Friday, September 7, 2018

Fungus, Part Four

I knocked, then pounded, on 312. Eventually Wilton opened the door.
            “Inside,” she hissed. “Quick.”
            She flipped the lock and turned around to head back to her terminal. In my terrified state of mind, I barely looked at her legs in shorts or her butt as she leaned over her keypad. I know, I know, but part of my brain was still a guy.
            Then I looked over her head into the enclosure.
The fungus had taken over. I couldn’t see the tree, or the pot it was planted in, or the back of the small room. It pressed against the glass, and it was pulsing, like a balloon being pumped to its bursting point.
            “What the hell?”
            “I shut down all the feeding tubes. This is just in the last hour.” She checked a monitor. “I thought that would kill it, but instead it’s metastasizing—almost like it’s looking for more food.”
            The fungus fell back a few inches, then lurched forward again. “Is that going to hold?”
            “It has to.” She glanced toward the airlock door. “I just hope that does too.”
            “What is this?” I jabbed a finger at the glass. “You say you’re trying to find a cure for diseases, but how is this helping anyone?”
            Wilton sank into a swivel chair and swung around, peering at data on her screen. “It’s biological warfare. Fahringer is owned by a defense contractor. It’s all under the radar, because it’s illegal, but—hey, these days . . .” She tapped some keys. “Cooking up the recipe is easy. Controlling it is a little harder.”
            Wait a minute . . . “What’s going on?”
            She sighed. “I know who you are. I’m with Red Watch.”
Oh hell. Red Watch was an environmental activist group. They “liberated” test animals from scientific facilities, burned GMO crops, and occasionally shut down expressways with protests. I didn’t agree with their tactics—hey, I like a hamburger every now and then, even though Rachel glares at me when I cover it with Heinz 57—but I’d encountered them over the years. “So what the hell are you doing about this?”
            Wilton glared over her shoulder. “Look, I’ve been undercover here for seven months, trying to keep my job and keep an eye on what’s going on in here. Red Watch doesn’t pay us. It’s all volunteer. If I started sabotaging projects right away we’d never get anywhere or know anything. And I’d be filling prescriptions in a Walgreens somewhere.”
            Yeah. I’d met one Red Watch spy helping to breed giant mutant chickens for chicken fights. Another one had been out at Brookfield Zoo, watching experiments at turning feral monkeys into dangerous mutants. The first time I’d run into them they were monitoring a rogue scientist manipulating a virus that turned people into zombies.
            And all of them had been watching. Waiting. Documenting what they saw. But not doing anything about it until they were forced to.
            I used to be a reporter, and my job had been to get the truth out accurately—but quickly. Red Watch talked a good game, but they kept their information to themselves. Yeah, they’d posted a video about the zombies, but then they went deep underground.
            “Fine.” I wanted to spit on the floor. “So what can you do now?”
            “I’m trying.” She peered at the glass. “I don’t want that stuff outside any more than you do.”
            “All I want is for Rachel to be safe.”
            The fungus pulsed again, as if trying to break through the glass and escape.
            I stepped back. Okay, I wanted to be safe too.
            Wilton stood up. “I have to go down to another lab to try something. Stay here and watch the thing, and keep an eye on this monitor.” She pointed. “If that that line goes up to orange or red, call me.” We exchanged numbers, and she left.
            I called Rachel. She still had her phone. “Anything new?”
            “I tried running water over it.” Her voice was muffled by the mouth mask. “Some of it sort of melted away. We’re going to try turning on the sprinklers.”
            “Wilton’s doing something in another lab. She’s with Red Watch, by the way.”
            “Those assholes.”
            “Yeah. The fungus is some sort of bio-warfare project, according to her. Anyway, she’s doing a test. Or something. Don’t get desperate.”
            “I’m going to have to strip down before the sprinklers come on. That’s pretty desperate.”
            I checked the color on Wilton’s monitor. Yellow. “Call me before you do that. So I can, uh, keep an eye on Hurzberg.”
            “I’m dying and all you can think about is cheap thrills? Jerk.”
            “Love you too.” We hung up.
            The fungus billowed like a balloon, as if straining against the glass holding it in. The light dropped down to green, then flashed back up to yellow again.
            Then it went to orange.
            What the hell did any of this mean? I tried to read the data on the other monitors, but it might as well have been in Klingon. I crossed my arms, uncrossed them, paced, sat down again, paced some more, and resisted the impulse to call Rachel again.
            Then the fungus started seeping out of the bottom of the airlock door.
            Holy shit. I jumped up, kicking my chair over, and grabbed my phone. “Wilton? Hey, it’s me. It’s out. What do I do?”
            “Oh hell.” Wilton’s voice was calmer than mine, but I could hear a tremble in the back of her throat. “Stay away from it. I’m working on something. Just—stay clear.”
            “Yeah, no problem there.” I hung up and ran from the room. I pushed the door shut and heard it lock.
            Then I headed back down to the end of the hall—where Rachel was. Again I had to pound my fists on the door until Hurzberg let me in. “What are you . . . oh, god.”
            He peered over my shoulder. I turned.
            The fungus crawled across the floor, a gray mass of ooze. “I locked it!” I stomped a foot. “I swear I locked it! It got out through the airlock, and I never touched that!”
            “Whatever.” Hurzberg grabbed my shoulder. “Inside.”
            He slammed the door. I rushed to the window. Rachel sat on the floor, legs crossed, the blanket over her shoulders, her mask on the floor next to her feet.
“Are you all right? Did it work?” I leaned against the glass.
            “A little.” She held her infected arm outside the blanket. “Does this look better to you? What’s going on?”
            “It, uh . . . escaped.” I looked back at Hurzberg. “It’s coming down the hall.”
            “Great.” Hurzberg sat down and opened a drawer. “We’re not getting out of here.”  He lifted a bottle of brandy and a plastic cup. “Anyone?”
            Hurzberg took a swallow of brandy and then stared at the data streaming up and down his screen.
            Rachel stood up. She knocked on the glass. “Hello? Still locked in here.” She hugged her blanket tight. “I mean, if I’m going to die, I’d rather be out there than in here. Also, I’d like to get dressed.”
            “You’re not going to die.” I hoped that was true. “Wilton is working on something—”
            Hurzberg’s phone buzzed. “Ben?” It was Adler. “Goddamn it, how did it get out?”
            “I don’t know!” Hurzberg gulped some brandy. “Maybe it was Jurgen! He didn’t lock the door or something—”
            Asshole. I leaned forward. “Hey, Dane, it’s Tom Jurgen. First, I did close the close the door. Second, what are you doing developing bioweapons for the military? I’ve got all of it right here on my phone.”
            Adler’s voice lowered. “This is important research. And it’s confidential. We’ve got to contain this.”
            I grinned. “Thanks. You just confirmed everything.” I didn’t have any data, and I wasn’t actually recording. I just wanted to spook him. I only hoped that Wilton had been sending data to Red Watch.
            The door burst open. Wilton. She carried an insulated shoulder bag, zipped up on the top. “Okay. I might have something. But that stuff is coming down the hall, and it’s getting thick. We don’t have much time. They’re going to burn this place down soon.”
            Hurzberg secured the door behind her. “How much is out there?”
            “It’s getting bigger.” Wilton unzipped her bag and began setting up an assortment of syringes and needles and test tubes filled with the fungus across the desk. Then she lifted a sealed jar holding a liquid that was thick and dark as oil fresh from the ground.
            “What is all that?” I leaned against the table.
            “Do you want some brandy?” Hurzberg filled another cup.
            “Not right now.” Wilton sorted everything out. “Okay, the fungus is a parasite. It feeds on the host. Like Jim Gold. And right now, Rachel.”
            Oh god. “So what can we do?”
            Rachel banged her fist on the glass. “Hey! I’m still right here!”
            “Yeah.” Then Wilton pulled her left boot off.
            Her foot was covered by the fungus.
            “I got infected.” Her voice was quiet. “A couple of hours ago. I thought I was being careful, but it must have slipped over the edge of my boot.”
            “Oh god, Wilton.” Hurzberg stared.
            “On the bright side . . .” She rolled her eyes. “Now we have a test subject.”
            “For what?” I looked at the dark oil.
            Wilton tapped her phone. “I’m sending the data to you, Ben. I’ve been working on this on my own. It’s just a question of getting the dosage right.” She uncapped the jar and fitted a needle into a syringe.
            “You can’t do that!” Hurzberg reached out to pull her hand away.
            “I have to. I helped create it. And we don’t have much time. I’m starting with a low dose.” She dipped the tip of the needle into the liquid and pulled back the plunger. “Ben, check the data I just sent you. I’m starting with dose No. 5.”
            “Are you sure this is a good idea?” I looked at Rachel.
            “Wait!” Rachel hammered the glass again. “Don’t do this for me! I’ll just chop my arm off or something!”
            “We have to know if this works. If this stuff ever gets out again, they need to know how to treat it. And they’re going to send in flamethrowers. I heard Adler talking about it.”
            I blinked. “How? Did you call him?”
            “I hacked his phone a long time ago. I can read his text messages.” She pulled up her shorts and rubbed a small alcohol wipe on her butt. “Okay, here goes . . .”
            “Wilton!” Hurzberg shouted from his computer, where he’d pulled up her data. But Wilton jabbed the needle into her skin and pressed the plunger down.
            Goddamn it. My own skin went cold. I wanted a cure for Rachel—one that didn’t involve cutting her arm off—but this was taking too big a chance.
            Wilton leaned against the table. “Okay. Now we’ll see. It shouldn’t take too long. Ben, it’s based on my weight, 142. What do you weigh?” She looked at Rachel.
            “Uh, 153, last time I checked.” She glared through the glass at me. “We’re eating too much pasta.”
            “You look great to me.” Even draped in a blanket, with one arm covered in fungus.
            “Jerk.” She bent forward. “You okay there?”
            Wilton’s shoulder’s shook. “Fine. I’m fine.” She looked down at her foot. “Maybe you should take pictures to document any change. Maybe . . .”
            Before I could pull my phone out Wilton fell to the floor. “Oh shit,” she moaned, her body twitching. “I’m okay, I’m okay . . .”
            Her head sagged back as I knelt beside her—taking care to stay clear of her infected leg. “What is it?” Not that I’m a doctor. But I had to say something.
            Hurzberg pushed me away. “Wilton? Talk to me. What’s going on?”
            “I can’t—I can’t . . .” She coughed. “I can’t breathe . . . oh god, oh god . . .”
            He started doing CPR. I stood next to him helplessly. Should I call 911? Would Adler even let them in here?
            Wilton’s eyes flared open. She gasped once, and then her arms and legs went limp.
            I reached around Hurzberg to check her pulse. Nothing.
            Hurzberg kept working, but after five minutes he gave up. “I don’t believe this. I don’t . . .” He wiped his eyes. “Damn it, Wilton.”
            I straightened up and looked at Rachel. But she had her head bowed, weeping.
            Then I looked down at Wilton’s foot.
            The fungus was dissolving.
            “Look.” I pointed. “It worked.”
            “What? She’s dead!” Hurzberg lurched to his feet. “How can you . . .” But he stopped.
            “The dosage? Maybe it was too high?”
            Hurzberg forced himself to sit back at his computer. He took off his glasses, rubbed his eyes, and peered at the screen. “The dosage schedule goes up to 12. She took No. 5, based on her weight—there’s a schedule for weight. Maybe . . .” He shrugged. “But how do we test it?”
            I unsealed a test tube. “I weigh 168. Ish.”
            “NO!” Rachel pounded the glass so hard I was sure she’d break it. “You asshole!”
            “Too late.” I spilled the fungus over my left palm. “At least this will give us something more in common to talk about.”
            “Oh, we are so going to talk about this. Forever.” She pulled the blanket over her shoulder. “If the fungus or that stuff doesn’t kill you, I’m going to.”
            “You’re an idiot.” Hurzberg started running numbers. “And this is unethical. I shouldn’t have let Wilton do that.”
            “And building a killer fungus is the very definition of ethical science?” I hoped Wilton sent every bit of data to Red Watch before she’d . . . died.
            “I was following the protocols. I didn’t . . .” He slammed a fist on the table. “I sound like a Nazi, don’t I? Okay, give me a minute.”
            I looked at my hand. The fungus was already starting to spread. It tickled. “Rachel? Does it tickle at first?”
            “It itches. Then you want to tear your skin off.” The blanket slid off her shoulder. “I washed my hand for an hour. What are you looking at?”
            “Uh, nothing.” I glanced at Hurzberg. “Coming up with anything?” I really wanted him concentrating on his screen—and not my half-naked girlfriend.
            “We’ll start with No. 1.” He looked at my hand. “Wilton was too aggressive. I don’t blame her, but—”
            The door opened behind us.
            I twisted around. Two uniformed security guards marched in. They wore Tasers on the belts and annoyance on their faces. “Out. Now. We’re about to start scouring this floor.”
            “I can’t.” Hurzberg tapped keys. “I’m working here—”
            One of the guards, a short woman with a badge named “Smith” on her pocket, stalked forward. “Sir, this is an order from—”
            I held up my hand. The fungus was already spreading over my wrist. “We’re staying. Tell Adler to go to hell.”
            Smith stepped back. “What’s—you have to leave. They’re sending up flamethrowers.”
            “Tell them to wait!” I pulled my hand back. “Until we’re done.”
            “Sir.” The male guard—his badge read “Boomer”—shook his head. “We have to get you out of here right now. This can’t wait.”
            “Hey you!” Rachel stood in front of the glass. “Take a look at me!”
            She threw her blanket down and stretched her arm out. Naked. Well, maybe she still had her socks on.
            But we could all see the fungus relentlessly crawling toward her shoulder.
            “You going to burn me down too? Or let me go outside?” She planted a hand on her hip. “Okay, take a good look, idiots. But mostly look at this.” She rotated her arm.
            I took a deep breath. Then I glanced back.
            Boomer lifted an eyebrow. Smith slugged his arm. “Come on, you haven’t seen a naked girl before?”
            “We’re working on a cure!” Hurzberg was still tapping keys. “Give us half an hour! Twenty minutes. Or else we’re all dead anyway.” He sighed. “Like her.”
            Smith saw Wilton on the floor. “What happened to her?”
            “She was helping with the cure.” I looked down. Her leg was free of the fungus. “It worked.” Too late.
            She snorted. “Doesn’t look like it.”
            “Shut up.” I was sweating. “Go ahead, open that door and drag her out. Get it all over yourself. Then you’ll wish you’d given us a few minutes to work this out.”
            Boomer stared at Rachel. “I don’t know what’s going on, but . . . who is she?”
            “She’s my girlfriend. Stop leering.” I picked up a syringe and started screwing a needle onto it. “Ben?”
            “Yeah.” He took the syringe from me and finished putting the needle on. “We’ll ignore your weight and just go with the lowest dose. Roll up your sleeve.”
            I looked at Rachel.
            “You didn’t have to do this,” she said.
            Already I was regretting it. But it was done, and this was our only chance. “Yeah. You’re right. We should have brought the ax.”
            Rachel laughed. “Next time.”
            Hurzberg wiped down my arm and then jabbed me as Smith and Boomer watched.
            I looked at my hand. Nothing yet. How long would it take if it worked? How long could we wait before trying it again? How long . . .
            Did I have to live?
            I sat down and looked at Rachel again. She hugged her blanket around her. We didn’t say anything. My mouth was too dry to talk anyway.
            The door opened again. Adler. “What the hell is taking so long? Why are you—”
            He saw Wilton first. Lying on the floor, her foot bare—and free of the fungus. “What’s going on?”
            “We’re trying to find a cure.” Hurzberg went back to his computer. “She developed it, but the first try . . . it killed the fungus, but it—killed her too. We’re trying it again.”
            “You’ve got to get out of here! They’re coming up any minute!” Adler’s balding scalp was red and sweaty.
            “M-maybe we should.” My voice sounded hoarse. I needed a drink of water. “Wrap up my hand, get Rachel safe—take that stuff and try it again. Or just cut my hand off.” I could still work the computer with one hand. And maybe drive a car. Maybe even—
            “How do you feel, Tom?” Rachel pressed her hand against the glass.
            I was still alive, so that was a plus. I looked down at my hand.
            The fungus was drying up. I shook my hand, and some of it fell off.
            “It’s working.” My heart pounded.
            “Damn it.” Hurzberg shook his head. “No, I mean, that’s great. If Wilton had started on a lower dose . . .” He shook his head again. “Okay.” He picked up another syringe and looked at Rachel. “Do you want to try it?”

Back home we drank Coke—the thought of beer made Rachel nauseous—and ordered pizza.
            The flamethrower squad had arrived only minutes after Rachel’s injection. Once it was clear that the serum was working, she got dressed, mostly. She left her shirt, and so she got a lot of attention in her bra and jeans as we made our way downstairs, but neither of us cared. Too much.
Hurzberg told Adler he was quitting, and we told him we were leaving. Surprisingly, Adler didn’t argue with either of us. He just looked up at the smoke billowing from the top of the facility.  
            Rachel didn’t talk much on the drive back. Mostly just “yeah,” “okay,” “jerk,” and “no beer.”
            At home I called Cristin Kiley to report. It wasn’t an easy conversation—at first she didn’t believe me, and then she’d wept. She didn’t want the pictures. She said she’d contact the authorities on her own to make sure the fire had really killed her ex-husband. She was going to sue Fahringer Labs for everything it had.
            I wished her luck. She told me to send her a bill.
I had lots more question that I’d probably never get answers to. Was Figueroa really dead?  I’d checked the news about the fire on my phone, but details about victims hadn’t been released yet. And that was all overshadowed by the bigger fire in Barrington—“A scientific research facility is in flames, and firefighters are battling the blaze. More from EyeWitness news . . .”
And who was Fahringer connected to? For once I hoped that Red Watch was on the case. So that Wilton hadn’t died for nothing.
Once the pizza came we ate in front of the TV, watching Better Call Saul. Between two episodes Rachel reached over to squeeze my left hand, as if making sure it was still there.
            “Why did you do it?” Her voice was a whisper.
            I sighed and thought about Wilton. “It was an impulse. And it was . . . stupid. I don’t think—I hate to say it, but I’m not sure I could do it again.”
            She punched my shoulder. “Don’t.”
            “Love you.”
            Rachel smiled. “Idiot.”

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