until finally lunging at a pretty young woman who had been doing her best to avoid him.
“Subject has acquired sustenance, possibility of contamination: high.”
Ignoring the doctor’s protective growl, I leaned in to smell the sweet violet fluid oozing from the woman’s arm and quickly corrected my prognosis, “possibility of contamination: absolute.”
It was in that moment, as I was crouched over the dying woman, that I heard the resounding crunch of bone. It took me a moment to realize that the skinny man now standing over me, wearing a tight fitting business suit and trembling noticeably, had struck me across the face with something hard. His briefcase dangled precariously from the nearly detached handle, and was growing bolder from the cheers of onlookers who were flocking to the scene.
They gathered like cockroaches in moonlight, slipping out from nooks and crannies that had been vacant only moments before. My mouth began to water. I could smell their blood pumping in their veins, the steady rhythmic pulses lulling me into frenzied stupor. I tried to warn them, to shout and yell for them to run, but my jaw hung uselessly -- disjointed from the blow dealt by the briefcase wielding banker.
The doctor continued ripping at the flesh of the young woman, seemingly oblivious to the mob now gathered around us. I crouched defensively and eyed the clipboard that had been knocked from my hands when I was struck. The banker saw my furtive glance and inched forward just close enough to scoop it up before dancing back to the protection of the group.
He laughed like a bully in a schoolyard and held it up for all to see.
“This zombie likes to draw pictures!”
I lunged at him, trying desperately to recover my stolen notes, but he danced lithely out of reach. The mob laughed and jeered.
“You want this?” He asked, showing me the clipboard and then yanking it back out of reach again. “Does the zombie want his coloring book back?”
It was as if I could see what I had written for the first time, not the intelligible sentences of a scientific disposition, but scribblings like those of a child filled the blood-spattered page. I groaned in agony, the realization of my delusion seemed too much to bare, and this man mocking me in front of so many strangers stirred an anger from somewhere deep inside. The whiney groan that rattled my lower jaw gave way to a throaty roar of rage.
And then it happened, like a dense fog rolling into a valley, screams from the rear of the mob joined my horrid battle cry. A hand flew through the air and landed at my feet. The emboldened banker looked down at the twitching fingers and his eyes rolled upward. Without thinking, I dove at him. Possessed with supernatural strength, I gripped the arm holding the briefcase and ripped it from his shoulder. His yelp of pain joined the chorus around us before I bashed his face in.
After taking a moment to pop my jaw back into place, I sunk my teeth into his warm flesh. It tasted much better than Burney’s had, but still lacked any satisfying quality that could quench the hunger tearing at my throat.
I looked over at the clipboard, saddened by the loss of my humanity, and then surveyed the area around me. Not a single person had escaped. Paul and three of the men who had broken into the lab, now infected, had taken the left side, Jennifer and two others had rushed into the right.
I tried to shout to Paul, to tell him thank you or congratulate him on a job well done, but my voice came out as a garbled moan. Feeling ashamed, I gave up the effort to hail my old friend and followed the pack towards the smell of fresh blood.
© Brady Frost, 2009