[Note: Peter MacKenzie is the male protagonist]
The corridor around the Areopagite Experimental Biology Lab buzzed with activity as Peter watched several people approach the entrance, pause at the threshold, assume a rigid posture, then say something. Only seconds later, the door would open.
Voice printing at least. Maybe retinal scanning. It’s not going to be so easy.
A globug and lorry with the same configuration of cargo he’d seen earlier that day with Madras slowed as it rounded the corner past him. A soft chattering and an occasional muted quack emanated from under the tarpaulin. Only one man rode the lorry this time. Quickly, Peter hopped on, covering himself with the canvas. A short ways on, the globug stopped.
“Fleming!” the driver called.
For a moment, nothing happened. Peter lay still, but his face was pressed up against a cage, where he was eye-to-eye with a shiny green-headed mallard with a troubled look. Please don’t—
Then the other ducks started quacking. He felt the man get off the globug and heard him start to walk toward the back of the lorry. Lifting the cover on the opposite side, Peter saw another globug parked nearby. If he could get behind it quickly…. He had one foot on the floor when the sound of the man’s footsteps stopped, then moved away from him, toward the laboratory door. He got back under cover.
“Fleming,” the driver said again in a more normal volume, and small servos began to whine. The door was opening; the lorry started moving.
Just inside the lab entrance the lorry stopped again. A rush of air fluttered the tarp, which sucked up against his face. His ears popped, telling him there was a lower pressure in the chamber, enough to prevent the escape of anything toxic—or contagious. Through these doors the globug stopped again. A computerized androgynous voice droned, “Beginning decontamination.”
After several seconds of a modulating, low-frequency tone and a blue light so intense it hurt his closed eyes even through the canvas, the computer announced: “Decontamination complete.” Another rush of air. More doors whined open. It smelled like a hospital. With a jerk, the globug started again. Lifting the edge of the tarp he saw row upon row of numbered laboratory cubicles and offices but only one other person, far back in a corner lab. The globug went straight a few more seconds, then turned right and stopped.
“Hey, Wally,” a man wearing a small headphone but no helmet said. “How’s it goin’?”
“It’s a beautiful day in the neighborhood. How you been, Don?”
“Ehhh, can’t complain.”
“This the last load of NAV?”
The man without a helmet checked his digital clipboard. “Uh-huh. All North American virus mixture. Ebola-BRQ.”
“Bravo, Romeo, Quebec,” Wally repeated in confirmation. “Makes me shiver just to say it.”
“Just sit tight a minute while I set it up. Then you can drive ‘em in.”
The man with no helmet entered a walk-in freezer and returned with a canister the size of a gallon milk jug marked with the biohazard symbol and the words “Extreme Danger-Airborne Viral Agent” in large red letters.
“You know, Don, you really should be wearing your hood in here. At least when you handle that stuff.” He nodded at the container. “Just because we’re immune to the Ebola series doesn’t mean we’re immune to everything in here.”
“Ahh, go on. You sound like my Jewish mother.”
”Can’t be too careful. What if you grab a can of Eblis-A by accident one time and drop it? Then what?”
“Okay, what?” he said dismissively. “You mean I’d end up back with them?” He jerked his head around, gesturing.
Is he talking about Earth?
“Maybe. And from what I hear, you don’t want to go where they’re going, starting, what? Day after tomorrow? I sure as heck don’t.”
“Holy cow! Two more days? I thought dispersal wasn’t due to start ‘til next week.”
“All I know is what I’m told. Dispersal starts in—“ He looked at his watch. “—about forty-eight hours. Somewhere in China.”
He shrugged. “Maybe I’m just excited to go back home.”
Back home! That’s what Cap said.
“It’s gotta be soon, or they wouldn’t be loading the ship.”
“Poor buggers. I feel sorry for ‘em.”
“Pity us, huh? We’re the ones who have to bury them all.”
“Yeah, that’s going to be a helluva mess to contend with.”
“Beats the alternative.”
“Yeah, I suppose so. Where they’re going is no paradise. Not like Earth will be again.”
Peter watched the man named Don remove what must have been a safety pin from the top of the canister, after which he used a tool about the size of a fingernail clipper to release a securing ring around the lid. He shoved the canister into a cannonlike breech in the center of the control console and gave it a firm half-turn with a large wrench.
Peter gingerly stepped off the back of the globug. The ducks began quacking. Damn! Quickly, he crawled back under the lorry, behind one of its wheels.
“Hey, you guys,” Wally quipped, “pipe down back there! This ain’t goin’ to hurt a bit.”
From under the lorry Peter scanned the area, looking for a place to hide, but the area around him was open and well lit, except for—There!
A short distance behind him was a small alcove next to the men’s room. With the cages stacked four high on the lorry, the two men’s view down the hall was partially blocked. If he were fast, he just might make it. Slipping off his shoes and tucking them under the tarp, he took four or five giant steps to a standpipe with a fire extinguisher, which was recessed about two feet into the wall and into whose small space he squeezed his body back out of sight.
“I’m about ready here,” Don said, “so whenever you are.” He made some final settings on the console. “These going straight to the hangar?”
“Yeah. Straight to the ship.”
“See ya, Wally.”
“Later gator,” he said and drove the lorry with the ducks into a large treatment chamber.
From his standpipe retreat, Peter had a clear view of the chamber, the top half of which was Plexiglas. After removing the canvas tarpaulin, Wally left the globug and lorry, entered an adjoining room through airtight doors, where he then waited, giving his companion the thumbs-up signal.
Don fired the canister with a soft pop, releasing a greenish cloud of virus into the compartment. A red sign above the Plexiglas window flashed, “Contamination Alert!” A warning claxon sounded, Ahooogah! Ahooogah! Ahooogah! Only a moment later, the claxon stopped, replaced by the sound of rushing air. The green fog quickly cleared, followed by the low-frequency tone and the harsh blue light. Then the sign flashed: “Decontamination Complete.” Wally re-entered the chamber, replaced the tarpaulin, mounted the globug and began to drive the lorry straight through to what Peter guessed was a parallel corridor leading to the hangar area.
An icy chill shuddered through his body. He tried to persuade himself he hadn’t heard what he’d manifestly just heard. But no matter how hard he fought the tragic notion, the words of Wally and Don were inescapable. This was no dream or memory, but the here and now. With each passing second, the conclusion assumed an ever more frightening dimension. Could it be true? That Lilah was right? That this was the end of the world? To his weary mind, the answer was yes, and it was an end with a malevolent twist. Though some doubts remained—there was the matter of the utter benevolence of the people he’d met, their undisguised gaiety, their passion—the consequences of his being wrong seemed far outweighed by the enormity of the other calculated outcome. Something had to be done to stop it. But how? And who would help? Time was short.
Quickly formulating a plan, he decided that hitching a ride out the way he’d come in would be impossible. But I’m already inside. There’s no security to get out. All he had to do was walk out. But not before he had the only thing he could use that might stop what was happening. What did the man call it? Eblis something or other. He had to get back into the walk-in freezer.
He peered down the corridor. All clear. No! He jumped back, catching a glimpse of a white suit through the glass inoculation chamber. Don was rounding the corner, heading his way. He jerked himself violently back into the alcove, back so hard it hurt, trying to melt into the wall out of view. The prongs on the standpipe bit like teeth into his side and thigh. Footsteps got louder. Become invisible! he told himself. Closer now. Into view.
His heart nearly exploded from his chest and he was fully prepared for the hand-to-hand combat that would surely ensue. But miraculously, the white shrouded figure floated past. Don had taken his comrade’s advice and put on his hood, obscuring his peripheral vision.
Quietly, he allowed himself to exhale, as he heard the door to the men’s room. Knowing he wouldn’t have long before Don reappeared, Peter bounded down the hall to the freezer in gazellelike leaps on shoeless feet. Inside, shelf upon shelf of canisters lined the walls, each with a different group marking: North American, Asian, Eastern European, Indian Sub-Continent. Some were simply marked “Experimental.” Within each group were countless canisters: Ebola-B, Ebola-BRQ, Hanta-S, Dengue Q, HIV-Sub-Saharan. But only different variants of the Ebola virus were on shelves with geographic markings. He focused on the experimental shelves. “Eblis, Eblis,” he kept repeating, as if in his bleary fatigue he could forget, until at last he saw it. There! On a shelf by itself. A metal case marked Eblis-A.
Only one canister was inside the case. A different kind of canister—hard, clear plastic. It contained an ugly greenish-black mass, like a storm cloud, the ones that spawn tornadoes. He read the label:
WARNING! Virulently antithetical to a broad spectrum of animal life. Rabidly contagious. Multiple vectored airborne variant. Fast-acting. Produces debilitating muscular and respiratory symptoms in twenty-four hours, followed by coma and death (usually within forty-eight hours). Mortality rates exceed 98 percent in primates; 100 percent in humanoids, anthropoids. No known vaccine. No effective treatment. Experimental purposes only. Exercise extreme caution: P-4Q-Extreme Protocols only!
Taking off his shirt, he wrapped the canister in it and started down the corridor, past the men’s room, toward the doors he had come in through on the lorry. Damnit! He heard the servos whining as the doors of the outer chamber opened; soon someone would emerge through the inner doorway.
Now where? He took a deep breath and held it, then he walked nonchalantly into the men’s room, fully expecting to meet Don on his way out. But the man was still in a stall. All Peter needed was the man’s suit. With it he could walk out unnoticed. He took the hood and upper-torso pullover off the rack. No pants. He peeked under the stall door. They were slung down around Don’s knees.
Back to the corridor. Doors whirring, whining. Think! He ran back to the inoculation chamber. If he could just get in, he’d be able to escape to the hangar deck. “Door? Door? Where the hell’s the door switch?” Found it. He pushed the button. Nothing happened. Frantically, he pushed every button and threw every switch he could reach.
Why isn’t anything happening?
Finally he saw the manual safety latch. “Come onnn...” The chamber door opened. He glanced down the hallway one final time, where the door lights were flashing. Another lorry load of waterfowl was headed in. Don would be out soon. It was now or never.
Inside the chamber, he closed the door behind him, but then could not open the door at the other side, the door leading to the safe room, where the man named Wally had waited for the inoculation to be completed. Ahooogah! Ahooogah! Ahooogah! He’d pushed too many buttons. A contamination-decontamination cycle had started, and he was going to be exposed with whatever was left in the canister, just like the ducks. Way to go, MacKenzie!
A muted pop from the cannon dispenser signaled the beginning of the inoculation phase, with its greenish fog, which rapidly enveloped him, filling his nostrils with a deathly stench. After a few seconds’ delay, there followed a sudden pressure change and a rush of fresh air. Then the low-frequency tone started, much harsher and more penetrating than before, like nothing he could have imagined. He covered his ears—it didn’t help. He fell helplessly to his knees, pain screaming inside his head, dropping the viral canister, which unwrapped from his shirt and rolled freely across the floor. Then the blinding blue light flashed on, sending him into new realms of pain. Eyes clamped shut and writhing in agony, he descended momentarily into a deathly black silence. Only seconds later, he opened his eyes and realized that the star-bright light had blinded him. He groped the floor, desperately feeling for the canister of Eblis-A. Slowly, his vision improved, first with shadowy grays and indistinct forms, but quickly images clarified as he pulled himself up to peer over the edge of the low wall, just as a globug came into view at the far end of the hall and the door to the men’s room swung open. Dazed, he struggled to focus his mind; he had only seconds. The chamber’s exit doors! They’d opened automatically at the end of the cycle while he was blacked out, and now they were swinging shut, closing off his escape route.
God help me!