Are you OK? Doctor Hobart, are you OK?” They were the first words I’d been able to understand in a little while so I nodded and mimed needing a drink. The suit’s external temperature indicator is still reading dangerously hot, so I stand up and move to the other side of the chamber, triggering one of the showerheads. Steam rises and the world is obscured by the fog.
“We have to know if it’s safe” says the same voice as I strip off the heavy gloves. I’ll never get the helmet unsealed if I don’t get rid of the gloves first. They hit the wet floor with a sound like liver on ceramic.
“Define ‘safe'” I say, hoping the microphone is working.
“Are we likely to lose containment?”
Ah. Well. Containment. Now there’s a phrase.
“Right now, they’re quiescent. Resting. And if we don’t disturb them, that might not change,” I say “but I’m making no promises, Gerald. I can’t believe you’ve been this lax.”
Gerald has had a hard day and I shouldn’t needle him, so I accept what comes next with good grace.
“Oh it’s easy for you to say things like that,” snaps Gerald “with your academic position and your portfolio of published papers and your tenure…well it’s not so easy out here in commerce. It’s all about results out here, buddy!”
I’m standing in a makeshift airlock, hastily rigged up because every facility that works with Level 4 materials needs this stuff, but we’re nowhere near the Level 4 facilities. There is water collecting on the floor from the decontamination showers that should really be part of a tented structure. Integrity is being maintained with willpower and duct tape. And through the door at the other end of the room…
…I don’t want to think about what’s in there. I sit on a bench and wait for him to calm down.
“Gerald, is Erica there?”
I’ve worked with Erica before, during the Orlando outbreak. She’s good.
“She’s on her way to you” says Gerald.
“OK, but I needed to ask about the protocols that were in use. Gerald, what was the last thing you did?”
He explains. They’d known the experiment was a failure straight away when the sample registered as corrupted. They’d carried on because even failures can tell you something.
“But when we decided to sacrifice the sample, the protocol called for heat” says Gerald.
Sacrifice. The term we scientists sometimes use when we want to talk about what happens to lab mice when their career in science is over. Some methods are nicer than others.
“Heat should have induced lethargy and then…melting…of the sample.”
“Lethargy is right, and there’s a certain plasticity to them, but other than that I’m seeing a lot of life.”
“This is awful” says Gerald.
“Oh it gets worse,” I say “I introduced myself as a test. The ones nearest the door responded.”
“oh god” says Gerald in a tiny, sick voice.
Erica steps into the airlock, sealing her suit and shooting me a tight smile. I’m pleased to see her too, but busy with my own headgear.
Later. We step up to the door.
“Ready?” I ask.
“No” says Erica, and opens the door.
The room is full of them. Languid grey shapes sprawl over every item of furniture and flat surface. Some of them are nearly dilequescent. Erica coughs, gags, swallows really hard. They aren’t pretty. The nearest one opens an eye so slowly. It registers my presence, spots Erica. We both exhale. I do a quick count. There don’t appear to be any more of them.
“Did you know this was possible?”
Erica shakes her head.
“There were no indications that we could trust. There was something in the Cosgrove Hall documents, if you looked hard enough. And hints in Aardman.”
The nearest of them sits up, plucks a carrot from behind one drooping ear and chews on it for a moment before gesturing to me.
“What’s up, Doc?” it says “And who’s the dame?”