Interphase: Exodus – Chapter 6

Shortly after Director Woods departed, a group of workers swarmed over the lab wearing level A hazmat suits and carrying storage containers for biohazardous material. They weren’t tight-lipped about their mandate: clean-up and containment. Those who had come into direct physical contact with Vic were examined and placed into quarantine rooms. The scanty reports Don possessed indicated that the virus’s incubation period was no more than a day, so if anyone had become infected, they would find out soon enough. The lab workers who’d been present for Vic’s berserk rampage but hadn’t been touched opted to remain behind as well, both to assist in the clean-up and as a precautionary measure.

Don and Agent Charles were the exceptions. Don agreed to be confined to the lab for the duration and donned a hazmat suit to protect the others around him, but now that they possessed a tangible sample of the disease, despite his patient being deceased, he had work to do. While Agent Charles’s brief contact with Vic had potentially exposed him, he was adamant about following the director’s instructions and refused to go into quarantine if it meant taking his eye off Don. At the clean-up tech’s insistence, he too encased himself in a hazmat suit.

“Damn, this thing’s as muggy as a Louisiana swamp,” he commented once their new garments were in place.

“For what it’s worth, Agent Charles,” Don said, “I regret that you got shackled to me over this…” He waved his hand around to encompass the whole lab, “…ridiculous mess.”

“Might as well start calling me Mike, Dr. Harris. It’s funny, but I get the strangest feeling we’ll be spending a whole lot of time together.”

Don chuckled. Though he suspected Mike’s flashes of good humor were deliberate, he nonetheless appreciated the calming effect they brought to a potentially tense situation. “If that’s the case, maybe you should call me Don.”

To his surprise, Dr. Douglas also remained behind, swapping her evening wear for a hazmat suit of her own. Her brown eyes were frosty as she stared at him over the breathing apparatus that covered most of her visible face. “If you think I’m leaving you unsupervised in my lab again,” she muttered, “you can forget the notion.”

Wonderful. Now I have two shadows hovering behind me.

“I assume there are other examination rooms in this facility, Dr. Douglas?” he asked passively.

“Of course. Why?”

Don motioned to the thick, black body bag that contained their patient. “As unfortunate as this night has been, I don’t intend to waste the opportunity that has presented itself.”

The bulkiness of the hazmat suit made reading body language more challenging, but he noticed the eye roll that Dr. Douglas gave him. “There’s something very strange about the way the GSC has been handling this disease from the start,” he insisted, “and I could use your expertise in unraveling the reason why.” When she didn’t reply, he sighed. “At least tell me where the other examination rooms are so that I can get to work.”

“I told you,” Dr. Douglas growled. “Where you go, I go.” She turned on her heel and paused to wait impatiently at the laboratory exit.

Don and Mike placed the body bag on a gurney and explained their intentions to the clean-up techs. Once they were given the okay, they joined Dr. Douglas at the far end of the room and left the lab. She led them a short distance down the hallway and turned a corner, moving to the end of the corridor before holding open a door for the gurney.

Powerful, overhead lights gleamed off three metallic examination tables. A portion of the room was cordoned off by a curtain, with cabinets that contained linens, latex gloves and sterile sheets lining the far wall. Standing scales and a counter that housed sample trays and an array of microscopes waited in another corner.

Don searched through the cabinets for disinfectant and thoroughly wiped down the closest table. He needed Mike’s help in removing Vic’s body from the plastic covering and transferring it to the table, after which the agent moved to a farther vantage point and observed the proceedings.

Dr. Douglas seemed determined to cause as much distraction as possible, muttering remarks under her breath as the patient’s clothing was removed and stored. Don clenched his jaw beneath the heavy facemask. After the director’s imperialistic dressing-down, he was rapidly losing patience with this show of childishness. He doggedly tried to ignore her comments as he collected samples of hair and nails from the patient and moved them to the other table. He located a tape recorder and began an audio transcription of Vic’s external description.

“Patient is a Caucasian male, apparent age in his late thirties. Hair color, light brown…” He leaned in closer to pry the eyelid back. “Eye color, dark brown. Scar tissue on the inner tracts of the left arm, indication of possible drug use—”

“Oh, an addict,” Dr. Douglas catcalled sarcastically. “I’m sure that had nothing to do with why he went crazy inside the lab or why he died.”

He pursed his lips to hold in the sigh. “Which is one of the many possibilities that I intend to examine. Be so kind as to hand me the body block.”

“Wait, what?” Dr. Douglas demanded. “I thought you were a virologist.”

“Primarily, yes,” Don explained with forced patience, “but I’ve also trained as a pathologist. I prefer to do as much of my own examinations as possible to better understand the viruses I work on.”

Dr. Douglas snorted. “Oh, is that the reason? Sounds more like you don’t trust other people to know how to do their jobs. You can only rely on the findings that you discover?”

The baits were getting tiresome. “With all due respect, Dr. Douglas, you do not know me, and while I appreciate how frustrating this situation must be for you—”

“Frustrating?” she repeated, her voice going up an octave. “You think this is me frustrated—”

Don raised his voice to drown her out, “There is only so much unreasonableness I’m willing to tolerate before I tune you out completely, so either get on board or do me a favor and be quiet so I can concentrate.”

Rather than take either option, Dr. Douglas stomped around the table and tried to get into Don’s face. He purposefully turned away from her and gave his attention to the body. “This is such bullshit!” she snarled in his ear. “This is all about you needing to be the big man on campus. Never mind who gets stepped on, so long as you stamp your name in the annals of medical science!”

“Sarah, that’s enough.”

Mike moved swiftly across the room and interposed his arm between them, slowly but inexorably creating several feet of space between the two doctors. Though he hadn’t raised his voice, a steely note emanated from his tone that had a chilling effect on the temperature of the room. With a huff, Dr. Douglas stepped away from Mike’s touch.

The autopsy progressed mostly in silence. Though he avoided crowding Don, Mike drew closer to the corpse once the chest cavity was opened and the organs were exposed. He extracted a blood sample from the left ventricle and brought it to the counter where the microscope rested. The hazmat suit’s heavy gloves interfered with the making of a blood slide, and the facemask slightly hampered his vision, but he set the slide into place and stared into the objective lens intently.

Hundreds of lunar lander-like bodies drifted within the sample, their multiple limbs twitching spasmodically. Don’s eyes widened as he watched, dumbstruck. “What in God’s name…”

“What is it, Don?” Mike asked.

“I… I’m not… they look like phages, but… they’re metallic.”

He drew back from the microscope, and Dr. Douglas took his place. She gazed at the sample for a long time before drawing back slowly. “Those…” she breathed. “They almost look like…”

Machines. Microscopic, artificial creations. There was a specific word used for them in theoretical circles.

“Nanites,” he finished for her.

“You can’t be serious,” Mike scoffed and peered into the microscope himself. “I can’t tell, what am I looking…” His voice trailed off and he backed away from the device, as though trying to put distance between himself and the sample’s image. Don stepped forward and looked again, somehow needing to assure himself he hadn’t imagined it the first time.

Even as he watched, several of the microscopic machines twitched, and their tails started to unravel.

They were breaking themselves down.