Rosa’s loafers slapped the linoleum. Each footfall echoed down the hallway, overriding the buzz of the fluorescent light near the emergency exit. A wedge of bright light strobed through the open door. Same pristine white walls, same closed doors, same shuttered rooms. Yet, the meaty stench overrode the laboratory smells of bleach, animal bedding, and microbial media.
Slowing, she approached the repurposed conference room. Their experimental animals couldn’t all be dead. She gave Jay the stink eye. “If this is one of your jokes…”
“It isn’t. I swear.” Jay shook his head. A lock of black hair flopped against his pale forehead.
Stopping behind her, Marcus set his hand on the small of her back. “Jay’s a douche, but he loves the animals just as much as you.”
“Thanks.” Jay wrinkled his nose. “I think.”
Rolling her shoulders, Rosa stepped across the threshold. Her stomach cramped. That meaty smell was blood. Lots of blood
Reddish-brown blossoms marked the plastic cages still resting on the stainless steel baker’s racks. More cages lay on the nubby carpet. Some of the inhabitants tumbled in mangled heaps in the corner, having escaped. Blood trails led to the stiff carcasses.
She sipped air into her protesting lungs. “Who would do this?”
“Animal rights activists?” Jay’s shoulders nudged hers as he froze beside her.
She shook her head. Her ponytail slapped her shoulders. “They free animals not kill them.”
In the corner, rats carcasses formed a stiffening pile by the door to the food warehouse. Something was off.
“The seed companies could have gotten wind of our experiments and destroyed the evidence.” Marcus eased into the room. Standing on tiptoes, he kept his sneakers out of the blood trails.
Rosa latched onto his forearm. “Careful. You could be destroying evidence.”
Marcus’s muscles bunched under her palm.
Jay snorted. “Do you really think the police are going to investigate this? In case you haven’t noticed, lots of folks have gone crazy.”
“And this could be a symptom of it.” Snippets of ideas flitted inside her head. Nothing fit together, but she could see the beginnings of a pattern. “What if someone knew we performed animal experiments and thought we were behind the craziness?”
“Like the water plant, you mean?” Jay stroked his freshly shaved chin.
“Then why this one lab?” Marcus patted her hand before lifting it off his forearm. “There are two others. They’re untouched.”
“Are they?” Rosa’s fingernails dug into her palms. The nursery had been untouched by human hands, but there another beyond it. “We didn’t check the other labs.”
And she didn’t want to. Her vision blurred and she blinked to clear it. The rats in the cages opposite her seemed to have had their necks broken. She couldn’t believe someone would be so cruel. And the time it would take… Just how had they gotten past the new high tech security system.
“I peeked inside. Everything looked alright.”
Jay sighed heavily. “I’ll check.”
Fear pounded extra beats from her heart. “What if they’re still here?”
The fluorescent bulb died. Silence cloaked the hallway.
Tugging the walkie off his belt, Marcus depressed the button on the side. “Hey, Brandon, can you check to see if there’s anyone in the building who shouldn’t be?”
“Sure. Sure.” The guard fumbled with the walkie. The thunk of it landing came through the speaker along with the newcasters’ commentaries on the riots on the freeways. He alternated cheering and groaning with each step in the analysis.
The hair on Rosa’s neck stood on end.
Bradley favored the rioters, liked the violence.
Marcus reached the first baker’s rack. Removing his flashlight, he thumbed it on and shone it inside the cages.
“No one’s here except those who are supposed to be.” The guard burped, a low vibration that shook the walkie. “The cleaning crew should be done in a few minutes.”
“Can he see into the labs?” Rosa glanced over her shoulder. Her breathing echoed inside her head. Could someone be beyond those doors? Could she save any of the rats if they were?
Marcus squatted in front of the bottom row of cages. “Can you see the labs?”
“Of course I can see the labs.” Bradley barked. “I’m at the damn desk, watching the monitors like I’m paid to do.”
Rosa wrapped her arms around her torso. The guard’s temper was on a short fuse. What would they do if he went nuts like so many others?
Jay’s attention darted from the emergency exit on the right to the elevators on the left. “Does he have a gun?”
She shivered. She hadn’t thought of a gun. Most rent a cops didn’t carry. They could just yell stop again and again with authority.
Marcus tugged a cage off the rack. “Who? Bradley? Of course, he does. He’s a vet with real training, and there’s a lot of equipment to protect.”
She sagged against the doorjamb to prop up her shaking legs. A vet could kill without a gun. His body was a weapon.
“Great.” Jay spun on his heel and flipped off the heavens. “Our buddy Bradley can also lock us into the labs and come by to pick us off one by one.”
“Leave the door open. He can’t lock an open door.” Marcus eased the plastic bin onto the stainless steel table in the center of the room.
“You’re so flipping brilliant.” Jay stormed down the hallway. “I’ll check the labs myself. I’d rather face animal activists than an armed Bradley gone bonkers.”
Rosa watched him leave. Should she go after him? He certainly shouldn’t go by himself. Yet, the lab didn’t have a Standard Operating Procedure for what to do in the event of a break-in. Her body twitched with confusion. Well, sugar! She couldn’t let him check by himself. Holding her breath, she pushed away from the door jamb.
“He’ll be fine.” Marcus’s voice echoed loudly, mingling with the slaughter.
She stumbled over her feet and fell toward the floor. Catching the handle, she steadied herself before she face-planted on the linoleum.
Turning toward her, Jay touched two fingers to his forehead in a mock salute then threw open the laboratory doors and rushed inside. “Drop those varmints, Varmint!”
“Well, hello there.” Marcus removed a brown rat from the cage on the table. Tumors grew in six centimeter lumps on the female’s hind legs, torso and abdomen. He cradled her against his belly and stroked her fur. “You’re alright, aren’t you, girl?”
“She’s alive.” Well, duh. Rosa tried not to smack herself for stating the obvious. Tiptoeing over the blood smears, she joined Marcus at the table.
He handed her the rat. “Hungry, too. I bet.”
A squeak sounded.
Soft fur coated the hard balls of cancer in her palm. Rosa scratched the rat between the ears. The creature’s heart beat faster than a hummingbird’s. “I think she’s scared.”
“I’d be scared, too. God only knows what she saw.” Marcus scanned the racks of cages, using his flashlight.
“You’re safe now.” She raised the rat until their eyes were level.
The rodent’s whiskers twitched and her hands grasped Rosa’s index finger.
Footsteps pounded in the hall.
Hugging the rat close, Rosa clawed open the utensil drawer under the table and removed a metal caliper. Holding the measuring jaws in her hand, she allowed the handle to protrude from her fingers. She’d use the weapon to punch the newcomer in the throat if he threatened her.
Jay’s arms windmilled as he stumbled past the door.
She raised her fist. Throat or eyes. She could do this.
A moment later, Jay staggered into the doorway. “The other labs are untouched. Guess, it wasn’t the activists or seed companies.”
Marcus inspected the corner rack. “Definitely not activists, but we can’t rule out the seed companies.”
“Why would they leave one alive?” Jay held out his cupped hands for the rat. “We can show the tumors on her and link them to her diet.”
The caliper clattered into the metal drawer. She’d really been prepared to stab someone in the throat. Maybe, the violence itself was infectious. Maybe there was no causative agent. So how could she protect herself and those she cared about? Shaking the feeling back into her hand, she carefully handed over the rat. Jay worked primarily in this room, after all.
“One isn’t a statistic.” Marcus paused at the middle row. “Their Scientific Mafia would shoot down the data, and the public will keep feeding their ignorance.”
Wiping her hand on her lab coat, she lifted the cover on the computer. The monitor powered on as it rose. “How do we know they didn’t erase the data and are using this… this carnage to cover their tracks. We have been experiencing network problems.”
Marcus grunted and removed another cage. A white rat scratched at the sides of his cage. A tumor formed a dome on the rodent’s head and his belly cancers furrowed his bedding when he moved. “The network issues are because the New York lab was moved, and the system keeps resetting to the old IP address.”
Yeah, yeah, computer, blah blah blah. She was a biologist-type nerd, not a IT geek. “Meaning?”
“Meaning, the data isn’t being backed up nightly, and when the main office tries to collate it and look for trends, it causes a cascade failure.” Marcus set the cage on the table.
The Windows icon flashed on the screen then blinked off. Nothing took its place. “Maybe the seed companies infected our systems with a virus.”
“Maybe. Or maybe, you’re not connected to the internet, just like yesterday, before this.” Marcus swept his hand in the direction of the cages.
Jay clucked at his rat, then fed her a piece of carrot from his pocket. “How would the seed companies even know about our research? We all had to sign confidentiality agreements before we started working.”
“The president was going to present a paper at the Life Sciences Symposium in Chicago.” Marcus knelt in front of the cage. His eyes narrowed when he peered inside. “There was also supposed to be a simultaneous broadcast with TED talks during their conference in Ireland. The news release went out to all interested environmental groups, health food communities, and various mailing lists yesterday.”
Jay’s swearing blistered the air.
Holy crap! With the fringe communities in the know, the news would be viral in a matter of minutes. Rosa swayed on her feet. “Why weren’t we warned?”
“Everyone should have received an email yesterday afternoon.” The cage shifted on the table.
“Yesterday? As in the day we lost our network?” She pounded her fist on the table. The calipers, steel probes, and rulers bounced in the open drawer.
The female rat squeaked. She scurried up Jay’s arm and ducked under his collar. Catching her before she dropped down his back, he shielded her from Rosa. “Hey, you’re upsetting her. She’s been through enough, don’t you think?”
“Sorry.” Rosa gulped air. She had to get a hold of herself. Jay was telling her to mind her manners, for pity’s sake.
The male rat pattered to the back of his cage. Baring his fangs, he ran as fast as he could across the bedding and rammed the side with his head. The plastic scooted a few inches across the table.
“I don’t think anyone broke in here and killed the rats.” Marcus winced as the rodent flung himself at the side of the cage again.
The white rat tried a third and a fourth time.
“What is wrong with you?” Had they gone mad, glorifying in the violence? The stupid animal didn’t know any better. She slammed her hand on the top of the cage. “You can’t just let him hurt himself.”
“Don’t!” Marcus reached for her wrist.
The rat collided for the fifth time. With her hand nailing the cage to the table, the tumor on his head absorbed the impact and exploded. The rodent twitched once, twice, then lay still.
She clapped her free hand over her mouth. Ohgodohgodohgod. She should have thought it through. With the cage sliding across the table, the rat wouldn’t have hurt itself too badly. “I killed it.”
“It killed itself.” Marcus shifted the cage so his body partially blocked the contents. “It committed suicide.”
Just like people were doing on the news. She rejected the idea. “No. These rats have been exposed to GMOs for generations. Humans have only been eating the crops for the last twenty years or so. We shouldn’t be seeing the effects yet.”
Per protocol, Marcus returned the cage to the nearest slot. “The modifications that were made to the plants, animals, and even the microbes that made corn syrup, were done using viruses and bacteria. All of which engage in sloppy bug sex, exchanging genetic material freely with anything organism. Since we have more microbes in our digestive tract than there are stars in the universe, that’s a lot of unsafe sex.”
She linked other bits of information they’d shared. “With the autopsies proving the GM corn produces holes in what remains of the small intestine, those bugs could have incorporated the information to the body’s cells. Changing the animals’ proteins.”
“Maybe more than proteins.” With the sole surviving rat perched on his shoulder, Jay crouched in front of the pile of dead animals in the corner. “I don’t think these rats came together for comfort. I think they killed each other.”
“Rats don’t fight to the death.” She shook her head. He implied that the changes made animals homicidal. But was that so different to the fear, anxiety, and antisocial behavior they’d already correlated to the genetically engineered food? The human implications were just too horrible to consider. Man had been eating the modified crops for decades. With most cells in the body replaced over a seven year period, the toxic changes could be on the third generation of mutation. “Only man, ants, and termites fight to kill and wage war. If the food could make rats kill on such a scale…”
What did it mean for humanity?
She wanted them to refute her conclusion, to deny the apocalyptic scenario. Wanted it so much, she could taste it over the stench of blood and death.
Neither said a word.
Swallowing hard, Jay turned away from the animals he’d taken care of for the last year. “I think we should tell Dr. Autopsy and Mr. Hadean that GMO now stands for Genocidal maniacs and other psychoses?”
“There’s no Mr. Hadean.” Marcus increased the pressure of his hand on her back. “Hadean Industries is a play on words. It means industry has brought hell to Earth.”
“God.” She hustled out of the room.
Jay pulled the door shut behind him. “We need to find Dr. Autopsy.”
The speakers of the public address system burped.
“Hey, guys.” Bradley’s hoarse whisper shivered through the building. “Since you aren’t working, let’s play tag.”
The tumblers on the locks turned on the doors lining the hallway.
“What the hell?” Jay jiggled the nearest handle.
Rosa jogged to the next door. Chrome chilled her hand but the knob didn’t budge. She slammed against the wood. Pain radiated from her shoulder and elbow, but the door remained shut. This is not good. So not good. The corridor was a shooting gallery, and she was one of the tin ducks. “We can’t play right now, Bradley. We’re running behind in our work.”
“Since I don’t think you smart-ass college kids have ever played tag, let me explain the rules.”
Marcus tried the food storage room then the autopsy room. Neither opened.
Her tongue stuck to the roof of her mouth as she slammed against the emergency exit at the end of the hall. The bar depressed but the door didn’t open. What the hell? It was supposed to open.
Marcus cupped her shoulder blade. “It has an electronic locks, too. I didn’t have time to change the system.”
“Then how are we supposed to get out?” Or call for help? They weren’t allowed to bring any electronic devices beyond the guard station, to prevent data theft. She needed her cell, but would settle for a phone. Office? She mouthed.
“Very good, Rosa. The office has more hiding spots.” Bradley chuckled. “And a surprise.”
Her skin prickled. Damn it, she’d forgotten about the cameras.
Marcus laced his fingers together and crouched under the black bubble housing the surveillance equipment.
Setting her loafer in one, she placed her other hand on his shoulder.
He rocketed to his feet.
She shoved her hand through the dropped ceiling tile. Dust and flakes of the sound absorbing finish rained down on her. Pipes, gas lines, T1 cables, and… three wires. Yes! Aside from a hell of a show watching Marcus install the upgraded surveillance, she also knew how it was wired. Red for audio. Blue for visuals. Green and yellow were back-ups.
“I’ve left six bullets in my gun. The first one tag will hurt. A lot.” Bradley’s voice deepened.
Reaching inside, she grabbed the nearest wire and yanked. The force threw her off balance. Her stomach fluttered inside as she fell. The wire snapped free of the camera.
A hand planted on her bottom. Another steadied her back.
“Damn, Rosa.” Jay chuckled in her ear. “I always knew I’d get to touch your ass, but I thought I’d have time to enjoy it.”
Growling, Marcus lowered her to the floor.
“One camera down, only six more to go. Can you do it before I get up there?” Bradley taunted.
Marcus fisted the front of her lab coat, removing her from Jay’s support. “Go block open the elevators. He’ll have to take the stairs, and we’ll hear him come into the office area.”
Guess they weren’t hiding in the office area. Rosa braced herself for the argument.
Lips clamped together, Jay nodded. “Don’t hide without me.”
“Don’t go genocidal maniac on us.” Marcus dragged her in the opposite direction toward the next camera. “This time, just grab the wires and jump down. Your weight and gravity should do the trick.”
She hoped he didn’t mean she was fat. Not that she wanted to lose weight by bleeding out from a gunshot wound. “It’ll go faster that way.”
Releasing her, he stopped under the next camera.
She had no sooner stepped into his clasped hands when he lifted.
Bradley cleared his throat. “Nice move on the elevators. Now, where was I? Oh, yeah, the second bullet won’t hurt so much. Unless you piss me off, then you’ll have time to convince me to reload and not use my knife.”
The elevator doors chimed open. Jay kicked off his shoes and wedged them into the cracks to stop the lift from moving.
She pulled the second cable and hit the ground running.
Marcus zigzagged ahead of her.
“To be sporting, I’ll give you a ten second head start, and I’ll leave the chamber empty.” Bradley cocked the gun. The sound so similar to all those cop movies.
Rosa hoped it wasn’t the last thing she ever heard.