“Head, torso, arms, and toes. Severed toes.” The man’s sing-song voice echoed in the empty hall.
Rosa Robelski hummed along to the children’s song. Her office chair creaked as she leaned back. Hitting the pause button, she rubbed the grainy satellite images from her eyes. Einstein’s count was off by one. This Third World War was being fought with sticks, stones, bats, and fists. Apparently the crazy pandemic affected the infected’s higher brain function.
She stared at the computer monitor.
Arms and legs tangled in a frenzy of action and spilled blood pooled in glossy black puddles. Red and blue marked the opposing bands of crazies. Crowns in matching colors picked out the leaders of the groups.
So did the presence of assault rifles and the blasts of heat from their muzzles.
Only a few crazies retained the ability to use sophisticated weaponry.
God help everyone if any of them learned to use a nuke or chemical weapons. Rubbing her neck, she stretched. The kid’s song slipped past her lips. “Heads. Shoulders…”
No. That hadn’t been what she’d heard. She’d heard a new apocalyptic version, complete with chopped up body parts. In the four months since she’d been airlifted from a country club in Cave Creek, Arizona, she’d let herself get comfortable, deluded herself with ideas of safety.
That was the fastest way to end up dead.
The crazy hadn’t slowed down. If anything it was accelerating.
Twice now, bullets had sprayed the halls while she’d been locked down in the lab for hours. Officially the military hunted escaped subjects. But rumors circulated. And scientists like her had disappeared.
Keys jingled. A shadow drifted across the opaque glass at the front of her laboratory.
Heart lodged in her throat, Rosa hooked her finger through the drawer handle and eased it open. Only the military personnel carried guns on Area 51, but she was far from helpless. The fire extinguisher three feet away would work in a pinch. So would the array of scissors in her desk drawer. She shook her head.
She was safe.
The lab was accessible only by key card. A metal door and bullet-proof glass separated her from the hall. The crazies didn’t use reason. And if they tried to smash their way inside, she’d have plenty of time to exit through the drop ceiling or garbage chute.
She slipped her hand into the drawer. Cold steel bit into her fingers as she wrapped them around the scissors. Still, it was better safe than sorry.
The light on the black electronic pad above the fire extinguisher switched from red to green. The door locks clicked.
Mouth dry, she eased out her weapon. Stab out the eyes. Slash the throat. Whatever it takes to survive.
Keith Gills shouldered the door open. The thirty-something janitor stopped singing mid-severed toes. The meaty, fetid stench of decaying corpses infiltrated the lab despite the higher air pressure in the room, thanks to the bin of body parts in the hall and waiting to be taken to the incinerator. Real human garbage. Pale green eyes blinked at her from under ginger eyebrows. Gel darkened the spikes on his oval head to golden brown. “Dr. Robelski. You’re here.”
Obviously. Rosa forced her lips into a smile, the better to stop everyone from spreading rumors about her. “It’s Rosa, Keith. And I’m not a doctor.”
Red washed Keith’s cheeks subsuming his freckles in the tide of embarrassment. “Sorry. I keep forgetting.”
“No problem.” The base was stuffed with Ph.D.s. Even her boyfriend had two. She was one of the rare exceptions with her bachelor degree.
“Any word on a cure?” Sidling inside, he retrieved her waste basket and dumped it into a larger garbage can on wheels.
Rosa rubbed the goosebumps pressing against her lab coat. “I wouldn’t know. I’m studying how the disease works, why some people are unaffected, and why not all the crazies are treated the same.”
She stared at the screen. The crazies tagged in red had no obvious phenotypic similarities—old, young, man, woman, European, Asian, African. They blended together, fought as one unit. Despite millennia of dividing ourselves in artificial categories, the crazy recognized only one thing—human. True equality. And no one would be around to enjoy it. Yippee.
“You know, you’re the only one to talk about what you do.” Keith dragged the trash can into the center of the lab. “Guess everyone thinks a janitor is too dumb to understand what’s going on.”
DNA sequencing machines hummed on every bench top. Racks of blood filled vials crammed the two fridges in the back. Cables tethered the sequencers to the main frame before the data popped up on the screen. She glanced at her boyfriend and labmate’s computer, catching a whiff of Marcus Westmoreland’s pine soap.
“I don’t think it has anything to do with you being a janitor.” Returning the scissors to the drawer, Rosa spun around on her chair and faced Keith. “The disciplines being studied are pretty unique, few outside the field would understand the work.”
Keith pulled a yellow and white pipette tip box from the next bag and set it aside. “Then many doctors could be researching the same thing, but no one would know?”
“General Simbury oversees all the projects, redirecting those that need it where he thinks it might do the most good.” Unlike her project that hadn’t produced anything worth her presence in the top secret base. She rested her hands on her thighs. “I doubt anyone’s duplicating any research.”
Resources were tight and getting scarce. The daily announcements had stopped reporting the number of patrols lost on hunting expeditions.
“Good to know. Good to know.” Keith removed another tip box and stacked it on the first one. “You think they’ll find a cure for the crazy?”
Rosa sighed and sank deeper. It had been four months. Four. No one could find a specific vector and most poo-pooed the notion that the genetically modified food had contributed anything to the pandemic. Worse, the research she and Marcus had collected over the years had disappeared, putting them at square one.
And they were still at square one four months later.
Keith scratched his nose, watching her, waiting for an answer.
She’d like to say yes, but didn’t like to lie. “I hope so. My family is out there.”
Safe so far. But until the crazy was cured, no one was safe for long.
Nodding, Keith tugged the bags from the remaining two baskets, tied them off, then chucked them into the bigger garbage can. “How come your research doesn’t end up with bodies?”
Rosa blinked. Bodies. She’d been given subjects to study. The thirty people lay in chemically induced comas on slabs four stories below. And that’s where they’d stay if she had anything to say about it. Just because they went a little nuts, didn’t make them less than human. She didn’t experiment on humans, but she could watch them. “I study how the crazies act toward each other. Their tribal dynamics. And how they form societies.”
And they were forming societies. Independent fiefdoms. Unfortunately, she hadn’t figured out how to join one tribe. Those that tried ended up with crushed skulls. It was a hell of an initiation…
Tucking the stack of pipet boxes under one arm, Keith rested his free hand on the edge of the garbage can. “You and Dr. Westmoreland are the only ones that don’t have a body count. The others… The others, they’ve been taking bets on who survives the arena.” Keith opened and closed the top box lid. “No one survives. They kill the ones that survive.”
A chill snaked down Rosa’s back. The classrooms in the basement were supposed to be used to see if the crazies were teachable, able to be redeemed by learning basic skills. Instead it was a private coliseum with battles to the death.
Not all monsters were crazy.
And she had to work with them. Thankfully, she and Marcus spent most of their time together in the lab or their personal quarters. Enough of that. Half of survival lay in the attitude. Boxing up her gloomy thoughts, she shoved them in a corner of her brain where they could pop out just as she drifted off to sleep. “So what are you collecting the boxes for?”
“My daughter. She—” Keith paled. His freckles flashed like stop lights on his pale skin. “I… I mean…”
Poor guy. Good laboratory practices forbade picking through the garbage. He probably thought he’d be fired from his job for the safety violation. A death sentence for him and his family. She wouldn’t report him. In fact… Pushing from her seat, she crossed the lab and stopped by the hood holding Marcus’s reagents. She opened the drawer on the right and scooped out four more boxes.
“You can take these.” After handing them off, she returned to her desk and removed red, green, black, and blue Sharpies. “And she can draw with these.”
Keith blinked. “Thanks.”
“Not a problem. According to my mom, my niece and nephew are going a little nuts with so much time on their hands. Thankfully, they’re starting a school. Not an option here. I think you have one of the few kids…” Except the ones experimented on. Don’t think about it. Don’t think about it. Rosa glanced at her desktop computer. A miniature Kokopelli sat next to a doll-sized tea cup. She bit her lip. If her computer didn’t have a totem, bad things would happen to her work. But did she need both of them?
She filched the flute-playing green lizard before she changed her mind. “And she can have this, too.”
Keith’s mouth opened in surprise. “Are you sure?”
“Just until the crazy is over. Then I’ll want it back.” Rosa laced her fingers together before she snatched it back. The tiny teacup was enough.
“Thank you.” He tucked the toy into his pocket next to the pens then patted it. Shuffling toward the door, he perfumed the air with a touch of body odor. “I—thank you.”
“You bet.” She rubbed the smell from her nose. If she hadn’t had a back-up deodorant in her bug-out bag, she’d be stinky, too. God help her.
The wheel of his garbage can squeaked as he pushed it out. The door closed quietly behind him just as he started signing again. “Head, torsos, arms, and toes. Severed toes.”
Reaching up, she shifted aside the vertical blinds.
Keith pushed the garbage can ahead of him while pulling a bin.
Through the clumps of hair and brownish smears of blood, she made out an eyeball, a cheek, and part of a nose. The head perched like a cherry on top of a body part sundae. Gah. She let the blinds shut her inside. Scrubbing her hand down her face, she plopped into her seat. “The crazies are everywhere.”
And speaking of crazies…
She tapped the mouse.
Violence erupted across her screen as the two tribes of crazies battled it out. The two men marked with red crowns fired their assault weapons into the melee. Heads exploded like watermelons. Some turned their faces into the fountains of red and gray. Arms swung, punched and battered their opponents. Even without sound, she knew no one screamed or cried out. Everything was in silence.
Bile rose in her throat. Same crazy; different city. Her hand twitched on the mouse and she hit fast forward.
Victims fell. The red tribe dog piled onto the enemy still standing. The crowd thinned. At twenty minutes, only the red tribe remained on their feet. Most panted. Their hands clenched and relaxed.
Adrenalin still coursed through their veins, needing an outlet. Rosa picked up her pen, tapped it against her lab notebook. Nothing new in this battle. She scanned the pages. Nothing new in any battle for the last month. So much for her learning theory.
One of their leaders climbed a pile of corpses. He opened his mouth and screamed. And screamed. And screamed.
Okay, that was new. She turned up the speaker then mentally smacked herself. This satellite feed didn’t come with sound.
The crazies relaxed. Tight shoulders bowed. Arms swung loosely at their sides.
Holy crap. Were they communicating? She replayed the scene. Pen scratched paper as she recorded the time code. They were communicating. She palmed her chin, staring at the screen.
The leader trudged into the camp of their fallen enemy. He paused by a pile of cans. The crowd shifted, dividing itself in groups. Young women and men in one line. Children next. Everyone else last.
She pinched her bottom lip. What did it mean? The young adults ranged in age from sixteen to maybe thirty. The last four months had made most lean, but there were still a few heavy set people in the tribe. Heck, they weren’t even the best fighters, the older ones had more kills. But many crazies sorted themselves this way when it came time to divide up the spoils of war.
“Why? Why are you giving these people the food first?” She glanced at Marcus’s workstation. Genetics had confirmed these weren’t the children of the older people. So what was up with the sacrifice? Without their genes surviving onto the next generation, altruism was an evolutionary dead end.
She noted the pattern in the lab book. This behavior was becoming the norm amongst the tribes instead of the exception. She’d have to ask Marcus to look for a genetic component. Maybe by focusing on this group, his research would have a breakthrough.
They needed a breakthrough.
The red button on the electronic key pad switched to green.
The man always did have the best timing. “Hey, Marcus, I—”
Solange Poole sashayed into the lab, dressed in her trademark vintage 1950’s housewife chic. A frilly white apron covered the blue checked dress poured over her curves. Perky breasts pointed like arrows at Rosa. Her glossy jet ponytail slapped her rounded shoulders. “Marcus isn’t here?”
Rosa’s knuckles flashed white. She dropped her pen and carefully closed her lab notebook. Stabbing one of those silicone floatation devices on Solange’s chest was the best way to get evicted from the base. “No, he’s getting us dinner.”
To enjoy in their room. Alone together.
“Oh.” Solange’s puffy lips puckered into a scarlet hole. “I was sure he would be here.”
Just as the perky bimbo thought he’d fall for her charms. Not gonna happen. Marcus was Rosa’s and she was his. Her fingers clenched into a fist itching for just one punch. Just one. Was that too much to ask? She tamped down the anger. “Do you want me to give him a message?”
Solange’s perky nose wrinkled. “That really is all you’re good for, isn’t it? Taking messages.”
Rosa bit the inside of her mouth. She wouldn’t give the woman the satisfaction of rising to her bait. Instead, she jabbed the mouse, halting the video stream on her monitor. How could someone be so mean and not be crazy?
Folding her arms across her chest, Solange hoisted her breasts almost to her chin. “We have enough secretaries. We don’t need you, and….” Her black eyes twinkled maliciously under her fringe of bangs. “And finally the general understands.”
A hard knot formed in Rosa’s stomach. If Solange was happy, then somewhere puppies wept.
“Projects are being cut.” White even teeth flashed between Solange’s crimson lips. “Useless, stupid projects. And your first up for the hearing scheduled in twenty minutes.” Ponytail bouncing, she sauntered to the door. “Once you’re gone, I’ll take care of Marcus and your lab rats.”
A rush of lavender perfume hit Rosa in the face as the other woman left the lab. Oh God. Oh my God. With shaking hands, she scanned her notebook. Nothing. She had nothing to justify her presence in the facility.
She was as good as dead.