January 3, 2000
Herbert looked like he’d seen a ghost, and his claim wasn’t far from it. The short scientist sat in front of Marcene and Xavier in their private lab, trembling and barely able to communicate what he’d witnessed. His chubby face was perspiring as he aimlessly wiped his forehead to keep his hands occupied.
“Herbert, what’s wrong?” asked Marcene. Though the scientist could be an oddball sometimes, she’d never seen him so flustered.
“Speck,” was all Herbert could manage through his shaky lips.
Bolton Speck was one of the four American scientists stationed at the remote research facility in Vorkuta, where they’d been for the better part of eight months. Marcene Towns, Xavier Brown, and Herbert Monterey rounded out the group. Speck, at age fifty, was the most senior researcher amongst them. The Russians were actually in charge though, led by a scientist named Slava Borisov and his own crew of seasoned academics. The Americans participated as Borisov instructed, although the Russians gave them plenty of latitude in their own space.
The extended time spent at the facility had taken its toll on them all, but Speck and Monterey seemed the most affected. Speck had been spending most of his time with the Russians the last few months and had seemed to distance himself from his American peers. Xavier, Marcene, and Herbert had discussed Speck’s odd behavior frequently, but chalked it up to his overambition. The researcher always seemed to have a touch of “mad scientist” in him, and given their experimentation, it had seemed inevitable that the research’s possibilities to consume him.
Marcene fixed Herbert with a concerned stare; the man still wouldn’t make eye contact. The project they were working on dazzled him at times, but his current traumatized state suggested something deeper was troubling him. Herbert looked terrified.
“What about Speck?” asked Marcene. Xavier scooted his chair closer to the two of them to offer Herbert additional comfort, but the scientist only jumped at the screech made by the metal on the tile floor.
Marcene and Xavier stared at him, trying to give him time to compose himself. Herbert attempted to speak, but he couldn’t find the words he was looking for. “Third floor.”
Herbert was referring to the third sublevel, for there were no upper floors in the facility. “Should I take a look?” asked Marcene.
He shook his head violently back and forth. “No.”
Marcene was puzzled. Whatever Herbert had seen down there had shaken him to his core.
“Is it concerning the project?” asked Xavier.
Herbert nodded slowly. “He’s making monsters.”
Marcene exchanged looks with Xavier, but Herbert still refused to meet their gazes. What exactly did he see? she wondered.
Their research project, called Written by Blood, had been a joint effort between American, Russian, French, and English scientists. Few knew of its existence, let alone what they were researching. The science behind the project seemed outlandish when the Americans first heard about it, and even worse, resembled something more akin to the wild experimentation done in Nazi Germany so many years ago. However, the Russians’ knowledge of human DNA and their manipulation of the genetic code was far ahead of what anyone in else in the world claimed to know.
The project’s goal was to produce a genetically-engineered human being, not just by altering the genes, but by replacing them with a prototype created in a lab. Marcene had almost laughed the first time she heard Borisov speak it aloud, and even eight months later, she still had doubts about its efficacy.
The Russians had long been working on the DNA prototypes for what they deemed were “the perfect soldiers,” and they redesigned subjects to be stronger, faster, and smarter than the average person. The American scientists’ jobs were many, but they included mapping the genetic code and isolating specific genes that controlled the desired attributes.
Marcene had seen the potential of the project right away, although it was years away from being put to practical use. She also never saw the point, for if the team ever went public with their findings, it would create one of the biggest ethical controversies of modern times.
The research never sat well with her, Xavier, or Herbert, for all three could see the potential misuse of such power if they perfected it. The Russians were a prime example, for they’d been trying to gain a military edge over the U.S. for decades.
Speck, on the other hand, was awed by the possibilities, and Borisov rewarded him for his enthusiasm by giving him a bigger role.
Marcene now wondered if Herbert had witnessed the result of Speck’s expanded duties. Could they be testing humans downstairs? They’d all seen the promising effects on mice, but human success was still a hefty leap to make.
“I need to know what you saw,” Marcene asked Herbert. “What will I run into on the third level?”
Herbert trembled and put his head down, so Marcene decided not to push him. “Maybe I should just go talk to Speck,” she said.
“That’s smarter than roaming the halls,” said Xavier. “Why were you down there in the first place?” he asked Herbert, who didn’t respond.
Marcene put on her coat, for the halls were cold outside their lab. Speck’s personal quarters were right down the hall from them, but he was likely not there. He hadn’t stepped foot in their shared laboratory in weeks, and Marcene hadn’t seen him near his room for almost as long.
Herbert had his head bowed and was shivering, refusing to respond to any more of Xavier’s inquiries. Marcene gave Xavier a look that suggested he let him be for now. “I’ll be back in a bit,” said Marcene as she finished lacing up her boots.
Xavier shot her a concerned look. “Stay away from the third level.”
Marcene smiled. “You got it.”
The facility wasn’t well-guarded on the interior. Entry from the outside was very secure, but once inside, there weren’t many safeguards to keep anyone from roaming. Marcene found her way to the third level and could see evidence of Herbert’s hasty exit. An old gurney lay on its side in front of a set of double doors, with rusted utensils scattered about the surrounding floor.
The hallway was dimly lit, which gave the corridor a sinister feeling. Marcene didn’t scare easily, but this level of the lab was eery. She had to slide the gurney across the concrete floor to reach the double doors, causing a piercing screech to emanate in every direction. When she could finally access the entrance, she removed a flashlight from her coat pocket and aimed it down the hall.
Marcene had never been down here before, so she couldn’t be sure, but it appeared someone had converted the rooms of the corridor into holding cells. Instead of the usual cloudy windows centered in each door, there were small hatchways that would accommodate food delivery to prisoners. She shook her head. Stop it, she told herself. Just keep your wits about you. Marcene didn’t think Herbert was lying to her, but perhaps he saw something he couldn’t make sense of and got spooked.
As Marcene plodded down the hall, though, she couldn’t escape the feeling she wasn’t alone. There had been no noise yet, but as she reached the second set of double doors, she thought she heard something. Using her flashlight, she tried to look through the glass partition, but it was too dirty. Trying to gain the perspective of what she was walking into, she pressed her face near the glass while aiming the light. Her beam revealed a fenced area in place of holding cells, which looked more suited for storing animals than humans. She could see straw and bark on the floor of these enclosures. Another swing of the flashlight detected a blurred movement, and Marcene jumped back and gasped. What the hell was that?
She took a few moments to calm herself before deciding to continue. She had to see what was on the other side of that door with her own eyes. Here goes.
“You’re not ready to see what’s inside,” came a voice from behind her. Marcene’s hand rested on the door handle before she relaxed it and let her arm fall to her side.
“Bolton,” said Marcene as she spun around to greet him. The scientist stood about ten feet from her in the middle of the corridor. Unlike Marcene, he didn’t appear afraid or spooked in the slightest. He didn’t acknowledge her greeting with a smile or nod, and in fact, he didn’t have much of an expression at all. Although Speck wasn’t charismatic, he had an expressive personality, which made his blank features off-putting. “I don’t see you often these days,” she said. “What are you doing down here?”
Speck smiled, and it was unfamiliar, like it didn’t fit on his face. “I saw Herbert down here on the security cameras. I came when I saw you coming.” Like his expression, his voice seemed bland and robotic. His weird tone almost disgusted Marcene.
“What’s down here, Speck?” she asked.
“Walk through those doors and see,” said Speck, his tone emitting more of a command than a suggestion. Marcene looked away from his haunted face, and her head turned toward the doors behind her, making her wonder what this was about. Speck’s face gave nothing away, but she sensed he was up to something. She shook her head.
“Tell me, Bolton,” she said, trying to match his assertive tone but not quite achieving it. Marcene could feel an underlying tension in the air, an unseen force she couldn’t ignore.
Speck smiled at her, but then his face settled into a more serious visage. “Beyond those doors are the subjects of near perfection,” he said. His face remained stoic and gave no hint as to his meaning. Was he referring to the program? Had they been testing humans? Marcene fidgeted as she stood staring at Speck, and he seemed to sense her agitation. “The Russians were right about everything. We are so close to designing the perfect specimen.”
In almost an instant, everything Marcene feared became a reality. Unless Speck was joking, which was not customary for him, it sounded like he’d just confessed to the very unethical practice of testing human beings.
Speck was staring at her with an almost expectant look, like he was awaiting her approval. Surely, he doesn’t think I’d be okay with this.
Marcene averted her eyes but could feel Speck’s gaze lingering. He was acting stranger than she’d ever seen. As her eyes glanced past the doors again, she saw another shadow move, causing her to shiver.
“We need you on board with this,” said Speck. His tone was dry, matter-of-fact, and seemed to defy the gravity of the situation. However, she knew what he meant. Marcene was the only child of wealthy parents who had died five years ago. Her mother and father willed her an unspeakable amount of money, which she’d used only frugally. After paying off her college debt, she’d left most of the money in banks and lived off the interest. Marcene focused on her career and research, and money had little influence on her life goals. However, Speck knew how much her fortune could benefit their research, and she suspected he’d be salivating over a chance to further fund what they were doing.
Had the project taken a different turn, she would’ve been more than happy to contribute financially. Their research had promising potential benefits. But supporting the Russians’ sinister methods was something she refused to do.
A few months ago, Speck wouldn’t have been willing to, either. Sure, he was a cowboy and liked to push the limits, but something was very off. After working with him for years, Marcene felt like she knew him; however, this version of him was foreign to her.
Marcene felt herself fidgeting and stopped. Why am I afraid? she wondered. She was no pushover; though she typically avoided conflict, she could be a firecracker if provoked. Here, she would have to be assertive. Marcene would not let Speck bully her, and she sure as hell would make sure he knew where she stood. She straightened and glared at Speck, who showed no reaction.
“I won’t be part of this,” she said. “And I don’t know why you’d want to be, either. What happened to you?”
A hint of a smirk creased Speck’s face. “I saw the light,” he said rather ominously. Before she could respond, he said, “If you’re not with us, you’re against us.”
“Is that a threat?” asked Marcene, shedding her anxiety and striking back. Who the hell does he think he is?
Before she could react, Speck covered the distance between them and punched her in the face, a blow so hard and sudden that it caused her head to ring and sent her reeling backward into the door behind her. Marcene could hear the muffled sound of the steel slam against the frame as she collapsed to the floor and landed in a sitting position. Dizzy and disoriented, she felt the physical pain outweighing the psychological effect, at least for the moment. Marcene could see Speck standing over her as her head spun, her senses still recovering from the violent attack. He’d said something to her, but Marcene couldn’t comprehend it.
As her senses returned to form, she realized Speck had been urging her to reconsider. His voice came into focus through the ringing sound, overpowering it. “I didn’t want it to come to this,” he said, although it seemed more like him reading from a script than words he meant from the heart.
In this moment, Marcene realized two things. First, this was not the same Bolton Speck she’d known for so long, though she suspected what had changed him. Second, she realized that if she hoped to escape from this predicament, she needed to defuse the situation. She feared the lengths Speck would go to continue his research. She wouldn’t be able to fight her way out of this.
“What do you need from me?” she asked. Marcene didn’t have to exaggerate her exhausted tone; she felt weak and spent.
Speck smiled and cocked his head. “That easy?” he asked. “You think I’m stupid?”
“I want to survive,” she said. “What other choice do I have?”
“You’re as smart as they say you are,” said Speck. “Trust me, if you’re trying to trick me, I’ll know.”
Marcene thought it strange the way he said it, almost like he had read a file about her rather than knew her. This detached remark fit with his other behavior, giving further credence to her suspicion.
“Are you still Bolton Speck?”
Speck smiled gleefully. “Not even close.”
This revelation, although not shocking, sent shivers down her spine, but she masked her reaction. “Do you want me for my wits or just for my money?”
“We’ll need both,” said Speck. “Your money first.”
Marcene climbed unsteadily to her feet, still feeling the effect of the punch but not wanting to show weakness. She stood and looked at Speck confidently. “I need to see what’s behind this door,” she said. She didn’t want any part of what was beyond the threshold, fearing that whatever she saw would haunt her dreams for years to come. However, if she wanted out of this mess, she’d need every bit of knowledge at her disposal.
Speck, though skeptical, couldn’t hide his excitement over her cooperation. He nodded and walked forward as she pivoted to let him pass. As his hand gripped the handle, Marcene took a deep breath, preparing herself to feel the shock, disappointment, fear, and nausea at what lay beyond.
Light spilled into the darkened corridor as she followed Speck inside, and a foul odor penetrated her sense of smell. The cages lining the wall to her left came into better view. They weren’t very wide, but they stretched the length of the rest of the long hallway. There were doorways that led inside every five feet, all equipped with slits to slide trays of food inside.
Marcene didn’t have to wait long to see the occupants, for as soon as the scientists entered the doors, a flurry of activity ensued. It was clear what had spooked Herbert, and Marcene almost screamed in panic when she saw the grotesque figures pressed against the bars of the cage. What stood out most were the feral, deadly, and nearly lifeless eyes of the beings. It didn’t appear as if they could speak, but they were grunting their displeasure. Marcene couldn’t tell if they were just hungry or if they wanted to hurt her, but she was glad there was a boundary separating them. Their clothes were filthy, and they were all in poor condition; whatever had taken their humanity had also stripped away any sense of hygiene. She counted ten, although there could be more hidden in the darkness beyond.
“These men,” said Speck, also keeping his distance, “were necessary steps in finding the perfect formula.”
“Are they even human anymore?” asked Marcene, trying not to sound too afraid or offended, which was how she felt.
Speck shook his head. “They are physically superior, but their minds are gone. I’m afraid they’re casualties of our research.”
Marcene felt sick. These men must’ve had lives and families, and it was unlikely they’d consented to be test subjects.
“Are they violent?” she asked, although she thought she knew the answer.
“Incredibly,” said Speck. “Any one of them could rip you apart in an instant.”
“What about you?” asked Marcene. “Are you the perfect specimen?” She braced herself, not knowing how Speck would react, but he only smiled at her.
“I am the first successful turning, yes.”
Marcene shivered as the revelation confirmed her remaining suspicions. She looked back to the prisoners pawing at the bars of their enclosure and noticed one had a single large X on his right forearm. When she inspected the others, she noticed the same thing. “What are those markings for?” she asked.
“We coded them into their DNA so they’re easy to tell apart,” said Speck. “This is the first batch.”
First batch? “Where’s your marking?” she asked, seeing that his forearm was absent the brand.
Speck chuckled. “I’m not a test subject.”
Marcene winced, realizing how far gone he was. Not only was he orchestrating the sinister project, but he was his own success story. He’d go to any length necessary to follow through, she was sure of it. This made her worry for her safety and for her friends as well.
“What about Herbert and Xavier?”
Speck shook his head. “I’m afraid they know too much. They’re disposable.”
Marcene had to focus to keep from panicking. “Let me talk to them,” she said. “I can’t do this without my colleagues.”
“Nice try,” said Speck. “Admirable, too, but we both know that’s not true.”
Marcene struggled to find something persuasive enough to change his mind and settled on a threat. “If you want my help, you’ll at least let me try to persuade them first.” Speck’s face changed, and she feared he was about to strike her again, but she continued. “If you didn’t need me, you would’ve killed me already. What’s the harm in trying? If I succeed, you’ll gain two extra hands. If they refuse to take part, you can do with them as you wish.”
Speck shrugged. “I’ll give you a day. If any of you step out of line, even for a second, or try anything, I’ll feed you to the dogs.” Speck nodded toward the creations inside the cage. “They’re always hungry.”
Marcene stumbled into the laboratory where Xavier met her and tackled her. Herbert was sitting in an office chair enveloped by a blanket but looked much more composed than he had before. Marcene forced a smile, but Xavier saw right through it.
“What happened?” he asked, noticing the blemish on her face.
“We need to talk,” said Marcene to both.
“You saw them,” said Herbert.
Marcene nodded. “I saw Speck too.”
“Did he do that to your face?” asked Xavier.
Marcene recalled the first thing Herbert had said when he returned from downstairs. “Why’d you mutter ‘Speck’ earlier?” she asked him.
Herbert looked shaken and took a moment to gather himself. “When I saw the…men in those cages, I ran as fast as I could. On the way out, though, I saw Speck’s lab coat. It was hanging on the door.”
Marcene hadn’t entered or exited from that end of the hall, she realized. It made sense now. She explained to them both what she’d seen and relayed most of her encounter with Speck. “Borisov turned him. Speck is not the man we remember.” She firmly believed the Russian leader was behind it all, and they’d long feared the true motive of the research project. It was becoming clear that Borisov was weaponizing Speck to fulfill Russia’s own goals, which was aimed at targeting the U.S.
“He threatened us?” asked Herbert, who seemed shaken almost as much by this revelation as he was by the monsters he had witnessed.
Marcene looked from Herbert to Xavier, who clenched his jaw in anger. Whereas Herbert was a timid, passive man, Xavier was feisty and rarely backed down from a fight. He was also very protective of Marcene and had a romantic interest in her.
“We have to be smart about this,” said Marcene, sensing her need to let calm heads prevail. “There’s more at stake than just our own lives.”
“If they’re creating soldiers…” said Xavier, not willing to finish the sentence. Marcene was glad to hear him work through it himself.
“I think it may be too late to stop him,” said Marcene. “The men I saw in the cages were the first batch. They’ve undoubtedly made others, and if Speck is any sign, they’ve succeeded where the first ones failed.”
“We know where the prototypes are,” said Xavier, referring to the DNA profiles they’d been working to perfect. The Russians kept the samples in a community lab central to each country’s sectors of the facility. There were a couple dozen of these profiles, each unique regarding their skill set. Some stressed physical superiority, others focused on intelligence, while others were a combination of both.
“We can destroy them,” said Xavier.
Marcene appreciated his willingness, especially given that he must know the potential risk in such an exercise. “We have to do it,” she said. “We mapped most of those. Without us, they may never replicate them again. Or at the least it would delay them.”
“We must plan this carefully,” said Xavier. “They’ll be watching us.”
“Is our escape part of the plan?” asked Herbert, sensing their heavy focus on doing the right thing. “I prefer to live.”
“I have a plan that may accomplish both things,” said Marcene.
January 4, 2000
Marcene stepped into the central laboratory where Speck, who looked even more distant and foreign than he had the day before, greeted her, nodding as she sat at the large conference table, taking his own position next to her.
“So?” asked Speck.
Marcene knew he was referring to Xavier and Herbert’s reactions. “Like me, they weren’t happy about it, but I was able to smooth it over because I didn’t tell them the whole truth. I said the men downstairs had been willing participants.”
Speck looked at her suspiciously. “Okay. Well, we’ll know soon enough if you’re telling the truth. For now, I want the three of you either in your rooms or your lab. No roaming.”
“Understood,” said Marcene. She glanced down at her watch.
“Have somewhere to be?”
“I’m expecting a wire transfer. You need money, right?”
Speck grinned. “Splendid.”
Marcene again realized the old Speck spoke nothing like this mutation. It would make her job a lot easier, not that she would’ve needed the assurance.
Speck had arranged vials on the big table to guide their meeting. “I have altered these prototypes,” he said, pointing to twelve of them sitting on the table. “Once the specimens turn eighteen, they’ll be able to use their own blood in combination with our vials to convert others.”
Marcene stifled a gasp as she realized the implications. She also reeled at the fact that he referred to people as ‘specimens’. Most disturbing, however, was the phrase ‘when they turn eighteen,’ which meant he was planning on injecting people younger than that. Just how young? she wondered, but the answer came sooner than she could ask.
“We agree the most effective way to maximize the subjects’ potential is to inject them while they’re in the womb,” said Speck. The statement was cold, absent of emotion, like he was referring to toasters and not actual people. “Specifically, we inject the mothers, who then pass along the change to the fetus growing inside them.”
Marcene felt like she’d be sick, but she couldn’t show her revulsion. She held his blank gaze and nodded casually, but Speck’s revelation changed everything. “What’s the end game here? What does Borisov plan on doing with this army?”
Speck grinned. “These soldiers will be produced by injecting unsuspecting, ordinary citizens. They’ll be everywhere.”
“In the United States, you mean,” she said, stating the obvious. The Russians’ objective was clear, but she wanted to hear him say it.
Speck nodded. “I’ll be leading the way to a revolution.”
By that, Marcene knew he meant a government overthrow, and while it didn’t seem plausible at first, their method could certainly achieve the goal. “The Russians want to take over our country,” she muttered for her own benefit.
“It’s your country, not mine,” said Speck, reinforcing the fact he wasn’t himself any longer. “In a few decades the United States will be under our rule.”
Her plan to destroy the samples wouldn’t do, for delaying the scientists wouldn’t prevent what was coming. Speck could build an army of altered men from his own blood, or from other samples they were brewing. She couldn’t stop this. Killing Speck, even if she could do it, wouldn’t sabotage the program.
“We have many more prototypes than what you see here,” said Speck, further cementing her fears. “I’d like you to choose a few that appeal to you.”
Why? she thought. She searched Speck’s expression for an answer, but all she found were the same emotionless eyes.
“I want you to carry my babies,” he said.
Marcene couldn’t keep her composure as she felt her expression turn from stoic to disgusted. Now she knew why he needed her; the only other female scientist here was in her sixties. Speck didn’t need her money; he wanted her eggs.
“Does this not suit you?” he asked. “You’ll be one of several mothers I impregnate simultaneously with the prototypes I’ve chosen. There are at least seven I have my eye on.”
She couldn’t believe Speck was so far gone, but then again, he wasn’t the same man. Marcene struggled to pull herself together, for she knew it was necessary now more than ever. I must do something. She lowered her head, took a few deep breaths, and locked eyes with Speck. “I don’t think I have a choice, do I?”
Speck grinned and shook his head. “That’s the spirit.”
Marcene looked over the vials of DNA on the table, each equipped with descriptions of what types of traits to expect from its victims.
“There are many varieties,” said Speck. “However, almost all include upgrades in strength. Instead of categorizing these by attributes, we labeled them according to roles. Here,” he said, grabbing one from the table. “This is an assassin. Actually, there are two of these.” Speck set the vial down and picked up another. “Soldiers will make up most of the samples, but each contains different levels of expertise. This is an officer prototype, for instance. I’m excited about this one.” He couldn’t have disguised his excitement if he wanted to; he was like a child with a new toy. “Go on,” he said, gesturing toward the table. “Pick your favorite three. You helped design them, after all.”
Marcene sighed and examined the vials, although she was choosing for a different motive. She’d already formed a plan in her mind that sounded crazy, but after hearing Speck’s intentions, it seemed to be the only counter. This new directive would have significant influence on which ones she chose, and as the wheels turned, she tried to relax and make an informed decision. Speck nodded as she grabbed each vial until she’d secured all three.
“I like the diversity,” said Speck. “Are you sure you’d want to carry that one to term?” he asked, referring to one vial. It was a profile she’d chosen deliberately labeled Brute. “As an adult, he’ll be a giant of a man. I’ll bet he’ll be tough to deliver naturally.”
Not only did the result of the prototype promise to be a large man, but it also guaranteed he would carry an insatiable rage. Marcene cringed at the consequences of this one falling into the wrong hands.
She chose an assassin and, with her last pick, a soldier. He’d labeled the vial Soldier-General, which made her assume the man would have maximum leadership qualities.
“You chose well,” said Speck. “That should cover a range of possibilities. Now let’s decide which of these will be our son.”
An alarm sounded, causing Marcene to jump in her seat. She’d lost track of time. Speck looked up, and his eyes darted around the room, startled by the interruption, and rose. “I’ll be back,” he said. He grabbed the nine remaining vials and turned to walk them to the refrigerator. Once his back was to her, Marcene stood, retrieved a syringe filled with Halcion from her lab coat pocket, and moved toward him as fast as she could. Though the wailing alarm distracted Speck, he sensed the motion and tried to spin around, but Marcene plunged the needle into his neck as he pivoted. The effect was instant; his eyes glazed over as the powerful drug infiltrated his bloodstream. He tried to reach toward Marcene, but this only caused him to drop the vials to the floor, shattering them, along with their contents. Marcene backpedaled out of danger as he stumbled and fell forward, face-planting on the hard tile floor and remaining still. He was fast asleep.
Marcene grabbed the three vials on the table and looked at her watch. She was five minutes late.
Five minutes earlier
Herbert and Xavier made their way down to the third sublevel but waited at the doorway. They’d entered the opposite end of the hall closest to the cages so the security cameras wouldn’t detect them, not until now at least.
Once they opened the door, they’d be exposed, so they’d have to hurry. Xavier held tight to the bolt cutters, knowing once he severed the chain on one of the cage’s doors, they’d both be running for their lives.
Herbert was almost shivering with fear, and Xavier was surprised the timid scientist had agreed to join him. Herbert was just as afraid of staying in the laboratory by himself, though, so it was a no-win situation for him.
Both were aware of the risk they were taking and even more conscious of the consequences of their failure. The plan they were executing was the best chance they all had to escape, but right now it didn’t feel that way. Instead, it seemed more like they were speeding up the timeline of their own deaths.
Marcene directed them to execute the plan at eight thirty, which was two minutes from now. Xavier’s hands shook, but he steadied them, knowing he couldn’t afford to be anything less than perfect. He could only imagine how afraid Herbert was at this moment, although it wasn’t as if the man was hiding it. The scientist was fidgeting and moaning in displeasure.
“Remember, just hold the door until I run back through, then slip your bar through the handles,” said Xavier. This measure would hold the doors in place, assuming Xavier exited in time. From what he’d heard, the caged beings were aggressive and fast. The improvised blockade would only last moments, they knew, but hopefully it would be enough to facilitate their escape back to floor level.
Herbert nodded as beads of sweat dripped down his forehead.
“Focus,” said Xavier. “I know you’re scared, but if we get this wrong, we die.” He hoped Herbert wouldn’t crumble under the pressure. Hell, I hope I don’t, either.
Xavier’s watch signaled it was time. He gripped one of the handles, pulled the door open, and rushed into the dark hallway. He’d let his eyes adjust, but it was still a challenge to navigate the corridor. There was a door in the cage not far inside, so he made a beeline for it, holding his tool in front of him. There were shadows in the distance, but luckily, he couldn’t see them well.
Xavier’s hands steadied as he positioned the bolt cutters around the chain, but before he could snap it shut, a hand reached through the bars and grabbed the instrument. Xavier gasped and jumped back, trying to retrieve his tool, but the hand held on. The mutated man had a tenuous grip because of the narrowly spaced bars, but it was enough to stifle Xavier’s attempt to withdraw. His face came into view as he leaned against the cage, causing Xavier to yell out in horror. The disfigured creation had drool on its mouth and was almost hissing in agitation. Xavier guessed it was hungry.
Finally, Xavier pried the cutter away and took a step back. I must do this. Now, he thought, feeling his internal clock ticking. He took a deep breath, steadied himself, opened the jaws of his tool, and went straight for the chain again, but this time aimed for a section on the opposite side of where the creature was. In one fluid motion, he clamped down, snapped the chain, and ran toward the exit, tossing his cutter behind him in the cage's direction. He heard it clank and come to rest, but also heard scuffling, presumably from the mutated man, or several of them. His heart raced and he pumped his legs, trying to outpace his crazed pursuers. The sound of bare feet hitting the floor echoed through the hallway, the rhythm growing faster as they accelerated. The exit was only ten feet away, but it felt like a mile.
When Xavier burst through the open door, Herbert slammed it shut and jammed his bar through the handles faster than Xavier thought he could. His fear must’ve motivated him, thought Xavier. A fraction of a second later, the doors exploded outward, threatening the makeshift barrier they’d created and even the frame itself, but neither scientist stuck around to see how long it would hold. Xavier pushed Herbert into the stairwell, and they ascended as quickly as possible, neither daring to look over their shoulders as they climbed to the base level.
Once they reached their floor, they slowed their pace in case another scientist came ambling down the hall. Xavier nudged Herbert to get him to slow his breathing; his friend sounded like he’d just ran a marathon.
Although the floor was quiet, Xavier knew the serenity wouldn’t last long once the creatures made it upstairs. The scientists reached their lab and waited, hoping Marcene had destroyed the vials. Xavier locked the door, though he knew it would only slow down the ones who’d want to enter. Now he hoped Marcene knew what she was doing, for both his and Herbert’s lives depended on her. As expected, he heard the alarm sound. The countdown was on.
Marcene tried to stroll casually down the hallway, not wanting to draw anyone’s suspicion. She’d tucked away the three vials in her lab coat, hoping the bulge they created wasn’t too obvious. The stakes had never been higher; before her meeting with Speck, she’d viewed her life, and even the lives of Herbert and Xavier, as a necessary sacrifice, but now the situation had taken a much different turn. She had to counter Speck’s plan, which meant she must survive.
Shouting came from distant areas of the compound, which meant her colleagues had fulfilled their end of the mission. Marcene saw a security guard run by, so she began to measure her steps. She was walking toward the area of the compound closest to the sublevel entrance and hoped it wouldn’t be swarming with the marked men. Had she not lost track of time earlier, she would’ve been minutes ahead of the ascending mutations.
Their lab was only a few intersections down the hall from her, but it seemed to take an eternity to reach it. Marcene’s heart pounded as she tried balancing haste with caution, though she knew if one or more of the creatures from downstairs spotted her, she’d never outrun them. By now the sparse security around the facility should be overwhelmed and chaotic, and she was certain the guards outside had retreated indoors to deal with the threat. She hoped so, at least.
When she reached the door of their lab, she tapped out a coded series of knocks to signal to her friends, and moments later Xavier greeted her. He grabbed her and squeezed, and she was surprised by how refreshing it felt. Herbert nodded to her; he was shaken from the tension of the past thirty minutes. Marcene peeled herself away from Xavier and looked at them. “We have to go. Now.”
The main exit of the facility was a respectable distance away, but that was not where they were headed. Marcene had carefully planned this event, but it had hinged on the alarms being set off. There were emergency exits placed around the building in different places, one of which was nearby. Normally, if someone opened one of these doors, it would set off the alarms, but it wasn’t a factor now.
The three darted in that direction with Marcene leading the way, abandoning all caution. If they didn’t make it out of the facility soon, they’d be trapped. Though Herbert and Xavier weren’t aware of the shrinking timeline, they seemed to sense Marcene’s desperation, matching her pace down the corridor. They passed one intersection, and Marcene heard a commotion behind them, which prompted her to pick up her pace.
When they approached the next crossing, the one leading to their exit, Marcene turned to her right. She saw a blurred shadow in the corner of her vision and gasped but kept moving. She heard her friends’ shoes scuff on the floor as they pivoted around the corner, and Herbert screamed.
Marcene dared to look over her shoulder, which she soon regretted. One mutation was closing in on Herbert, who was heading up the rear of their party. Marcene cringed knowing she could do nothing to prevent what was coming. Her escape was vital, not because of any value she placed on her own life, but for what she must do after this. She pumped her legs harder as she approached the exit as voices shouted behind her.
“Herbert!” yelled Xavier.
“Oh god!” said Herbert. “Help me!”
Marcene slid to a halt and turned; Xavier had stopped already and stood several feet away, staring at their friend. Herbert had fallen far behind. Behind the chubby scientist was the creature, barreling forward at a break-neck pace. The turned man had a crazed, bloodthirsty look, like a lion pursuing a wounded animal. It was impossibly fast, and as Marcene watched in horror, she knew Herbert would never make it.
Xavier moved toward Herbert to assist him. Marcene, without a second thought, darted forward and grabbed Xavier by the arm, pulling him toward her and the exit. He didn’t budge.
“He’s not gonna make it,” she said.
Xavier turned to her, looking outraged. “We have to help him!”
Herbert continued shouting to them. “If we don’t get out now, we’re all dead,” she said to Xavier. “Stay and die with him or come with me and live.”
Marcene didn’t leave it to chance with just words; Xavier would need additional encouragement. She tugged his arm as he reluctantly moved. Marcene pulled him behind her and regained her earlier pace, determined to reach the doors that were now only feet away. Behind her she heard Herbert shriek. She heard his body smack the tiles as it echoed down the hall, followed by desperate screams. Xavier tensed and almost pulled back, but Marcene pulled him along.
“Don’t look,” she said.
The shouts stopped and were replaced by other muffled sounds that Marcene could only guess at. She again steeled her nerves and covered the remaining distance to the exit, bursting through and into the waiting sunlight.
It was the first time they’d been outside the facility in months, which would’ve been satisfying were it not for the circumstances. They had no time to waste, for they had a ride to catch.
Waiting outside the door was an idling black sedan. Marcene had risked one phone call the night before, knowing it was their only chance. Had Speck checked the phone logs, he would’ve discovered her plot, but because their meeting had been so early, he’d yet to access the phone recordings.
Marcene pulled at Xavier once more, and they leapt into the back seat. She sighed as the driver slammed the accelerator and peeled out. When she glanced at Xavier, she noticed he was crying and realized she should feel the same way about her fallen colleague.
But she didn’t.
The mission, which Xavier was unaware of, was all that mattered now.