Very early in the morning on a Tuesday in mid-March, the worst and seemingly most unlikely thing anyone could have anticipated happening happened, which prompted the immediate question of just what was to be done about it.
Up until that point, everything had been fine. Mr. Walter Cook, CEO of the Parva Corporation, who oversaw a highly secretive research facility in the foothills west of Denver, had no such calamity on his mind. He went to bed expecting to sleep through the night completely and soundly. It is true he was aware of a storm in the forecast for central Colorado, possibly snow, possibly hail, but he was a sound sleeper, and weather never woke him.
So he went about his evening routine as usual. He finished a tumbler of single malt scotch whiskey. Then he walked from room to room, allowing the occupancy sensing lights of his mountain home to turn on and off as he made his way upstairs to the bathroom. He brushed and flossed. He inspected his bald scalp in the mirror. He considered shaving his head, then decided it could wait.
He set the alarm on his mobile phone to his usual rising time: 4:35 a.m., not a minute before or after. This early morning wakeup call allowed him a leisurely amount of time to start his day, and to drive to the lab, at which point he could relieve the two graduate student interns he left in charge during the night. This was the schedule he had followed every night for years, and there was no reason to think that this night would be any different. As he pulled the covers over his head, he checked the alarm once more, then placed the phone on the bedside table, along with his black, horn-rimmed glasses. To Cook’s great surprise, he awoke at 3:28 a.m., when the phone vibrated with an incoming call, sixty-seven minutes before his intended rising time.
The phone shook so violently it fell off the table and onto the carpet. He grumbled and reached for it, noting the incoming call was from a landline at his research facility’s observation room.
“This had better be important, Kyle,” said Cook.
“No, this is Chad, sir. And yes, it’s urgent,” said Chad, the intern on the other end.
A second voice said, “I’m here, too. This is Kyle.”
“Okay, fine. Chad, what is it?”
“I’m sorry to call at this hour, but you know that thing that we thought was the most unlikely to happen, the one we least expected would ever happen? Well, uh, it happened.”
Cook sat up in bed. “What? What are you talking about?”
“The biological specimen, which we refer to by the code name ‘T’, is missing. And you said we should call you if there were any anomalies to report. And now it’s just straight-up gone. The specimen is missing.”
“Are you sure? Where have you looked?”
“Well, we checked every corner of the compound,” said Kyle. “All of the security cameras are operational. There’s just no sign of it anywhere.”
“Okay. I will be right there. Thank you, Chad.”
“This is Kyle.”
“Fine. Get back to work. I’m coming in.”
Cook ended the call with the interns. He tossed the phone onto the bedside table and cursed. Then he exhaled and calmly put on his glasses. His entire routine had been abruptly cancelled.
He hurriedly threw on his Tuesday garb, a dark sweater and slacks with a wool overcoat, and headed downstairs, the lights of the house following him as he went.
Cook swung open the door to the garage and stepped up into his black Mercedes Benz G-Class Sport Utility Vehicle. The luxury car was a celebratory purchase, after his third and most recent divorce. The heated seats activated and the seatback tilted to a previously calibrated setting. He tweaked the windshield rear view mirror to the ideal angle, then backed down the drive.
The headlights of the car reflected a slickness on the highway as he departed his estate near Lookout Mountain, one of many peaks near the eastern edge of the Rockies. The mountainous terrain on both sides remained blanketed with the snow of a wet and unpredictable winter.
Cook took the on-ramp to I-70 West, the interstate bisecting the state, as well as the most direct path through the mountain range.
He only had to drive twenty minutes to reach the facility. However, five minutes into his journey, his vehicle was engulfed in a hailstorm the likes of which he could not recall. White chunks of ice blurred his vision, causing him to veer onto the interstate’s rumble strip to get his bearings.
Walter Cook removed his glasses and rubbed his eyes. Beads of sweat formed along his temple. His nerves were on high alert, the pinging of ice on the car roof only exasperating him further.
Somehow, he successfully piloted the SUV onto the exit ramp toward Evergreen, and descended a long, curving road into the valley. He passed several chain restaurants and gas stations, not yet open, then passed through the valley hemmed in by sharp mountainsides. The vehicle’s headlights beamed onto a sign, barely lit by its own spotlights and half-covered by snow, reading Parva Corporation in green block letters. Cook turned onto the drive and followed the narrow road, flanked on either side by tall pine trees.
At the end of the road was a clearing and a massive gray building, a complex not visible or even fathomable from outside the boundaries of the property. The concrete of the facade shone brightly, its security floodlights still functioning adequately, despite the hail.
The Mercedes came to a sliding halt at the front parking area. Cook flung open the door and stepped into a sloshing sea of ice balls. He slid, nearly losing his balance on his way to the front door. With a quick swipe of his security card, the front door swung open. As it did, the sound of a shattering crash came from behind him. Cook spun around to see a softball-sized chunk of ice halfway through his windshield. The glass had caved in, cracks branched out on all sides.
Sonofabitch, he muttered, somewhat in disbelief. As he stared, three more similarly sized chunks of ice crashed around him. He didn’t wait a moment longer to head into the building.
The slick vinyl floor was lit by red emergency lights that flickered to life as he passed. The facility was running on backup power; not a good sign. Cook’s feet slipped and slid as he went, his trench coat flapping wildly as he tried to maintain balance. He came to a stop at a concrete wall with a heavy steel and glass door marked OBSERVATION. He fanned his security badge quickly over the proximity card reader. It returned an unpleasant ‘denied’ sound. He tried again, with the same result. He cursed loudly and made a third attempt. This time, he slowly let the badge travel over the card reader in a gentle, almost loving fashion, and the door swung open. Cook extended one leg into the room. With his shoes still dripping wet his right heel slid forward, causing his back leg to collapse. He landed on the white vinyl tile floor with his legs splayed in a most unaccustomed manner.
The two interns were sitting in their respective task chairs at twin-LED monitors when their boss crashed in. On the far wall, just beyond their workstations, was a large flat-screen television monitor, on either side of it expansive glass windows to the outside. Only faint exterior lights illuminated the storm that had downgraded to pouring sleet in the last few minutes.
The interns swiveled around and jumped up to come to Cook’s aid. He pushed them away, insisting he was fine, then stood up and brushed himself off.
“Alright,” said Cook, forcing a calm voice, “will one of you please tell me what happened?”
The skinnier of the two grad students, Chad, spoke first. “Specimen ‘T’ is missing, Mr. Cook. We’ve scanned all of the camera feeds in the compound but the usual spots in the pen are empty. We looked at the top of the perimeter wall cams… there’s just no sign of it anywhere. We even checked the bigger interiors like the hangar. It’s just—gone.”
“Oh, I see. It’s gone. You do realize Specimen ‘T’ is over one hundred feet long? During the day you can’t look out these windows without it blocking the sky. How could it have disappeared?”
“I—I don’t know,” said Chad, holding a paper cup of black coffee. He had sunken eyes and a perpetual five o’clock shadow. “All I can say is, I was out of the room for maybe five minutes, and when I came back in, the thing was nowhere in sight. You should ask Kyle.” He pointed at the other intern. “He said he could cover for me. He said it was totally fine. ‘T’ disappeared on his watch.”
Kyle’s shoulders slumped forward. One hand held a bag of Cheetos and the other hand was coated with orange dust. He used the cheesy hand to tuck his long hair behind his ear, then put both arms up to defend himself. “Whoa. First of all, if anything, I’m the least one at fault here! Chad was gone for twenty minutes. And second of all, observation is not my job. I’m a systems technician. I don’t do anything unless something goes down, and nothing did go down.”
“Oh, perfect,” said Cook. “Then could you explain why we're on auxiliary power right now?”
“Uh, because something went down, I guess.” He shrugged. “What I mean is, until just like a minute before we called you, nothing had gone down.”
Cook gritted his teeth and took a deep breath. The backup lighting in the room gave his face a red hue, while the panes of his eyeglasses reflected the falling precipitation in the window. “Show me the feeds,” he said.
The center monitor displayed the bouncing logo of Parva Corporation over a darkened screen. Chad tapped a few strokes on his workstation keyboard and a grid of streaming videos filled the screen. Cook scanned the feeds of the sleeping chamber, food delivery bay, and each corner of the holding pen. Views from the perimeter fence showed mostly the tops of pine trees, now decorated with snow and ice. Every so often the video would flicker with static and go black before turning back on and refocusing.
Cook removed his glasses and massaged the bridge of his nose. His coat was wet and heavy, and a puddle had formed at his feet.
Chad anxiously glared at Kyle while he pretended to play it cool, reaching into his bag for more of his cheesy snack. They said nothing while their boss inspected the screen.
After studying the feeds a moment more, Cook focused on one in particular.
“There,” he said. “What is that?”
He gestured at the image of the compound’s receiving gate, a set of hinged steel doors extending to the height of the perimeter wall. The picture was fuzzy, but the top edge of the gate appeared misaligned, and at the base of the wall was a conspicuous pit surrounded by a field of white snow.
Cook stepped back and put his glasses on. “Get your coats.”
* * *
The metal gate into the holding pen swung open. The Mercedes revved forward into what appeared to be a natural forest, save for the military grade perimeter barrier on all sides. The ground was slick with mud and snow, but it didn't keep Cook from laying heavily on the gas pedal, chin forward, squinting to see through the relentless sleet. The car sped by clusters of pine trees, fishtailing around sweeping curves. The interns sat in the backseat. As the vehicle rounded a particularly sharp turn, Kyle fell onto Chad. A cloud of Cheeto dust burst between them, coating the skinnier man. Chad glared at Kyle, who shrugged and looked out his window. They were already nearing the wall.
The vehicle slid in the mud but eventually came to a halt before hitting the fifty-foot-tall metal barrier. The wall was constructed of corrugated steel, the type used on shipping containers, with deep ridges that ran vertically. Cook himself had overseen its construction. He explained that this was to avoid the flutes of the corrugation to be used as a ladder, should anything inside the pen try to escape. Just outside the wall a steep mountain slope rose to a peak, visible during the day and in clear weather.
The earth within the compound had not been cultivated by the corporation in any way. As the needs for the facility grew, so did their property. Essentially, a natural preserved environment for their research had been annexed. The perimeter wall had been extended as Parva purchased the rights to more surrounding land. As such, the earth was hard, the plant life rugged. But when a storm of this magnitude hit, the precipitation pooled at the edges of the fence and the earth softened. Now, beside the SUV, was the largest aggregation of mud, slush, and soft earth in the compound, and in the center of that mess was an enormous, freshly dug pit.
Cook flipped up the collar of his coat and stepped down from the car. He grabbed a flashlight from a storage bin in the back, then knelt beside the hole. The light revealed a tunnel wide enough to fit a double-wide trailer, heading straight down. Cook could see the concrete foundation of the wall jutting down into the roof of the tunnel. Beyond that, rain poured in from the other side of the wall. The tunnel led straight out of the compound.
The interns stepped out and joined him. They held their jackets over their heads as the rain pelted them from above.
“Whoa,” said Chad. “I never thought the ground would be soft enough. Can’t believe it dug under the fence. We never saw that kind of burrowing behavior.”
Kyle winced from the storm. “You know, if it were me, I would want to get out of this weather as soon as possible. This kind of stuff could make anyone freak out.” He paused. “You know what? I’m getting back in the car.”
Back in the SUV, Kyle and Chad cleaned off their coats, shedding more water that pooled on the floor. Cook climbed up into the front seat, staring ahead while the storm drummed the roof of the car. “Your job was to observe the specimen. And now it’s gone. What the hell am I paying you for?”
“You’re, uh, not,” said a sheepish Chad. “We’re just getting college credit. I mean, technically, we were observing all night, and then we observed an anomaly and called to report it.”
His explanation, while valid, did not appease Cook, who forced himself to take deep breaths.
“Hey, does this mean you won’t sign off on our hours?” asked Kyle.
“Shut up,” said Cook through clenched teeth. “Just shut up. I need to make a phone call.” The interns in the backseat looked at each other, unsure of who could possibly get them out of this mess.
Cook put his cell phone to his ear. “Yes, it’s me,” he said. “Look, what I’m about to tell you is confidential. I want this kept quiet. We need to get a handle on a situation before the public knows anything.” He looked out the car window at the tremendous hole in the ground. “I’m calling in a favor. A big one.”