Simon pried an eye open, raising the beeping communicator to his face. He briefly contemplated tossing the damn thing at the wall. Only one person could be calling at three in the morning. Helmholtz never bothered to mask the pleasure he took from reminding Simon of the weakness that was his "silly little body" and its need for sleep. Simon ran a hand through his short hair and cleared his throat, making sure his still sleeping bed partner wouldn't be in the frame before keying in the code to accept the call. "Hering," he answered.
He was surprised to see not the cryptic Animus Net logo—a stylized fist grasping an infinity symbol—that Helmholtz preferred to use on screen, but the nervous face of his administrative assistant. "Sir?"
This had better be good. "I'm assuming someone with the qualifications to warrant your salary is more than capable of telling time, yes, Diane?"
"Sir, I have a request here signed by you stating that you are to be informed immediately, day or night, if there are any distress signals from the V-series facility."
His already straight spine stiffened. He stood up, shaking off the sleepy, manicured hands that reached for him and strode into the bathroom, shutting the door behind him as the room's motion sensors activated the lights over the vanity. Grabbing the long, silky robe hanging on a hook from the door and shrugging it on, he asked, "What's the status?"
"Approximately forty-five minutes ago the staff on shift failed to report in with the all-clear signal for the night. When security arrived to investigate the lapse, the first units on the scene were incapacitated from residual nerve gas originating inside the labs. The entire facility went into lockdown before the next units could get in."
Suddenly the lighting was too stark, the drip from the sink's faucet far too loud. The failsafe procedure had been implemented. Something had gone terribly wrong. Simon bullied back the anxious questions that leapt to the front of his mind—Is the test subject alive? How much damage? Is the test subject alive? Are our samples intact? Is the test subject alive?—and held on to some semblance of calm. He focused on the cold comfort of the nerve gas. No matter what had gone wrong in the facility, the failsafe would ensure that nothing else happened until he could control the scene. "Were there any communications from inside the facility before the lockdown?"
"No, sir, Mr. Hering." Diane's eyes flickered off to the side. "I'm receiving word now that security will have a more detailed assessment in ten-"
He cut her off. "Tell them I'll be there within the hour." He glared at his reflection in the mirror over the vanity. "Have my car sent down immediately. I expect a full update en route."
"Yes, sir." She nodded, her hands already busy relaying his orders.
"And, Diane," he added, turning away from the mirror. "Call in Jones."
Her eyes widened at the order, but nothing else in her expression betrayed her. "Yes, sir."
Simon disconnected the call and resisted the urge to fling his communicator against the pristine marble countertop.
The acrid stench of the air hit Simon hard as he left the climate controls of his building and stepped into the unshielded parking garage. The pollution index would be high today. His car was waiting, sleek and shiny. The driver opened his door for him, pulling down the little white mask covering his nose and mouth as he gave a solemn nod in greeting. Simon slid across the plush leather seat and immediately downloaded the encrypted files Diane had sent. It was easy to ignore the glow from fires deep within the city—fires that never seemed to cease anymore—in favor of reviewing the logs from the facility for the last forty-eight hours as his car sped towards the countryside.
He rapidly scanned the files, hungry for any clues about what had gone wrong. Nothing seemed out of the ordinary. The geneticists on staff were in the middle of a test for a new storage and preservation unit for their original sample material. Skipping past the rest of the report from the genetics division, he stopped at the logs detailing the progress with test subject V-09-B. The subject's primary doctor had ordered an extended sensory deprivation session for her charge, scheduled to end that morning. Had they lost control over him while he'd been in The Tank? Simon continued to read. According to the reports filed by the last shift's handler, the subject showed no signs of undue distress.
Nothing in the files spoke to Simon's fears of why someone inside the facility had implemented the failsafe procedure. Dark fantasies of subject V-09-B gone rampant, of terrifying destruction, circled in the back of his mind as the car approached the facility. He tightened his control over his thoughts as he made his way through the various retinal scans, subterranean tram rides, and voice prints. Speculation would get him nowhere.
Amber emergency lights bathed the cavernous underground entrance to the V-series main station. A handful of security and medical personnel—already decked out in full orange hazmat gear—traded hushed rumors about terrorists and gas attacks as they shifted restlessly near the massive metal doors that had slid into place nearly two hours ago. Three of the V-series day shift technical staff had been called in. They hovered around a cluster of laptops set up off to the side and away from the doors, pouring over readouts on the structural and environmental integrity of the facility. As per his instructions, no one had attempted to breach the security doors.
Simon spotted Diane standing several yards away from the other personnel and fielding a call, crisp and professional looking in a tailored suit, her blonde hair in a tidy bun. Her eyes flitted to him as he approached and she gave a respectful nod of recognition. "No, the situation is under control," she said to whoever was on the other end of the line. She'd prudently chosen to keep the vid display turned off. "I'll contact you if we require any further assistance. Yes. Thank you."
She tapped the comm piece at her ear, ending the call. "Central Security," she said, turning to Simon, sparing him from having to ask. "Apparently one of your first responders contacted them before the lockdown."
He motioned for her to go on, trusting she could handle keeping Central off their backs.
She cleared her throat and arched an eyebrow. "They seem to be under the impression this is an agricultural tech facility, sir."
He didn't bother to acknowledge her unvoiced question. "Has Jones arrived yet?"
"Sir." She cocked her head towards a shadowy corner of the chamber where a spindly woman in a long coat leaned against the wall. Noticing their attention, she pushed off the wall and walked towards them. Diane stiffened, lifting her chin as the woman neared.
"Mr. Hering," the woman said, bowing her head, the emergency lighting glinting off her red hair. She didn't waste words on Diane.
Simon returned the greeting, knowing no further pleasantries or explanations were necessary. "Diane," he said, turning back to his assistant. "What's the status on the air purification system?"
"Sir." She dragged her eyes away from Jones. "Eighty percent of the facility's air supply has been replaced in the last hour. With the proper precautions, it should be safe to enter soon."
He gave a curt nod. Jones wordlessly followed him as Simon went to consult with the technical and emergency staff on hand. Minutes later, they were both suited up and standing in front of the security doors. The personnel who'd been waiting when he arrived were ready and alert behind them. Simon provided retinal and voice verification before pulling the protective gear over his head and entering the command to open the doors. They rumbled open with a protesting screech of metal as an alarming white cloud billowed out into the outer chamber. Making a mental note to fire whoever had given Diane that bogus air purity projection, he motioned for the team to move forward.
Inside, several security guards—the first responders from a few hours ago—lay sprawled on the linoleum floor. Their bodies stood out harshly under the fluorescents, a sharp contrast from the gloom of the emergency lighting outside. There were no signs of violence, nor any V-series staffers.
Simon looked to the orange-suited medic taking air quality readings. He waved a tiny spectroscoper in his outstretched hand. "Masks stay on," he said firmly after a glance at the tool's display.
"Mr. Hering, sir?" Simon waved permission at the medic who'd addressed him. She scurried over to the closest body, crouched down, and began collecting vital signs. With a few precise movements, she slapped a pad onto the side of the man's neck, connecting it to the portable electrocardiograph stowed in the medical bag slung across her chest. She turned her head back to Simon. "He's alive, sir. Shall I administer the antidote?"
He'd expected nothing less—he'd paid good money for a system that would release a non-lethal dose of gas in an emergency—but even the most advanced nerve agents were unpredictable at best and full-scale testing had never been feasible. A small fraction of the tension coiling in his belly eased.
She quickly produced a pneumatic injector from her bag and loaded it with an unmarked vial of clear liquid. Simon motioned to one of the security guards who came in with him. "Stay with her. Get a statement as soon as possible." He signaled for the rest of the group to move on.
"Sir?" A young medic, his eyes wide and huge behind the faceplate of his hazmat suit, stepped towards Simon as the rest of the group continued. Out of the corner of his eye, he noticed Jones lingering at the lobby doors, keeping tabs. "Melinda can't possibly treat and monitor all these men, sir."
Simon bit back his impatience. "Of course she can't. What's your name, medic?"
"Cody Waters, sir." The young man tugged the front of his orange suit as if to smooth it down.
"Well, Cody, it's obvious these men fell together. We'll only need a statement from one of them. The rest will keep."
"B-but, sir!" Those wide eyes pleaded with him from behind the faceplate. "The longer we wait to provide treatment, the higher the chances of adverse effects. You can't just-"
"When I want your medical opinion, I'll ask for it." He turned his head to share a brief look with Jones, knowing Cody Waters could expect to be graced with her personal attention very soon. "Keep moving," he said, his annoyance at being delayed coloring his tone. Security personnel were easy to replace. The scientists and technicians inside—and the test subject—were not.
Everything had been business as usual in the facility's main lobby before the gas was released. The V-series facility didn't bother with anything as genteel as a receptionist, but the security guard who served a similar function was slumped across his desk, limp arms spread wide to either side. Two more guards had been on duty before the lockdown. They lay curled near the security scanners they'd been manning—slim plastic frames that all staff passed through before going to or leaving from work. Simon opted not to have anyone from the room revived or questioned. Whatever had gone wrong, it had happened inside. He fought against deep fears about the test subject that wanted to rise and pushed the group forward to the genetics suite.
The theme of business as usual—minus the gas attack—continued. A few of the night shift scientists lay unconscious in the break room, facedown in the spilled remains of their vending machine coffees. A few more were in various states of undress in the locker room. Several others were behind the glass windows of the clean rooms where they conducted their research. Broken bits of dropped glassware glittered next to their still bodies. Their jumpsuits and lab coats were stained with spilled chemicals.
He instructed another guard-and-medic team to revive and question one of the scientists, although he doubted they'd learn any useful information. Clearly the problem had originated elsewhere in the facility. Still, he felt a twinge at the potential loss. These scientists reported to him regularly and he knew many of them were the best in their fields, their knowledge and skill highly valuable. He instructed the medic to distribute the antidote to everyone in the area after he'd seen to the first witness.
Simon's group continued through undisturbed rooms filled with sophisticated equipment: hulking machines with scores of flashing lights and delicate devices whose purpose he barely understood. There was a room where test animals lay silent in locked cages. The storage unit at the heart of the suite—where all the most precious genetic samples were kept—appeared secure. Simon allowed himself a small sigh of relief, but the need to explore more of the facility bit deep and urgent.
A second security checkpoint separated the genetics suite from the training and development section of the facility. This was where they found the first signs of trouble. More downed security personnel dotted the floor near the entrance. A cold fear gripped Simon as he moved in closer and noticed the frothy blood that dribbled from the eyes, noses, and mouths of these workers.
The failsafe gas wasn't supposed to do that.
His group, a tight, efficient ring around him, began to shift, their gasps and murmurs loud in the eerie stillness of the room. Medic Waters was the first to break away, unmindfully rushing to one of the fallen men.
Simon needed quick information on these men anyway, so he decided to let it go and motioned with his hand for the rest of the group to spread out and inspect the room. They stepped gingerly around the bodies clustered near the doors connecting the security station to the genetics suite and lobby, an extra medic and guard hanging back, squatting to help Waters as he fumbled to check the vitals of one of the downed men.
A second cluster of bodies immediately caught Simon's attention as he crossed into the room. Here, security personnel were slumped on top of and against each other in front of the heavy set of doors along the opposite wall that led deeper into the facility. Even fallen and still, the angle of their bodies seemed to be focused on a central point in the room, their arms reaching, heads turned in that direction. Some of them had drawn their weapons before going down; a few still held guns in their hands. Simon followed the bullet holes along the walls and floor to the station's central control console.
A young man in street clothes lay slumped over the console. He must've been one of test subject V-09-B's handlers, as they were the only employees who didn't work in uniform. His arm dangled limply over its side, blood dripping from his fingers onto an old-fashioned gasmask lying on the floor. More blood soaked through his shirt, molding it wetly against his skinny back. The linoleum beneath him glistened with the stuff, a spreading near-black puddle shining under the room's harsh lights. Both man and console had clearly taken heavy fire. Many of the lights and monitors on the bulky metal desk had gone dark and as Simon watched, another circuit fizzled out in a small shower of sparks.
"He's dead," Waters announced from behind Simon in a shaky voice. Simon thought the statement was rather obvious—no one could lose that much of his blood volume and live—and then remembered Waters was talking about one of the security guards. Forcing himself to remain calm, Simon moved to take a closer look at the control console.
It appeared as if the young man had been the one to trigger the failsafe procedure. The fingers of his other hand still rested on the console's keys and Simon saw the sequence of commands that had initiated the lockdown flickering on one of the console's still-functioning monitors. Biting back dread and confusion—this was not a scenario he'd ever imagined, why would the guards ever attack V-09-B's handler if the test subject had lost control?—he lifted his head to check on the rest of his group.
"Found something," one of the guards announced when he caught Simon's eye, gingerly lifting a small, cylindrical object from the corner of the room. He handed it off for a medic to examine. She took it carefully, raising it to her face, squinting through her mask at its partially blackened label. "Neurotoxin canister," she announced, a hint of disgust in her voice.
Not what Simon had been expecting, but it triggered a giddy burst of hope in his chest—the test subject didn't do this! With a grimace of distaste, he gripped the back of the boy's head by the hair, pulling his face up from the tacky mess on the console with a wet sucking noise. A glint of metal peeking out from the handler's blood-soaked collar caught Simon's attention. He tugged the front of the young man's shirt aside, exposing a thin gold chain. With a little force, he pulled the necklace free. A tiny gold pendant hung from the chain.
It was a cross.
He looked again at the gasmask lying on the floor—definitely a contraband item inside this facility—then to the downed guards, putting the pieces together in the only way they would fit.
The guards hadn't been trying to prevent a scared handler from implementing the failsafe. They'd been taking down a saboteur.
He quickly closed his hand around the pendant and looked up to find Jones' strange gray eyes focused on him. Tucking the necklace inside a utility pocket of his hazmat suit, he glared at her. I pay you to screen employees so we can avoid this sort of shit.
Her face expressionless behind her mask, Jones beckoned him to the bank of security monitors on the far side of the room with a tilt of her head. Checking to see if any of the others were paying attention—they weren't, too busy examining fallen guards for vitals—Simon joined her.
He scanned the screens, real-time images of rooms beyond the checkpoint. Some were similar to the rooms in the genetics suite—test labs and medical facilities—but others had a much homier look. These were filled with furniture and artwork, lined with windows containing photocells that simulated natural light—an extravagance the behavioral researchers assured him was worth the expense to keep the test subject healthy and agreeable. There was even a kitchenette and a small library, with a very carefully vetted selection of books, of course.
A few more bodies of night shift workers were strewn amongst the rooms. The images on the monitors were clear enough to suggest they too had been taken down by the neurotoxin rather than the less lethal gas the failsafe implementation had released.
His eyes darted from screen to screen, nearly frantic to find one particular face, but he saw no sign of the test subject anywhere. In the barren room containing the sensory deprivation chamber, the body of another of subject V-09-B's handlers lay sprawled across the floor like a rag doll, his limbs a crumpled, broken mess. The dead man's twisted fingers clutched an old-fashioned gasmask.
Simon's eyes narrowed. Another saboteur? It looked like V-09-B had broken conditioning and practically crushed the man's limbs trying to fight him off.
The Tank itself was closed. A flashing light on its small door indicated it was occupied.
"Let's go," Simon said to Jones, hope and fear warring inside him, threatening his control. He hastily ordered the rest of the group back to the genetics suite to help treat survivors there. He'd have to call in a specialty crew that Jones could deal with to clean up the mess back here later. He and Jones moved deeper into the training and development area.
Their quick footsteps echoed through the silent halls. The sensory deprivation room was past the residential area. Jones went in first, posture alert, head moving sharply from side to side as she checked the room. She stilled, then relaxed into fluid motion, bypassing the handler's broken body on the floor and the large black tank in the middle of the room to lean carelessly against the wall.
"Is he…?" Simon asked, looking toward the chamber. It wasn't airtight, but perhaps-
"No," she answered simply, dashing the last of his hopes. "You and I are the only live ones in here."
The tension snapped, and with it, Simon's control. "Fuck!" He kicked the body on the floor. Fucking years of work and millions in resources gone. He kicked the body again, and again, and again, the room going hot and sparkly in his vision as he grunted and kicked until he heard the sickening crack of more bones giving way.
He felt sick, dizzy, but at that moment he still would have given all his shares of excessively valuable Animus stock to have the crumpled body of the coward in front of him alive and well so he could make it scream. Sweat stung his eyes and he couldn't wipe it away because of the protective gear. He took a few deep breaths—there's still plenty to do, damage control starts now—before squatting down next to the body and pulling aside its collar to expose a tiny gold cross. Fucking Jesus-freak mole saboteur. He snorted in disgust and shot another glare at Jones.
She shrugged, apparently unmoved by his fit. "Faith can be a powerful shield."
Simon shook his head slowly, standing back up and stepping to The Tank. He deactivated the locking mechanism. The lid slid back with a quiet sigh.
The inside of The Tank was small, barely big enough for the body it held, but somehow the renegade handler had managed to cram extra equipment inside. Simon hoped the test subject had started fighting him before he'd finished hooking it all up. It would have been beyond painful to connect all those wires with broken fingers.
An outdated laptop computer attached to two cutting edge peripheral devices sat on the dead man's chest. Simon recognized one of the devices from the most recent conference he'd attended on corporate espionage, a thick antenna rumored to be capable of pirating access to any Animus Network port within a ten-mile radius. The other device was never far from Simon's thoughts—the latest model optical neuroimaging scanner, a helmet-like device used for all consciousness transfers into Animus Net.
"Oh shit," Simon whispered, his belly going cold. "We're fucked."
Wearing the helmet, blood dotting his eyes, nose, and ears, was test subject Victor-09-Bravo.